Authors: Robert Brightwell
Tags: #Adventure, #Historical, #Action
‘I am sure you were,’ I agreed imagining her standing over a prince of the realm and demanding he agree to her list before she pleasured him.
‘Freddie has never been good with money,’ she stated of the man who managed the finances of the British army. ‘He can drink and gamble his way through forty thousand a year; I know, I have seen him do it. He cannot stand living with his wife so he has to have his own household as well as funding hers, and that does not come cheap. I ran his household and paid for most of it. I hosted his parties, flirted with his generals and, when he was not too drunk, I tupped him to exhaustion. I did it all without it costing him a penny. I was the perfect mistress!’
‘So what went wrong?’
‘Some cow with perter breasts and fewer wrinkles.’
‘You don't have wrinkles,’ I complimented her automatically, but when I looked, apart from a few faint laughter lines, she truly didn’t.
‘Oh you have to expect that sort of thing eventually. I replaced an earlier mistress and I knew he would find a new favourite sooner or later. There is no point getting angry about it. Leave with good grace and a full purse, is what one Madame told me.’
‘And that is what you did?’ I asked.
‘He promised me an annual pension of four hundred pounds which he paid for the first year, but this year all I have had is excuses; and then he stopped replying to my letters at all.’
‘That is shocking,’ I cried supportively while looking her over and speculating how desperate she was for cash, for she was a very tidy piece and I had a full purse. You had to wonder what bedroom skills she could employ to have the Duke of York surrender control of the army. I had never been with a royal mistress; you would expect them to be amongst the best in Europe. I was just musing over how they would compare to the oriental arts of lovemaking I had enjoyed in India and thinking back to the exquisitely skilled Fatimah, when I realised that Mary had said something and seemed to expect a response.
‘Yes I am sure,’ I tried as an all-encompassing answer.
‘You were staring at my chest and not paying the slightest attention to what I was saying weren’t you?’ She gave a resigned shake of the head before continuing. ‘I was saying that if I knew any of the more radical members of Parliament I could bring down the government with what I know.’
‘You could indeed,’ I agreed remembering that in a month with Fatimah I had lost nearly a stone in weight and thinking that an afternoon with Mary would help me keep in capital trim.
‘Oh for God’s sake!’ she exclaimed, although for the life of me I could not see why she was annoyed. ‘Come with me,’ she said standing and pulling on my arm.
‘Where are we going?’ I asked puzzled.
‘To my room upstairs, it is the only way I am going to get any sense out of you.’ Well, I had expected a former royal mistress to play slightly harder to get than that but you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
As it turned out I can confirm that Prince Frederick, Duke of York was a lucky man to have Mary Clarke as a mistress, for she was a most diverting companion who exercised me thoroughly that afternoon. It was as we were lying together on the bed naked afterwards that she restarted the conversation. She propped her head up on one elbow and reached over with her spare hand and started walking her fingers up my chest. ‘Thomas, do you remember we were talking earlier about you losing your commission and Freddie not paying my annuity?’
‘Oh yes,’ I murmured sleepily. ‘Damn nearly ruined me that did.’
‘Don't you have other income? Hobhouse implied you did. He claimed you were not a man of letters but a man of bones, although he would not explain the remark.’
Did he now
I thought, and mentally marked him down for revenge later as I replied, ‘I have some rental income to cover basic expenses but I had borrowed against the army pay and some rather unpleasant people were demanding repayment with menaces.’
‘What did you do?’
‘I had to borrow some money from my wife, or more specifically my father-in-law as he still pays her an allowance. It was pretty much the end of my marriage.’
‘I did not know you were married.’
‘We are separated now. We got married on a ship coming back from India. The captain told us that three things wreck a marriage: lust, money and in-laws. Well there was no problem in the lust department but my wife is used to having money and her father hated me. He started to poison her against me the minute we stepped ashore.’
