This story originally appeared in SIRIUS: THE DOG STAR
In Memory of Oliver, a true Cavalier
The measure of a man's greatness lies, not in how he treats the highly-placed, but in how he treats the lowly. That is why, although I am by nature warm-hearted and affectionate, I never could bring myself to be fond of the Duke of Monmouth. Monmouth treated me well -- fawned over me, in fact, as if I were his dearest love -- only when he found me with his father, the king. When I was not close by King Charles's side, I became invisible to haughty Monmouth. That was not a wholly bad thing; many men would have treated me ill, did they find me unprotected. But James of Monmouth merely did not see me, when the King was not close by. And did I bar his way, the Duke would brush me aside as if I did not exist.
How very different from the way the king's brother treated me! Oh, I know what they say of that James -- that the Duke of York is a cruel Papist. Perhaps he is, but I know only that His Highness of York never stared through me as if I were beneath notice, or shoved me from his path as if I were nothing at all. To me, York was kind, as was his pretty young wife.
"See, my dear," York told her, the first time I passed by them in the corridors of Whitehall, "this pert little miss is Nell -- the king's favorite."
And the new Duchess of York smiled upon me and called me a "pretty thing". I knew I was pretty, just as I knew myself the king's favored pet -- but the Duchess's words still cheered me, and I trotted on down the corridor to the king very well pleased with myself.
On such threads do crowns hang; upon such small gestures rest the fate of nations.
My king and I were completely happy together; in his arms I knew myself his favorite, his best-loved in all the world. Just as all the others knew the same, when he caressed and cuddled them. That was his greatest achievement: he made everyone feel loved. No wonder we all loved him in return!
I had never looked to the future; it is not in my nature to brood over what might come. So when the king lay dying, I was plunged suddenly from delight to despair. My Merrie Monarch, my beloved patron, soon would be gone, leaving me wretched and alone.
Charles was not allowed to die in peace, either -- that is not the way, for kings. His ministers badgered him hourly, demanding he name his heir. Unfortunately -- and most oddly, considering how fertile a crop his seed produced in unsanctioned alliances -- his Portuguese Queen had never born even a daughter to him, let alone a son. Since King Charles II had no legitimate son, most men looked to the next son of the king's father, martyred Charles.
That meant James, the Duke of York, would reign next.
But York was a Catholic. This meant that the Duke and Duchess of York heard Mass and prayed in Latin and believed there were seven sacraments, rather than two. Our England was now a Protestant country, so the Yorks were called "Papist" and people threw stones at their carriage in the street. The things men find to quarrel over!
But whatever his religion, York was the undoubted legitimate heir to the throne, for there were no others.
Or say, rather, no others with so clear and unchallenged a claim. For as well as the king's brother James, there was the king's son James. The Duke of Monmouth.
Long years ago, when my darling Charlie was a young prince, he had been a wanderer. Through no fault of his own (all blame lay at the feet of That Man Cromwell, that betrayer of his own master!), Prince Charles had embarked upon a roving life, seeking always a way to return to his true home and destiny. And, as young rovers will, Prince Charles had entertained a fondness for many a fair maiden -- and for many who, while fair, could not lay claim to maiden state. One of those -- the first of them, she always claimed -- was a girl named Lucy Walter.
Lucy was pretty, I hear. And she was bright as a new silver button as well, I suspect. For not only did she bed young Charles, the romantic exiled prince, but she wed him as well.
Or so rumor hissed. The story had been whispered in bedchambers and murmured in doorways so long that the tale had grown a strange life of its own, dwelling halfway between truth and treason.
I know that James of Monmouth believed the story -- well, he would, would he not? It redeemed his mother's character, after all, were she the king's secret wife, rather than his public whore. (Not that my most loved and most loving Charles cared a dead flea whether a woman were whore or holy nun; from orange-girl to queen, he treated all alike. It was the true secret of his endless victories over virtue.)
