sjhstrangetales

NINEPINS PALACE (story)

Posted on: May 14, 2018

May Eve

 

 You could cut the atmosphere with a knife round here.  There is something in the air. You don’t have to have special powers to feel it.  The corridors and stairways seem to be hives of whispering, and people rush past me with eyes downcast, scuttling along.  As a mere servant, I don’t expect to get noticed anyway, but this is even more than usual.

 I was mopping the stone floor that runs from the main kitchen to the door that opens onto the gardens at the back, when Master Cromwell himself accidentally slammed into my bucket.  I apologised profusely, but he barely noticed and marched on, lost in his own thoughts. I had a little chuckle to myself, “he kicked the bucket!”, but it would be more than my life’s worth to say it out loud.   The way things are at the moment a poor soul could find themselves in the Tower just for making a ribald joke.

 Some people are far too reckless, they don’t seem to understand how high the stakes are at the moment, and a humble background is no guarantee of safety.  That poor young man, Mark Smeaton, has been missing for several hours now. I heard he had been invited to Master Cromwell’s house, but he hasn’t returned.  He had his head turned. He was on the fringes of Her circle, but they would never have accepted him as one of their own, not them, with their noble backgrounds.  They regarded him as little more than a performing monkey, someone there for their own amusement. The nobility can be cruel and unfeeling. Poor little Smeaton. His talent will be his undoing.   Not for the first time, I am glad that I have the kind of looks which no one notices. I can fade into the background, like a humble piece of furniture.

 

 “What did he look like, Gerta?” asked the meat cook, who was sweating by the fire when I went to walk past, to return my bucket to the stores area.

 “He looked like Master Cromwell”, I replied.

 “Now don’t get lippy, girl”, he said “Did he look harassed?  Worried?”

 “Well he was deep in thought”, I said “It was a very fleeting look.  I didn’t want to detain him, he looked like a man with a lot on his mind”.

 The others exchanged glances.  Clearly they saw something significant in all this, but at the moment they’re seeing something significant in everything.   A cock crowing probably has significance.

 I returned my mop and bucket to the stores, and then took advantage of them all being distracted to slip out into the garden for a little while.   It was sunny, but the air was still too much on the cold side for my liking. I went over to the fruit trees and admired the apple blossom, which is now in full petal.  I love this time of year. I surreptitiously picked a small sprig of the blossom, and slipped it into my apron pocket.

 I wish I could gently walk His Majesty around the gardens and show him the joys and the loving solace of Nature.  I feel sorry for him, but I could never voice that aloud. It’s probably treasonous, so much is these days. It is treasonous to think of the King as anything other than all-mighty and all-powerful, like the Good Lord Himself.  But I know how sick he is. I have conversed with the maids and the stewards of the royal bedchamber. He has never recovered from that terrible accident he had whilst jousting back in the New Year. It has affected him completely, body and soul.   It seems to have aged him overnight. And those stupid physicians don’t know what they’re doing. Their treatments are often worse than the ailments! He needs a healthier life, with gentle exercise and good food, and freedom from care. But I know he cannot hope to attain that in this life, not whilst he wears the crown.   His rages are because he is in constant pain, and because he is lonely, and frightened for the future. I have known humble families who produce hordes of strong, healthy sons with no trouble at all, and yet he, the great ruler, seems to have an underwhelming seed. He must feel that humiliation acutely.

 My skin prickles.  I feel someone watching me.  I turn round in agitation. There is no one else in this part of the garden, but on instinct I look up at the upper windows.   I am horrified to find I am being watched from a part of the palace which I know to be the Queen’s chambers. I see a pale face staring down at me from behind the latticed glass.  I get only the briefest of glimpses before she backs away from the window. I am shocked by how gaunt and haggard she looks. I have only before seen her in the distance, and then I’ve been dazzled by her gorgeous gowns and jewels and headdresses.  I had heard rumours that she’s lost her looks, that she now looks old and decayed, but I hadn’t seen it for myself. There were dark shadows around her eyes. She was emaciated. She looked halfway to her grave.

 I feel a cold shiver run through my entire body, and I rub my arms in their calico sleeves.   I decide to go back indoors, and seek the sanctuary of the service areas. I am unlikely to encounter her there.

