Prologue: A Memory

January 1788


His voice is cracked and worn, like old leather, like fluttering autumn leaves. He says: I have come to believe, my dear, that there are no beginnings to any stories, only more stories and more stories, and on and on, to the beginning of time, until there is only God. I am no theologian, my dear, but God is, I think, the first storyteller.

The young woman at his bedside smiles and grips his hand, tells him: You needn’t speak so much, father. I know the stories. I know. I’ve spoken with dear Mr. Goring so often about the stories. I have read the journals and letters. I know it all.

But the old man will not be silent; he smiles and sits up in his bed with great effort. He is sick, his body exacting a final price for the years of abuse it has received, the excesses of a life given to colossal drinking sprees, absurd bouts of gluttonous eating, weeks without sleep. So now the old man is sick, wasted, dying, and he says: I must tell you the beginning. You know the ending and you know the middle, but you need to know the beginning. The old man wheezes softly, a late September breeze whistling between his teeth. He repeats: I must tell you the beginning, if I can decide what the beginning might be.

He falls back on the sheets and closes his eyes. The young woman, his daughter, still holds his hand and hears a noise: the door opening. Another old man enters the room, rail-thin, dignified bearing, white hair falling to his sloping shoulders, his face creased with a lifetime of care and sorrow. His eyes, though, are bright and clear in his old face, and the young woman sees sympathy and concern there. Her father’s eyes are still closed and she speaks to the thin man on the other side of the room: I think he sleeps, Mr. Goring. And Goring nods, smiles sadly. The young woman holds out her free hand to Mr. Goring and he crosses the room, his step steady though stiff. He takes her hand. The young woman says: He is dying, of course. He does not have much time left. And Goring nods again, squeezes her hand.

A fit of coughing from the bed startles the young woman and Mr. Goring. They both look to the dying man and see him grinning. He makes a sound, a rasping, wheezing series of grunts they somehow recognize as laughter. The old man says: I am dying, my dear daughter; my dear Goring. But I am not dead yet and until I am, please act as if I am still alive. His daughter and Mr. Goring smile down at the sick old man and she squeezes his hand again. The old man in the bed speaks once more: I said I wanted to tell you about the beginning if I can decide what the beginning might be. I think I know how to begin. Mr. Goring, would you be so kind as to fetch writing materials?

Goring replies: Of course, your Majesty.

The old man in the bed shakes his head, says: You mustn’t call me your majesty any longer, Henry. You are my oldest friend, and when I die, it will be as your friend, Charles, not some ridiculous kinglet.

Goring nods, murmurs: Of course, Charles. The name falls strangely from his lips, so unused to calling the old man by his name.

The old man speaks again, grips his daughter’s hand with a force which belies his frail, sick appearance. He says: To go to the beginning would take too long, you see. The beginning might lie with Christ’s ascension to heaven, when He left without telling us how to best worship him. It might begin with Popes and heretics and sinners and saints, trying to live in Christ’s name in the best way, blindly groping for clarity, for truth.

He takes a breath and his daughter interrupts, says with a smile: I thought you were no theologian. The old man laughs again, and again the rasping noise rattles through his chest and his daughter thinks: He laughs like a skeleton, like Death himself enjoying a joke. She shivers.

He speaks again: I cannot tell this story without involving God, or at least, involving the men who claim to know His mind and do His will. I am trying to find a beginning; a starting point for you to understand my life and my choices and my folly. My mistakes. I want you to understand, my dear. You must understand. She nods and Mr. Goring, who has returned with pen and ink and paper, silently moves an ornate, gilded chair to the bedside. The young woman breathes her thanks and the old man continues: I want you, most of all, to understand. I cannot give you back the years I was absent, I cannot restore a father to your childhood memories. So I wish to give you understanding. The young woman nods again.

The old man takes a deep, rattling breath, tries to focus. He says: Perhaps this is a beginning. Once, many years ago, the King of England is married to a princess of Spain whose nephew is the King of Spain. It is a good marriage for the English King: the alliance with Spain is useful and the Spanish princess is the widow of his brother, Arthur, so their marriage seals his claim to the throne in the wake of his brother’s death.

The old man pauses and his daughter speaks: I know about King Henry VIII, father; I know about his wives and his break with the true Church in Rome.

He looks at her sharply, says: True church? I know nothing of true or false churches. There is the Church of Rome; there is the Church of England; there is the Eastern Church, with their icons and strange saints. There are churches of various descriptions and creeds, the Kirk in Scotland with its fanatics and the Coptic Church in Egypt and how do we know? He is wheezing now, but finishes his thought: How do we know the true Church, my dear?

