Historical drama as a lady remembers a former servant and lover
By Jane Fairweather
“So were you there when my Lord Strafford got his head chopped off?” The very bright ten year old William asked his grandmother, who had just admitted to being in London just before the Civil War in 1641-42, and who he therefore expected to know all about those momentous events.
“As I just told you, I was one of the Queen’s ladies and, no, I did not go to see that great man suffer. It would have been disloyal to the Queen, whose own head was not that far from the block at the time. They talked of her, my lord Strafford and the Archbishop as the King’s evil councillors. She was, in fact, the only one of the three who did not have her head chopped off, but we thought of it as a real possibility at the time. Besides, I liked my Lord Strafford; he grew up not that far away from the house of my father in Yorkshire and we saw him occasionally when I was a child, before the King sent him to govern Ireland, you know. He was not as fierce as you might think from what people say now; he could be quite kind to a little girl.”
“But someone must have told you about it. You said all London turned out to watch. You did say that!” Said the boy insistently.
“Yes, it was the first beheading for years and everyone got very excited about it. I am afraid I let my maid, Susannah, go. She was very eager to see it. She was very much of the other side and very glad to see someone she regarded as a monster have his head separated from his body, even though it was an old man and a good servant of the King, and all the doing of that evil Parliament. And, yes, she told me about it. There was a huge crowd, who largely came to jeer, but his dignity silenced them. He made a speech, saying it was almost a relief to an old man to leave life in this way, without all the slow decline that usually goes with death when you are old, but Susannah could not hear it and I doubt if many people could. It was published later and I remember reading it and thinking it was a wonderful speech. Now I am beginning to get old, I think of it often.”
“Oh grandmamma, you are not getting old yet.” The boy exclaimed loyally, at which she smiled a little. “But surely you must have dismissed your maid if she was so much of the other party.”
“Oh, I did in the end,” She said. “But she was a good servant, very loyal to me personally you know, even if she did belong to some dreadfully obscure sect, the Anabaptists, I think.”
“Grandmama, you had a maid who was an Anabaptist!?” The boy asked incredulously. “Aren’t they terribly evil people, who believe in all sorts of things you shouldn’t, on pain of Hell?”
“Susannah certainly wasn’t evil, though she had very definite views of her own. It gave us something to argue about.” His grandmother replied. “But now, Master William, I am sure it is time for you to go to bed. Off with you!”
Before going to bed she sat by the fire half asleep and an unpleasant image of a white haired man putting his head down on a wooden block while the masked executioner raised his axe came into her head. But then it changed to an image of a young woman with the beautiful skin of youth, tied naked to a bed post while a man raised a whip. She had actually seen that and while it was much less important to history than Lord Strafford’s beheading, it seemed more significant to her at that moment. She shrugged her shoulders and began the elaborate procedure of going to bed, thinking it would do no good to brood on things that were long gone into the past.
* * *
Normally Lady Petronella Slingsby, once Lady Petronella Simon, slept well, but somehow that night she could not stop going over those events of a few months on either side of the grim day of Lord Strafford’s execution.
But it was Amelia, her first maid from when she was a child, who had recommended Susannah before Petronella’s exciting departure from home to join Queen Henrietta Maria’s ladies at the Royal Court. They had both known Amelia was growing old and there was no hope of her coming from Yorkshire to London. But anyway, here was a chance for Petronella to escape her Mother, for no better reason than her Father was owed a favour by the King and Amelia was eager that she should take it.
“My lady, I know a young woman, who will be honest and loyal, and tell you the truth as she sees it. She is not Anglican or a lover of the King, but she will not make a great fuss about it. And she is as wild a young woman as you. You will go together well. And I think she would see through the wiles and trickeries that go with being a lady at court, which I saw all too well when I was with your Aunt at the court of King James. There are no sure friends at a court and your father being there as a servant of the King is more likely to be a hindrance than a help. You need a woman you can rely on and I think this girl would do, though I wish I felt strong enough to come with you.”
There was a certain mystery about the new maid, which rather pleased Petronella. She pieced it together from half hints and guesses and enjoyed doing it. A small community of Anabaptists, who lived a few villages away from her own, had been broken up by servants of Archbishop Laud, and unpleasant things seemed to have happened to them. Susannah referred to her young man, Colin, as being dead on several occasions and Petronella guessed it was a result of whatever had been done in the Archbishop’s name, but not being one to pry did not ask. At all events, Susannah had managed to get away to the village by the great house that Petronella had grown up in, had earned a name for being honest and hardworking and the wily Amelia had spotted her as someone unusual and valuable.
The two girls’ relationship had begun to alter when Petronella found herself the mistress of Sir Arthur Russell, who had pursued her with a single-minded passion, which was doubly disconcerting because he did not wish to marry her and greatly desired her maidenhead, about which he was quite shameless.
Under the present king, Petronella thought dryly, there would have been no real problem. She and Sir Arthur would have had their children out of wedlock and no one would have thought too much about it. But under the first King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria, whose lady she was, she would have been disgraced for life. She had so wanted to surrender to her lover, but all the risks of it had put her in a dither and she had poured out her heart to her maid and increasingly best friend.
