Thwack—sssss—CRACK! The ball shot through the iron hoop and rebounded off the pole. “Oh, well played, Your Majesty!” Catherine clapped her hands.
Charles turned and saluted her with his mallet. His page trotted up with the small hardwood ball; Charles took it, dropped it, and swung his mallet in an exuberant circle to send the ball hurtling back down the white crushed cockleshell pitch toward the other end, where a matching hoop hung far off the ground. All the gentlemen ran after it, coattails and long hair flying behind them.
Feliciana, Catherine’s spaniel, leaped from her lap and flung herself into the pack of Charles’s dogs, who ran yipping happily down the spectator’s side of the waist-high fence in parallel to the men. Gregory the fox gamboled with them, twice their size but just as unrestrained in his joy. Remembering the uproar occasioned by Rochester’s monkey at the ball, Catherine thought it a good thing that the young earl had banished the animal to his country estate. It was a funny creature—how she and Charles had laughed over it later! But it distressed the dogs.
The gentlemen in the distance tangled in a scrum, then broke apart and ran again. Wearing their usual velvets and silks in brilliant jewel tones, fluttering all over with ribbons, they looked, Catherine thought, like a flock of brightly colored birds.
She clasped her hands under her chin and smiled happily. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Lady Buckingham and Lady Suffolk exchange a smile, fleeting and all but secret. Catherine instantly schooled her face into a more demure and dignified neutrality.
But was she not allowed to display her pleasure, her innocent and honest joy in her husband’s prowess? She was still learning what seemed a Byzantine tangle of unspoken rules in this new world. Perhaps it was for her as queen to set the rules, but how could she, when she was still uncertain of the ground? And she knew—oh, how keenly she was aware—that she was in no position to set any fashions, for who would follow her? While the king showed her respect and came to her bed most every night, all imagined that she had his ear, and so all took care to be polite. That, still, was as far as it went.
But today she was happy, and would trust that all would be well. The afternoon sun shone on the golden leaves of St. James’s Park. It was still warm enough to sit picnicking with the lightest of wraps, in little upholstered chairs carried outside for the purpose. A soft breeze brought the heavenly fall scent of the last fading flowers, decaying leaves, and woodsmoke, amid the mingled perfumes of the court ladies about her.
She reached out and squeezed the Duchess of York’s hand as she sat beside her. She said in Spanish, “Sister, your husband plays well.”
Anne looked after James as he took his shot—and sent the ball whistling into the trees beyond the hoop. She laughed and said, “I hope he fires his cannon with more accuracy, else we’ll be in danger of falling to the Dutch next war.”
A troop of small boys went running after the errant ball, whooping and jostling to be the one to carry it back. The leafy park all around the pall-mall grounds was thronged with spectators—workers, merchants, gentlefolk, and apprentices—anyone who had a mind to watch the court at its play. Anne noticed Catherine’s glance and said, “Is it still strange to you? I know it is quite different at the court of Lisbon.”
“Oh, yes. I never once saw my father or mother among ordinary people. It is so much more formal there.”
“It was so here too, before. But I must say, I think it better now; the people love Charles for his easiness with them. And what a bore to be always on one’s perfect dignity, don’t you think?”
“Perhaps? In any case, I don’t suppose I could. I keep slipping up as it is, like a fool.”
Anne shook her head in mock sorrow. “And now I have a bitter choice: to contradict my sister and my queen, or agree with one who mocks her, even though it be herself.”
Catherine smiled. “Very well, but is it mockery if it is true?”
There was a rustling at Catherine’s elbow, and she turned her head to see her newest attendant, Lady Eleanor Plumstead. Beside her stood a servant with a large tray, and on it an array of gleaming silver cups.
Lady Eleanor offered, “Would it please Your Majesty to drink a mulberry syllabub?”
Catherine accepted a cup and sipped. Cool, thick, and creamy, both sweet and tart. Carefully practicing her English, she said, “Much good, I thank you. But I do not know this . . . mul-bur-ee?”
“It is a fruit, madam, a large berry. There is a whole garden of them here in the park.”
Lady Eleanor was newly arrived from Bedfordshire, where, it seemed, her family’s estate was much reduced. There were many such stories, Catherine had come to understand, since the Civil War. So perhaps it was not surprising that the lady seemed a grave young woman. She had a habit of looking down when Catherine spoke to her,...