The Gamekeeper's Secret
Summary: Ellie led a happy childhood tucked away in a remote corner of the Holloway Park, but she always sensed that there was a secret to her past. When the secret is revealed it may rob her of her family, her happiness, or even her life
Disclaimer: Although I have attempted to remain faithful to true history in all respects, I am sure that I have made at least a few mistakes concerning the royal line of France. There is nothing in history to suggest that Adélaïde Marguerite d'Orléans ever existed, or that Louis XVI had any other lover than his wife, Marie Antoinette.
Chapter 8 – An Alteration in Circumstances
Summerset Manor, December 1798
Remingall read the letter… or rather the summons from Louis Joseph, the Prince du Condé, and cursed. How long will I have to subordinate myself to such men? If only this letter had arrived a day later…
He shook himself, iron discipline and years of patient planning exerting themselves to overcome his anger. He had plotted for so long, ever since the day he had witnessed the hungry eyes of the King of France as the man watched Remingall's beautiful young cousin, Adélaïde Marguerite d'Orléans, playing with her younger cousins at the Summer Palace.
To Remingall, and to many others, the King's marriage to Marie Antoinette had been a mistake for France that had cost the country dearly; not to mention providing fuel for rebellious leaders to rally followers to their malignant cause. The long delay in conception and the birth of a girl child had only served to exacerbate the voices of anarchy. Then Louis Joseph Xavier François was born and the populace settled down… until he became sickly. The Lords and the people alike began to question the King's fitness to rule France once again… but even more they turned baleful eyes on the unwanted Queen.
It hadn't been difficult for Remingall, a court favorite and an advisor to the King, to make opportunities for the King to see his beautiful cousin flitting around the back hallways of the court. Louis had known the girl since she was only a scampering toddler. He had seen her grow up through numerous family encounters. He had seen her blossom into a true flower of France… and thanks to the careful manipulations of Remingall he had been afforded numerous opportunities to speak with the young lady and to charm her.
It had not been simple or easy. Adélaïde was innocent, but she was also highly intelligent and honorable. She had never entertained any designs on the King, despite the fact that they shared many intellectual conversations during their various encounters. It was her childlike empathy for Louis that finally did the trick. Whenever Louis was overwhelmed and frustrated by his many detractors, Remingall ensured that Adélaïde was there to lend an ear… and later a comforting embrace… until finally and naturally she gave him the comfort that only a woman can give.
When the protests against Marie Antoinette had grown into a national anthem and relations between the Royal Couple had devolved into private hostility, Adélaïde became pregnant. Remingall saw his opportunity and was prepared to capitalize on it, but by then the fractious, foolish nobles had so muddled the policies that the entire court was in chaos. Even while Remingall was plotting to supplant the Queen with his own cousin, the King summoned him to a private meeting. Within hours of that meeting Remingall and Adélaïde were boarding a ship for England. Louis XVI, fearful for the safety of Adélaïde and their child, was sending her away until matters in France could settle.
At the time, Remingall had been furious. Later, as his focus widened and he began to gain a better picture of the situation in his homeland, he realized that Louis' precipitant action might have been the salvation of Remingall and the door to a greater opportunity than he had ever imagined. Damn you, Adélaïde. I was a fool to share my ambitions with you. Your foolish sense of misplaced honor has made a wreck of everything. Well, it cost you your life… but somehow I know that it wasn't the end. I haven't found him yet, but I will.
But, for now, Remingall was relegated to the role of subordinate to men like the self-styled Prince du Condé, which meant that he needed to put off his search once again and answer his older cousin's summons. I'll find the boy, Louis Joseph. And when I do we'll just see who is subordinate to whom.
Holloway Hall, December 25th, 1798
Ellie gasped with joy as the Madge, the cook, lifted the heavy cloth-bound plum duff out of the steaming cauldron and set the aromatic lump onto the cutting counter. She hugged her bony father tightly while never taking her eyes away as Madge carefully un-wrapped the steaming mass. As the layers of cheese cloth were peeled away the room was filled with the scent of plum and citrus, brandy and sweet spices.
Ellie had been up with Madge since early morning building the magnificent concoction. For the day lessons and decorum had been set aside and she had been allowed to be a little girl again. Now she was present at the unveiling. The cook completed her unveiling and stepped back, reddened hands on voluminous hips, "Well now, I do believe that that'll do. Ellie'd make a fine cook, Mister Cutter."
Jess smiled affectionately as he ruffled his daughter's silky hair. "Yes indeed, Madge. Beautiful, intelligent, and a fine cook… I'll haft a beat the boys back with a stick soon enuf."
