the Earl of Rutland's Daughter


THOSE who knew me best would say I was of a spirited frame of mind, even as a child, and for years I had looked out windows onto the ports demurely, quietly longing to set sail on one of those grand ships. One grey spring morning in 1625, I found that once private wish being fulfilled, but not quite in the way as I had always imagined.

I sailed out of the port of the Tower of London on board the Deliverance with sailors wearing black armbands and the colours flapping at half-mast. The morning had came overcast and cold, but happily not raining. A small comfort in most ways. The wind was freshening, gusting harshly, yet would be favorable at our sails. The sailors all looked up apprehensively, measuring the clouds and the wind's ferocity. But even a large squall would be nothing for our great galley. It was only a token warning of a storm brewing in the east; a storm that was soon to engulf my life.

My husband was a duke and a man of warfare. He was well versed in the political arenas and saw to much of England's foreign policies and military control. We were bound for France, to hear the plea of King Louis for peace. I sensed that this was not all, but I had not been told anything further. A venture of great importance, that was all my husband would say. I was not yet eighteen, and a woman, so I was neither asked nor consulted. They all assumed I was stupid. But I am far from it. I knew enough not to trust him, a lesson I had learned long ago. But this was different; I sensed his mistress's hand at work.

As I looked out at the grey sky, I felt in the air some powerful and unfamiliar feeling claw at me. It was neither friendly, nor daunting, but rather an unusual mix of both; a great change in the wind. And somehow I felt that there was a part of me that would never return to England. I didn't look back as others did, clinging to the last sight of some love left behind, or the tall Tower itself, threatening to cage me again. And I did not cling to my faith, praying that God would safely deliver us. My precious little love was far away and safe, my mother buried in the church, and my father playing amongst the other fools at court. I wondered if he watched our departure, as clumsy in his games as he had always been.

I hoped he was not there. I had only ever been a burden to him and didn't wish to dwell on his memory any more than need be. I just felt the icy wind on my face, it's blows whipping my hair about, tangling it, dampening from the wetness lingering in the air. And I felt that uneasy feeling grow inside of me.

We were well away from the harbor now and began our steep rise into the sky. The ground sank away beneath us, the once massive ships and buildings shrinking far bellow. The ship crept on slowly, rising as torchmen fueled its balloon with heat, the canvas straining against its bonds and netting, lifting us further toward the heavens like mortal angels returning home. There was nothing but emptiness to embrace us, emptiness and space. The pilot yelled directions, measuring the lift, and guiding the ship into the proper sailing position. France lay ahead of us, and there was nothing but the grace of god to stop our arrival now.

The thought, as we lifted into the air aboard our great galley, thrilled me in a way nothing before ever had.

Finally, we were of an appropriate height. The torchmen all doused their fires as the ship alined. Alice excused herself to go down below when the ground disappeared completely under the clouds, her skin gone unusually pale at the sight of our height. I asked Cora to see to her. She curtsied and scurried away, leaving me alone among the sailors on deck.

I had never know how much work needed to be done when a ship puts to sea, though I was mindful of it. But putting a ship to flight brought the deck to life. The sailors all set about their duties in a hurried fashion, working around me, and avoiding my eyes when they could. They left me alone out of respect for my good name, the prestige that dogged me like a haunting ghost. That was a good portion of it, but perhaps not all. Some were frightened of me, others simply leery or superstitious of my presence, and talk ran fast through the portside alehouses and inns. Perhaps they knew more than I did.

The order was called out to "make sail!" and the business around me intensified, the sailors working even harder. The sails fell and filled with the great gusting wind, and the ship heeled, keeling to the side before righting itself. The clouds swirled around us as the galley plunged through them with the wind eddying from the sails. The ship groaned eerily under me, protesting against the sway of its great weight. My hands gripped the rail tight, the knuckles white. As we began to steady a rain began to fall, blurring the space around us until nothing but the greyness engulfed us, threatening to steal our sight of land forever. All round the concepts of up and down disappeared, leaving only a vast emptiness behind, until I could neither see where we were going or from where we had come. The ship swayed against the wind with each gust. I was unused to a ship's motion in any light and, as she hefted in the wind, I staggered and nearly lost my balance when a strong hand caught my arm. I gaze up behind me into the dark eyes of my husband, George.

"Come, Catherine," he said, leading me away. "It's time you should go below. You are getting in the way of the men; they have enough to do without worrying over the possibility that you may fall overboard."

He escorted me below decks, giving a false smile and husbandly concern for the benefit of anyone who might have been watching. I understood the reason for his concern; if I'd have died much of his wealth and favor at court would diminish. Then not even the favor of the king could help him.

George delivered me safely into the hands of my maids, who immediately helped me out of my sodden dress and fussed over the sorry state of my dripping hair. Cora, whom dotted on me like a mother hen, believed that damp was at the root of almost all death. She brought me a small cup of broth to chase away the chill in my skin, but at the very smell of it my stomach suddenly sank, threatening to rebel against me.

"Please, Cora, take it away," I practically begged. Not even morning sickness had ever afflicted me so abruptly.

"You don't want to catch a chill, my lady,"she persisted.

My stomach gave a great lurch. I'd starve before I let myself be so undignified as to vomit when I could prevent it. I ordered the soup away.

Alice helped me into my bed, placing heated bricks around me. It was then that I noticed the cold tremble in my hands, my limbs, and then in my body. I was shivering. They took my clothes away to be replaced as I lay in my bed with the bricks tucked around my feet, fighting against sickness, and gazing out the windows. I felt miserable, yet as awful as it was I also felt that feeling again. Something was waiting for me where we were going, some great destiny.

Cora only laughed. "A destiny, my lady? I think you are more tired than you seemed." She was middle aged, yet pretty, made more so by her kind smile. In her youth she would have been quite a rare beauty. "Your destiny is to give the Duke a son. We'll give you time to rest for a while."

I lay in my bed for some time, thinking. Eventually I did get my sealegs about me, but I did not call for either Alice or Cora again. What Cora had said left me feeling weak and tired. I wanted nothing more than to just disappear into the sheets of my bed, never to resurface.

It is said that when one comes to a great crossroads in life we are often left to remember the past. And as I lay in my bed, gazing dejectedly out the windows, I did find myself remembering my life thus far.

The Three Musketeers © Alexandre Dumas . The Three Musketeers (2011) © Summit Entertainment

The Duchess © andromeda-smile

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