Courtship in the Age of Steam (Chapter 3 – END)

“What do you make of her, sir?” Charles St. John asked.

Andrew didn’t look up from his breakfast plate. The kitchen staff at Treberfydd House had done an amazing job of replicating an Ohioan full breakfast. The bacon was overcooked, though, too crispy for his liking. He would need to talk to someone about it. “She seems nice, but I have to wonder,” Andrew said. “Does my father think me a poofter?”

“Poofter?” St. John said. “Whatever do you mean?”

“A homophile.”

“Yes, I know what a poofter is,” St. John said, whipping crumbs from his lips. “But what makes you ask such a question? Of course, that’s not what your father thinks, that’s what nobody thinks.”

Andrew nodded his head, not entirely believing St. John. Sport hadn’t come as easily to him as they had for his older brothers, and he’d never chased girls the same way because he’d been too interested in his studies. University had been much the same, but it wasn’t as if he’d spent those years as a celibate monk cloistered from the opposite sex.

“I will admit that Charlotte is not a usual woman, even by royalty’s standards,” Andrew said.

“Of course, she won’t be usual. She’s the Princess of Wales, the heir to the most powerful man in the world, and in due time, she’ll be the most powerful woman.”

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” Andrew said. He tried to pick up a slice of bacon with his fork but failed, so he gave up after a few attempts. “She’s…she’s…” he tried to find the proper word, but failed.

“You’re worried that she will dominate you and perhaps even cuckold you?”

“Those thoughts had crossed my mind from time to time,” Andrew said.

“You don’t have to make a decision now, but I don’t think I would be remiss in reminding you that even Elizabeth II’s Prince Consort, the Duke of Clarence, had mistresses,” St. John said. “Though some of the more salacious biographies suggest it was a team effort between the two.”

“I don’t want mistresses, I want a wife,” Andrew said.

“Being the Prince Consort to the Queen-Empress would be the simplest, most stress-free job in the world. You’ll live in luxury that seems decadent from even your current position, and aside from the occasional public appearance, all you have to do is produce a few heirs.”

“Is that all marriage is supposed to be?”

“Is that all you’re concerned about? Hehe, if that’s all you have to complain about, then I say you have one of the easiest lives on God’s Earth.”

Andrew raised an eyebrow. “You’re beginning to sound like a Radical Liberal, St. John. And here I thought you were an ultra-Tory!”

“Would your father let a Radical Liberal chaperone you on one of the most important trips in the Palatinate’s history?” St. John chuckled. “I’m merely making an observation, nothing more, nothing less. Everyone has their place in the world. Inequality is the natural order of things, after all. If this is to be your life, then you have been blessed by the Most High Himself.”

“That is one way to think about, I suppose,” Andrew said.

“Is that not how you see it?”

Andrew shrugged and reached for his tea. “I’m not sure how to see it.” He took a sip of the tea, but it had gone cold and tasteless. “I suppose I could force myself to enjoy this type of life, but…but, I honestly can’t put my feelings into words.”

“You’re not getting any younger, sir.”

“I only thought women had to worry about that,” Andrew said. “St. Henry the Lion King’s youngest son was born posthumously and he lived to the ripe old age of 74.”

“I never claimed to be a biologist.” St. John looked at his pocket watch and sighed. “We should probably be on our way.” Andrew was scheduled to visit the construction sites of a linear arcology that would one day link Cardiff with London and Birmingham. The Virginians had begun building their own, and the Palatinate was investigating their own proposals. “Should you perhaps say some parting words to the Archduchess?”

“We’re to meet her again in Cardiff next week.”

“It would be considered rude to not thank your host, who has so graciously welcomed us into her home this week,” St. John said.

“Fine, I’ll say good bye,” Andrew said.

St. John summoned a servant to take away the breakfast, and he arrived with one of Charlotte’s companions, Lieutenant Lady Mildred Ashley-Cooper. She was the daughter of some English earl, and had served with Charlotte in The Blues in Afghanistan, and as such, had become something of a de facto lady-in-waiting for the Princess of Wales alongside the other women.

“Lottie would like to speak with you before you depart,” Ashley-Cooper said as the servant went about clearing the table.

Andrew wondered if Ashley-Cooper had brought any clothing other than her uniform; he had to admit that she didn’t wear it nearly as well as Charlotte did. “Myself and Sir Charles were preparing to leave,” he said.

“I’ll have the servants prepare your things, then,” Ashley-Cooper said.

“I’ll be here to supervise,” St. John said. “Give my regards to Her Royal Highness, sir.”

“Very well. Lieutenant, lead the way.”

Ashley-Cooper nodded her head and took Andrew down a hallway into a part of Treberfydd House he’d never been to before. He realised they were going to the top of the house’s clocktower when they reached a spiral staircase. “Up there,” Ashley-Cooper said. “Knock before you go in.”