Ellie blushed at that, though the face of a certain young gentleman leapt unbidden into her minds-eye. Perhaps the bitterest disappointment of this morning was that the young master was still at sea. There had been the faintest possibility… but no… and not that it mattered regardless. He was a Lord. She was a mere gamekeeper's daughter. Never before, in all of Ellie's short life, had she even once felt anything but pride in her father. But now, as her little heart stirred for a boy for the first time, the reality of her station suddenly impacted her… and it cast a pall on this holiday season.
"Why don't you go and greet Her Ladyship, Ellie," Jess' gruff, kind voice interrupted her unruly thoughts. "She'll be up now, and I believe that she had something that she wanted to give to you."
Ellie grinned up at her tall father, gave him another squeeze, and flitted out of the room. Jess' eyes followed her out the doors. He expelled a breath he didn't know he was holding as the door swung shut behind her.
"She's a creature of two worlds, Jess," Madge said quietly and with genuine concern, "… and as much as we all love the little dear, we can't see a good end to this." Jess knew that the "we" in her statement encompassed all of the staff at Holloway Hall. Ellie had won every heart on the estate, from least to greatest over the past year.
Jess nodded without speaking or taking his eyes away from the door. He wished that he could share the truth with someone else… someone like Madge who was a beacon of wisdom and empathy in the household. Ever since sharing his story with Her Ladyship he had waited, wondering what would happen next… or if anything was to be done. Were the contents of the little box evidence of something or did it all amount to nothing? And most of all, what was to become of his Ellie?
Sometimes, alone in his home, he cursed himself for sharing the story. He could have left well enough alone and kept his little Ellie with him, safe and comfortable. And yet that was the problem: she would not be "little Ellie" much longer. Already her beauty and natural grace was drawing attention far sooner than Jess welcomed. In his mind he saw again the eyes of the young lord and his companion. There was no denying that, if he tried to hide Ellie away from the world, the world would inevitably come to them. It's better this way. The Duchess will be able to see to Ellie's needs and prepare her for… for…?
"Look, Father, look!" Ellie's excited voice intruded on his musings. He looked down at the excited, brilliant sapphire eyes of his daughter.
"It's a horse, Father! The most beautiful… well, maybe not as noble as Mist… but still, she's wonderful and…" Jess allowed himself to push away his worries for the day as his spritely daughter dragged him out of the kitchen and toward the direction of the stables.
Tomorrow can wait… for now.
"Gentleman, I give you the King and confusion to his enemies," Liam held his glass high as the senior officers at the table echoed his toast. As the junior officer at his father's table the responsibility of the King's toast belonged to him. He was grateful now to have that over and to resume his seat. The meal laid out before them was bounteous, even if slightly exotic for a traditional Christmas meal. His father's steward and the purser from Osprey had scraped together what they could find, but they had to substitute quite a few of the regular dishes with the local specialties. Nobody seemed to mind as they dug in.
Outside the storm continued to rage and the Mediterranean tossed and boiled. Already a week had passed since the sloop had been forced back into port. Commander Parkington had tried to drive ahead of the storm but it had driven them back instead. So now they were celebrating Christmas together with the Duke of Northreach on Acre… perhaps the first celebration of that holiday by a British military officer at Acre for centuries.
Liam was of two minds. He was happy for the unexpected blessing of sharing this feast with his father in one of the historical cities of history… and yet there had been the impossible hope that the Osprey might have sprouted wings and made another swift passage back to Mother England… so that Liam could spend Christmas with his mother… and with Ellie. He felt foolish now for even allowing himself to dwell on the girl, young as she was and low her station. But the thoughts persisted nonetheless.
The meal drifted into a comfortable silence as appetites were sated and the thrumming rain outside lulled the feasters into peaceful lethargy. Liam was losing himself watching the fire in the brazier when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Glancing up he saw his father's pensive face. No words were spoken. The Duke simply nodded his head toward his private study. Liam rose and followed, perplexed at to the nature of the moment.
Liam knew that something was amiss when his father checked the surrounding area before closing the door. Whatever he intended to say, his father clearly didn't wish for others to overhear. "Liam… before you left for the first time I debated speaking with you about a matter. At the time I decided that it would be better not to burden you with this… but after your ship departed I began to reconsider. You and I are both involved in a conflict that may take many turns ere it is over… and there is no guarantee that either of us will escape its clutches. Yet there is a greater chance in this matter if at least one of us should survive… and so I have decided to share a great secret with you… and a great burden as well."
