A month after he proposed, Alfred and Wilhelmina appeared at his parents' soirée together.
They did not announce it to the guests at large but confided in Alfred’s parents about it, as it was expected. In fact, Alfred had written to them in advance – introductions were only natural to come next.
There was a colourful assortment of invitees at the dinner party, as was usual at the Pagets’ houses. To everyone’s great delight, even Wellington could spare the time to attend.
‘I would not pass up a chance at a Paget party, even, or especially, at my age,’ he remarked when thanked for coming by Charlotte after dinner.
The guests were now scattered across two sitting rooms, drinking, chatting, playing cards. Alfred found himself next to his mother and Wellington after making the obligatory rounds, closely followed by his father Henry and Wilhelmina, who joined in the little circle.
‘Nonsense, Your Grace,’ Charlotte said, ‘You are still in your prime from what I hear.’
‘I am aware that my days are numbered, alas. I am getting old.’
‘You’re not thinking about retirement?’ Henry asked.
‘I suppose I must. After all, one can’t live forever.’
Alfred wished he could leave. He took another glass of port off a footman’s tray.
‘You’ll be wanting to find a replacement, then. As Commander-in-Chief,’ Wilhelmina asked, surprising all – most of all herself, really.
‘Indeed, Miss Coke,’ Wellington replied gallantly, knowing she was simply making small talk without wanting to delve too deeply into military affairs. ‘I suppose I should.’
‘Do you hear that, Alfred?’ Charlotte piped up, evidently suggesting he run for the job.
‘I’m afraid I lack the experience, Mama. By a long margin, in fact.’
‘Consider yourself lucky, Lord Alfred,’ Wellington said kindly. ‘You are lucky to have been born in a time of relative peace.’
And yet, it was just as easy to be found by a bullet, Alfred thought bitterly.
‘Not if the Russians’ ambitions escalate,’ Henry remarked.
‘No, indeed! The east is a bit of a worry, make no mistake, but I believe there is still hope in diplomacy. I trust you have faith in your new government, Anglesey?’
‘Very much so. Palmerston is going to make a remarkable Foreign Secretary, mark my words.’
‘I would not doubt it. I just hope his boldness does not result in more conflicts for our men in the east.’
‘As you say, there is still potential in diplomacy. Besides, Russell is there to keep him in check. Palmerston is not the one who runs the party.’
‘I wonder if he knows that.’
Henry laughed. ‘The Prime Minister rather seems more like a private secretary to the Foreign Minister, I admit. But together, I believe they’ll make a fine job.’
‘There is no doubt a clear headed secretary can make a world of difference. Poor late Drummond was the finest example of it. I so regret that we lost him. A fine, fine young man indeed.’
Just then, a group of guests passed and Alfred took advantage of it. He apologised and left for the terrace that ran along the garden side façade of the house.
It wasn’t getting easier. It still wasn’t.
‘There you are, son,’ Alfred heard a voice behind him a while later, accompanied by the familiar uneven click and thump of his father’s limp. ‘Not like you to hide at an occasion.’
‘I found I needed some air,’ Alfred said apologetically and attempted a smile rather unsuccessfully.
‘Air, was it?’ Henry teased as he indicated at the cheroot in Alfred’s hand. When offered, he accepted one and for a minute Henry and Alfred were smoking together in peaceful silence.
‘Miss Coke seems a nice girl,’ Henry pondered aloud. ‘Simple, if I may say so, but nice. I must admit I regret the connexion this will bring us to the Duchess of Buccleuch but… Charlotte seems very fond of her. We all are.’
‘Yes, she is quite…’ Alfred here searched for words as the expression that came to him was “personable” and that would not do, both because Wilhelmina was more than that, she was a friend, and because of memories once again of Him.
In his hesitation, he must have given himself away a little more.
‘Alfred, what ails you so?’ Henry asked, and a stab of pain twisted in Alfred’s chest as he tried with all his might to hold back tears, those damn tears again.
He seems to have dropped his cheroot – no wonder, he thought, as he hid his shaking hands in his pockets.
The bout of laughter that sounded from inside seemed out of place out there in the cold.
‘It’s rather chilly, is it not? Come along inside,’ Henry said kindly, leading Alfred to the other side of the terrace. They went in through another door, into his study.
They had drunk their brandy and Alfred would still not speak, not voluntarily.
‘Alfred, my son,’ Henry said after watching him for a while, worry rising in his gut. He felt as he did when watching Alfred mount his first horse. Though the boy was a natural and he was endlessly proud, he could not help wanting to rush over there to hold him if he fell off. It seemed to Henry now as they sat so many years later in his library that Alfred had already fallen from a far taller height and been well and truly crushed beyond protection, beyond repair. ‘You surprise me so.’
‘It is not an apology that is needed, my boy,’ Henry said, not at all reproachfully. He just didn’t understand Alfred, or his silence. ‘You seem ready to shatter at any second. Indeed, I believe Miss Coke’s excuse for your stepping away from the party just then was that you were delicate nowadays.’