And in addition to polishing his mother's tarnished reputation, a secret marriage transformed the bastard Duke of Monmouth into the legitimate Prince of Wales. From James, Duke of Monmouth at the king's pleasure to -- James, King of England at the king's death.
So Monmouth had everything to gain by vowing the rumored wedding's truth, and nothing to lose.
James of York, on the other hand, would lose the crown shimmering in his future.
King Charles had never confirmed the tale of his wedding to Lucy Walter. But unfortunately for my darling Charles, he had never firmly denied the story, either. And now that it was too late, his conscience pricked him.
As well it might, I suppose; he had just spoken in secret with a priest, making his peace with whatever God kings worship. Charles had not sent me away, and the priest had barely noted my presence, so unnerved was he by being called upon to confess the king. Nothing in the whispered confession had touched upon the succession.
Now confession was over and the priest gone, and for a brief, precious time Charles and I were alone together. I lay beside him, his arm about me, trying to console him as he struggled to decide what best to do, now that he must pass the care of the realm into other hands. For we both sensed a door opening for him that night; a door though which he must pass, leaving me behind. The time grew closer, and the king still could not rest easy.
"What to do, Nell?" he asked, staring into my eyes. "What to do?"
I leaned my head against his hand; I did not know how else to offer him comfort. But apparently my warmth, and my attention, were enough for him.
"James and again, James. Two Jameses, Nell, and each a royal disaster in his own way." Wearily the king stroked me, as he so often had before. "James the brother -- too strict and too hard. And too Catholic, Nell; never forget that, for the people of England will not. That James will never do." Again Charles caressed me, his touch heavy with fatigue. "Then there is James the son -- too proud and too easy. Too vain of being the king's son, Nell." For a moment Charles brooded, silent; shadow darkened his face. "But he is my son. My Protestant son." He turned his head and stared straight into my eyes. "My legitimate son, Nell."
And then the king told me the true story, knowing at the last that he must confess it to someone, and knowing, too, that I alone could be trusted to never utter a word of what I heard from him.
I was so young, Nell. That is my only excuse; a poor one, I know. But I was little more than a boy -- with all the spirit and urges of a man grown. And Lucy -- ah, sweet Lucy. So fair, so giving -- they wrong her, you know, who say she trapped me. The trap into which I fell was set for me long ago by Venus and by no one else.
She was younger even than I, and neither of us had yet been tamed by the world and its wisdom. I loved her, Nell, and she loved me -- me, and not my rank, and blood, and heritage. It was Charles she saw before her, not a future crown. You don't believe me? Ah, you do, I see it in your loving eyes.
Her eyes were brown too -- my Lucy's --
Well, Lucy was a loving creature, and gave me whatever I asked, and much I did not yet know enough to desire. It was a strange time, Nelly; I had been driven out of England and my father prisoned by Cromwell; the crown of England tottered and seemed set to roll into the nearest ditch. Despite my mother's grand claims, my French relations gave me only charity, and that grudging.
So you see, my Nell, how ripe I was to fall into a pair of soft young arms, how primed to act the fool. What? I, a fool? Oh, yes, my pretty one, I, clever Charles, fell into the worst folly a king can commit. Marriage.
Mind you, poppet, it did not seem folly when I knelt with her before the priest, nor when I slid the only ring I possessed onto her finger, nor when she looked up at me in love and in trust -- just as you look at me now, Nell. Sometimes you remind me of my Lucy, although she was a farmer's daughter and you -- ah, well, never mind.
No, the vow did not seem folly then. My father's head had rolled in the dirt before the eyes of curious cowards; Cromwell held all England and I was naught but a poor vagabond, a less desirable guest than a gypsy rover. For a gypsy might steal food and silver -- baubles. But a landless prince might steal peace, demanding alliances be honored, armies sent to restore his purloined throne. I thought I would never be more than a poor exile. I had no land, no crown. My very title seemed written in water. I was only Charles Stuart now. Why should Charles Stuart deny himself the comfort of a loving little wife?
