In a small bedroom at the rear of Buckingham Palace and overlooking the mews, Her Majesty Queen Victoria sat stony-faced in a simple oak chair at the side of her husband’s bed. The bed itself was far grander than the chair in which the Queen sat, and had been brought from Coburg by her husband, Albert the Prince Regent some years before. The bestiary carved deep into each post was black with years of polish and Victoria found herself often caught in a staring contest with a griffin or a centaur, willing, almost daring one to move. The ferocity of the creatures jarred with the fine Jacobean embroidery that danced in tendrils of green and red across the linen, and with the softness of the faded blue silk that covered the walls of the bedroom. The installation of the great lump of a bed had been just one in a long line of concessions made to appease her once-beloved Albert. Concessions made to distract as much as soothe, a Royal sleight-of-hand by Victoria to keep Albert away from the family business and allow her to get on with building the Empire. Of course, with Albert’s imminent death Her Majesty would no longer have to make such concessions.
Behind Victoria’s chair stood Sir James Clarke, MD, long-trusted court physician. Sir James was a man who of late had been unable to hide his advancement in years. At 73 his bows were not as deep as they had once been, his eyes not as keen, and he had developed a tremor in his hand—a most undesirable state for one’s physician to have. Victoria heard the gentle click of Sir James’ pocket watch as he opened the cover to glance at its face for the third time in as many minutes. Undoubtedly the Doctor would have preferred to be sat in the warmth of the apartment he shared with his wife. But Sir James knew his duty was at the side of Her Majesty attending to the Prince Regent in his final hours.
To the Queen’s mind it was a minor detail that the Prince Regent wasn’t there to be attended to, and that the monstrous, carved bed at which they both waited was in fact, empty. The Prince Regent was at that moment 600 miles away in the comfortable surrounds of Schloss Hohenstein, Coburg, no doubt enjoying a cigar on the balcony of his private suite. This was a small detail and a matter that would soon be rectified. In the meantime, as far as the Queen was concerned, one must put on the proper show for the servants.
“What is the time, Sir James?” Victoria cast her eyes down to an untidy thread at the lace cuff of her sleeve.
“It is half past ten, Ma’am.”
Victoria sighed deeply and her shoulders sagged. She longed to be at her desk where she could pour over her maps and plot her next move. She glanced toward the dark window. The ripples in the old glass reflected a distorted image of herself in which her features seemed to be melting and the surface of her skin bubbled with grotesque boils. Why Albert had wanted this room in particular with its scrubbed boards and single window overlooking the stables was beyond her. But it had put him far from her apartments at the other end of the Palace, and with distance his ardour and pursuit of her had waned and finally stopped altogether.
“Must His Royal Highness linger for such an extended period?” Victoria stifled a yawn.
“I apologise Ma’am, but the sickness must be allowed to run its course.
“And what is it?”
Victoria turned her gaze back to the loose thread at her cuff and began to wind it around her index finger. “The sickness, Sir James, what is it?”
“A consensus was reached on Typhoid Fever.”
“Is that one of the messy ones?”
“No, Your Majesty. The Prince Regent would be experiencing a fever, some raised and crimson legions, but no discharges. The illness is contained within the person.”
“A wise choice then. We are fond of this linen and should hate to have to see it burned.” Victoria gave the thread at her sleeve a sharp tug and it dutifully snapped. She dusted the broken thread from her finger and watched as if floated to the to the floor before settling her hands back into her lap.
There had of course been a time when Victoria had quite fancied Albert. When they had met that first time he had seemed intelligent, worldly, and there was a fire in his eyes that she secretly hoped would translate into other regions. And he had very fine legs. She was Queen and yet still a woman and so marriage had been something that even she could not avoid. It was simply what was expected. And if it gave her freedom and legitimacy then so be it.
Thank God there had been no children.
In the early days of their marriage ‘duty’ had been done often, and with gusto. It was only through some stroke of luck (or perhaps the carefully annotated calendar Victoria kept), that she had remained blessedly unburdened by children. Albert’s affections had gradually waned and he had turned his attentions to more cerebral pleasures. He had begun spending hours reading or in deep debate with courtiers. It had been another concession on her part to allow him some involvement in the drafting of the new Education Reform Bill believing that he would have some value to add. In reality she was willing to compromise on anything that would serve to distract him from the ever-present knowledge that he would never be considered her equal, nor be allowed to rule at her side as King.
In truth, the Bill had kept him so engrossed that for most of 1861 Victoria had seen precious little of her husband. It was only recently she realised it had been some time since she had seen him at all when preparations for Christmas had begun and it had come to her notice via the court circular that he had, in fact, been in Coburg since August.
When faced with the realisation that her husband was becoming too great and impediment to her plans, Queen Victoria had spent some time considering the options available to her. The Prince Regent didn’t shoot so an unfortunate hunting accident was out of the question. The days of public execution were over, and much as she would like to, one simply couldn’t lock people in the tower at will anymore. The Prince Regent’s interests meant that the greatest threat to his life was a nasty paper cut, or that a particularly heavy book might fall on his head. At the end of the day, while on English soil the private service arm of the Sky Chief Corps meant that any attempt at assassination was out of the question.
Victoria smiled at the thought of the Sky Chief Corps. The Empire would not rebuild itself, but with the Corps to enact her vision Britain would be truly Great once more.
It had taken all of her diplomatic skills, but in the end, an assurance that the proud military history of the British Isles would be the bedrock on which the Corp was built had helped ease the necessary Bill through Parliament. The people embraced the idea of a single unified military and administrative Corps, providing for the good of the country. Those few recalcitrant Honourable Members who had held out their votes in an attempt to stall the Bill had fallen like so many dominoes at the offer of Knighthoods and other lesser peerage. And those who hadn’t, well, London was a dangerous city after nightfall.
Sir James was clearing his throat, the man may have been speaking but Victoria had been lost in her ambitious dreams. “Your Majesty. I believe the crisis has arrived.”
The Queen stood immediately, almost toppling the chair back into Sir James in her eagerness to be free of the suffocatingly dull room and at last return to her work. “We are indebted to you for your service, Sir James. Please make the necessary arrangements.” Victoria swept towards the door, the volume of her skirts disturbed the layer of dust that covered the floor and sent motes of it dancing in the light of the candle.
“At once Ma’am. If I may…” Sir James had reached for the door before Victoria and placed his hand on the turned metal handle. From the breast pocket of his black physician’s coat he produced his handkerchief and offered it to the Queen. “A moderate display of grief will be expected.” He bowed as she took the square of linen from him and nodded her acceptance of his suggestion. Sir James opened the door and Victoria covered her mouth with the handkerchief and disappeared into the darkness beyond.
The answer to the problem of the Prince Regent had in the end been a simple one. He would have to be disposed of in absentia. And to prevent an awkward situation were he to return to England he would have to be disposed of a second and more final time, in Coburg. It was to this part of the plan that the Queen now turned her attention, and was glad to have the handkerchief to hide her smile as she swept past the downcast eyes of the household staff.