By Abbey Serena
Forty-four years before Prince Albert draws in his final breath and sends the entirety of England into a period of mourning that lasts for the remainder of the century, a curse is placed upon the monarchy. What this curse is, and why it has come, none of the royals know. It comes in the form of a magic man—perhaps remnants of the Romantics, whose eyes would have glazed lovingly at the sight of him, for all of their opium-induced theories would have been proven true. This man is not altogether a man—and, for the sake of history, he is truthfully not real at all, except in his ability to rot certain aspects of the royals’ lives. He brings with him misery in the form of death. Queen Victoria said in her diary, after her assassination attempt on June 10, 1840, “Just before the 2nd shot was fired… or rather more while he fired, dear Albert turned towards me, squeezing my hand, exclaiming ‘My God! Don’t be alarmed.’” Why not alarmed? Why not fear for the end of a reign so filled with peace that not a single war was started, that the people stopped breaking their bones over their work, and that the monarchy was stabilized and expanded by the nine children for whom Victoria laboriously expanded and contracted her body? Why not be alarmed at the threat of an end? Prince Albert never told us, the readers of his German diaries and the scholars of history, why he commanded his wife, the Queen, to not be alarmed by death contained in a bullet.
Here, I must depart from you, reader, and have you choose for yourself if the cursed man was at fault for all of the wrongdoings that will happen forthcoming, or if the figures that I will portray should have taken responsibility for their actions. The question that I have for you, and that I’m certain Prince Albert posed within his own mind, is if fate interfered in the decades-long span of time in which this story takes place.
* * * * *
The year was 1817, and the hour had grown so late that almost all of the light inside of the Palladian mansion, Claremont, was snuffed out. The young Prince Leopold doubted that anyone in the entire English nation slept tonight. Seated in an upholstered chair that had been placed out of the way of all of the people who rushed back and forth like ants raiding a basket of food and swiftly dodging death, Leopold stared straight ahead of himself at a portrait of a naked woman by an artist whose name he couldn’t recall. It occurred to him then that the female body was a strange, ugly, powerful weapon. They weren’t built for war, but they could both harvest life and destroy it using only their wombs.
The woman in the portrait reminded him of his own wife, Charlotte. Her hair was the same reddish-brown hue, and every tendril appeared like a flashing ribbon that she had tied to her crown like decorative ornaments. This nameless figure, too, was built with broad shoulders and a square torso. Her breasts—misshapen, pink-tipped lumps—pointed sadly down to a fat belly that might have been caused by pregnancy or tarts.
Everyone abruptly stopped moving. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the door to the bedchamber where his wife was giving birth crack open. The figure that emerged was unsightly. He was a short man—no taller than the average woman—cloaked from head to toe in a wool coat. His back was slumped over and heavily knotted near his shoulder blades. A pomaded, white wig sat atop his head, the face of which nearly made Leopold cringe with its gruesome appearance. The man had two swollen flaps where his lips should have been, and his cheeks were furred with dark, coarse hair.
In the crook of the man’s arm was a swaddled bundle. Leaning on his cane, the man staggered over to Leopold and extended his arm without saying a word. Leopold dumbly held out his hands and the man placed his burden into them. Looking upward, Leopold examined the weathered, blackened skin and the silvery, damp eyes of the physician who had attended his wife during her labor. Looking at the bundle, he pushed back a swath of blanket and stared into the bluish, deathlike visage of his baby. Knowing from the silence that came from within the bedchamber that Charlotte hadn’t survived the birth, Leopold tilted his head back and gazed into the physician’s pale eyes. “What is to be done now?” Leopold, ever the strategist, whispered.
The good physician’s face flickered with interest, but still he remained mute. Seeing that he would receive no council from the man, he clutched his child against his breast and leaned his forehead into the heel of his hand. As water slid down Leopold’s cheeks, the physician turned and strode down the passageway. Between thumps of his cane, there came a steady tapping noise, as if he was wearing wooden shoes
* * * * *
In Belgium, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, sat with his mistress at their breakfast table. He puffed on a cigar while Julie had for herself a plate of meat, eggs, bread, and sweets. Glancing at his companion, Edward exhaled heavily and reclined in his chair. Julie was a fine Frenchwoman, if not a bit theatrical. She was a jealous viper; she would never be outdone by another woman. On this morning, her dark hair was coiled atop her head and she wore a cambric gown that scooped up her breasts and thrust them upward. He loved Julie because she frequently asked him about the time that he had spent serving in the military.
Just as Julie finished her breakfast, someone knocked on the door. One of the staff hastened to answer it, and then appeared in the threshold of the breakfasting room. “My lord, a man comes with the post. He requests an audience with you in the parlor.”
