Chapter 7 (Part 2)

Taking advantage of the current good relationship between the Islandian nations, Rewan and Maria Teresa had gone through the usual rituals typically required for a couple engaged in courtship: they danced several times at balls, exchanged private letters, and in December 1703 they attended the Christmas concert at Kemerin Abbey, where they were seated next to one another in a private balcony in which all the members of the nobility could see them. Aged 32 and 24 and each expected to provide future heirs for their respective countries, Rewan and Maria Teresa were expected to swiftly announce their intention to marry. It was rather a shock, therefore, when Rewan announced his plans to marry Gwendalynn Halop, a 19-year-old commoner from the Arden Forest, who was rumoured to be the daughter of a fallen woman.

There has always been a lot of confusion around the area of how Rewan and Gwendalynn actually met, but contemporary accounts paint a picture of Gwendalynn as a relentless social climber: naturally endowed with thick blonde hair, she constantly piled it on top of her head in imitation of noblewomen, often adorning it with false flowers and jewels. She seems to have been gifted with charm: at a time when appearance was treated almost as the sole determiner of a person’s social class, she was able to work her way into the good graces of her betters simply with her personality. She also happened to be very intelligent: she was an ardent reader of literary periodicals and newsheets, and had a habit of haunting the coffee houses of Nanico and the nearby town of Taernon, seeking out men on whom to practise her wit. A few short poems, anonymously sent to the editors of Rokesmith’s Magazine around this time, are thought to have been authored by her, and they are good. She had a phenomenal singing voice. There is a story that Rewan first caught sight of her when she was one of the singers in the Christmas concert he attended alongside Maria Teresa. The thought of the dreamy king being charmed by the young girl’s shiny curls and rendition of In Dulce Jublio is an enchanting one, and one that has featured in a number of poems and stories, but sadly has no basis in reality (although the quality of the all-male choir that year was reported in Rokesmith’s to have been ‘marvellous’). It is more likely that Rewan met Gwendalynn in some capacity at one of the royal residences; given Gwendalynn’s history, it is perfectly plausible that she had found some way of gaining employment within the royal household. It is also easy to see how her rustic prettiness and witty manner could have captured the attention of the king, whose attitude towards the upper-class delicacies of the noblewomen at court had never been favourable. History tells us that Gwendalynn was swift to act upon the king’s attentions.

But the details of Rewan and Gwendalynn’s courtship was very much a secondary issue in the aftermath of the announcement. The Arvintan royal family were evidently enraged by the idea that the King of Rowenia had rejected a perfect union with Maria Teresa in favour of an impulsive infatuation with a morally questionable common woman (who wore false jewels in her hair). Maria Teresa, despite the extensive list of well-bred alternatives vying for her hand, was said to be devastated, and when she died that winter her father chose to blame the outrageous King of Rowenia for breaking her heart, rather than the influenza epidemic currently ravaging the Arvintan capital. Before her death, her father raged and demanded why Gwendalynn could not simply be Rewan’s mistress. The two kings never met in person again, and Rewan, sensing the anger of his cousin, kept his letters unopened in a locked wooden box in his study. Although his advisors and ministers pleaded with him, Rewan could not be brought to even show that he cared, for he was completely under Gwendalynn’s spell. Taking this silence as an admission of guilt, King Octavius vowed to never enter into a diplomatic relationship with Rowenia again, even recalling the Arvintan ambassador from Kemerin. Later in the century a famous Arvintan poet wrote the tragic poem Euphrasia, which tells the story of a beautiful young princess whose heart is broken by a charismatic but emotionally sadistic foreign king. By the time the faithful Prince Octavius inherited the throne in 1732 in place of his dead sister, Arvinta had withdrawn back into its attitude of steely silence.  

Young Gwendalynn begged her fiancé for a marriage service in Kemerin Abbey, filled with pomp and ceremony. She wanted to be brought to the abbey in a golden carriage drawn by six white horses, and to wave to the people – her people – as they cheered. She would enter through the abbey’s ancient wooden door in her ornate wedding dress, which would be made by the country’s best seamstresses, and its patterns destroyed afterwards so that no one else would ever be able to replicate its beautiful lace. Rewan, receptive to her pleas, similarly pestered his ministers to organise such an occasion, ignoring the fact that they were busy trying to resolve the political crisis with Arvinta. In the end, however, public opinion remained so hostile to Gwendalynn that the royal couple were forced to settle for a private wedding ceremony in the palace’s chapel, attended only by the king’s immediate family.

