Writing

The Author

Happy Halloween! As a holiday treat, I thought I would share a spooky short story with you.

I don’t think I’m very good at short stories, but I keep trying! This one, titled The Author, was written in response to The Stylist/Virago’s Daphne Du Maurier short story competition. Du Maurier is one of my all time favourite authors and I thought it would be fun to write something in homage to her.

Accordingly, I’ve tried to imitate her voice and cram in as many Du Maurier references as I can! I also made the subject a female author in tribute. It was great fun to write and I hope you will enjoy it too.

The Author

I read every book except the biography. To open that flashy volume, emblazoned with her name and photograph, felt like prying; curious in a way degrading to both her and me. Besides, I did not need an academic to translate my author – I had her words. The smooth, rocking rhythm of those words, wafting up from the page like incense. Although she died before I was born, I knew her voice, would know it amongst a thousand others; its wit and its fearless, strident tones. The way it revealed her secrets on the page and, somehow, my own with them. As if she had glimpsed me in the womb and known precisely what I would grow to be.

Even as the coach lumbered up the narrow road leading to her house, I recognised the cliff yawning over the sea, and the gulls circling in the spray. I knew there would be purple mounds of thrift growing from the rock, dotted here and there with sea-lavender. Long before it appeared through my window, I pictured a medieval turret engulfed by ivy. And it seemed to me, as we pulled up before Magnus Hall ready for our day-trip, that I had visited this place before. The warm, yellow stone, the lawns, the pink rhododendron – surely I had seen them in a dream? Walking down the steps, past the driver, onto the gravel, felt exactly like coming home.

Outside, all was alive with the force and sound of the sea. A blast of wind tore off my hat and sent it scudding away. I laughed. After a long journey, it was good to feel the salt air strike my face and comb its fingers through my hair.

Half a dozen gulls, large as chickens, stood on the lawn before the house, watching us. One tilted its head to regard me with reptilian eyes. I waved.

‘In a line, please!’ Our tour guide bellowed above the hubbub. His umbrella emerged, a long green finger.

I shuffled into place behind a couple with a screaming child. I wished they had left the little boy behind. His red, scrunched face was spoiling my sense of awe and excitement. The author never put children into her books, never delved into their world. Right now, I could understand why.

We passed through the arched door into a chamber smelling of dust and leather. Sepia light filtered through the windows and splashed on burnished wood. The blustery day passed away. All was quiet and still. No clocks ticked, no footsteps sounded through the carpet. Even the child before me surrendered, all at once, to a deathly hush.

We turned to the right and there she was, hanging above the mantelpiece in oils: my author. Bobbed hair clung to her jaw. She stared direct, unapologetic like the seagull. She looked different in paint, austere. I could not picture those crimson lips forming her words, the words that brought me such joy.

‘This was painted at the height of her power,’ the tour guide droned. ‘She was forty-six’.

Murmurs ran down the queue like shivers along a spine. Cameras flashed, reflecting off the picture frame. Cheapening her.

‘The year after, she won the Ambrose Prize with I Return. If you step through this way, you will see the famous house from that novel. That’s right – this door.’

I pushed forward, excitement brewing. What did he mean by saying we could see Yellan House? Had someone illustrated an edition of the book?

We passed into a vaulted medieval hall. Tasselled curtains covered the windows, blocking all natural light. Only electric lamps shone, sterile, inside glass cabinets. Standing on tip-toe, I strained to see over the shoulder of the woman in front. Glass everywhere; covering each wall, bouncing back our faint, colourless faces. And behind the glass, a doll’s house.

Yellan House – I knew it well – finely wrought in miniature. There was the conservatory, where the marriage proposal took place; here, the parlour where she found the body.

‘She built a house for every novel.’ The tour guide’s voice buzzed inside my ear. ‘And see the characters, inside. Highly detailed, often based on people she knew. This one, famously, Major Armstrong from Laburnum, modelled after the author’s husband.’

As I gazed at the figures occupying Yellan House – their glassy eyes and waxen faces – a strange grief possessed me. I did not want these stiff-jointed dolls. I wanted my characters, the friends in my mind no one else could taint.

The line wiggled and then broke as tourists swarmed around the cabinets. Once more cameras flashed and children laughed. It was shameful, demeaning. Her magical world, invaded.

Pushing past a gaggle of school girls, I went to the back of the hall where there was space to breathe. Here stood a cottage I could not place from her novels. Sand surrounded the base, intimating a sea-side setting. A doll dressed in fishermen’s overalls crouched in the garden, cleaning a tiny net.

‘This one has always been my favourite.’ I jumped to see the tour guide standing beside me. He regarded the cottage fondly. ‘So apt. Her words are like a net, don’t you think? Drawing you in.’

‘But I don’t recognise it,’ I confessed. ‘I don’t know it from the books.’

‘You wouldn’t. This was her last novel, unfinished. No title.’

‘Unfinished!’ I felt breathless. There were more words, words unread. My eyes travelled over the house, garnering the rooms: a cottage kitchen; a scullery; a red flock parlour with a half-made doll. ‘But . . . how far did she get?’

‘A fair way, I think.’

‘But why wasn’t it published?’

‘The wishes of her son forbade publication. He felt so strongly that he even left instructions in his own will.’

I did not know that she had a son. ‘Surely his children – ’

‘He did not live to have children. He died as a young man, lost at sea.’

It served him right. He had taken something from me – something precious.

I turned back to the cottage, my nose pressed against the glass, to study the incomplete doll in the red room. Her face bore no features, yet she wore beige slacks like mine; a white blouse, like mine. A terrible hunger started up inside. This was my character, created for me, waiting by a red velvet sofa for adventures that would never come. The author had written a character for me and this dead man, her interfering son, kept us apart.

‘Is it here?’ My breath misted the glass. I saw the house dimly, through a fog, the doll’s blank face a moon riding clouds. ‘Is the manuscript here?’

But the tour guide just smiled and moved on.

 ***

It was not hard to conceal myself within Magnus Hall. It was not hard to crouch for hours with pins and needles in my legs when I remembered the reward.

My coach departed with the daylight. Staff exchanged farewells. I heard keys clunk in locks and finally, I was alone.

Unoccupied, the house felt larger. Louder too – haunted by the restless sound of the sea. I found a flashlight in the staffroom and walked, as she must have done, through the hall of dolls, past their watchful eyes, into the room with her portrait and round toward the stairs.

In a circle of torchlight I glimpsed mahogany banisters and a chintz carpet snaking up to the second floor. The treads creaked beneath my feet as I climbed, but I was not afraid. This was home – here, with her presence and the waves tossing outside. I was mistress of the house, even as she had been.

Her library was not locked. The door whined on its hinges as I crept in, my torch casting monstrous shadows up the wall. Here, the air was warm with the scent of paper. No curtains blocked the windows; they faced over the cliff-edge, out to sea, where crests of white foam writhed in dark water.

She might have sat there only yesterday. Her green leather chair before the desk; the pens lined up ready for use. And there, in another cabinet, her notebook.

Her last novel.

Trembling, I made my way across the carpet, jammed the torch between my teeth and fumbled with the cabinet door. No alarms sounded, no wires tripped. I lifted the book gently, a sleeping child in my arms. Damn her son. This manuscript, whatever it said, was meant for me.

Dizzy with anticipation, I opened the cover and sniffed the first page, longing to find a trace of her perfume. There was none. No scent at all.

