Authors: Elizabeth Fremantle
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Psychological, #Political, #General
There’s an inherent limit to the stress that any material can bear. Water has its boiling point, metals their melting points. The elements of the spirit behave the same way. Happiness can reach a pitch so great that any further happiness can’t be felt. Pain, despair, humiliation, disgust, and fear are no different. Once the vessel is full, the world can’t add to it.
Stefan Zweig –
The Post Office Girl
‘The name of a successor is like the tolling of my own death-bell!’
Is the hammering inside my head?
Tap, tap, tap
, in the soft place beneath my temple, in the matter where my thoughts live.
Something, someone tapping, wants to be heard, to escape.
It is a subtle and prolonged species of torture, this noise, reminding me of the impossibility of freedom.
I am the pane in the window overlooking the courtyard; I am cracked in two places but still manage to hold my form. Through the glass the world is distorted, divided into three parts, each with its own perspective, none of them quite true.
Tap, tap, tap
It is the sound of my youth. For months and months they have been renovating the rooms beneath mine. I try to keep my mind on the clean smell that drifts up: whitewash and freshly sawn timber. My maid surprises me on the floor, nose pressed to a crack in the boards to breathe it in. It takes me far into the past and somewhere back there I believe I will find a way to make sense of things, of the shape of my life, the shape of me.
I am taken back to another tower, the little Stand Tower at Chatsworth; I was nine. I know that because it was the year the boy to whom I was betrothed died. He was the Earl of Leicester’s son, not even out of babyhood; I never met him but there was much talk of it among the servants. They said that since Leicester, despite all his efforts, never achieved the throne by marriage to the Queen, then his son might instead, by wedding the Queen’s most likely heir – that was me.
The walls inside the Stand Tower were cool to the touch
and left a powdery residue on the tip of my finger. The door was propped up to one side, waiting to be fitted. Everything was coated in a film of fine sawdust and the stone flags were scattered with pretty curls of shaved wood. I picked one up and threaded it on my finger, holding up my small hand to admire. Noticing the dirt beneath my nails, I imagined the fuss Nurse would make later, glad Grandmother was away in London on business, otherwise, never mind my grubby nails, I would not have dared to be up at the Stand Tower without permission and with only a stable lad for company.
I poked my head out from the entrance to ensure Tobias was not peeping, but he was seated on the bottom step humming tunelessly, with his back to me, as good as his word. The ponies were tearing at a tussock of grass nearby; everything was green and full of promise. Or was it? Surely it was late summer then and the land must have been parched – though perhaps there had been rain, for I feel sure I remember the soft squelch of mud underfoot.
Memories are like that cracked pane of glass with its subtle distortions.
Tap, tap, tap.
I stepped into the shady interior and unbuckled my satchel, pulling out a crumpled pair of breeches pilfered from the laundry, giving them a shake. Little eddies of dust danced and wood shavings skittered over the floor.
I remember clearly the thrill that passed through me as I held those breeches up to my body. ‘If only you’d been a boy.’ Grandmother’s refrain circled about my head. I stepped into them, tugging them over my shoes, not caring about the mud that smeared up my white stockings. Bunching my layers of skirt in one hand, I tied the breeches’ tapes as best I could. They were much too big, puffing out wide and cuffed above the knee.
The idea had come to me from a troupe of players that had visited Chatsworth in the spring. I was allowed to stay up
that night and watch them perform a comedy with a girl disguised as a boy – though truly it was a boy actor pretending to be a girl disguised as a boy – which had us all, even Grandmother, laughing until our cheeks ached. I had thought a good deal about it, tried to imagine what it might be like to be a boy, to go about unencumbered by skirts, to ride astride, to be at the heart of things instead of on the edges, to be listened to even when you spoke nonsense, like my baby boy cousin whose infant burblings were a source of wonder for Aunt Mary and Uncle Gilbert.
I fumbled with the fastening of my skirt; the knot was too tight, tied double and wouldn’t undo. I was tempted to ask Tobias for help but didn’t dare; it was enough already, persuading him to go up there with me; though he didn’t seem to mind that it might have caused him misfortune if we were caught. Exasperated with the stubborn knot, I yanked hard; something gave, with a crack of broken threads, and the skirt, petticoats, bum-roll and all, fell to a heap at my feet.