‘Well, I don't have a rich father-in-law and I cannot afford to lose that annuity. I have four children to support and anyway Freddie should not be allowed to get away with it.’
‘He is the son of the king; no court is going to pursue him for an unpaid debt. Men with far more influence than you have been chasing the royals for money for years.’
‘But remember what I told you before; you cannot pursue them in the courts, but you could in Parliament.’
‘Why would the government attack the king to get your annuity back?’
‘Don’t be silly Thomas, it would not be the government, it would be one of the radical members of the opposition. Freddie is praised by the government as an excellent commander in chief. They even repeat his claims that he is encouraging the army to promote on merit. If a radical stood up in the House and accused him of corruption there would be uproar. They could not brush the claim aside without it appearing to be true and so there would have to be a hearing. If I appeared as a witness, then Freddie’s reputation would be ruined.’
‘How do you get your pension back by ruining the commander in chief?’ I asked.
‘Simple. I will demand a four hundred pound a year pension guaranteed by a bank from whichever radical who takes the case. They would be famous for bringing down a prince so for them it is money well spent. If the government or the crown wants to pay off the radical and me with new pensions, well I would not mind that instead.’
I suddenly realised that the pretty woman I was lying beside was much more than just a gorgeous body. She was shrewd, calculating and had really thought this through. I lay back thinking about what she had proposed. There had been plenty of royal scandals over recent years but most had been sorted behind closed doors and the facts had been hidden. Some scribbling hack called Nicholas Hansard had recently started publishing a journal of all the speeches and debates in Parliament. If the trial was held there everything would be reported, it would be a sensation. She was right that any radical who took this case on would make a big name for himself.
‘I know several radical members of Parliament,’ I told Mary.
‘Really Thomas, I had no idea,’ she replied with what I thought was a touch of sarcasm. Then she added, ‘I thought you might have been able to help as you had a grievance against the duke and also had friends amongst the radicals.’
‘Cochrane would love this,’ I told her, referring to Thomas Cochrane, one of my oldest friends. He was a radical Member of Parliament and through him I knew many of the others. It was with Cochrane that I had been on my first adventures overseas and I had told Mary about some of them earlier that afternoon. He had just lost his court martial for the Basque Roads affair and this would allow him to take his revenge on the establishment.
‘You like Cochrane a lot don't you?’ Mary looked at me while biting her lip, and for the first time since we’d met she looked uncertain about something.
‘Of course, he has saved my life more than once.’
‘Then think of someone else,’ said Mary quietly. ‘The government and the court will take their revenge, not on me for they will see me as some simple money grabbing whore, but on whichever politician makes his name out of this. Mark my words, they will take their time but in the end they will try to destroy him.’ That got me thinking, for this idle talk of bringing down governments and princes suddenly was very real and would have very serious consequences for some. There seemed a chill in the air and I got up to stir the fire in the grate and put on another log. As I watched the sparks drifting up the chimney I started to consider what I had got myself into.
One thing was for certain, if I was going to help Mary then I was going to make damn sure that nobody knew about it. I could not afford to be linked to a scandal against the government. For one thing I still officially worked for Castlereagh, the Minister for War, although there had been precious little work of late.
I could think of several radical members of Parliament seeking a name for themselves that would jump at the chance and worry about the consequences later. The tricky bit was finding someone to introduce them to Mary, for that was not going to be me. If the radical politician was going to be destroyed then they might well come after the man who introduced him to the scheme. I racked my brains for some nasty piece of work that I would not mind doing the dirty on. I needed some arrogant braggart who was not smart enough to think things through to see the consequences, and who would claim all the glory for himself. That would keep my name out of the frame, but he would also need to know some of the ambitious radicals. I was on the verge of telling Mary I could not help when a name sprang to mind.
‘Sir Richard Phillips is your man,’ I announced. ‘He is close to the radical set and will probably charge one handsomely for this opportunity.’