My pulse pounded, drowning out the crash of the sea.

Here was the first sentence, written in her long, sloping hand.

I knew that you would come.

 ***

Gulls awoke me, cackling in the high wind. Slowly, painfully, I opened my eyelids. A room swam into focus. I hadn’t noticed, by torchlight, the lurid red of the library walls. It made my head pound.

My neck ached too.  I tried to stretch. The muscles were stiff as wood – they refused to move.

I could not lift my arm. I could not open my lips.

Panic spiked as I tried to recall the night before. What happened? Why was I frozen like this, cast in stone? Only my eyes moved, frantic, looking for help.

The room was empty. No cabinet, no unfinished book, no desk looking out to sea. Simply the throb of that red flock wallpaper and a sofa by my side.

This wasn’t the library, yet somehow I knew it. Something was familiar . . .

‘I don’t believe it.’ A male voice.

‘What?’

‘Look!’ It sounded like my tour guide. I strained, trying to turn my head.

‘What am I looking at?’

Two enormous faces loomed before me. Their features rippled, obscured by an invisible barrier.

‘The doll,’ my tour guide gasped. ‘Look!’

‘Are you feeling all right, John? You’re very pale.’

One giant eye pressed closer. I saw my terror reflected on a colossal scale. ‘It has a face.’

‘They all have.’

‘No . . .’

I did recognise the room, the red room. I had been right about the doll and the book. They were always meant for me.

Her words are like a net, don’t you think? Drawing you in.

As horror ignited, I met the tour guide’s eye. Saw, in its depths, that he knew.

But he could not help me. No one could.

We were powerless, each of us frozen, as her words lapped against the walls with the endless sigh of the sea.

Copyright Laura Purcell 2016

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Bloomsbury

By Concord - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27472860
By Concord – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

 

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I have some very good news to share! After a few months’ hard work with my agent on a new draft of The Silent Companions, we went out to to submission with publishers in August. The response was extremely positive! I was thrilled to learn of editors and their teams really getting into the book, even having nightmares about the creepy wooden figures who dominate the story. There’s something wickedly satisfying about spreading a wave of fear through your readers…

In the end we had four publishers looking to make an offer. I had the good fortune to go and meet them all in their offices before the auction started – I have to say, they were all wonderful and I was thrilled to think so many people were interested in my little book! After an exciting few days, my work finally found its perfect home with the auction winner, Alison Hennessey from Bloomsbury.

Best known for publishing the Harry Potter series, Bloomsbury won my heart with afternoon tea in their gorgeous Georgian era offices on Bedford Square. Every person I have met from the team is simply fantastic. I’m over the moon to be working with them all, particularly Alison. Other books she has worked on include Ruth Ware’s In A Dark Dark Wood and Eva Dolan’s Zigic and Ferreira series. She is launching a new imprint with Bloomsbury – the name has yet to be announced – and I am so proud to be one of its first authors. Hardback publication is scheduled for around October 2017. I will let you know when I have firm dates.

The US will be publishing slightly later, around the first months of 2018. US rights were picked up by the lovely Sarah Stein at Viking.

If that wasn’t good enough, I actually have a two book deal with Bloomsbury, so I can say with confidence you will also be able to read The Corset, another Victorian Gothic tale about a seamstress with supernatural powers. I’m working hard on this at the moment between edits. Watch this space for more news.

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Prologues

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I’ve been thinking about prologues recently – a topic that often arises in discussions about historical fiction. Are they useful? Do they just get in the way?

Personally, I never start out writing a prologue. I often add them further down the line when I start to worry my starting chapter does not have enough punch. With Queen of Bedlam, I jumped in time to show Charlotte and George toward the end of their lives in the prologue, before hopping back to the beginning of their marriage and finally to the ‘present.’ While I enjoyed writing the prologue for that book, I’ve come to think that it was probably a mistake. The jerk through time proved confusing and the prologue didn’t really add to the story. What I should have done was just focused on rewriting the opening chapter to make it more exciting. Oh well, we live and learn!

However, prologues can be useful, especially when they are in the voice of someone we will not hear from for the rest of the narrative. I have two examples of good prologues I can call to mind. Firstly, Karen Maitland’s The Gallow’s Curse. Not only is it shocking, pacey and well-written, it explains how the curse of the title comes about. The curse will later impact upon the main characters, but not in a way that they can investigate and ‘reveal’ to the reader. Therefore the prologue is essential for our information, even though the main characters may never find out about the events it shows.

My second example is from a wonderful book called The Ballroom by Anna Hope. I have to admit, when I first read it, I thought it was a bit redundant. Why is this prologue there? I thought. Surely it’s given away the ending? But no – what it had actually done was set me up to believe the book was going to end one way, when in fact something quite different was going on. It was a clever device and I was completely fooled.

In my latest book, The Silent Companions, I added a prologue in the third or fourth draft. My reasoning was that horror stories often start with a shocking death, to compensate for a slow build up of creeping dread in the opening chapters before the true action starts. As I had a character that was dead when the book began, I thought a prologue was a perfect opportunity to ‘kill’ him on the page. But actually, I didn’t need it. I started to doubt its purpose and my agent allayed my fears by telling me the opening was strong enough without it. So off the prologue went into the deleted scenes folder… And I think the book is better without it.

However, just for fun, I’d like to share the deleted prologue with you. It is not a spoiler in any way. This character is dead when the book begins – although he now dies in a very different way to the one shown below. The companions have also changed – they no longer have the plant-like creepers that chase poor Rupert. Although the story is now different, I hope this little snippet will whet your appetite for the book when it comes out :)

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Prologue

The Bridge

He thought he would have more time.

His pocket watch showed a minute to midnight. Already they stirred above him; creaking, whining, hissing. Rupert rubbed his eyes with his good hand, chasing the sleep away. Time enough for sleep soon.

A dying fire touched his surroundings with orange streaks. He must have dozed in the chair, for they had been there: the marks of them were all over the room. A pile of dead leaves and thistles rose to his ankles. His hand stung like the devil and yes – the wound was open, oozing, threaded with fresh splinters. He shuddered, imagining them peering over him while he slept. They could have taken him, easily. But that was not their method. They wanted him awake.

Rising to his feet, he waded through the leaves toward the bureau. The equipment was all there: the two bottles and his last cigar. Glass clanked as he put the bottles in his pockets. They felt like leaden weights. He closed his eyes, trying to steady his breath. The moment had come. He had to do this right – for Elsie’s sake.

He took the cigar and the stub of his candle and lit them in the embers of the fire. Tears filled his eyes, making an orange, smoky blur. Only a couple of flames remained; the light was fading fast.

Creeping to the door, he pushed it open a fraction. Listened. The relentless hiss that haunted his dreams floated down the corridor, raising gooseflesh on his arms. They were above him, without a doubt. Rupert placed one eye to the gap between the door and the jamb. The corridor lay in darkness. He had to go now.

His slippers moved across the sawdust on the landing. He had taken the room next to the nursery on purpose – it was the closest to the servants’ stairs. Jamming the cigar in his mouth, he held up his candle and opened the baize door with his bad hand. It was excruciating. A thousand needles burnt up his wrist. His fingers were heavy, stiff, creaking at the joints. If this was what one touch did, he did not want to know the agony of their embrace.

As Rupert spiralled down shallow, winding steps his candle sent shadows capering up the walls. The stairwell amplified the hiss; it was all around him, vibrating in the very air he breathed. How did the servants sleep?

