Leonora Nattrass

Historical Fiction and Non-Fiction About Georgian England


10 September 2022

Having watched the accession ceremony for King Charles III at St James’s Palace this morning, I thought it would be fun to post the original, deleted, first scene of Black Drop, written long before Laurence Jago found his own voice and was still a half-formed, third-person character. This opening scene finds Laurence in those same gilded halls of St James Palace, attending a Royal Drawing Room on the occasion of George III’s fifty-sixth birthday, in the thirty-fourth year of his reign.

Chapter One

Laurence Jago took a cautious step backwards, so that the shoulder of his embroidered suit touched the wall, then leaned back on his heels until the weight came off his feet. He could see other men around the high-ceilinged, sunny room doing much the same, but the women were prevented by their hoops, which obliged them to stand apart like islands in an archipelago, fanning strenuously in the heat. There was a gentleman from Hertfordshire to his left, almost fainting from his own audacity and the weight of his wig, but it was nothing to the burden of those dresses, encrusted with decoration like plate armour. If any lady was unfortunate enough to faint, she would be swallowed up by her own costume as abruptly as a sea anemone.

Laurence was about two thirds of the way along the great semi-circle of sweaty bodies, perhaps an hour away from the attentions of the King, and twenty minutes from the Queen who was working in the opposite direction. He wouldn’t speak to either, of course, but hang back while those with business, or merely the desire to be seen, pushed forwards. The Prince of Wales stood slightly apart from the proceedings, improbably resplendent in the red and gold uniform of the 10th Royal Hussars. His tall white plume nodded as he talked earnestly with Erskine the lawyer. They’d been tolerably good friends at one time but had fallen out over Tom Paine. The Prince was losing his Whiggish liberalism under the influence of events in Paris and seemed to be reproaching Erskine for something.

Queen Charlotte was closer now, speaking execrable French to a dowager Comtesse lately escaped from France. The old woman’s painted mouth gashed red in her white powdered face as she answered the Queen’s gracious enquiries about her journey. ‘My God,’ she said, probably too quick for the Queen to understand. ‘I heard the rumble of the tumbril behind me, all the way to Calais.’

‘Stand up straight, for God’s sake,’ a voice hissed in Laurence’s ear. It was Aust, the Permanent Under-Secretary, portly and sweating. ‘And take that vacant look off your face.’

Laurence snapped to attention, the obedient clerk, while Aust craned his neck to see over the women’s fantastic headgear. ‘Can you see our man?’

Laurence was half a head taller than Aust. ‘Over there.’ He nodded to the centre of the semi-circle. ‘Do you see Sir James? Mr Jay and his son stand next to him, rather plainly dressed.’

‘I hope that doesn’t speak of insolence.’

‘I believe not. Sir James said they were delighted at the prospect of meeting the King.’

‘And who is that giant of a man perspiring so freely next to them?’

‘Mr Philpott.’

 ‘The newspaper man?’ Aust’s grey eyebrows arched upwards. ‘I should not have pictured him anything like that. He looks like a farmer straight out of Wiltshire.’

 ‘Hampshire, I believe.’

 ‘I didn’t know he was arrived in England.’

 ‘He landed at Falmouth shortly after Mr Jay.’

 ‘Does Lord Grenville know he is here?’

‘I don’t know, sir.’

 Aust went off in search of the Foreign Secretary, trying to look inconspicuous. It wasn’t hard – George Aust was the greyest of grey men, grown old in His Majesty’s service. A courtier frowned, then realised who he was and shrugged. Aust had been attending these ceremonies longer than any of them, but they still needed to look twice to recognise him. Laurence watched as Aust found Grenville close by the door to the King’s private chambers. The Foreign Secretary had no doubt already alerted the King to the unexpected arrival of the American envoy, and the King would have rubbed his hands with satisfaction, for the arrival of so distinguished a man as John Jay put a decidedly different complexion on things.

What did Laurence know about Jay? Only that he’d been an indomitable force against the British in the American war, negotiated the peace of ’83, and helped frame their new Constitution. Also that he was a fine lawyer, not to be trifled with. He was decidedly no aristocrat, with his dark clothes and his own sparse powdered hair swept back from a domed forehead. His son Theodore was wearing a bob wig, but Laurence could see black hair curling out from beneath it. The young man had large dark eyes and a prominent nose. A kind boy, Laurence judged, and not long out of school. There was an unworldliness about them both that made him think they must be some sort of earnest believers.

The King was working his way towards the Jays without any hurry. Let them wait, Grenville had probably said, and feel their disadvantage. Accordingly, the King lingered with that old tartar Watkin Wynne and then with old Jenkinson. There was a Spanish Naval officer remaining to be introduced, and then the King was finally upon the Americans. Mr Jay bowed low, his son flushed scarlet. It was impossible to hear what was said from this distance, and the King always whispered in any case. Jay was looking the old creature direct in the eye now, probably searching for signs of madness, but he’d be disappointed. Only foreigners and the Prince of Wales still cared.

Now Mr Philpott, the newspaper man, was being presented. His voice rang across the room as he greeted the King in strident West-Country tones, and Laurence felt a shudder of distaste run through the smooth courtiers around him. ‘Yes sir,’ Philpott answered heartily, in response to some whispered enquiry. ‘He was a farmer, and I often earned a penny scaring crows from his corn as a boy.’ Another whispered question. ‘Damned atheists and jacobins, all of ’em.’ Philpott shook his red face at the King. ‘But don’t you worry, sire, William Philpott will best them yet.’

 Laurence suppressed a smile and stared at his buckled shoes as the Queen came close from the opposite direction, greeting the waiting company graciously. The gentleman from Hertfordshire stammered something about the harvest and the Queen shook her head with commiseration, then passed on, leaving him purple and speechless.

Sir James Burges was beckoning, and Laurence detached himself from the wall and slunk along behind the jewelled backs until he came up to where the delegation was standing. ‘Jago, have you seen Mr Pinckney?’

‘Yes sir. I believe I saw him leave the chamber a few minutes ago.’

‘Will you seek him out, and tell him that we are to hold a reception for Mr Jay this evening, and that he is of course welcome? Then I think you are at liberty to go back to work. I shall conduct Mr Jay and his son to their lodgings,’ Sir James bowed to them politely, ‘for they may find the way a trifle bewildering until they get their bearings. Mr Aust will return to the office presently, to supervise the preparations.’

 ‘Very good, sir.’ Laurence turned and escaped out into the corridor, hardly more noticed than a wraith, hardly more noticed than grey old Mr Aust. But he was used to his insignificance. Even the necessary woman in the Foreign Office sometimes looked up at him from her mop and pail as though she wondered who he was.