A richly imagined, gorgeously written historical novel featuring a unique hero: Jeffrey Hudson, a dwarf tasked with spying on the beautiful but vulnerable queen
It's 1629, and King Charles I and his French queen Henrietta Maria have reigned in England for less than three years. Young dwarf Jeffrey Hudson is plunged into the Stuart court when his father sells him to the most hated man in England―the Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham trains Jeffrey to be his spy in the queen's household, hoping to gain intelligence that will help him undermine her influence with the king. Desperately homesick, Henrietta Maria surrounds herself with her "Royal Menagerie of Freaks and Curiosities of Nature"―a "collection" consisting of a giant, two other dwarves, a rope dancer, an acrobat/animal trainer and now Jeffrey, who is dubbed "Lord Minimus."
Dropped into this family of misfits, Jeffrey must negotiate a labyrinth of court intrigue and his own increasingly divided loyalties. For not even the plotting of the Duke nor the dangers of a tumultuous kingdom can order the heart of a man. Full of vibrant period detail, Ella March Chase's The Queen's Dwarf is a thrilling and evocative portrait of an intriguing era.
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ELLA MARCH CHASE is a graduate of Augustana College in Illinois, and the author of The Virgin Queen's Daughter and Three Maids for a Crown, a story of the Grey Sisters.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Three Years Earlier
Fourteen Years Old
I was sure I would not sleep my last night in the shambles. I had lived my whole life amid the butchers’ shops that lined the narrow street. The strangely human screams that rippled through the animals when their fellows’ throats were slashed became my lullaby. But the eerie silence that fell when the men put down their knives seemed filled with frightening possibilities. Never more so than tonight, when I had no more knowledge of my fate than the beasts barred in the holding pens.
I burrowed under the frayed blanket my younger brother, Samuel, and I had shared since we could climb the ladder to the cottage loft. I wondered why his conversations with God always took longer when I needed to talk to Samuel myself. The rest of us Hudsons dealt with prayers the way we scrubbed our faces in winter, rushing through the ordeal as quickly as possible, jumbling forbidden Catholic Latin with lawful Anglican English, and not overly fastidious about either. Grumbling loudly enough for my kneeling brother to hear, I punched a lump of straw in Samuel’s side of the pallet to smooth it in case he ever decided to come to bed. Not that I expected my show of irritation to do any good. It never had before.
But tonight should be different, I thought. Once we climbed out from under this blanket in the morning, everything would change. Next time I returned to the cottage, I would be a visitor. I wouldn’t know all the little happenings of Samuel’s day. He would know nothing of mine.
My stomach lurched and I wondered if my older brother, John, had felt this sick dread when he had left home to become an apprentice three years ago. It seemed strange to think of him as a grown man, wielding a butcher’s knife for the master he served five shops away. I remembered Mother weeping as she stitched him a shirt out of her wedding petticoat, and Father’s wide grin when he returned from the secondhand clothing man with a pair of boots. John had drawn them on and paced the cottage floor, every sinew in his lanky frame determined to show he was officially a man.
Our sister, Ann, had tied up John’s bundle—two pairs of stockings she had darned, a leather apron, and three scorched ginger nuts Samuel had earned by sweeping out the baker’s oven. The preparations for my leave-taking would not be so elaborate.
“I convinced His Grace to take Jeff with nothing but the clothes on his back,” Father had said, congratulating himself, the night he announced I was to be handed over to the duke. “Made His Grace wary that some sickness from the shambles might travel to his mansion on the hill.”
I had been tempted to remind Father that he traveled from the shambles to the duke’s holdings all the time in his position as trainer of the nobleman’s bull-baiting dogs. But why bother? Even if the duke had permitted me to bring a whole wagonload of goods to my new life, my take-leave would have been nothing like John’s. Of all my family, only Samuel would mourn my leaving.
I closed my eyes for just a moment—not because they were suddenly burning, but to rest them until Samuel’s prayers were finished. I must have dozed, for I started awake, panicked at the absence of Samuel’s warmth on the pallet beside me.
Moonlight trickled in through the hole in the roof that Father had not gotten around to mending. A white-robed ghost seemed to take shape in the silvery glow: Samuel, sitting cross-legged in the moonlight, my mother’s sewing basket at his side.
“What are you doing over there?” I asked.
“Thinking,” Samuel said. “When John left home, it was a comfort to picture the place he’d sleep near the master butcher’s hearth. But no matter how I try, I cannot imagine what life will be like for you once you leave Oakham behind.”
“I’ll still be staring at people’s knees, but the stockings will have fewer holes in them.”
Samuel did not even try to smile. I climbed out of bed and crossed to where my mother had laid my costume the night before. But the garb that turned me into a Fairy King was not where I remembered it, one side of the green cloth more crumpled than I recalled.
I had worn it scores of times dancing for pennies at the market fair. Is that how the great ones heard of me? I wondered as I smoothed out a wrinkle.
“Do not pretend to jest, Jeffrey. Not tonight.” Samuel’s face clouded. I could not bear it if he cried.