And the marriage pleased my Lucy, who was already quick with my child. My first -- but not my last -- ah, yes, laugh at me, Nell; I know that sidelong smile of yours, you clever little creature. I have fathered many children, but young James was my first born and my first son -- and my only legitimate child.
Yes, and by rights should have been raised as Prince of Wales. But he was not, because I was a coward, Nelly.
For the tide turned, you see, and I began to fight to regain my father's lost kingdom. And I knew that I had only one treasure to bargain with: the crown of the Queen of England.
By right and by vow, that crown should be set upon Lucy's head, as my ring had been set upon her hand. But Queen Lucy would do my cause no good, and much harm. Kings do not marry low-born girls, save in fairy tales.
I should have brazened it out, Nell -- should have acted like a man. I should have told the truth and shamed the devil; proclaimed Lucy my wife and my queen, no matter what the cost. I know that now. But I did not. Instead, I told my Lucy our marriage must wait in secret until the day I could claim her as my own. I asked her for our marriage lines and she, trusting, gave them into my faithless hand. So when our son was born, I claimed him as my bastard. And I hid that fatal paper Lucy had given me safe away.
Now Lucy is gone, and soon I too shall depart. I dare not give the proof of my marriage into anyone's hands and I cannot bear to destroy it. But you, dearest Nell -- you I can trust....
As I lay beside him, my beloved king slipped his hand beneath his lace-trimmed pillow and withdrew a slim roll of paper. "My marriage lines, Nelly. Now you shall keep them safe."
I watched with alert interest as King Charles pulled out a wide blue riband and smoothed it flat upon the coverlet. With steady hands, he laid his marriage lines upon the riband and folded the blue satin over until the paper was hidden. Then, to my surprise, the king pulled a small embroidered pocket from beneath the pillow; he opened it to reveal a needle threaded with deep blue silk.
"Surprised, little one?" Charles said, and the smile I so loved to see lit his face once more. "A wandering prince learns many skills, Nelly. Once I darned my own stockings."
I watched his long fingers push the needle through the riband, pull the silk thread through the strip of bright satin. Steadily he worked, stitching until the riband was half its original width, the king's marriage lines hidden securely within the blue riband.
he patted the bed beside him and I moved closer. He stroked my forehead and caressed my neck; his fingers knew just how to please me and I leaned into his hand. "Enough," he said. I sat back and Charles took up the satin length of riband and slipped it about my throat.
He tied the riband into a pretty bow. "There now. A true test for a true prince. Ah, I must be farther gone than I thought, Nell, for I grow romantical and think fondly of chivalry and of honor...." His hand fell away from the blue riband I now wore about my neck; I sensed he tired, and settled myself beside him to guard his rest.
Uselessly, for soon after the king's physician barged into the room, followed by the king's brother and the king's wife and the king's ministers. I whimpered in protest, but as I said, kings are not allowed to die in peace.
Charles spoke sharply to his physician, and gently to his brother. And his last words were of me. "James," he said, "let not poor Nelly starve." That was all; his hand grew heavy and his flesh cold, and I knew my king was gone where I could not yet follow.
After that all was noise and confusion and grief. Someone noticed I was still there and ordered me sharply out of the king's bedchamber. Stunned and miserable, I slunk out, seeking my own place to mourn for my beloved.
Finding a quiet place in Whitehall was no easy task; the king's death released havoc in its wake. The corridors of Whitehall were full of people, all of them chattering about King Charles and his death, repeating words he had not spoken, telling of bequests he had not made -- I knew them false, for I alone had been with him, constant to the end.
Finally I ran out-of-doors into the pleasaunce, hoping for a private place in which to huddle until someone told me what I must do now.
