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It was billed by the press as a reunion, but the nostalgia turned out to be sorely lacking. Prince Charles and Princess Diana, who had not spent a single night under the same roof in 37 days—the longest separation of their marriage—were to meet for the weekend of Oct. 24-25 at Highgrove, their estate in rural Gloucestershire. Diana had helicoptered in from London, leaving sons William and Harry behind at Kensington Palace. Charles, who had sent a huge bouquet of white car-nations(a peace offering, some might speculate), flew down from Balmoral, the family retreat in Scotland, and arrived at High-grove, sullen-faced in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. In the hearts of the British public, already reeling from the furious speculation that the 6¼-year royal marriage is bound for the dustbin, the hope was that the couple surely would use the occasion to thrash out their mounting differences.

As it turned out, the anticipated "reconciliation" was short-lived. Barely 21 hours after arriving, the Princess of Wales, 26, was seen grimly driving away in her new dark blue Jaguar XJS with only a detective and a lady-in-waiting for company. Charles, 38, stayed on; two days later he visited a school in Wales, marking only his seventh official appearance in the last six weeks.

Coronation Street may be Britain's longest-running TV soap opera, but the latest marital perturbations of Charles and Di have turned Wales-watching into the country's national pastime. And with good reason. The rendezvous at Highgrove was only the fourth time in six weeks that the couple had been known to be together. In addition there were reports that Charles and Diana were not on speaking terms; a hapless equerry was said to have had the unenviable task of carrying their messages back and forth between London and Scotland.

In the past, Buckingham Palace has shrugged off such frequent separations as nothing more than the inevitable consequence of carrying out royal duties and has blamed Fleet Street for spreading mischievous speculation. But this time the press wasn't the culprit. Even fair-minded royal observers concluded that the Waleses' marriage has moved into a new phase, one that reflects the undeniable fact that the two are simply happier apart.

"The palace flacks can put forth as many excuses as they want," explains one insider, "but the bottom line is that with no completely convincing reason the prince and princess are leading separate lives. It is clear that she is happier with her own set of friends in the south of England, while he is at his best living a rather Spartan life in the north. What is worse is that the time apart doesn't seem to bother them. I think Charles has become totally bored with Diana, while she is just not interested in him physically." The Sunday Times, which usually stands aloof from the day-to-day gossip fray, observed: "It has been impossible to disguise the differences between the royal couple, and certainly in recent months they appear to have given up even trying."

Their apparent incompatibility notwithstanding, Charles and Di will almost surely do whatever is necessary to keep their marriage together. Divorce is legally possible but highly improbable because of the chaotic effect it would have on the monarchy. (See box, page 96.) Then there is Diana's passion for her position as princess. Says one palace source: "Diana wanted to be Charles's wife from the age of 15 and will do nothing to jeopardize this now."

Insiders say that instead of plotting their route to divorce court, Charles and Di have worked out an unwritten arrangement—not unknown in royal circles—that will accommodate the Waleses' separate interests. Expect to see them smiling broadly at family get-togethers and official functions, such as this week's seven-day visit to West Germany. But according to one well-placed royals-watcher, the rest of the time "they can do what they like as long as they are discreet." Says British journalist Anthony Holden, author of Charles, Prince of Wales, a pre-Diana biography: "If he wants to go off watercolor-painting in Italy, why on earth should he drag her along? If she wants to go to a rock concert, which he can't stand, why should she drag him along?"

Ironically, the latest rumblings intensified when a British tabloid reported falsely that Charles had enjoyed a week-long tryst in Scotland with Dale, Lady Tryon, 39 ("Kanga" to her friends). She is an Australian-born dress designer and confidante from Charles's bachelor days about whom he once reportedly sighed, "She's the only woman who ever understood me." That may be, but it wasn't Kanga to whom Charles was pouring out his heart; the two were in Scotland at the same time, but on estates some 120 miles apart. Kanga (short for kangaroo) was accompanied full-time by her husband, Anthony, Lord Tryon.

More tantalizing was the report in the tabloid News of the World of an intimate dinner given recently by talk show host David Frost and his wife, Lady Carina Fitzalan-Howard, at their home in Chelsea's Carlyle Square. According to the newspaper, the only guests were Diana and "a tall, dark, handsome stranger." After the three-hour soirée, Diana and her companion reportedly stood in the street gazing into each other's eyes before embracing and kissing each other on both cheeks. Indeed, the newspaper story read like a pulp-romance novel: "Diana's hand slipped from her pal's arms to his waist, while he held her by the shoulders...." An unnamed neighbor, whose house fronts the square, was quoted as saying: "They were very affectionate, especially as they were out on the pavement where people could see them."

Most palace-watchers lay the blame for the couple's obvious estrangement on Charles, who has been holed up since late August at Birkhall, the Queen Mother's home near Balmoral. There he has passed the days fishing, hunting and otherwise communing with nature, although Buckingham Palace also insists that he was overseeing Windsor family affairs while his parents, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, were traveling in Canada. Diana, who loathes Scotland, stayed in London, where, in addition to making appearances at 27 public engagements in the past six weeks, she was also tending to Wills and Harry and doing what has always come naturally to her—shopping.

