At last Queen Anne had commanded the Marquis of Windingham to come home from Scotland. A brooding Robert Moncrief stood in suppressed agitation at the bowed head of his Arabian as he gazed out over the sand dunes of the wild coast of Northumberland. He hated Anne’s constant manipulations and knew instinctively he was about to be strategically maneuvered again. His late father had compared him to the land, bragging that he was an intelligent man of great destiny, even while complaining that he was wild as the English moors. But with eyes filled with paternal pride, he would go on to express his profound admiration for his son’s forceful drive and passion, likening it to the restless constancy of the water of the North Sea. Still to Robert’s supreme chagrin, rumors at court claimed it was only his rugged good looks that had once made him a favorite of Queen Anne. Because he had patiently rebuffed her attempts to draw him into a much deeper relationship, she angrily consigned him to a distasteful duty at Edinburgh. He would uphold the Treaty of Union with Scotland in the name of her crown. At its best, it was a precarious service politically. His grim responsibility was to make certain that the riots did not become too serious. Union with England had not set well with the commoners who continued to see it as a sell-out by the Scottish aristocracy. He agreed with them.
Though his mother was a prominent English noblewoman, his father was of Scottish noble birth. Anne had known it would gall him to return to the land where his father had been brutally murdered, tying his hands to any form of retribution. The queen had placed him in a position to constantly test his loyalty to her right of ascension, assigning him to spy on those who still upheld the Stuart line of kings. His father’s politics were not completely known to him and relentlessly he chafed at the possibility that Anne knew more than she would ever confide about his untimely death.
In spite of all the queen’s harsh conditions, he had remained loyal to Anne. Now she had finally summoned him back to court, even allowing him time to stop at the residential tower at Windingham. His withdrawal from Scotland had surprised him when considering the recent insurgency of Jacobites. Still, Anne had been keenly insistent on her need for haste. However, he was not about to surrender the opportunity to return to his English home to see how his estates had been faring. He had been gone much too long as it was for his liking. The mercurial queen had demanded that he take his time to assure himself everything was satisfactory with his holdings, yet insinuating that awards awaited him at court for his loyal service to the crown. She had not been explicit as to what endowments would be his, but had been very clear that she would privately reveal a new assignment of the greatest import to England’s welfare. Unfortunately, most of her deliberately vague missive had left Robert feeling wary.
Now his sharp eyes swept out over the gray sea, up to the cobalt blue sky, settling once again on the okra yellow sand that composed the dunes. It was midsummer twilight and above the crescent of the North Sea horizon a faux sunset slowly spread a dull red tint in the northeast. Black clouds were swiftly gathering across the darkening sky. Robert frowned in remembrance of how quickly the weather could change. A few miles down the coast, Windingham stood on a great knoll of volcanic rock instilling warm thoughts of coming home. With one last glance out to sea, he swung up into the saddle. Grabbing the reins tautly, he threw a dusty black tricorn on top of his head. He had foregone the formal wig he abhorred, leaving his damp shoulder length hair tied casually with a leather thong at the nape of his neck. The collar of his burgundy great coat rested inward on high sculpted cheek bones, hiding the chiseled angle of his jaw and the slight indentation at his chin. He was easily well over six feet in height, still his sinewy well-honed frame sat lightly in the saddle.
For all Robert’s physical grace and powerful stature, it was the magnetism of his eyes that could penetrate to the soul under their blue-green hue of intrepidity. If he disliked what he saw, the unfortunate were given a disarming smile, misdirecting any impending adversity. The Marquis of Windingham was also discriminating, wary of false courtly flattery, placing it where it belonged, completely out of the bounds of realistic consideration. Known only to his closest associates, in contradiction to his powerful presence hid the tender heart of the poet.
In easy familiarity, Robert wound his way up the steep terrain toward the palace gates just as it started to mist. Jagged rocks along the byway darkened and glistened with the addition of that moisture. But, Robert was entering the portion of the gravel drive to the giant entry lit by torches, the heat from which burned away much of the drizzle before it could further dampen him. His weary horse finally clambered onto the tiled courtyard. Blazing lights from the festivities inside glistened on the wet tile making him quickly forget the long journey in the inclement weather. With warm familiarity, he surmised that his mother was entertaining; an amiable thought which caused his mouth to spread into a wide boyish grin. The charismatic effect was lost on the groom who hurried forward to grasp the halter.
With impatient booted strides, he accomplished the distance it took to reach the huge brass handles of the tall oak doors leading to the foyer. Before the butler could attend him, Robert easily pushed the massive portals inward, gesturing with an index finger to keep his arrival unannounced. He wanted a moment to privately enjoy his mother’s social handiwork before he himself was called to mix and mingle. Knowing she would have invited a wonderful variety of wits, gallants, politicians, poets, and essayists, he realized he had sorely missed the interaction with those who were drawn to Windingham for these elite intellectual gatherings— assemblies of which could only be found in comparison to the prodigious salons of France. The dowager duchess’ incredible matiére grise was known to many on both sides of the English Channel.
