If anyone in the world was alive to a sense of the whims of fortune, it was the young queen, Victoria. How else could she explain her rule? When she had studied her family tree in the schoolroom, many years ago now, her closeness to the throne had seemed the one remarkable thing. Shown only in blankness on that family tree, she only gradually came to realise the vast chasms of alternative possibilities that fate had bridged for her. All those uncles with no sons, not to mention those two most significant deaths. Which wasn’t to say that a man (or indeed a woman) could have no input in such things, because fortune needed one or two raw materials to work with. She considered, darkly, that she had given fate all it had needed to bring her to the intolerable situation she was now in.
“Have you seen this?” Victoria demanded. She addressed nobody and all her ladies at once. The ladies-of-the-bedchamber attempted desperately to avoid looking at the copy of Punch the queen fanned in front of them. At times such as this, the ladies generally took to the same strategy they would have employed if faced with a vicious animal in the wild. They put their heads down, attempted to shield themselves with whatever was to hand, and hoped against hope that if they stayed extremely still, the creature would cease its prowling and stalk off elsewhere. Only occasionally would a younger member break rank and attempt to face the problem head on.
Just as Victoria threw the paper to the floor, Lady Portman hesitantly said, “In a way, it’s rather flattering,” she paused, “I don’t mean that… That is to say, I-I…”
What she did mean remained a mystery. It seemed to her that the words withered inside her head in the heat of the queen’s silent fuming. Somehow, it was always the long silences that were worse than the raised voice. Lady Portman put her head down like her fellows.
“I’m going to Brocket Hall,” the queen announced.
The kiss had been the beginning. Perhaps, actually, the port wine had been the beginning. It was almost impossible to imagine the first coming before the second. Victoria did not like to admit to herself what had been in her head before the evening had even begun. She had been in the mood to flirt, that was all, and what was so wicked in that? And wine always made flirting more fun, and the dancing more exhilarating. In fact, it made dancing with her cousin George tolerable. That was reason enough to have another glassful. Then Lord M. had consented to dance, so another glass was absolutely necessary, for celebration’s sake. It hadn’t been too much. She had danced perfectly, light as air. All it had done was make her agile and charming and joyful. Four small glasses of port, she noted to herself, that was the optimum amount for enjoying oneself. She could look Lord M. right in the eye and see something more genuine than the ironic slight smile he habitually gave her. She knew he was as charmed by her as she was by herself. Yes, four (small) glassfuls. That was the best medicine known to man.
But then, of course, she had helped herself to punch when the bowl came in.
Victoria was on rather uneasy terms with the servants of Brocket Hall. When they had entered into the service of the Viscounts of Melbourne they had expected certain things. They had not expected that practically overnight they would become part of a royal household with the Queen of England as their mistress. As a result, there was sometimes an air of bitter confusion about one or another of them, so that Victoria could not help but notice they treated her differently to when she had merely been a frequent guest. The queen passed her shawl and gloves to a silent maid as she talked to Melbourne’s butler. She found him the most difficult of all.
“Lord Melbourne is in his study, ma’am,” the butler was saying, “If you would care to wait in the drawing room, I will let him know of your arrival.”
Victoria looked at him narrowly as she untied her bonnet. “I think I’ll go to him myself,” she said, “I thank you but I don’t believe I need to be announced to my own husband.”
The butler winced.
“My husband,” Victoria repeated markedly, “Will not mind the intrusion.”
The butler glanced discreetly at the queen’s left arm, which was pressed tightly to her side to hold her reticule and the copy of Punch.
“I’ve bought Lord M. something to read,” she said, “I thought it might amuse him.”
Lord Melbourne had become accustomed to Victoria’s unexpected visits a long time ago but there was no denying that their new nature was taking a great deal of getting used to. He believed that he and the young queen were in a kind of transitionary period. They were no longer a monarch and her minister but they were still establishing how to enact the great change. They were married, they were more to each other, but some days it was completely possible to believe that they had never gone ahead with that damned foolish thing. Some days, Melbourne almost thought, it would be a simple thing to go back to the old friendship and watch the whole nation forget that things had ever, for the briefest moment, been different.
