When the attention of Lady Marlborough was called to her impecunious relations, the Hills, she looked upon the entire subject as a trivial inconvenience, although later—much later —she came to realize that it was one of the most—perhaps the most—important moments of her brilliant career.
In the first place it was meant to be an insult, but one which she had brushed aside as she would a tiresome gnat at a picnic party.
The occasion had been the birthday of the Princess Anne, and on that day Her Highness’s complete attention had been given to her son, the young Duke of Gloucester. Anne’s preoccupation with that boy, although understandable, for he was the only one of her children who had survived after countless pregnancies—at least Lady Marlborough had lost count, for there must have been a dozen to date—was a source of irritation. Before the boy’s birth, Sarah Churchill, Lady Marlborough, had become accustomed to demanding the whole of the Princess’s attention, and the friendship between them was the wonder and speculation of all at Court; when they were together Anne and Sarah were Mrs. Morley and Mrs. Freeman respectively, because Anne wished there to be no formality to mar their absolute intimacy. But since the boy had been born, although the friendship had not diminished, Anne’s first love was for her son, and when she went on and on about “my boy” Sarah felt as though she could scream.
Thus it had been at the birthday celebrations; the boy was to have a formal introduction to the Court, and for the occasion Anne had ordered that a special costume be made for him; and she had had the absurd idea of decking him out in her own jewels. Anne herself did not greatly care for ceremonial occasions; she was far more comfortable reclining on her couch, with a cup of chocolate in her hand or a dish of sweetmeats beside her, entertaining herself with the cards or gossip. But she wanted “my boy” as she, to Sarah’s exasperation, constantly referred to him, to look magnificent.
Poor little wretch! thought Sarah, who delighted in applying terms of contempt to persons in high places. He needed to be adorned. When she compared him with her own handsome son—John after his father— who was a few years older than the young Duke, she wanted to crow with triumph. In fact it was all she could do to prevent herself calling Anne’s attention to the difference in the two boys. When she brought young John to Court, as she intended to quite soon, Anne would see for herself what a difference there was between the two.
But young Gloucester, in spite of his infirmity, was a bright boy. He was alert, extremely intelligent, and the doctors said that the fact that he suffered from water on the brain, far from harming his mind, made it more alert; and so it seemed. He was old for his years; sharp of wits, and to see him drilling the ninety boys in the park whom he called his army, was one of the sights of the Court. All the same, his head was too big for his body and he could not walk straight unless two attendants were close beside him. He was the delight and terror of his parents’ life—and no wonder. There he was on this occasion in a coat of blue velvet, the button- holes of which were encrusted with diamonds; and about his small person were his mother’s jewels. Over his shoulder was the blue ribbon of the Garter which Sarah could never look on without bitterness; she had so wanted the Garter for her dear Marl, her husband, who, she believed, was possessed of genius and could rule the country if he only had a chance. Therefore to see the small figure boasting that he was already a Knight of the Garter was a maddening sight; but when she looked at the white periwig, which added a touch of absurdity, and thought of that huge head beneath it, she was thankful that even if Marlborough had been denied the Garter, even if Dutch William was keeping him in the shadows, at least she had a healthy family; and it was only a matter of waiting for the end of William before, with Anne’s coming to the throne, they were given what they deserved.
In the royal nursery young Gloucester had displayed the jewel which the King had given him; it was St. George on horseback set with diamonds, a magnificent piece; and it was certainly not William’s custom to be so generous. But like everyone else at Court he had an affection for the little boy who, with his charming eccentricities, had even been able to break through the King’s reserve.
“His Majesty gave me this,” he said, “when he bestowed the Garter on me. He put on the Garter with his own hands which I assure you is most unusual. It is because he holds me in such regard. Am I not fortunate. But I shall repay His Majesty. Look here, Mamma, this is the note I am sending him.”
Anne had taken the note and Sarah, with the boy’s governess, Lady Fitzharding, had looked over her shoulder as she read: “I, Your Majesty’s most dutiful subject, had rather lose my life in Your Majesty’s cause than in any man’s else, and I hope it will not be long ere you conquer France. We, your Majesty’s subjects, will stand by you while we have a drop of blood. Gloucester.”