“I’ll not jest if you promise not to get melancholy. After all, there is a chance that I might be stealing your blanket again by nightfall. The duke might take one look at me and decide I am not worthy of his attention.” I meant to soothe Samuel. Instead, he grew alarmed.
“Never say that!”
“So you are eager to get rid of me after all?”
“You know I am not. But Father has already been bragging at the pub, and I fear his temper. I fear the duke even more. People say such horrible things about how wicked he is. Are you afraid?”
There was no use lying to Samuel. He’d always been able to see right through to the truth in me. “A little.”
“So am I. That is why I had to protect you.”
I looked at my slight, fair brother with his tousled golden ringlets and eyes far too gentle for the shambles and I thought how John would have laughed at Samuel’s claim.
“Protect me?” I echoed. “How?”
“I sewed Our Lady in the seam of your tunic while everyone was sleeping.”
That holy medal was Samuel’s most beloved possession, a gift from the half-mad old woman who kept a statue of the Virgin Mary under her floorboards. Much as his generosity touched me, it unnerved me, as well. Holy relics had been outlawed in England, along with the Catholic faith. Five monarchs had ruled since Henry VIII had broken with Rome, and factions were still warring over England’s immortal soul—Anglicans, Puritans, Catholics, and whatever other sects sprang up in between.
John gets ginger nuts. I get a chunk of tin that could land me in Fleet Prison, I thought with wry humor, but I curbed my tongue, saying only, “Samuel, you should not have given me your medal.”
“It was the only way I could think of to remind you when I am not around,” Samuel insisted.
“Remind me of what?”
“That what people say of you is not true. You weren’t born of dark magic. You are good. A gift from Heaven.”
I shook my head and turned away. Samuel’s hand drifted down on my shoulder. “Whenever you doubt yourself, touch the medal and remember Our Lady loves you, Jeffrey, and so do I.”
My eyes burned. I nudged him with my elbow to disguise my emotions. “If you’d given me ginger nuts, I would have shared them with you.”
Samuel punched me back, and I knew he understood what I could not say. I’ve shared everything—my whole life—with you. Until now.
We climbed into bed and stared at the ceiling as the night slipped through our fingers and morning dawned in a hurly-burly of preparations. I had never been bathed and combed, trimmed and polished with more vigor, never hammered with more instructions of how I was to behave in the duke’s presence. The bathing was women’s work; Father’s work: barking out orders. But I could see Samuel outside the mad circle. He stayed close, watching me, until the only thing left to say was good-bye.
* * *
It seemed I had barely blinked before I was standing in my new master’s withdrawing room at the center of a world I had never known.
Sweat trickled beneath my leaf green tunic, burning skin scrubbed raw. The handwoven cloth scoured my ribs as Father hefted me onto the writing table that dominated the duke of Buckingham’s privy chamber. From here, George Villiers ruled my village and much of England besides. Not that he ruled it well, I had heard men in Oakham’s shambles grumble. Buckingham had just limped home after squandering the greatest fleet England had ever sent to sea. His intent: to reprise Drake’s famous raid upon the Spanish port of Cádiz.
The duke’s failure had not cost him any of the king’s love, from all reports. Charles Stuart had welcomed Buckingham back. The rest of England loathed Buckingham more than ever.
I stood before the most powerful nobleman in England and tried not to tread on the inked pages that littered Buckingham’s table, or smudge wax still soft on the letter stamped with his seal. The candle he’d used to melt that wax flickered so close to me, I could feel the curls my mother had pressed into my hair wilting. I remembered the blisters she had burned into her hands while holding my golden brown locks around a hot poker, and I wondered if winning this nobleman’s favor could make my mother love me.
Buckingham crossed his arms over a doublet sprinkled with jewels, and I fought the urge to rub my eyes. Every surface in the room gleamed in the late-afternoon sun, even the tapestries draping the walls threaded with gilt. I remembered the tale my father had told me as we trudged from his butcher shop to His Grace’s estate of Burley-on-the-Hill.
“Nothing but a lowly knight’s son was George Villiers, and a second son at that. His family was poor, but that lad was prettier than any ever seen. Aped the ways of his betters and used his fair face to make two kings love him. Rose to be court favorite to slobbering James. When the old king started to wither, Buckingham turned all that charm on James’s stammering runt of a son, our new king, Charles.”
It was easy to see how the royals had fallen under Buckingham’s thrall. I could not remember when I had first made a game of picturing myself in other people’s skins—striding on the legs of a running footman, or inhabiting a tall man who cut through the crowds that swallowed me up. But as I stared at the duke, my imagination failed me.
Never had I seen a man knit together with such perfect pieces. White hose clung to the finest legs I had ever seen—and God knew I had been lost in a forest of legs my whole life. Sable hair tumbled in curls to broad shoulders garbed in peacock blue cut velvet. My heart beat faster as Buckingham approached me.
“A pretty plaything you will make, Jeffrey Hudson,” he said. “I hardly believed the rumors I heard regarding your appearance. Seldom does a specimen live up to expectations.”
