To mark the passing of Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, at this time in 1772, I’ve written a little piece of historical fiction. It’s entirely true that she insisted on getting up and dressed and having tea with her son and daughter-in-law mere hours before her death. This is how I imagine she felt. (Again, please do remember this piece of fiction, however small, is my copyright)
The room swirled. Augusta fluttered her eyelashes and batted away the encroaching shadows. After years of fighting against hostile in-laws, ignorant rabbles and protesters who decapitated her effigy in the streets, she’d be damned if she’d give in now.
She groped across the table and wound her trembling finger through the delicate, porcelain handle of the tea-cup. It clattered against the saucer in protest.
‘Mama, I think you need to rest.’ George creased his eyebrows together in an expression that made him look heart-rendingly like his father. ‘Charlotte and I can come back tomorrow.’
Ah, my dear boy, but there won’t be a tomorrow. She had to play her part one last time. She would do it well.
‘Nonsense,’ she growled. It didn’t sound like her voice at all; guttural, beastly. She grimaced against the harsh rasp which tore at her throat.
Sitting opposite her, anxiously perched on their chairs, were her son and her daughter-in-law – the King and Queen of England. But they were awestruck, mere limp puppets in her presence. She had ruled them for so long, the thought of her passing was incomprehensible.
Or perhaps not. In the shrewd, sharp eyes of Charlotte, Augusta saw the germs of an emotion she had never expected from her: deep, heartfelt compassion. After all their rows, all their struggles to possess George’s heart, perhaps they were coming to an understanding at last. There was power, indomitable strength in the face of that Queen. Augusta prided herself on the fact she had forged it there. It had been a tough school, but Charlotte had reaped the benefits. Here was a woman who understood all, yet gave away nothing. One who knew her place. Knew, more pertinently, that Augusta was lolling against death’s door. Something in the set of her thin lips told Augusta she was already planning the months ahead: the burial, how to allay George’s grief.
With supreme effort, Augusta hauled the cup to her lips. A dark, Bohea tea hit her with its fragrance, while a slice of lemon floating on top added a citrus note. She couldn’t drink it. She couldn’t even swallow. It was like asking her to down a goblet of nails. She touched her lips to the porcelain and lapped gently, hoping it would suffice. A few drops of the liquid tumbled down onto her embroidered stomacher, where they spread like the cancer that was creeping through her, staining her insides.
‘Perhaps I will lay on the chaise longue. But do stay.’
Her wobbling legs held out just in time for her to collapse against the striped silk. A great, hacking cough erupted from her chest – a tunnel of scratchy fire that pushed the air from her lungs. She had the presence of mind to put a lace handkerchief to her lips and catch the spurt of blood, dark as garnets.
Poor George hovered over her, clutching at her numb hand. ‘What can I do? What can I fetch for you?’
Love swelled in her heart until it pushed away the pain of her disease. Dear George. Her slow, puny, mewling heir, not expected to live a week. Look at him now! Anointed and just the man his father wanted him to be. He would retrieve the glory of the crown, she had no doubt. True, her other sons had more wit, and Edward had been their darling, but George had the heart of gold. He would give of himself before others, adhere to duty like a shadow, sacrifice his heart and soul for what he thought was right. What she and Bute had taught him was right.
With Charlotte’s fingers dabbing lavender water on her temples and George grasping her hand, she allowed her eyes to close and lay, listening to the wheeze of her breath. Not long until she saw Frederick now. She gave a faint smile. Would he still be bickering with his parents in Heaven? She hoped he would be proud of her – his frail little child-bride who had worked to preserve his memory with heart and soul, fought to protect their children from the evils of this world, though with little success. Her daughter, her fallen girl, Caroline Matilda flashed into her mind. She tossed uneasily, her cough turning into a phlegmy gargle. And Bute! What about Bute? The agony of leaving him grappled with the shame of knowing she would have to stand before her husband, in Heaven, and explain why she had loved, just for a second, another man. Suddenly her bodice was punishingly tight; she could feel her breasts swell and press against the material and knew, without looking, they were strawberry red. Nothing improper had happened, but she blamed herself. She despised herself to think that even a chink of her heart could have been disloyal to Frederick.
Someone passed her a bowl and she threw up a noxious mixture of blood and gunge. God, it hurt. It felt like one of the lions in the Tower Menagerie had her by the jugular and was worrying her flesh with its teeth. Stay strong for George. Show him dignity. Teach him to despise fear. His face swam above her, wide-eyed and blotchy as he struggled to dam the tears. ‘It doesn’t give me pain,’ she tried to tell him, but the words came out in a slur of nonsense. Just as well. She shouldn’t be lying within minutes of meeting her Maker.
Charlotte was concocting more liquids and ointments to bring her relief, tinkling bottles together until they sounded like the flutter of angel wings. The heady, floral scent swept Augusta away, back to the botanic gardens that had been her life’s work. Bright yellow played against her closed eyelids and she could almost feel the heat of the sun.
“Dolly,” she murmured. There was a general flutter of consternation. Bells rang, servants were consulted. They could tell, by her grasping hands and her flapping, fish-like mouth, that she needed something. Mustering every ounce of strength, she fought against the spiky lump in her throat and tried to enunciate. “Dolly.”
It was George who understood. With a flash of his velvet coat-tails he was out of the door and dashing upstairs. Pray God he returned in time. He was the kind of boy who would never forgive himself for being absent when she expired.
Charlotte tightened her grip on Augusta’s hand. ‘Be a good Queen,’ Augusta urged her. Then, with a sudden rush of charity, she added, ‘I know you can.’ The girl’s eyes filled with tears.
Augusta had never had her chance and it still stung like the thorn of rose. Princess of Wales was all she could grasp at. Charlotte would play her part well, but – oh! – how much better August would have done it! The demure Queen draped in ermine, a virtuous example for the nation, an eye to politics with no ostensible influence. How could it be she was denied that role? How could she want something so desperately yet never, ever get it?
But there was George again – her hope, her legacy. Her heir of the blood would sit on the throne and act as she had bidden him. Gently, he laid a child’s toy into the crook of her arm. Poor Dolly. She was as travel-worn and beaten as her mistress. The porcelain features were pale now, faded beneath the light of a thousand summers. Her upswept hair had tangles and little tattered ribbons clung stubbornly to the roots. Threadbare patches on her dress, dirt on the hem, stains on her sleeves. She, too, was ready to go.
It seemed a lifetime ago that a gawky, child-like teenager called Augusta had turned out her trunks and boxes, her wardrobe and portmanteau, deciding which objects would comfort her in her new life and which she would have to resign herself never to see again. Yes, she had been an ingénue, she had been naive. It had seemed imperative, even sensible, that her favourite doll should accompany her across the channel and face the world with her. A friendly face to confide in, an unjudging, tiny shoulder to cry on. Time had only proved her decision right. God, how she needed that doll in her first years in England.
Across the sea, across the land, through years of heart-ache and joy. Always side by side. They had made that first journey together. So would they make their last.