Anne had smiled and looked from Barbara Fitzharding to Sarah. Besottedly, thought Sarah. It was true the boy was precocious—but he was a child. And when he offered his soldiers—boys of his own age with toy muskets and swords to the King—it was a joke and nothing more. But even grim William gravely accepted these offers and came to Kensington to review the small troops. Perhaps, thought Sarah sardonically, this was not so foolish as it seemed; for it was only on such occasions, with the crowd looking on, that he managed to raise a cheer for himself.
“I am sure the King will be delighted,” Anne had said.
“Doubtless he will think I am a little too fine,” mused Gloucester thoughtfully. “But my loyalty may help to divert his impatience with my finery.”
The Princess Anne had rolled her eyes in ecstasy. Was there ever such a boy! What wit! What observation! What a King he would make when his turn came!
When he had left them they had had to listen to accounts—heard many times before—of his wit and wisdom. Sarah was impatient, but Barbara Fitzharding was almost as besotted as the Princess; and there they had sat, like two old goodies, talking about this wonderful boy.
It was later when Sarah and Barbara were together, that Sarah gave way to her impatience.
“I do not think the King cared for all that display,” she commented, a smile which was almost a sneer turning up a corner of her mouth.
“He is, I believe, truly fond of his nephew,” Barbara replied. “And he is not fond of many people.”
“There are his good friends, Bentinck and Keppel—Bentinck the faithful and Keppel the handsome—and of course his mistress.”
Sarah looked slyly at Barbara, for it was her sister, Elizabeth Villiers, who had been William’s mistress almost since the beginning of his marriage to the time of the Queen’s death. The Queen had left a letter which had been opened after her death reproaching William and asking him to discontinue the liaison, and which had so shaken the King that he had left Elizabeth alone for a long time. Sarah believed, though, that the relationship had been resumed—very secretively; and Barbara, a spy reporting everything to her sister who passed it on to William, would know if this were so.
“He is so very ill these days,” said Barbara. “I doubt whether he has the time or energy for diversions.”
“His gentlemen friends remain at his side. I hear they enjoy themselves on Hollands Gin in the Hampton Banqueting House. He still finds time—and energy—to indulge his Dutchmen.”
“But he is looking more frail every week.”
“That is why it was a mistake to dress Gloucester up in all that finery. It was almost proclaiming him Prince of Wales before his mother is Queen.”
“I wonder,” said Barbara with a hint of sarcasm, “that you did not warn his mother since she would most assuredly listen to you.”
“I did warn her.’
“And she disobeyed?” Veiled insolence! Sarah had never liked Barbara Fitzharding since the days when as young Barbara Villiers she had lived with the circle of girls, Sarah among them, who had been brought up by Barbara’s mother, with the young Princesses Anne and Mary in Richmond Palace.
“She is so besotted about that boy.”
“He is her son.”
“He is being pampered. I would not let one of mine be indulged as he is.”
Was this a reflection on Barbara’s governess- ship? Barbara disliked Sarah Churchill—who at Court did not?—and although she might rule the Princess Anne’s household, Barbara was not going to allow her to interfere in that of the Duke of Gloucester.
“He is by no means indulged. He merely happens to be an extremely intelligent boy. In fact, I have never known one more intelligent.”
“Have you not? I must invite you to St. Albans one day and you shall meet my children.”
Barbara laughed. “Everything you have must naturally be better than other people’s.”
“Must always be? What do you mean by that? My children are strong, healthy, intelligent, which is not to be wondered at. Compare their father with that . . . oaf . . . I can call him nothing else . . . who goes around babbling ‘Est- il possible?’ to everything that is said to him! Prince George of Denmark! I call him Old Est- il- Possible! And when I do everyone knows to whom I refer.”
“One would think you were the royal Princess—Her Highness, your servant,” said Barbara. “You ought to take care, Sarah Churchill. You should think back to the days when you first joined us at Richmond. You were fortunate, were you not, to find a place there? It was the greatest good luck . . . for you. You must admit that you were not of the same social order as the rest of us. We were noble and you . . .”