The familiar rustle of muslin signalled Victoria’s entrance. Truly, she needed no announcement. Melbourne rose from his chair and looked down at his wife. After a pause, wherein they stood a few yards away from each other, wordless, Melbourne had the thought to hold out his hands to her. Tentatively she took them. She released them again almost immediately.
“Ridiculous!” she exclaimed, “It’s ridiculous!”
She had intended to be serious but the smirking look on Lord M.’s face had taken all the earnestness out of her. She looked away from him, swallowing an impulse to laugh. She could tell he was holding back too. Suddenly she recalled the purpose of her visit and held the copy of Punch out to him.
“Don’t say a word,” she said, “Or I swear I will laugh until I cry.”
“Can’t have that,” murmured Melbourne.
He took the paper from her but he did not make any move to read it. Victoria took a few beats to regain her composure but, when she was sure the moment had passed, she found that Lord M. was looking at her, as though he had only been looking at her all this time. Was he trying to make her uncomfortable? The infuriating man! How had she never noticed his habit of doing this before? He had never caused her any irritation in the past and yet, over the past week, she kept coming up against fault upon fault.
“Aren’t you going to read it?” she said hotly.
It was then that she noticed the exact same edition lying open on Melbourne’s desk.
It had been around one o’clock on the night of the ball when Lord Melbourne had found himself cornered.
No, that was unjust and ungentlemanly, not to mention absurd. He should be ashamed to use such a phrase, even if only to himself. A person of his years and stature did not get cornered by a five foot high girl.
It was he who had to take responsibility for what had happened. He had failed in many respects on that night and the days following. To think, he had considered himself almost respectable once. He doubted he would feel that way again.
He went over the conversation, such as it was, in his mind.
“Dance with me,” she had said.
“I would, happily, but I think, ma’am, it would be polite to save some of your dances for others. Can it be right to stand up together more than three times in a row?”
“I’ve no desire to dance with anyone else here.”
She said it conspiratorially, inviting him to respond in kind. He was usually so ready with a subtle, graceful deflection for Victoria’s moments of intensity. Somehow, on that night, she had been consistently catching him out, and taking every opportunity to make good on her advance. He should have taken a firmer stance earlier in the evening. Perhaps that was a flawed line of defence, however. He should have begun his strategizing far earlier - at their first meeting as Queen and Minister, perhaps. But how could he have known that it would be necessary? He had found her pretty and engaging back then, that was all. He had many very fine looking female friends and acquaintances who had never made him feel in the least danger. He might even have considered himself an avuncular figure, perhaps a replacement for her long departed father or the more recently deceased Uncle King. Only there would be something in the silence after one of her coquettish remarks, or a glance towards him at odd moments… Little things that he hadn’t cared to examine too closely because he couldn’t help but want to preserve the unnamed feeling between them.
“You have to understand that I had my fill of ballrooms a long time ago.”
“Yes, yes, and now your one desire is to retire to Brocket Hall, where you will sit by the fire and drink sherry as though you were somebody’s elderly maiden aunt…”
Melbourne smiled at that, despite himself, and Victoria pushed closer still.
“I don’t believe it at all,” she continued.
“When you reach my age…”
“Your age!” she exclaimed, “You act as though you were an old man!”
“And you, ma’am, you act as though I were some young buck.”
She nodded sharply. She was waiting, knowing that more would come if she could squeeze it out of him somehow.
“A young buck,” Melbourne said, utterly helpless, “Who – who had some sort of right.”
He stopped himself.
“What right?” said Victoria, even though she knew, “I’m the queen. I can give you any right you wish - within the laws of the kingdom.”
Melbourne smiled, wanly. He was silent. He knew, though, that silence had come too late.
“I would give you anything, willingly,” she said in that tone of voice which was entirely her own – firm as iron, unwavering, but at the same time gently musical.
He felt wavering finger tips brush the line of his jaw. Her breath was quick and deep. Her eyes, suddenly wide and clear. She was so close he could feel a shiver pass through her, as though it were his own, and he knew he could not help but close that hair’s breadth.
“The little woman!” Victoria fumed.
Melbourne wisely forbore to comment.
