Authors: Jean Plaidy
James’s visits to Scotland Yard were growing more and more frequent. He was deeply involved with Margaret and now that her husband had, as he said, overcome his folly and accepted this truly natural state of affairs, there was no need for them even to be discreet. Lady Denham was the Duke’s mistress and that was an end of the matter.
But one day when he made his way to the Denhams’ residence he was met by one of Sir John’s servants who attempted to bar his way.
James was astounded; then it occurred to him that the fellow did not recognize him.
But he did, for he stammered: “Your Grace … you should not go up there …”
Should not mount the stairs to his mistress’s room when she was expecting him, when he had been there a hundred times!
“Stand aside, fellow,” he began; then he noticed that the servant was trembling and trying to tell him something.
“Your Grace … a terrible tragedy …”
“Your Grace … Lady Denham is … dead.”
“Dead! It’s not possible. I saw her yesterday. How can it be?”
“They say, Your Grace, that it was chocolate. A poisoned cup of chocolate.”
The Duke pushed the man aside. He ran to his mistress’s room and throwing open the door stood aghast, staring at the bed.
Several people, who were in the room, stood aside as he slowly advanced and stood looking down at his murdered mistress.
The great topic
of conversation at Court and in the streets was the Denham affair. Rumor ran wild. Sir John Denham had poisoned his wife because she was unfaithful to him with the Duke of York. The Countess of Rochester, another of the Duke’s mistresses, had poisoned her because of jealousy on account of the Duke of York. No matter what the rumor, the name of the Duke of York was always mentioned and because of this there was greater interest in the affair than there would otherwise have been.
A few puritans condemned the Duke of York and the manners of the Court, but those who were in favor of the new freedom—and these were the majority—turned suddenly against Sir John Denham, who had married a young woman and murdered her, her only sin being that she was in the fashion.
As a result, crowds gathered outside Sir John’s house brandishing sticks and knifes.
“Come out, John Denham,” they chanted. “Let’s see how you like the same medicine that you gave to your wife.”
When Sir John’s life was in danger as if by magic all signs of his madness disappeared. He had the rumor circulated that if he lived long enough he would give his wife a magnificent funeral at St. Margaret’s Westminster at which burned wine would be distributed to all who cared to partake of it.
Public feeling toward Sir John immediately changed. He now became a generous man, a wronged husband. The Duke of York was the real villain of the story—he and Sir John’s slut of a wife. Those who had previously waved threatening weapons, now drank his burned wine and commiserated with him. But there had to be a culprit, for someone, the crowd was certain, had put poison into Lady Denham’s chocolate. There had been rumors of the Duchess’s jealousy, so what more natural than that a jealous woman should seek to rid herself of her rival? This was the best story so far. An erring husband; a jealous wife.
The people were eager to believe they had discovered the murderess. It should be the Duchess of York.
The elder Villiers
girls were whispering together, every now and then glancing at Mary who sat with her sister Anne trying to interest her in writing her name. Anne was smiling as Mary guided her hand. She did not greatly care for the task, but she loved to be with Mary and tried to do all she could to please her and their heads were close together as they bent over the table.
“There were such crowds,” whispered Elizabeth. “They were going to kill him. And they would have … if he had not promised them wine at the funeral.”
“It would have served him right,” put in Katherine.
“Oh no, it wouldn’t. It wasn’t his fault. He was just angry.”
“But if he poisoned her …”
“Don’t talk so loudly.” Significant glances were sent toward the Princesses at the table. Anne did not hear them; the tip of her tongue slightly protruded from the corner of her mouth showed that she was trying hard to do what was expected of her. Mary was listening intently, because she knew by the tone of Elizabeth’s voice that she was talking of something which was unpleasant and which in some obscure way, concerned her, Mary. “Our mother would punish you if she knew you talked of such matters … especially …” A quick look in the direction of the two at the table.
So it is before us, that she must not speak of this, thought Mary.
“If a wife takes a lover,” went on Elizabeth speaking very distinctly, “her husband has a right to poison her, even if …”
“But the people are angry that he poisoned her?”
“Don’t interrupt. Even if her lover was … someone in a high position.”
“But if …”
“Katherine! You know you must not speak of it …
Mary leaned over her sister so that Anne’s soft hair caressed her cheek. How happy she would be, she thought then, if there was no one in her nursery but her dear sister. They could have been happy together—perhaps Barbara might stay with them. Barbara was the Villiers girl she liked best, and was more gentle than the others.
