Whenever General Montclair entered a room, it always caused a bit of a stir. With his powdered white wig jauntily shoved to one side, revealing his yellow-gold tresses, the women in the room would feel drawn to him. Yes, he was certainly very attractive, but there was something else about him, that “je ne sais quoi,” that strange quality that can’t be quantified or even adequately articulated, which he possessed. His charisma, his pizazz extended even to other men who generally felt a sense of camaraderie and fellowship with him. At least those who had fought on the battlefield for Queen and country felt it.
He was the kind of general who shared all the hardship and glory of war with his men. He slept in a small tent, on a thin pallet with only his aide-de-camp present. He ate the same food. Often, he would dismount and march with the infantry. He’d even beat a drum or carry a flag. It was why his men loved him so and would follow him to the very gates of Hell, if he asked it of them.
Across from Queen Pirouette’s bed was a long, full-length mirror. Behind the mirror was the entrance to a secret passageway that led directly to a secret location. Only a few people were aware of the existence of this security measure: the captain of the palace guards, the Prime Minister, and Lady Abigail. To access the passageway, one had to press an enamel button the was hidden in the inlay around the frame of the mirror.
One night, shortly after her convalescence, a strange occurrence disturbed her. One of the duties of her ladies was to sleep on a pallet at the foot of her bed. They took turns doing this. The name for this office came from Greek: parakoimomenos, or one who sleeps nearby. At any rate, this particular evening, Pirouette was roused from her slumber by a scratching sound from behind the mirror. Her lady in waiting was snoring peacefully, as if she hadn’t heard a thing. Pirouette, pulling a blanket around herself, got off of the bed, retrieved a lit candle that was always burning and went to the mirror. When she pressed the button, the door to the passageway opened just a crack, but there was no one and nothing on the other side. She scurried back to the safety of her bed and pulled the blanket over her head.
It was nearly three weeks before Queen Pirouette emerged from her bedchamber. Palace guards had to clear her antechamber of everyone except her Privy Council. With the assistance of a few cosmetics, there wasn’t a blemish to be seen on her face. Leaning on the arm of the Chamberlain, she thanked her councilors for their patience while she was a patient. There was some polite laughter, but it was drowned out by the applause of those who were waiting outside the antechamber. The Prime Minister, in a rare expression of emotion, pulled off his wig, revealing a thick head of buttery yellow hair. “God save the Queen!” He cried which became a general chorus. “God save the Queen! God save the Queen!”
The antechamber that led to the Queen’s bedchamber had been packed with courtiers ever since she’d fainted at the ball. That had been a week ago. Daily a priest was sent in to give her extreme unction. After a few minutes, he’d come out of Pirouette’s room and shake his head. “No change,” was all he would say. Lady Abigail, under Pirouette’s instructions, refused to allow any physicians entrance to her room, but that changed when the Queen lapsed from delirium into a coma.
A physician, who had a stellar reputation for treating the Great Pox, was finally allowed to examine Her Majesty. He ordered that her body be wrapped in red flannel and placed in front of the fireplace. Abigail and the other ladies complied since they assumed that it was too late for the Queen in any case. After a period of time, the doctor ordered the women to wrap her in fresh flannel sheets and place her under a thick down comforter.
Within a few hours, the Queen was conscious again, demanding water. “She will live,” said the physician. “Thank God you called on me. I was almost too late.” When he emerged from Pirouette’s bedroom and declared his prognosis, everyone in the antechamber began to laugh and hug one another. To say that their mood was buoyant would be understatement. The fear of losing their beloved, young, new queen had paralyzed government. Soon church bells throughout the capital began to ring.
By the next day, Pirouette rose from her bed. She drank some beef broth and nibbled on some black bread. Prayers of thanksgiving were said throughout the kingdom. The Queen would live! Not only that, she barely had any scars besides one or two on her forehead and the back of her left hand. The Prime Minister personally gave the physician a lifetime annuity for saving Her Majesty’s life.
One of the most lucrative positions in Queen Pirouette’s court was that of Chamberlain. The holder of this office exerted great influence on access to the Queen’s presence. It was often the subject of a bidding war. Perhaps an ardent, potential suitor would gift the Chamberlain with coinage in order to facilitate a place near the Queen during a concert. If there were a host of other suitors, a particularly wealthy man might bribe the Chamberlain to keep others away from her. This of course would mean an investment that exceeded the combined payments of all the other noblemen who sought access to her Royal Majesty.
Pirouette was perfectly aware of this game which is why she would arbitrarily cross names from the list of people who sought an audience with her. This created untold confusion for the finances of the Chamberlain. Someone who’d paid good money to see the Queen, only to find that he’d be refused access to her Majesty would demand repayment of the funds given to the greedy Chamberlain. Because of this, the Chamberlain developed a policy of never spending a client’s money until he’d seen the Queen in person.