She flattened the pages out with the palms of her hands, stretching taut the domestic scene wherein she, as a roly-poly little housewife, was shown waiting on Lord Melbourne hand and foot. The artist had rendered the interior of Brocket Hall as a peasant fantasy, complete with copper pots and embroidery samplers on the wall. Melbourne appeared to be resting his booted feet on the Hanoverian family tree.
“Ma’am, it’s only a cartoon. It will be forgotten by the time the next issue is available.”
Victoria stamped a tiny foot. “Please! Will you desist with these ‘ma’ams’. I can’t stand it.”
“Of course, ma’am,” said Melbourne without thinking.
Melbourne dipped his head, his usual ironic smirk crossing his lips.
“I mean…” said Victoria, “William? For goodness’ sake, I can’t go on calling you ‘Lord’… You won’t even be a Viscount soon enough, if we can just establish what your title would be. There’s so little precedence for this sort of thing. It seems that every day I’m coming up against issues that haven’t been thought of since the times of Bloody Mary. I don’t want to name you king, you know.”
“You have told me once or twice.”
“It would sound like I’m handing you the crown.”
“As you’ve opined to me at length…”
“Now it seems Parliament are making a fuss over giving you the title of Prince Consort.”
“Peel has had one or two things to say on the subject.”
“They think I’m making a Whig monarchy!” Victoria laughed bitterly, “As if, maybe, my grand plan were to give birth to a litter of tiny Whiglets to send out and snatch away their parliamentary seats.”
“That is… quite a vivid picture, ma’am.”
They glanced at each other and, seeing the mirth in her new husband’s eyes, Victoria was almost pacified. Then she remembered all the words in the newspapers and magazines that had made her blood boil, that she had needed Lord M…. William, that is… to allow her to vent about. She jabbed a finger towards Punch.
“How can I be their queen when they think of me as your glorified scullery maid?”
“I think,” Melbourne paused to find the right words, “Your people haven’t a bad opinion of you. This low satire could probably even be turned to advantage. If you continue on as you have been doing, I know you’ll not fail to earn respect.”
“Leave it alone! Leave it alone!” Victoria cried, stamping her tiny foot, “That is your answer to everything. And I thought that was what the Tories were supposed to say!”
Melbourne couldn’t help laughing. It was comical, it simply was. For all the times she could be stately and dignified, or dry and withering, elegant and graceful, there would always be this semi-demonic tornado of a minuscule woman, ready to throw a tantrum. He loved that about her. It was bizarre, he knew that well enough, but he earnestly adored her. Even when she was being completely unreasonable. No, especially then. She was a first class fighter, full of unquenchable thirst for the fight. He had been proud to serve her as queen from the beginning. He was only starting to believe that he could truly serve her well as a husband.
“What are you doing?” Victoria said, her anger momentarily vying with confusion, “Why are you smiling? Why are you looking at me like that?”
For the first time since their marriage, Melbourne allowed himself to reach out and touch her without seeking her permission. She bristled like a cat but she did not move away.
“I was just thinking,” he told her, “You never used to get angry with me.”
He held her cheek in his cupped palm and she, with a sigh like reluctant surrender, allowed her head to nuzzle against the touch.
“I know. I know I’m difficult and, quite frankly, I can’t think what’s been wrong with me. I thought that being married would make me feel secure. All I wanted was for you to be always by my side, but what have I been doing except taking my frustrations out on you?”
He stopped her before she could apologise.
“No, I believe it’s a good start,” he said, “A new start. We should be new to each other. I feel... closer to you now. Far closer than I could have been as your adviser or your friend.”
“You are still both those things,” Victoria reminded him.
“Of course, ma’am.”
Extricating herself from his caressing hands, Victoria slid her arms around Melbourne’s waist. She was still hot with the exertions of her temper but now she was soothed enough to be able to think, as she frequently thought, that her new husband really did look most devilishly handsome. She took care to note it several times a week in her diary but the delightful thing of it was that sometimes it would still catch her off guard. There was no feeling quite like it. She would have to make sure she had a good deal of time to admire him later in the day but first there was official business to be dealt with.
“That reminds me… William. We still have a lot to discuss in regards to living arrangements.”