I hate Sir John Conroy.
Mamma knew that I was never fond of him, though she did not suspect how much I despised him. “He has been a good friend to us since your papa died, Vickelchen,” she reminded me often. My father, the duke of Kent, had died when I was an infant. “I do not know what I would do without Sir John.”
He may have been a friend to Mamma—too good, in my opinion—but he was never a friend to me, though he pretended to be. And I had to pretend that I did not loathe him.
Sir John was very tall and did not trouble to bring himself down to meet my eye, so that I always had to tilt my head to gaze up at him. He often spoke to me in what he seemed to consider a jocular manner, once telling me that I reminded him of Dickey, my pet donkey. “Stubbornly resistant to being guided in a new direction,” he said, and burst into a loud guffaw. I was not at all amused.
But that is not why I despised him.
It was Sir John’s fault that Feodore, my half sister, left England.
I loved Feodore, whom I called Fidi, more than almost anyone except dearest Daisy, my governess. (I always called her Daisy, though her name was Louise Lehzen.) And except Mamma, of course.
We were preparing to celebrate my sister’s twentieth birthday, on the seventh of December, when Fidi told me the news. I had returned to our apartment in Kensington Palace from an afternoon walk with dear Daisy. Promising to be absent only a minute or two, my governess left me alone to practice the sums assigned that morning by my tutor. I heard Fidi’s special knock and rose from my writing table, thinking how pleased she would be with the gifts I had for her—a pair of pearl earrings and a drawing I’d made of myself, though I had placed the eyes too close together.
Fidi flung herself into Daisy’s empty chair. My sister was very beautiful, with dark hair and a pretty mouth, but now her lovely brown eyes were puffed and reddened. She burst into sobs. I had never seen her in such a state.
“Dearest Fidi, what’s wrong?”
“Tonight at dinner Mamma will announce that I’m to marry Prince Ernst of Hohenlohe-Langenburg.” Her voice was thick with tears. “Perhaps you remember him? He came to visit this past July. This is all Sir John’s doing.”
Prince Ernst? I did recall a tall, thin man with bulging eyes and a large, blond mustache. Mamma had introduced him as a friend from Germany. I knew Fidi was of an age to marry, but I had not expected this. “He looked very old,” I said rather severely.
“Not so very old.” She attempted a quavering smile. “But old enough. Just thirty-four. And he is handsome, I suppose.”
I had not found Prince Ernst handsome, but I didn’t mention that he reminded me of a toad. “I suppose I shall learn to care for him,” I said, though I wasn’t at all certain I could. “Will he come to live here at Kensington Palace with us, or shall you move with him to a palace nearby?” We sometimes visited Uncle Leopold, Mamma’s younger brother, at Claremont, his lovely mansion south of London. If Fidi were to live in such a pretty mansion, I believed I might find the situation tolerable.
Fidi traced the pattern on the carpet with the toe of her slipper. Her lip began to tremble, and her eyes welled again with tears. “No, dear Victoria, he will not, and neither will I. After the wedding in February, the prince and I leave to begin our life in Germany.”
“Germany!” I wailed. “But you can’t leave England! You cannot! When shall I ever see you again? I shall miss you so dreadfully!” With a sob I crept into my sister’s arms.
“And I shall miss you too, dearest Vicky,” she murmured. She rocked me as the two of us wept. We both knew it was useless to protest, once Mamma—and the dreadful Sir John Conroy—made up their minds.
I worried that my governess would return and find us in such a state. Daisy rarely left me for more than a moment; it was against rules set by Sir John and Mamma that I was never to be alone. I slid off my sister’s lap and tidied my dress and sash. Fidi stayed sprawled in Daisy’s chair with her face buried in her hands. “Oh, I cannot bear the man!” she cried.
I was as surprised by this outburst as by her tears. “Prince Ernst?” I asked carefully. “You truly can’t bear him?”
Fidi peered at me from between her fingers. “No, no! I scarcely know Prince Ernst, and I have no idea whether I can bear him or not.”
“But who, then?”
“Sir John, of course! He controls everything that happens in our lives. Whatever he does is designed to gain him influence, and Mamma allows it! Our mother seems unable to draw a breath unless Conroy approves.” She spat out the words as though they had a bitter taste.
Fidi sprang up and began to pace distractedly from one end to the other of the small sitting room. “I’ll tell you a secret, Vicky,” she said. “I know it’s safe with you. My heart is bursting, and I must talk to someone, though you’re too young, certainly, to understand—”
“I am not too young!” I protested. I disliked being treated like a child.
Fidi stared at me, her pretty face crumpled miserably. “I’m in love with someone else!” she whispered. I nodded sagely, though she was quite right, I did not truly understand. “You must promise never to speak of this again, Victoria.”
Thrilled that she would confide in me, I solemnly promised.
“I’m in love with Captain d’Este, the son of Uncle Sussex.”
I frowned. “Captain d’Este?” The duke of Sussex was one of Papa’s younger brothers. He lived alone in a suite of rooms in another part of Kensington Palace, surrounded by thousands of books and dozens of clocks. Mamma described him as “eccentric.” But I had never heard of a cousin named Captain d’Este.
“I met Augustus nearly two years ago when I was riding in St. James’s Park,” Fidi said, her cheeks flushing rosily when she spoke his name. “My horse became unruly, and dear Augustus came to my rescue. I was immediately attracted to him, and he to me. We began to meet secretly and soon fell deeply in love. I took our dear Baroness Späth into my confidence, and she agreed to carry our messages to arrange our trysts.”
Baroness Späth was Mamma’s old friend, even before Mamma married Papa and became duchess of Kent, and she adored my sister and me.
