Three Years Earlier
Fourteen Years Old
I was sure I would not sleep my last night in the shambles. I had lived my whole life amid the butchers’ shops that lined the narrow street. The strangely human screams that rippled through the animals when their fellows’ throats were slashed became my lullaby. But the eerie silence that fell when the men put down their knives seemed filled with frightening possibilities. Never more so than tonight, when I had no more knowledge of my fate than the beasts barred in the holding pens.
I burrowed under the frayed blanket my younger brother, Samuel, and I had shared since we could climb the ladder to the cottage loft. I wondered why his conversations with God always took longer when I needed to talk to Samuel myself. The rest of us Hudsons dealt with prayers the way we scrubbed our faces in winter, rushing through the ordeal as quickly as possible, jumbling forbidden Catholic Latin with lawful Anglican English, and not overly fastidious about either. Grumbling loudly enough for my kneeling brother to hear, I punched a lump of straw in Samuel’s side of the pallet to smooth it in case he ever decided to come to bed. Not that I expected my show of irritation to do any good. It never had before.
But tonight should be different, I thought. Once we climbed out from under this blanket in the morning, everything would change. Next time I returned to the cottage, I would be a visitor. I wouldn’t know all the little happenings of Samuel’s day. He would know nothing of mine.
My stomach lurched and I wondered if my older brother, John, had felt this sick dread when he had left home to become an apprentice three years ago. It seemed strange to think of him as a grown man, wielding a butcher’s knife for the master he served five shops away. I remembered Mother weeping as she stitched him a shirt out of her wedding petticoat, and Father’s wide grin when he returned from the secondhand clothing man with a pair of boots. John had drawn them on and paced the cottage floor, every sinew in his lanky frame determined to show he was officially a man.
Our sister, Ann, had tied up John’s bundle—two pairs of stockings she had darned, a leather apron, and three scorched ginger nuts Samuel had earned by sweeping out the baker’s oven. The preparations for my leave-taking would not be so elaborate.
“I convinced His Grace to take Jeff with nothing but the clothes on his back,” Father had said, congratulating himself, the night he announced I was to be handed over to the duke. “Made His Grace wary that some sickness from the shambles might travel to his mansion on the hill.”
I had been tempted to remind Father that he traveled from the shambles to the duke’s holdings all the time in his position as trainer of the nobleman’s bull-baiting dogs. But why bother? Even if the duke had permitted me to bring a whole wagonload of goods to my new life, my take-leave would have been nothing like John’s. Of all my family, only Samuel would mourn my leaving.
I closed my eyes for just a moment—not because they were suddenly burning, but to rest them until Samuel’s prayers were finished. I must have dozed, for I started awake, panicked at the absence of Samuel’s warmth on the pallet beside me.
Moonlight trickled in through the hole in the roof that Father had not gotten around to mending. A white-robed ghost seemed to take shape in the silvery glow: Samuel, sitting cross-legged in the moonlight, my mother’s sewing basket at his side.
“What are you doing over there?” I asked.
“Thinking,” Samuel said. “When John left home, it was a comfort to picture the place he’d sleep near the master butcher’s hearth. But no matter how I try, I cannot imagine what life will be like for you once you leave Oakham behind.”
“I’ll still be staring at people’s knees, but the stockings will have fewer holes in them.”
Samuel did not even try to smile. I climbed out of bed and crossed to where my mother had laid my costume the night before. But the garb that turned me into a Fairy King was not where I remembered it, one side of the green cloth more crumpled than I recalled.
I had worn it scores of times dancing for pennies at the market fair. Is that how the great ones heard of me? I wondered as I smoothed out a wrinkle.
“Do not pretend to jest, Jeffrey. Not tonight.” Samuel’s face clouded. I could not bear it if he cried.
“I’ll not jest if you promise not to get melancholy. After all, there is a chance that I might be stealing your blanket again by nightfall. The duke might take one look at me and decide I am not worthy of his attention.” I meant to soothe Samuel. Instead, he grew alarmed.
“Never say that!”
“So you are eager to get rid of me after all?”
“You know I am not. But Father has already been bragging at the pub, and I fear his temper. I fear the duke even more. People say such horrible things about how wicked he is. Are you afraid?”
There was no use lying to Samuel. He’d always been able to see right through to the truth in me. “A little.”