His daughter shakes her head, says: I do not know, father. I have been a Catholic from birth.

He chuckles softly, the rasp of metal on stone, says: I as well, my child. And is our way the best? Is it?

She shakes her head again, gently says: I am sorry for interrupting you, father. You were finding the beginning.

His eyes refocus and he sighs, speaks: Yes, of course. The beginning. Where was I?

His daughter smiles at him, prods: King Henry VIII, father.

And he looks surprised, murmurs: Good heavens! Was I muttering about Henry VIII? Whatever for, I wonder?

Goring is seated now, writing materials at the ready, and they all wait in silence for a few moments, the sounds of the Piazza de Santi Apostoli drifting in through the windows: street vendors cry their wares, horses and carts clatter on the cobbled stones, flower girls sing as they wander the street. Charles looks up.

He says: Henry, why do you suppose my father named me Charles?

Goring considers, replies: It is a family name, old friend. It seems natural.

The old man in the bed is not satisfied with the answer: It is a family name, but it is an unlucky name. My great-grandfather Charles was beheaded by Parliament. That has never happened to any other monarch in these isles. They have died on the throne, been murdered and assassinated – my ancestor James I of Scotland died like vermin in the sewer under his castle at the hands of assassins! Yes, Stuart monarchs have been deposed and exiled and executed by their relatives, like the story of Elizabeth and poor Mary, but only my great-grandfather Charles has been legally executed on the authority of Parliament. Why would anyone bestow such a legacy on a child?

Goring says: I do not know.

The old man in the bed continues: My Sobieski great-grandfather, John: now he was a man to name a son after, especially if the expectation is that the son will lead men and win victories. John Sobieski saved all of Europe. Goring nods; the sick man looks to his daughter, says: Did you know that, my child? His daughter nods and he smiles, satisfied, speaks again: Descended from the line of John Sobieski . . . that is something, my dear. I don’t leave you much, but that is something, or should be something.

The room is quiet again and the sick old man in the bed lets his eyes slip shut again. His breathing is shallow and hollow and increasingly there is an ominous rattle. He breathes and his very bones seem to shudder. His body, so recently grotesque in its obesity is rapidly diminishing, bones beginning to protrude: shoulders, elbows, fingers all becoming angular and strange. The young woman and old Mr. Goring look at him and take in his decline, his wasting away.

His eyes snap open, clear and focused. He says: Goring, my old friend, Henry Goring. Help me tell this story, will you?

And Goring smiles his sad smile and replies: What story, Charles?

The sick old man in the bed becomes very serious and he answers Mr. Goring: Every story, Henry. Every last story there is to tell about me.

Mr. Goring responds just as seriously: That will take some time, Charles.

And his daughter speaks at the same time, says: And I know the stories, father. I know. You’ve been telling them since I came to live with you, more than three years ago. You should rest. Speaking so much taxes your strength.

The sick old man smiles and stares up at the canopy over his bed, says: You know the stories, my dear? And you, Henry?

They both nod and he continues: Then tell them to me. Tell me the stories as I die so that I can try to understand them myself, so I can understand myself. When I meet God, I should like to have a good answer when He asks about my conduct on Earth.

He chuckles and the wheezing, rasping, scraping sound in his chest suggests that he won’t survive the telling. But he insists, and when Mr. Goring asks if there is a beginning, the sick old man says softly: You must start at the end, Henry. If the ending is the beginning, it will all make sense, I think.

Goring asks: The end, Charles? Forgive me, but are we not living the end right now? A hard look slips into the sick old man’s eyes, a look that Goring recognizes from years before, the look of his old friend seeing to the heart of a question, seeing it and knowing the answer through pure instinct.

The dying man says: Henry forgive me, but don’t pretend to be stupid. You know the ending very well. You were there, too. The young woman looks at her father and then at Mr. Goring. Something passes between them, something filled with melancholy and longing, something so sorrowful that she must stop herself from weeping; she stifles a sob. She cannot stand to look at the face of either man, so she does not see the tears on Mr. Goring’s cheeks or in her father’s eyes; she can only hear them when Mr. Goring begins to speak with a voice broken with decades of regret.

She hears a lifetime of second-guessing and despair and self-recrimination when Mr. Goring begins, softly, says: If the beginning is the end, or the end the beginning, then for this story that can only mean one time, one place. Can you listen to me tell it, Charles?

