An extract from ‘Mistress of the Court’



Beak Street, London

Pain cracked across the back of Henrietta’s skull, filling her vision with white light. As her body smacked against the floor, her skirts ripped. She spluttered and tried to roll over, but Charles planted his boot in the small of her back. ‘Give it to me, bitch!’

Noise fragmented into shards. A cry soared, cutting through her husband’s voice. It was Henry – poor boy. He would be so afraid.

‘What?’ she gasped. ‘What do you want now?’

‘You know what!’

Money. Money for the bottle, money for the faro table, money for his whores. Money he never earned. A pitiful amount of interest on her dowry, intended for her sole use.

Her hand flailed across the floor, trying to find purchase. Only mouse-droppings met her fingertips. ‘I have none.’

‘You do!’ His breath hit her ear, stinking of tobacco and alcohol.

‘You feed the child, don’t you?’

Resentment boiled up inside her but she could not let it show. Submission was the only safe path. She had tried the other way more than once – and barely escaped with her life.

‘Henry!’ she called out to her son. ‘Tell Papa when we last had something to eat. It wasn’t today, was it?’ she prompted. ‘Nor yesterday . . . ’

Charles’s boot pressed down, choking the breath from her. Her ribs mashed into the floor. With no fat to cushion them, they threatened to burst through her wasted skin. ‘What? Starving my son?’

The pressure on her back lifted for an instant before Charles stamped upon her shoulder blades. Vision flickered. Henrietta tasted vomit in her mouth and suddenly it was all around her, sticking to her cheeks. Her consciousness retreated, fleeing the squalor and pain. Hanover. She had to think of Hanover: the sparkling court, the fine dresses. Fountains that danced in the sunlight. It was her only hope of escape.

‘For God’s sake, woman! Look at the state of you.’ Charles spat on her prone form. ‘I won’t have this mess in my house. Get it cleaned up by the time I return.’

‘Yes, Charles.’

He slammed the door, shaking the thin walls and rattling the windows in their frames. Henrietta waited a few moments, testing the silence against his return. Nothing. The void was like the sound of angel wings.

She struggled up and leant one arm against the wall. Another chip, another piece of torn wallpaper. At least it wasn’t a bloodstain this time. She grabbed a rag from the chair and wiped her face. Her woollen gown was past repair; soiled, torn and shiny at the seams. The frayed linen around her elbows caught up dust and dead flies. She would have to go on wearing it: the humiliating rag that marked every step she had fallen from her place as Miss Hobart of Blickling Hall. It was the only piece of clothing she owned. A whimper broke the bruised silence. Henrietta looked up from her gown to see Henry, watching her. His eyes brimmed with tears.

‘Henry. Henry, it’s all right. Look, Mama isn’t hurt!’ She spread her arms and moved to embrace him, but he dodged out of the way. She couldn’t blame him. She was a frightening figure, covered in scratches and vomit. She wished she could light a fire, give him something sweet to take the edge off the shock. But she had nothing – nothing except her love. And it wasn’t enough.

‘Mama has a plan,’ she told him. ‘A plan to get you food and an education. You’d like to go to school, wouldn’t you?’

He didn’t answer.

She knelt softly and put her head level with his mop of dirty hair. ‘I’m going to tell you a story,’ she crooned. ‘A story of a sad old queen called Anne who was very, very ill. Winter drew near and her days fell away like autumn leaves. She wished and wished for a child to take her throne, but it didn’t come.’ Henrietta had a vivid memory of her own mother, putting her to bed with a fairy-tale. She swallowed. ‘But then, guess what happened? The queen found a magical place, across the narrow sea. A place where there were generations of princes and princesses, just waiting to keep her country safe.’

Still on her knees, she shuffled over to the bed. As she pushed the frame, straw burst from the mattress and fluttered down on her head. ‘Now, your Papa’s name is a key to that magical place. You only have to say Howard and the doors will open. We need to go there and serve the princes and princesses. Then, when they come to England to take their throne, Mama and Papa will be right there beside them.’ Henrietta rapped the floorboards with her knuckles.

One returned a deep, hollow sound.

‘But how do you get to the magic place?’ Henry’s voice was a tiny thread. ‘How do you cross the sea?’

Henrietta laid a finger on her lips. ‘It’s a secret. You mustn’t tell Papa.’ Her nails closed around a loose piece of wood and wriggled it free. ‘But at night, the fairies come and . . . ’

Breath left her in a rush of anguish. No. It cannot be. Her careful hoard, the stash she had starved for, was gone. A yawning gap met her frantic gaze, her groping fingers.

Somewhere out there, she knew, Charles would be sitting on a battered stool, drinking her dreams into oblivion.

© Laura Purcell