‘The former Sheriff of London?’ asked Mary. ‘But is he gullible? Can you make him do what we want?’
‘Oh yes. I happen to know that just last month he paid very handsomely for an old skull that someone told him was once that of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.’
. As far-fetched as this might seem, the more detailed biographical information on Sir Richard Phillips confirms that he did possess a skull that he claimed was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s, although he claimed he had bought it for a shilling. The Cardinal was chancellor under Henry VIII, running the country for the young king until he failed to secure his monarch a papal divorce from his first wife, which led to Wolsey’s downfall and the reformation.
In the long lonely hours of my dotage I look back on my dissolute existence, and there are some for whom I feel just the slightest twinge of guilt. A Russian countess left naked to face her husband’s wrath after I disappeared disguised in her clothes to avoid pursuit; the man whose horse I took near Blood River forcing him to escape a Zulu horde on foot; and the sailor shanghaied to the far east after I stole his papers: these all spring to mind after just a moment’s reflection. But what I did to Sir Richard Phillips does not keep me awake one jot. He was one of the most odious men I ever encountered. I have no idea how he came to acquire a knighthood and the honorary title of High Sheriff of London, but I can be certain that it was not through any genuine act of philanthropy.
Phillips professed to be a radical and had published numerous books under his own name on civil liberty and justice. He saw no irony in the fact that he bullied, bribed and blackmailed other impoverished authors to write them for him under his name. I had met him preying on the poorer poets trying to earn money to keep up with Byron’s literary crowd. He was a parasite, a blood sucking tick, but ironically given his nature, he did not eat meat out of choice, not even a chicken. He called his diet vegetarian. Making a great fuss about removing ‘animal flesh’ as he called it from his plate, he then stuffed his face with roast potatoes and parsnips, which had probably been cooked in lard. Consequently I avoided meeting him over a meal. The day after my meeting with Mary I found him in his favourite coffee shop, talking to some thin cove with a sheaf of manuscript. Without being invited, I pulled up a chair at his table.
‘I hear word around town that you have bought Cardinal Wolsey’s head for just a shilling Sir Richard,’ I greeted him, smiling genially. The last time we had met I had been ingratiating myself to achieve a sale, for much more than a shilling. Now I wanted to deliberately annoy him, so that he was more inclined to do me an ill turn. It was not a difficult challenge.
Phillips glanced across at the thin man. ‘That will be all for now Mr Edgar,’ he barked, passing him back the manuscript. ‘Remember break it down, state the obvious and pad it out. You cannot sell a book about the rights of man with less than a hundred pages.’
‘Yes Sir Richard,’ said the thin man, glancing forlornly at his half-drunk coffee as he gathered his coat and made for the door.
‘Was that one of your scribblers?’ I asked.
Phillips watched the thin man go and then turned to me with a disdainful glare. ‘If you have more bones to sell, Thomas, I am not interested. A friend, who knows Leicester well, tells me that Wolsey’s grave in the abbey there has not been disturbed in living memory. So I would like to know how his skull came out of it.’
‘The box it came in looks very ancient,’ I replied ‘Wolsey died two hundred and fifty years ago; who is to say when the grave was plundered? You know he died in disgrace and was not buried in his fancy tomb. The skull was probably taken while the abbey was being torn down.’
Phillips growled an assent that such a thing was possible. Everyone knew that the ornate marble sarcophagus that Wolsey had planned for his own use centuries ago, had four years earlier been used to bury Horatio Nelson in St Paul’s. ‘So what do you want?’ he asked grudgingly.
‘I come bearing good news for the radical cause,’ I told him cheerfully. ‘Do you remember Mary Clarke, the former mistress of the Duke of York? Well, the duke has reneged on his promised annuity to her and hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. She promises to bring the duke down and possibly the government with it.’
‘What do you mean?’ Phillips asked, his eyes glittering with interest.
