Palais Royal, Paris
“Settle, Frances,” my mother whispered over her shoulder. “Don’t draw attention to yourself.”
Henry Jermyn, Earl of St. Albans, who rarely deigned to look directly upon me, glanced in my general direction, seemingly displeased.
I was straining my eyes in the candlelight, searching the wedding guests in the gallery of the Palais Royal, seeking out one English duke in particular. Now I fell back on my heels and slouched. I had gotten a good look at the guests waiting for the royal couple to return from the chapel. The French nobles, in impeccable silks and jewels, politely averted their eyes from the chipped murals of our dilapidated palace walls. No jewel hung from my neck, only a blue silk ribbon. A gift from my older cousin Princess Henriette Anne, it was the prettiest thing I owned. Members of the exiled English court, like me, wore sensible clothes, repurposed with outdated lace. Although we weren’t exiles anymore, now that King Charles had possession of his kingdom. Most of the members of our court had returned home—at least those who had something to return to. Our monarch had won his throne and restored place and power to as many Royalist families as he could, but my family had no prior claim on anything. My father was the third son of the first Lord Blantyre in Scotland. Third sons get nothing: no title, no estate, not even the right to be styled “Sir.” A third son’s eldest daughter gets even less, and when my father died two years ago, his death left me with less than less. My family was still in France with the Queen Mother because we had nowhere else to go.
At last I spotted the one powdered face that was neither French nor exile. George Villiers, second Duke of Buckingham, was King Charles’s lifelong friend. His clothes were not repurposed. His brown woven-silk doublet and pantaloons, embroidered with scrolls of gold thread, glimmered in the candelabra’s light. Favor with King Charles had gained him much with the Restoration: income rights, property, and court offices. He’d escorted Princess Henriette Anne back from her recent visit to England, and he’d gained popularity at the French court, too. After her wedding, he would return home to his wealth and his duchess. I had to talk to him. Tonight.
Buckingham glanced at me, as if he sensed my stare. I felt a blush creep up my cheeks. He muttered to the French ladies in his circle. Then he moved across the hall toward our threesome, scabbard flashing at his hip. He spoke directly to St. Albans. “I expect your court will follow me to England shortly, now that Princess Henriette Anne is married.”
St. Albans shook his head. “The Queen Mother will delay her return.”
“Parliament will never cough up her allowance while she’s on French soil. If you expect her to pay you for your loyal service, you’ll encourage her to sail soon.”
St. Albans was the Queen Mother’s lord chamberlain and the only courtier she kept in comfort. Though he wasn’t as ostentatious as Buckingham, his black silk ensemble certainly wasn’t shabby. “She’s not one brought to heel easily.”
I suppressed a smile. The Queen Mother was notoriously headstrong, thoroughly French, and supremely Catholic. England was the last place she wanted to go.
“She wishes to see Princess Henriette Anne settled into her marriage before she leaves,” said my mother. “The prospect of leaving one’s child is heart-wrenching, you know.”
I tensed at her hint that she wouldn’t want to part with me, either. Buckingham turned to me. “I believe this lovely creature is your child, Mrs. Stuart?”
My mother made no move to present me. “One of my children, Your Grace, yes.”
I held my breath. She had to introduce me so I could talk to him.
St. Albans intervened. He gestured toward me and said, “Your Grace of Buckingham, may I present Frances Teresa Stuart, daughter of the late Honorable Walter Stuart.” My mother looked stunned but joined him as he stepped aside. When my father died, St. Albans was the man my mother turned to as an advocate. She deferred decisions to him—apparently she believed him to be the most suited at court to protect a penniless widow and her three children related to the Stuart crown.
I dipped into an expert curtsy, just as I’d rehearsed.
“I’ve long wanted to meet you, Frances,” Buckingham said. “Everyone praises you as the most beautiful girl at the Queen Mother’s court.”
I felt the blush creep up again. Then I wondered how much beauty might add to the value of my Stuart blood. “Thank you, Your Grace. Though our princess, Henriette Anne, is the prettiest.” My mother relaxed, satisfied with my response. Buckingham had declared himself my cousin’s champion. Everyone said he was devoted to her, even in love with her.
Buckingham grinned. “I have a secret for you, if St. Albans and Mrs. Stuart would excuse us.”
Mother stepped in front of me. “What could you say to a girl near four-and-ten that you wouldn’t say in front of her mother?”
