Chapter no 11

The Silent Companions

I knew from the moment I awoke that this day would be one of conflict: it was written in the muggy air. Battlements of cloud crowded out the light and a silent tension hung over the gardens. It was oppressively hot. I longed all day for the clouds to break and relieve my headache but still they glower down at me, primed. Nothing outside stirs; there is no breeze.

If it is like this when the King and Queen arrive, we will all be sweltering and cross. How can we look becoming in our beautiful outfits, with the sweat pouring off our faces? No one will hunger for a roast swan. Oh, if only this weather would give way!

Josiah has made me feel melancholy about the visit. He came to me soon after dinner and sent the maids away.

‘I need to speak with you,’ he said. The set of his jaw, the lines in his forehead, spoke for him.

‘You have decided about Hetta,’ I said.

‘Yes.’ He ran a hand down the length of his beard. ‘Annie, you will not like what I have to say.’

‘Then do not say it. Change your mind.’

He sighed. ‘I cannot. It is for the best. Henrietta Maria may attend the feast. She has worked hard enough for it. But as for the rest of the entertainments . . . The answer is no.’

My hands curled into fists. I knew I should select my next words with care, but I was not mistress of my emotions. That hot, tingling sensation welled up inside me and pushed tears into my eyes.

‘She is young,’ he went on. ‘I am not sure it would be suitable, even if—’

‘You are ashamed of her,’ I said.

He hesitated for an instant. It was enough. ‘I pity her . . .’

‘She is a miracle! The midwives said I would never bear another child, not after Charles. And yet here she is. Your only daughter, Josiah. A miracle.’

‘I am mindful of that. No one thought you capable of carrying another. Perhaps that is why she has her . . . her difficulties.’

Behind his words I heard the accusation that is always simmering beneath the surface: it is my fault that Hetta’s tongue did not grow. My womb failed to nurture a complete child. There was something lacking; either in me, or the mixture.

‘She is touched by God!’ I cried. He looked at me. Just one look, and it set my anger ablaze. ‘You think not? You think the other way?’

He held up his hands in surrender. He was tiring of me. ‘Calm yourself. Of course I do not think Henrietta Maria has a demon. You are speaking hysterically.’

‘I am not. You are hiding my daughter away!’

‘Everyone will see her at the feast, Anne. I will not hide her, but I must protect her.’ He began to pace the room, the leather of his boots creaking as he walked. ‘We will introduce her to society slowly. She is not ready yet. She is too wild, too girlish. We have indulged her and let her run around the house in her own way. But that must stop now. She will be instructed.’


‘In court manners. There is no time to train her up before the visit. We cannot afford a mistake. Not one! I dare not imagine the consequences. Would you see me banished from court, for Henrietta Maria’s blunders? Everything must go perfectly.’

My temper frayed beneath the creak, creak of his boots. For I did not hear squeaking leather: I heard trees in the night, waving their arms above a cloaked figure picking herbs; a pestle and mortar grinding together; mystery and temptation in the words of an old spell. ‘You seem to imply that our daughter is not perfect.’

‘You know that she is not.’

It winded me. How could Josiah say such a thing, of his own child? I do not think I have ever hated him as I did at that moment. ‘This news will break her heart,’ I told him.

‘Then I will tell her, if you do not like to. Where is she now?’ ‘In the garden.’

I walked over to the window, wanting to see her at peace before he shattered her hopes. Everything outside looked strange. The plants glowed unnaturally bright under stormy skies. My new fleur-de-lis hedges were transformed into vivid green spears; the roses, clots of blood. Behind them, my Hetta knelt on the ground, tending her herbs. Her ankles showed, smeared with green. I did not mind that. Her face was full of light, despite the clouds. She looked happy; she smiled as she nodded and tilted her head up to . . .

‘Who is that?’ Josiah’s voice blared over my shoulder.

I cursed under my breath. ‘It’s that gypsy boy again. It is time he had a good hiding. I have warned him to stay away.’

‘See? Do you see, now?’ He gestured out of the window. ‘Playing with gypsies! This is exactly what I am talking about.’

I whirled round, too angry to contradict him. ‘I will deal with it,’ I said, and stalked from the room.

My feet pounded on the stairs. Blast that gypsy and his impudence, blast him for making poor Hetta’s father think ill of her! I burst out into the gardens. The air was like stale breath. I could not wonder that the plants did not thrive; even the soil was pale, dry

and cracked.