 

Later

 

It is very late.  I have made up my customary makeshift bed, comprised of my spare clothing, on a small stone landing in the attic, which is outside one of the rooms belonging to the ladies-in-waiting.  I think it may even have been Mistress Anne’s room at one time. I am so glad that Winter is over. There were times when the stone floor was so cold that I feared I would end up with chronic rheumatism, like my poor dear Mother did.

 In the shaft of moonlight which comes through the narrow window, I have prayed for His Majesty The King.  I have also prayed for little Smeaton. There is still no sign of him, and I have been listening out for news of him all day.  I am deeply worried as to what they may have done with him. We poor folk are so at the mercy of Them.

 I yearn for some soft cushions to comfort my aching bones, and yet the curious thing is, that for all my lack of luxury, I would not trade places with that Lady in the sumptuous apartments on the floor below me.   I have a strong feeling that they are lining her up for a sacrifice, and it is that feeling which has been permeating the palace all day. I am filled with foreboding as to what the next few days may bring.

 

May Day

 

 The Nobs all went off for their traditional May Day joust today.  I heard whilst I was breaking my fast that His Majesty looked relaxed and jolly, which is pleasing news.  I can imagine him riding through the sun-dappled trees, his head thrown back as he gives one of his hearty laughs.  He’s had such an awful time of it this year so far that he deserves a bit of pleasure. Someone said he was slapping Master Norris on the shoulder, in a very brotherly way, so that’s good news.  There have been so many wild rumours of late that the King was being strangely suspicious, even paranoid, of his friends. The only thing that still gives me concern is that there is STILL no sign of little Smeaton.  This is very odd indeed.

 Later this morning I managed to have a chat with Agnes, one of the upstairs maids.  One of her duties is to sweep the passageway which connects the King’s private rooms with Hers.   We managed to secrete ourselves in an alcove and talked in hurried whispers. Sometimes it’s easy to believe that Master Cromwell has found some way of making the very walls themselves eavesdrop on us round here.  Nothing would surprise me where he’s concerned. He has his spies everywhere.

 “Things are still developing apace round here”, said Agnes “The trip to France has been called off, either that or the King is threatening to go alone.  Either way it’s not good news for Her is it”.

 “I wouldn’t be in her shoes for anything”, I said.

 “She flew too close to the sun that’s her trouble”, said Agnes “Couldn’t be happy with just a bit of slap and tickle like her sister was.  No, Her Ladyship had to go and get ideas above herself. Too good for a quick roll in the hay, nothing but Queenship was good enough for her”.

 “Ssh!” I said “You could get into awful trouble talking like that.  She’s not gone yet y’know”.

 “I don’t care”, said Agnes, stubbornly “I’m not going to be around here for much longer.  I think I’m with child”.

 I gave a little muffled squeal and kissed her in delight.

 “If that is the case”, said Agnes “I’ll go back to my parents’ farm, and stay there.  I’ve had enough of this Court life. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Everyone frightened of their own shadow, and scared to bloomin’ well speak all the time.  It’s not natural. It’s no way to live”.

 “What will your father say when he finds out?”

 “Oh he’ll grumble a bit at first no doubt, but he’ll soon come round, particularly when I tell him it’ll be another pair of hands to help out around the farm.  I tell you this Gerta, no child of mine is ever coming near this place, that’s for sure. It’s not been the same since the old Queen went. I miss her, terrible shame it was when she died.  I felt really heartbroken when I heard”.

 “I know what you mean”, I said, and dropped my voice even lower “Between you and me, I think the King still loves her.  He was married to her for an awful long time. And that fall he had, at the January joust, came very soon after he heard she’d passed over”.

 “That Witch put a spell on him, I swear it”, said Agnes “Either that or she used a whore’s tactics to snare him, probably some little bedroom tricks she picked up in France”.

 “Ssh!” I said, although I couldn’t help giggling as well.

 Suddenly the doors to the Queen’s ante-room were flung open, and a couple of her snooty, silly ladies-in-waiting emerged.  We pressed ourselves further back into the alcove, as far as we could go, but they were too engrossed in their own conversation to pay any attention to us, and they swept past us in a swirl of silks and velvets.  Unfortunately we couldn’t catch anything of what they were saying, because they were whispering too. It seems everybody whispers around here these days.

 

Late Afternoon

 

 The King came home early!!  And he didn’t ride back, he came by river, so everyone’s assuming he was in a hurry to get here.  The whole palace is buzzing with what could have happened at the May Day joust.