He stumbled into the kitchen, exhaling a cloud of smoke. For a moment, his courage failed. The housekeeper had heard it, hadn’t she? Perhaps it was not as he feared, perhaps it was not the tricks of his own mind. But then he looked at the mangled mess of his hand and remembered.

He pushed on into the larder, trying not to think of his parents, but their images rose out of the darkness. Poor Mama, raving on the bed, her ankle splintered and torn just like his hand. Then the bandage on Father’s arm, days before he fell so tragically from the second floor. Fell. His heart reached out, down the years, finally understanding: it was no accident. Father did what needed to be done. He saw the madness coming and saved the family’s reputation.

Setting the candle down, he rattled the bottles out of his pockets. They glimmered weirdly in the low light. He’d taken all the precautions he could: complaining of stomach aches, ordering laudanum for his wound. They could trace poison now – he had to throw the coroner off the scent. If they didn’t rule his death as accidental, Elsie would lose everything.

He opened the bottle of laudanum awkwardly with one hand. Its vapid, bitter scent mingled with the cigar smoke. Then he uncorked the second bottle containing tiny arsenic grains and tipped them into the laudanum. He expected something – a fizz, a reaction. The liquid just stared back at him, dull and reddish brown.

Hiss.

His shoulders trembled. How had it come to this? All those years he had lived, never suspecting that a curse lurked deep down inside of him. It must be hereditary – a fever of the brain, passed on through blood. It had demented his mother, consumed his father; he never stood a chance.

Hiss, hiss.

He removed the cigar from his mouth and laid it on the table. This was the time to prove himself. Could he do it? As he picked up the bottle, his nostrils filled with its sharp, deadly aroma. Everything in him recoiled. He wanted life, he wanted to be with Elsie.

The glass rim touched his lip. He could taste the vapours, their dizzying pull. Still he hesitated. Her beautiful face swam before his eyes. He did not know how he would disgrace her less: as a suicide, or as a mad man.

Hiss. Creak.

He could get better. There were medicines, these days. Better treatment than his mother ever –

‘Christ!’

A bolt of pain shot up his leg, jolting him forward. His fingers slipped and nearly dropped the bottle. Hot blood oozed between his toes. He looked down.

A thick creeper wound through the open door and around his ankle, bristling with thorns. Its pointed end pierced right through his slipper, through his foot, pinning it to the ground. He went giddy. Shadows concealed the worst of the gore but he could hear his flesh, squelching and sucking as the creeper moved.

The pain. The pain. There was no time for second thoughts. In one desperate slug he forced his toxic drink down.

He grabbed the empty bottles and his cigar. It was too late to follow his plan and fill the laudanum bottle with black tea – he would have to take his chances. Gritting his teeth, he yanked his foot from the floor. The sound was worse than the agony – a sickly rip as he forced himself out of the larder and into the passage that led to the kitchen.

Barely conscious, he pulled up the loose stone in the floor and hid his empty bottles under it. That would have to do. It was bad enough there would be blood in the larder – he couldn’t risk the bottles being found.

The creeper slithered after him.

Hell and damnation. It was all going wrong. He couldn’t leave a trail of blood, he would have to clean his foot up. Limping into the kitchen, he found a muslin for boiling puddings and wrapped it around his blood-caked slipper, adding a sack on top for good measure. As he tied it he heard them creaking, creaking ever closer. Time had nearly run out.

He stubbed out his cigar. The candle was still in the larder – he would have to go back up in the dark. The idea should terrify him but he was warm, lightheaded. It would not be long before the drugs pulled him under.

He climbed the servant’s stairs as if he were treading water. His feet were heavy, too slow. Now and then he felt the creeper teasing at his heels. It could go faster if it wanted, but it liked the chase.

Just as he reached the top of the staircase, a white hot fist squeezed his gut. He gasped. That would be the arsenic. Only a little farther . . .

Hobbling across the landing, he saw their silhouettes waiting in the shadows. He swallowed the vomit that rose in his throat. They wanted him to look into their dead eyes and feel fear, but he would not do it. Soon he would never have to see them again.

He crashed into the bedroom. The spluttering fire showed a hoard of them gathered by the window. Despite their vile faces, he laughed.

‘Better . . . luck . . . next . . . time.’

Somehow he hauled himself into bed. A low whine signalled their approach. Come on, come on. He was too tired for fear, too tired for anything, but he willed the poison on with the last ounce of his strength.

Elsie . . . He wished he had written to her properly. If he’d known it would be tonight, he could have prepared. But perhaps it was best this way. She’d never know of the brain fever that took his mother, that forced his father to . . . He only prayed she’d stay away from this cursed house.

Creeak.

God, how it burned. But he would brave it out. The muscle spasms, the sweat pouring from his skin – they were his victory over them.

Through fading eyes he looked up and saw it blurred beside his bed: the figure of the little girl. Close, very close. But the warmth was flowing in now, a tide of comfort and sleep. He tried to smile – his lips would not move.

Too late. He wanted to crow, but he could only think the words as the wooden face loomed up before him. Too late.

He had won.

The Silent Companions

It’s been a busy few months on the writing front! You may remember that around Christmas time I shared some links to websites about ‘silent companions’ – historical dummy boards used as tricks of the eye. Since about September 2014 I’ve been working on a ghost story involving these creepy figures, and I finally sent the manuscript out on submission to literary agents in January 2016.

I was lucky enough to catch the interest of three wonderful agents. After meeting them all and discussing our ideas for the book, I’m delighted to say that I signed up with Juliet Mushens of United Talent Agency. Juliet is a fun and inspiring agent, a real credit to her profession, and I feel remarkably fortunate to be working with her on this.

It’s an adventure to start out in a new genre. Switching between biographical and ‘spooky’ helps to keep my mind focused and heightens my writing enjoyment. Let’s hope I can find a publisher for these new projects! At the moment I’m preparing a new draft of THE SILENT COMPANIONS, unpicking some plot lines and redoing them in a new thread. I’m also a good way into my second ghostly/spooky Victorian novel, THE CORSET. I’m very, very excited about this one and can’t wait to share it with you all.

Between these two Victorian novels and Mrs Fitzherbert, there won’t be much time for blogging, but I’ll try to drop by whenever I can and keep you updated. In the meantime, stay well and God bless.

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Holidays and Projects

d9f0306bc8258004b689d9203f9a4b24I wanted to take this brief breathing space between Christmas and New Year to wish all my blog readers the happiest of holidays! Here’s a cartoon from 1803 reminding us that many a Georgian Christmas was spent at war. However, if you were lucky enough to stay peacefully at home, you would be tucking into roast beef – not a turkey in sight!

I also wish to apologise for the lack of updates to the blog this year. I will be popping in from time to time and sharing new articles about the Hanoverians, but I’m trying to concentrate more on my actual writing for the moment. Whilst the blog gives me joy, it doesn’t do a great deal to sell books or push the series along. I’m currently working on my novel about Maria Fitzherbert and George IV, tentatively titled either A Forbidden Crown or Queen of Tides. I’ve also made a start on Queen of Misrule, about Caroline of Brunswick. These exciting and eccentric figures will keep me busy for some time!

On the side, I’ve branched out into some Victorian horror writing! It’s been a lot of fun and very different. For just over a year now I’ve been chiseling away at my book called The Silent Companions, based on a little known piece of historic decoration. If you’d like to find out more about the spooky silent companions, this National Trust post and the Pastmastery blog can give you an idea of what I’m doing.