Lizzy was nowhere in sight. What was she about, leaving Hetta unattended in such a manner?

‘Hetta! Is that boy bothering you?’

She sprang to her feet and came to take my hand. Her palm was dirty, but without sweat. The humidity that frazzled me and the gardens did not touch her.

‘What is going on?’

She smiled, slowly. Her eyelids fluttered and I realised she was staring up at my diamonds. One small hand extended, reaching towards my neck.

‘Not now, Hetta. Your hands are filthy. You can look at my necklace later.’ I swatted her away and glared at the boy. He held his

ground, unwholesome urchin that he was. ‘As for you . . . You should not be here. You know it well. This is your last warning.’

Belatedly, he snatched his cap from his head. ‘Please, mistress. I’m only come looking for work.’

‘Gypsies do not work—’ I began, but Hetta tugged at my arm. She gave me one of the signs we have made between us. Horse. ‘He has stolen my horse?’

She shook her head vehemently. Her lips puckered with frustration, as they always do when she cannot make herself understood. Horse. Boy. Horse.

The boy squirmed. He spoke to her in his canting gypsy language. It sounded infernal; all tongues, like something demonic. But she seemed to understand him, for she nodded and grunted.

‘Miss Henrietta Maria . . .’ He looked at me, eyes black as pitch. ‘Miss thinks you’d let me work here. With the horses.’

I wondered how he knew that; how he dared to presume he understood Hetta when I did not. ‘I would not let you within a hundred yards of my horses,’ I scoffed. ‘You would steal them.’

Hetta dropped my hand.

‘Please, mistress. Please. My people are good with horses. Now your steward has cleared us off the common, what will we do? How will I eat?’

I paused. He really did look pitiful, cringing there all ragged.

Hetta signed to me again. Nothing.

‘I know they have nothing, Hetta. It is not my fault.’ No, that wasn’t it. BoyNothing.

‘We have stolen nothing,’ he said softly. Her eyes lit up and for an instant I begrudged him that. What communion was it he shared with my daughter – my creation? I did not want him near her. ‘In all the years we have lived on this common for the summer, we have stolen nothing from you.’

‘That may be. But I will have the King’s horses in my stable. Do you understand? How can I risk that? What would he say, if a gypsy took his horse? He would hold my husband responsible. It would ruin us.’

Hetta held out her hands.

‘You will need extra hands,’ he said. ‘For the King’s visit. Plenty of stable hands. You will be rushed off your feet.’

‘Then we will employ men. Not a gypsy boy.’

Hetta stamped her foot. To my astonishment, she put her hands to my leg and shoved me.

My temper flared. I was no longer in the gardens of The Bridge but at home, years ago. Mary was dashing for the tray of sweetmeats, pushing me aside. Laughing as I fell. Fury burnt into my hand.

The noise of our skin connecting was louder than any cry. I gasped. My handprint was red on Hetta’s cheek. I have never struck her before.

I shall never forget the hurt – the passion nearly akin to hate –burning in her eyes. ‘Oh Hetta! Pray forgive me. I did not mean to –you should not hit me! You are being so wilful today.’

Furtively, my eyes sought the window. Thank heavens, Josiah was not there. He did not see my daughter act like the hoyden he accused her of being.

‘I didn’t mean to cause trouble, mistress.’ The boy put his cap back on. ‘All I wanted was to work. I’ll be going now. Goodbye, Miss Henrietta Maria.’

A sound tore from Hetta’s lips: an awful noise, like an animal in pain. She ran after him and grabbed his coat. I cannot say what passed between them. He spoke resignedly in that heathen language and she responded with hand signals I have never seen before. At last, she let him go.

Hetta turned to her herb patch and began to clip the thistles. She did not look at me, but I saw her profile. The resentment had drained from her face. Everything vital had gone, leaving naught but sorrow.

My heart squeezed in my chest. She did not even know she was banned from the masque. I watched her bend low over the ground and water the rosemary with her tears. Dark spots appeared on the parched soil, slowly seeping into the roots.

No mother’s heart could withstand that sight. It would be bad enough with an ordinary child, wailing and sobbing. But watching my poor mute girl, so quiet in her misery, snapped my resolve like a tender branch beneath the weight of a wood pigeon.

‘Wait,’ I called out. The gypsy boy stopped still. I risked another look at the window – clear. ‘Wait.’

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