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Cover of Private Ends by Patricia Wynn

.. excerpt from

Private Ends

-- Prologue --

St. James's Palace, July, 1717

His Grace, Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle-on-Tyne and his Majesty's Lord Chamberlain, sat at his desk, bending over a stack of warrants awaiting his signature. His secretary, Sir John Stanley, and the Vice-Chamberlain, Thomas Coke, stood at his elbows ready to explain every page if need be.

Finally! the Duke thought, as he scrupulously read the arrangements for a consort of music to be held on the Thames. His Majesty has at last seen the wisdom of providing the sort of entertainments his courtiers want.

By now, everyone at Court knew that the King would much rather spend his evenings alone with his mistress Madame Schulenburg, sharing quiet pastimes like papercutting, than entertain his subjects with plays and balls. Since his return from Hanover last January, however, the unruly conduct of the Prince of Wales had forced him from his solitude. Now he had to pay court to his subjects to win back their affections from a son whose every move seemed calculated to undermine his authority.

But why must we have this unhealthy scheme for an evening on the Thames—Newcastle shuddered as he took up his plume—when a ball would have done just as well? Nothing but a royal command would get me to risk taking a chill on the water at night. But there is no gainsaying his Majesty. And, of course, it falls to me to see that all goes perfectly as planned.

Before signing the first warrant, he asked again, You are certain Mr. Heidegger is unwilling to organize the consort as a subscription event? This sort of thing seems well within his capabilities, and it would spare the royal household a great deal of money and effort.

Yes, your Grace, but—

You have impressed upon him how grateful his Majesty would be?

Yes, your Grace but— Mr. Coke rushed to explain— Mr. Heidegger has informed us that as much as he would like to oblige his Majesty, he must reserve subscriptions for his big events like the masquerades, which can bring him three to four hundred pounds.

The masked balls hosted at the Haymarket Theatre by Mr. Heideg-ger, a Swiss purveyor of entertainments, had gained in popularity. To put a check on lewd behaviour, Queen Anne had forbidden the wearing of masks to the opera or plays, but these new masquerades eluded the ban by pretending to recreate the Carnivale in Venice.

How impertinent! He should be honoured to provide any service to his Majesty. For myself, I never spare a penny on anything that might give him pleasure. Just because he has been Vice-Chamberlain for ten years, Coke must not be allowed to imagine that he knows better than I what it means to serve the King.

No, your Grace. With a nervous look in Coke's direction, Sir John pointed to a line on the warrant. But as you can see in this paragraph, Baron Kielmannsegg has taken the whole of the expense upon himself.

Baron Kielmannsegg should be eager to show his gratitude, as much as the King has done for him— and the countess, whatever relation she may be to the King.

That is all very well, but the work of organizing the event still falls on the Household, which already bears more than any other department.

As you say, your Grace, but the Master of Revels is fully prepared to oversee—

Yes, yes! But it behoves me, as a recipient of his Majesty's most gracious favours and benefices, to ensure that nothing that might add to his pleasure has been overlooked. The King has entrusted me with the greatest position of honour and dignity at Court. He must never regret the confidence he has put in me.

Now, I beg your silence while I approve these arrangements. With his finger tracking every word, Newcastle reviewed every detail, murmuring them aloud.

‘At eight o'clock his Majesty's barge is to be at the Palace stairs, docked and ready to be boarded by the King and his guests.' I should like a message to be sent to the bargeman at six o'clock that evening to remind him of the time. Please make a note to that effect, Sir John.

Reading on, he saw that the King's guests had pledged to be ready on time—all except the Prince and Princess of Wales, of course. It appeared that they meant to be as churlish in this as they had lately to all his Majesty's requests. Well, there is nothing more I can do about that. I have tried my utmost to be agreeable to the Prince, while making it perfectly clear that it is the father I serve and not the son. And it has not been easy, as offensive as Prince George can be.