 “He was in a foul mood too”, said one of the pages, who had been in attendance in the main courtyard, when the royal party returned “I wouldn’t want to be one of his private chamber staff this evening.  Had a face like thunder he did”.

 The Queen didn’t return with him, which has only made the grapevine even more frenzied.  She came on along a bit later, with her own retinue. What on earth is going on??

 

May the 2nd

 

 What a turbulent day.  It started at the very first cold grey light of dawn.  When I first woke up I had a feeling that something huge had happened.  When I got down to the main kitchen I found the spit-turner at the fire beaming all over his face, with that “I know something you don’t know” look about him.  

 “What’s happened now?” I said, in no mood to play games.

 “You may well ask”, said the meat-cook “Norris has been carted off to the Tower, happened when it was barely light”.

 “Master Norris?” I gasped “But why?”

 “Dunno”, said the meat-cook “Rumour is the King got handed some note whilst he was watching the joust yesterday, and he’s never been the same since.  Doesn’t take a genius to see the note must have been about Norris and …”

 “Hey now be careful”, said red-faced old Alice, who plucks the fowl, and who always seems to be covered in feathers “It doesn’t take much to set the King off at the moment.  We would all do wise to be careful”.

 “I’m sick of being careful round here”, said the meat-cook, slapping some sorry-looking skinny birds onto the table “This place is nothing like it used to be.  We used to have some right old laughs in the old days”.

 “Is there any news of Mark Smeaton?” I asked.  I have been praying for little Smeaton almost constantly since he disappeared.

 “Gone to the Tower as well”, said meat-cook “You won’t be seeing him back here again.  Going down like ninepins they are. That’s the Nobs for you. Knife each other in the back quicker than … well quicker than you can say knife.  No honour amongst thieves”.

 “Now watch it!” said old Alice, pointing a finger at him “You won’t half get into trouble one of these days, running off with that big fat mouth of yours.  It wasn’t that long ago the King had his cook boiled alive! Yes, think on that. Be careful you don’t meet the same fate”.

 “Blah!” said meat-cook, cuffing the spit-boy round the ear “You mark my words, SHE [he raised his eyes upwards, in the general direction of the Queen’s apartments] will be gone as well before the day is out.  If the rumours are true then she’s been making His Majesty look a right old fool, a cuckold, and he won’t take too kindly to that. No man would”.

 “Oh no”, Agnes had been coming into the room, and she paused with horror “Don’t say that!”

 “What’s it to you?” said meat-cook “You haven’t had a good word to say about that concubine ever since you’ve been here.  Don’t try and tell me you now feel sorry for her!”

 “I was thinking of her little daughter, the Princess Elizabeth”, said Agnes “She’s not even three-years-old yet, that’s far too young to lose a mother”.

 “Huh, and what about all the other little chavvies who lose their mothers?” said meat-cook “I don’t notice you crying your eyes out over them.  Don’t you worry about that ginger-headed brat. She’ll be alright, she’ll always have someone to wipe her arse for her”.

 “Now that’s enough!” said old Alice “There’s enough tension and bad feeling round here at the moment, without you adding to it.  Let’s all just try and calm down a bit shall we”.

 “Blah, bloody women!” said meat-cook “All the problems in the world can be put down to bloody women.  Sometimes I wish I was a monk”.

 “Sometimes I wish you were as well!” said old Alice.

 

 Late in the morning, the Queen and her ladies went out into the grounds to watch a tennis-match.  By this point it was palpable that something wasn’t right, and I couldn’t help hoping that she was making the most of one of her last moments of pleasure.   It was nigh-on intolerable, like waiting for a storm to break. Things couldn’t carry on as they were, or we’d all descend into a pit of hysteria.

 At two o’clock in the afternoon, the storm did indeed break, and I have never known anything like it.   Orders were put out that the tide had turned on the river, and that the Queen was to be bustled off to the Tower!  Just as she was, in the clothes she was standing up in! It felt as though every window in the palace which overlooked the river was clogged up with faces all peering out trying to get a glimpse of her.  