“What happened?” I whispered, dreading the unhappy ending I felt was sure to follow.
“We became incautious—reckless even—and rumors spread. Our secret meetings were no longer secret. Mamma learned of it. She forbade me ever to see Augustus again, because he is illegitimate. That’s why you’ve never heard of him. The old king refused to recognize Uncle Sussex’s marriage to Augustus’s mother, which took place without royal approval and therefore wasn’t legal. We believed we could bear a separation until we found a way to marry, perhaps even to elope. But of course Sir John was informed of ‘the situation,’ as Mamma called it, though I begged her not to speak to him about it. He persuaded Mamma that I was becoming troublesome—‘willful,’ he said—and the best solution was to marry me off at once.”
Of course Sir John would interfere! I understood that very well.
“Sir John had several candidates in mind. There was even a rumor that King George himself was showing a great deal of interest in me.”
“Uncle King wanted to marry you?” I shuddered at the very notion. King George IV was a gouty old man who wore a thick layer of rouge plastered on his flabby cheeks and a corset to hold in his fat stomach. Uncle King was very kind to me and once gave me a lovely diamond badge, but I could not imagine my beautiful sister wed to him.
“It was only a rumor, but Mamma and Sir John were taking no risk that it might be true. They settled on Prince Ernst, though he has no wealth to speak of. I was told about it only after everything had been arranged. Now, in just two months I will marry a man I scarcely know and do not love, and be sent away to ensure that I will never again see the man who has my heart.”
“Dear, dear Fidi!” I cried, my heart breaking for her. “How very sad!”
“Sad for me, but sad for you as well, dearest sister! I fear that Sir John will do the same to you some day, and I can do nothing to prevent it! Oh, Victoria, I’d take you with me if I could, but that’s impossible!”
Suddenly a voice startled us. “Surely it is time for you to dress for dinner, Victoria.”
Daisy had appeared at the door. How much had she heard? “And you as well, Feodore,” she added briskly. Daisy had been Fidi’s governess before she became mine.
Fidi leaped to her feet, kissed the top of my head, and rushed away.
Daisy closed the door and leaned against it. She was tall and thin with a stiff, straight back and sharp features. It was her duty as my governess to instruct me in matters of deportment. She corrected me when she thought I had been naughty or stubborn or had behaved in any way she did not approve. Yet beneath her stern manner was the warmest heart in the world. Daisy had always been devoted to me, and I returned her devotion without limit.
“So Feodore has told you her news,” she said. “We must be happy for her, Victoria.”
“It’s so unfair,” I complained. “Just because Mamma disapproves of Captain d’Este’s parents.”
“The duke of Sussex has defied moral standards,” my governess said firmly. “Your mother is quite right to disapprove.”
“But Fidi is leaving!” I wailed. “She’s not at all happy, and so how can I be happy for her? How can Mamma allow it?”
“The duchess believes it’s for the best,” she said. “Sir John has convinced her of it.” Daisy touched my cheek gently. “Now, come, we must wash your face—all that weeping!—and choose which dress you shall wear to Feodore’s celebration.”
Daisy took my hand as we went down to the Red Salon—I was not permitted to descend the sweeping marble staircase without holding the hand of a trusted adult—and pages in royal livery opened the double doors with a flourish. The walls of the salon were covered in red silk, a trifle faded. A steward cried, “The Princess Alexandrina Victoria!”
“Smile, Victoria,” Daisy murmured as we prepared to enter, and everyone turned to watch.
Sir John and the entire Conroy family were already present: his round-faced wife, Eliza, their three sons, and their two daughters: Victoire, who is just my age—she was named for Mamma—and her older sister, Jane. I found both girls rather tiresome.
Several of my papa’s brothers arrived, among them William, duke of Clarence, and his kind wife, Adelaide, who it turned out was a cousin of Prince Ernst. Naturally, none of Uncle William’s many children by his former mistress had been invited. I acknowledged several other uncles and aunts and those few cousins who were fortunate enough to have the proper parents.
I was happy to see Uncle Leopold, my very favorite uncle. He had married Uncle King’s only child, Princess Charlotte, but poor Charlotte and her newborn infant had died before I was born.
How very sad that was! Does he know about Fidi’s broken heart? I wondered. Surely Uncle Leopold, who had himself suffered great loss, would not insist that my sister give up the man she loved to marry a man she did not—merely to satisfy Sir John!
Fidi and Mamma made their entrance. My sister was lovely but very pale. Mamma was dressed in the fur-trimmed blue velvet gown that she claimed gave her confidence. We sat down to dine, and after many courses had been served, Mamma rose and the company fell silent. She always felt uneasy about speaking in public. Her German accent was heavy, though she had lived in England since just before I was born. Sir John had written a little speech for her with the pronunciation of each word spelled out.
“It is with great pleasure,” she said, with sounding like vit, “that I announce the engagement of my daughter, Princess Feodore of Leiningen, to Prince Ernst of Hohenlohe-Langenburg. The wedding”—vedding—“will take place here at Kensington Palace on the twenty-first day of February.” Mamma paused, glancing at Fidi, who wore a brave smile that I knew was utterly false. Sir John jumped to his feet and began to applaud, a signal to everyone else to do the same. I could not bear to look at my sister.
“How excited you must be, Victoria,” murmured Jane Conroy close to my ear. “It will be a splendid wedding. I do so look forward to it.”
“I am not in the least excited, Jane,” I told her sternly. “Feodore will be leaving. I do not look forward to that.”
And it is all your father’s doing, I thought, turning away, my lips pressed tightly together. I hate Sir John Conroy.