The young scholar Isaac Newton raised his head from the telescope’s eyepiece and blinked. He was alone in the observatory at Trinity College; as a servant to richer students, suffered to attend lectures, he must sit up very late indeed to have any chance of observing the heavens. The others had long gone to their beds, and the first spoiling hint of dawn light had appeared on the edge of the sky. He picked up a pen to make a note, and hesitated. Surely he was mistaken? Surely if anyone was to make such a spectacular discovery, it would not be lowly him? And how they would mock him when he was proven wrong, when what he thought he had seen proved a chimera! He put the pen back down. But the cold clench in his belly remained. He was a man of science now. He knew better than to fall prey to superstition. But there was no more dreadful an omen of catastrophe in all the heavens; the fears of generations of his forebears spoke in his clenched gut. For a moment he weighed the atavistic horror of such an astronomic invasion with the glory of discovery. But it was an uneven fight. Oh, blessed Savior, he found himself praying. Let me have seen a comet. And picked up the pen again.
“A Christmas masked ball! Oh, Your Majesty! Bliss!”
Catherine couldn’t help but smile at Lady Frances Stuart’s enthusiasm. But her pleasure in sharing her plans with her ladies was undermined by her secret anxiety about what might befall her at such a dangerous diversion—for there was a danger that no one but she was aware of. And Queen Catherine was desperately determined to keep it that way.
A little gust of wind snapped the striped canvas awning sheltering the ladies in the stern from the late October sun, and fluttered the gleaming silver lace on their gowns. This was one of the last mild days; surely the weather would shift soon and bring the brutal English cold Catherine still dreaded. For now this unseasonable warmth had made possible today’s pleasure: a trip down the Thames on her royal barge to see a new ship launched at the Woolwich Dockyard.
On the barge, all the talk was of the masked ball she was planning for this coming Christmas. Her husband, the king, had encouraged her to be creative and free-spending; apart from his genuine delight in such extravagant entertainments, he had let her know that one of her queenly roles was to signal English glory and confidence to both friend and foe. It was part of the complex dance of life at the London court, in which Catherine was still finding her steps, and in which her companionable constellation of noblewomen whirled around her.
“And what will be the theme, madam?” Lady Suffolk had an avid gleam in her eye; she may have reached a comfortable middle age, but there was no doubt the fashionable lady still loved a ball.
“A winter forest, I think.”
“And we will be masked as forest creatures?” Lady Frances’s eyes sparkled. “Oh, what a clever idea, madam! What will you be? A lioness? A swan?”
Catherine smiled at the girl. “I must not tell—you must see if you can make me out beneath my mask.”
“I do love a masked ball,” sleek Lady Buckingham drawled, with yards of amber-colored taffeta draping from her shoulders. “You can never know if you are kissing your husband or someone else’s.”
Lady Suffolk gave the younger woman a malicious smile and said, “No one could mistake Lord B for anyone else, in all his bulk; you’ll have to come up with another excuse for dalliance.” Silly Lady Bath laughed, but Lady Chesterfield frowned and tsked.
Outwardly Catherine smiled indulgently, but inwardly she winced at this talk, which was sailing a good deal too close to the wind for her comfort. For in her mind’s eye she kept finding herself seeing not the beloved dark face of her husband, the king, but the young, open pink-and-blond countenance of Edward Montague, her Master of Horse and her terrible vexation.
Edward, the Baron of Boughton’s heir, had been given his lofty position when Catherine arrived from her home in Portugal to marry the king of England, but it was a long time before she became particularly aware of him as an individual, overwhelmed as she had been by all of the new people to meet and remember, and the shock of the very different world she had entered. But gradually she had come to like the young nobleman, and to rely on him.
Just today, he had handed her into the barge, as was his right as her Master of Horse. As he did, though, Edward had given her hand a quite unnecessary squeeze. His face as she glanced back down at it blazed with ardor, though he kept his gaze lowered.
In Lisbon such a liberty even from a nobleman in a high position might have got the man promptly dismissed from her service. But in easygoing London? Perhaps it meant nothing. The fact was, Catherine might have thought little of...