“He does?” Edward asked with a crooked tilt to his eyebrows. He slanted a sardonic smile at Julie before rising. “I’ll see him at once!” As he followed his housekeeper toward the parlor, he wondered whatever a man bringing his post could want with him. He entered the room and found, sitting on his couch, a dreadful creature who made a poor excuse for a human being. Instead of rising and bending himself over into a bow, the man remained where he was and lifted his silvery gaze to the duke. He had in his lap a sack of letters. Edward, who realized that he had been staring at the strange-looking, old man, came forward and greeted him, “Good friend! Rise and bow to me, and then we’ll talk of whatever matters you seek to discuss with me.”
Putting his cane forward, the man stood and held out the sack. Edward fathomed that the man must have been stupid with age and simply took the letters without pressing him to bow again. Then the man gestured for his other hand. He took from his coat what appeared to be The Morning Chronicle, and he placed it in Edward’s free hand. Edward glanced down at the paper and pushed his mouth to the side of his face when he saw, printed on the cover, a headline that spoke of Princess Charlotte’s untimely death.
Edward looked back at the man, who nodded his head and shuffled past, his cane leaving dents in the rococo pattern on the rug. The housekeeper assisted the man out of the house, and as soon as Edward heard the front door close, he sank onto the couch. Peering closer at the paper, Edward realized that his father’s other relations were swiftly reacting to the news of the poor princess’s death and starting a race for the next heir. Edward snorted at the thought of his relatives chasing after young women still in their time of breeding. All of them were obese and balding. Even to have a taste of the royal line, many women would not subject themselves to such a fate.
Stroking his chin, Edward contemplated his mistress. They had been together for a long time. But on the other hand, he was still in his prime. It would be simple for him to find another woman, and if he managed to produce an heir to the throne, he’d be financially set for the rest of his life. For such a long time, Edward had been existing in and out of various states of debt. Surely Julie would understand.
As if his thoughts about her had summoned her, Julie appeared in the doorway, an apprehensive expression drawn onto her face. “What was that about?” She asked, her French accent lilting every word in that sweet way that he enjoyed.
“Ah, my dear girl! There was only a death in the English royal family. There are at least two of those every year, as you know. It is nothing to be worried about just yet.” He motioned for her to come to him, and like the affectionate woman that she always was, she floated over to him and propped herself upon his knee. To remove all of the worry from her head, he kissed her mouth and burned her cheek with his stubble.
* * * * *
“Wait here.” Edward made a staying motion to his wife, Victorie, who wriggled backward on her seat in the carriage and stared at the back of his head as he alighted. A notch worried the space between her eyebrows. Making a little, sighing noise out of her throat, she rested her hands in her lap and looked down at the curved mound that had become her belly. They had waited far too long. She told Edward that they should have left for Kensington at least two months ago, but her stubborn husband had struck forth on a project to renovate several of the houses in Coburg.
Suddenly, the carriage door swung open again. A gust of wind rushed in and nearly blew off her cap. Tightening the strings, Victorie gazed at the man who stood in the doorway. He was half-concealed in shadow, and the little sliver of his face that she could see was matted with hair so thick that it almost appeared like animal fur. She stiffened. Where had her husband gone?
“What would you, sir?” She asked softly, her voice tainted with her German accent.
He stretched his hand out, his gloved fingers curled around a bit of paper. She took the paper and looked down at it. It was heavily folded and creased, as if it had spent the majority of its existence inside of someone’s clothing. She could feel the warmth of someone’s skin radiating from it, and there was a stain of sweat, though just a small one, on the corner. Looking back up, she frowned when she realized that she was alone once more.
Opening the paper, she read,
My heart yearns for you. The baby is almost due, and yet I am still with you.
Prince Edward, Duke of Kent
Victorie’s eyelashes twitched as she contemplated the words contained within the scrap. Her hand smoothed over the curve of her belly. The baby inside rolled back and forth, just like the choppy waters over which they were trying to cross.
Edward entered the carriage again, rocking it as he took a seat across from her. Knocking the rain from his coat, he said in his loud, commanding voice, “Strange fellow, our coachman! He is silent, but efficient.” Without another word, he tipped his head back, pushed his hat down so that it covered his eyes, and, she assumed, tried to fall asleep.
Frowning deeply, Victorie leaned against the window and shut her eyes. Had she made a mistake to marry an Englishman? It was too late to have those sorts of thoughts. She had fixed her bed, and now she must lie in it, or so she thought George Herbert said.
* * * * *
When Drina—later to take on her German roots and go by the name of Victoria—was seven-months-old, she spent most of her days chasing light across the floor. This day was no different than any other, and she remembered it with a distaste, remembered how suddenly her father had passed after this particular day. The little princess had been set down by someone—she couldn’t remember whose pair of arms that she had just been cradled in—and, upon seeing a cat streak across the floor and hunt down a moving stream of yellow that came in through the cracked window, Drina frantically pawed her way across the floor and sat herself down on the light. The cat, whose prey had just been squashed beneath the bottom of the new princess, gave her a stiff look and slinked off.