“Your relative, Barbara Villiers—my lady Castlemaine as she became—put honours in your family’s way because she was an expert performer in the King’s bedchamber. We had no such ladies in our family.”
“Your husband I believe did very well out of his relationship with my Lady Castlemaine. She paid him for his services to her . . . in the bedchamber. Was it five thousand pounds with which he bought an annuity? You must find that very useful now that my lord Marlborough is out of favour and has no office at the Court.”
If there was one person in the world whom Sarah truly loved it was her husband, John Churchill, Earl of Marlborough; and although he had had a reputation as a rake before their marriage, he had, she was certain, remained absolutely faithful to her since. This reference to past indiscretions aroused her fury.
She slapped Barbara Fitzharding’s face.
Barbara, taken aback, stared at her, lifted her hand to retaliate and then remembered that there must be no brawling between women in positions such as theirs.
But her anger matched Sarah’s.
“I’m not surprised at your mode of behaviour,” she said. “It is hardly to be wondered at. And besides being arrogant and ill- mannered you are also cruel. I should be ashamed, not to have poor relations, but to turn my back on them while they starve.”
“What nonsense is this?”
“It is no nonsense. I heard only the other day the distressing story of the Hill family. I was interested . . . and so was my informant . . . because of their connection with the high and mighty Lady Marlborough! Your uncle, aunt and cousins . . . dying of starvation! Two girls working as servants, I hear, two boys running about the streets, ragged and hungry.”
“A pitiable story and one which does credit to your imagination, Lady Fitzharding.” “A pitiable story, Lady Marlborough, but it owes nothing to my imagination. Go and see for yourself. And let me tell you this, that I shall not feel it my duty to keep silent about this most shameful matter.”
Sarah for once was speechless, and when Lady Fitzharding flounced out of the room she stared after her, murmuring: “Hill! Hill!” The name was familiar. Her grandfather Sir John Jennings, she had heard her own father say, had had twenty- two children and one of these, Mary, had married a Francis Hill who was a merchant of London.
Sarah had heard nothing of him since. One did not need to keep in touch with one’s merchant connections—except of course when they were likely to bring disrepute. Sarah made one of her prompt decisions.
Something must be done about the Hills.
It was too delicate a matter to delegate. She must deal with it herself.
Sombrely dressed she drove to the address she had discovered—a perilous journey, for the streets of London were unsafe even by day, and robbers had a way of knowing the quality, however quietly dressed.
She dismounted at the house—a poor place—and told the coachman to wait, for she would not be long. Two boys in ragged clothes were lounging at the door and looked at her in surprise.
“Do the Hills live here?” she asked imperiously.
They told her, in voices which suggested a certain amount of education, that they did.
“And you?” she demanded. “Our name is Hill.” Inwardly she shivered. These ragged creatures her relations! It was incredible. Something must be done . . . quickly. She was not going to allow that Fitzharding woman to spread scandal about her.
“Take me to your parents,” she commanded.
The house was clean, for which she was thankful, but when she came face to face with Mary and Francis Hill she was horrified. Their state of emaciation was clearly due to starvation.
“I am Sarah Churchill,” she announced. “Sarah Jennings that was.”
Mary Hill gave a little cry and said: “So you’re Sarah. . . . I have of course heard much of you.”
“And I have heard of you. This is terrible. But I will remedy it. Those are your sons. Here, boy, go and buy food . . . as quickly as you can.”
She gave him money and both boys went off.
“Now,” said Sarah, “you had better tell me everything.”
“You, Francis,” began his wife.
“It is not an unusual story,” Francis explained. “I was a merchant. My business failed. I became bankrupt and over the last months have had to sell our possessions in order to live. We have become poorer and poorer. We came to this place to live. It is the best we can afford. There is very little money left and I do not know where we shall turn for more.”
“Those boys . . . ?”
“They can earn a penny here and there . . . but it is not enough to keep us.” “And you?”
“I have tried, but my strength seems to have deserted me.”
Sarah could understand why. Malnutrition! There was little strength in either of them.
“So there are you and the two boys.”
“The girls were more fortunate. They found places.”
“Yes. Abigail and Alice are in service. Abigail has a good post with Lady Rivers.”