A sob fights its way free from the sick old man’s chest and is followed by a great shuddering sigh. And then, softly, the dying man speaks: I’ve lived with it all these years, Henry, always there, always . . . always. But I’ve never faced it, truly faced what it meant and what it means and what it goes on meaning. I must, though. I must. Something tells me, Henry, that I must face it again if I hope to die with any measure of peace. So tell it, Henry. Tell me and tell my daughter. Tell us about April 16th, 1746. Tell us about Culloden Moor. Tell us about the beginning. And the end. Tell it, Henry.

April 16th, 1746

Culloden Moor, Scotland

The red-faced, red-haired officer screams at the young man on horseback, warns: Y’ hae ta move back, Charlie!

And Charles Edward Stuart stares blankly at the officer. Who is that? Is it O’Sullivan? Lochiel? The noise is immense: the government artillery continues to blast away at the Jacobite formations, carving massive gaps in the lines of ragged troops. The left of the Jacobite line has broken, and the Highland charge, so fearsome and deadly at Prestonpans and Falkirk, crumbles on the bayonets of the government troops. The Jacobite forces hold in a few places, but all over the field the government troops push them back, and the Highlanders, exhausted, nearly starved, undersupplied, fall back from the field with stunning speed. The freezing rain and sleet which has fallen all morning blows into Charles’ face, blinding him. He thinks: Charlie? Only O’Sullivan would call me Charlie. The ruddy officer is approaching, still shouts his warning.

Charles pulls himself out of the daze and recognizes: John William O’Sullivan, his quartermaster. He shouts back: Go where, John? My place is here with the men. They’re dying, John, and I mean to stand and die with them if I must!

Charles pulls on his horse’s reins, hard, tries to move up toward the front. The horse does not move. Men stream past him, stumbling, running toward the rear. Their blank faces terrify Charles; the battle is slipping away. His invincible Highlanders are losing, they are running, and the impending defeat is in danger of becoming a panicked rout. Charles tugs on the reins again and looks down. Henry Goring, his aide-de-camp, holds the reins in a firm grip.

Goring’s face is stricken, and even through the driving rain, Charles sees that Goring is weeping, sobbing as he speaks: No, Charles. I can’t let you ride back to the front.

A cannonball lands only a few feet away, spraying dirt and rock into the air. Charles’ horse whinnies, wide-eyed, and shies away. Goring holds tight to the reins. O’Sullivan repeats Goring, implores: We canna win here t’day, my bonnie lad. Best ta gie ol’ Cumberland tha slip an’ carry on another day, Charlie. O’Sullivan speaks Charles’ name with a tenderness at odds with the chaos around, as bloody and battered men continue to stream back, back, away from the front, away from the terrible cannon and muskets and bayonets of the government troops. O’Sullivan speaks again, says: Charlie, I love ye, laddie. Ye know I do. And ye canna go back to the front, Charlie. We need ye beyond t’day. The men need ye. Scotland needs ye. And you’ll do none of us any good, dyin’ on this killing field or findin’ yersel’ executed in that bluidy Tower in London.

Charles wonders: Why is he saying this? Has even John turned against me . . . ? And his thoughts are foggy. His mind feels like mud, like the cold, squelching mud churned up by the hooves of horses and the feet of his retreating men. He thinks: I am so tired . . . so tired. Perhaps I should ride away with John and Henry and . . . No!

Charles screams into the icy wind: No! I won’t go now! I will not!

Some of the retreating men see their Prince straining to turn his horse back to the fight; they pause in their flight. Charles sees them, sees them looking at him, expectant. The thunder of musketry and artillery fades to a dull buzz in his ears as Charles looks into their faces and sees those same faces, at Prestonpans, at Falkirk. At Glenfinnan. And he pulls his horse away from Goring’s grip, rides a few paces toward the front. More men pause. Their prince is not running.

Charles raises his voice, cries out: Rally! He can barely hear his own voice above the ferocity of the battle, but he repeats: Rally! In the name of God! I pray, rally and stand with me, your Prince, but a moment longer!

The retreating men stare blankly into his face. A stray musketball whistles through the air and buries itself in back of the head of the man who stands directly in front of Charles. His head explodes, blood and brains and bone spray his companions. The man’s body pitches forward, face-first, into the mud at Charles’ feet.

The men begin to run again.

The sight nearly overwhelms Charles; he sways in the saddle as despair rockets through him. He cries, desperate: Rally to me! Stand with me! Oh, God, if you run you ruin your country and yourselves!