“So am I. That is why I had to protect you.”
I looked at my slight, fair brother with his tousled golden ringlets and eyes far too gentle for the shambles and I thought how John would have laughed at Samuel’s claim.
“Protect me?” I echoed. “How?”
“I sewed Our Lady in the seam of your tunic while everyone was sleeping.”
That holy medal was Samuel’s most beloved possession, a gift from the half-mad old woman who kept a statue of the Virgin Mary under her floorboards. Much as his generosity touched me, it unnerved me, as well. Holy relics had been outlawed in England, along with the Catholic faith. Five monarchs had ruled since Henry VIII had broken with Rome, and factions were still warring over England’s immortal soul—Anglicans, Puritans, Catholics, and whatever other sects sprang up in between.
John gets ginger nuts. I get a chunk of tin that could land me in Fleet Prison, I thought with wry humor, but I curbed my tongue, saying only, “Samuel, you should not have given me your medal.”
“It was the only way I could think of to remind you when I am not around,” Samuel insisted.
“Remind me of what?”
“That what people say of you is not true. You weren’t born of dark magic. You are good. A gift from Heaven.”
I shook my head and turned away. Samuel’s hand drifted down on my shoulder. “Whenever you doubt yourself, touch the medal and remember Our Lady loves you, Jeffrey, and so do I.”
My eyes burned. I nudged him with my elbow to disguise my emotions. “If you’d given me ginger nuts, I would have shared them with you.”
Samuel punched me back, and I knew he understood what I could not say. I’ve shared everything—my whole life—with you. Until now.
We climbed into bed and stared at the ceiling as the night slipped through our fingers and morning dawned in a hurly-burly of preparations. I had never been bathed and combed, trimmed and polished with more vigor, never hammered with more instructions of how I was to behave in the duke’s presence. The bathing was women’s work; Father’s work: barking out orders. But I could see Samuel outside the mad circle. He stayed close, watching me, until the only thing left to say was good-bye.
* * *
It seemed I had barely blinked before I was standing in my new master’s withdrawing room at the center of a world I had never known.
Sweat trickled beneath my leaf green tunic, burning skin scrubbed raw. The handwoven cloth scoured my ribs as Father hefted me onto the writing table that dominated the duke of Buckingham’s privy chamber. From here, George Villiers ruled my village and much of England besides. Not that he ruled it well, I had heard men in Oakham’s shambles grumble. Buckingham had just limped home after squandering the greatest fleet England had ever sent to sea. His intent: to reprise Drake’s famous raid upon the Spanish port of Cádiz.
The duke’s failure had not cost him any of the king’s love, from all reports. Charles Stuart had welcomed Buckingham back. The rest of England loathed Buckingham more than ever.
I stood before the most powerful nobleman in England and tried not to tread on the inked pages that littered Buckingham’s table, or smudge wax still soft on the letter stamped with his seal. The candle he’d used to melt that wax flickered so close to me, I could feel the curls my mother had pressed into my hair wilting. I remembered the blisters she had burned into her hands while holding my golden brown locks around a hot poker, and I wondered if winning this nobleman’s favor could make my mother love me.
Buckingham crossed his arms over a doublet sprinkled with jewels, and I fought the urge to rub my eyes. Every surface in the room gleamed in the late-afternoon sun, even the tapestries draping the walls threaded with gilt. I remembered the tale my father had told me as we trudged from his butcher shop to His Grace’s estate of Burley-on-the-Hill.
“Nothing but a lowly knight’s son was George Villiers, and a second son at that. His family was poor, but that lad was prettier than any ever seen. Aped the ways of his betters and used his fair face to make two kings love him. Rose to be court favorite to slobbering James. When the old king started to wither, Buckingham turned all that charm on James’s stammering runt of a son, our new king, Charles.”
It was easy to see how the royals had fallen under Buckingham’s thrall. I could not remember when I had first made a game of picturing myself in other people’s skins—striding on the legs of a running footman, or inhabiting a tall man who cut through the crowds that swallowed me up. But as I stared at the duke, my imagination failed me.
Never had I seen a man knit together with such perfect pieces. White hose clung to the finest legs I had ever seen—and God knew I had been lost in a forest of legs my whole life. Sable hair tumbled in curls to broad shoulders garbed in peacock blue cut velvet. My heart beat faster as Buckingham approached me.
