Queen in Waiting: (Georgian Series) (5 page)

BOOK: Queen in Waiting: (Georgian Series)
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‘You are a child. What do you understand? I would to God I had remained a widow… for he will do nothing for you… nothing for me and nothing for you. No, you had best go back to Ansbach. Your brother will help you.’

‘I am two years older than he is, Mamma. Perhaps I can help him.’

Eleanor smiled wanly. ‘Go and call someone,’ she said. ‘I’m beginning to feel ill again. And don’t come back till I send for you.’

‘Yes, Mamma.’

She called the attendants and then went to sit in the ante room.

She heard her mother groaning and retching.

She thought: What will become of me when she is dead?

It was not now a question of trying to listen. Caroline could not escape the whispers.

‘It was an attempt to poison the Electress Eleanor.’

‘By whom?’

‘Come, are you serious? Surely you can guess.’

‘Well if there is to be a new law that a man can have two wives why bother to rid themselves of the first?’

‘It’ll never be a law. That’s why. They know it. They will keep to the old ways. It’s been used often enough and is the most successful.’

‘Poor lady. I wouldn’t be in her shoes.’

‘Nor I. He’ll have the Röohlitz… never fear. He’s set on it and so is her mother.’

‘Poor Electress Eleanor, she should watch who hands her her plate.’

They were planning to poison her mother. They had tried once and failed. But they would try again.

She was frantic with anxiety, but to whom could she turn? She, a nine-year-old girl without a single friend in the palace – what could she do?

If only the Electress Sophia Charlotte were here, she could go to her, explain her fears, be listened to with attention; she would be told what to do and it would be the right thing, she was sure. But Sophia Charlotte was miles away and there was no one to help her.

She went to her mother’s apartments. Eleanor was in her bed, recovering from her attack, and she looked exhausted.

Caroline threw herself into her arms and clung to her.

‘Oh Mamma, Mamma, what shall we do?’

Her mother stroked her hair and signed to the attendants to leave them. When they were alone, she said: ‘What is it, my child?’

‘They are trying to kill you, Mamma.’

‘Hush, my child, you must not say such things.’

‘But it’s true. And what are we going to
do
?’

‘It is in God’s hands,’ said Eleanor.

‘But unless we
do
something, He won’t help us.’

‘My child, what are you saying?’

‘I know it sounds wicked, but I’m frightened.’

‘Where did you hear this?’

‘They are all saying it. I overheard them.’

‘So… they are talking!’

‘Mamma, you don’t seem to want to
do
anything.’

Eleanor lay back on her pillows and closed her eyes. ‘What can I do? This is my home now… and yours.’

Caroline clenched her fists, her exasperation overcoming her fear.

‘Why don’t we run away?’

‘Run away! To where?’

‘Let us think. There must be something we can do. This is a hateful home in any case. I should be glad to leave it… and so would you.’

‘My place is with my husband.’

With a murderer! thought Caroline and stopped herself in time from saying the words aloud.

‘We could go to Berlin. Perhaps they would let us live with them… for a while… until we knew what to do.’

‘We should have to wait to be invited. You shouldn’t listen to gossip, my child. It’s not… true.’

Caroline sighed wearily. It was useless to try to make her mother take action. She was well aware of the danger; but it seemed that she preferred meekly to be murdered than make any effort to avoid such a fate.

‘You see, Caroline,’ said Eleanor, ‘this is where we belong.’

‘Can we belong where they are trying to be rid of us?’

In that moment Eleanor was as frightened for her daughter as for herself. What would become of Caroline? The child was growing up and in what an atmosphere! Her licentious stepfather made no secret of the life he led; he would sit with his friends at the banqueting table and they would discuss their conquests – not of wars but of women – in crude detail, seeking to cap each other’s stories and provoke that rollicking laughter which could be heard even in the upper rooms of the palace; he could often be seen caressing the bold Countess von Röohlitz in public; while equally publicly he insulted his wife and sought to replace her. Now he was advocating polygamy because he wished to discard his wife – if he could not have been said to have discarded her from the moment he married her – and set up another in her place. And because his plans were not proceeding fast enough it might be that he had tried to poison her.

