Chapter no 15

The Silent Companions

I thought I had done the right thing. I thought all was well.

The gypsy boy, who calls himself Merripen, is established in the stables. He has taken a solemn vow not to leave doors unlocked or abet his thieving kin. I know what these people are like.

Ever since I relented towards her friend, Hetta has been all sweetness and light, running up and down the stairs with her spaniels bumping after her, cutting swathes of herbs for the kitchen and marvelling over my diamonds. I was surprised by her glee, but I was also proud of her. I thought she had conquered her disappointment like a lady. I assumed it was enough for her to have her friend in employment. How well Josiah has managed her, I said to myself. How was I to know? How could I dream that he had not even told her?

It all started when the boys arrived. The weather was sultry, uncomfortably close. All morning the magpies chittered, cackling their secrets. But my sons were in high spirits, tumbling from their carriage on their gangly legs, slapping one another on the shoulders.

James led the way into the Great Hall. Henry towered over him. He has shot up this year, tall and thin like a reed, like one of Hetta’s saplings. And Charles—! I never can believe that Charles came from my body. He is wide, sturdy and built with the strength of a mastiff. No wonder he wreaked so much damage; no wonder the midwife said . . . But that does not matter now.

We were full of embraces, full of news. Dinner passed in a happy, raucous blur and Hetta was smiling, smiling all the while. Once we

had eaten, she showed her brothers the preparations for the masque: trapdoors and levers; platforms made to look like clouds. She tried a pirouette and James swept her into his arms, flying her around the painted backdrop of a blue sky.

It was then that another man arrived from Mr Samuels’s shop with boxes.

‘More!’ Josiah pretended to be scandalised, but I saw he was pleased with every single choice I had made.

‘We will astound the Queen with our curiosities,’ I said. ‘The Bridge will be the greatest showpiece she has ever seen.’

This time it was the counterfeit people – the wooden figures Mr Samuels called his companions. What wonders they are! The lady from the shop was there, and many more besides: a sleeping child; a lady with her lute; a gentleman with a doxy on his lap.

‘God’s blood! Did you ever see the like?’ Charles went over and touched one with his fat hand. ‘A person stepped right out of a portrait!’

Hetta gave a high, loud squeal of delight, like a dog when it sees its master. She bounded over to Charles’s side and gazed up at the figures, wonder written all over her face. As the boys chattered, she weaved in and around the boards, fingering their edges.

‘Hello,’ said Henry. ‘Henrietta Maria’s playing hide and go seek.’

So that’s what we did all day while the servants worked to make the house perfect: ran about like children, placing the companions in the strangest places, trying to make each other jump.

‘They need to look real,’ I said. ‘I want people to come upon them and start. I want the King to bump into a companion and beg his pardon!’

We found a thousand nooks and crannies in the house, a thousand corners to position them just right. As the light fell, the wooden figures watched me from their hiding places and they seemed to smirk, complicit. They promised to give the Queen the surprise of her life.

‘It will be a triumph,’ Josiah laughed. ‘The whole thing a triumph.’ It had grown rather late, but none of us could settle for a quiet hour of reading before supper; we were feverish, highly strung. In less than forty-eight hours, royalty would be in our house. Already

the place was coming alive in a way it has never done before. We had prepared as far as we could. Now there was nothing to do but wait.

‘When do we rehearse the masque?’ James said, pale and anxious in the candlelight. ‘I practised the steps you sent me but I would rather do it here.’

‘Tomorrow,’ I told him. ‘The players are coming tomorrow.’

The Triumph of Platonic Love. It sounds very well, doesn’t it?’ Henry stroked the lace at his cuffs. ‘Not that we will rival Mr Jones’s pieces in any way, but I’m sure the Queen will be pleased. Do you dance, Charles?’

The three boys erupted into laughter. I have seen Charles dance but twice since he was a small boy: it is not a performance designed to inspire maternal pride. He has no sense of time or grace, and his stout figure makes him most comical.

Charles took the jibe on the nose, though he pretended to glower and shook his fist at his brother. ‘Oh, wouldn’t you like to see it? But I have no wish to put the Queen in a fright. I swagger on and do my speech, that’s all. And what a speech!’

I was so busy laughing with the boys that I did not notice Hetta stealing up to where Josiah sat on the chair before the fire. It was only when I heard him speak that I turned to see her beside the armrest, tugging on his sleeve.

‘Yes, Henrietta Maria? What is it?’ She blinked her big eyes, green splintered with gold and brown in the firelight. ‘Well? What is it that you want?’