With all my best wishes for a wonderful 2016.

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The Tour Begins

P1000108It’s been a busy few weeks with the launch of Mistress of the Court and the start of my Waterstones tour. Henrietta and Caroline got off to a cracking start with my signing at Bury St Edmund’s and a party for my family and friends at the beautiful historic Tymperley’s tea rooms.

I’ve guest posted on the English Historical Fiction Authors site about Marble Hill , where both Henrietta Howard and Maria Fitzherbert lived. I was also delighted to have my first magazine article appear in Historical Novels Review, the magazine for members of the Historical Novel Society. Hopefully my Hanoverian battle cry will inspire more readers to explore this amazing dynasty. For my own part, I’m deep in research for my next two novels, which will focus on Maria Fitzherbert and Caroline of Brunswick. The working titles are Queen of Tides (Maria) and Queen of Misrule (Caroline).

IMGYesterday I attended a talk by Philippa Gregory at the National Theatre, where she spoke about her latest novel The Taming of the Queen, centering on Katherine Parr. It sounds interesting and I will be keen to see how it compares to Elizabeth Fremantle’s Queen’s Gambit, which I adored. However, while The Taming of the Queen is still in hardback at £20, you might want to keep yourselves busy reading Mistress of the Court to fill the time until it comes out in paperback 😉 I will be signing copies at Waterstones Colchester from 12 noon on 15 August and at Waterstones Chelmsford from 11.30 to 1pm on 29 August. See you there!

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The Lions of London

Menagerie_LionCubs_Lg_2A little while ago I told you about the inspiration behind my short story for the HNS 2014 conference. As a treat for the New Year, I’m happy to share the tale with you at last. It was a nice change to write about ‘common-folk’ instead of royalty. I do hope you’ll enjoy it. Happy New Year!

The Tower of London, 1713

‘No, Tom, no! Don’t do it!’ Nelly’s shoes skittered over the slick cobbles as she tried to keep pace with her husband’s stride. Her heel turned; she swore under her breath but pushed forward, propelled by the screaming tear of panic beneath her ribs. ‘Stop!’

Her words were lost on the wind that blasted through the London streets and whipped up the flags on the parapets. Their colours stood out vivid against the grey brick and leaden sky: blood red; the blue of a tender vein. Swallowing a wave of nausea, Nelly ran on.

Why had she succumbed to this man? Since their hurried marriage ceremony at the Fleet, she had spent every day in tears. Tears of anger, of sorrow and of shame. His fool, trotting along behind him.

As she entered the bustling Tower Menagerie, Tom’s brown coat faded amidst a swarm of sight-seers. She shoved her way past the tittering ladies with their milk-white skin, the young bucks who slapped her rump. Well-bred children pointed her out to their nurses. On a normal day, Nelly would stop and give them an earful for their sauce. But the thought of Scamp kept her feet moving.

Her lungs heaved beneath her stays; the constricting whalebone fingers that Tom had made. She sucked in breath but the air was foul, tainted by dung and sickly sweet hay. God damn it, she’d never reach him like this. Kicking off her heels, she continued in her stockings. The cobbles were cold and damp against the soles of her feet. A piece of rough darning pressed into her little toe as she sped along. The crowd cleared; she saw Tom and the precious bundle within his arms. Her heart lurched.

‘Tom!’ she shrieked. ‘Tom, stop! Please!’

Scamp raised his head at the sound of her voice. Those soft eyes, the silken ears; her only comforts through a loveless marriage. Somehow she found the strength to accelerate. She drew up alongside them, her skirts bellying in the wind. ‘Tom!’

He didn’t turn. ‘I’ve warned you before, Nell. You knew this would happen.’

A keeper in a scarlet coat approached and stopped them with a raised arm. ‘It’s thruppence to see the beasts, sir. Unless . . .’ He caught sight of tiny Scamp, huddled against Tom’s chest. A look passed between the men. Tom nodded, once. The keeper stepped away.

‘No!’ Nelly howled. ‘You can’t do this. He’s done nothing wrong.’ It didn’t sound like her voice at all; wrung from the depths of her chest.

Tom forged ahead. ‘Look at my shoes,’ he said. Her eyes flicked to the floor. There was a ragged hole by his heel that let the water in. The latchets hung useless and threadbare, trailing in the puddles. ‘We can’t afford a new pair.’

‘I’ll take in more work. I’ll – ’

‘It’s not just the shoes.’ Scamp writhed in his arms, letting out a pitiful whimper. ‘Pissing on my newspaper. Scratching up the wood. Barking all bloody night so I can barely sleep.’

Nelly’s throat constricted. It was as if one of the snakes had escaped from its hut and was squeezing her tight. Words stampeded through her mind, but she knew none of them would persuade him. Tom didn’t care that Scamp was the only remnant of her dead family. It didn’t signify to him that she had raised Scamp from a pup, been there when his eyes opened. Tears spilled, hot against her frozen cheeks. ‘Please. He’s all I have.’

The corner of his mouth twisted cruelly. ‘I am all you have. Perhaps when this rat is out of the way you’ll be a proper wife. Bear me a child. A boy to take over the stay-making business.’

Somewhere inside the grey labyrinth of courtyards and towers, a wolf released its mournful wail.

Scamp looked to her with a melting appeal. ‘Good boy,’ she whispered, watching his tail thump against Tom’s arm. ‘Good boy, Scamp, don’t you worry.’

How easily the lies slid off her tongue. He had every reason to worry. They had reached the destination Tom promised would come: the Lion Tower. Whining, Scamp scrabbled his paws and tried to climb over Tom’s shoulder, but a swift jerk to the tail brought him down again.

A thick, meaty stench overpowered Nelly the moment they entered the tower. The hair on her arms prickled. She could sense the prowling beasts; their snorts and the grumbles echoing in their deep-barrelled chests.

They made their way by a strange, soupy light, passing other visitors on their way back out. Nelly heard the restless tick of claws on concrete, but she kept her eyes fixed on Scamp. His wet nose, the way his ears twitched. These were the last moments. She had to drink in every beloved feature before . . . She shut her eyes, squeezing out fresh tears. She couldn’t leave him, but how could she bear to watch?

‘Here she is,’ Tom said. ‘Magnificent.’

Her eyelids snapped open. They were in a long, stone room lit by arrow-slits. The floor was polished wood, adding the honey scent of beeswax to the animal musk. Cages were set into the wall like cabinets. One side of each opened out to the public, striped with rusty iron bars. Nelly exhaled in wonder. She had never seen anything like it. Jewel-coloured parrots hopped and whistled. A monkey sat, carefully picking through its mate’s fur. Two ladies stood close to the cage and marvelled at the animal’s deft fingers. But Tom had not stopped by the monkeys. He was further up the room, looking at something with frank admiration. Nelly took three paces forward. Her guts withered.

A lioness lay long and sleek on the straw. Muscle rippled beneath her wheaten coat. Light fell through the bars in blades, accentuating her dark, soulless eyes, the whiskers that twitched at the scent of meat. Her head alone was bigger than Nelly’s torso.

‘Oh Tom!’ She dropped onto her knees, careless of the dirt. The ladies turned to stare at her. ‘You cannot!’