He paused only briefly while handing his tricorn and great coat to the butler, checking to brush away some of his travel— worn appearance hastily in the floor to ceiling mirrors before heading up the expansive stairwell to the second floor containing the imposing drawing room. Reaching for the gilded doorknob in the center of an ornate medallion, he opened one of the double doors to the reception area just wide enough to see inside the pale green room beneath its high vaulted ceiling. His searching eyes quickly found the familiar profile of his mother gracefully seated before the marble fireplace on her favorite tapestry sofa. In her delicate hand she held a small stemmed glass of sherry, while the other gently fondled one of her two Pomeranians who had managed to coerce his way onto the gray satin of her lap. Her own hair, now completely white, was wired up under a silver pleated fontange and the naughty Pomeranian was nipping at the pale blue streamers of the headdress.
On her immediate left sat Sir Christopher Wren, almost considered a member of the family. Before leaving for Scotland, Robert had commissioned him to take charge of the reconstruction of certain portions of Windingham due to his expertise in the Jacobean style of architecture. His mother had enthusiastically written to inform him that Wren had since received an extensive commission to design fifty new churches in London; an assignment that had greatly pleased Queen Anne. Sir Christopher leaned over and whispered something to the duchess, causing her to flash her glorious smile. She was still comely and her figure lithe for all her advanced years. The smile, which frequently graced her lovely oval countenance brought forth shades of the stunning beauty she had once been. Gazing fondly at her now, Robert wished that his father was alive to share the still sparkling and brilliant personality he had married so many years ago. Tonight, he quickly discovered, she had arranged a delightful presentation of George Farquhar’s new comedy, The Constant Couple, and had even somehow managed to obtain the actor Wilks to play the part of Sir Harry Wildair. Glancing quickly about the room, heavily populated with notables, Robert was more than pleased to see that everyone was enjoying themselves.
He slipped his tall frame effortlessly into a seat at the back of the drawing room next to Sir Richard Steele just as the final lines of the play were being spoken. The audience rose simultaneously with applause that was immediate and appreciative. Robert immediately stood at the same time noticing Lady Rutledge had taken a minor role. A look of amusement crossed his handsome face just as Sir Richard touched his elbow in acknowledgement of his arrival. “Lord Windingham, how good to have you among us again! We’ve been truly incomplete without your sharp repartee.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Robert could see Lady Rutledge advancing on him. Knowing her well to be an aggressive rather indiscreet woman, he acknowledged Sir Richard only briefly then excused himself, walking nonchalantly in the direction of a more empty portion of the room. It wasn’t long before he felt her possessive hand on his coat sleeve. The aroma of her perfume was heavier than he had remembered. He turned to look at her more fully. The court life she so coveted was having its decadent way with her once beautiful face. She deliberately leaned over her voluminous skirts toward him in order that he might better glimpse her decolletage. The whiteness of her highly powdered complexion had been set off with black patches cut into moons and stars which appeared to orbit around her icy blue eyes. Her full rouged lips were pursed in a little pout. Strangely Robert had once found that pout appealing. “Milady,” he greeted her politely, then watched her expression slowly change from flirtatious to simmering anger.
“Milady!! Milady!! Is that all you can stiffly say to me after these many months?” She drew herself closer until his legs were lost within the folds of her taffeta skirts. The aroma of her violent fragrance assailed his offended nose from the heaving bosom she thrust at him. She angled her body in such a way that the tips of her breasts brushed suggestively against his chest.
Reaching up and stepping back, he balanced her chin lightly on his forefinger and lowered his head slightly, bringing his lips in hoped for confidence only inches from her own. “Alvina. I believe we said it all just before I was sent away to Scotland. You decided, remember, you were much too embarrassed to be seen with me at court.”
Her face drew into a frown leaving little creases in her heavy make-up. “But, darling, all is forgiven by Her Majesty and we can now take up where we left off. I have really missed you terribly. No man has ever pleased me as much as you.”
The little pout was back as she took one of her very high-heeled slippers and rubbed it suggestively on the inside of his now taffeta enveloped leg. Robert felt an unwanted response from his body. An extreme sense of her depravity came over him. Keeping his head bent, he could see no change in her eyes as he hoped she would recognize the depth of dismissal in his own. Still he attempted to bring home his point. “Thank you for the compliment, my dear, but it is your extensive ability to make comparisons that I find troublesome.” Lifting his head, he stepped back away from her, realizing full well that if she chose to make a scene she was quite capable of an ugly one. Much to his surprise she only batted him coyly with the tip of her fan.
“Scotland, it would appear, dearest Bobby, has addled your brain!”
Alvina turned to leave but wove awkwardly. He realized she was more tipsy than originally judged and caught her by the elbow as she almost fell. Looking up at him through unfocused eyes, she smiled a crooked little smile. “Fetch me another liquid refreshment, dear boy, I find I’m growing quite thirsty again.”
Sudden tears formed in her eyes and he almost felt sorry for her. How well he understood the destructive politics at court. Alvina had voraciously thrown herself into the center of it. It saddened him to come home to find what had once been a beautiful vivacious woman victimized by its addictive power. He knew it had been aided by her own ambition and obsessive appetites. It was obvious Alvina had now become one of its many victims. He helped her to a seat and at her loud insistence, another glass of wine. Turning disconcertedly away, he noticed that his mother had seen him from the other side of the drawing room. Their eyes met briefly across the distance, exchanging their mutual feelings of dismay over Lady Rutledge’s poor condition.