 I sneaked into one of the galleries, as it had many windows and I felt it was my best chance of getting a view.   And I saw her! She was swathed in a hooded cloak, as though it was the depths of Winter, but I managed to get a brief glimpse of her face.  She looked pale, pinched and highly anxious. As well she might, poor lady. Yes it’s true, I felt sorry for her, even though my love for the late Queen Katherine, whom she had cruelly usurped, remained undiminished.   I knew she had no chance of returning from the Tower. I suppose there’s an outside chance the King might be merciful, and allow her to go to a nunnery, but it’s much more likely that she faces – God forbid! – a burning or a beheading.  Oh how the mighty have fallen! And it gives me no pleasure to record that. I have enough imagination to know how terrified she must be, and how concerned she must be for her loved ones. These are such dangerous times.

 After that, everything felt very flat.  The Queen, the Dark Lady, the royal concubine, was gone, and many were relieved, as they had hated her.  It was as if a troublesome spirit had finally been exorcised. And yet some of us were left with a feeling of confusion and  trepidation. What happens now?

 

4th of May

 

 The whole palace is in a state of jangled nerves.  I overheard someone joking earlier that at this rate everybody will be in the Tower, and there will be no one left here but His Majesty!  I have lost count of how many men close to the Queen have been arrested, including even her brother, Lord Rochford! Accused of incest with her!   That is an appalling accusation. She was close to her brother, and sometimes I thought they were like a pair of overgrown giggling spoilt brats, but INCEST??

 “I don’t know what to believe anymore”, said Old Alice “There are some dark forces at work round here, I can tell you”.

 “But incest?!” I exclaimed.

 “The Boleyns have always been a peculiar lot”, mumbled meat-cook, who seemed less gobby and more reserved than usual today “Old man Boleyn would have sold his daughters to the Devil himself if he thought he could get a few cushy titles out of it”.  

 It was all getting to me too much.  I was finding the palace corridors dark, cold and oppressive.  I could well believe in the sinister forces Old Alice had mentioned.  At any chance I could I escaped to the garden, but I didn’t get much easing of tension there either.  I could only think of the Queen holed up in the Tower, and wondering if she would ever get to stroll in a sunlit garden again.   How we take these simple little pleasure for granted! The beauty of the time of year seemed to be mocking us all. Would I be feeling all this as much if it was the depths of Winter?  I don’t know.

 I had struck up a chatting acquaintance with Blanche, who does some of the finer laundry and mending from the Queen’s apartments.  She told me that the Queen wasn’t incarcerated in a windowless dungeon, but in the sumptuous rooms she had occupied just before her Coronation.  What a cruel irony!

 “It’s all mayhem in here at the moment”, she said.

 We were standing on the landing outside the main doors of the Queen’s rooms.  Everything was in turmoil. Maids were constantly marching out, carrying armfuls of clothes and bedding.

 “What’s happening?” I asked “Where are they taking all her things?”

 “I don’t know yet”, Blanche shrugged “We’re under orders to strip the rooms of all her belongings.  And anything with the letter ‘A’ on it has to be unpicked or discarded as well. It’s as if her whole identity’s being erased.  He’s really determined to be shot of her”, she gave a shiver “This is what happens when Love dies. A few years ago he would have handed his entire Kingdom to her on a plate, now he wants every trace of her removed.  Wouldn’t surprise me if he made it an offence to mention her name in future. Makes me glad I’ve never had any man infatuated with me, I can tell you, not if this is what happens”.

 “How is she?” I said “Does anyone know?”

 “Not good”, she dropped her voice to a whisper “Some right old cats have been put in to look after her, and they’re all on orders to spy on her every move.  None of them like her. They’re determined to make her suffer. They’re loving it. Anyway, I’d better get on. Probably best not to stand around talking for too long.  We could probably get arrested just for that at the moment!”

 “Master Smeaton”, I said, quickly “Any news of him?”

 “Put him out of your mind”, she said “We won’t be seeing him again”.

 

9th of May

 

 It has been a horrible atmosphere in the palace for the past few days.   There is a tomb-like silence, and it’s as if we’re almost afraid to make a noise when we walk down the stone corridors.   His Majesty has been closeted in his rooms, conferring with various powerful men. Sometimes I think I would like to be a fly on the wall, but at other times I think I would rather not know what is going on.  We’ll find out soon enough.