‘She is willing to act as a witness to confirm that bribes were paid to her for promotions and exchanges in the army and that the prince arranged them as she instructed. She just needs a radical member of the opposition to make the accusation in Parliament that she can then support.’
‘Hell’s teeth!’ cried Phillips looking astounded. ‘Which radical is she working with?’
‘She asked about Cochrane and I am sending him a note as he is in Scotland at the moment. It will be a week or two before I get a reply, but I am sure he will do it. This will be a perfect revenge after the court martial.’
‘It will indeed be the perfect revenge,’ Phillips was licking his lips in anticipation and you could almost hear his brain working from the other side of the table. ‘You must give me all the details Thomas, for an account of this affair would make a famous book. It would add to Cochrane’s fame and of course I would ensure that you got credit too. With an overly casual manner, pretending it was an afterthought, he added, ‘Oh, by the way, where is Mary Clarke staying in London? We might need to interview her too.’
I left that meeting feeling well pleased with myself, the first part of the plan Mary and I had hatched together worked perfectly. That evening I received a note from her, still at Dorant’s Hotel, to say that Sir Richard had visited earlier in the day. He told her that he had heard she was in need of a Member of Parliament at the radical end of politics to act for her. When she told him that I was writing to Cochrane he warned her that it was likely to be some weeks before Cochrane could act on her behalf and hinted that he might not be that reliable. By happy chance he would be able to introduce her to his particular friend Colonel Gwyllym Wardle, Member of Parliament for Okehampton, who could act immediately and save her waiting for Cochrane’s return. Mary allowed herself to be ‘reluctantly’ persuaded into abandoning Cochrane and I and taking on the team of Phillips and Wardle instead.
Over the next few weeks Mary negotiated her fee with her new partners. When Phillips discovered that she had kept much of her correspondence with the duke and many other influential figures, he promised her that if she handed the letters over to him he could make her rich through book sales. But Mary was no fool and she could see through that as well. So she kept her letters, although she talked about the book as a possibility, but only if she wrote it. To encourage her cooperation they offered her the use of a larger rented house which Wardle agreed to furnish for her. Despite the fact that Wardle was about to prosecute the Duke of York for accepting bribes in exchange for army commissions, he was happy paying what could be seen as bribes to a witness in exchange for evidence. The fool even visited the carpenters to buy the furniture with Mary and agreed with the owner that he would be paying the bill for whatever Mary chose. It may seem a little thing, but it ruined him later.
While all this was going on, the talk in London was of Spain and the war. In fact people had been talking about Spain for nearly a year since Parliament had decided to send the first expedition to that God forsaken country. At the start of the year Napoleon had sent his brother Joseph to replace the unpopular Spanish King Carlos IV. The Spanish had initially welcomed French troops into their country thinking that they were there to oversee the abdication of Carlos IV, and his replacement by the popular heir to the throne, Fernando. When the Spanish royal family was tricked into going to France and replaced with a Bonaparte there was a revolt. A Spanish army had beaten a French force at a place called Balien, which raised expectations across Madrid, Lisbon and London that a combined Spanish, Portuguese and British force could throw the French back.
The first British expedition was turning out to be a disaster. It had started well as the third in command, Arthur Wellesley, had arrived first with the army and in a few days had beaten a French army near Lisbon. But then the two senior commanders had arrived and taken a more cautious approach which resulted in an agreement to provide the beaten French army with ship transport back to France. It also allowed the French to keep their arms and all the property they had looted from the Spanish and Portuguese. The Portuguese in particular were furious at watching their allies act as accomplices in the pillaging of their country. All three commanders were recalled, with Sir John Moore put in charge of the army. By then Napoleon had gathered some of his veteran troops who quickly proved that the Spanish victory at Balien was more down to luck than Spanish judgement. The French slaughtered Spanish armies everywhere they found them. Then the French columns started to close in on the British. After a brutal winter campaign in the mountains of northern Spain, the remnants of the British force were trapped at Corunna on the north west tip of the country. An evacuation by ship was organised for the expeditionary force, but not before Sir John Moore had been killed fighting a rear guard action.
