Margaret stood nervously outside the great, gilded doors, thankful for the sturdiness of Nigel’s arm beneath hers as they prepared to go into the palace before them. Her other arm was at her side, her fingers curled around Poppy’s hand. Margaret turned and looked at Nigel, smiling tentatively.
They had dressed in their best clothes for this momentous occasion: Margaret in a fine silk gown with her hair elegantly dressed; Poppy in a pale blue, lacy affair that set off her blonde curls; and Nigel in his uniform with his newest medals pinned carefully in place. Her father, standing just behind them, was in his own best, looking up at the great door with equal trepidation.
“Do we look quite presentable?” she asked in a soft voice. “Will you be proud to be seen with us, Sir Nigel?”
He smiled at he mischief in her voice. “A man could not be more proud.”
Only a few days before, Margaret had stood by his side in the intimate company of a few other officers while the honour of a knighthood had been conferred upon him by his commanding officer. They had expected to wait much longer for such an honour, if it was to come at all, considering how parliament was required to sign-off on such matters before the prince regent could give his approval. In the end, however, hardly any time at all had passed. Parliament had heard a passionate plea from one of their former members, a Lord Somerville, on behalf of his son-in-law. And when an attempt was made to investigate the history of Nigel Bateson, the same folder of flattering reports that had earned him his position in society was produced again.
Margaret could not be more proud. When she had watched him receive the knighthood, she had almost burst with delight. He was such a quiet, good man – he had only proved himself more worthy as they’d embarked upon married life together – and she believed he deserved everything that had been given to him.
Today’s visit had been a surprise as well, an invitation meant to catch them before they left London and returned to Cornwall for the season. The message had been written on elegant, gilded paper, inviting the ‘newly knighted Sir Nigel’ to a meeting in the great palace. Family had been invited to accompany him, and so they found themselves here, waiting to be admitted into the inner chamber.
A footman appeared at the door, beckoning them inside at last. The four followed silently. Margaret felt her heart beating in her throat. They came to a great room hung with tapestries, a plush rug upon the marble floor, and the most lovely furniture she had ever seen. There was a retinue of people gathered about, but it was impossible not to look at the main attraction, the couple sitting together in the centre of the room.
Princess Charlotte was quite pale, her hair worn with a middle parting, brown curls framing her face, with a crown sitting towards the back of her head. She wore a gown that seemed to be made of silk, with decidedly old fashioned puffs in the sleeve. Even so, she managed to appear grand and delighted by their appearance, her eyebrows arched in interest. Beside her, the prince regent sat stick-straight, in uniform, with his high collar completely concealing his jawline. He had curling dark hair, thick side-whiskers, and the posture of one looking down his nose, even though he was seated.
Margaret allowed Nigel to take the lead. He walked forward and bowed deeply. Elegantly, Margaret followed suit with a deep curtsy of her own and sensed rather than saw her father bow behind her. Poppy clung to her hand, looking nervously about, and gave a little curtsy when Margaret encouraged her to do so.
“We are so very glad that you found time to meet with us,” Princess Charlotte said warmly. Margaret could not help thinking how ridiculous it was that the princess was behaving as though it was an honour conferred upon royalty that Nigel had agreed to come.
“It was an honour to receive your letter,” Nigel said in a deep voice, as though reading Margaret’s mind.
“I have heard about you,” the prince regent said in a high voice. “Your case was brought before me quite recently, I believe. Your knighthood seems greatly deserved. It is so common these days to see the honour going to the highest bidder. It is gratifying to instead be able to offer it as a gift to one truly deserving.”
Margaret saw Nigel’s composure, but knew him well enough to understood what the praise meant to him.
“It was an honour to serve my country,” he said.
“You saved the life of a friend of mine,” Princess Charlotte said with a warm smile. “I understand that you are well connected with a certain Major Moorhouse?”
“I am,” Nigel said, bowing his head in acknowledgement. “He is a close friend of mine.”
“Yes, he is a worthy gentleman,” she said, a sparkle of amusement in her statuesque face. “He has spoken glowingly of you, and I must say that if you were indeed responsible for his life being saved, we are eternally indebted.”
“Whatever heroism might have been involved,” Nigel said quietly, “has been fully repaid by now.”
The prince regent beckoned for Nigel to draw near. “I hear that you are a landowner in Cornwall now. Tell me how your tenants are faring there. Has the drought hurt them this year, or did you suffer? You too, Lord Somerville.”
As Nigel and Lord Somerville stepped forward to answer him, Margaret caught the princess’s eye. She waved Poppy and Margaret over, and then patted gently at the couch nearest her as though to invite them to sit. Margaret thought about how shocked Amanda would be by the recounting of the story – imagine, being invited to sit down with the princess for a little casual conversation whilst the prince regent discussed crop patterns with her husband.