“A pretty plaything you will make, Jeffrey Hudson,” he said. “I hardly believed the rumors I heard regarding your appearance. Seldom does a specimen live up to expectations.”
Specimen. The word sounded as if I were not human. “Thank His Grace, Jeffrey,” my father ordered.
I did not know what I was supposed to thank him for. “I am honored—” Buckingham cut me off with a gesture, pacing around the table to observe me on all sides. My skin itched where his gaze touched it.
“I must know what tricks you have used to achieve such perfection.” Buckingham grasped my thigh, kneading the flesh as if he expected it to peel away. I willed myself to hold still no matter how he pinched. The duke inspected first one leg, then the other. My cheeks burned when he pulled up my tunic. Cold air flooded over my naked belly as Buckingham spoke to my father. “Hard to believe you have not padded his clothes with sawdust to mold such attractive lines.”
My parents have not padded me, I longed to say. But they would still be wrapping me in bandages so tight that I’d have no room to grow if I hadn’t learned to twist my body into impossible angles and pull the knots free with my teeth.
“My son is as God made him,” my father said. “You will never see Jeffrey’s like again.”
I tried not to flinch as the duke peeled back my lips, examining my teeth.
Father grasped curls at my nape and pulled my head back until my mouth fell open. He turned me so the candle light could probe deeper to teeth that had been hidden. “Jeffrey is keen as the edge of my cleaver. He learned French when Huguenots moved next door.”
“A butcher’s lad speaking French? It will stand him in good stead, since the queen makes little effort to learn English.”
“My lad hears something once and he remembers it forever.”
“That is a skill I can make use of at court.” Buckingham laid one finger along his cheek. I stared at his face, fascinated. The duke’s beard was groomed to a meticulous point, his mustache feathered broad at each end. The chestnut whiskers drew my eyes to the mouth they framed—his upper lip a trifle fuller than his lower, something oddly feminine in their shape. I had never seen anyone so clean.
“Jeffrey, I will make you king among court fools,” Buckingham said. “In return, I require absolute loyalty. A trumped-up charge of treason is the most expedient way to be rid of an opponent at court. Such affairs are notoriously messy. If I fall, a servant like you might end up on a scaffold along with me. But we will speak no more of such gloomy possibilities. You will unravel the plans of whoever schemes against me. No one will suspect you, even after their villainy is exposed. You look innocent as angels, freak though you may be.”
I did not wince at the word. I was fourteen years old, well-used to being labeled a freak. It no longer made me cry. “Enemies, Your Grace?” I asked.
“You may have heard of some little difficulty in Cádiz?”
Returning with a third of the ships he had set out with did not seem “little” to me.
“The court is filled with people determined to use that misfortune to destroy me. They tell the king lies about me. They did the same with His Majesty’s father when King James loved me. My enemies were certain that when Charles ascended to the throne, I would fall from favor. Instead, I became his dearest friend, his brother in all but blood. Now those enemies believe I hold too much influence over His Majesty. There are even those who wish me dead.”
I tried to imagine the duke suffering such a fate. He seemed above such physical limitations. I wondered what would happen to the families who lived on his estates if such men stole the duke’s holdings.
Buckingham smiled thinly. “The queen herself would rejoice if I were to disappear. But, then, she is not yet seventeen. Too inexperienced to realize someone else would rise up to take my place. Someone who might use the king’s favor in less amiable ways than I do. It is our duty to save the queen from herself.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” I replied.
“It is settled, then. I will take you to court, where the queen has made collecting rarities such as you her favorite amusement. She is behaving like a petulant child, playing with her particular friends and using her curiosities in the masques she loves to put on while she ostracizes those of us who would bend her attentions to unpleasant matters. If you do your work well, Her Majesty will delight in taking you for a pet. I have never seen anyone so quick to lavish affection. You will be vigilant and carry everything you hear back to me.”
I tried to sort out my feelings about a woman who would collect people for pets. Buckingham fingered strands of my hair.
“Her Majesty is a charming woman, Jeffrey. Not beautiful, exactly, but she is so spirited, it scarcely matters.” Buckingham frowned. “You must not be fooled. She is the French king’s eyes, the Pope’s instrument. If she has her way, England will bow to Catholic masters. Do you understand how dangerous such divided loyalties can be?”