Leaving Alvina to her wine, Robert advanced the space to his mother. Upon reaching her and seeing the delighted sparkle in her eyes, he clasped her hand fondly in his own, kissing her lightly on the cheek. “I see you’re managing to keep the theatre alive and well in England, mother! If we had to depend on Queen Anne, I’m afraid all our actors would starve!”
Quickly raising her arched brows in feigned shock she quipped, “Ah, yes, Robert, but Anne is managing to bring a higher tone to the English stage and for this alone I’m certain we will all benefit.” Glancing up at the tall man beside her she added with loving maternal affection, “You’re looking well in spite of the harsh duty Anne has imposed on you. Tell me, did the queen say aught in her letter whether she would finally be willing to acknowledge you as duke?”
“I wish I could be reassuring, but the Queen’s letter to me was vague in every aspect except the fact that she has further duties for me to perform for England.”
“No mention then that you will once again be reinstated into her good graces?” she frowned.
“Only insinuations that have left me feeling more uneasy than ever. Anne did imply that there would be certain compensations awaiting me when I reached court, but didn’t go into detail about them.”
His mother’s face brightened. “Then I shall take this small morsel offered to you and consider it a positive sign for your reinstatement! The queen, you know, is no longer as tightly ensconced with her old retinue. Sarah Churchill has lost much ground and indirectly because of this so has her husband, the Duke of Marlborough, and his men Robert Harley and Henry St. John. The Whig victory deposed them both last October. Harley, however, continues to influence the queen through his cousin Abigail Masham. I foresee that it will be Abigail who finally usurps Sarah’s hold on Anne.”
Robert was quickly beginning to remember the hazards of the fluctuating court hierarchy and felt reluctant to return to unsure ground. At least in Scotland he knew most of his enemies. “It’ll be amazing if that happens, mother. Anne by nature is a peace loving Tory. Sarah’s a Whig. If anything separates them once and for all it will be Sarah’s open ridicule of the divine right of rulers which she thinks is so much humbug—and, of course, if she continues to insist that the queen must support her husband’s wars.”
“You’re probably right, dear heart. But I should still like to suggest keeping your eye on the comings-and-goings of Abigail Masham. I also believe Harley’s influence is far from over and for that matter neither is St. John’s. Speaking of the latter, he has a tendency to be somewhat of an opportunist. I’d advise you to keep his mind off Windingham until Anne reinstates your ducal rights. Windingham is a key location for continued observation of the Scottish borders and there are still a lot of old enmities abounding on both sides. The English government will find it critical to discover just where the new Duke of Windingham’s loyalties lie. You must convince them in spite of your Scot’s blood it will always be with England.”
Robert suddenly felt surly. “I’m well aware of that! If I had chosen to disregard it I would have ferreted out my father’s assassins long ago!” he snapped too quickly. He instantly regretted his defensive posture when he saw the look of grief flash across her face. “Forgive me, mother. I’m afraid I take after my father. I’ve little patience with politics!”
She placed her hand lightly on his arm then, searching his eyes. After a moment she spoke, but her voice had lowered in confidence, “Yes, you really are like him. Because you are I beg of you to be cautious. Trust me, son, when I tell you that Marlborough’s power in this monarchy will not last. Bide your time carefully, and remember, vengeance is not ours to administer.”
Robert tried to reassure his mother before she turned back to her guests. The thought of Marlborough left him agitated and unsettled. He had never forgiven the man for his vacillating loyalties and his subsequent betrayal of his father. Their relationship had been a prime example of a dangerous political quagmire. One could easily get caught up in such during times like these of constant governmental revision. In ways he didn’t want to finalize yet mentally, he found himself agreeing with Sarah Churchill’s outlook on the monarchy. The energy behind his thoughts automatically put motion to his feet. He began moving restlessly about the room, responding cordially to those who spoke with him, but intentionally not stopping to intervene into conversations in which he was certain to find an interest.
Robert had almost reached the other side of the vast reception room when it occurred to him that the gathering tonight was representative of the quality of English literary production. At one time or another such literary greats as Dryden, Congreve, Gay, Prior, and Swift had all been patriotic prosers who had shared evenings at Windingham with his father and mother. But now the room was filled with authors whose pens could subsidize the crown. It led him to contemplate more seriously his mother’s selection of guests.
Queen Anne, he knew, was indifferent to literature, but her ministers rewarded useful writers in an age when newspapers, pamphlets, coffeehouses, and propaganda could serve the party or the sword. Anne had learned well the power of the press during the reign of William. Robert turned with renewed interest to gaze at Sir Richard Steele. His plans to activate England’s relatively new freedom of the press could well be the organized voice of the middle class. Robert suddenly wished he was as free to indulge in such pursuits, but knew he must honor the responsibilities of his heritage. Still, he was beginning to see the way his mother handled this conflict of interest in a new light.
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