I should have known then. I should have paid attention to the shadows scurrying over her face and the queer, frightening hush. But I just sat there, dumb, and watched them; watched Hetta point to her chest, her eyes alive with expectation.

‘How now?’ Charles called. ‘Speak up, little Hetta!’ The boys hooted again.

‘Leave her alone, Charles!’ I snapped, but it only made them laugh harder. They were so excited, I believe they would have laughed at death itself.

‘It is only in jest, Mother.’

‘I really cannot understand what Henrietta Maria is trying to communicate,’ Josiah said. ‘Anne, have you any idea?’

Slowly, carefully, Hetta rose onto the tips of her toes and turned a perfect pirouette, her arms arched above her tortoiseshell head. She looked like a dream, like a French courtier dancing ballet. I had not known she could dance like that. But the sight did not fill me with pleasure or a mother’s pride. I saw the light in her face, and the guilty scowl upon Josiah’s, and all the pieces slotted into place.

‘She wants to know her part!’ Henry bleated. ‘What part will Henrietta Maria have in the masque, Father?’

No, I thought. Not like thisNot in front of her brothers. But Josiah did it anyway. He swirled the drink in his glass and said, very quietly, ‘Henrietta Maria will not be in the masque.’

She dropped back to the flats of her feet. I could not look at her face. I stared into the chasms between the logs on the fire, wishing they would swallow me.

‘Not even a little part?’ Charles’s voice – too loud, too jovial. ‘I’m sure we could slot her in somewhere. Not a speaking part, mind!’

James and Henry guffawed.

‘She is too young,’ said Josiah. ‘She is still too young for these things. She will feast with us and then she will go to bed.’

The boys had been away for too long: they did not recognise the warning in their father’s voice. Drunk on their own humour, they called out ideas.

‘Make her a cupid.’

‘Love is blind, so why not silent?’ ‘Have her act in the antimasque.’

‘What, as a devil? Do they have tiny devils?’

‘Oh yes, they’re the fiercest. Mr Jones always makes them erupt from a cloud of smoke.’

‘Doesn’t he do that with the Queen’s dwarves?’

‘Aye, but there’s always a shortage of good dwarves. Dress up a girl and paint on a beard, that’s what I say.’

‘Heigh-ho! We’ll stick her in the menagerie! Her Majesty likes to collect queer and curious people.’

‘I warrant you, there’s none more curious than my sister.’ ‘Enough!’ The drink slopped out of Josiah’s glass as he sat

forwards in the chair. ‘Enough, all of you.’ His growl cut through the chatter, through my skin. ‘What is this knavish talk? I thought you had grown into men.’

The boys hung their heads, chastened. ‘We were only—’

‘It does not matter, Henry. The King and Queen will be here soon, do you understand? I won’t have my sons behaving like fools.’

‘No, Father.’

‘I have said that Henrietta Maria will not stay for the entertainment, and that is an end of it.’

I might have borne it if she had stamped her foot, if she had cried, or shoved me as she tried to do that time in the garden. But she did nothing. She dropped onto her knees by the side of the fire and folded her hands into her lap. She did not sob. She did not move. She stared into the fire, as I had done, fixated on something within its depths.

They all went to bed, but neither Lizzy nor I could move Hetta. We could not make her look at us. She might have transformed into one of the wooden boards, for all the expression on her blank face.

‘Your diamonds?’ Lizzy suggested.

I placed them about Hetta’s slender throat, to no avail. They simply flickered against her skin, red and orange in turn.

We had to leave her there, watching the logs dwindle into ashy piles. My daughter, alone in the dark with the dying flames.



I cannot sleep. My ears are alive with tunes that will not fade, playing over and over, on and on. When I close my eyes I see champagne satin, scarlet taffeta and gold-tipped lacing. My body feels as though it is dancing still. I know that my heart is. Josiah was right: it was a triumph.

They arrived a little after noon, with their heralds and gentlemen-at-arms forging the way. A magnificent sight: a glimmering ribbon of horses, armour and riches, winding beside the river and over the hills. No Fayford Puritans interfered with the cavalcade, but neither did they come out to cheer. I had planned for that. I hired common folk from Torbury St Jude to wave banners and give the loyal address. They did it creditably.

Barges on the river blasted a fanfare as the royal couple crossed the bridge. Jackdaws scattered before the pound of hooves. The fountain

flowed with wine, ruby red, spilling out of the stone dog’s mouth to patter in the basin.

