The Dark Days Club(A Lady Helen Novel)By: Alison Goodman
In 1810 the British King, George III, descended into a melancholy madness from which he would never recover.
In 1811 his son, the Prince of Wales—fat, frivolous, and forty-nine—was declared his regent, and given care of a country that was at war and in deep recession. The new Prince Regent, or “Prinny,” as he was commonly known, immediately gave a sumptuous party for over two thousand members of the upper class, which set the tone for his regency: nine years of staggering extravagance, relentless scandal, and the constant threat of rioting and revolution.
In 1812, Prinny had been regent for one year. Britain was on the brink of war with America, and in its tenth year of almost continuous war with France and its emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. None of these countries, however, knew there was another, even older war being waged: a secret battle that had started centuries before against a demonic horde hidden in plain sight across the cities, towns, and villages of the world. Only a small group of people stood in the way of this multitude and its insidious predation upon humankind.
London, late April 1812: a month that had seen violent civil unrest, savage battles on the Continent, and the rumblings of aggression from the new American nation. It was also the month in which Queen Charlotte—after a two-year hiatus—returned to the practice of holding drawing rooms for the presentation of young ladies into high society. A battleground of a different kind.
Wednesday, 29 April 1812
IN THE SUN-WARMED quiet of her uncle’s library, Lady Helen Wrexhall spread the skirt of her muslin morning gown and sank into the deep curtsy required for Royal presentation: back held straight, head slightly bowed, left knee bent so low, it nearly touched the floor. And, of course, face set into a serene Court smile.
“Your Majesty is correct,” she said to the blue brocade sofa doing duty as Queen Charlotte. “I am the daughter of Lady Catherine, Countess of Hayden.”
Helen glanced sideways at her reflection in the glass-fronted bookcase that lined the wall: the best place in the town house to view the whole of her tall self. The curtsy was good—it should be, after so many weeks of practice—but she sounded far too surly. She tried again.
“Yes, Your Highness, I am indeed the daughter of Lady Catherine.”
No, too jaunty. She rose from the curtsy and dropped the folds of her gown, opening her fingers into long spreads of frustration. Her aunt had told her to find a tone that acknowledged her connection to Lady Catherine but also maintained a dignified distance from it. A great deal of meaning to place upon a few words. She backed a few steps away from the blue silk bulk of the substitute queen. Flanking Her Majesty were two matching brocade armchairs: the princesses Mary and Augusta. Helen eyed the makeshift Royals, already sensing disaster. Tomorrow she would be curtsying to the real Royal ladies, and there could be no room for awkwardness or mistakes. She had to have an answer ready about her mother, just in case Queen Charlotte mentioned the infamous Countess of Hayden.
It did not seem likely. Ten years had passed since Helen’s mother and father had drowned at sea. Surely Lady Catherine would not be on the mind of a queen burdened by a mad husband and a profligate son running the country to ruin. Helen pressed her palms together. Even she could not remember much about her mother. Lady Catherine’s name was only uttered as a reproach in her aunt and uncle’s house, and her brother never mentioned their mother anymore. Yet that morning at breakfast, Aunt Leonore had suddenly told Helen to practice a graceful answer to a possible Royal inquiry. Perhaps the Crown never forgot a noblewoman whose name was shrouded in rumor. Especially when those rumors were wound tight around the word treason.
One more time, then. Helen held up the edges of her gown and glided into the low obeisance.
“Yes, Your Majesty. My mother was Lady Catherine.”
That was better; the less said, the smaller the chance of making a mistake.
Helen lifted her face to receive the Royal kiss on her forehead, rose from the curtsy, then gathered up her imaginary train and backed away from the sofa—the most difficult maneuver in the whole Court Presentation. Lud, she hoped she did not trip or lose control of her curtsy tomorrow. It was the first official Queen’s Drawing Room since the King’s madness had returned two years ago, and there had been a desperate scramble by mothers to secure their daughters a place on the presentation list. Aunt Leonore—who had lost her own daughter and only child at birth—had been at the forefront of the rush, and Helen had duly received her summons from the Lord Chamberlain. What if she wrecked the whole enterprise by stumbling? For a moment she saw an image of herself sprawled on the polished Palace floor, the huge old-fashioned hoopskirt standing up around her like a frigate in full sail.