Tom held Scamp aloft, sizing up the gaps between the bars. ‘How do you like this, my pretty?’ he asked the lioness. ‘A tasty morsel for you.’ She shifted a paw. Nelly saw her deadly claws slowly emerge from their sheaths.

‘Oh, God!’ she sobbed. ‘Have pity! Slit his throat first! Don’t let her tear him limb from limb!’

Tom swallowed. His eyes flashed, wary, as he approached the lioness. Her lip curled back. Suddenly, the gaps between the bars seemed very wide.

Nelly shuffled across the floor and gripped Tom’s breeches. ‘Please! Let a neighbour take him. Turn him out on the street. Anything but this!’ She aimed a beseeching look at the ladies. Their painted faces were beautiful but blank. ‘Miss! Please. Won’t you help me?’

The lioness revealed the ivory spikes of her teeth. Scamp yipped. The parrots echoed his sound, throwing it down the room like a ball. Squealing, the ladies bustled out. A pair of cowardly milk-sops, for all their silk petticoats.

Tom sniggered. ‘Come now, Nell. If we don’t feed him to the beast, we’ll have to pay that three pence entrance fee, won’t we?’

‘Tom!’ She tugged so hard on his breeches, she was sure they would come down. Hatred lit her from the inside. ‘How can you be so cruel? If you do this, I’ll despise you for the rest of my life. I swear it. And I will never give you a son.’

He paused. Shadows expanded and shrank in the half-light. His eyes passed from Nelly to Scamp and back again. The lioness flicked her tail, scattering flies. ‘Perhaps . . .’

Nelly flinched as liquid dripped onto her hand. Instinctively, she released Tom and looked up. Scamp quivered uncontrollably. A yellow trickle wound its way across Tom’s shirt, down his legs, to dribble on the floor.

‘Blast your eyes, cur!’ Tom’s face scrunched and turned beetroot. ‘It’s the lion’s den for you.’

‘No!’ Nelly lunged but Tom was too quick. Seizing Scamp by the scruff, he darted forward and pushed the dog’s head between the bars. Before the lioness could react, he flung Scamp and rushed away.

Horror held Nelly paralysed. Scamp flew, a sailing cloud of white and tan. As the lioness turned her head, he landed sprawled out in the cage with a thump.

She wanted to cover her eyes, to run for help, but she was powerless. She could only gape, transfixed, as Scamp stood and shook himself. In one liquid movement, the lioness rose to her feet.

‘Now watch carefully, Nell. See what happens to those who cross me.’

Hunching her shoulders, the lioness slunk toward Scamp. He moaned. His pink tongue darted across his lips as he shifted from one foot to the other. Crescents of white showed around his chocolate eyes.

‘Scamp!’

A deep rumble vibrated through the air. The lioness circled him, each twist tighter and tighter. This was it. Nelly drove her fingernails into the palms of her hands. She would never forgive Tom. Never.

Suddenly, the lioness lurched, thumping a paw either side of Scamp. He let out a sound like a human scream. The monkeys shrieked and banged against the bars. Nelly shut her eyes, bracing herself.

There was no sickening tear of flesh, no pitiful wail. Instead, she heard a soft bump and a groan. Lapping. A wet sound of mastication. Blessed God, the lioness had dispatched him quickly. There could not have been much pain.

Trembling, Nelly raised her eyelids. She was prepared for gushing blood, the body of her precious pet twisted at an angle – but not for this. What she saw made her gasp.

The lioness lay on her stomach with Scamp curled between her front paws. Alive. Slowly, methodically, she licked his coat until it stood up in wet spikes. Like a bitch with its pup she cleaned his nose, his eyes and his ears.

Tom staggered back. ‘What the devil? This is a lioness, isn’t it?’ He dashed to the corner and rummaged in a slop bucket. Producing a handful of offal, he threw it through the bars. ‘Go on, eat!’ A few hunks of grey sludge bounced back. A thick, clear juice ran down the side of the bucket and pooled on the floor. ‘Eat!’

The lioness nosed a slimy piece of offal. She turned it so Scamp could nibble on one end.

Tom removed his hat and held it, utterly defeated. ‘I don’t understand.’

Nelly stood. Triumph surged through her. Tom might think that he could control nature – that all women and beasts leapt to a man’s tune. But he was wrong. ‘I do. I understand now exactly what happens to those who cross you.’ All the loathing of the past three years was naked on her face. She took a step toward him. ‘But Tom, do you know what happens to those who upset me?’

He reared away from her. Focused on her glaring eyes, he didn’t see the offal spilled behind him. As he stepped back, his foot slid and he tripped on the torn latchet of his shoe. He fell with a smack against the bars. One arm slotted between the gaps. The lioness stopped licking Scamp and cocked her head.

‘Nelly.’ Tom’s voice was tight with panic. His fingers groped, trying to find purchase. ‘Nelly, my shoulder’s stuck.’

The lioness stood. Finally free, Scamp leapt up, slid between the bars and scuttled to Nelly’s side.

‘Nell, help me.’

She regarded Tom, pinioned. That sinewy hand that had slapped her face lay exposed, so fleshy and bare. ‘Come, Scamp. Let’s go home.’

As they turned, the lioness stirred. She sniffed; she could smell the rank scent of fear oozing from Tom. He tugged desperately against the bars. ‘Nelly!’

The lioness raised her hackles.

Copyright 2014 Laura Purcell

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Seeing the Lions

TOL-iconic-white-tower-1Back in September I was thrilled to discover that my short story, The Lions of London, had made the award long list for The Historical Novel Society Conference 2014. I don’t have much experience writing short stories and considered myself ‘bad’ at them – an opinion I will now have to revise! I’m very eager to share the story with you, but I’m not sure if I can yet. The terms and conditions of the competition said the long list may be published in an anthology, so I’m waiting a while. In the meantime, I’d like to tell you about the historical finds that inspired the tale – a feminist, animal-loving dash through the Tower of London!

You may know that the Tower of London was practically London’s first zoo, home to all manner of beasts from the reign of James I. So popular was the Tower Menagerie that it became one of London’s ‘must-see’ attractions. Going sight-seeing in the capital was soon referred to as ‘seeing the Lions of London’ – hence the title of my story. While there were many animals on display, ranging from polar bears to ostriches, the lions remained the most popular – perhaps because of England’s old symbolic associations with the animal. They were appropriated their very own Lion Tower. Up to eleven lions could be kept here, with fresh running water to drink and a diet of nine pounds of beef every day. Young lions were separated from their mothers but allowed free range to play in the Tower grounds – something we can hardly imagine in an age of health and safety!

Menagerie_LionCubs_Lg_2In the later Georgian era, another menagerie opened at the Exeter Exchange, but it does not quite capture the imagination in the same way as animals imprisoned in an ancient fortress. So I decided to do a bit of research and base a story around the Lion Tower in the early 1700s. There were a great deal of diary entries and letters written regarding the Tower Menagerie, but two in particular caught my attention. The first I actually located in Jerry White’s London in the Eighteenth Century. It was a quote from Mrs Percival, who visited in the winter of 1713-1714:

There was only one Lyoness. The Keeper threw a Dog for her to devour she fawn’d on it, and of all the Meat that was brought her would give him part and got him between her Paws, and lick him: For all this tenderness the Dog was very uneasy.

