He slumped on his back, his hands clasped behind his head, gaze fixed on the low plastered ceiling. The brazier flickered red ashes, but the coals had crumbled and the room was reeking with a damp chill.
The bedchamber was small, and having been accustomed to space, windows which looked out across massive swathes of lush green and a hundred trees on the horizon, now John felt a sense of discomfort and suffocation.
John Wilmot, now the second Earl of Rochester, had once been a boy of emotional excess. Since his mother had followed the country’s obligatory puritanism, his upbringing had been strictly unemotional, and his yearnings had been secret, locked away tight and dark in the back of his head, and the pounding heartbeat of his unspoken excitement. But he knew his father’s story, and how that wild and heroic gentleman had been awarded an earldom for helping to rescue the king’s son when that king himself faced death.
The adoration for this glorious paternal example had faded into bitter disappointment, even misery, when the child who dreamed of his father, discovered that his father not only did not dream of his son, but had no wish whatsoever to meet him. Indeed, appalled by the thought of a rigid puritan wife and a needy little boy, the first earl had bolted.
So no father. Instead young John Wilmot, easily passing any examination thrown at him, and devouring all literary delights offered, sailed off on every young gentleman’s great adventure, the Grand Tour across the Narrow Sea to Europe and the proverbial licence those countries offered. Accompanied by his tutor, John learned a considerable amount concerning’s subjects not taught in schools. Exams were not set, but had they been, he would certainly have passed them all even more easily than he had floated through university.
But once home, every man’s curse: Love, had spoiled the joy of freedom.
John watched the shadows creep in over the walls of his cell, and he closed his eyes. The four poster bed and its elaborate tester kept the spiders and rat droppings away from his sheets, his pillows, and his face. But it did not keep away the dreams.
A king was back on the throne. Charles II, the young man John’s father had once helped escape the country and its civil war, had been welcomed by a clamouring and cheering population which had utterly tired of puritanism’s restrictions. Music returned to the church, the glory of stained glass windows and magnificent religious paintings, dancing at court, choirs and feasts, the temptations of alcohol and the joys of love-making. Once again the church returned to protestant tolerance, accepting licentious freedom but keeping its hatred and fear of Catholicism.
But it was not the new king’s wide smile that floated in John Wilmot’s dreams. It was Elizabeth Malet.
She was beautiful, but he had seen prettier. She was intelligent, but he’d met others just as clever. It was something else he had fallen in love with. It was what made her smile, and what made her laugh. It was how she moved, turned, and lifted her fan. It was her wit, the way she answered his shy introductions, the twist of her tiny ankle, her blush when complimented, and the flutter of her gaze before she quickly turned away. He had touched her hand as she removed one glove, and her skin had been so soft and so warm, it had made him tingle from his eyebrows to his toes. He had thought about nothing else for a month. Finally he had made an appointment with her guardians, and requested permission to court her. The immediate response had been so rude and so brusque, that he had left abruptly while swallowing back his raging disappointment.
But it had not been a great surprise. He was no catch. Indeed, he was barely eligible. The title was not an ancient one, and carried virtually no land nor property with it. Certainly there was no family wealth and he remained impoverished. Elizabeth Malet was an heiress and a hundred times more eligible than himself.
However, well aware that the lady had directly denied the approaches and requests for marriage from many far more eligible gentlemen, John had, of course, continued to approach her. He saw her often at court, at the balls and fetes, small private card parties and court affairs. He told her what he felt, and she laughed at him, telling him that no doubt he adored the chase. The catch would no doubt cool his ardour. He denied such shallow and fallible emotions.
“Well then, my lord,” she had answered. “Prove yourself and your emotions.”
“As you know, my delightful and desirable Lady Elizabeth, your guardians, without exception, consider me a gold-digging and insignificant pawn. They have denied me.”
“And you’re so timid, you accept this?” she had teased him. “No ardent gallop to Gretna Green, then? No proof of your feelings, nor courage in the proving?”
Her challenge had been clear enough.
He remembered her words. They flitted through his head like the small black rats in the gutters.
So, naturally, he had obeyed what he took as her command. He had arranged the coach and the horses, an expense he could barely afford. He had also arranged two female chaperones to keep her company and save her reputation. And he had abducted the woman he loved.
Yet he had only proved himself a fool after all. He had been discovered, stopped, and arrested while dearest Elizabeth had been returned immediately to her furious guardians, and been forced to deny her own involvement.
“Off to the Tower,” the king had roared.
And here he was.
Seventeen years of age, tall, handsome and highly intelligent – well, he was not such a fool that he did not know who and what he was – he now considered all future hopes of happiness gone. Lying in the Tower cell, he began to ponder the alternatives and decided that since death was no worse a threat than a loveless future, he might as well go to war, The Dutch wars were declared and not yet won. John saw no obstacle remaining.
