The Pretender

by: Laurence Sullivan1

A work of historical fiction that pits a family against itself and where loyalties are unceasingly tested…

I‘d never realized the destructive ability of a single piece of paper – until that moment. The letter seemed so innocuous in the hands of my servant, even more so lying on my side table. It wasn’t until I’d had breakfast and dressed, that I finally laid eyes on its contents. The letter was dated four days previous, the 16th of April 1743, and had evidently crossed the Scottish-English border with notable haste. The messenger who had delivered the dreaded thing remained downstairs, awaiting my reply before he would make his return to Scotland.

My sister’s hand was clumsy and the letter had either been written with extreme excitement, nervousness, or a mixture of the two. You see, my sister had married for love, much to the disapproval of our mother, but I had given my sister my blessing. As Viscount of Worcester, it was my decision whether my sister would be wed – and not our mother’s. So, my sister had elected to marry the Baron of Bannockburn, known as the Young Pretender throughout the land, the overseer of a backwards barony north of the border. Scotland had always been a rebellious nation, but now the Young Pretender was apparently primed to return – to rally his forces and attempt to usurp the throne of our king. The letter informed me that my beloved sister had fallen on the wrong side of that conflict and that she was happy to be there. My heart had been broken.

I sat atop my bed for a while, reading the letter several times but struggling with the text, as if it had been written in some foreign language. How could my sister believe in the right to rule of some Catholic, deposed, Scottish Prince? A so-called-‘Prince’ who had lived his entire life in Italy and France? It was at that moment I realised our mother had been right to demand the wedding be called off. My sister’s husband had clearly corrupted her ear, made her believe that fantasies of Scottish rule over this land could be a reality. I wasn’t sure if I now felt sick because of my sister’s betrayal, or the fact our mother had been right all along.

While every better instinct I had screamed against the idea – I knew I had to tell my mother what had happened. So, with untold reluctance, I lifted myself from my bed and moved towards the drawing room, where I knew Mother would be taking tea.   

I made sure to enter the room as if creeping into the reverent space of the Sistine Chapel. I stood for a while, motionless, gazing at the back of my mother’s head. She was clearly expecting guests later in the day, because she was adorned by the most ostentatious wig she owned. A sprinkling of the wig’s white powder had created a blanket of snow across the back of her armchair, an indication she’d had one of the servants re-apply it throughout the day. 

“Mother?” I breathed out the word, as if fearing I might wake a slumbering dragon.

My mother’s head titled listlessly in my direction. “What, Edward?”

I stuttered and stammered for a moment before finally getting out, “I’ve a letter.”

Mother made a strange guttural noise. “A letter?”

“Yes,” I began nervously, “from the Baroness of Bannockburn.”   

“My daughter?” Mother took a moment, as if considering her next words carefully. “What does that harlot want?”

“Mother, please. Can we not put the past aside, if only for a moment?” I stepped forward earnestly. “I fear Isabelle could be in danger.”

Mother turned her head towards me, beckoning me wordlessly to bring her the letter. I obliged, and she hastily devoured every word. Despite the animosity between my sister and mother, I could see in mother’s eyes a growing fear and concern for Isabelle. 

“The girl is a fool.”   

“But you understand my position, Mother? My duty to the king?” 

“The king?!” my mother bellowed, raising herself onto her feet and thrusting the letter back into my hand. “Your duty is to this family. You will destroy this letter and any memory you have of ever reading it!” With the swift motion of a hunting hawk, Mother grabbed the bell beside her tea tray and rang for her chambermaid, Ginny. Moments later the young woman entered the room with a polite curtsy to mark her arrival. “Ginny, would you fetch Fredrick for us? His Lordship wishes to speak with him urgently,” Mother said, indicating myself.

Ginny nodded and left the room.

“I wish to speak with Fredrick?” I asked, utterly bewildered.  

“Yes, you need to deal with that traitor of a messenger who brought this thing, before we do anything with the letter itself.”  

“How did you know he was still here?”  

“Are you an idiot, Edward?” Mother asked whilst placing her bell back down. “I’d tried ringing this earlier so cook might bring me some nourishment. Unfortunately, Ginny informed me that cook was busy providing refreshment for our ‘guest’.” 

“I’m sorry you encountered such inconvenience, Mother,” I said, as sincerely as I was able. “But what do you expect me to do with the man, exactly?”  

“Fredrick served your father, Edward. Discretion is his watch word,” Mother said, before breathing in deeply. “You are to order Fredrick to have our footmen imprison this vile postman.”   

“What?! Why?” 

“Your sister will be expecting word from you. If the messenger returns safely to Scotland, she’ll know you received the letter.” Mother turned the letter over and over in her hands, as she continued, “The only way we can protect this family is by playing the fool, we must deny all knowledge of ever receiving this.”

“Can’t we just bribe the man?”

“We cannot take the risk, Edward! Should he babble to your sister, anyone in her household could overhear. Then it would only be another whisper away from the baron, then the Pretender, until finally the king would hear of your deception!”     

