1634: THE BALTIC WAR — snippet 50

 

1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 50:

 

 

Chapter 17

 

Whitehall Palace

 

London, England

 

 

            “Three more!” shouted King Charles, holding up the middle three fingers of his left hand. With his right, he pointed accusingly in the direction of the palace’s servant quarters. “A cook and two cleaning women. That’s quite enough! The city has become a pesthole. The queen and I depart for Oxford on the morrow.”

 

            Sitting in his chair, the king lowered his head, gazing up at the Earl of Strafford in the way that a stubborn child will make clear to his parent that he is most displeased. The royal expression combined sullenness, petulance, anger and resentment—and was about as unregal as anything Thomas Wentworth could imagine.

 

            He took a breath, but before he could speak Charles snapped: “That is all, I say! There will be no further discussion on this matter. Simply see to the arrangements. I want a full escort out of the city, mind. London has become as infested with unruly apprentices as it has with vermin and disease.”

 

            Thomas bowed his head, bowing to the inevitable at the same time, and left the royal chamber. Outside, in the corridor, he took several deep breaths. Partly to control his anger; partly to give himself time to decide what steps he might still be able to take to alleviate some of the political damage that would be caused by the king leaving the capital for Oxford.

 

            He considered, for a moment, simply biding his time and approaching the king with a proposal to reconsider later that day, or in the evening. That had worked twice before, after all.

 

            Almost instantly, he discarded the notion. On the two previous occasions, the king hadn’t been as set in his course. And, what was more important, his wife hadn’t been involved. But Thomas has already learned from one of his assistants that Queen Henrietta Maria had been in hysterics this morning, after she heard about the latest outbreak of disease in the palace. With the queen in that state of mind, there was simply no chance any longer of persuading Charles to remain in the capital. The king doted on his wife. It was a personal characteristic that Thomas might have respected and even found attractive, had the king’s doting not been so excessive and the wife herself such a blithering fool.

 

            The fact that disease continued to crop up in a huge palace in the middle of winter, especially in the cramped servants’ quarters, was a given. Thomas’ assistant had told him that none of the cases involved plague. They were simply the sort of illnesses that were inevitable under the circumstances, and posed no real danger to the king and queen, living where they did elsewhere in the palace—in conditions that were anything but cramped.

 

            For that matter, they weren’t even inevitable—if the king has been willing to either move to the Tower or allow Thomas to bring the American nurse Rita Simpson into Whitehall to oversee the reorganization of the sanitary and medical practices in the royal residence. But the king has refused, to the second proposal even more vehemently than the first. As the months had passed, Charles had developed a detestation and fear of the captive Americans that was simply not rational. Even for him, it was not rational.

 

            Thomas wasn’t certain yet, but he was coming to the conclusion that a cabal against him had formed among the queen’s courtiers. More precisely, a competent cabal. Even more than disease in winter, it was a certainty that a cabal would be formed against the most powerful minister in the government, by one or another of the cliques that made up the not-so-small horde of courtiers who infested the palace even worse than vermin did. The queen, with her love of flattery and lack of common sense, provided them with a natural center. And the long nights and slow months of winter provided them with the time and idleness to engage in their schemes and plots.

 

            A given, in short, and not something Thomas was normally given to fretting about overmuch. Every powerful minister in English history had faced the same, after all.

 

            But, lately, some new faces had been showing up at the queen’s masques. Men of real substance, like Sir Francis Windebank and Sir Paul Pindar, Endymion Porter, or noblemen such as the Earl of Rutland, Francis Manners. The most dangerous of them was probably Richard Boyle, the Earl of Cork. He was one of kingdom’s richest men, very astute, given to malevolence, and as ambitious as anyone Wentworth had ever met.

 

            Thomas began pacing slowly down the hall, his hands clasped behind his back. He’d been incautious, he realized. The severe and unprecedented measures he’d taken to secure the king’s rule and forestall any possibility of the English revolution that the up-timers’ books depicted had enraged much of the populace and the merchants classes. Especially those inclined toward Puritanism, of course.

 

            So much, he’d expected and planned for. What he hadn’t considered was that the same measures would stir up the ambitions of men who were inclined to support them. In a sense, by breaking the rules under which England had managed its affairs for so long, Thomas himself had inspired others to do the same. If he could do it, why couldn’t they? The fact that his own motives, allowing for a reasonable amount of personal ambition, had been primarily political, was neither here nor there. Men like the Earl of Cork wouldn’t care. Such men were simply too self-centered to see any distinction at all between what they wanted and what the nation needed.

 

            So be it. Thomas Wentworth was no mean practitioner of the factionalist’s art himself. He was confident enough that he could out-maneuver his rivals. Their great advantage was equally their disadvantage. Seeing—correctly—in the queen, the softest target in the court, they set their aim there. It was not hard to gain her confidence and support, after all, if you were prepared to ladle flattery and fawning with neither shame nor restraint. But once it was gained, the confidence always proved to be as soft as the target itself. Henrietta Maria was a superb complainer, whiner, critic and nay-sayer. But Thomas had never once seen her throw her influence with the king behind a project or person for any motive beyond petty and usually personal ones. She was simply not cut from the same cloth as Marie de Medici, the French king’s mother who had been an incorrigible meddler in political affairs for years, and was still continuing her intrigues from her exile in Brussels.

 

             Whitehall was possibly the largest palace in the world—certainly in Europe—and it was more in the nature of a small town with buildings all jammed together than a palace as such. All told, it had more than a thousand rooms and a multitude of corridors. So, long before Thomas reached the quarters he’d set aside for himself, he’d settled his nerves over the king’s foolish decision. There was nothing for it except to make sure the foolishness went smoothly.

 

            Encountering two guards at a corridor intersection, both of them in the colors of the mercenary company he’d decided to use for the purpose, he instructed one of them to find Captain Leebrick and have him report to the earl’s quarters. Anthony Leebrick was one of the steadiest of the mercenary captains, with a well-trained company and good lieutenants. He also had a phlegmatic personality, which he’d need dealing with Charles and Henrietta Maria in the course of a long journey to Oxford in midwinter. Their complaints would be incessant, especially the queen’s.

About Eric Flint

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