George, Prince of Wales sinks into the slough of despond and compares notes with his intimate friend, Fred Berkeley
“The bird has flown! She is gone to France! Oh, to kiss the soil of Calais!”
George, Prince of Wales, was pacing his apartments at Carlton House in great agitation, having received an enquiry from Lord Berkeley, just returned from his country seat, as to the welfare of Mrs Fitzherbert. So the rumours had substance!
“Why?” responded the astonished peer, justifying his sister’s nickname for him of Milord Pourquoi. “What for?”
“She took fright at the strength of my ardour. She refused my hand when, I swear by heaven, she is the partner of my soul.” The Prince lowered his voice in contrite mood. “To tell the truth, Fred, I did give her quite a scare. I had swallowed a quart of brandy. I was beside myself, you understand, lost to all reason, in the utmost despair….”
“Trust me, sir, I take your meaning.”
“Ran myself through with a rapier! Near as dammit pierced the heart! I sent for Maria and vowed to tear my bandages off if she wouldn’t have me! There and then, I slipped a ring on her finger, should I not pull through!”
“The deuce, George! A close shave!” The Earl paled and fell to thinking how it might have been a Frederick to punctuate the run of Georges under the nation’s crown. (The Duke of York was known to be the King’s favourite.) Could the passions of a moment have such awesome power to subvert destiny?
“This Catholic thing is a cursed millstone,” said the Prince.
“Religion,” mused his companion gloomily. “It’s pretty much fouled up the course of history. What shall you do?”
“I’ve a mind to go after her. Live abroad for a while, close up this house, economise. That is how I have put it to His Majesty. He won’t hear of it, of course. He says if I forsake my responsibilities here, I will lose the goodwill of the people.”
“Your popularity has been assiduously nursed.”
“In any case, that will be lost – my Whig friends will grow cool – if the King has his way.”
“He complains of my debts. I’ve not done with enlarging this place: it has run through a fortune, but how am I to perform my duties if my salary is not commensurate with my position? My father promises to help, provided I turn coat and favour the Tories!”
“A dastardly thing when a fellow can’t follow his own conscience!”
“He has always hated me since the age of seven.”
Berkeley let rip a roar of laughter. “Forgive me, sir, but that being the case, you’d do well to steer clear of the Berkeleys! Puts me in mind of my grandfather, James, the 3rd Earl, who devised an outrageous scheme for having your grandfather transported to the Americas and conveniently lost, such an encumbrance was he to George I!”
“The hubris of the man!”
“It is well chronicled, I assure you. It probably accounts for why my grandfather was not re-appointed as First Lord of the Admiralty at your grandfather’s accession!”
“Well, bless me, tis not only Popery drops a spanner in the works! Remind me, exactly, on which side were your esteemed ancestors at Culloden?”
“Suffice to say, we Berkeleys have no head for treason,” grinned his lordship, with as much truth as ambiguity. “As for the Cloth, sir, it don’t see us if we see it first!”
“Whereas dear Maria is wedded to the Church and I am wedded to the State.”
His lordship’s mind did not run upon spiritual matters and his heart would not assent to such abstractions as a Deity uncommitted to providing a good hand at cards. Since his friend, George P., had persisted in dedicated pursuit of Mrs Fitzherbert, Fred had been made acutely aware of the painful torments of conscience suffered by those adhering to Roman Catholic doctrine. (‘Hell-begotten Jacobines’ HRH had called them.) It had been impossible to breach that good lady’s honour. Maria was, as she so trenchantly observed, not good enough to be his wife, but too good to be his mistress. The approval of both King and Parliament regarding her status as a commoner was the least of it. To add to his plight, the Prince was forbidden to marry a Catholic unless he forfeited his right to the Throne, and that would have been a perfidious thing. It seemed impossible that the new star of the Hanoverian line should be denied his life’s desire by a religious chauvinism on both sides of the fence.
The conversation had begun to stir up feelings of unwonted empathy in Berkeley. He was beginning to bind himself into the same dilemma with a female half his age and of a far humbler station than Prince George’s widow. This was terrain he had neither trodden nor owned in his two-score years of experience, and it was nettling. He had a sensation that the very portraits slung about these damask walls, safe in their own pastoral idyll, were mocking him.
“I really don’t comprehend….I don’t see.”
“What is it, Fred? You look as though you are trying to fathom calculus.”
“Why, by all that’s famous, are you set on marrying this lady? Can you not make her a duchess and have her live at Court? Commitment is not the prerogative of marriage: it is a private undertaking. I trust that is the active principle in these forensic deliberations.”
The Prince slumped down on a feather-backed chair. “If only it were so simple, but true love should not run smooth…. Maria would see no honour in what you suggest. It is not merely the Constitution, Fred. The lady has scruples! Her beliefs will not allow her to live, as she sees it, in sin.”
“The fact that you will be the first gentleman of Europe and not your own man…. The fact that an oath of allegiance to her monarch is required….”
“….is not germane to the issue. My status counts for nothing in this! What the Vicar of Christ dictates must be obeyed. We are speaking of mortal sin and eternal damnation. You have no idea of these Papists!”
Frederick Augustus let go a lengthy sigh. The phrase: ‘my status counts for nothing’ stung on the raw and might easily have applied to him. “Oh, I think I am gaining a fair idea, sir. The measure may be different, but fate has dealt me a similar conundrum.”
“You, Fred! What can you possibly want that you can’t have?”
“There is a young lady….”
“And you swore you’d never marry! We both did.”
“Oh, this is not in quite that league….”
“By the pain on your face, I must beg leave to doubt it.”
Berkeley hastily collected himself, irked by his own weakness. “The artful little vixen has run to earth. But I shall find her. I shall flush her out. See if I don’t!”
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