Specimen. The word sounded as if I were not human. “Thank His Grace, Jeffrey,” my father ordered.
I did not know what I was supposed to thank him for. “I am honored—” Buckingham cut me off with a gesture, pacing around the table to observe me on all sides. My skin itched where his gaze touched it.
“I must know what tricks you have used to achieve such perfection.” Buckingham grasped my thigh, kneading the flesh as if he expected it to peel away. I willed myself to hold still no matter how he pinched. The duke inspected first one leg, then the other. My cheeks burned when he pulled up my tunic. Cold air flooded over my naked belly as Buckingham spoke to my father. “Hard to believe you have not padded his clothes with sawdust to mold such attractive lines.”
My parents have not padded me, I longed to say. But they would still be wrapping me in bandages so tight that I’d have no room to grow if I hadn’t learned to twist my body into impossible angles and pull the knots free with my teeth.
“My son is as God made him,” my father said. “You will never see Jeffrey’s like again.”
I tried not to flinch as the duke peeled back my lips, examining my teeth.
Father grasped curls at my nape and pulled my head back until my mouth fell open. He turned me so the candle light could probe deeper to teeth that had been hidden. “Jeffrey is keen as the edge of my cleaver. He learned French when Huguenots moved next door.”
“A butcher’s lad speaking French? It will stand him in good stead, since the queen makes little effort to learn English.”
“My lad hears something once and he remembers it forever.”
“That is a skill I can make use of at court.” Buckingham laid one finger along his cheek. I stared at his face, fascinated. The duke’s beard was groomed to a meticulous point, his mustache feathered broad at each end. The chestnut whiskers drew my eyes to the mouth they framed—his upper lip a trifle fuller than his lower, something oddly feminine in their shape. I had never seen anyone so clean.
“Jeffrey, I will make you king among court fools,” Buckingham said. “In return, I require absolute loyalty. A trumped-up charge of treason is the most expedient way to be rid of an opponent at court. Such affairs are notoriously messy. If I fall, a servant like you might end up on a scaffold along with me. But we will speak no more of such gloomy possibilities. You will unravel the plans of whoever schemes against me. No one will suspect you, even after their villainy is exposed. You look innocent as angels, freak though you may be.”
I did not wince at the word. I was fourteen years old, well-used to being labeled a freak. It no longer made me cry. “Enemies, Your Grace?” I asked.
“You may have heard of some little difficulty in Cádiz?”
Returning with a third of the ships he had set out with did not seem “little” to me.
“The court is filled with people determined to use that misfortune to destroy me. They tell the king lies about me. They did the same with His Majesty’s father when King James loved me. My enemies were certain that when Charles ascended to the throne, I would fall from favor. Instead, I became his dearest friend, his brother in all but blood. Now those enemies believe I hold too much influence over His Majesty. There are even those who wish me dead.”
I tried to imagine the duke suffering such a fate. He seemed above such physical limitations. I wondered what would happen to the families who lived on his estates if such men stole the duke’s holdings.
Buckingham smiled thinly. “The queen herself would rejoice if I were to disappear. But, then, she is not yet seventeen. Too inexperienced to realize someone else would rise up to take my place. Someone who might use the king’s favor in less amiable ways than I do. It is our duty to save the queen from herself.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” I replied.
“It is settled, then. I will take you to court, where the queen has made collecting rarities such as you her favorite amusement. She is behaving like a petulant child, playing with her particular friends and using her curiosities in the masques she loves to put on while she ostracizes those of us who would bend her attentions to unpleasant matters. If you do your work well, Her Majesty will delight in taking you for a pet. I have never seen anyone so quick to lavish affection. You will be vigilant and carry everything you hear back to me.”
I tried to sort out my feelings about a woman who would collect people for pets. Buckingham fingered strands of my hair.
“Her Majesty is a charming woman, Jeffrey. Not beautiful, exactly, but she is so spirited, it scarcely matters.” Buckingham frowned. “You must not be fooled. She is the French king’s eyes, the Pope’s instrument. If she has her way, England will bow to Catholic masters. Do you understand how dangerous such divided loyalties can be?”
“I do.” Cold prickled my neck, and I thought of the medal my brother Samuel had sewn into the seam of my tunic.
Buckingham’s eyes narrowed. “Never forget that you are my dog, Jeffrey. Have you seen what your father does to dogs that will not fight when they are thrown into the bull pit?”
“Answer His Grace, Jeffrey,” my father said.
“Father flings them to the pack to be torn apart, Your Grace.” I had seen that ritual and had held Samuel while he retched all over my shoes.
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Book Description St. Martin's Press 2014-01-13, 2014. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Paperback. Publisher overstock, may contain remainder mark on edge. Bookseller Inventory # 9781250061362B
Book Description Griffin, 2015. Paperback. Book Condition: Brand New. reprint edition. 372 pages. 8.50x5.50x1.25 inches. In Stock. Bookseller Inventory # __1250061369
Book Description St. Martin's Griffin, 2015. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M1250061369
Book Description St. Martin's Griffin, 2015. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P111250061369