After the marriage, the couple embarked on a policy of careless diversion. Their days were composed of parties, balls and entertainments, Rewan having effectively retired from politics. During these early years of the eighteenth century, Rewan became something akin to a born-again religious zealot, worshipping at the altar of Gwendalynn: he frequently insisted that Court folk ‘do not know what Living is’, insisting on the benefits of a purer, traditional life according to pastoral ideals, and became an avid reader (and occasional writer) of Georgics. He also artifically adapted a number of Ardenisms (or rather, what he thought of as such) from Gwendalynn’s idiolect into his speech, rolling his ‘r’s and omitting words he did not deem crucial for his meaning. This was despite the regular bafflement of his advisors, who were typically unanimous in their assertion that the King’s new mode of speech resembled no language spoken by man. Several times, he announced his intention to renounce the courtly circle once and for all in favour of a life of simplicity and philanthropy, despite his ongoing lavish spending in pursuit of the sophisticated pleasures only to be found in the inner circle of the Kemerin elite.

Once, alongside his clumsy Georgics, the King even wrote a book, which he termed a ‘manual’, in which he lectured the Rowenian peasantry on how to live a life of complete inner fulfilment in harmony with nature. Much to the embarrassment of the Court, one autumn morning he arrived in Taernon in a golden carriage to personally oversee its distribution, accidentally running over several market stalls in the process. Rewan insisted that these honest, glowing countryfolk (who were unable to read Rewan’s book due to the poor quality of schooling in the Arden Forest at that time) were the only people in the world who truly understood him. As he left the town, the carriage flattened a display of wares outside a tailor’s shop, and, seemingly deaf to the furious howls of the townspeople behind him, Rewan cheerily remarked to his secretary, “My Lord Perry, the air of this place does me a world of good! On many an occasion I have thought I should pass the sum of my life here.”

The apparent catalyst of these epoch-shifting beliefs showed no particular interest in pursuing a simpler existence. On the contrary, Gwendalynn had concluded that a courtly life filled with riches and entertainments suited her perfectly, and this routine continued for over twenty years. Rewan became more fanatical in his beliefs and neglectful in his duties with every passing season, though most of his contemporaries were adamant that the court had not become any less refined or luxurious as a result.

Having put breeding on hold to accommodate their lifestyle, the couple’s only child, a daughter, was not born until 1725; it was a windy midwinter day that also marked the death of the child’s mother. Rewan was allegedly hysterical with grief, and for days refused to acknowledge the child whom he claimed had murdered its mother. One evening a few days later he viciously attacked a servant whom he overheard making the suggestion that the baby had been Gwendalynn’s final child of many. For most of that first week, he remained closeted in his study, where he ate, slept, and spent hours staring out of the window at the lake in the palace grounds, which was completely frozen over with an opaque milky crust.

Whilst her father attempted to cope with his grief, his infant daughter was cared for in the royal nursery. At birth she became the Crown Princess of Rowenia, Thurin and Sarin, and although no one in her family had yet hinted at what her name was to be, she was known by the servants as ‘Little Gwen’ because of her striking resemblance to her dead mother. That is not to say that she had very much family: her father’s parents were both dead, and his brother and sister were respectively estranged and mad. Her mother’s parents and several siblings were scattered haphazardly across the Arden Forest, but were forbidden from entering the royal palace because it was feared by the absent king’s secretary that they might try and steal the silver. According to a few surviving accounts, however, it is possible that this lack of visitors could have been a good thing. The baby tirelessly screamed throughout the day and night, and remained dissatisfied with its state of existence despite the constant attempts to feed, change, rock, hold or otherwise placate her into contentment. The emotional young servant girls who cleaned the rooms around the nursery explained tearfully that the poor child was pining for her lost mother and would remain inconsolable. These girls would sometimes be allowed by the nurse to crowd around the child’s cradle and systematically weep together at the tragic spectacle, similarly to how in their spare moments they would read aloud from sentimental novels in order to induce extended communal sessions of recreational sobbing. In that year, in fact, there was a noticeable increase in the number of novels and poems that glorified the figure of the unloved aristocratic orphan, and over the next few years many of the less respectable newssheets and periodicals remained captivated by the titillating true story of the virtuous princess who was shut up in a tower at the palace, neglected by her miserly father, whose grief had apparently paralysed his moral sensibilities. This tear-encrusted story was economical with the truth even at its inception in the mouths of the emotional servant girls, but over the next few weeks it would become blatantly absurd. The most famous story to come out of this was Sir Jason Herring’s epistolary novel, Eleanora; or, A Tale Regrettably True.