“I am most gratified that you came as well today,” she said warmly. “You know, these meetings of state can often be such a bore, but you walked in today with a child – most unexpected.”
“Is it all right that I brought her?” Margaret asked quietly.
The princess only smiled in response and turned to Poppy. “Tell me, love, what is your name?”
Poppy crossed her little hands with endearing propriety and answered in clear tones. “I am Miss Penelope Bateson,” she said promptly, “but you may refer to me as Miss Penelope if you like.”
Margaret was horrified at this familiarity, but the princess only laughed. “It has been some time since someone has told me what title I ought to adhere to,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “You present yourself quite properly, Miss Penelope, and I will add that you have a way about you that I find most courageous. Tell me, what do you intend to do while you are in London?”
“We came to see my papa get a knight,” Poppy said. It had taken some explaining to tell her what exactly a knighthood meant, and Margaret hid a smile at the realisation that all their explanations had really done little good.
“Ah,” the princess said with an answering smile. “And after this meeting today? What will you do?”
“I suppose,” Poppy said brightly, “that since I am already in London I will find a man in uniform to marry, just like mama.”
It was completely unexpected, and Margaret found herself speechless with surprise and laughter. The princess laughed, delighted. She turned and looked at the prince regent and then leaned over and spoke in a confidential undertone to Poppy. “Do you see that I had the very same idea with our most venerable Prince Leopold? He is a man in uniform, and he has served me as well as your papa seems to have served your mother.” She raised her eyes to Margaret’s face. “You have chosen well for yourself, dear. I have asked after your history, and it is my understanding that Sir Nigel came from rather humble beginnings.”
Margaret nodded. “He has made a name for himself.”
“Not all would consider that a good thing,” Princess Charlotte said quietly. “Unfortunately, not everyone understands how well it speaks of a man who is willing to work hard to raise his station. I know that it is considered presumptuous by some.”
“And by you?” Margaret asked. “What do you think?”
Princess Charlotte smiled. “I think that a good man is a good man, whatever his beginning.”
When their interview drew to a close, Margaret looped her arm into Nigel’s again and walked outside in a glow of happiness. She waited to speak until they were settled in the park across the street, quite out of earshot of the footmen and guards all around. She turned to Nigel and smiled.
“Did you ever expect that?” she asked. “In all your life, did you think that you would be chatting with the prince regent about the effect of the current weather patterns on your property?”
Her father cleared his throat and said gruffly. “I have something to say to you, young man.”
Margaret and Nigel both turned to look at him. Poppy was sitting at his side, holding her grandfather’s hand. Lord Somerville’s serious face was strained under some hidden emotion, and Margaret thought for a moment she could see a shimmer of tears in his eyes.
“I had so many opinions about you, Sir Nigel,” he said to his son-in-law. “I took you for nothing more than a gamekeeper’s son. But now I see that I was fortunate to know the gamekeeper’s humble son, for he has done more with his life than I ever did. This day, meeting the prince regent and watching my daughter talk easily with Princess Charlotte, is an honour I will cherish for the rest of my life. I am proud of you.”
“The knighthood was indeed a blessing,” Nigel answered humbly.
“No,” Lord Somerville interjected. “Not because of that. I am proud of you because you treat my daughter well, and because you are a good man.” He shook his head and dropped his gaze to his hands. “You do not know – I asked after Lord Waddington when he stopped appearing at our official functions. Apparently, there was some scandal with a woman in a foreign country – a woman who was not married to him but connected to him nonetheless – and an investigation of the scandal showed that the gentleman had chosen to escape overseas to avoid military duty. He is a coward, and apparently a bankrupt one at that. I knew that there were unsavoury things in his past, but I have evidence now that he would have continued those actions had I allowed him to marry my daughter. I shrink to think of it now, and to compare your current happiness with what might have been…”
“We don’t need to speak of it,” Margaret said quickly, pressing her daughter’s hand in her own. “The world before us is all happiness, and we need only look on the past for purposes of illuminating our present joys.”
Lord Somerville fell contentedly silent, his hand still pressed in his daughter’s. Poppy leapt up from her place at his side and stood before them, curtsying again and bobbing her head down.
“I liked the Princess Charlotte very much,” she said soberly, as though they had asked her review of the entire event. “But I think you’re much prettier, Mama, and your dress was better. Do you think you ought to give her the name of your tailor?”
Margaret let out a laugh and Nigel joined in. Together, they drew their daughter to them, and Nigel kissed her on the cheek before turning to Margaret with gentle eyes and saying, “You know that I agree with you, Poppy. Your mother is the most beautiful of all.”
He leaned in for a kiss.