I found the King shorter than I expected and slender too; almost dainty. Dressed all in black, he had a sharp beard and sleepy eyes. He looked older than his years. Around his neck gleamed the only relief of colour in his sober apparel: a silver lace collar, delicate and fine as a spider’s web.

And she! I thought I should faint to see the Queen’s elfin figure skip down from her horse. She was dazzling and bright and utterly infectious; laughing, singing, talking all day long. Her hair gleamed like jet, her dark eyes danced. Lizzy calls her a papist conjurer and perhaps she is, for a moment in her company bewitches the senses.

We feasted at trestle tables in the Great Hall. Quail eggs, salmon, cock’s-combs, sweet potatoes, dates, artichokes laid out on gold plates; everything perfectly seasoned with Hetta’s herbs. I did not realise until then how hard she had worked.

She has been very solemn, very correct in her behaviour since the night Josiah forbade her from the masque. All through the feast she sat watching with a curious expression as the courtiers ate and gossiped. I expected her to giggle, to try and touch the ladies’ bouncing curls, but she did not. She simply cocked her head like her pet sparrow and observed. I wish I could decipher the tangle of her thoughts. I wish that I, like our Creator, could read the mind of the girl I have made. How is it I can hear Josiah, but not her?

She did not appear to enjoy the feast – with her small and misshapen tongue, food is seldom a great source of enjoyment to her. Yet when Lizzy came to take her off to bed, a most rare expression took possession of her features. She left with a smile screwed to her face – but such a smile! It was a blast of cold air, not her usual ray of sunshine.

It did not trouble me much then, to think of her upstairs. Like a heartless woman, I was enjoying myself too much to notice. But now the image makes me tearful: the silent girl sitting with her pet sparrow while shrieks of laughter and notes of music drift up to her from below. Poor child. It should not have been her, marooned like a leper: it should have been me.

All I wanted was a daughter to keep, a female companion to fill the void left by my sister Mary. I wanted her so hungrily that I did

not care how I begot her. It was who scorched my fingertips with witchcraft; I who mixed the draught and took God’s power into my own hands. Why should Hetta be punished for my greed?

She missed the acrobats in the Lantern Gallery, the tumblers dancing on wires above the Great Hall in their shimmering costumes. She did not see the fireworks leap into the sky and explode over the gardens. She could not join in the squeals and surprise as our silent companions made the guests jump, again and again. But perhaps it is as well that she missed the masque.

I did not realise until the performance began how the house had transformed itself into a pagan glen full of nymphs and satyrs. My chariot of shells glided onto the stage in the Great Hall and I performed my dance with the diamonds blazing from my neck. Mermaids pranced in diaphanous dresses, singing their siren song. Petals fell from the gallery. The air was thick with burning orange water. What would Lizzy have thought, had she seen it, never mind the Puritans of Fayford!

Perhaps it is wicked, perhaps it is wrong, this court of endless luxury. But oh, it is intoxicating! And now I have witnessed it, I do not know how I will ever do without it.

My eyes are heavy after all this writing. Each time I begin to drift, I see the antimasque: the evil magicians and their minions cavorting from a fiery cave. Awful creatures: strange, stunted men with overgrown heads. Cackles drifting through the orange smoke. If I fall asleep with these images, I will have hideous dreams.

I was shocked by the Queen’s freaks; I own it. I had not seen things like that before, things unnatural and somehow obscene. I would say they should not exist, they should not be, but then I remember Hetta and I am ashamed. For people say the same devil that disfigures them stunted my daughter’s tongue.

Who can compare Hetta with one of those cursed creatures? They are not beautiful; they are strange and unbalanced. Especially the one who never unmasked but haunted the dances with his leering red face, capering, like a many-legged insect, and frightening my guests. I see him when I close my eyes; moving quickly, winding around dancers, his short body swallowed by wafts of smoke.

Outside banks of cloud are building up, grey spectres against the black. I think we will have rain at last. Thunder prowls around the

trees and in the distance, off towards Fayford, I see a fork of lightning sizzle through the sky. If it rains too hard, perhaps the court will not be able to leave. Perhaps we will be allowed to keep them.

The thunder cracks outside. My fevered imagination hears a cry, rising up from the night. Yet there is nothing, not even a fox outside my window.

Lightning floods the room with white light. I see my face in the glass, fleeting, afraid. ‘Hetta is nothing like the freaks,’ I whisper to it, before I blow out my candle. ‘She is nothing like them.’

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