What a wonderful image this conjures – the maternal lion and a wary dog, an unlikely pair of companions! But if you are a dog lover like me, you will also be questioning why the canine was thrown into the pen in the first place. A bit more research showed me this was far from unusual – I was distressed to find live dogs and cats were frequently thrown to the lions! In fact, if you brought one of your own from home, they would wave the entry fee to the Tower!

My second anecdote features a less docile lion. It is the tale of poor Mary Jenkinson, who was a maid to the keeper in 1686, a few decades before the Georgian period began. Throwing caution to the wind, she decided to stroke a lion’s paw through the bars of the cage (not recommended!). Unsurprisingly, the lion grabbed her arm ‘with his claws and mouth, and most miserably tore her flesh from the bone.’ The only course of medical action in those days was to amputate the limb. Surgeons performed the operation but sadly Mary died shortly after, probably from a combination of shock and blood loss.

Menagerie_BengalLion_Lg_2These two real-life events provided the basis for my story. But to add atmosphere, I wanted to put a few more animals into the mix. I had my lion cage beside squawking birds and chattering monkeys that jumped about when the big cat roared. This, however, was not based on fact. While there were monkeys at the Tower, their real home was more fantastical than I could have imagined. They lived in a furnished drawing-room, much to the amusement of the visitors, and were taught to mimic human actions such as smoking pipes. You might think you’d be safer in the monkey room with these semi-civilized primates, but you’d be wrong. One monkey bit a soldier’s leg, while a baboon developed a penchant for throwing large objects – a hobby that ended in tragedy when he hurled a 9lb cannon shot at a young boy and killed him.

Should you visit the Tower of London in the modern day, you can see their exhibition on the royal beasts that once made the grey stone walls their home, along with wonderful sculptures. I particularly liked the elephant! I would highly recommend the trip to everyone – even without the bigs cats, the Tower truly remains one of the Lions of London.

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The Duchess joins the ranks

220px-Vicky_of_KentYesterday I was researching at Kensington Palace (my second office, as I like to think of it), which has a wealth of Hanoverian connections. My main reason for going was to see Past Pleasures, who are putting on a wonderful series of Georgian re-enactments for the 300th anniversary of George I’s accession. I was lucky enough to meet the Duchess of Richmond (later mother to the infamous Lady Sarah Lennox) and assist her in dressing Queen Caroline. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos for you. To protect the precious history inside Kensington, flash is not allowed and my camera refuses to take anything but a black blur without flash. So you will just have to go and see it for yourself!

While I was wandering round, I decided to visit the wonderful Victoria Revealed exhibition again. If you haven’t been I would highly recommend it. Victoria’s world is brought to life with her words stenciled on the walls and a wealth of her personal possessions. Her black baby boots are one of my favourite pieces, along with the bracelet of hearts commemorating the birth of each of her children. You also get to see Victoria’s beautiful wedding dress. What I love about this is that Victoria was only 5ft 1 and they have displayed her dress in front of a mirror. So if you stand before it and angle your head, you can see how you would look wearing the dress! (Yes, it did suit me rather well.)

The exhibition reminded me how much I love Victoria. Yes, she was neurotic, obsessed and a pretty bad mother but she was also brave, loyal and fiercely intelligent. The mix of good and bad in her is one that fascinates me. I remember reading long extracts from her earlier diaries and really connecting with the young lady who tried to be good and loved her dog called Dash (my dog at the time was called Splash, I like to think they would have been friends). It began to trouble me that this Queen, who interested me so much, was not included in my Hanoverian monarchs series. She was the last Hanoverian Queen – and she was Hanoverian through and through. From her protruding blue eyes to her lust, temper tantrums and hatred of her eldest son, she lived and breathed the family characteristics I have come to know so well.

Initially, I suppose Victoria missed my list because she was a queen, in her own right. My books were planned as a series covering the women who loved the Hanoverian monarchs, and this monarch was a woman herself. Moreover, she is still a well known figure today, not a forgotten heroine without a voice. But yesterday I considered the women in Victoria’s life and realised there was much to say. Many talented authors have already covered the stories of Victoria’s daughters – but what about her mother?

Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld married George III and Queen Charlotte’s fourth son, Edward Duke of Kent. She had already been widowed once and was to find herself a widow again before many years had passed. She first began to interest me when I was researching the life of Princess Sophia for Queen of Bedlam. Sophia and Duchess Victoria were close friends. They had two things in common: concern for the upbringing of little Victoria and a fascination with John Conroy. There came other family ties as the years progressed: the Duchess’s brother, Leopold, married my favourite Georgian princess, Charlotte of Wales. As you will know if you read my blog, I am completely smitten by handsome Leopold, so naturally I also take an interest in his sister! I came across Victoria of Kent yet again when looking into the life of Queen Adelaide. As the Duchess’s daughter was to succeed Adelaide’s husband, the two often came into close contact. Poor Adelaide had to smooth the way on many occasions between William IV and the Duchess.

These disagreements with the King hint to Victoria of Kent’s character. She was proud, controlling and shrewd. She has an infamous reputation as the ultimate pushy mother who wanted to rule through her daughter. But actually, she was a woman left in very difficult circumstances who fought for the rights of her daughter. I think it would be amazing to explore the real woman behind this dark legend. Even more thrilling would be the chance to see and write about Victoria through her eyes.  So I am adding Duchess Victoria of Kent to the Hanoverian Series. This will ensure I cover the dynasty from beginning to end (although Edward VII did have Hanoverian blood, and certainly the eyes, he was officially of the house of Saxe-Coburg Gotha because of his father). The book will be all the more interesting because it will start in the reign of George III and progress all the way to the beginning of the Victorian age. Quiet a fitting way, I think, to tie up the story. There are other novels to work on first, but I have to confess – I can’t wait to begin this one!

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The Other Caroline

Princess_Caroline_Elizabeth_(1713-1757),_by_Jacopo_AmigoniWhen you buy Queen of Bedlam next Tuesday (which you’re obviously going to do, right?) you will see an advert in the back for next year’s novel Mistress of the Court. This will tell the story of George II’s mistress Henrietta Howard and her formidable mistress Queen Caroline. There was literally so much to squeeze into this book that I didn’t get as much space as I wanted to explore the life of George II’s five daughters – maybe another novel in the future! But it’s George and Caroline’s third daughter, another Caroline, who I want to tell you about today. In Mistress of the Court I refer to her as Carrie to avoid confusion with her mother, and will do so here too.

Carrie was always a sickly child. In her infancy, her ill health forced her to remain behind in Hanover with Prince Frederick while the rest of her family went to take the British throne. Inured to suffering, she was an empathetic child who took on the role as peacemaker between her siblings. She was extremely close to her eldest sister Anne, but when Anne married Carrie became the confidante and main companion of her mother. Despite her mild nature, Carrie shared her mother’s disgust with the behaviour of her brother Prince Frederick and vowed she would leave the palace at a grand gallop the moment he became king. Another thing she shared with her mother was a tendency to hold onto weight. It doesn’t show in the portrait above, but Carrie became hugely fat.

Three of George II’s five daughters married – the spinsters were Amelia and Carrie. Amelia was quite content with her unmarried state, as she explained in an impassioned letter to her sister Anne, but Carrie was not. She had an affectionate heart and it seems she had bestowed it on her mother’s servant Lord Hervey. Not only was Hervey married, he took both male and female lovers. But Carrie was not one of them. While Hervey’s memoirs show he had a high respect and friendship for the princess, he had no romantic interest in her.