‘I’m sorry, Papa—’
‘So you agree? You are in a delicate state? Oh, my boy, you may fool those careless courtiers but I am your father. I’m happy to have known you to be a joyful, lively, radiant person. Indeed, just last year when I last saw you, you were bursting from enthusiasm as ever. But now you are steeped in gloom when you think no one is watching. What has happened?’
Alfred wanted to say nothing but he could not bring himself to call Edward that in any respect, no matter what the situation. But the very fact that Henry didn’t think of his friend’s death as a sufficient reason for his unhappiness shows how inappropriate and unprecedented his prolonged grief was.
‘One cannot be jolly all the time, Papa,’ Alfred said finally.
‘I agree. But you’re not simply not jolly, are you, Alfred?’
Alfred couldn’t bring himself to say anything, which was agreement in itself. How would he even begin to explain himself? But he was blanking and nothing else came to his mind to throw Henry off the scent. He felt a strange exhaustion, something of a different quality than the kind naturally descending upon one who spent all day riding in the park.
‘It’s true, I’ve been out of sorts,’ he offered curtly.
‘So I can see. And I don’t understand, Alfred. I should think you’d be very happy, in fact,’ Henry pointed out. ‘You have just got engaged, after all.’
‘I have,’ Alfred nodded, not at all the blooming groom he was supposed to be.
Henry frowned. ‘Is something to do with Miss Coke that is making you so melancholy?’
‘No, in fact she has been nothing but the kindest of friends…’
Alfred saw no point in being coy or lying. It was his father after all.
‘I don’t really want to marry her, Papa,’ he admitted.
Henry was less perplexed by this than by reading Alfred’s letter about the engagement itself a month before but he was still somewhat taken aback.
‘Whyever not? You must have had a reason.’
‘I thought it would save us both from our own troubles but I’m finding that is not quite a solution. Besides, it’s unfair on her. She shouldn’t give up a chance at finding true love,’ Alfred said, and weakened – there was that stab of pain again. He knew just what he was talking about when he said true love. Full and firm but painful and splintery, it wedged into his heart, never to be removed. ‘And that, I’m afraid, I cannot give her.’
‘What on earth can you mean? By God, Alfred, are you marrying her because she’s…’
Alfred frowned at Henry in confusion.
‘… because she finds herself in trouble? Did she and you--’
‘Oh, God, no, Papa,’ Alfred quickly protested once the penny dropped. ‘No, we have not, she has not been with anyone, in fact, rest assured. No one. That’s why she accepted me, really.’
‘I had to ask, didn’t I? Wouldn’t be the first in the family…’ Henry said sheepishly but not at all ashamed, and Alfred almost smiled. He knew about the scandalous way his parents had found each other but he never held it against them as he couldn’t have asked for a more loving family, even if they tried to hold themselves to all the conventions and etiquette of the highest circles in public.
‘No, it’s nothing of the sort, Papa. In fact, I believe she understands that ours is to be a marriage of friendship.’
A few seconds passed until Henry realised just what Alfred had said – enough for Alfred, too, to hope his real meaning would not be picked up on. Alas, he could dream.
‘Of friendship? Really, my son? Why?’
Alfred avoided his father’s eyes.
‘There really is no point in troubling you with the details, Papa.’
‘Please, trouble me.’
Alfred could not. ‘Suffice it to say that our attentions had been caught elsewhere, but alas, life can be cruel. We are making a pact of sorts, therefore, to avoid living our lives in complete loneliness. Not the worst deal we could make.’
‘You won’t be lonely if you don’t marry this girl. There are other alternatives than either her or no one.’
‘But there aren’t. Not for me.’
‘And yet you have changed your mind and would rather choose to be alone than marry her?’
‘I believe so. She has a chance, still.’
‘But why do you think you do not? Alfred you’re not making any sense,’ Henry said, confused. ‘What about that “elsewhere” where your attentions lay?’
Alfred, feeling out of strength, simply shook his head, praying for the heavens for help to keep from bursting out crying. But he could not help it, his heart was broken and aching acutely, perhaps forever.
‘Alfred, my son, I do not mean to twist your arm but I find myself utterly baffled by your secrecy. It’s only me, there is hardly anything you could say that would shock me.’
‘I know, Papa. And I thank you. Nevertheless, I believe it’s best if I kept this to myself.’
‘Very well, I won’t point a gun at you—‘
Blood, cold cobblestones, and the image of a lifeless, pale body flashed through Alfred’s mind in an instant.
Before he knew it he was desperately trying to hide his face in his hands but he couldn’t breathe for his choking sobs. He walked blindly to a corner of the library, ashamed, appalled at his own lack of control, but it was just too much, still too much, too unfair, too awful.
He simply could not bear it, could not bear the knowledge that Edward was lying in the street, bleeding to death, while he sat there idly in a restaurant. He still woke with mild disappointment about the night before and with hope to make things right still in his heart. He was planning to seek out Drummond at the Parliament or his house later that day, not knowing about the horrible fact yet that his beloved, dear, admired, harmless, handsome, beautiful Edward was dead.
He felt his father’s comforting touch on his shoulder before long.