Outside the day was grey and pale, February's chill enough to cut sharp. But at least I was alone -- or nearly so. For the Duke of Monmouth walked slowly along one of the red brick pathways through the wild garden, deep in talk with a stout man already somberly dressed in mourning black. When I saw Monmouth, I remembered the king's last words to me, and how he had tied the blue riband containing the royal marriage lines about my neck, his fingers moving with slow, dying grace.
Surely King Charles had meant his son to be king after him. Why else had he given Lucy Walter's marriage lines into my keeping? He knew I could move unhindered among the courtiers, could approach any man freely.
Yes, that must be what my king had meant. So I ran down the path to the Duke of Monmouth, catching frantically at his coat. He stopped and looked at me, and frowned. "Get away from me, creature," he said, and shoved me aside with a sweep of his leg.
Startled -- for never before had Monmouth proved cruel -- I tried again to claim his attention, only to have Monmouth slap at me with his scarlet leather gloves. "Begone," he commanded. He did not have to tell me three times. Dodging his blood-bright gloves, I turned and hurried off. Behind me I heard Monmouth say crossly to his companion, "My father harbored far too many of those creatures. When I am king, I shall cleanse the palace of them."
At the end of the red brick path I stopped, uncertain which way to go. Monmouth would not heed me. Should I now seek out the Duke of York? Was that what I was meant to do?
Grief filled my heart; my body trembled with misery. With no one to command me, I feared to set my feet wrongly. I could not decide which way to go.
At last I sat down upon the cold brick pathway, and did not move at all.
"Here now, what's this?" A man's voice, deep and velvety; for a sublime instant I thought I heard my king's voice once more. But the scent he wore was strange; I did not know it. Then strong hands caught me and swept me up; I struggled and found myself staring into an oddly familiar face.
Black unruly hair, black eyes; a laughing curl of mouth. Not handsome, not as people reckon a man's looks. But he had something better than a handsome face. Like King Charles, this man drew one to him, unable to resist his Stuart charm.v Oh, yes, I knew he was a Stuart -- that was clear enough. I did not know him, but that meant nothing, for King Charles had sired children upon women the length and breadth of England. James of Monmouth had almost as many relatives as I did myself.
"What's the matter, poppet?" he asked, stroking my back. "What's a pretty thing like you doing out here all alone?"
A whimper escaped me; I could not help it, for I was so unhappy I wished only to hide away from the world. The man seemed to sense my misery, for he held me close and patted me consolingly. "What shall we do with you, pet?"
I could not answer; I stared at him, beseeching understanding. Rueful, he shook his head. "Well, come along with me and I shall introduce you to a fair lady. I'm sure she will be kind to you."
Yes, Mistress Comfort was kind, although she had never before laid eyes upon me. The man presented me to her, and she smiled and called me a sweet, pretty thing -- "But what are we to do with her? We cannot bring her before the king!"
"Certainly we can, my dear; I've heard it said he's a great fondness for these creatures. They run tame all over Whitehall, although their manners distress some of the more nice-minded sycophants that dwell within these royal walls."
Hearing this, I realized they did not yet know the king was dead. I whimpered again, and the lady touched my nose and bade me hush. So I settled down to listen, and to wait.
Those who do often learn much. As I patiently sat, the pair who had come to my aid spoke freely, and so I learned that Amory Fitzroy and his lady Comfort had come to court hoping, as so many did, to find favor with the king. Amory had more reason than most to believe he would be kindly treated -- "For the king is your father, after all, Amory."
"So my mother said, and she might be supposed to know," he agreed.
"Well, then, he must do something for you."
Amory smiled in a way that made my heart ache; just so had my Charles smiled. "'Must' is not a word to use to princes, my dear. But our monarch is not only merrie, but prodigious generous as well." "He's generous enough with his seed, if that's what you mean." Golden curls long and soft as a spaniel's ears swung as Comfort tossed her head. "How many children does he claim?"