 It has been only a week since the Lady was taken to the Tower, and yet it feels like a year.  Life has been turned upside down. There is no more music, no more sports, no more sounds of laughter or singing wafting down the stairways.   I try and escape into the gardens as often as I can, just so that I can sit for a while and listen to the birdsong, as a respite from the gloomy atmosphere indoors.  The weather has been glorious, as if it’s mocking us. I yearn for the days when His Majesty would have been out playing tennis with his friends, and returning to the palace with his shirt drenched in sweat, and roaring with laughter and bonhomie.   What on earth has gone wrong?

 Many blame the Queen.  “She’s a witch, she put him under a spell”, said the meat-cook “And now he’s woken up from it, that’s all”.   I don’t think it’s as simple as that. It takes two to dance, when all’s said and done. The Queen was bewitching, but … oh I’m already referring to her in the past tense.  But it feels at the moment as if she’s halfway out of this world already.

 Yesterday I was roped into helping with the final scrub-out of the Queen’s apartments.  All of her belongings have been removed. There is no trace of her identity there anymore.  The rooms stand almost empty, with the windows flung open, the walls bare, and the curtains flapping in the breeze.   Agnes and I speculated (in whispers) as to who would occupy the rooms next.

 “My money’s on Mistress Seymour, the Wiltshire girl”, I said “His Majesty has been putting some yearning looks in her direction for months”.  

 “I heard the Lady caught him spooning with her one day”, said Agnes “She had hysterics about it”.  

 “Hm, when I think of how many times Queen Katherine had to turn a blind eye to his antics”.

 “That’s what the King said at the time!”

 Agnes leaned in closer to me.

 “I’ll tell you something”, she said “If Seymour does take up the mantle, things will be very different round here.  She’s a priggish little thing. Always looks as if she’s chewing on a wasp to me. There won’t be any of the gay old times the Lady and her coterie engaged in, that’s for sure”.

 “Well perhaps things might calm down a bit”, I sighed.

 “God help her if she doesn’t give him a son either though!” said Agnes “That’s all he cares about these days, he’s obsessed.  Anyway, keep an eye out for her. She’s sly. I never trust those prim, quiet ones, they always seem to be looking at you out of the corner of their eye, sizing you up.  Ugh!”

 

11th of May

 

 The full list of charges against the Queen has been published, and it is as long as your arm.  She must have been a very busy lady these past couple of years to have fitted all that in! How in God’s name she managed to have sex with all and sundry, as well as plotted against the King, whilst she was also doing Queen’s duties, going on royal progresses, trying to conceive a royal baby, and sewing shirts for the poor is beyond me.   But it seems His Majesty is so determined to be shot of her that he’ll accuse her of every crime in the land. If he can’t find one charge to stick, then he’ll find another.

 “I know for a fact she couldn’t have had sex with Mark Smeaton this time last year”, Agnes hissed, during one of our hiding-in-the-alcove chats “They weren’t even in the same palace!  And why would she have committed incest with her brother just before Christmas, when she knew she was already pregnant with the King’s child? It doesn’t make sense!”

 “It seems things don’t have to make sense these days”, I said “It’s also been said that last All Hallow’s Eve she and her lovers conspired to take the King’s life.  I can’t be the only one who’s noticed the significance of the date. The old witchcraft charge. When all else fails resort to that one”.

 “Has he forgotten that she’s the mother of his child?” snapped Agnes.

 “He doesn’t want to be reminded of the child”, I said “It reminds him that he went through all that, divided the country, alienated the Church, just to end up with another daughter”.

 “I suppose it’s never occurred to him that he might not be able to father a son?”, said Agnes “All men are fools!”

 I found it very hard to disagree with her by that point.

 

 At night I have been remembering all of them currently incarcerated in the Tower in my prayers.  Even the King can’t get into my thoughts and dictate who I can pray for, although I remember him too.  Whatever the outcome of all this – and it’s impossible not to think it will be utterly horrific – then he will have to live with it on his conscience for the rest of his life.  And that will be an enormous cross to bear. I don’t believe he will ever be truly happy again.

 In the still watches of the night I find the Lady constantly in my thoughts.  No amount of comfortable rooms will be able to make up for the strain she must be under.  She must know she’s under a sentence of death already, and she has those loathsome, hate-filled old harridans spying on her every move.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she went off her head, living under that kind of strain.

 I try not to get carried away on a wave of sentiment.  Agnes is already doing that enough for both of us. I often come across her looking as if she’s been weeping, and she’s always hastily rubbing her eyes with her apron.  Her condition won’t help. My Mother used to say her emotions were all over the place when she was expecting me.