“I do.” Cold prickled my neck, and I thought of the medal my brother Samuel had sewn into the seam of my tunic.
Buckingham’s eyes narrowed. “Never forget that you are my dog, Jeffrey. Have you seen what your father does to dogs that will not fight when they are thrown into the bull pit?”
“Answer His Grace, Jeffrey,” my father said.
“Father flings them to the pack to be torn apart, Your Grace.” I had seen that ritual and had held Samuel while he retched all over my shoes.
“It is unpleasant, but it must be done, or the pack will run wild,” Buckingham said. “You understand?”
He spoke with such tender regret, I found myself agreeing with him. “Yes, Your Grace.”
“I trust you will not need an example of this lesson. You have a wealth of other things to learn. Have you ever felt the kiss of silk upon your back?”
He knew I was garbed in my best. “Never, Your Grace.”
“You must have all new clothes.” He touched my sleeve, then rubbed his fingers together to crush any fleas he carried away from me. “The moment the first garment is finished, you will cast this rag into the fire.”
I thought of the medal. “My clothes are precious to me. My family sacrificed much so I might—”
“Jeffrey!” Father jabbed me with his finger. “Be glad of your master’s generosity. Your Grace, I will tear those clothes off him now, if you say the word.”
“Do not concern yourself, John. Your son shows loyalty to the place he came from. I hope he shows as much on my behalf when the need arises.” Buckingham gestured for my father to lift me from the table. The duke’s signet ring glittered.
Father swung me to the floor, his grip so tight, my ribs bruised. If the duke sent me back to the cottage on High Street, I would suffer other bruises, as well.
“I did not mean to offend,” I said. “I will do better.”
“You will have to. The royal court is no place for a butcher’s son. You will have to create a new Jeffrey Hudson, one worthy to associate with the greatest nobles of the land. They attend the most lavish banquets, dwell in the finest houses, and find even the most costly entertainment dull. It will be your duty to make yourself so vital to the queen’s happiness that she cannot bear to be without you, even in her most private moments. You must win a place—not as her court fool, but as her shadow.”
I could barely bring myself to speak to a milkmaid for fear she would jeer at me. Now I was to invite the mighty to laugh at me, including the greatest lady in the land. What if the queen took a dislike to me?
The duke laid steepled hands against his lips. I was struck by how delicate those hands were. “Now we’ve one last question to resolve, Jeffrey Hudson. How much will you be worth? Your father has advised me on the purchase of dogs and bulls that would provide the best sport. What kind of sport will you bring to the baiting ring we call court?”
“Jeffrey earns a pretty sum when he dances in his Fairy Cage,” father said.
“A Fairy Cage?” Buckingham queried.
“That is how Jeffrey earned his bread. Brought him to the square in a birdcage his sister decked with flowers. Hung the cage from an iron hook and claimed he was the King of the Fairies. When people put forth enough coin, we’d open the door. He’d dance while his brother Samuel played a tin whistle.”
Much as I’d hated being poked by the crowd, I would have welcomed the cage’s familiar confines now. It would mean that once night came, I would be sleeping under the eaves with Samuel.
The duke reached into his purse, then dumped a handful of coins into my father’s hungry palm. Father’s eyes widened as he curled his fingers over the shining mass, his fingernails black with blood he could never scrub clean.
“Go back to your dogs, John Hudson,” Buckingham told my father. “There will be more coin in your purse if this whelp I have purchased performs well in the ring.”
Panic pricked me. I edged toward my father, my last tie to the life I had known. “Father, tell Samuel that I will not forget my prayers, and Ann that she may have the ribbon from the Fairy Cage, and John—”
I did not know what farewell to send my eldest brother. John seemed a stranger since he’d left home, worn down like our father.
“You have more important things to attend to than shambles folk now,” Father said. “Mind the duke, Jeffrey.” He leaned down to pat my shoulder, but his hands were full of coin.
He cast me an apologetic glance, then stumbled out of the duke’s presence, leaving me behind. Buckingham settled at his desk and took up his quill. My hands clenched as he started to write. It was obvious the duke was finished with me. What was I supposed to do now? The gilt clock in the corner chimed. I gasped, startled. Buckingham looked up with a scowl. “Be about your business.”