"My dear, no one knows. I vow the man himself's lost count." Here Amory frowned, staring at me absently, and the lady Comfort smiled; I sensed she smiled often.
"So long as you do not lose count, I shall not complain. It's not every fine gentleman who'll give his hand to a whore's daughter." She held up her hand as Amory began to speak. "No, it's truth, and we both know it."
"Neither of our dams were what they should be, I suppose." Amory sighed. "I could wish mine had been more clever, if she had to be so accommodating. All she got from her tumble with our royal Charlie was me. Others did better."
"No," said Comfort, after considering his words for a moment, "I do not think they did."
He laughed, sounding again hauntingly like King Charles. "Very well, then; I'm worth a title and estate; 'tis what others received from our Cavalier king, after all."
"Your title is that of an honest gentleman, and that's more than many can claim. As for estates -- you have Sweetbriar."
"A sweet briar indeed; I vow he who held its deed cheated to lose and so rid himself of the place!"
As they jested, I gathered that Amory Fitzroy had the king's own luck; fortune favored him at the gaming table. Nameless and landless, he had won himself an estate to live on and a fair lady to wife. He seemed happy enough with the lady -- as well he might, as she was kind and pretty too -- but the estate whose deed he had won had been sadly neglected.
Neglected land eats money as a cat eats mice, swiftly and constantly. And a man with a wife must put her needs before his own pride. That was why Amory Fitzroy had, at last, come to the king's court, to claim his father and ask his aid. Being no fool, Amory Fitzroy had brought his pretty Comfort along; a father's generosity to a new-found son was not nearly so sure a thing as King Charles's liberality to pretty women.
But they had chosen their time poorly; arrived at Whitehall to find the king lying deathly ill. Amory Fitzroy doubted now that they would ever see the king.
Nor did they. As my rescuers plotted strategy, it began to rain; an icy, bitter drizzle that drove us to seek shelter. I followed after Amory Fitzroy and Mistress Comfort as the two of them found their way from the garden into the great corridor where men and women waited, whispering, as the news of King Charles's death swept through Whitehall like plague. And like plague, the king's death killed hopes and dreams, Amory Fitzroy's among them. I huddled by Amory and Comfort Fitzroy, and waited, too bemused by grief to do otherwise than cling to their kindness. For the moment Confusion reigned as king; no one knew which way to bow -- towards Monmouth, or towards York.
Amory Fitzroy knew no doubts. "The people of England will put up with a great deal -- but they will not endure a conceited, puffed-up boy grasping what is not rightfully his. My half-brother Monmouth should take care. The sun of York rises."
He sighed. "And we, my dear Comfort, depart. No good will come of this -- not for us, at any rate."
"Never mind." Comfort laid her hand upon his. "Others manage without gifts from the king, and so shall we. We do have a roof over our heads, after all."
"Almost, my dear, you give me hope." Amory smiled at her, and took her hand. "Come, then, lady; let's away. The player king is dead, long live the prig of York. Whitehall is no place for the likes of us."
They turned and walked away, down the long corridor I knew so well. I stared and then ran after them, catching them just as they reached the door. They stopped; I flung myself upon Amory.
He bent and lifted me into his arms. "What's this, sweeting? Do you want to come away with us?" I uttered an imploring whine; Mistress Comfort reached to fondle me. "You must stay here, poppet. We can't steal you away."
As I stared into their faces, silently petitioning, a man shoved past, pushing us all aside. "The Duke of Monmouth," he announced. Behind him stood James of Monmouth, an expression of haughty pride upon his face. Giving himself a king's airs and graces already, he was.
I had been granted another chance to do my master's last bidding; I turned from Mistress Comfort and danced over to Monmouth, uttering a sharp little noise to catch his attention. Frowning, Monmouth glanced down at me and then kicked out, his booted foot dealing me a cruel blow that made me cry out in sudden pain.