 I remind myself of all the times I really disliked Anne Boleyn, of how badly she treated the old Queen.  She demanded her jewels, she demanded the royal christening robes for Princess Elizabeth, and, cruellest of all, she refused to let her see her daughter, Mary.  There were times when she was a complete cow, quite frankly. But I wonder how much of the time she was being coerced by her family. Meat-Cook was right about one thing.  Old Boleyn would sell his own grandmother if he could get a good price for her. And the same goes for most of the men in that family, including that evil old swine the Duke of Norfolk, Anne’s uncle.   As my father would have said, “I wouldn’t give you house-room for the lot of ‘em”. Anne must have been under enormous pressure to bring home the bacon, as the saying goes. As soon as the King clapped eyes on her, she was doomed.  Her life wasn’t her own anymore.

 And now I’m thinking of her as “Anne”, whereas before it’s always been the Lady, even the Dark Lady, the Witch.  I don’t go as far as some who’ve called her the Night Crow, and the Boleyn Whore, but I’ve never … up until now … thought of her simply as Anne.   There was always something a bit supernatural about her, as though she couldn’t possibly be just a normal flesh-and-blood woman. But all that has changed now.   I think of her as a frightened woman, possibly wrongly maligned, not just in fear of her own life, but concerned for her daughter, and for her mother, who I’ve heard is not well at all.  

 And I’m pretty sure Queen Katherine, if she was here, would be feeling sorry for her too.  She knew from an early age how ruthless royal life can be. Her mother had been a warrior queen, barely getting out of the saddle long enough to give birth.   Queen Katherine would have forgiven her, and now so must I. Whatever sins she has committed in the past, Anne, the girl from Hever, doesn’t deserve to be in this current predicament.  

 

18th of May

 

 I couldn’t record my thoughts whilst the Trial was on, as it was all too horrendous.   And so far it has resulted in five healthy men in the prime of life being put to death.  I have dreamt of the Tower being awash with blood, and it must have resembled a butcher’s shop that day.   All I could think of was headless bodies being bundled into makeshift coffins. Such a waste of life.

 At the Queen’s trial her own father – HER OWN FATHER – sat in judgement on her.   He sat there in his red robes, and watched his own daughter being condemned to death.   Shortly before he had likewise sat and watched his own son going the same way. What is running in the veins of a man like that?  Because I can’t believe he’s human. I could only think of their poor mother, back home in Hever Castle, what on earth must she be feeling?  Two of her precious children to be put to death on the scaffold. Truly, we do live in corrupt, barbarous times. I have to be so careful where I conceal this scroll of paper.  If it were to be discovered, I too might find myself in the Tower. My Mother taught me to read and write because she felt it would give me advantages in life. How darkly ironic it would be if it led to my doom instead!  Even just writing these words could be seen as treasonous.

 Public opinion has swung dramatically in the Queen’s favour.  All along the people have reviled her for taking Queen Katherine’s place, but now she has gone from the Harlot, the Witch, to That Poor Lady In The Tower.  She is now the wronged wife and mother, being ruthlessly put aside for another, just as Queen Katherine had been. Poor Anne. She must have yearned to be loved and respected by the people, only for it to come at a terrible price.  I have heard a rumour that Cromwell has warned His Majesty that it would probably be best if he wasn’t seen in public for a while. The King must be grievously upset by this news. He has always been popular with the common man. They love his boisterous laugh, his hearty appetites, his love of a good time, they see him as one of their own.  This will dismay him … or then again perhaps he’s so obsessed with Mistress Seymour that he doesn’t care. When the King gets a fixation in his head it seems nothing can distract him. Nothing.

 

 Early this morning I was dusting the main stairs, which connect the royal apartments to the private chapel on the first floor.   Suddenly I heard the doors flung open above me and a posse of men emerged. The King was amongst them! I couldn’t afford to be seen.  I could have just turned my back and faced the wall, as we are meant to do sometimes, but even that didn’t seem to be enough. I just felt it wasn’t wise at the moment to draw attention to myself in any way.  So instead I slipped through a nearby door into the gallery, and flattened myself against the wall.

 “What is taking so long?” the King roared, as they came down the steps.