There was therefore already much criticism of the army and its commanders, with all this happening as Wardle, Philips and Clarke made their preparations to discredit its commander in chief. All debate on the war was overshadowed on the twentieth of January 1809 when Colonel Wardle sensationally gave notice to the House of Commons in Parliament that in a week’s time he would submit a motion to the House on the conduct of His Royal Highness the Duke of York. All of London society knew within hours, and a week of wild speculation followed on what the accusations might be, some a good deal more colourful than what were eventually presented.
Mary had moved to her new house and I stayed well clear. Rumours that she was a witness for Wardle were already circulating and for anyone with government connections, contact with her was now ruinous. Ministers debated on how they should respond to Wardle but, as Mary had predicted, they decided that to try and block the hearing would be tantamount to admitting the duke’s guilt.
The House of Commons was packed on the twenty-seventh of January when Wardle rose to submit his motion. The viewing gallery was also heaving with people and despite getting there early I only just managed to squeeze in. Having played my small part to get the ball rolling, I was keen to see how it turned out. There was an air of anticipation in the gallery such as there must have been in the Roman coliseum before the Christians were fed to the lions. How would one woman’s evidence defeat the massed power and influence of the court and the government? Most of the crowd’s sympathies were with the radicals, but nobody expected them to succeed.
I craned over the rail to see Wardle make an opening address in which he pretended he was only reluctantly doing his duty. With a barely suppressed grin on his face he fooled no one. The government minister duly responded that the duke had nothing to hide and that this was a vile attack on the royal family. There was a sense of anti-climax as Wardle brought forth his first witness, an old man who testified that he had given Mary Clarke two hundred pounds to secure the exchange of a friend to a more fashionable regiment. Then came the moment that everyone had been waiting for.
‘Mrs Mary Clark,’ called the master at arms and I was half crushed against the gallery rail, which creaked alarmingly, as everyone in the gallery pressed forward to get their first glimpse of the leading actor in this drama. Mary Clarke appeared in a blue silk gown edged with white fur as though she was going to an evening party. It was a colourful contrast to the dull clothes of the politicians. As she was not a member of the House she could not enter the chamber but gave her evidence from behind a bar at the door. Even some of the politicians were standing up in the benches to get a better view, but she did not seem the slightest bit intimidated. She gave a dazzling smile to the whole chamber and then her eyes scanned the gallery. For the briefest of moments our eyes met and she seemed to give an almost imperceptible nod.
When called upon to give her evidence she spoke with calm confidence, her voice carrying across the chamber. She happily confirmed that she had received the bribe from the old man and passed the request on to the duke who arranged the transfer.
‘Was the duke aware that you had been paid to make the request?’ asked Wardle.
‘Oh yes,’ she replied. ‘I showed him the two notes for a hundred each and one of his servants got me change for them.’ There was laughter from across the House at that, particularly from us up in the gallery. People began to sense that there might be a worthwhile contest after all.
Beleaguered representatives from the government then rose to cross examine her but she answered all of their questions confidently. She teased and flirted with her interrogators and soon had them laughing at her suggestive comments. Certainly Lord Folkestone was so impressed that while she was giving evidence he sent her a note offering her three hundred guineas if she would spend the night with him. Most of the politicians, even on the government benches either knew or suspected that she was telling the truth, but duty obliged them to do all they could to protect the reputation of the royal family and the administration.
The government’s case collapsed over the next week as more people gave their testimony. Mary was asked to return to the House twice more and each time gave strong and convincing statements. What really destroyed the government’s position was the evidence of one of their own witnesses. He was Mary’s former landlord and he had been called to discredit her and imply she was seeing other men at the same time as the duke. But cross examination of his claims led to the discovery of a note that the duke sent to Mary referring to one of the requests, which he was clearly aware of.