But the men run, pursued by a devouring fear. They ignore Charles, or perhaps they do not hear him as they are driven by such a terror that they can only think to move away from the horror of the front lines. The battle is now a rout and the men run past Charles, senseless of anything but the need to run, to escape. They throw down their weapons and flee heedless into the grim gray afternoon.

Charles watches them run. He feels Goring’s hand on the reins again; he turns to Goring for a moment, then back to the retreating men, breathes out a final prayer: Oh God! Oh God, forgive them. Forgive me.

Charles closes his eyes and listens. The wind blows in his face, brings the sounds of the battle, the screams and shouts of the dying, the officers commanding, the horses neighing, the artillery thundering, the muskets chattering. He thinks: No! No! I won’t go! I’ll die here, with my men. He feels Goring pull on the reins, and he gives a weak tug, tries to pull the reins away. Goring holds fast and mounts his own horse. Charles’ only thought is a single word: No!

When he next speaks, Charles is almost manic. He screams: No, Goring! I’d rather die here. I cannot fail! I cannot! Charles’ voice is ragged, exhausted, choked.

Goring looks grim, says: Your death accomplishes nothing, Charles.

Charles grins in reply, wild and fey: I make my own choices, Henry. Give me the reins.

But Goring, intractable, holds tight to the reins.

Charles, the wildness of his smile passing to his bright eyes, slowly draws a pistol from his belt, says: You’ll release my reins, Henry, or I’ll shoot you. The retreating men stream past the two men on horseback, an ocean of ragged soldiers flowing away like an ebbing tide.

Henry Goring holds fast, brave but unsure: Then shoot me, Charles. If you’re going to die on this battlefield, so will I. But I’ll die trying to save you from yourself. His voice does not waver, and he grips Charles’ reins even more tightly.

Charles stares at his friend and cocks the pistol; his outstretched arm trembles, and he tightens his grip on the pistol. Goring’s eyes tighten as he waits for Charles to pull the trigger; John William O’Sullivan stands to the side, stone-still, a desperate prayer falls from his lips in a ragged whisper.

Charles thinks: I’ll kill you, Henry. I will! Then he speaks the thought: I’ll kill you, Henry!

Charles’ voice dies away as he looks at his friend. Henry does not flinch; instead, Charles sighs and slowly lowers his arm, dropping the pistol into the mud. He slumps in his saddle; exhaustion overwhelms him. Goring speaks the Prince’s name, but Charles does not respond. O’Sullivan mounts his own horse and rides to Goring’s side.

His face is flushed as red as his hair as O’Sullivan breathes out: Ye are a damned brave fool, God love ye. I thought sure he would shoot ye through the heid. We’d best be a-goin’ now, tho.

O’Sullivan urges his horse forward and Goring follows, gently tugging on the reins of Charles’ horse. Charles stares ahead blankly, his body sways with the horse’s movement. They ride away from the battle, a few hundred yards, a half mile.

The men continue to retreat around the Prince. Some look up at the Prince; one takes hold of Charles’ stirrup, speaks: Prince Charles?

Charles looks down into the man’s face. The man bleeds from wounds to his head, chest, and legs. He still carries the shattered stump of a broken sword and his tartan is caked with mud and blood. A hideous gash carves the man’s cheek away from his face, muddling his speech almost beyond understanding.

But still he speaks: Prince Charles? I’m sorry we hae ta run fra this brawl. I’m sorry . . .

The man loses his grip on Charles’ stirrup and pitches forward to his knees, yells up to Charles: Weel catch them guid next time, tho. Bonnie Prince Charlie!

The man shouts Charles’ name as if they had won the day. Then he falls over in the mud, struggles to rise, and falls back once more. He does not move again.

Charles looks to Goring who stares at the fallen man. The Prince says: Give me my reins, Henry. Henry? I promise I’ll ride with you. I . . . I must live to fight another day.

Goring nudges his horse to the Prince’s side and hands him the reins, O’Sullivan close behind. Charles takes the reins, straightens in the saddle. He flicks the reins and his horse moves at a sharp trot, away from the battlefield. Muskets continue to crackle and occasional artillery shots thump in the distance. As they ride south they reach the top of a low rise; Charles halts and looks back at the chaos behind. The Jacobite formations are decimated and there are no longer any discernable battle lines. The defeat is stark and complete. The Highlanders are utterly broken.

Charles’ face is stone; he is granite. His voice falls out like gravel under a caisson wheel, like a glacier-bound boulder carving a valley. He says: I’ll return Henry. I swear it. This is not the end. This is not the end.

But it is.

Next Chapter: Chapter I: A Winter's Night