 “It is not yet 8 o’clock, Your Majesty”, Cromwell replied “There is still over an hour to go”.

 “It is days like this where Time seems to slow to a veritable crawl”, said the King “I am constantly listening out for the cannon.  I don’t want to miss it. I want to know the very moment I am free of her”.

 The men passed into the private chapel and closed the door behind them.  I breathed a sigh of relief, and found I had been clutching my dusting-rag to my chest so fiercely that my hand ached.

 

Later

 

 The execution has been postponed until tomorrow!  The headsman has been delayed on the road and can’t get here today.   What a cruel blow for the Queen. She will now have to go through it all again, when she could have been at peace by now.  Either that, or she might be thinking that she is heading for a reprieve, which would be too cruel, as I’m pretty certain there is no chance whatsoever of the King granting her that.  

 Everyone has been very quiet today.  There is an undercurrent that something is happening which should not be happening, but there is nothing we can do about it.  On reflection, I think her Fate was sealed from the moment she was arrested. Soon after she was bundled off to the Tower, her rooms were cleared out and her household disbanded.  That would never have happened if there had been the slightest chance she would be declared innocent.

 It is very late.  I am scribbling using the moonlight coming through the narrow little window as my only source of  illumination. I can hear loud raucous voices coming from the direction of the river, which must mean the King is on his way home.  He has spent the evening dining with Mistress Seymour. As far as he is concerned he is now a free man in all but name. Even if he now hates Anne, how can he go merrymaking whilst she is in the Tower, only a few hours from death?  Would it have hurt him so much to have delayed it a couple of days? I feel like I am losing all the respect I ever had for him, and yet I know how dangerous it is to record such thoughts here. I must try and seek sleep. Tomorrow will be a very long day.

 

The 19th of May

 

 I couldn’t eat first thing this morning, which is very unusual for me, as I normally have a hearty appetite.  But the thought of any kind of sustenance made me feel sick. I avoided the kitchens. I didn’t want to run the slightest risk of hearing Meat-Cook making one of his pathetic remarks, or Agnes blubbing into her apron.  Later I will no doubt feel strong enough to face them, but not at the moment.

 It felt as though all of us were constantly ear-cocked, listening out for the sound of the cannon down on the Tower wharf, which would tell us that the dreadful deed had been finally done.   I slipped out into the kitchen gardens, and met the young lad who is one of the Pages in the King’s apartments. He is a slender, fair-haired little thing. I often think he seems like a pretty girl in men’s attire.  He was sitting on a low wall, staring thoughtfully ahead.

 “They’ve all gone to the Tower”, he said, when he saw me “All of them.  Except the King”.

 “All of the nobs?” I asked.

 “Yes”, he said “It’s the hottest show in town, the first time a queen has ever been executed in England, so they all wanted to be there to witness it.  The sadistic bastards”.

 “Ssh!” I said, horrified, flapping my apron at him.

 “S’alright”, he said “No one around to hear me, might as well take advantage of not having old Cromwell and his henchmen around spying on us all the time.   Makes a change. It must be a rare event for His Majesty to have some time all to himself. I heard him pacing up and down up there earlier”.

 “I can’t imagine it’s his conscience pricking him”, I muttered, sitting down on the wall “And you didn’t hear me say that!  For all I know you might be in Cromwell’s pay”.

 “Not me”, he said “I leave all that stuff well alone.  No good ever comes to the likes of us meddling in Their business.  Leave ‘em to it, I say. I’m learning the guitar. I fancy meself as a minstrel”.

 We both sat for a moment, looking up at the cloudless blue sky.  I imagined her walking out of the Queen’s House at the Tower, seeing the scaffold and the headsman in front of her.  Hearing the birdsong around her, smelling the scent of the may-flowers, and knowing that she was about to die.

 “I dreamt about her last night”, he said “I could see her head, with all its bits hanging out”.

 “Now stop that!” I said “There’s going to be quite enough of all that before the day is out.  Anymore remarks like that and I’ll box your ears, young man!”

 “Fair enough”, he shrugged.

 And then we heard it.  The cannon-fire. It was over.   I couldn’t help it. I burst into tears.

 

 By the time I had composed myself and finished my morning chores, the palace gossip mill was churning away at full tilt.  Every detail of the Queen’s execution was seized upon and discussed at great length. When I reached the kitchens for my Noon victuals, everyone was twittering away like an aviary of excitable birds.  