Carrie was devastated by the death of her mother and the love of her life, which came within a few years of each other. However, she managed to drag on her sad existence, taking comfort in charitable work before she died at the age of just 44.

In many respects Carrie is now a forgotten princess. Given her good nature and courage, she does not deserve to be so. To give her a voice, I have written as short story about her experience as I imagine it when Queen Caroline died. I hope you will enjoy it. Please remember, as always, it is my copyright.

Caroline’s End

Nothing prepares you for the loss of a mother. It is a secret terror; a scream locked deep inside your head. You are never ready; not even when the colour drains from her eyes and age folds her skin. It is always too soon.

I was with her inspecting work on the new library, dizzy with the scent of shaved wood and paint, when she fell. One moment she stood tall, barking orders to the builders. Then she collapsed, her limbs folding like a marionette with its strings cut.

Help. The word stuck in my throat, blocked by terror. She lay, a mountain of flesh with brocade puddled around her. I yearned to run, to help, to scream, but I could do nothing. My body froze to the spot.

Servants swarmed around my mother, calling. I couldn’t hear them. It all moved around me in a magic lantern show, as if I had no part in the proceedings.

At last, someone shoved me forward and I bent over her prone form. “Mama?” My voice came strangled. “Did your legs give way, Mama? Is it the gout?”

Her red, blotchy face gaped at me, a landed carp. She couldn’t speak. I had never known my indomitable mother lost for words before.

They put her to bed at St. James’s Palace, shutting daylight out of her room and burning sour vinegar. I took my usual place, the favourite daughter’s place: at her side. It was cruel to see pain carved into those beloved features. I thought of all the times I had fallen down as a child and she had picked me up, the many nights she’d sat by my sickbed. Now I had to be strong for her. Alas, I never had the steely character of my mother, the Queen. Soft as a bag of feathers, she called me. But I knew, as I watched her sweaty head toss and turn on the pillow, grey curls plastered to her forehead, that she was a part of me. Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. I was even named for her.

At last, Lord Hervey came. When his elegant form swept into the room, a vision of peacock silk and silver embroidery, my shoulders relaxed. This man I worshipped and admired in secret would make everything right.

Lord Hervey clamped his hat under his elbow. “My dear Princess Caroline! What is this? What ails the Queen?”

I started up, knocking my knees against the side of the mattress. My cheeks burnt, as they always did in his presence. “She fell,” I gasped. “She fell.”

My mother shifted on the bed, groaning. “My Lord Hervey, it is that nasty colic I had at Hampton Court. It’s intolerable to be plagued with a new distemper, at my age.” Her chest moved – she tried to laugh, but it turned into a retch. I grabbed a bowl and ran forward, turning her head as vomit spilled from her mouth.

Panic scrabbled inside me. “My lord, you suffer from colic. What do you take? The doctors will administer nothing until the King returns.”

He drew away, nose wrinkled at the stench of sick. “Er – snake-root. Brandy.”

My eyes filled with tears. “Fetch some, for mercy’s sake. Please. I must give her some relief.”

We tried everything: Sir Walter Rayleigh’s Cordial, Daffy’s Elixir, usquebaugh, mint water. She brought them back up.

She held my arm, blue eyes shining like chips of ice. “Poor Caroline, you are very ill too. We will soon meet in a better place.”

By the time the King arrived, I was frantic. I don’t recall anything but the blare of his voice. I’d cried my eyes in to swollen, puffy slots. Exhausted pressure swam around my head until finally it erupted in a nosebleed. They sent me to bed, stained red and brown.

In the morning, my father unravelled. Enormous bags circled his eyes. He’d removed his wig to show a tender, stubbly scalp. His clothes were tousled; he must have laid the whole night beside her on the coverlet. “How the devil can you expect to sleep?” he barked. “You are always moving about.”

I bristled; would he continue to berate my mother, even now? But when I looked into his face I saw my own stark terror staring back at me. He shouted only from fear.

“It hurts,” the Queen gasped. “I have to move when it hurts.”

The doctors cut into the crook of her elbow and caught dark blood in a porcelain bowl. They heated cups and made blisters on her legs. My mother wept. With every tear that fell from her eye, another piece of my world crumbled.

The next day my father spoke to Dr Ranby. “I know what this illness proceeds from. But I promised the Queen I would never speak of it.”

A strange sound rose from the bed; something between a wheeze and groan. “What are you saying, you lying fool?” I’d never heard that venom in my mother’s voice.

The King’s face drooped and he shook his head. “She has a rupture.”

“I don’t! You blockhead! All the pain is here!” She clamped a hand to her stomach.

The King nodded to Dr Ranby. They moved forward; my father held her down as she screamed. Ranby probed her abdomen; his eyes grew dull. “It is a rupture. Your Majesty has concealed it too long already. There is no time to be lost.”

My mind twirled with the news, imagining a rupture in her stomach, in my family. How long had it been there? And my father knew? Jealousy teased my thoughts. My mother shared all with me – I couldn’t imagine why she’d conceal something like this.

Lord Hervey held my hand through the operation. In spite of everything, a chink of my soul rejoiced at his touch. It was a sickening business. The rupture swelled red and fierce, a rosebud pushing out beneath the skin. The surgeons cut away until sweat drenched through their clothes and they were obliged to change.

“You are the best woman in the world,” my father repeated. “The very best.”

He was right. My mother was braver than us all. Even when she groaned, there was an apology. “Don’t mind me. I know you’re only trying to help.”

I yearned to be like her. But I was a brunette to her blonde, plain before her beauty, weak beside her strength. They put me in the ante-room and bled me from both arms. My hope seeped away with the dark, red liquid. What was I without her? I cared for no other in my family. No one understood me.

When I awoke in the night, I found him, curled on a couch at the foot of my bed. My Lord Hervey; his soft feminine features, grey in the gloom. I longed to reach out and touch him, to plant a kiss on those delicate lips. He must care for me. Why else would he come? He couldn’t love his wife, when he spent so many hours here.I thought then that perhaps the operation would work. The Queen’s illness would turn into a blessing. I would lie in the same room as my secret love and watch him sleep, and tomorrow he would show his heart.

But it was a fantasy. All that met me in the morning was a hideous squelching sound. I dashed into the Queen’s room. Tangy, rotten smells clawed at the back of my throat. I danced back, eyes watering, as something wet seeped through the toe of my stockings.  It couldn’t be . . .

Horror possessed me. My mother’s stomach was a fountain, oozing brown filth. Reeking liquid soaked through her shift, her coverlets, and dripped onto the floor. My knees gave way. Crawling in muck, I vomited.

“I wish it was at an end!” she wailed, splashing her hands on the stained bed. “But my nasty heart will not break.”

Hers was the only one that did not. Dr Ranby whispered to my father with tears in his eyes, his voice like gravel. “Your Majesty, I fear there is no hope.”

My father whipped round and punched him in the face.

When they’d cleaned and stopped the vile flow, we clustered round her. Everything still smelt of manure.

My head buzzed. I couldn’t believe this would be the last time. How could I put what she meant to me into words, into a look? My mind groped the black void of a future without her. It was cold and airless. I would never survive.

“I leave you a legacy, Caroline.” Her watery eyes bored into mine. “You must care for your little sisters. Supervise their education.”

I would rather act like a soldier and follow my leader into death. I wish she’d asked it of me. But what she required was much harder: she wanted me to live. To go on, without her.