Peering downward, Drina was surprised to find that the beam of light had not been caught, but had slithered its way out and was now draped across her lap! She swatted her own leg. When her toy didn’t even give a shudder, she made a grumpy noise and flipped back onto her hands and knees. She began to prowl around again. Everywhere around her, people chatted and chortled at themselves as they drank their afternoon tea.
She poked her nose up and gazed at the faces of people that she didn’t recognize, and then the warm, dignified expression on her mother’s countenance. An old man was seated in a chair next to the lit hearth. She remembered him, remembered when her mother had scooped her up and plopped her on the man’s knee. Drina had giggled, thinking that it looked like his face was melting. She liked that old man. Even though her mother had chastised her, the old man had merely chuckled, rubbed her head, and dropped a bit of spittle on the ruffled collar that he kept tucked beneath his coat.
Padding her way through the booted feet and making sure that she wasn’t kicked, Drina kept looking up. Little did she know that she would continue having to look up for the rest of her life. Upon seeing her daughter, Victorie let out a delighted, cooing noise that was very flattering to Drina’s ears. Spinning around, she hobbled over to her mother, who bent and picked up the child. Suddenly, Drina was accosted with kisses and tickles.
“Baroness Lehzen, why is the child out of her nursery?” said a dark, masculine voice from across the room. Turning her head, Drina looked at her father, whose withered, pale face shone starkly against the tan-skinned, round-faced Germans who had taken over Kensington.
Another figure that Drina hadn’t before noticed stood from his chair by the window. Twisting in that direction, she glowered at her uncle, the Duke of Sussex. He was a frightening man, though as of yet, he’d never given her any true reason to dislike him. It was his wig. As he came over, he hunched against his cane and lumbered across the floor as if it pained him to move. His head was covered in an unwashed, tattered wig that smelled like mothballs and human sweat.
Realizing what the uncle intended to do, Victorie gripped her child tighter and said airily, “Oh, that’s all right, my lord. Drina is being good. Please, sit down and don’t trouble yourself with removing her.”
The only reply that he offered the duchess were his short breaths of air as he approached and bent for Drina. Smelling his wig, she began to squirm as he lifted her, supported her with one arm, and clung to his cane with his other hand. The tail of his wig fell over his shoulder and brushed against her neck, sending chills racing up and down her spine. As he took her from the room, she beat her fists against his chest and wailed so loudly that the next estate could have heard her, and yet her uncle wasn’t deterred by her tantrum. She found herself drifting farther and farther away from her mother, who remained seated, looking rigid, bewildered, and nervous all in one flittering expression.
As Drina was swept from the room, she noticed her mother glimpse over at her husband, who was leaning heavily against a wall, taking in shallow breaths. Not long ago, her father had bustled into the house, shouting, “There is a fortune teller! Will no one come with me and see this voodoo?” And when no one went, for fear of the dark magic that permeated the devilish sibyls who concocted those fortunes, her father went alone; when he came back later, he was much more sullen, his mouth turned downward. Drina overheard him say, “The sorceress told me that ‘This year, two members of the royal family will die.’” Drina didn’t know what it meant to die, but her father’s face suggested that it was perhaps an unpleasant experience. She didn’t think about these things until many years had passed, but, in that moment, she still felt a change in the air as she drifted next to the man who was already decaying within his own skin.
* * * * *
When the young queen was twenty-one-years-old, her husband, Prince Albert, took her out in a carriage for a trip through Hyde Park. She and her companion sat aloft on an elevated seat; with this being an open-carriage, Victoria had a full view of the park and the people that meandered through it. Many of them waved at her, happy grins sprouting on their faces as she and the handsome prince passed by. Several children, twirling long ribbons around, let out screeching laughter and chased briefly after the carriage. Victoria extended her hand toward them.
“Hello!” She called in a bright, melodic voice. Turning back around, she glanced at her husband, who had his hand cupped over his eyebrows. In his usual way, he studied the movement of the carriage beneath him, the way that it swerved around trees, but never tipped. Laughing softly, she asked, “Would you stop studying everything and enjoy the day?”
He flicked his eyes up to her and pressed a crooked smile onto his lips, and then went back to studying. Shaking her head, Victoria looked out again and gazed at a few Arabian horses in the distance. They were beautiful, wild creatures, their backs twitching as they learned to barely tolerate the saddles that were placed upon them.
A gunshot rang out and bounded off of each of the trees. Spooked, the horses bucked their heads and let out shrill whinnies. Looking to the right, Victoria squinted at a man who was holding a gun. Suddenly, Albert grabbed her arm in a grip that nearly hurt and thrust her downward. “My God! Don’t be alarmed!” He shouted.