"Beast!" Mistress Comfort hissed at Monmouth, and knelt to console me. Ignoring her, Monmouth brushed past, shoving us both hard out of his path. Mistress Comfort lost her balance and sat down hard beside me on the tiled floor.
Monmouth began to stride off into the crowd, but Amory Fitzroy caught his arm. "Perhaps it has escaped your notice, sir, but you have tumbled the lady to the floor. Do you not think it behooves you to aid her to her feet?"
Unaccustomed to being hindered -- for I must admit King Charles had spoilt him with indulgence -- Monmouth glared at Amory in outrage. He shook off Amory's restraining hand.
"Mind your manners and your tongue, sir, when you address the king's son!"
"Why, as to that, I'm a king's son too, and as such was taught better manners than to knock a lady down." Amory glanced to his wife, but Mistress Comfort had already scrambled to her feet and was shaking her skirts back into their proper draping. She looked at Monmouth with cool, measuring eyes; I pressed against the protection of her skirts.
"I see the lady does not require your aid," Amory went on, "but I'm sure you will wish to beg her pardon, sir."
Monmouth stared into Amory's face, and his own paled. Perhaps he did not like being reminded of King Charles's many bastard sons, since he himself was accounted one. Perhaps he did not like seeing a face so like King Charles when young; Amory Fitzroy resembled their royal father far more closely than did Monmouth.
Or perhaps he simply did not like what he saw in Amory Fitzroy's eyes. "I suppose you came to see what you could get out of the old -- out of our father," Monmouth said, sullen as if King Charles had been miserly and strict with him, rather than all too indulgent. "Well, you've come too late to Whitehall. The king will give you nothing now -- but I will."
Unable to meet Amory Fitzroy's steady gaze, Monmouth's eyes slid away -- and came to rest upon me. "A king's fancy," Monmouth said. "Now she's yours. And I vow to you, the little bitch is all you'll ever get from a king."
I was not his to give, but I made no protest. Nor were his words the apology Amory Fitzroy had demanded of him -- but Mistress Comfort decided to accept them as such. All sweet smiles, Mistress Comfort curtsied to Monmouth.
"Thank you, Your Grace, you are as kind and generous as I expected you to be. We shall be most glad to offer her a home. What is her name?"
Monmouth assumed an expression of aristocratic boredom. "Lord, madam, how should I know? Nell, or Moll, or Babs, or Doll -- my father named them all after his mistresses. Filthy things." Saying nothing, Amory Fitzroy scooped me up into his arms; he was as tall as King Charles had been, so that when he lifted me to his shoulder, I looked down into Monmouth's eyes. There I saw only impatience, and greed.
Amory stroked my back and asked quietly. "If she was the king's favorite, are you quite sure you do not wish to keep her for yourself?"
"What would I do with a mangy old spaniel?" Monmouth jeered, and stalked off. Amory and Comfort exchanged glances above my head.
"And that, my dear, would seem to be that," Amory said.
"Yes. Let us go home now." Comfort fondled my ears; I leaned into her caressing fingers. "Dear little Nell -- mangy indeed! What a fool that man is!"
That is how I, who once had the free run of the king's palace, came to live at Sweetbriar with a king's son and a harlot's daughter. The estate was a pleasant enough property, although it was not large, and sorely needed repair. As we rode up the overgrown drive to the manor house, I peered past the horse's neck and saw promising signs of rabbits in the meadow and squirrels in the orchard. I wriggled and Amory let me down to run about and learn the bounds of my new domain.
I heard laughter behind me and paused, looking back. Amory had dismounted and was swinging Comfort down from her horse. "See, she feels already that this is home." Comfort looked up into Amory's eyes. "And so do I."
Satisfied, I ran on. Men and women need privacy, at times, and I -- I needed to stretch my legs after being carried on Amory's saddlebow all the way from London.
That night I waited until sleep lay heavy over the house. When I was sure neither of my people would wake, I slid down off the wide bed, landing lightly on the night-cool floor. After listening to their soft steady breathing, I trotted across the room and nosed the door open. Then I headed for the kitchen, and its constant hearth.