“No, Anne,” she said, “that is not good. Just look at that second ‘n’.”
Anne put her head on one side and smiled adoringly at her sister.
“You do it, Mary. You do it so beautifully.”
Mary wrote “Anne” firmly in the script of which she was rather proud.
“It’s a much nicer name when you write it,” commented Anne, snuggling close to her sister. “I don’t think I should learn to write it when you do it so well.”
“Oh, Anne, you
The Villiers girls were still whispering together; but Mary wanted to go on laughing with Anne; she wanted to shut her ears for fear she heard so much of what they were saying that she understood. She was sure it was unpleasant.
The Duchess of
York was a proud woman. The passion which had inspired the Duke to shut his eyes to all obstacles when he married her, had perhaps made her expect too much from their marriage. She had certainly gained a great deal for, as wife to the heir presumptive, she was a powerful woman and as it was said that she led the Duke by the nose in all things but his codpiece, her significance was accepted by all.
But her pride was deeply wounded by his constant love affairs. She was a fool to expect fidelity perhaps; but he might have used a little discretion. Of all his mistresses there was one who stood most firmly in his affections; and it was this very firmness which infuriated Anne. Arabella Churchill was a woman to be reckoned with. She was ambitious, Anne was sure; and the fact that she was no real beauty, made her all the more to be feared.
Lady Southesk, Anne had forgiven him. The woman had, as Anne had remarked cuttingly to her husband, “passed through the hands of so many gentlemen that she must be slightly soiled by now.” Anne would not demean herself by showing jealousy of such a creature whose powers to amuse must surely be short-lived.
Frances Jennings had succeeded in giving Anne a few anxious moments when the slut deliberately dropped the Duke’s love letters to her at the feet of the Duchess. There was Elizabeth Hamilton and of course Margaret Denham who had come to an end which was unfortunate for her; but none of these worried the Duchess as the Churchill woman did. She was ambitious that one; already she had induced James to look after her family. George Churchill had been found a place in the navy and John in the army.
She might rail against James; he would listen patiently, perhaps promise to mend his ways; but of course he had no intention of keeping that promise for more than a few hours.
If she had the time and inclination for such an adventure she would take a lover. She almost had a few years ago. Henry Sidney was one of the most handsome men in the Court; he had been Groom of the Bedchamber and when he had become her Master of Horse Anne had been thrown constantly into his company. How wounded she had been at that time, knowing that her husband was turning more and more to his mistresses and understanding that she would never be able to divert his attention from them! It had been more difficult in those days to accept humiliation.
And how furious James had been when he suspected Sidney of being her lover! How he had ranted and raged—which was so unlike him. His jealousy had been gratifying but he refused to agree that what was acceptable in a husband should be in a wife; and Sidney’s handsome face had not appeared at Court for a long time. The plague had followed quickly on that affair, but Anne was sure that Henry Sidney remained in the Duke’s mind, as memorable a disaster as the great sickness.
She was thinking of this as she sat alone in her bedchamber, asking herself whether the recent Denham tragedy would make James a little more careful in his choice of mistresses when she noticed a paper which had evidently been thrust under her door.
Going to it and, bending carefully as she must on account of her weight, she picked it up, and taking it to the window read it. As she did so the color came into her white flabby face. It was a verse … a lampoon directed against her, telling of her jealousy, of the Duke’s preference for another woman which had caused her to have a dose of poison put into that woman’s chocolate.
This was too much. To endure his infidelities was one thing. To be accused of poisoning his mistresses was another. If it had been Arabella Churchill there might have been some reason in it. But to dare to accuse her of murdering the insignificant Margaret Denham was beyond endurance.
Grasping the paper in her hand she went along to her husband’s apartment. Mary was with him, but she scarcely saw the child.
“Look at this,” she said, thrusting the paper into his hands.
James read it; and before he spoke he caressed his daughter’s head.
“Go now, my dear,” he said, giving her a little push toward an ante chamber.
When Mary had disappeared Anne said: “This is more than I will endure.”
James lifted his shoulders. “There are always these lampoons.”
“They would not be if your conduct did not give the writers what they are looking for.”
“They would always find something.”
“I suspect Rochester to be the author of this.”
“That man! I would my brother would dismiss him from the Court.”