Her whalebone corset wasn’t made to be flexed, and so it dug into her stomach, which was four-months swollen with life. Gasping, Victoria struggled against him and heard a scuffle from what seemed to be all around. When he let her back up, she immediately looked toward the gun-holding man and saw that he was on the ground, writhing beneath the bodies of several other men.
Her gaze flew to Albert, who was staring at her with eyes as large as saucers. In a matter of seconds, she was trapped against his chest, his heartbeat ricocheting through her entire body. Even though people were looking, she flung her arms around him, her bonnet loosening from her head and falling away.
Peering over Albert’s shoulder at the man, she felt a quiver in her very bones as she had a moment of recognition. It was like she had seen him somewhere, at some other period in her life. There, on the ground, was a man garbed in a thick coat, though it was an usually warm summer and even her lightest, linen dresses drew perspiration to her skin. His head was topped with a dark, thick-brimmed hat. His face, mostly concealed from her, was turned slightly so that she could see his chin, and on his chin was hair so coarse that it might have been peeled off of an Alaskan fox and attached to his chin with sticky pomade.
* * * * *
Would there be no peace for her yet? On the second of December, in 1861, Victoria perched on the sofa in the Blue Room, clasping a copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Peveril of the Peak. Tucking a length of hair behind her ear, she read softly to her husband, who had lie in his bed for weeks. She trembled a little as she held the book, occasionally looking up at Albert, whose brow was wrinkled with agony and whose skin was soaked with sweat. “What I wouldn’t give to see you well,” she whispered.
She existed in and out of consciousness for the next few days. Albert’s face became thick and puffy as he wasted away at the hands of a disease that she was certain the doctors were incorrectly diagnosing. They called it typhoid. Had it been typhoid, Albert would have been gone months ago, when he first began to complain about the pain in his stomach. He was starting to look how he did when she first met him; a young, lanky boy with a little bit of dough in his cheeks. She had fallen in love with that version of him, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted him back.
Come the ninth of December, Dr. Jenner exclaimed, “He is getting on favorably, thank God!” When Victoria entered the room, her heart pumping hard, she heard her husband mumbling to himself in French about war. As she looked sharply at the man that she had enlisted to save her husband, he assured her, “This is to be expected.”
On the eleventh, the middle-aged queen was awoken by her servants, who said that the doctors were asking if the children could come see their father. And at this point, she took up life in another world entirely and followed people around with a shuffling, stooped gait, and sat herself down by Albert’s bedside, becoming a piece of cold architecture. When hours went by and his rough breathing didn’t change, she started to get up, but he suddenly reached out and said desperately in a French-German-English combination, “Please don’t leave.”
Tears came to her eyes and burned her with their salt. “Give me this respite. I can’t stand to see you this way. I will be back.” Years later, she would regret leaving him just then, but as it was, she fled from the room and retreated to her own private space, where she was free to deny that her beloved husband was dying.
When he stopped taking as much air in later that evening, Victoria seemed to sense it through the very walls that separated them. She hurried back to her husband, brushing by a new doctor who had been brought in—this one dressed in a heavy coat, with a hat tipped down over his face. He carried beneath his arm a valise, and she nearly knocked it loose as she raced past him.
Entering the Blue Room, Victoria flung herself down by Albert’s bed and clutched onto his hand. “Est ist das kleine Frauchen,” she begged, returning to her German language, not realizing that she had returned to it. Albert, though his eyes were sealed shut and he was as still as a boulder, trembled his lips, just slightly, as if wanting to respond to her plea for kisses.
Someone touched her shoulder.
Whirling around, Victoria released a vulgar sound at the sight of the coated doctor, whose face was concealed beneath the brim of his hat. She thought she might have moved—maybe burst out of the room—maybe stayed where she was—she thought she recalled one of her daughters calling her back over to the bed—placing her hand within Albert’s. “Oh, this is death,” she whispered, “I know it. I have seen this before.”
And in the next few minutes, Albert inhaled several breaths, before exhaling deeply. His head tilted to the side, pressing into the feather pillow, and then he was quiet.
Sinking to the ground, Victoria let out several loud sobs and kissed all over her husband’s forehead, before the new doctor flung a sheet over him. Someone took her away from Albert, lifted her, and brought her into the Red Room. Her children were near her. One of them was in her arms. She pushed him away. She believed that it was Alfred. He looked too much like his father. He had his stern brow.
The year was 1861, and the hour had grown so late that almost all of the light inside of the heath stone castle, Windsor, was snuffed out.
Abbey Serena is a senior at Bowling Green State University, where she studies Creative Writing and Scientific & Technical Communication. She is an editor on the staff of Prairie Margins and Mid-American Review, two national literary magazines. She has an upcoming publication in Ofi Press. Copperfield Review is her second publication.