The King blubbered like a boy. I hadn’t consider, until then, that my parents were in love. Perhaps my mother meant as much to him as Lord Hervey did to me.

“I have nothing to tell you, my dear.” She reached out, wincing, to take his hand. “I always told you my thoughts as fast as they arose. You know all.”

Absurd jealousy prickled my ribs. She was mine, not his. She had been there every minute of my life, even before I drew breath.

She withdrew her hand. A large, ruby ring sat on her stout finger, a glob of blood. I recognised it as the one she received at her Coronation; that day when she’d sparkled like sunshine on water. She pulled it off with difficulty and held it out to the King. “This is the last thing I have to give you. All I ever possessed came from you. My Will you will find a very short one: I give all I have to you.”

The King shielded his eyes. “Ah, God, let it alone! Is it not perfectly safe on your finger?” It occurred to me how solid the hand would turn after death. Waxy skin, frozen forever. Would we be able to prize her ring away? “You will grow well again,” the King said, leaning down to kiss her. Tears rolled down her cheeks, but they were not her own. “The doctors tell me you are better.”

Cruel hope shoved forward, seducing me with honeyed words. Why did it rear its head now, when I knew all was lost? Couldn’t it be kind and let me surrender?

My mother shook her head. “Remarry, when I’m gone.”

Sobs cracked from his chest. He cuffed his eyes again and again, but still the tears came. “No,” he panted. “Never! There is no woman fit to buckle your shoe! I will take mistresses.”

And suddenly, there it was: my mother’s wry smile. Her thin eyebrows arched. “My God, that never stopped you before.”

I was asleep in my room when the death rattle began. Satin and soft pillows shielded me from reality. But then Mrs Purcell’s cold hand darted beneath my quilt and clamped on my arm. I woke with a start. My chest was tight; I couldn’t fill my lungs.

Her gaunt face swam toward me through the shadows. Her eyes were wild. “It is the end.”

Somehow I gained my feet and dashed through the palace. I had to see her before, before . . . Only one candle burnt beside the bed. By the flickering flame, I saw her face, puffed and blue.

My father was there, and my sister Emily. The Queen wheezed at them. “Open the window. Pray.”

As the King darted to open the casement, Emily dropped to her knees. “Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

There was a long, low creak, like the groan of a ship.

“No. It can’t be.” Grabbing a hand mirror from the Queen’s dressing table, I ran to her side and held it before her parched lips. No mist came; no drops of damp. It was over.

Just then, a gust of wind blew through the window and extinguished the candle. She was gone, leaving nothing but the aura of royalty, the ghost of her orange-blossom perfume. With no one to remain strong for, I broke down, my life ripped at the seams.

The King wept. I wanted none of his tears, the louse. He’d never been faithful; he’d distressed my mother with graphic tales of his conquests and hung portraits of his mistresses in their bedchamber. Now he had the hypocrisy to sob his heart out, as if he were the one to be pitied.

Lord Hervey practically carried me to my room, somehow supporting my bulky frame with his slender arms. I clung to him, desperate. My anchor, the only shred of humanity I still cared about. We sat together on my bed in silence, letting time stretch.

Grief numbed me to the core. Like a leech, it drained my vitality until there was nothing but a raw absence. The truth rattled in my skull but I couldn’t grab hold; it was hot enough to sear the skin from my hands. “What will I do?” I croaked.

He started from his reverie. “I don’t know.”

“What will you do? Your office dies with her.” A chasm opened inside me. Surely he wouldn’t leave the palace, rob me of my last comfort? “Will you ask the King for a place?”

He shook his head. “I don’t think so. Without her . . .” He didn’t finish.

Misery took me in a stranglehold. Burning tears rushed from my eyes. I couldn’t endure it. Fevered from lack of sleep, beaten down with grief, and now heartbroken too. I wished God had taken me, instead of the Queen. “You cannot leave.” I looked earnestly into his face, trying to convey my need in a single glance. But even as I did it, I knew my countenance was too pudgy and plain to touch his heart. “Please don’t leave me,” I whispered. “Whatever would I do without you?”

He took my hand and squeezed. My skin quivered with excitement. “You will marry, my dear princess. Duty no longer binds you. Fly free.”

Cruel man. Didn’t he realise I wanted none but him? The idea he could so happily consign me to another man mortified me. “Duty does bind me. I promised the Queen I would care for the little ones.”

Hervey’s eyes filled. Tears for her, not for me. “She would have wanted you to be happy.”

I deflated onto my bed. “Marriage would not make me happy,” I told the painted ceiling. “Because I cannot marry for love.”

I heard Hervey shift on the bed. “It doesn’t signify. I married for love, yet I am not happy.”

My pulse skittered. It was rare that he spoke of his wife, that goddess of shining black hair and lively eyes. “You do not love her, now?” I whispered with hope. “Your passion has burnt out?”

His voice came soft as velvet.  “No. Transferred. The person I love is . . . unattainable.”

Every fibre thrilled. He couldn’t mean…? I propped myself up on my elbows, greedy for his words.

“You love another?” I panted, breathless. “A person barred to you from society and custom?”

He put one hand over his face. The other laced its trembling fingers through mine. “Oh, Caroline. It is such a relief to tell you at last.”

Joy rushed through me, warm as spirit. Only a few hours had passed since my mother’s death, but perhaps this was her last gift to me. My life would begin at her end.

I huddled against his arm, my heart in my throat. “The one I love is out of my reach, too.”

His hand squeezed mine. “Then, gentle Caroline, you will understand.”

“I do understand you.” Need throbbed through my voice. “I am always here to listen.”

He dropped the hand from his pale forehead and turned to face me. His eyes bore into my soul. Surely he saw my love, raw and naked in my look?

I swept down my eyelashes and wet my lips with the tip of my tongue. Blessed, blessed moment. It was going to happen at last: the dream I never dared hope would become reality.

But he kiss didn’t me. Instead, Hervey groaned. “It is churlish of me to burden you with my woes, at a time such as this.”

“No, not at all. Speak.”

He tilted his head in the shadows. I felt his breath, hot and sweet, brush my skin. “Sometimes I have thought you half-suspected the truth. But I couldn’t tell your mother. It would have slain me to see disgust or horror in her eyes.”

I couldn’t let him tread this path. He wouldn’t use my mother as an excuse to make us both miserable. He wasn’t so very low, to love a princess. Were it not for his wife, the Queen might have smiled on his suit.

“You should have confessed. She may have looked kindly upon you.” Upon us.

He shrugged. I wished I could make out his expression in the shifting darkness. “These things are too dangerous to speak of, without being sure.”

Words crowded my mouth. Hang the danger. I will run with you, anywhere. Defy the King. Defy them all. Let us be together.

“But now . . .?

He blew out his breath. “Now he is married. He loves his wife, and I have lost him.”

Reality slammed into me with the weight of a cannon ball. Tears pricked my eyes like tiny bayonets. “H-Him?” I stumbled. Then, the terrible image of Hervey, my love, holding another crystallised in my mind. “A man?”

He hung his head. “Stephen Fox.” Nausea pushed at the back of my throat; a sickness borne of jealousy and profound disappointment. Not mine, after all. Never mine. “You won’t tell, will you?” he asked anxiously.

I thought of my love, pushing through the soil like a green spear in springtime. Without light or heat, it would decay before a single bud showed, tainting the chill soil of my heart. A secret no one must know.

“No,” I whispered. “I will never tell a soul.”

Caroline

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