An autumn fog shrouded London that November morning as the Prince of Wales's yellow carriage bolted along Berkeley Street. The four residents of Berkeley Square who witnessed it all recognized it at a glance, despite the fog. Who but His Royal Highness would drive such an outlandish rig?
Sir Reginald Prance, who espied it from the window of his bijou drawing room where he was flipping through that evening's invitations, was struck at the gaudiness of maroon blinds with a yellow carriage. He would have preferred deep blue blinds, to match the footmen's livery. His neighbor across the street, Coffen Pattle, admired the superb white team of horses from the Hanoverian stud that drew the carriage. Coffen's adjacent neighbor, Lady deCoventry, was much struck by the pair of well-built Life Guards that accompanied it.
Across the street, her fiance, Lord Luten, watched with total absorption as the royal equipage slowed to a crawl, as if looking for an address. He grabbed his crutches and hobbled from his study to his saloon. The carriage had stopped at his front door.
Prinney was calling on him? Impossible! Although on speaking terms, the Tory monarch and the Whig marquess were arch enemies.
Being a political animal, Luten's mind darted at once to Whitehall, where matters had been in some confusion since the assassination of Prime Minister Perceval in May. Even in his wildest dreams, however, he dared not imagine that the prince had come to ask him to form a new government, a Whig government at last. But when the corpulent Prince Regent (with assistance from two footmen) descended from his carriage, it was difficult to keep a tether on his imagination, and his hopes.
It had to be some matter of the utmost importance that brought the Prince Regent to Berkeley Square. In the normal way, Lord Luten would have been summoned to Carlton House for this meeting, but since wrenching his ankle the week before he was sunk to hobbling about the house on crutches and using a Bath chair to travel across the street.
His majesty was met at the door by Luten's butler, Evans, who bowed graciously and murmured a greeting, but did not otherwise display his astonishment. Like his master, he had acquired the knack of concealing his emotions. He led the prince directly to the saloon, calmly announced, "His Majesty, Prince George," as if he did it every day, before bowing and backing from the room at a stately pace.
The prince wafted a white, ring-laden hand as Luten tried to pull himself up from his chair and said graciously, "No need to rise, my dear Luten. We can seat ourselves." His corsets emitted a creak as he wearily deposited his bulging frame on the edge of the sofa closest to hand.
Luten studied his guest, noting the unusual sombreness of his toilette. It was rare to see the First Gentleman of Europe in an ordinary blue superfine jacket without a single medal or ribbon, epaulette, gold lace or official order of any sort. His brown curls were carefully arranged and the cravat that supported his several chins was a minor work of art, but beneath the powdered cheeks his face was pale. His rheumy, bloodshot eyes revealed every one of his fifty years.
His appearance was in sad contrast to Luten. Even on crutches, he was still an impressive sight. Tall, lean, with wide shoulders, he was an elegant figure in his impeccably tailored jacket and faun breeches. Black hair grew in a peak on his forehead. Beneath finely drawn eyebrows, a pair of intelligent, long-lashed gray eyes studied the prince. His strong nose and square jaw lent his face authority. It was relieved of its customary arrogance on this occasion by a sympathetic expression.
"Can I be of some assistance, Your Royal Highness?" Luten asked in a voice tinged with pity.
"We do hope so, Luten," the prince replied, and leaned back to catch his breath after the exertion of traveling from chaise to sofa. After a brief pause, he continued in a sober voice, "We are here on a matter of the utmost urgency, Luten."
Visions of Bonaparte darted into Luten's head. Had he attacked England directly? How long would it take him to get from Dover to London? "I am entirely at your disposal, sir."
The prince bowed regally. "Too kind, my dear Luten. Our little political differences aside, we knew we might depend on you at the hour of crisis. Though whether you will be able to assist us in your present condition ..." The royal eye fell to Luten's bandaged ankle and rested sadly there a moment.
"If you would tell me what is troubling you ..."
The prince drew a deep sigh. "That would take an eternity, we fear. You know our popularity is not what it once was, Luten."
Luten nodded. This was a vast understatement, even for an Englishman. Prince George, who had been the nation's golden boy in his youth, had become so unpopular he was daily pilloried in the press and boo'd and hissed on those rare occasions when he ventured into public. His handsome carriage had more than once been pelted with stones and vegetables.
Despite the prince's faults--and they were legion--Luten felt a pang of pity. The man was now the acting monarch of England after all, since King George III had fallen prey to lunacy. One owed respect to the position, if not to the man.
Luten poured a glass of wine and handed it to the prince, who sipped eagerly. It gave him courage to continue his sad tale.
"This is absolutely confidential, my dear Luten. We know we may depend on your discretion. The fact is, there was an attempted assassination on our person last night."
The prince nodded, pleased that his hearer was as shocked and outraged as he was himself. "Quite."
"Another lunatic, no doubt, like the Bellingham fellow who killed poor Perceval."