“As a maid in the house.”
A maid! thought Sarah. My cousin . . . a maid to Lady Rivers! A nice state of affairs! Lady Rivers might come to Court and bring her servants with her. And among these the cousin of Lady Marlborough!
“It is fortunate that I have discovered this. You must tell me everything. Hold nothing back. I will find places for all the children—those two boys and the girls. As for you, I shall leave you ten guineas for the time being and we will decide what has to be done.”
Sarah then began firing questions at the couple who, trembling with excitement and hope, answered them. She sat upright on the chair they had given her, while her busy mind was working. Two boys . . . perhaps a place in the Custom House for one and the other . . . well, she would see. As for the girls, she must consider what could be done for them, and when the children were in good positions they could help support their parents; in the meantime she would see that they did not starve.
The boys returned with food and it was shocking to see the manner in which it was immediately devoured.
Sarah was horrified; but at the same time pleased by their homage. It was quite clear that they thought her an angel in disguise, the omnipotent, beautiful benefactress!
It was pleasant to be so regarded and she knew that without a great deal of effort she would be able to bestow such benefits on the Hill family that would make them her willing slaves for ever.
Help to Mary and Francis Hill had come a little too late. A few days after Sarah’s visit Francis died; Mary was so stricken with sorrow, and suffering from the same disease caused by starvation, quickly followed him.
Now Sarah had only the four orphans to settle, and she ordered the two girls to return to their parents’ house to attend the funerals. She sent off money and cast- off clothes to the family and busied herself with planning what to do with them.
The boys must be settled first. The thought of them running about the streets in rags horrified her. She told the Princess Anne about her discovery of these needy relations—for she was anxious that Barbara Fitzharding should not start circulating her stories before she had had a chance of putting her own case—and Anne was immediately sympathetic.
“My dear Mrs. Freeman has the kindest heart!” she sighed.
“I want to place them all as soon as possible,” Sarah told her.
“I am sure Mrs. Freeman will know what to do for the best.”
She did. It was infuriating that Marl should be out of favour; but she consoled herself that all the slights and humiliations would be forgotten once Dutch William was no more and Anne was Queen. She was very impatient for that much longed for event; so after hurrying down to St. Albans, where Marl was staying with the children, and talking over the matter with him, she went, with his blessing, to see their old friend Sidney Godolphin.
Godolphin was such an adept politician that although he was a Tory and the Ministry was mainly Whig, he retained his position in the Treasury. Godolphin was well aware that Marlborough’s decline into the shadows was only temporary and he was anxious not to offend Sarah, so he listened intently to her request and offered at once to find a place for the eldest Hill boy in the Custom House.
Having taken this step she decided once more to pay a visit to the humble house and see the creatures for herself.
When Lady Marlborough declared her intention of visiting the young Hills, there was immediate tension throughout the house.
“It was,” said Alice, “like a royal command.”
“It is indeed so,” replied Abigail. “Everyone knows that our important female relative is greatly admired by the Princess Anne who takes her advice in all things.” “She rules royalty,” agreed Alice. “I’ll wager she will find places for us.”
“Being penniless you have nothing with which to wager,” Abigail reminded her. “Don’t be so prim, Abby! I do declare you don’t seem the least excited. Don’t you realize how fortunate we are to have such a benefactress?”
“She is only finding places for us because she can’t allow her cousins to be servants.”
“What does the reason matter . . . as long as we get the places?”
Abigail shrugged her shoulders and murmured: “Come, we should be ready to receive her when she arrives.”
They were thinking of their elder brother who, by the good graces of Lord Godolphin and Lady Marlborough, was already installed in the Custom House, as they made their way to the sparsely furnished bedroom to put on the dresses which Lady Marlborough had sent them. These had belonged to Lady Marlborough’s daughters, some of whom were very much the same age as thirteen- year- old Abigail and eleven- year- old Alice.
Abigail wore a mulberry- coloured cloth gown and because she felt it might appear to be a little too grand for a poor relation decided to wear her linen apron over it.
“That spoils it,” declared Alice. “Why do you do it?”
“I don’t want her to think I am aping my betters.”