 “They hadn’t even got a coffin for her?!” Old Alice was shouting, shocked.

 “Bundled her into an old arrow-chest”, said a despatch-rider, who was wolfing down bread and cheese at the table “That was all they had”.

 “An old arrow-chest?!” Old Alice sounded angry enough to confront the King himself “She was the Queen!  You don’t go putting queens into old arrow-chests, no matter what you think they’ve done!”

 “Where have they buried her?” asked Agnes, who was red-nosed and red-eyed from crying.

 “They hadn’t thought that one out either”, said the despatch-rider “Last I heard they were going to put her under the altar in the chapel there”.

 “That’s a bloody disgrace!” said Old Alice “She should’ve been given a decent funeral at least!  This lot … they don’t give a toss about anybody. No respect. No feelings”.

 “Alice, pipe down”, said Meat-Cook, who wasn’t as snide and abrasive as I had expected him to be.  If anything, he seemed unnaturally quiet “You’ll get yourself into trouble if you carry on like that”.

 “See if I care”, said Old Alice “There’s not much They can do to me at my age”.

 “Don’t bank on it”, said the despatch-rider “A dungeon in the Tower wouldn’t do your old bones any good.  He’s right, tone it down. The deed is done, nothing we can do about it now”.

 “I heard she was wearing a gabled hood”, said Agnes, after blowing her nose noisily “Why would the Queen have worn a gabled hood?  That wasn’t her style at all, she preferred French hoods”.

 “Don’t ask me”, said the despatch-rider “I’m not clued up on women’s garments.  I suppose it doesn’t matter much what her head-gear is now, does it!” And he gave a roar of laughter, his big mouth stuffed full of bread.

 “Men!” said Old Alice.

 

WhitSunday

 

 Perhaps, as to be expected, the King didn’t waste any time grieving over the Lady Anne.  He became betrothed to Mistress Seymour the very next day! By that point I think I was beyond being shocked where he’s concerned.   He seemed to regard Anne as a dark, fantasy interlude in his life, and one where – if we knew what was good for us – we would move on from it too.  

 And the curious thing is that, once the shock of execution day had passed, we did all move on.  It was as if the storm had passed. We weren’t likely to forget her in a hurry, but for those of us on the lower rungs of the ladder, I suppose it doesn’t really matter much who occupies the Queen’s apartments.   And if Mistress Seymour makes the King happy, then he’ll be easier to work for no doubt. I can’t in all honesty say I will like her though. It takes a pretty cold bitch to step into a dead woman’s shoes so quickly and so willingly.

 Agnes has gone back to her father’s farm.  We had a brief, hurried goodbye one morning, as she set off with her bundle for the wharf.

 “If you get fed up with it here”, she said “Come and find me in the Essex countryside.  We could always do with another pair of hands around the place”.

 I haven’t made up my mind what I’m doing yet, but I thanked her and said I would certainly bear it in mind.  

 “We’re the lucky ones really, Gerta”, she said “With our skills we’ll always be able to find work.  The nobs will always need their piss-pots emptying for them when all’s said and done. The Lady Anne’s sister had the right idea, she disappeared into the countryside and stuck to breeding, and that’s what I’m doing”.

 I was pleased she had got her spirits back, and I said I would miss her around the place.

 

 And now it is WhitSunday at the beginning of June, and the new Queen has been declared.  His Majesty married her here in the palace a few days ago. He doesn’t believe in wasting time.  A coronation has been postponed though because there are rumours that plague has broken out in the city.  

 Sometimes there is a bit of whispering that the Lady Anne’s dark-eyed ghost has been seen around parts of the palace, but I don’t know how much to believe it.   (There is also a wild rumour going round that, on the day of the execution, the tapers around Queen Katherine’s tomb lit all by themselves).  These ethereal rumours are all that is left of her, apart from the little red-haired princess of course. It is as if she had never existed in the first place, that the years of turmoil she had brought in her wake had never happened.  

 “Don’t you believe it”, said Blanche, who was busy stitching the letter ‘J’ to various pillows and cushions “SHE won’t be forgotten in a hurry, I can tell you that, and I can’t see this one [meaning Mistress Seymour] overshadowing her”.

 And so the dust settles again.  For the time being anyway.

 

THE END

 

 

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