None of this went unnoticed, and by last week the public scrutiny was becoming unbearable. During a visit to a London day-care center, the normally obliging Diana coldly turned her back on photographers. "I don't see why I should help the press out," the princess explained to one of the daycare workers. "They don't do anything for me."

On the advice of the Queen Mother, according to one report, a joint visit to flood victims in South Wales was hastily arranged as a way to quell rumors of a marital rift. But as soon as the six-hour visit was over, Charles dropped Diana off in London and promptly returned—alone—to Scotland. "It was a pretty inept exercise," says Holden. "It was transparently in response to recent rumors and was totally undermined when he went straight back up again afterwards."

The News of the World seized the occasion of the Waleses' visit to hire research psychologist and body-language expert Dr. David Lewis, who judged, after watching videos of the trip, that the marriage is virtually loveless. Lewis found Charles to be under considerable strain; telltale signs were his constant nose-scratching, tie-fiddling and the waving of his hands as he spoke. "These movements show people are nervous, uncomfortable or anxious," observed Lewis, who also noted the couple's aversion to physical contact. "As [Diana] walks past him, she draws her right hand and arm upward and inwards, causing her body to turn away from his...expressing a subconscious desire to avoid the risk of even a casual brushing contact." Concluded Lewis: "This isn't normal behavior for people in love. The emotional temperature is very, very cold."

Such unrelenting nosiness frustrates the prince, who feels he is maligned in the press and misunderstood by the public. "Charles genuinely feels he is being hard done-by," says a polo pal. "He feels he is doing nothing wrong at all. He absolutely adores the whole environment of Scotland. Diana, on the other hand, does not like being there for any length of time and is quite happy in London. Therein lies the basic truth—both being happy without one another."

How did the so-called marriage of the century come to this? In part because the fairy-tale love story behind the couple's wedding in 1981 was largely fictitious. Explains Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke's Peerage: "The Prince of Wales was getting on in years, and his relatives, especially his grandmother [the Queen Mother], wanted him to get married. Few of the girls he was seeing were suitable, and those who were wouldn't dream of accepting such a dreadful job. And so he chose the younger sister of one of his friends. She was attractive, she was a virgin. It's very simple."

From the beginning, some skeptics predicted that the marriage was doomed; the couple simply had too little in common. He likes opera, gardening, art, museums, hunting and polo; her tastes run to rock concerts, theater, shopping, nightclubs, movies and sunbathing.

Unfortunately marriage has not blurred the edges of the couple's vast differences. "It all goes back to Diana's original fear of the 12½-year age gap between them," says a former flatmate of Di's. "In addition, Diana never had a growing-up period of flirtations that most teenage girls have." Rightly or not, says the friend, "Diana is now going through that stage, which is something Charles can't cope with." (One report has Charles unhappy over her continuing friendship with dashing investment banker Philip Dunne, the focus of romance rumors earlier this year.)

Most frustrating, according to another Di chum, is Charles's refusal to give up his bachelor ways. "He really is a chauvinist to end them all," Di's pal claims. "If he wants to go hunting, shooting or fishing, he just does, and Diana has to fit in around him." Even his deep love for his children and his devotion to duty, at one time the only interests the Waleses shared, now seem to be weakening. "He has public duties to perform, and he is letting those slip, which is worrying because it's out of character," says Holden. "It's very surprising, too, that he's managed without the children, because he's very soggy about them." Warned Jean Rook, veteran columnist of the Daily Express: "Charles had better start spending more time with his sons before Wills and Harry make surrogate fathers out of their private detectives."

The question remains: What effect will the gradual disintegration of their picture-book marriage have on Charles's and Diana's credibility as eventual royal rulers of the nation? "With nothing much better to do," says Holden, "Charles was supposed to be the one to take a leadership role and pull all the younger generation into line. If he's going to be the next King, he ought to take on that role. But at the moment he seems too immersed in his own agonies to care very much. He's contributing to the slide."

Apparently Charles's mum agrees. Upon her recent return from Canada, Queen Elizabeth reportedly was going to instruct the couple to shape up. "Put crudely, Charles will be told that he must spend more time 'under the same roof as his wife,' " reported the Sunday Times.

It must all sound distressingly familiar to the Queen, who will be celebrating her 40th wedding anniversary Nov. 20. Her marriage has been dogged by rumors of Prince Philip's infidelity ever since he went off on a five-month cruise on the royal yacht Britannia without her in 1956. "There was a time when Philip seemed hardly ever to be at home," reported Ashley Walton of the Daily Express, who wrote a series on the marriage between the Queen and Philip. "There is a joke inside the family that Elizabeth would only know exactly where her husband was by checking the royal engagement listings in the Times."

Undoubtedly, the Queen would like to keep her son from becoming the butt of similar jokes and to keep the monarchy free of scandal or mockery. But it won't be easy. As the Sunday Times put it last week, "The fairy-tale romance peddled so avidly by the world's media has gone. In its place, after the hubbub has died down, is a marriage demystified and much like any other—vulnerable."

—Written by Bonnie Johnson, reported by Laura Sanderson Healy and Terry Smith in London

  • Contributors:
  • Laura Sanderson Healy,
  • Terry Smith.