The son looked at his father's eyes and felt trepidation mixed with curiosity and spiced with pride. Whatever this matter was, it was not to be taken lightly… and his father judged him to be old enough to take a part. "Yes, Father?"
Richard stood silent for an uncomfortable moment before finally nodding. Then he extended an envelope to his son. Liam took the envelope stiffly, almost reverently. Under his father's watchful eye he extracted the folded papers inside and began to read.
I have debated and wrestled, written and re-written this letter. If you are reading it now then it means that I finally came to my decision. It was not easy. I must tell you of a fearful and dangerous matter that has come to my attention… a matter concerning Elizabeth Cutter.
Liam almost jerked as he read the name. He looked up at his father, brow furrowed, but Richard only nodded for him to continue.
You and I have long felt that Elizabeth was much more than the sum or her parts… or of the sum of her parents. As much as I came to cherish Agnes Cutter and as much as I respect Jesse Cutter, they still seemed to be unlikely recipe for created the masterpiece that is my little ward. You teased me often in the past that my love for the "little wood sprite" was influencing my assertions. However, in this instance I am sad to be proven right. In truth I am sad, bewildered, and not a little frightened for Elizabeth.
Please forgive me for a little longer while I nibble at the edges of the truth. I once told you that I had only ever met one other person who had all of the remarkable qualities of Elizabeth. You know that I was presented in court in several countries, not just in London. My family might be insufferable, but their influence and pedigree spans the continent. Because of this my mother and my uncle dragged me to many of the courts on the continent.
Perhaps the most memorable visit was in the Versailles. To be honest, I was not accorded a great deal of attention by the other ladies. We probably would have departed soon after the presentation had my mother not taken ill. My uncle had business to attend to, so I was left to my own devices for more than two weeks. Most of the ladies, including those of my own age, disregarded me. This is understandable with the madness of the Seven Years War only recently past. But one young lady, only a little younger than me, befriended me easily and pulled me into her world.
Her name was Adélaïde Marguerite d'Orléans, a Comtesse in her own rights. While there were many beautiful ladies in the Court, Adélaïde was almost beyond description or comparison, though she was still too young to be presented. She was also tremendously kind to me. Never before had I met anyone so full of energy and mischief, and yet so poised and responsible. She was at once the hero and the mother to the numerous broods of bored little children set to their own devices at the palace while their mothers flirted and flounced. Had my mother been well she would have been scandalized by our many adventures. As she was not well, I gave myself over to the charge of my younger friend… and such a time we had!
I loved Adélaïde dearly. It was almost painful when my mother recovered and dragged me off to Rome for our next bought of mindless boredom.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons that I was so drawn to Elizabeth. Looking back I realize that they were so similar in so many ways. Had my Adélaïde been as free to roam as my Elizabeth, she would have become the friend of foxes and Arabian stallions just as effortlessly.
By the time that I returned with my family to England there were already rumors circulating among the elite; rumors that Louis was infatuated with a young lady of the court… a young lady with great charm and little decorum… a young lady with sapphire eyes. I realize now that I had forgotten to mention that one of Adélaïde's most striking features was also her eyes. You see, even their eyes were the same startling sapphire color. At the time I chose to disregard the rumors. My family, as you know, loves intrigue and rumor like mother's milk. I do know this: Adélaïde would never choose a man except for the sake of love. She was as much a stranger to connivance and intrigue as any creature could be.
Now that I have danced thoroughly about my story, it is time that I come to the point. More than a week past, Mister Cutter came to me, hat in one hand and another object in the other. In his most polite manner he requested a private audience (scandalizing Miss Conner, as you might suppose). When I granted the audience he told me a story that would make any romance novelist drool. It was not the story of Jesse and his wife, however… at least not directly. I suppose that I should just tell you the story.
Agnes Cutter, being already older when she conceived, did not have a good pregnancy. There were many complications and she suffered greatly. When she finally did reach the time of delivery…
Liam stopped there, his face reddening. These were not matters that were usually discussed openly in gentler circles. But when his father met his eyes squarely and nodded for Liam to continue, he bent his head again.
When she finally did reach the time of delivery it was agonizing and prolonged. Before all was over she was weakened unto the point of death. Mister Cutter despaired of leaving her but he saw no choice but to seek out a doctor or even a midwife. There was none in the village, or in the next village, and so he walked over twenty miles to Caerwys. Sadly there was no doctor there either. The old doctor had passed away and the new doctor was on a visit to London. Having lost all hope, Jess Cutter turned for home, though he feared what he would find there.