Yet there were many different ways to die. A terrible curse was sweeping the country, the king had upended his court and fled to the country. Two of the guards at the Tower had caught this black plague and had died within the week. John had heard the second. The massive stone walls of the tower, many inches thick and then plastered, painted, and hung with tapestries, had not been strong enough to keep out the terrible suffering of the dying man outside. He had fallen with a thud like a stag shot during the hunt, and his poor head had crashed against the door. Lying there, he had coughed and choked, probably on his own blood. The curse of the plague had been growing even before his arrest and John knew the horror of it. Only the French Disease, which infected harlots and then their customers, could be equal. But John thought that nothing could match the ravages of the plague.
It ate the body it inhabited from the inside out, turning heart, bowels and liver to bloody pus. Men, women and children died in days, blood oozing from their noses, eyes and mouths. A rash of boils and rotting flesh covered the body.
John turned his head to the pillow and forced his mind to think of other things. Truly the Tower cell was no cell, but a comfortable, although cramped pair of rooms where his servants could help dress him, bring him heated water and towels for washing, and supply him with food and wine, which he naturally paid for. But he was not free, and that was the king’s command. He wished desperately to be free once more, to follow his own intentions and speak as he wished. So he wrote to the king.
Not yet knowing the king as well as he might, John wrote with words of extreme flattery, begging for permission to leave the imprisonment and join the ships now preparing to sail off to the Dutch wars. He could not declare that his improper actions in abducting the woman he loved were actually committed at the lady’s own instigation, but he hoped that the king would have enough understanding to guess.
Something tumbled from above onto the top of his tester, the tessellated velvet over his head which was attached to the top of all four posts. John wondered what had fallen. Too heavy for a spider, a dead mouse perhaps, or falling chunks of plaster. The Tower was old. Anything might fall. The Tower’s great royal apartments had recently been redecorated, but the tiny rooms used for the incarceration of titled gentlemen had never been thought worthy of more than a cursory flick of the broom and duster.
And so John returned to his scribing. A letter to the king must be properly addressed and signed with humble appreciation. But John knew exactly what to do. One day, he thought, he would write of other things. Love and play-acting on stage, matters of wit and laughter, beauty and contempt. His heart overflowed with poetry. He saw his future self, if not killed at sea, as a man of wit and pleasure, friend of the king and court, beloved by many women including his beautiful wife. He sew himself writing poetry and drama of many kinds, which would be performed on stage as he sat in the royal box with his majesty, clapping the talents of the cast. They had started permitting female actresses, and the parts of women were no longer being forcefully acted by boys and young men. Indeed, most of such actresses also worked in the local brothels, but since the king enjoyed such places, why could he not himself?
Yet for now, after almost three weeks in the Tower, with all his heart and soul John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, simply wanted to break free.
© Barbara Gaskell Denvil
about the author
I was born approximately two hundred years ago (It sometimes feels that way) in Gloucestershire, England, right in the heart of the Cotswolds. After a few years I moved to London and fell in love with the history which oozes through the old stones, and the medieval atmosphere leaks from the beautiful old buildings. For many years, I walked the old cobbled lanes and researched the 15th century from original sources, and the books in the British Museum. I worked there in the Department of Ancient Documents, a place which I adored, full of scrolls illuminated by medieval monks, and hordes of informative parchments.
Already a passionate reader half crazed by the avid consumption of literature, I had grown out of Enid Blyton when I was about six. Next came a passion for Georgette Heyer, although far too young to understand romance. Once again it was the historical details I loved and I moved quickly onto Shakespeare, Dorothy Dunnett, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and a host of others.
I started writing. Nonsense naturally! But I kept it up and eventually write articles and short stories for current magazines and newspapers. I was also a tutor for scriptwriting, and a reviewer for Books and Bookmen.
When my partner died I deciding to come to Australia for a change instead of sitting around in stagnant tears. Writing again, and seriously this time, I wrote full length books in all my favourite genres. I was accepted by one of the big top 5 publishers, and two of my historical crime/mysteries were published in the traditional manner. However, although I was reasonably well paid and sold reasonably well, I also found myself disliking the control system. I had to write as commanded, insert bucket loads more romance, accept covers I hated, and generally do as I was told.
Now, happy and free, I self-publish, and enjoy every minute of my writing. I live in Australia, adore the weather, the birds and the wildlife, and live a placid life during the day and a wonderfully exciting one in my dreams at night.
Writing is and always has been my passion, now that I am able to do this full time, I am in my element and life couldn’t be better (a little more sunshine might help though).
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