Alice burst out laughing. “You stand there looking buttoned up,” she said. “I know you hate this as much as I do.”
“We have to be grateful to Lady Marlborough.”
“That’s why we can’t abide her. Whoever liked those to whom they had to be grateful?”
“It could depend.”
“On the manner in which benefits were bestowed.”
“Oh, Abby, you don’t talk like Lady Rivers’ chamber maid.”
“Why should I when I was never meant to be a servant. You know how Papa always insisted on our doing our lessons.”
“Well, we were servants—for whatever reason—until Lady Marlborough decided otherwise. She is like God—all powerful, but I wish that like God she would remain invisible. I might be able to offer more fervent hymns of praise then.”
“You’re blaspheming, Alice.”
Alice laughed and struggled with the fastening of Elizabeth Churchill’s cast- off gown. “I wish I knew what you were thinking, Abby.”
“Doubtless the same as you on this occasion.”
“Abigail, do you never lose your temper?”
“You never show it.”
“What good would that do?”
Alice sighed. “There are times, sister, when I think you have more sense than you’re given credit for.”
The two girls were standing side by side looking into the mirror.
“Then that is useful,” commented Abigail, “for I have little else.”
Poor Abigail! thought Alice. She was plain. She was small, thin, and in spite of this she looked older than thirteen. A little woman already. Her hair was fine, limp and a sandy colour; her eyes were pale green and small; her only distinguishing feature was her high bridged nose which was inclined to be pink at the tip; and she had an unfortunate habit of hanging her head as though she wanted to spare people the need to look at such an unprepossessing face. She had no beauty, so it was fortunate that she had good sense and knew how to keep her temper under control.
“Well,” went on Alice, “I wonder what she has decided for us.” Her face puckered and the assumption of age which the hardness of her life had put upon her, fell away; she
looked like the eleven- year- old child she was.
“Oh, Abby, I don’t want to go away. How I hate being poor. Don’t you?”
Abigail shrugged her shoulders. “Oh, what use would it be? We are— and there’s no help for it.”
“Don’t you sometimes dream that you’re important . . . as she is. That you descend like a tornado on your poor relations . . .”
“I have never witnessed a tornado so I do not know how it descends.”
“Have you no imagination? Of course you haven’t . . . only plain good sense. And when her ladyship finds you your post you will take it most gratefully and you will go about your duties with a quiet efficiency which will be a credit to the great lady who recommended you, while I . . .”
“While you, Alice, will do exactly the same.”
Alice smiled at her sister. She was right. And the cast- off clothes of a rich Churchill girl could not help her at all; she looked just as plain as she did in her working clothes. But perhaps when one was poor and had to be grateful for small benefits it was as well to be plain and modest, controlled and hardworking.
Lady Marlborough stepped from her coach and as she entered the house it immediately appeared to be ten times smaller, shabbier and meaner than it had been before. Her loud voice seemed, to Abigail, to shake its foundations.
The little family were waiting to receive her. Abigail, at its head now, quiet, humble, betraying nothing; Alice apprehensive and finding that all the truculence she had promised herself was fast disappearing; and John who was wondering whether he would have to join his brother in the Custom House or whether he could hope for a place in the Army.
As Lady Marlborough’s gaze swept over them and came to rest on Abigail, she was pleased with what she saw. The girl looked after the others as well as could be expected and she was aware of her position. She was old beyond her years. Thirteen was young but her responsibilities had aged her. She might be at least sixteen or even seventeen.
She took off the cloak that she had worn to conceal her fine garments which were in the latest fashion. Although she hated the King and had done her best, during Queen Mary’s reign, to alienate the Princess Anne from her sister, she had to wear the Dutch styles if she were to be in the fashion. Over her gown, looped up to make panniers at the side, and so droop at the back, she wore a wide skirted coat of dark blue velvet, the sleeves of which came to the elbows where they were turned back in the form of stiff cuffs, beneath which showed the fine lace at the sleeves of her gown. Her magnificent hair, which was her greatest claim to beauty, being thick, wavy and of a bright golden colour, was dressed in the style of a bob wig, and over this she wore a lace head- dress decorated with ribbons which had been completely hidden by the large hood of the dark cloak. A regal Court lady stood before the children, the more magnificent because she made such a contrast to her surroundings.