All these things were talked of; and this young girl heard what was said.

I should never have brought her here, thought Eleanor. Better to have stayed at Ansbach – poor and without prospects. For what prospects have we now?

‘My poor child,’ she whispered.

‘But what are we going to
do?’
demanded Caroline.

‘There is nothing we can do.’

‘So you would stay here and let them kill you?’

‘That is only rumour.’

‘Mamma, you know it isn’t. Let us go away. We mustn’t stay here. It isn’t safe.’

Sighing, Eleanor turned her face away. ‘You must not listen to servants’ gossip, my child. It is beneath the dignity of one in your position.’

What can I do? wondered Caroline in desperation. She won’t help herself!

‘Go now, my dear,’ said Eleanor. ‘I want to sleep.’

Caroline went away. It was no use warning her mother; it was no use planning for her. She would do nothing. Could it be that in some way she was responsible for what was happening to her? If I had a husband who was planning to murder me, I would not stay and let him do it.

What will happen to us? wondered Caroline. It seemed inevitable that her mother would be murdered, for although she knew the murderers were at her door she made no attempt to escape from them.

If I were older, thought Caroline, I should know what to do.

It occurred to her that she might write to the Electress Sophia Charlotte and explain what was happening. Even if it was a bold and ill-mannered thing to do, the Electress would forgive her for she was so kind.

Surely, when one knew that a murder was about to be committed, a breach of etiquette would be forgiven.

In any case something would have to be done. If only she were a little older, a little wiser. If only she knew what to do for the best.

She began to compose the letter in her mind. ‘My mother is about to be murdered. Please come and stop it…’

It sounded so incredible. They would say she was a ridiculous child, a wicked one to suggest such a thing. What if her letter went astray and was taken to the Elector or that fierce Madam von Röohlitz? Doubtless they would murder her too. There were not only murderers in the palace, there were spies too. But surely they would not spy on insignificant Caroline. Yet if she attempted to foil their plans she would not be insignificant.

If only there were someone. If her brother were here he might help. But he was such a child. Two years younger than she was and living at Ansbach, he would not have learned as quickly about the wickedness of the world as she had.

I don’t want to be murdered before I’ve had a chance to live, thought Caroline.

But something must be done. Perhaps even now they were slipping the powder or the drops into her mother’s food or drink.

And her mother knew this could happen; yet she lay on her bed patiently waiting. When they offered her the poison cup she would meekly sip it and tell herself it was God’s will.

The will of a wicked husband and his mistress was not God’s will.

But God helped those who helped themselves, so there must be something which could be done.

‘What?’ cried Caroline. ‘Please God, tell me what?’

She felt so helpless, shut in by her own youth and inexperience.

That night another attempt was made to poison Eleanor. She was very ill and she knew that this time it would have been certain death if she had eaten more than a mouthful of the food which had been brought to her room.

All through her delirium she had been conscious of her daughter. She had imagined that the girl was standing at her bedside, her eyes reproachful.

‘What have you done, Mamma? What have you done to me?’

‘It was for your sake… It was for your sake…’

And the Caroline of her delirium shook her head in sorrow.

When she was a little better her thoughts clarified. Caroline
was right when she had said they must go away. Perhaps if they left the Court of Dresden her husband would cease to persecute her. If she placed herself where he did not have to see her he might forget her. Perhaps he would pass the law for which he was agitating and she would no longer be the Electress of Saxony. That would be a happy day. She would eagerly throw away the title that marriage had brought her for the sake of preserving her life. There were the children to care for. If she were dead who would care what became of them? No, she must make an attempt to fight for her life. Her little daughter had taught her that.

With a firmness which astonished her attendants she asked that her husband be brought to her.

When the message was taken to John George he was first of all surprised and then exultant. She was dying and she wanted to see him before she passed away for ever. Well, he did not object to seeing her once more since it would be the last time.