The kitchen fire had been banked for the night; beneath the ash burned a steady heart of red-hot coal. I sat upon the stones before the fire and began ridding myself of King Charles's last gift.
I scratched and pawed and rolled, but King Charles had tied the knot tight and true, and I could not work the bow loose. I grew more and more frantic, whining and whimpering in frustration, trying vainly to catch the trailing ends of the riband in my teeth.
Just as I had flung myself flat upon the hearthrug in dejection, I heard soft footsteps. "Good heavens, what a commotion! What's the matter, Nelly dear?" Mistress Comfort set her night-candle upon the kitchen table and came to kneel beside me on the hearthrug. "Poor girl, are you homesick?"
She stroked me; I lifted my head and gazed at her, beseeching understanding. Then I sat up and pawed at the riband around my neck. Mistress Comfort smiled.
"Ah, poor girl -- let's have that off, then. 'Tis rather grubby by now -- and tattered too." What I had not been able to achieve, Mistress Comfort accomplished within minutes with her clever fingers. Once the knot was untied and she pulled the riband from my neck, I tried to snatch the length of satin from her fingers. Thinking it a game, Mistress Comfort trailed the riband before me as if I were a kitten.
"Do you wish to play, Nelly?" The blue riband slid back and forth before me on the rug; with a swift pounce, I trapped it under my paws. She laughed softly, and pulled her end of the riband, and then frowned, her fingers pressing along the riband's length.
"What's this?" she asked, and I tried again to snatch the riband from her grasp. But now she had the whole length of the riband in her hands, feeling its odd thickness. Then she rose and went over to the kitchen table, and came back with a small sharp knife.
And as I stared, my eyes intent with worry, Mistress Comfort began to pick apart the stitches King Charles's hands had set in the blue satin.
As soon as she had half the stitches undone, she tugged gently, pulling the folded paper from its hiding place. She set knife and riband aside and spread the paper before us on the hearth. I watched her face anxiously as she read.
"Well," she said at last, and sat back on her heels. Then she looked at me. "Do you know what this is, Nelly?"
I wagged my tail and set one paw upon her knee.
"Of course you don't," she continued, caressing me absently. "Well, Mistress Nell, this paper could set James of Monmouth upon the throne of England. What do you think of that?"
Mistress Comfort stared at the king's marriage lines, the words that proved Charles Stuart had lawfully wed Lucy Walter all those years ago. "What shall we do with this, Nell?" she asked, and looked into my eyes.
"So -- this midnight hour we two hold the crown of England in our gift. Well, the preachers do say your sins will find you out." Mistress Comfort laughed softly. She glanced at the king's marriage lines again, and then at the blue riband lying beside the creased paper. "I know what I would say -- but I leave it to you, Nell. Do you think a man who kicks dogs is fit to be King of England?"
I knew the answer to that. Had my beloved Charles known how Monmouth treated me the instant his father lay dead, King Charles would have done himself what Mistress Comfort and I now would do for him. Delicately I caught up the paper in my teeth. Bracing myself for the heat, I edged close to the slow-burning hearth-fire. There I hesitated, unwilling to go closer to the red coals. I looked over my shoulder pleadingly at Mistress Comfort. Taking my hint, she took the paper from me.
"All right, Nelly," she said, and took up the poker from its place beside the hearth. While I sat back and watched, Comfort leaned forward and set the king's marriage lines upon the bed of coals. She used the poker to shove the paper down into the fire's smoldering heart. The blue satin riband followed the vital paper.
Thin smoke puffed; small flames danced. Fire danced over the crumpled paper, snaked up the riband's sleek length, consumed Monmouth's future with its hot red teeth....
"What the devil are the two of you about down here?"