“Now Abigail,” she said, “you are the eldest. I trust you have been looking after your sister and brother.”
“Yes, my lady.”
Lady Marlborough looked about her for a chair and Abigail, seeing this and immediately bringing her one, was rewarded by a smile of approval.
Sarah beckoned the children to stand before her. She had decided that the boy was to be sent to school while she looked for an opening for him. She had only one post for the girls as yet and she thought it would be suitable for Abigail. As for the other girl she could not live alone and there was only one thing to be done and that was take her to her own house at St. Albans until something could be found for her. She was thoughtful, watching them. This Abigail was a good girl; of the other one she was not sure. Was that a spark of frivolity she saw in Mistress Alice’s eyes? One thing was clear; the young one was not of the same docile disposition as her sister.
“In my position,” she began, “I receive a great many calls on my generosity. The Princess places all her affairs in my hands and that means I have posts . . .” She smiled pityingly, implying that these were posts which could not be within the range of the Hills’ meagre talents . . . “important posts of which to dispose. Those who desire them are ready to do me any service to obtain them; but I can assure you I must select most carefully.”
Alice, who since she had left home to become a servant had, so it seemed to Abigail, lost the good manners which their parents had insisted on, was impetuous and said: “Your ladyship’s position is one of great importance. In fact, I have heard it said that in a short time . . .” She caught Abigail’s warning glance and finished lamely: “But perhaps I am indiscreet.”
“Pray go on, Alice,” commanded Lady Marlborough.
“Well, it is said that the King is very weak and that he cannot live much longer and when he dies of course the Princess will be Queen and that means . . .”
Lady Marlborough was smiling complacently. Far from annoying her, Alice’s remark was putting her in a good mood.
“I can see Court gossip reaches you here,” she said; and Alice threw a triumphant glance at her sister while Lady Marlborough surveyed the room with the few pieces of furniture which had once been good and were now very shabby, showing signs of having seen, and said goodbye to, better days. “It is true,” she went on, “that the Princess places great trust in me, and I do my best to deserve it.”
Alice, emboldened by success, tried again. “I trust my lord the Earl is back at Court.”
A shadow passed across Lady Marlborough’s face. So, thought Abigail, the Earl is still waiting for his opportunity. He is not as fortunate as his wife. And was it to be wondered at? The King had suspected Marlborough of treason on more than one occasion; it was said that he was a “Jack,” which was the name Abigail had heard below stairs applied to Jacobites; in fact he had been in the Tower not so long ago; and then there had been the affair of the flower- pot intrigue. Lady Marlborough might have a great influence over the Princess Anne, but her husband was most certainly on uneasy terms with King William; and it would have been wiser for Alice to wait for Lady Marlborough to mention her husband’s name.
“The Earl has much with which to occupy himself,” replied Lady Marlborough coolly. She came to a decision in that moment. The younger girl was pert for she might have heard gossip about Marl and be trying a little impudence. The elder one was much more serious, much more aware of what she owed to her important cousin. The post she had decided on for the elder girl should go to the younger; and she herself would make use of Abigail while she decided what should become of her.
“Now,” she said firmly, “it is clear that you cannot stay here . . . three young people alone! Prompt action is necessary. I have plans for you all and you must be prepared to leave here within the next few days. These bits of furniture will not fetch much.” She addressed Abigail. “But you should sell them and what you get will mayhap put a little into your pockets. John, you are going to school.”
“To school!” cried John aghast. “I wanted a place in the Army.”
There was a shocked silence; then Lady Marlborough burst out laughing. “The Army! At your age. Why, you would have to join his Grace of Gloucester with a wooden sword and a toy musket.”
“But . . .” began the boy, and the tears were in his eyes.
Lady Marlborough waved a white hand on which jewels flashed. “I don’t doubt that if you show ability I shall, in time, be able to place you in the Army. But as yet you are but a child. I shall send clothes for you and you will go to school in St. Albans. There I shall watch your progress.”
John’s lips quivered and Abigail said nervously: “I am sure my brother is delighted.”