When he looked at the pallid creature in the bed his hopes were high. She was a very sick woman. He was surprised how she clung to life, but he would soon be a widower… though not for long. Magdalen and her mother would see to that.

‘You are ill,’ he said, standing at the end of the bed and looking at her with distaste.

‘I am much enfeebled. I had a bad attack during the night.’

He bowed his head lest she see the speculation in his eyes.

‘I know,’ she went on determinedly, ‘that the best news you could hear of me would be that I were dead. It seems possible that that pleasure will not long be denied you. I would, however, ask your indulgence.’

He looked steadily at her. ‘Well?’

‘I would prefer to die in some place other than this palace. I should like your permission to leave.’

She saw the curl of his lips and she knew he was thinking: Escape me and my murderers! Go right away… perhaps to Berlin… to her dear friends who would nurse her back to health, and she remain an encumbrance, though a distant one, to prevent his giving Magdalen what she so passionately desired! What a fool the woman was if she thought he would agree to that!

He was about to tell her she would remain where she was when she said: ‘I would not wish to go farther than the Dower House at Pretsch. I know I have not long to live… something tells me it is only a matter of a few weeks. I could die peacefully there.’ Her eyes were wild and glassy. ‘It is, one might say, a dying request.’

He shivered a little. He believed she was telling him that if he did not grant it she would haunt him after death. He was no more superstitious than most, yet the accusing eyes of a victim whom one was sending to an early grave could be alarming. Pretsch, he thought. With trusted servants to see that she had no opportunity to escape to Berlin. To see that his orders were more effectively carried out than they had been here, for if what he had commanded had been done she would not have been fixing those wild eyes on him and making this request.

It was not a bad idea. Magdalen would be happier when his wife was no longer at the Palace. Then she could act as Electress as much as she wished and would be more readily accepted when the real Electress was out of the way.

To Pretsch to die. It was not a bad idea.

He gave his permission and the next day, to Caroline’s relief, she left with her mother and a few attendants for the Dower House.

Death, like a mischievous trickster, was threatening where it was least expected.

News of the death of Eleanor would have caused no surprise but, although enfeebled and ill, she continued to exist at Pretsch and it was in the palace at Dresden that tragedy struck.

Magdalen von Röohlitz kept to her apartments, seeing no one and the rumour was flying round the court and the whole of Dresden that she was suffering from the smallpox.

This was God’s answer to her wickedness, said the whispers. She had planned to take the life of another and now her own was in jeopardy; she had planned to put on the robes of an Electress – instead it could well be a shroud.

And even if she survived, would the Elector be so passionately devoted to her when she emerged from the sick room pitted with pox?

Madam von Röohlitz was in despair. All her ambitions lay in her daughter; she had schemed; she had dreamed; she had seen her dearest hopes about to be realized, for surely even if John George’s plan to bring in polygamy failed, the attempts to poison Eleanor must sooner or later succeed; and now here was everything about to be ruined.

Caroline listening to the rumours, which had reached the Pretsch Dower House, wondered whether her prayers had been answered. She had prayed that something would happen to save them. Could this really be an answer to prayer?

Life was unaccountable. A few days before her mother had seemed doomed and Magdalen von Röohlitz triumphant; now by one little stroke of fate the position had been reversed.

It seemed as though everyone was caught up in this almost unbearable suspense.

In the Dower House Eleanor no longer thought of imminent death. In her apartments Madam von Röohlitz rallied against her ill fortune; in her bedroom Magdalen lay restless and delirious, blessedly unconscious of her plight.

John George summoned the doctors, and demanded that they tell him it was not the dreaded scourge which had attacked his mistress. They were sorry they could not obey him because there was no doubt that the Countess was suffering from smallpox. He stormed at them; he gave way to fury; then he wept. His beautiful Magdalen ravaged by the scourge which destroyed life or – on those occasions when life was spared – almost always destroyed beauty. This could not happen to him and his Magdalen when they had such wonderful plans for the future.

BOOK: Queen in Waiting: (Georgian Series)
11.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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