I see here that a second barge, hired from one of the companies in the City, will be ready with Mr. Handel and all his musicians aboard. Is it certain that it can carry all fifty instruments Mr. Handel says will be needed for his new piece? Perhaps we should ask for a list of the instruments so they can be checked to make sure that all are there.

A shifting at his elbow made Newcastle look up to see an anguished expression on Sir John's face.

The Duke gave a frustrated sigh. Very well. If you think the suggestion impractical, I suppose we can leave that responsibility to Mr. Handel. If anything goes amiss with the music, however, it shall be on his head. It is irksome to be forced to depend upon others to carry out their duties, but in this case, perhaps, I have no choice.

He returned to the paper in front of him and tried to locate his place, but he had to pause to mop his brow. It could not be healthy to work at St. James's in the middle of the summer, not with this infernal heat. The news-sheets were reporting cases of smallpox in London. The Court should have moved to Hampton Court by now, and as soon as this musical evening was over, it would. This consort truly was an ill-considered plan.

He was trying to find his place again when a knock at the door made him lift his head. A groom of the great chamber, one of his personal footmen, came in carrying a bandbox tied up with string.

This came for you, your Grace. Would you care to open it?

I cannot be bothered now! Do you not see that I am busy with these arrangements? Who would have sent me a hat in any case?

It's too heavy for a hat, your Grace, and it does not bear any card. Perhaps there is one inside. Shall I open it to see?

Yes, yes! Do as you like, but I must attend to these warrants. He gestured for the servant to set the box on the desk, then searched for the place where he had left off reading. Really! he thought, as he finished that page and set it aside to read the next. It was a wonder he got anything done with all these interruptions.

As the groom set down the box and turned it to face him, Newcastle rifled through his papers to read the plan for the meal to be served when the King and his guests landed at Chelsea. This, of course, would be provided by the Household below stairs and, therefore, was none of his concern. The Lord Steward would see to it, but if any of the dishes were not to his Majesty's satisfaction, it would not be the Lord Steward's fault. It would be unfair to blame either him or the clerk of the kitchen, when the King's meals were always prepared by the German cooks he had brought over from Hanover.

His papers were jostled by the bandbox, sliding across the desk.

Take care! he snapped. I have just got these pages in order and don't wish to have to go through them all again. I must get to Hampton Court to review the preparations for the celebration of his Majesty's succession.

Yes, your Grace, sorry, your Grace, but there seems to be something holding down the lid. When I gave the string a tug, the box slipped from my grasp.

Well, leave it if you must, but do not disturb my work. Displeased, he added sourly, I should think it a fairly simple task to open a bandbox.

Just a moment, your Grace. I believe I have it now.

A protest was forming on Newcastle's tongue, when grasping the box with one arm, the groom gave a forceful jerk.

A sound between the whoosh of a cannonball and a boom of thunder blasted through the room. Ears ringing, Newcastle leapt to his feet, coughing as the taste of gunpowder burned his throat. Flames hissed from a pile of ashes where the bandbox had stood. Through a haze of smoke, he saw a look of incredulity frozen on the groom's face, as, clutching the shredded lid to his chest, he fell backwards like a falling tree, crashed onto a chair and then to the floor.

After a moment of stunned silence, Sir John and Thomas Coke rushed forward to peer over the desk. Another groom of the great chamber ran to pat out the flames.

Too shocked to move, the Duke of Newcastle stared down at his footman's body. Even with the lid pressed against the man's chest, blood oozed onto the boards.

Footsteps pounded in the courtyard. Voices cried out in alarm.

The door burst open. Ushers and waiters, the men in Newcastle's charge, stared first at their master, then with horror down at the dying groom.

With his knees buckling beneath him, the Duke of Newcastle collapsed back onto his chair. The bandbox. Who had sent it? Had it not been addressed to him?

Slowly, through the fog clouding his brain, he realized that the box, and the infernal machine it had held, had been intended for him. He, the Lord Chamberlain, had been expected to open it.

Someone had just tried to kill him.

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Last updated: 1 September 2020
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