The rain beat on the panes of Windsor Castle with merciless regularity. It had been the same all day. Victoria had been unable to go riding or even take the air in the gardens. Instead, she had been closeted indoors with her ladies while they discussed court gossip. Victoria’s mind, however, was elsewhere.
‘I wonder how the chatter in Westminster is today? Do you suppose the vote will go the Government’s way tonight?’ asked the Queen suddenly.
Emma looked up slowly. Lady Portman was fully aware where the Queen was steering the conversation. She indulged Her Majesty. ‘I should imagine so, Ma’am. It is not a contentious bill … according to Lord Melbourne.’
‘No, he said as much to me, yet I wonder why he feels the need to attend if the vote is straightforward?’
Emma attended to her embroidery but continued carefully, ‘He knows the merits of being seen at such times. It instils confidence within the party.’
‘He has been most involved with it for days now. I have barely seen him.’ The Queen had the familiar edge of petulance she developed whenever her Prime Minister had been absent for more than a day.
Emma glanced at the Duchess of Sutherland.
‘He is a busy man, Ma’am,’ said Harriet.
‘Too busy to see his Queen?’
‘Parliament is a tiresome business, Ma’am … and he must then be allowed his own time too.’
‘Must he? I suppose so. But he could always spend it in my company. I would hope that I could provide conversation away from the strains of Parliament.’
The two women exchanged further glances. ‘I’m sure you do, Ma’am … But he is a man, you must recall,’ said Emma.
Victoria asked directly, ‘And by that you mean?’
‘Men will always have … other needs and ways to seek comfort at the end of difficult days.’
Victoria frowned. ‘Are you speaking of …?’
Emma cocked an eyebrow. ‘Diversions, Ma’am, that is all.’
There was silence for a time. Victoria prodded at her embroidery, stabbing the needle through with near ferocity. A clock chimed the half hour.
‘Are you implying he has a … a mistress?’ she blurted out suddenly, unable to stop herself.
Emma sucked in a breath, aware of how perilously the conversation hung. ‘None that I know of currently, if you must ask, Ma’am.’
‘But women have … visited him?’
‘Ma’am … there are things best left unasked.’
‘But I am asking nonetheless.’
Emma sighed a little but looked the Queen in the eye and stated openly, ‘You cannot expect Lord Melbourne not to live a full life … especially after the death of his wife. There have been women, certainly. You have heard of Mrs Norton?’
‘That author woman? Her husband was beastly to Lord M was he not? Dragging him into a court case?’
‘Her husband felt aggrieved … And not without reason … some say.’
‘You believe Lord Melbourne did have an … affair … with her?’ Victoria’s eyes were wide and she could barely bring herself to say the word.
Emma looked at the young Queen. Perhaps she needed to hear the truth of the world. ‘I know he did, Ma’am. At times, I was party to it from both sides.’
For a time it looked as if Victoria would cry, but then, with a sudden straightening of her back, she reapplied herself to her sewing. ‘Well, it is over now, is it not?’
‘Yes, Ma’am, most certainly.’
Victoria swallowed hard but then said with remarkable straightness, ‘Lord M is not a monk, after all. And, like you said, we all have needs, do we not?’
Her two ladies-in-waiting looked at each other again, surprised at their monarch’s equanimity on the subject, but then, they knew all too well that there was nothing Melbourne could do wrong in the Queen’s eyes. Another silence fell, but the ghost of the conversation still hung about them, needing something further to exorcise it.
‘Some people’s needs are more extraordinary than others,’ said Harriet, her breath catching as she dared. Emma darted her a sharp look but Victoria was already alert.
‘More extraordinary? Whatever do you mean?’
Harriet had said it and was now compelled by that inescapable urge to follow through once the tip of a secret is revealed. Emma kept her eyes down, but did nothing to prevent what was unravelling.
Harriet continued. ‘Lord Melbourne, they say, has rather … exotic tastes.’
Victoria froze, her embroidery held fast in her small fingers which were turning white as they gripped it. ‘Exotic? How do you mean … exotic?’
‘Apparently …’ The Duchess leaned in, her eyes bright with the lure of sensation.
‘Harriet!’ warned Emma, but her own breath was coming fast and she too had a burning desire to see how this would unfold.
‘Apparently … he likes to …’ Harriet blushed and dropped her head.
‘What? What? What does he like to do?’ The Queen’s voice was by now almost a shriek.
‘Harriet!’ Emma tried half-heartedly again.
‘You must tell me! I command you!’
Harriet’s voice was so quiet it was barely audible but Victoria heard it all too clearly. ‘He likes to … to spank his women … to thrash them.’
Victoria forgot to breathe even though her mouth hung open like a cod fish. ‘Sp … spank?’
‘But … is that even … possible?’
Harriet let out a little giggle. ‘Oh yes. Some gentlemen indulge in all manner of … diversions.’
Victoria’s brows worked frantically, moving her face through a gamut of emotion from horror, curiosity, wonder and confusion. ‘But have the women been sinful? Do they deserve such chastisement?’
‘I do not know. That is between them and Lord Melbourne.’
‘But … does he …? How …? Through …? What … How does he …?’
Harriet put up a hand to stifle her laughter. ‘Are you asking me how he does it?’
The Queen gave a series of sharp nods.
‘Well, their backsides are quite bare at the time, if that is what you mean.’ Her laughter bubbled out from behind her hand.
Victoria at last lost the grip on her embroidery and threw it violently to the floor. ‘I do not believe it! I will not!’
‘No, Ma’am, quite right,’ interjected Emma suddenly, standing up. ‘You are not obliged to believe it at all. Lord Melbourne remains a gentleman who serves you most well both as your Prime Minister and your Private Secretary, and that is all that shall be said on the matter. Look, the rain has stopped. Let us all take a turn outside. I’m finding it has grown insufferably airless in here.’
Victoria was indeed struggling to breathe, but not because of the quality of the air in her drawing room; she had quite forgotten herself. Her mood did not improve for the remainder of the day nor the night that followed it.
Her Prime Minister was due to meet with her first thing in the morning.