Buckingham frowned, and St. Albans took her arm. “What Mrs. Stuart means is, remain in the hall while you talk to her eldest daughter.”
My mother shot a furious glare at me, and I tried not to look too happy. She did not protest as St. Albans steered her away.
When I turned to Buckingham, he was grinning again.
I opened my mouth to speak, then closed it. What, exactly, was I going to say? Do you know any unmarried English noblemen willing to wed me and so save me from my miserable life? I shifted, toes pinched in my secondhand boots. “Tell me of England,” I said instead.
“Have you never been?”
“No, I was born in Scotland. My family escaped the Civil War by joining the Queen Mother here in France when I was a babe. I know little of my homeland.”
He shrugged. “The wars took their toll on her, and Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan rule drained her spirit for a time. But King Charles is reviving her with all the enthusiasm of youth.”
I knew all this, of course, but nodded my head trying to think of what else to say.
“Aren’t you going to ask about the secret? Princess Henriette Anne is not the prettiest.”
“Wh—I thought you declared yourself her champion?”
“That was before I met you.”
Me? I couldn’t respond.
“Surely you’re used to people complimenting your beauty?”
“Well, no. I live within the Queen Mother’s court … we are but a small household.”
“The princess told me what a dear friend you are to her. Now that she is married to the French prince she shall have a court of her own, and you will have ample opportunity to meet gentlemen. They will fall at your feet.”
This was my chance. “French girls are entitled to every official position, and my mother won’t permit me to accompany her court. I must continue serving the Queen Mother.”
His lips turned down in an exaggerated frown. “Oh, but how dull that will be.”
I thought of my mother’s scorn when I’d made that very complaint. “It is positively beyond dull, Your Grace.”
“Think of the balls you’ll miss.” His expression seemed almost mocking now.
I hesitated, wondering if he was teasing me. “It is more than that. I am tired of being in captivity.”
“Of course.” He nodded. “But you can endure it a short while longer. Surely your mother has plans for you to marry soon?”
“She does not. She desires me to stay with her for several more years. She married young herself, you see.”
“How unfair.” He clicked his tongue. “You should be allowed to embrace life, enjoy England’s return to favor.”
“Your Grace, I agree.” I cleared my throat. “That brings me to a point I hoped to discuss with you this day.” I was trying my hardest not to look embarrassed. “If you know a decent man from a noble English family, would you consider recommending me to him as a possible bride? I have no dowry, but I am a Stuart, and that must be worth something now.”
“Forgive me.” He bit his lip, suppressing a laugh. “Why leap from one captivity to another?”
“My other choice is to live in the Queen Mother’s convent. Chaillot is no release at all.”
He stepped closer. “There is another possibility you haven’t considered.” I leaned in, willing to hear his wisdom. “Come back to England with me. I’ll make you my mistress.”
I gasped so hard my head lurched back. He was more than twice my age. “Your Grace,” I said as calmly as I could, “you must think I care nothing for honor and virtue. You insult me, and you do your wife no credit.”
He leaned back on his heels, frowning sincerely this time. “I take that as a no.”
“I’m not so foolish that I’d sell myself, sir!”
This time he didn’t try to suppress his laugh. “You’re sure you won’t run away with me?”
I glanced around, looking for someone else to talk to, refusing to look at him.
“Perhaps I have a better offer. Frances, you know I am King Charles’s most favored friend?”
I made no reply.
“He trusts my advice, and in some matters, I can speak for him. Your royal cousin has excellent taste in women and a … fondness for them.”
I faced him again with astonishment. “You wouldn’t dare suggest—”
He held up his hand. “I guarantee he will take you as his mistress at first sight. You could have a house of your own, jewels, silk gowns, money, horses, carriages. He might even grant you a title. And you’d escape from here.” Buckingham grabbed my arm, enthusiastic. “I should have thought of it before. Your beauty, your poise, you are exactly what he’d want.”
I shook my arm free, not believing a word. “No.”
“Suit yourself. Stay in captivity with your mother and St. Albans. Your secretive little family.”
The doors of the great hall opened, and everyone turned. A herald presented the newly wed couple, Monsieur Prince Philippe, duc d’Orléans and Princess Henriette Anne of England. They proceeded in, followed by the groom’s brother, the French King Louis XIV and his queen, Marie-Thérèse of Spain. King Louis and Philippe’s mother, Anne of Austria, entered next, followed by the English Queen Mother. The bride, my cousin, smiled and waved when she saw me. She was beautiful. She loved me, and now she must leave with her husband and I would be alone. I dipped to curtsy, slipping into misery, as Buckingham bowed beside me.