“I do not know where I am to go, Your Grace.”
“You cannot expect me to lead you by the hand! Go prepare yourself to be companion to the queen. There are clothes to stitch, protocol to be taught, alliances to be explained. There will be more subtle skills for you to master once you’ve proven trustworthy.”
What would those skills be? I still had no idea how to proceed, when I heard a scratch at the door.
“Enter,” Buckingham ordered. The door opened, revealing a servant in fine livery.
“Your Grace, a lady begs your indulgence. She is early for your appointment.” I glanced at the door, watching for a chance to slip out.
Buckingham’s mouth curled. “Has my wife gone to deliver alms at St. Coppices, according to plan?”
“The duchess is well on her journey, Your Grace. Shall I send a footman to fetch her?”
“No,” the duke said too quickly. “I would not interrupt her ministrations to our tenants. She takes tender care of them.”
I heard a silvery laugh as a woman in gold satin swept in, blocking my escape. Her gloved hand held a doeskin pouch. A hood concealed all but one dark brown curl. A winter white mask starred with blue gems concealed her from nose to brow. Was there something wrong with her face?
I had seen people scarred by smallpox around Oakham shrink into their skins. However, this woman took up more of the room than her lithe figure seemed to warrant. The part of her face that remained visible was unforgettable. Full lips were painted a deeper scarlet than I had ever seen in nature, a dimple dancing at the corner of her mouth. Her eyes sparkled through catlike slits in her mask, as if she knew a secret the rest of the world was too dull to understand.
“You act as if you are surprised by the duchess’s attentions to the Rutland poor, Your Grace.” She cast the pouch upon the nearest chair. “Once her brothers died of Mother Flowers’s witchery, your wife knew Rutland’s wretches would fall to her charge.”
I had heard the earl of Rutland’s sons had withered away because of a spell cast by a vengeful servant. The duchess had nearly died, as well.
“The estate would fall to her husband’s charge, you mean,” Buckingham said, correcting her.
“A fortune is a great beautifier to an ambitious man,” she said as Buckingham rose and moved toward her. “It is no wonder that the earl of Rutland was determined not to let his beloved daughter fall prey to a fortune hunter. How relieved he must have been to see his fond Kate settled with a worthy man like Your Grace.” Buckingham swept up the lady’s hand to kiss. She captured his wrist.
“Do you like my mask? I was eager to bring you this packet from London, but my husband did not want your enemies to know I carried it.” She skimmed Buckingham’s knuckles against her breasts and rose up on tiptoe to claim a lingering kiss. “It has been too long.”
I edged toward the door, but just as I was about to escape, I trod on her trailing skirts. The woman whirled toward me, startled. Slippery fabric wrenched my feet out from under me. I tumbled to the floor. Humiliation surged heat from my collar to my brow.
“Clumsy child!” she scolded as I scrambled to my feet. In spite of her mask, I could see her eyes widen in surprise. “Why—that is no child. Buckingham, what witchery is this?”
Dread kindled in me. I had been weaned on my mother’s fear that someone would claim I had been sired by the devil and would burn us at the stake, as they had two witches blamed for the deaths of Rutland’s sons.
“I am no sorcerer,” Buckingham told the woman. “A wizard’s daughter like you should know that.”
A wizard’s daughter? The woman made no attempt to deny it. Did they not know how dangerous jests about dark arts could be? Or did the duke and this lady not care? Why should they? I could hear my father scoff. A pack of misery-grubbing Puritans could never harm great ones like these.
“I found him in the shambles,” Buckingham said. “This little man is to be a gift for your mistress, the queen. How fares Her Majesty in my absence?”
“You would have to ask the ladies she brought from France. We English ladies the king appointed to her household are exiled from her chambers. She dislikes me most of all, almost as much as she dislikes you. I wonder she lets you get close to her at all.”
“It hardly matters what she thinks of me. It’s the king who counts, and he’s been in my pocket since he was a stammering little boy barely visible in his older brother’s shadow.”
“Did he find you captivating in the same way old King James did?” she asked, her lips pursed in a way both lovely and mocking.
Buckingham’s face flushed ever so slightly and the muscles in his jaw tightened as he held tightly to his composure. “I took notice of him. That is all. You would be surprised how much return is paid on a little kindness.”