“That’s quite a leap, Mother,” I began, carefully. “It’s very unlikely…”  

“Why take the risk at all?” Mother stormed towards me, her eyes flashing fire. After a moment she calmed herself, taking on a more saccharine tone. “We’re in a position of privilege, Edward. If the peasantry must suffer to protect out estate, then so be it.”   

“I thought you of all people would like to see Isabelle punished, Mother?” I said, and I could see in Mother’s face the pain I had instantly caused. “Or at the very least, her husband imprisoned and his titled stripped? If I send word to the king now that the Pretender is mounting a rebellion, the Crown could respond in time and nip it in the bud. The baron would be jailed and Isabelle returned to us. All I need do is re-write the letter in my own hand, and in keep with the date that it was originally sent. The king’s men would know no different, it would seem as if Isabelle were warning England, and not just us, of the impending invasion.” As I stopped speaking, I realised my mother hadn’t tried interrupting me once – which was utterly unprecedented.

“You do not know your sister, Edward,” was Mother’s curt reply.  

Seconds later, Fredrick entered the room and I let him know of Mother’s wishes as if they were my own. He seemed shocked, of course, but obliged and returned downstairs. 

“I did as I was bade, Mother,” I said, weakly.  

“Your sister’s loyalty is with her husband now, my dear,” Mother began, as she moved to me and lightly touched my shoulder. “If you went ahead with your plan, she would protect her husband’s honour and denounce you in front of the court. I am certain of it.”

“So you believe she truly is devoted to Scotland now?” I asked gravely.   

My mother nodded in reply. “Her heart is with the Pretender.”

Days past and I did my utmost to wipe the messenger from my mind. Mother continued to hold her small social gatherings and soirées in much the same fashion as usual, and I went about my business of managing the estate. At some length, I had forgotten about the whole sordid affair. That was until I awoke one morning to the sound of a carriage crossing over the gravel drive outside my window. I knew this was no ordinary visitation; Mother’s guests only ever came in the late afternoons and evenings, while any messages always arrived by horseback. For a moment, I thought it might have been the delivery of milk from our farm, but on looking out of the window I saw my original instinct had been correct. There was no simple horse cart to be seen on our driveway, but rather an illustrious carriage emblazoned with the emblem of Bannockburn.   

I dressed as quickly as I was able; it had been some years since I last had to perform the entire ceremony myself. I was just fixing my waistcoat when I heard Fredrick’s boots make contact with the gravel outside. I was woefully unprepared to see my sister and dreaded the thought that she may have her husband accompany her. Worse still, my sister was forever scolding me for my inability to wake up early, so I was intent on getting down to the dining room as quickly as possible to create the illusion I had been up for hours.  

Fredrick must have heard my clattering arrival into the dining room, for mere seconds later he escorted my sister in to meet me – her husband was not present at the event. It also occurred to me that Mother must have already had breakfast that morning, as a tray of stacked candied fruit remained in the center of the table.  

My sister sat down on the far side of the table – as far away as physically possible from me – then she gave Fredrick a curt nod of dismissal. The candied fruit between us seemed to absorb all the sunlight in the room like a pile of covetous jewels. All color seemed to exist solely within that mound of sweets and that only made my sister appear paler in contrast.   

“You look well,” I said, forcing a smile.   

“You haven’t replied to my letter, Edward,” my sister replied viciously.

“I never received—”

Isabella cut me short, “Don’t lie!”

“How did you—?”   

“How did I know? Is that what you were going to say?” Isabelle sneered, her voice rising and falling with demonic speed.

I nodded nervously in response.

“Mother, that’s how. She told me what you did, Edward.”

I sat in utter disbelief, unable to comprehend what was being said. “But it was Mother’s plan…” I mumbled, mainly to myself, as a way to ground me in this bizarre situation.   

“Am I supposed to believe that, Edward?” Isabelle slammed her palm on the table and then moved to stand up. “You have to pick a side, Edward. At least Mother was honest enough to admit she stood with the king.”   

I moved to stand up as well, a rising fury building in my belly. “We were trying to protect you! It was I who suggested we side with the king, not her!” 

Isabelle froze — her eyes wide open in disbelief. “So it is true?”   

“What?” I scoffed, throwing my hands in the air.

“I haven’t spoken to Mother about anything. I just suspected a sniveling coward like you would do anything she suggested.”

“You mean that was all just a shot in the dark?” I placed my hand on the table and lowered myself back into my seat.  

“I knew it, I knew you’d received my letter! I can’t believe you’d hide this from me…”   

“So you really haven’t spoken to Mother?”  

“No!” Isabelle bellowed from the other side of the room. “Why, why would you not reply? What have you and Mother been planning?”  

“Nothing, Isabelle. We haven’t picked a side and we’re not going to. You’re correct, we did suppress the letter. We couldn’t just hand our beloved Isabelle over to the king as a traitor, could we?” 

Isabelle said nothing in response — instead turning away from me. 

“What?! You expected me to side with the Pretender, Isabelle? To open my arms to some Scottish usurper?”

“I don’t know what I expected,” Isabelle whispered as if speaking to the wall.

A moment of silence followed, one which I believed would become suffocating, but it actually remained pleasantly peaceful. “I’m sorry, Isabelle.”  