"That is one explanation," the prince said doubtfully.
"But you have something--someone else in mind, sir?"
"A man in our position has many enemies," he admitted. "The Yorkshire cottage workers who are rioting against using the new frames for weaving, those who champion Princess Caroline, and of course the blame for all the country's ills fall on our poor shoulders. It has even been suggested that Mrs. FitzHerbert might be involved. One enemy we can and do acquit is poor Brummell," he said. "The man has no skill with firearms, despite having been in my own regiment, the Tenth Light Dragoons."
Luten didn't think the Yorkshire Luddites were responsible. Their fight was with the mill owners who were putting them out of work by using the new machinery. The prince's disaffected wife, Princess Caroline, was a constant thorn in his side, but she was more interested in embarrassing him than killing him.
Mrs. FitzHerbert had cause for resentment, though hardly for murder. The prince had married this lady some years before marrying Caroline, knowing the wedding was illegal as it did not conform to the royal marriage laws. Since then, he had abandoned her (though the country paid her a handsome pension) and taken up with other ladies, the present love of his life being Lady Hertford, a fiftyish, plump matron. It was unlikely that her husband had done the deed, however, as he approved of the romance and received many perquisites from it. As to Beau Brummell--that, of course, was nonsense. His weapon was his sharp tongue.
"Tell me how and when it happened. Did you get a look at the fellow at all?"
"A glimpse, no more. It was dark. All we saw was a shadow of a man disappearing into the night. It happened last evening, just after midnight, in Manchester Square. We had spent the evening with Lady Hertford, in company with a small party." He darted an arch, almost a coy smile at Luten. "She accompanied us to the door to see us out. We left with a young fellow called Henry Fogg, a connection of Isabella's--that is, of Lady Manchester. Oh, and Byron was with us. He was not of the party, but had delivered a message for Hertford. Something to do with buying or selling a horse. He stayed for a glass of wine."
"Perhaps the shot was meant for him," Luten suggested. Many husbands had reason to take a shot at this handsome rogue.
"I think it was meant for myself," the prince said, abandoning the royal "we" in his chagrin. "Byron was quite off to one side, and it is unlikely that we would be mistaken one for the other," he said regretfully. "The bullet missed my head by inches. I heard it sing past my ear. I have heard of your work in sleuthing, Luten. That unfortunate matter of Lord Gaviston, and just lately the business of Lord Simard's murder, where you busted your ankle, what? I realize that with your lame wing, you will need some assistance. Perhaps your cohorts in the Berkeley Brigade, eh? But keep it between yourselves."
The Berkeley Brigade was composed of a group of young Whig aristocrats who all lived on Berkeley Square, every one of whom had seen the prince's carriage arrive, and was wondering what this visit to their leader heralded. Luten was their unofficial leader. They had recently become involved in a few murder cases.
"What is it you want me to do, sir?" he asked.
"Just find out who is responsible. We shall take the necessary steps to stop him," he said, once again becoming a plural personality.
Luten stared. Just find out who was responsible! From the million plus people in London, three-quarters of whom despised the prince, find the one man, with nothing more to go on than a vague mention of a dark shadow.
"That is a tall order!"
The prince smiled his most ingratiating smile. "And the reward will be commensurate, Luten." He directed a long, meaningful look at his host before continuing. "We have observed your career with considerable interest. You possess a rare talent for leadership which is not given full rein in your present position. We flatter ourselves we know what it is that would be most pleasing to you. You will not find us ungrateful, we promise you. Call on us at any time if you need our assistance. As you were kind enough to say a moment ago, we are entirely at your disposal."
The prince's promise was like a siren call to Luten. For years he had labored in the wilderness with the Whigs against the repressive and reactionary agenda of the Tory government. Mouldy and Company, the Whigs called them. If he could solve this case, find the man who had tried to kill the prince (or possibly Lord Byron, or Henry Fogg, or Lady Manchester) then the prince would form a new government, a Whig government. It had been expected he would do so when Perceval was shot, for in the old days, under the influence of Charles Fox, Prinney had been an ardent Whig..
"I shall certainly do my best," Luten said, trying to pinch back the smile that wanted to come out.
The prince began to stir in his chair in an effort to haul himself up. After a moment, he placed his white hands on the arms of the chair and managed to extricate himself with an unregal grunt. Luten also had difficulty in rising, but with the aid of his crutches, he rose and accompanied the prince to the front door. The prince bowed, Luten bowed, and the guest took his leave. Luten remained at the doorway to see His Royal Majesty being assisted into his yellow carriage for a dart to Manchester Square.
Before the team of white horses, the yellow rig and the galloping Life-Guards rounded the corner, Lady deCoventry's front door flew open and the three other members of the Berkeley Brigade, who had been discussing the Prince's visit at Lady deCoventry's house, darted across the flagstoned pavement to hear all about it.