THE WHIPPING BOY…Part 1

Young Tom reckoned he had it made.

Reclining his long frame in the chair he wriggled his toes luxuriantly in his footrags in front of the scullery fire. Outside he could hear the tramp of booted feet as the soldiers drilled in the yard, their manual-of-arms regulated by shouted instructions and the steady throb of the drum. Inside the maze of galleries and corridors came the distant clink of crockery, chests slamming shut and what sounded like a maid beating coal dust off the upholstery. Whitehall Palace resembled a town in is own right; eighteen hundred people lived and worked within its environs – a population far greater than that of the village where he had been born. And Tom remembered the sense of bemusement and [ride he felt when the Lord Chamberlain and his retinue arrived at their humble dwelling, his mother and father stood bare-headed as the bluff gentleman examined him carefully.

“A most uncanny likeness, my lord,” opined the captain in charge of the escorting cavalry troopers.

“Quite. You ‒ ” the Lord Chamberlain beckoned Tom’s father to step forward through the thinly swirling blue wood smoke and the scurrying hens. “We will engage the boy. He will receive his board and lodging and you will be blessed by the honour of knowing your family serves our Majesty.”

His poor father had thrown himself into the mud and pig muck with gratitude.

So here he was: paid companion to Prince Charles – one day to be King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland. Tom’s duties were hardly onerous since they involved accompanying the prince on hunting and fishing trips, playing stoolball, the new game of ‘football’ and laughing at his jokes. The prince was tall, dark and rangy in build, quick to find the merriment in a situation and he liked girls so he and Tom hit it off. The latter pondered his extraordinary god fortune – and how differently things could have worked out in a village life distinguished only by the monotony of the seasons and back-breaking drudgery. And now here he was in London – Londonthat mystical City of the Plain – receiving bouge of court (bread, ale, firewood and candles) and a well-paid job.

Taking another swig from his mug of small beer, Tom idly turned the page of the risqué novel he was reading. True there were vague rumours of trouble beyond the palace walls; brawling at the country shows, wakes and stage-plays (when weren’t the drunks fighting at such things?) but the king still sat secure on his throne and all remained well with the world.

The tapping of shoes rather more dainty than those of the soldiers took him by surprise therefore and he struggled to right the chair without falling off it as a young woman entered the scullery. Being tall she had to stoop slightly to pass through the arched doorway. From the light that slanted in through the leaded windows he saw she had a pale, oval face, a longish, fine-boned nose and a complexion as smooth as that of a milkmaid. She sported her auburn hair in ringlets in emulation of the Queen, Henrietta Maria and the curls cascaded as far as her softly rounded jaw. As befitting an aristocratic woman she wore the customary ribbon-fastened jacket over a bodice and a petticoat gathered with pleats at her slim waist. In the crook of one arm she carried a calico package also tied with a ribbon.

“Ah, Master Tom. Hard at it, I see?” She waved an elegantly-manicured hand. “No, don’t get up. We shouldn’t want you overtaxing yourself.” The ruby lips favoured him with a mocking smile.

Tom almost choked on his beer when he recognised her: Mistress Gwendolyn; Lady of the Wardrobe and ex-officio, close to the Queen and therefore very powerful at court. His mind raced as he tried to marshal his thoughts.

“How may I serve you, My Lady?” Tom asked, whipping his cap off his head and twisting it between suddenly damp fingers.

Standing over the seated figure Mistress Gwendolyn appraised him carefully with her frank, almost jet-black eyes. The resemblance to the Prince is extraordinary, she thought, although this one is a few years older so he is rather a young man than a boy … She smiled again over her naturally white teeth. “It’s not me you shall be serving but the Prince. Your – ” this time the expression twisted in a smirk “ Royal playmate.”

“Does His Highness wish me to attend upon him?” Tom asked, abruptly anxious to be away from his beautiful but disturbingly sinister woman.

“No.” Mistress Gwendolyn set the package down on the tabletop and he heard the rattle of wooden objects. “But I do.” Those large glassy black orbs fastened onto him.

UP!”

……………..To be continued