Both Mistress Comfort and I jumped, for we had been so absorbed in our task that even I had heard no sound. Amory Fitzroy stood in the kitchen doorway, a candle in his hand. "Pray, madam, why have you taken a fancy to huddle by the cinders?"
Mistress Comfort merely smiled and rose to her feet. "I do think Nell is quite a clever little thing, don't you?" she said, rather than answering. "Come, let's to bed. 'Tis bitter cold down here."
"Why did you come down here, then?" Amory came over and swooped me up, just as King Charles always had. "Women!" he added, but he sounded more cheerful than cross. As he carried me off, I glanced back over his shoulder, past Mistress Comfort to the kitchen hearth.
The king's blue riband and the paper it had guarded were gone now. Gone to ash. My eyes met my mistress Comfort's.
"Pretty witty Nelly," she said, and closed the kitchen door behind her. With a contented sigh, I snuggled into Amory's arms and let my head rest heavy upon his shoulder.
Mistress Comfort was the first of us back into the high warm bed; she held out her arms to claim me from Amory. "You still haven't said what you were doing down in the kitchen at the midnight hour, poppet," Amory said as he climbed back into bed.
"Nell was moping in front of the kitchen fire," Comfort told him, and kissed my nose.
"Poor little grommet," Amory said, stroking me consolingly. "She misses the king, perhaps."
"Well of course she does. I think we all shall. Never mind, sweeting, we'll take good care of
you." Then Comfort added, "So this is your kingly legacy, Amory -- one spaniel."
"Not just a spaniel -- a royal spaniel. A king's favorite, no less." Amory Fitzroy put a hand under my chin and turned me to face him. "And what does your royal legacy think? Will we do?"
I looked into his eyes and the warmth of new love filled my sore heart. I kissed him upon the chin, and wriggled around to kiss Mistress Comfort too, with a lick of her cheek for good measure, just to reassure her that I loved her quite as well as I did him.
"Well, that seems definitive enough," Amory Fitzroy said. And then we all three nestled down under the covers and slept.
The Duke of York became king -- an unloved king. The Duke of Monmouth tried to be rid of him, and failed, and lost his own life, a condemned traitor. In the end, he paid a high price for kicking a dog.
Not long afterwards, King James lost his throne to his own daughter and her Dutch husband. Now King James is king in exile, over the water. I think, from what I have overheard in our household, that he is likely to stay there.
It does not matter to me, for my home is here at Sweetbriar now. I, too, am faithful, in my fashion -- but that does not mean I can love only one, and only once. Now I love Amory and his lady Comfort, and they love me. For now, that is enough. I can wait.
For someday that door into forever that opens for us all will open for me. And then I shall rise and shake off pain and age and time and run through the doorway into the golden fields on the other side --
-- and there my Charles will be waiting for me.
Author's Note: Charles II (born 1630; reigned 1660-1685), fondly and cheerfully known as "the Merrie Monarch", had two passions: women and spaniels. Both had free run of Whitehall Palace, much to the dismay of many of the king's courtiers. Charles did indeed sire many children, although none with his wife, Catherine of Braganza. When Charles died his brother, the strait-laced, Catholic, and unpopular James, Duke of York, became king -- over the protests of Protestant James, the Duke of Monmouth, who claimed to be the king's legitimate heir, rather than the king's bastard. But although there had long been rumors that a wedding had taken place between young Charles and his first acknowledged mistress, pretty Lucy Walter (or Walters, or Water, or Waters), no proof of such a union was ever found.
There is, of course, no proof that a spaniel altered the succession of the crown of England. Then again, there's no proof that one didn't.
We do know that Charles II was exceeding fond of the little dogs -- and in his honor the breed he loved so well now bears his name: the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
Profits from this story have been donated to Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club, USA Rescue; and to Lucky Star Cavalier Rescue. If you'd like to help, go to www.luckystarcavalierrescue.org or www.ckcsc.org/ckcsc/ckcsc_inc.nsf/Founded-1954/rescue.html.