Andrew walked up the stairs and stopped in front of the wooden door. He paused for a moment to consider what he was going to say. With his mind made up, he knocked.

“Come in,” Charlotte said from the other side.

Andrew opened the door. The walls of the room were covered in sketches and watercolours, an almost even mix of landscapes, portraits and wildlife studies. He saw snowy, mountainous vistas that could only be the Hindu Kush or the Himalayas. Animals ranging from exotic, colourful frogs to regular housecats. The portraits were more familiar, as he recognised them as other members of the Plantagenet dynasty.

“Papa’s private secretary, Sir Damon Knowles, recommended that I take up a peaceful hobby,” Charlotte said. She sat by the window in front of an easel. There was a watercolour mounted on the wooden frame: two dark figures standing in front of pink sky, holding what looked like guns. “I’m not very good with hands or feet, I’m afraid. It’s taken me this long just to master how to draw eyes.”

“They’re very nice,” Andrew said. Only one of the portraits had a frame. It was a young boy, perhaps no more than ten or eleven years old with a long face and downcast grey eyes. “Who’s this?”

Charlotte looked over her shoulder at where he was looking. “Oh,” she said. “That’s my brother, John Henry.”

“Oh.” The realization sunk in for Andrew. “Oh.”

“Or at least what I remember of him. I painted that last year from memory. Mama said I managed to capture his likeness towards the end.”

“It looks splendid,” Andrew said.

“I do believe there’s a certain similarity between the two of you–or how I imagine Jackie would have looked if he were still alive.” Charlotte turned back to her current watercolour, and Andrew spent a few more minutes looking at the different paintings and sketches that she had displayed. There were even more piled on the floor and leaning against the walls.

Meowr.

There was a cat sitting in a plush bed on the stool next to Charlotte. It had cream coloured fur, with black patches on its snout and legs. Charlotte reached out and stroked the cat’s head. Its blue eyes were large and sad looking. “Andrew, meet Ashes,” she said. “I don’t know if you’ll get another chance.”

“Why’s that?” Andrew asked.

“Ashes is twenty-four years old,” Charlotte said. She put aside the paints and turned to face Andrew again. “He was originally meant as a gift to my cousins, but…well, Papa never had any time for a cat, and I couldn’t say no to this face.” Charlotte shrugged. “I don’t think Ashes understands what happened to Eddie and Richie, but I don’t blame him.”

“My mother’s allergic to cats,” Andrew said. “She trains falcons though.”

“Really?” Charlotte asked. “I’ve always wanted to try that, but I’ve never found the time.”

Andrew nodded his head. “You still have plenty of time left to learn.”

“I’m sure that’s what my grandfather and uncle thought before Irish anarchists blew them to kingdom come,” Charlotte said. “I would love for Papa to have many more years on the throne–he’s almost the same age as my grandfather was when he was killed.”

Why did everything about her have to be so morose? Andrew asked himself.

“I have a lot I want to accomplish in this life. I simply can’t wait for life to happen. I’m sure you’re the same way.”

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that,” Andrew said. “I’m the fourth son, and now I’m seventh in line for succession. I can do as I chose with my life with no fear about it being interrupted because I’m suddenly called to the throne.”

“I envy you for that, Andrew.”

“And I, you. You have a purpose in life that I lack. Everything you’ve done in life leads to one singular point,” Andrew said.

Charlotte shook her head. “I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree,” she said. “Are you going to be off, then?”

“Birmingham, to see the linear arcologies,” Andrew said.

“And I’m to see you again next week? In Cardiff?”

“Yes, as long as the schedule holds.” Andrew extended his hand. “I want to thank you for your hospitality, Charlotte. This has been an eye-opening experience for me.”

“And for me too,” Charlotte said. She took booth of Andrew’s hands, and leaned in towards him. He instinctively turned his head, so she ended up kissing him on the cheek. Her lips were cold. “Oh,” she said, taking a step back from Andrew. She let go of his hands, and while her shoulders slumped, her face remained an unchanged mask. “I suppose that was a bit forward of me. I apologize if…if I was untoward.”

“No apologies necessary,” Andrew said. “I look forward to our next meeting, Your Royal Highness.”

“I look forward to it too,” Charlotte said. “Birmingham is a nice city, if you like factories.”

“I suppose it’ll feel like home,” Andrew said. “With your leave.”

Charlotte only nodded her head. “Of course. Go. You have a schedule to keep.”

Andrew thought about saying something, but he was sure that whatever he would say would only make matters worse. Charlotte sat down on her stool, picked up Ashes and put the cat in her lap. He watched for a few moment as Charlotte stroked the cat’s head before turning to leave.

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