I began to experiment with my newfound liberty, striding back and forth, one hand on my hip as if perched at the hilt of a sword, drawing it, lunging forward with a jabbing motion towards an imagined adversary. Girding myself then, I sidled out to stand at the top of the steps. Tobias was busy scraping mud off his boots with a penknife. I hollered, a kind of battle cry, as much as a nine-year-old girl can make such a sound, and took the steps two at a time, making a final running leap to land before him.
He jumped up in shock and then, seeing me, clapped a hand over his mouth. Only then was I aware of the sight I must have been, my boned satin bodice atop the voluminous creased breeches and my filthy stockings all wrinkled about my ankles.
‘Highness!’ was all he could manage.
‘Don’t call me that. Just for today can you not pretend I
am any old girl playing dress-up?’ I secretly wanted to tell him to call me Charles, to make-believe just for an hour that I was a boy and named after the father who was an empty space in my memory.
He looked aghast, as if I had asked him to denounce God. ‘What should I call you, then?’
‘Call me whatever you want, anything but
He opened his mouth to speak but said nothing.
Not knowing what to do with the awkwardness, I sprang at him, thrusting with my imaginary sword. ‘
He laughed then, drawing his own pretend blade from its pretend scabbard, raising it to meet my own. We danced back and forth, slashing and swiping until he saw his chance and pounced forward. ‘
I collapsed to the ground, clutching my chest with a terrible howl.
He was still laughing, quite red-faced with it, as I prepared to mount my pony. Dancer tossed his head, rattling his bridle, sensing my excitement.
I whispered into the hollow of his ear, ‘Just you wait, boy, together we’re going to fly,’ then realized with a thud of disappointment that of course he wore a woman’s saddle. There would be no flying, just the usual sedate lumbering canter. I began to unravel, as if a thread had been pulled somewhere inside me, and didn’t know what to do so I did nothing, just stood looking into the valley, fighting my distress.
I had a clear view of Chatsworth. I could see Uncle Henry in the mews with the head falconer, I recognized his bright blue cape. I liked Uncle Henry. He said he had ‘magic hands’ and could make things disappear. When he got his cards out and began flicking and flipping them, people were drawn to wager he couldn’t, but he could; I had seen it with my very own eyes.
Someone was shaking a red Turkey carpet from one of the
windows like a flag and threads of pale smoke rose from the chimneys in the forbidden wing where the Queen of Scotland was housed. Her convoy had arrived from Wingfield a few days before, under heavy guard, and the Chatsworth staff were all grumbling about the extra work. I could see the day-watch in the courtyard below her apartments and a mounted pair, with muskets slung over their shoulders, patrolling the east entrance.
All at once I knew what to do; I unbuckled Dancer’s girth strap, lifting that wrong-shaped saddle off, propping it on the steps.
‘Are you sure?’ Tobias had the same look of concern he’d worn when I’d asked him to accompany me to the tower. ‘What if some harm should befall you? Riding bareback is –’
‘You may be four years my senior, Master Toby, but I am at least as good a rider as you and you know it.’ It was true; I was a natural in the saddle, everyone said it. ‘Besides –’ I was about to remind him that he was obliged to obey me but stopped myself, for I had stepped into a place where the normal rules didn’t apply.
I led Dancer to the steps and swung my leg over his round, piebald rump, marvelling once again at the freedom the breeches offered. ‘Good boy.’ I leaned forward, resting my cheek against his neck, whispering, ‘You’ll fly like Pegasus.’
Once out of the copse and on to open land we picked up our speed, galloping faster and faster, hooves thundering, the wind in my face, hair streaming in my wake. Pleasure simmered in me; it was as I had imagined, exactly: being a comet shooting over the sky, an arrow fired from a bow, a bird soaring, a lead bullet whistling. In that moment I was untouchable; I wanted to wrap the feeling in my handkerchief and keep it in my pocket for ever. The sensation returns to me across the years – the illusion of freedom is so complete I feel as incorporeal as a current of air that could blow through the crack in the window.
We slowed eventually to a walk as we reached the cover of trees. Tobias, who had been following on his own horse in anxious pursuit, drew alongside me, saying, ‘Why did you want to do this?’
‘I don’t know … to know what it would be like.’ I couldn’t find adequate words to describe the sensation of joy, of liberty, of vigour, but he seemed satisfied. I realize now, after all this time, the thing I always sought above everything, above the crown, above love or matrimony, was freedom.