However, a few weeks after her birth, King Rewan was finally persuaded by his secretary to see his daughter in the nursery. Still resentful and reluctant, he had visibly lost weight, and his greying hair had lost what had remained of its original reddish hue. After a number of rather pathetic attempts to delay the visit, he was led into the nursery by the child’s nurse. To the astonishment of everyone involved, the princess had chosen that afternoon to take a repose from her hitherto uninterrupted programme of screaming, and when her father first saw her she was sleeping peacefully in her cradle. The records of this moment are undoubtedly exaggerated, but all describe the delicate clarity of the baby’s complexion and the perfection of her fair hair. Her features continued to resemble those of her mother, without the roughness, though there was allegedly something about her proud nose and chin that identified her unmistakeably as a member of the royal family. As in all sentimental stories concerning infants, she was clothed entirely in white, and her cradle lay in the middle of a bright shaft of sunlight that somehow failed to awaken her.

Rewan looked at his daughter, and it was as though the emotional servants’ contagion had been passed on to him. After a few seconds of blank staring he broke down completely, falling to his knees and sobbing into his hands. Servants rushed forward to assist him, but he waved them away. The commotion did nothing to disturb the angelic child, and her father spent the rest of the day sitting beside his daughter’s cradle, staring into her face, even after she awoke and presumably resumed her screaming. He ate his meals sitting beside her, and probably would have fallen asleep there had he not been virtually carried to his bedchamber.

This new routine continued for the next few days. Though he spent most waking moments sitting beside his daughter, he was not what you might call a ‘doting’ parent – contemporary accounts admit that he rarely held her or even spoke to her, much less attended to any of her physical needs – but was simply captivated by her, like one possessed. The subsequent consensus, of course, has been that whilst still in the grieving process Rewan saw his dead wife’s face in the child’s features and wished to spend all his time taking in that image. He, too, insisted that the child’s restlessness was a product of her distress at having had her mother so cruelly snatched from her at birth, and it seems he resolved that he had no other choice than to ensure that he, as her father, would be everything that her mother and her countless absent relations should have been.

The following week, Crown Princess Gwendalynn Augusta Sophia Matilda of Rowenia, Grand Duchess of Sarin and Thurin, was christened in a glorious ceremony at Kemerin Abbey. Packed with guests, with the ordinary people clogging the city’s streets for miles, the christening seemed to be Rewan’s attempt to organise the magnificent wedding his wife had wanted so many years before. However, as the first royal child born in decades, the princess had no need to fear hostile crowds or poor public opinion. Throughout Rowenia and all its territories, souvenirs were sold to commemorate the momentous occasion, there was a national holiday, and parties were held in the streets. The child’s godparents were selected from among the most eminent and virtuous members of the aristocracy, and all held a similar opinion regarding her first name.

Rewan had been told multiple times that the child should not be named after her mother. The name ‘Gwendalynn’ was a corruption, unique to the Arden Forest, of the ancient Arvintan name ‘Gwendolyn’; the name of unified Arvinta’s first official sovereign. To Arvinta, of course, the name was an additional insult to Rewan’s rejection of Crown Princess Maria Teresa: the Arvintan royal family already seemed to believe that Rewan had been deliberate in his selection of a bride whose name, with its strange ‘a’ and vulgar double ‘n’, mocked a magnificent Arvintan legacy. To give a future queen this name, thereby consolidating the slight even more permanently in the pages of history, was blatantly and horrifically insulting, and would not be forgiven.

But Rewan was determined to name his daughter after her mother, who should be immortalised. The reason that the princess had so many given names, according to an outdated biography, is that Rewan would placate the child’s godparents by promising to include their own suggestions in her full name, but this is doubtful. One of the godparents, Lady Sophronia White, wrote in a letter that during the ceremony, the Archbishop of Lenarood’s voice took on a barely-concealed attitude of distaste as he pronounced the name ‘Gwendalynn’, emphasising the ‘a’ and lengthening the final syllable, as if to demonstrate the very un-regal origins of the name. Rewan never could abide being in the same room as the Archbishop again.  

Published by CuriousWriter

Read and you will find out.

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