Lady Marlborough gave her a smile of approval. She was not mistaken in the girl. Abigail was the only one of these children who knew her place. “It may well be,” said Lady Marlborough looking sternly at the boy, “that if you work hard and are humble, loyal and obedient, the Earl of Marlborough may find you a place in his Army.”
He would first, thought Abigail, have to come back into favour; but if the King died and Princess Anne became Queen Anne, it was very possible that he would. Oh how stupid were this brother and sister of hers. Did they not realize that this flamboyant arrogant woman held their futures in her hands. What a marvellous opportunity for them. And all this they owed to their cousin, the brilliant clever Lady Marlborough. “John,” cried Abigail, “you should go down on to your knees and thank Lady Marlborough.”
A very good girl indeed, thought Sarah, with a proper sense of her duty and that of others.
“Thank you, Lady Marlborough,” said John obediently.
“I am sure you will do me credit.” She turned to Alice. “And I have an excellent opportunity for you. There is a vacancy in the household of the little Duke of Gloucester for a laundress.”
“A laundress!” gasped Alice.
“A laundress in the household of the young Duke is a post greatly coveted, I do assure you,” said Lady Marlborough acidly.
“My sister is overcome by your ladyship’s generosity,” said Abigail, impatient to know her own fate. “She is young and finds it difficult to express her gratitude.”
Lady Marlborough was soothed. “And grateful she should be, for the young Duke will be the heir to the throne as soon as Dutch William goes where he should have gone these many years. How he lingers on! He’s been dying ever since I saw him, and it was Mary who went first. I could never abide her, but for that Dutch Abortion . . .” Alice gave a slight nervous giggle; John looked interested, and although Abigail’s expression did not change she was thinking: How indiscreet she is! How vulgar. And how odd that indiscretion and vulgarity should have brought her such high rewards!
“You may smile,” went on Lady Marlborough, “but that is one of the names Mrs. Morley and I use for him. Mrs. Morley is Anne . . . the Princess, you know. She would have us dispense with formality when we are together and she herself gave us the names of Mrs. Freeman—which is mine—and Mrs. Morley which is hers. Caliban! The Dutch Monster! That is how we speak of His Majesty.”
“But are you not afraid . . .” began too- impetuous Alice.
“Afraid, my dear child. I . . . afraid of that . . . creature!”
She likes Alice’s questions, thought Abigail; she wants to talk all the time, hold the centre of the stage while we act as a chorus, to repeat what she wants repeated, to form a background for her.
“I should not think you are ever afraid of anything, Lady Marlborough,” said John sincerely.
Oh when, thought Abigail, is she going to tell me what will happen to me?
“It would take more than that Hollander to strike fear into me, I can tell you. He knows it. He works against me and against the Earl . . . which is what I find so hard to forgive . . . but his day is almost over.”
“I hope Alice will be a good laundress,” said Abigail, trying to bring the conversation back to important issues.
“I fear I shall not,” put in Alice.
“Ah!” laughed Lady Marlborough. “You’ll do well enough. When you are given a post in a royal household you use it as a stepping stone to better things. Watch out, girl, and you will see where it will lead you.” She turned to Abigail. “And for you, I have plans.”
What thoughts could fl ash through the mind in a short space of time. A place at Court? She would watch illustrious people at close quarters; she would have a glimpse into matters which she believed could be of great interest to her. A place at Court, a stepping stone to better things.
“I am going to send you to St. Albans, Abigail. There you will be with my own children. You will, I am sure, make yourself useful.”
St. Albans! A poor relation in her cousin’s house! A sort of nursery maid to a family which were doubtless as arrogant as their mother.
Lucky John! Lucky Alice! Both were going to Court while Abigail was to be a poor relation, slightly higher than a chambermaid, but not much, in the house at St. Albans.
Lady Marlborough was watching her. She smiled and murmured her thanks.
Only Alice, who knew her so well, would know of the despair in her heart, and that she would guess; there was no sign of anything but abject gratitude on the plain features of Abigail Hill.
Excerpted from Courting Her Highness by Jean Plaidy. Copyright © 2011 by Jean Plaidy. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.