“Especially when the stammering little boy’s brilliant brother dies,” the wizard’s daughter mocked. “And he finds himself hauled out of the shadows, those sad, bulging eyes so unaccustomed to the light. Very lucky for you the Prince of Wales died, Your Grace.”
There was fire in the duke’s eyes, but he kept his voice level, if cold. “You may find this hard to believe, my dear, but I genuinely like the king.”
I could sense that this strange woman was pulling at the ends of the duke’s patience. Apparently she could also, for she lightly turned the subject back to me. “Nonetheless, Her Majesty will never trust any gift that comes from you.”
Buckingham frowned. “Have you any thoughts how I might remedy that situation?”
The wizard’s daughter placed hands on her hips. “Do not let the queen know your little man is meant for her. Present him as your own plaything. Once Henrietta Maria is enthralled by his performance, you can oh so reluctantly surrender him to her. Think how impressed the king will be with your effort to please his quarrelsome queen.”
“The question is, How to make the dwarf irresistible to Her Majesty?” Buckingham said.
The masked woman clasped her hands. “I know what you must do! Your little man is quite the most delicious tidbit I have ever seen. Serve him to the queen in a pie.”
It was a jest, I told myself, though my heart skittered.
“A pie.” Buckingham stroked his beard to a finer point.
“The plan is not without risk,” the woman said. “I have heard of mishaps: a kitchen lad returning the pie to the oven or someone being overzealous with the knife.” A nasty glint showed in her eyes, and I knew she was hoping for a reaction. I had seen the same expression on apprentices in the shambles who loved to torment Samuel and me.
I strained to stand as tall as possible. “I am not afraid.” I did not know how the duke would react to my impertinence. My father would have struck me.
The lady leveled her clever gaze at me. I would not give her the satisfaction of seeing me squirm. “You had best teach your monkey manners before you introduce him to the queen, or some kitchen accident will be the least of his worries,” she said.
“I have summoned the perfect man to train Jeffrey in the skills court requires. Uriel Ware.”
“An interesting choice, my Lord Admiral. Is not Master Ware in Bristol, attending to Your Grace’s interests? The East India Company men are becoming quite belligerent in regards to their shipping fees, as I understand.”
“Ware will be an exacting master.”
“Indeed. What remains a mystery is why such a grim Puritan stays in the employ of a sensualist like you.” Her face dimpled. “Perhaps he hopes to reform you.”
“God burdened my wife with that particular labor of Sisyphus.”
I wondered who Sisyphus was. Perhaps some master of childbirth.
“As for Ware,” Buckingham continued, “he scorns Puritans since his return to my family’s employ. A mind like Ware’s cannot find challenges worthy of him among the dour crows at prayer meetings. A man of superior talents must have an outlet for them.”
“The same might be said of a clever woman, but she is not allowed to pursue her talents, no matter how exceptional they are. People will praise Ware for his resourcefulness. A woman with a keen mind will be condemned by high- and lowborn alike.”
“Dearest lady, a man who could not find use for your talents is a very unimaginative fellow,” Buckingham said.
I saw frustration flit across the woman’s face before she smiled and busied herself in straightening the fan that dangled at her waist. “We are not here to debate my talents. As for your dwarf, only time will tell whether Ware can make a courtier out of your Shambles Doll. But even if this pet bungles things at court, he will give the queen pleasure. Seeing the mighty duke of Buckingham publicly humiliated is her favorite pastime. She’s developed quite a taste for it since you returned from Cádiz.”
I saw Buckingham’s mouth tighten. He smoothed the dangerous expression away. “Nothing great is gained without risk.”
“So speaks the man who visited Queen Anne’s bedchamber when last he was in France.” The woman laughed. “You were there to negotiate with the king. Declaring your passion for his wife was not the most diplomatic move you have ever made.”
“Why should I not enjoy the queen’s bed? Everyone knows King Louis has no use for it. Let lesser men exercise restraint. History will not remember them. But the duke of Buckingham will hold a glorious place in the annals of time.” Buckingham’s eyes gleamed. “I will send word to York House and have my surveyor of works begin preparations for an entertainment the like of which London has seldom seen. When I return to court, I will host a great banquet for Their Majesties. Jeffrey will be the final course.”
Copyright © 2014 by Ella March Chase