It is at this point that I must reveal the first surprise of this story: the child of Agnes and Jess was stillborn.
Liam looked up at his father in shock. This time his father said, "Continue reading."
The child, a girl, never took a breath. The couple had been alone during the delivery. Agnes never knew this because she was near death's door herself and unconscious.
Jess was travelling as quick as his legs would carry him when he came upon a tragic wreck. A barouche box carriage had caught a soft edge and had plummeted of the embankment. The carriage driver had been hurled to the side yet he still breathed. But Jess heard a tiny cry inside the carriage, so he left the man. In the carriage he found a woman; young, beautiful, and yet bloodied beyond hope of salvation. In her arms was a newborn babe. She never gave her name, but with her dying breaths she gave her child to Jess Cutter… that and a box. She begged him to take her child far away and hide her. Her final words were "Remingall must never know." She died before Jess could learn more.
He took the infant home. Agnes still breathed, so as any man experienced with animal husbandry might do, he tried laying the infant with his wife. The result was almost instant and certainly magical. The feel of the baby in Agnes' arms began to revive her. From that moment on Agnes recovered quickly, though she was never strong again. Jess Cutter, seeing this miracle, could not bring himself to tell his wife the truth. He kept that secret completely to himself until the day, over a week past, that he came to speak with me.
Mister Cutter left the box with me, Richard. I hesitate to write more on the contents of this box, though from the contents of my letter I imagine that you can guess the rest. Her father included his crest, a signet ring, and an affidavit acknowledging the child as his blood before a witness of clergy. Whether it is irony, fate, or the hand of God, I now have the opportunity to return a favor given to me so many years ago; though it breaks my heart to know that Adélaïde died so tragically only twenty miles from here. I know that it was her because the necklace she always wore was among the items in the box.
As you understand full-well, there is nothing simple about this matter. Events on the continent being what they are, the child would not be safe should her true blood ever be revealed. I am fearful that she might not even be safe here. If the Remingall that Ad[scratched out] the woman feared is still about, would he still be looking? And if he found that child, what would he do with her? So many people on so many sides would either try to kill her or to use her for their own greed and lust for power. Certainly they would destroy her in the end, regardless of their original intent.
Now, more than ever, I wish that you were home with me. If, as I hope, it is Liam's ship that carries this letter then I leave the decision to you as to how deeply involved he should be. I believe that his interest in Elizabeth may have grown in recent months.
Liam flushed guiltily. Until this point he had hoped that his mother wouldn't have noticed. He certainly wouldn't have expected her to write to Father about it… but then again, this matter bore weight on the problem now. He did not meet his father's eye before continuing to read.
Whatever may come of that, what does matter is that our household is now tied to this child. I know that you will agree that we must do all that we can to protect Elizabeth and set her on the right path; though what path that might be is beyond my comprehension at this point. Please write soon. If I cannot have your strong shoulder to lean on then I must have your sage wisdom to guide me.
With all of my love,
Liam stared down at the letter in his hand for a long while. Richard said nothing, only waited. Then Liam carefully re-folded the letter, restored it to its envelope, and extended the document to his father. Their eyes met. Several silent questions were asked and answered before the Duke of Northreach spoke out loud, "Was I right in showing you this letter, Son?"
Liam expelled a long-held breath before replying, "I can't answer that. I can only say that I will do all that may be possible to prove myself worthy of your trust in this matter. As for Ellie…"
Richard nodded, "She is young, Liam. Only time may tell what may come of all this. Until then she needs a protector. Other matters… of those we will wait to speak until such a time as appropriate."
Liam clenched his fists to fight back the sense of powerlessness that threatened to overwhelm him. He knew that he should think only of Ellie's danger at the moment… but one thought persisted in assaulting his mind: in one letter Ellie had gone from being unreachable due to her low station to being unreachable due to her lofty station. A princess… no… wait… a queen.
Author's Notes: I wanted to avoid extensive ANs in this story, but I feel that one point of clarification is necessary: Louis XVI, Louis Joseph Xavier François, and Louis Joseph, the Prince du Condé were three different people. The first was the King of France before the Revolution. The second was his sickly son who died shortly after Ellie was born. The third was the claimant to the throne. Sorry for the confusion, but such is history.
I hope that this chapter offers some clarity. As to my disclaimer: There were rumors of infidelity (mostly by Marie Antoinette), though there probably were always rumors. Neither Ellie nor her mother ever existed. They are figments of my own creation, no more.