I caught my mother’s eye. She watched me with a cold expression. The royal family took their places at the banquet table and signaled for us, the court, to be seated. “You hold rank,” I said to Buckingham, barely moving my lips. “Command St. Albans and my mother to allow me to join court with the princess.”
“Why? You will capture the heart of every man there—including the man the princess is in love with. You will unknowingly heap disaster upon your head.”
How did he know whom the princess really loved? And what made him think I could attract men of such high status? I saw my mother marching toward us. “How hurt do you think the princess will be,” I said quickly, “if she learns your affection for her is all pretend?”
He narrowed his eyes, registering my threat, then glanced at my mother fast approaching. “I will do it only on this account, that you repay me in one way: when disaster befalls you, you will ask me to introduce you to King Charles. No one but me.”
I nodded just as my mother gripped my arm. She stared at Buckingham’s back as he headed to his table. “He looks displeased. What did you do?”
I lifted my free arm in a helpless gesture. “Nothing, Mother. We were only talking.”
“I could see you were talking.” She moved us gracefully to our seats. Even with a bear’s-jaw grip on my arm, my mother’s steps were light and elegant. “You should never talk with someone so highly ranked. You could embarrass us all.”
Ranked. My cousin’s marriage now ranked her the second-highest woman in France. Permission to stay with her would bring freedom enough. We sat at our assigned table, but I was lost in thought. She can help me find a suitable husband, and a French marriage is as good as an English one …
“Frances, sit up.” Mother jabbed me with her elbow.
But I was already sitting perfectly straight. I tried not to watch Buckingham and St. Albans as they conversed at the high-ranking English table and glanced at me from time to time. Oh, please let him keep his word.
* * *
Tradition dictated that the royal couple be escorted from their wedding banquet to bed by their families, Catholic officials, and the most important wedding guests. I was not included in this group; instead I was sent to my family’s tiny chamber.
“Tell me of the bride,” said my sister, Sophia, pulling our quilt up to her shoulders.
“A beautiful flower.” I kissed her good night. “She must be the happiest girl in the world.”
“Frances, you won’t wed, right?” said my little brother, reaching for me. “You won’t leave us, will you?”
“Shhh,” I soothed, mussing his hair. He was the youngest, they were both under ten years, and I could hardly bear the thought of being without them. “You know I’ll always love you both. Now climb up, time for sleep.” He crawled into the bed he still shared with our sister and curled up, yawning, and I drew the bed curtains.
Mother returned hours later.
“How was the princess?” I asked anxiously as I unlaced her bodice.
“We did not see the couple to bed. She had her monthly flux and felt unwell. Monsieur went home to the Palais des Tuileries without her.” She eyed me suspiciously. “I don’t want you talking to the Duke of Buckingham again.”
“I said nothing to embarrass us, I promise.”
“It isn’t that. He—the Villiers family—I fear they think they have the right to take you from me. To use you in some way. They aren’t … honorable.”
I was stunned. “Why? Why would they think they have such a right?”
She turned away, stepped out of her petticoat and smoothed the front of her linen chemise. “Just stay away from him.”
I sat on our old wooden chest. Battered and worn, it was one of the only items of furniture my family owned. Every bed we slept on, every table we ate upon, belonged to the Queen Mother or the French royal family who housed us. Mother once told me that this chest had belonged to her family. It was a vivid memory because it was the only thing she’d ever told me about them. I traced the little scrolling V adorning the front.
“Mother, are you a Villiers?” I pointed to the initial.
“That initial isn’t mine. Don’t ask personal questions.”
This was the cage that closed me in. I was told nothing, allowed to ask nothing, and expected to achieve nothing with my life. If my mother were a Villliers, why wouldn’t she tell me? “Well, I’m a Stuart.” I stood. “I’ll talk to whomever I please, for they’ve no rights to me at all.”
“Stop acting so foolhardy. The chest isn’t from my family. It—it’s from your father’s.”
“Wouldn’t my father have an S painted on the chest?” I countered brashly. Then it slowly sank in. “You mean my father wasn’t…”
“Stop pushing, Frances. It will only humiliate us both.” She stepped into her bed and let the curtain fall upon my shock.
Copyright © 2014 by Marci Jefferson