‘Alfred, my little boy… there, there… my dear boy…’
‘I’m sorry, Papa,’ Alfred choked, trying to pull himself together.
‘No need… let it out… there’s no one to see you, only I. And when you’re done… will you tell me what pains you so? Alfred--’ Henry cut in before Alfred could protest more. ‘I promise I will do nothing to harm you, no matter what you could reveal to me.’
Alfred looked into his father’s eyes once his sobs ceded.
‘I don’t think you could forgive this disappointment.’
‘Try me,’ Henry said with an amused smile. ‘What, are you a criminal?’
‘No. Or, well—’ Alfred contradicted himself, sending Henry’s mind reeling but he showed no sign of shock outwards. ‘That’s not the point.’
Alfred debated how much he could say. And decided to trust his father.
‘I’m still deeply mourning. Drummond,’ he supplied for absolute clarity. Now that he spoke, he realised just how much he needed someone to know. He thought Wilhelmina understood but she was young and hadn’t experienced anything such as this before.
His father, however, did.
‘Oh, my boy… That is hardly something to be ashamed of. If anything, it speaks further to Drummond’s excellent good character.’
‘Yes. He was good. He was good,’ Alfred said and though he wasn’t weeping as he did in his childhood, he felt fresh tears cascaded down his cheeks. He knew his display of emotion was far too much for a simple friend of Drummond’s.
And Henry understood, having seen enough of the world, that this was more than the grief of a good friend. He had been heartbroken and seen heartbreak enough times to recognise it.
‘Was Drummond where your attentions had lain once?’ Henry asked as elegantly as he could manage.
If Alfred hadn’t been a mess, he might have dispersed the assumption with a witticism or two. But there was no denying it and he nodded, wondering if he had unleashed a storm on himself that was the last thing he needed at the moment.
But nothing like that came.
Henry squeezed his shoulders.
‘Well,’ he said, less surprised than he ought to have been, he supposed. ‘Your grief speaks equally highly of you and the love you felt for him. It is to be envied.’
Alfred looked up at his father astonished.
‘Envied? Papa I do not think I can go on. This is nothing to be envied.’
‘Not the pain. I imagine it must be torturous to hide it while his once fiancée probably can’t wait to shed her black dresses and find another man to marry. But you have known love, didn’t you?’
‘Did he return your sentiments?’
‘He did. But he—he— days after—in fact, we had just had an argument— I wanted to make amends but he—’ Alfred cursed his tears. ‘He was dead. He’s dead. Papa—’
Henry ignored the pain of his wooden leg and hugged his son.
Alfred made many muffled apologies as he was held by his father as if he had been a small child who had injured himself. When he was confident Alfred wouldn’t collapse, he released him and poured the two of them more brandy.
‘I’m sorry, Papa,’ Alfred said again, unnecessarily. But he felt he was expected to feel guilty or at least pretend so.
‘Well, I am quite disappointed,’ Henry paused for effect, before… ‘A Tory? Really, son…’
Alfred let out something that was at least the ghost of a laugh.
‘Drink,’ Henry advised, and Alfred did as told.
They settled in armchairs by the fire. Alfred stopped crying at last. For now, he supposed.
‘Tell you what,’ Henry spoke up after a while. ‘While I believe your sentiments were admirable and logical at the time, I do agree that marrying Miss Coke might be ill-advised.’
Alfred sighed resignedly. ‘Yes.’
‘We shall have to think of an excuse, and the sooner the better, before it is announced or widely known.’
‘She... she knows. Somewhat.’
‘Really? Ah, that’s her end of the bargain?’
‘In a way.’
‘Well, she is a friend indeed. But I do not think it a wise idea for her to be your wife also.’
‘As for now, if you would like to stay for the night or a few days, I will return to the room now and make your excuses, say that you have fallen ill.’
‘I must see Wilhelmina back to the Palace.’
‘Charlotte and I will do so.’
Alfred considered it and realised what a relief that would be. ‘Thank you. I would like to, then.’
‘Good,’ Henry stood. ‘I shall go and arrange things, then. And, you might perhaps consider taking some time off in Plas Newydd, if you’d like. I’m not suggesting you hide, nor that it is a solution. But perhaps it would do you good.’
Alfred nodded, endlessly grateful.
Before he left, Henry stopped and turned to his son once more.
‘We love you, Alfred. Do not ever forget that.’
Henry had left for almost an hour and Alfred was still sitting by the fire, enjoying the peace, quiet, and privacy that had been so hard to come by lately.
He thought about Drummond mostly, of course. The sight of him, his handsome face, the melody of his deep, reassuring voice, and the feel of his chiselled shoulders beneath Alfred’s palms was still vivid in his memory. He wondered if they would ever fade or disappear and wished so much against it. He wanted to move on because the pain of loss was unbearable, but he never wanted to forget a second of his time spent with Edward Drummond. And what little time they had been allowed. No, he wanted to cherish it. Keep it. Hold it close to his heart until the day he followed Edward.
But for now, beside all the pain, he knew he had love. The love of his friends, and the love of his family. And he felt lucky for it, if not happy just yet.