So while the Queen was fighting for her life against the dreaded pox, the Chamberlain was busy informing his clients that all moneys that had passed hands over the last couple of weeks were lost because of an act of God. “You can’t blame me for giving the Queen the pox!” Exclaimed the Chamberlain. “I contracted it when I was a boy, several decades ago. Everybody knows that survival from the pox confers lifelong protection. More than likely, it was one of you obsequious suitors who passed it onto her when you kissed her hand!”
When one is especially ill, the mind will meander to places that were thought to places long forgotten. In Queen Pirouette’s case, her mind went back back to the place where she was born: Castle Rising. Made primarily of carved granite stone with a commanding view of the confluence of two rivers, it sat on a high promontory that afforded an excellent view of where the two rivers merged.
Four smaller towers marked out the points of the compass, while a central tower stood higher than the others by a hundred feet or more. It was within these walls that the future queen was born and spent most of her childhood. Of her mother, who died of childbirth, Pirouette had no memory.
Of her father, she was nine years of age when he died, so she had a good storage of memories associated with him. The clearest memory was when he took her hunting on her ninth birthday. He’s warned her in advance that she would be required to be “blooded” on that day; that is, she would have to kill her prey and rub its blood into her hands and face. With relative ease, the participants felled a wild boar. It was still alive, just barely. Her father handed her a long dagger and led her by the hand to the beast. Pointing to a place near its near its heart, he said, “There, my dear, hit him there. It will be over in a second.” Without a moment’s hesitation, Pirouette did as she was instructed. A great roar rose from the entire hunting parting.
“You know what to do now,” her father said in a soft voice. And so Pirouette dipped her hands in the dead creature’s wounds and then rubbed its blood into her face. She was officially an adult now. “I’m so proud of you,” he’d said. It was the only time in her life when she didn’t feel inadequate because of being born a girl, rather than a boy.
The only man allowed entrance to the Queen’s bedchamber during her illness was her confessor, Father Dupont. Her two nursemaids, Tata Sous-sus and Lady Abigail Hofenhoff took turns mopping her brow. Tata, a survivor of the dreaded pox, was uncharacteristically kind and knowledgable about the proper treatment.
When Pirouette’s fever was so so high that it seemed as if she might burst into flames, Tata insisted that she be immersed in ice cold water. The. poor Queen screamed at this course of action, but after a few minutes, she settled down. Once she was pull from the tub and toweled dry, she seemed much better. It was then that the first spots appeared on her hand. She shrieked in terror.
“Not to worry, my child,” said Tata. “It is a good sign. A good sign. What are a few spots? I understand your dismay, but you are going to live, my love. Live!”
“From what I understand,” whispered Lady Abigail to one of the other ladies, “the worst is over.”
The Queen’s bedchamber had been quickly changed into a sick room. Heavy tapestries covered all the windows. Wax candles provided flickering glimmers of light, but it was difficult for one to focus their vision on anything more than a few feet away. The rose and jasmine incense that fill the room made it feel stuffy and closed in.
After leaving the ball, Lady Abigail undressed Pirouette and put her under a pile of covers. “If she gets much hotter, we will have to soak her in cold water to bring down the fever.” The doctor on duty stroked his beard and shook his head. “Clearly this is a case that requires bleeding.” Tata Sous-sus chimed in with an approving “um-huh!”
Pirouette, who was covered with sweat began to mutter nonsense. “Don’t touch me!” She said. “My lords, it pleases us to see you jump into the river.” It was as though her thoughts were little bubbles popping out of her head and bursting into nonsensical words.
“Bring the Queen’s tub in here and fill it with cold water. Find some ice in the kitchens and have it brought forthwith.” Abby spoke with authority. Grabbing the physician by the shoulder, she pushed him toward the doors of the bedchamber. Clutching the box that held his wares: knives, twine, a jar of live leeches, and even a sleeping sponge, to his chest, the old man tried to protest. Several other of the ladies joined in, shoving the the man in his black, woolen robes from the room.
“Guards!” Shouted Lady Abigail. “Remove this man from the palace!”
The ball was in full swing. General Montclair was dancing with one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting. Even as he held the beautiful young woman in his arms, he found it difficult not to look at Queen Pirouette. As for Her Majesty, she could barely hear the music because of the pounding in her ears. She took Abigail’s hand and pressed the back of it against her cheek.
“My Queen!” Exclaimed Abigail. “You are burning up! You need to retire!”
“What rubbish,” replied Pirouette in a deadpan voice. “I never get sick.”
“When are you going to accept the fact that you are not carved from stone?” Said Lady Abigail. “I’m extremely worried about you, Pirouette!” As a rule, even in private, Lady Abigail sought to observe all court etiquette, even though she and the Queen were childhood friends. She chose the informal address in order to underscore her concern.
Pirouette was on the verge of countering Abby with a witty repartee, but suddenly, out of the blue, she felt all of her strength drain from her body, as if it were some liquid spilling on the marble floor. Still holding Abby’s hand, Pirouette leaned in and said, “You’re right. Help me to my rooms. I don’t want to make a fuss in front of all these people.” Then the Queen promptly fainted.