Queen Anne was looking forward to this evening's ball, the first such event in years to spur her excitement. After all, its historical theme ﹘ England's glorious Elizabethan past ﹘ was her own idea. She rose no later than usual, at 10am, prayed, then took breakfast in her chamber: a dozen wheat cakes, two hard-boiled goose eggs, several slices of tongue, pigeon pie, good salted herring, fried kidneys, and a dish of pease pottage ﹘ all rinsed through with the best Trumpington ale. After that, she smoked a pipe, which induced a lengthy fit of coughing. In her fifties, the Queen was vastly overweight, and unwell. For some minutes, her bedchamber woman, Abigail, Lady Masham, waited for the fit to pass, but not before spilling plates all over the floor. Another lady in waiting, Mary Arden, took the Queen's hand.
"Mary, why can't you do something useful?" said Lady Masham. "Go and fetch Dr Arbuthnot."
The doctor adjusted his wig as he entered, muttering apologies in his inimitable Scots accent, but by that time the Queen's coughing had ceased. He examined her briefly.
"Everybody's waiting for me to die," the Queen told him. "They want me to do something decisive."
As if he didn't hear her, the doctor peered at her tongue, asked if she felt at all light-headed, then pronounced her well. Well enough, at any rate, to attend the ball. "And if I may say so, the whole court looks forward to your impersonation of Queen Elizabeth."
The Queen had been in Windsor for some time. Twelve years had passed since the start of her glorious reign. Sunshine gently warmed the castle, the park and the forest, while the Queen, inside, contemplated death for the three-hundred-and-ninety-second time in a week, and weighed the merits of making some bold gesture with regard to the succession, and considered which of the two leading candidates should benefit from such a gesture ﹘ then finally whether it wasn't really all too much trouble after all, best left for others to determine after she had gone. Meanwhile, her subjects got on with the ordinary business of life. In the country, they sat under large oaks and elms, gorging themselves on summer fruits, playing the Jew's harp and singing smutty ballads. In spa towns such as Bath and Buxton, they virtuously sipped whole pints of the sulphurous waters in which, not long before, they had bathed their scrofulous skins; at Scarborough and Brighthelmstone they did much the same with seawater. In London, a day's ride from Windsor, those who were not unfortunately manacled inside one of the capital's many prisons and mad houses diverted themselves with cockfighting; drinking gin until the limbs and eyeballs lost their function, travelling to and from assignations in closed sedan chairs, striking bargains with tradesmen; talking politics in coffee houses, or else trading jests from the latest plays, and spoiling them by too much repeating; begging on street corners, stealing purses; singing psalms, smoking pipes and dreaming of a better life in the East Indies or the American colonies; calling on neighbours At Home, and taking tea with them for hours on end; riding in Hyde Park; playing the lottery, or the viola; and giving birth with no more anaesthetic than a bottle of brandy.
But for many of the most important people, and those who depended on them ﹘ particularly those who had travelled with the court to Windsor ﹘ it was difficult to concentrate on the ordinary business of life because so much depended on the future of the crown. The Queen had no living offspring and the men most likely to inherit ﹘ both based overseas ﹘ were preparing either to accept the crown graciously or to fight for it if necessary. Few people at court knew which prince to support - publicly, at any rate, though naturally both would be offered support in private. The only certainty was that, in a few months ﹘ perhaps just weeks, or days ﹘ the Queen would no longer be alive to promote her favourites, or to keep down those they opposed. A feeling of stagnation had imposed itself. Tory ministers asserted that the Queen was, in fact, in good health, while papers favourable to the opposition went as far as to announced that she was dead already. Against this uncertainty, bank stock had fallen four per cent.
Suddenly, it seemed important again to be seen at court, and to cultivate useful alliances. Years had passed since so many last attended. Parliament was reluctant to give the invalid Queen an allowance for entertainment, and even if she had been able to walk across the room unaided, her court would have been duller than many could have wished; Anne's outlook was far removed from the gaudy excesses of the past, when King Charles's cavaliers drunkenly fucked in corridors and unburdened their bowels wherever they could find a corner not already put to that purpose. Few houses in England, belonging to persons of quality, were kept more privately than Anne's court; wits liked to say that it served "just about satisfactorily" as a coffee-house, and coffee houses served much better as a court. They took pleasure from political clubs, such as the Cocoa Tree (for the Tories) and the Kit Kat (for the Whigs); or from the great country houses. After all, aside from the supposedly edifying sight of Her Majesty herself ﹘ when that, increasingly rarely, was available the court had little to recommend it. "Nothing but ceremony," people said. "No conversation. You play cards after dinner, drink tea, bow extremely and return home."