‘You won’t tell anyone?’ I said, but didn’t really need to ask, for Tobias had already pledged his silence and he was good at keeping secrets; he had kept secrets for me before. He’d said nothing when he’d found me once on the roof leads after dark. I had gone up there to look at the moon, or so I told him, but truly I had gone there out of curiosity and too much curiosity was not supposed to be a good thing in a girl, or so Grandmother liked to remind me. I hadn’t thought to ask Tobias what
was doing up there, when he belonged in the stables. Nurse said I was a secretive child. Which I took to mean that Nurse thought me dishonest, but there is a difference between keeping secrets and telling lies.
‘You have my word,’ he assured me.
‘Let’s not go back just yet.’ We were already at the Stand Tower, dismounting. I wanted to eke out that moment of stolen freedom before having to truss myself back into my dress and return to the house where my tutor awaited with his book of Latin verbs. ‘Let’s go up!’
The staircase was tightly spiralled and steep and unlit. I mounted cautiously with one hand on the wall, which was cool and damp as pastry. I imagined I was a knight rescuing a maiden. Round and round the stairs went, until we arrived at a chamber flooded with light from four large curved windows. There was a rotten stench from the corner.
It was an ordinary, small, brown speckled bird, lying belly up, its twig claws clutched into tiny fists.
‘Nightingale,’ said Tobias. He picked it up firmly as if shaking someone’s hand. ‘Must have flown in through an open window and not found its way out again.’
I couldn’t get the thought of that small bird out of my head, flapping wildly, bead eyes swivelling, flying terrified at the panes, mistaking the glass for sky and eventually losing all hope.
Tap, tap, tap.
Tobias opened the window and threw the little carcass out. For some reason I had expected it to float down like a feather but it dropped hard, as if its bones were filled with lead. We stood for a while in silence.
‘You been up here before?’ he asked.
‘Yes.’ I could see the guards searching a delivery cart in the Chatsworth courtyard. ‘Before this tower was built. With my mother.’ Remembering Mother felt as if someone had tied a rope about my heart with a slipknot. ‘She’s dead.’
Tobias lowered his head and, after a silence, pointed towards the house. ‘She’s your aunt on your father’s side, isn’t she?’
I didn’t understand immediately that he was talking of the Queen of Scots until he added, ‘It’s a terrible thing that she should be shut away for all those years and her own son sitting on
It was not clear to me how the Queen of Scots’ situation had come to pass; I only knew what Grandmother had told me, with lips pursed in undisguised disapproval: ‘She was foolish in love and paid insufficient heed to good advice. Given half a chance she’d push our queen off her throne and take it for herself.’
What I did know was that she had been in my step-grandfather’s custody, at one or other of his houses, for a very long time. She used to have greater freedom and walk in the
gardens, even ride out and hunt occasionally under guard. But things had changed and she was now kept under close watch with no visitors and had to take her air on the roof leads. Those were the orders of Queen Elizabeth.
‘She’d like to see you’ – Tobias was whispering, despite the fact that there was no one to hear – ‘I promised I would bring you to her.’
‘But it is forbidden …’ I stopped. Was this why he had so readily agreed to accompany me up to the Stand Tower; he wanted a favour in return? ‘Do you serve her? I thought you served my grandmother.’
‘In a manner of speaking.’
I didn’t question him further, for it was clear from his crossed arms and floorward gaze that he wouldn’t say more. Suddenly I felt very young, too young to understand things, but I could not deny my desire to see the Scots Queen, and what greater temptation is there than that which is forbidden?
As I slunk across the great high chamber, a sound startled me, sending my heart thudding as if it had a mind to burst right out of my chest, but it was only a log falling in the fire. Once in the long gallery I moved faster, keeping close to the wall. I stopped, holding my breath as I heard the unmistakable slap of slippered feet. Ducking behind a tapestry, I waited as the steps moved past, their rhythmic
punctuating another sound, a
that conjured in my mind the chink of Grandmother’s fat pearls that she wore in four heavy strands to below her waist. But no, Grandmother was in London. All sorts of imagined scenarios assaulted my thoughts: a change of plan, a lost wheel on the coach, plague in the capital. Only as the sound was receding did I dare peep to see the back of one of the laundry maids with a creaking basket of linens. Relief gushed through me; but I sensed
myself drawn to the danger and the idea of having a proper secret, something real and important.