Isabelle turned to me. “I know.”

“Did you really come all this way just to find out if I’d been snubbing you?” I asked.

“If you believed your only relatives had been snubbing you, wouldn’t you do the same?” Isabelle said, smiling weakly.

“We’re not your only relations — you’ve got your husband.” 

“I couldn’t very well let him know that I told you of the impending revolution,” Isabelle whispered in a gentle fashion. “He’d be furious.”

“You mean to say he knew nothing of the letter?”

“Exactly,” Isabelle declared.

“He does know you’re here, doesn’t he?”  

“No, he believes I’m still in Scotland. Visiting a friend.” 

At that very moment, Mother entered the room — flanked by two of our estate’s burliest footmen. 

“It’s wonderful to see you again, Isabelle,” Mother said, her voice sweet and melodious.

Isabelle instinctively stepped away from the door and closer to the center of the room. Her eyes flicked between Mother and I. “What is this?” Isabelle asked me.   

“I’ve no idea. Mother, what is this?” I asked, much like an innocent child.  

“I’ve got my daughter back in this house for the first time in four years,” Mother said, stepping towards Isabelle.  

“You wouldn’t dare…” Isabelle mumbled, leaning against the table for support.

A quick flick of Mother’s wrist saw that both footmen pressed their backs against the dining room door — making escape impossible.

I stood up, shouting at the footmen, “I am your lord and master! What are you doing obeying her?!”

Both men looked to my mother, who had a vile smirk spreading across her face. “Their loyalty is to the household, Edward, not you personally. Your mother knows best, after all.”

“You can’t do this!” Isabelle shouted, and she ran over to join my side.

“I will be damned if I let you cross the border back to that lecherous wretch, Isabelle!” Mother said, advancing on us both. 

“That man is my husband! I am the Baroness of Bannockburn, you cannot keep me here against my will, you vile old prune!” Isabelle grabbed the first thing at hand — a fistful of candied fruit — which she then launched at our mother’s head.   

Mother grabbed Isabelle’s arm and threw her callously in the direction of the footmen. “If you cannot be civil, dear, then you’ll have to spend some time away from polite society!” Mother flicked her wrist again and the two footmen grabbed hold of my sister.

As the men prepared to take Isabelle away, I’d expected her to scream and shout in protest. To my utter disbelief — she did neither. Instead, she just gazed horrified at our mother before allowing herself to be led away.

Mother turned to me, smiling warmly. “I’m sorry I didn’t warn you, Edward. She’ll come around in time. A mother will do anything to keep her children safe from harm.”

“Away from the Pretender, you mean?” I replied, nodding in agreement. 

“Goodness, no! That disgusting husband of hers, of course!” Mother held my hand tightly, her face alight with joy. “A mother always knows what’s best for her children.” Mother suddenly glanced down at the floor and the assortment of fruit now adorning it. “Goodness, would you look at this mess! I’ll have Ginny clean it up immediately.” With that, Mother left the room as quickly as she’d originally entered it.   

I stood utterly stunned for quite a while; long enough that by now Ginny entered the room with a dustpan and brush. We made eye contact only for the briefest moment, but in that second I could see how poorly she was judging me. I looked away, of course, as quickly as I was able — and hurried out of the room.   

I stood out in the main hall and could hear my sister sobbing faintly in the distance upstairs. My heart sank to unfathomable depths. I started moving forward and allowed myself to follow the sound of Isabelle’s tears as if they had been a siren’s call. As I made my way upstairs, I laid my hand softly against the cold and unforgiving stone banister for support. Mother must have been waiting for that moment to strike like a viper. How long must she have been listening to our conversation, and for what? Just to learn if Isabelle’s husband knew of her present location or not?

Once I reached halfway up the staircase, I could hear the footmen coming down the other way. I lost my nerve and dashed back down to the bottom. Mother could never keep Isabelle locked in her chamber forever, surely? Eventually the baron would have to find out?

The footmen both passed me on their way back to their quarters but neither paid me any attention. The very moment they were out of sight I steeled myself to return to my sister. I wanted to reassure her that I knew nothing of our mother’s deception, and that I would see her return safely to Bannockburn once I was able to make the necessary arrangements.

As soon as I returned to the staircase, Mother’s sickeningly sweet voice rang out — asking me to attend her in the library. The disharmony between my sister’s mournful melody and Mother’s saccharine song both played painfully to my heart. I knew there was only one way to conduct balance back into the household. After all, Isabelle was sure to come around eventually. Mother had said so.

I knew it was my duty to end all the discord using only trill two notes. “Coming, Mother!”

 

Laurence Sullivan was the runner-up for the Wicked Young Writer Awards: Gregory Maguire Award 2016, and his fiction has been published by such places as: Londonist, The List, Amelia’s Magazine, Literary Orphans and Crack the Spine. He became inspired to start writing during his studies at the universities of Kent, Utrecht and Birmingham – after being saturated in all forms of literature from across the globe and enjoying every moment of it.

  1. Header art, entitled “Sibling Rivalry” by Shellie Garber. []

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