For much of the afternoon, the Queen, Lady Masham and Lady Mary had played cards; a few hands of quadrille, then cribbage, basset and piquet to finish. They stopped every so often for a plate of jellies, or a dish of green tea. They played for small stakes, but by four o'clock Lady Masham was down several shillings, and Mary, preoccupied by the imminent arrival at court of her sweetheart, had done substantially worse; neither woman was unhappy to start what promised to be a lengthy toilet.
They began by helping the Queen towards her lacquered dressing table. She moved heavily, one arm over each woman's shoulders, crunching underfoot small fragments of the broken plates that footmen had somehow failed to notice and sweep away. At the dressing table, they spent several moments admiring the bright red wig, resting on a tall stand, which had been specially prepared for her to hint at the gingerish majesty of her predecessor. "It's frightful!" said Lady Masham cheerfully. With some assistance from the distracted Mary, and with Her Majesty's permission, Lady Masham started to undress the Queen. First she removed the nightgown, then the undergarments, and with great difficulty addressed the cap tied beneath her chin. The knot was lost between the rolls of fat on her neck, so Lady Masham pulled firmly on the ends ﹘ but this seemed only to tighten it. Once again seeking permission, she took a couteau from the table and cut the cords altogether. Finally Lady Masham unsaddled the Queen's spectacles and Her Majesty blinked blindly at nothing. Lady Masham stood back momentarily to take in fully the great mass of pale fat, which Arbuthnot more politely termed cellula adiposa, topped by a head that shone with perspiration through her thin hair.
Sometimes Mary wondered if Lady Masham was being deliberately cruel towards the Queen. But she said nothing. As time passed, she became increasingly convinced and felt less able to speak out. At that moment, the Queen still sitting entirely naked, the First Lady of the Bedchamber, the Duchess of Somerset, scratched at the door then stepped inside without waiting for a reply. "Your Majesty," she began, not bothering to curtsey to the unseeing monarch, "I came to ask if I might help with your preparations, but I see you are well looked after."
Strictly speaking, court protocol entitled the Duchess to supervise the Queen's toilet, but she graciously delegated this honour to Lady Masham. Consequently the Duchess had no idea of the fits, the cramps, the uncontrolled flatulence, the cracked lips, the eyes that gummed together while the Queen slept, the copious dandruff, the stench of her false teeth, the suppurating sores on her legs, and back, and private parts.
"Yes, Abigail is very good to me," the Queen replied. "Have you any news about the ball?"
"Your Majesty," the Duchess replied, "This promises to be the most successful ball you have ever had the wisdom to devise. The entire town is full ﹘ so full that I would not previously have believed it possible. Even the best families, if they arrived late, have been unable to secure lodgings. Some have taken rooms as far away as Slough. It seems we shall see people tonight we have not so much as glimpsed for years." After a pause, she added: "Some of them, I daresay, would hardly be given admittance if the footmen at the door could only tell who they were. Who knows what strangers might appear?” She was thinking of somebody she had met recently, a funny little bluestocking who had dedicated to Queen Anne a book about Britain's Saxon past. But the Duchess didn't spell out that this was the sort of stranger she had in mind. Consequently her offhand remark allowed for a more sinister interpretation that would have astonished her.
"And it seems that Oxford and Bolingbroke intend to appear together, to end Walpole's talk of their falling out."
The Queen smiled, but she was hardly listening. It had not previously occurred to her that unexpected visitors might appear. Now she could hardly think of anything else. Her heart began to throb. She broke into a sweat. She worried that one particular stranger, not seen by her since he was a baby, might be brought near, perhaps disguised as somebody else, then suddenly spring himself upon her. And she didn't think she could bear it.