She remembered Petronella standing against the casement, looking extraordinarily pretty against the dusk light with her dark curls and her face’s pleasantly brown country colouring, which was not at all fashionable (everyone wanted their skin to be cream white), but Petronella always cherished the memory of it. It was a pity that Susannah had ended as she had ended, but that was several years later, after she had left Petronella’s employment. Not for the first time, Petronella wished she had known someone who could have described Susannah’s execution, but no one had crossed her path who was able to do it; and anyway was it quite proper for a devoted Royalist such as herself to express interest in the notorious Parliamentary spy that her one-time maid later became? But she would have liked to have known how Susannah looked in her final moments by the gallows. No doubt she would have been defiant, she could not imagine Susannah looking pitiful, but had the beautiful locks and fine skin begun to fade, or not?
Somehow she hoped Susannah still looked like she had on that day, when she suddenly said: “Madam, there are more ways to please a man than letting him fuck you till you are with child. Let me show you.”
Susannah’s lesson had been nothing if not thorough. They started almost mechanically as in a real lesson. At first Susannah wanted her to uncover her nipples, which she did with mild embarrassment.
“Men love that, at least my Colin always did. He always used to talk about wanting to see your cherries. Then when I showed him he would set about plucking them, and how.” Susannah said quietly. “And that will keep your Sir Arthur busy for a while.”
Then she felt Susannah sucking one nipple and very gently stroking the other and became increasingly excited.
Petronella remembered that after that she found herself in an intensely benevolent mood and saying she would like to do the same for her maid. She still remembered the slightly salt taste of Susannah’s young upright nipples. And after those few interesting minutes they lay gratefully caressing one another. Petronella was about to say that was very pleasant and they should get on and she thought she understood what to do, but Susannah was saying that her Colin had loved patting her bottom.
“The first time he did it,” Said Susannah. “I had to make him cross enough to do it; he was a lovely man and did not want to hurt me. Then it took a while after that to persuade him I really enjoyed it, but I got him doing it in the end. Sad he did not live to do it that many times. But I doubt if Sir Arthur will need that much encouraging.”
Then a more than slightly startled Lady Petronella Simon found herself over her maid’s knee, with her skirts taken up. Then she was having her small round buttocks smacked with a steadily increasing force, despite her not very serious protests, till she climaxed very pleasurably with a certain amount of help from the fingers of Susannah’s other hand stroking her clitoris.
“And you deserve to be punished for treating your mistress like that!’ She declared ten minutes or so later, giggling as she said it, though also wondering what would happen if her behaviour reached the ears of the Queen, her mistress, or worse her father (who as one of the King’s officials was uncomfortably near). Would it mean a whipping? In her present mood she decided she did not mind too much if it did. Anyway it would not be anything like as bad as ending up with child by Sir Arthur, which would mean utter disgrace.
Susannah put up remarkably little resistance and Petronella thoroughly enjoyed hauling the girl’s skirts out of the way and teaching her maid manners over the next twenty minutes. She still remembered the girl’s bottom getting hotter and hotter under her hand and the increasing squirming and wriggling.
No doubt Susannah had been flattering her to some degree and doing the whole thing with a certain calculation. Looking back, it was the most pleasurable hour’s sex of her life; that and what became increasingly regular sessions with Susannah. Not exactly a love affair, or was it? Certainly, they both had a great deal of pleasure out of it. Sir Arthur had enjoyed it too, of course, but resented her refusal to give him her maidenhead and her eventual husband had been chiefly interested in getting her with child before the War killed him, which it did eventually. While she had done her duty for her husband there had not been much in the way of pleasure. She suspected he found his own pleasure at other times and places. Certainly he had been pretty rough with her, both in bed and out.
She drifted off to sleep thinking: “This is the sort of thing you cannot tell a grandson, though perhaps I ought to. I would like his wife to be happier than I was.”* * *
She woke again in the early morning with the image of the bedpost and the naked girl tied to it waiting to be whipped and pleading desperately. It flickered insistently before her eyes, though it was far too dark to see anything in real life. Did she really want to think about the awful end of her time with Susannah? She had put it out of her mind all these years.
It had taken her a good three or four weeks to admit to herself that Susannah was stealing. It started with small amounts of money that she convinced herself she must have spent and forgotten about. Then several small jewels disappeared, then rather a good necklace that had been her grandmother’s. After that really very serious loss very reluctantly she looked round Susannah’s bed and possessions while she sent the maid on an errand and found the necklace, not very well concealed under a pillow.
The girl came back in her usual breezy way. She remembered the startled look when Susannah was confronted with the necklace. She must have thought her mistress and lover would choose to ignore it, or was too stupid to notice. Then came the real fear in her eyes when her mistress said she was going to send for the constable.
She always remembered Susannah’s reply. “Mistress, if you do that they will hang me!” and her own immediate clash of emotions between her duty to uphold the law and her unwillingness to see her lover hanged.
She asked why the girl had done it and betrayed all the trust she had received. There were desperate replies about relatives who had come to London and must be fed. She never found out if there was any truth in that or not. In the end she relented about the constable, though she had gone as far as to borrow a couple of sturdy man servants from Sir Arthur, in case there should be any attempt at escape. But, what to do?
It was Susannah herself who provided the answer. “I should be whipped for betraying you, mistress!”
And Petronella, not liking the thought of her lover writhing at the end of a rope, but not wanting to let it go completely, had agreed.
It was done very quietly and privately. She remembered her very mixed feelings about Susannah stripping for her punishment, for it was hard to ignore the pleasure she had got out of that lovely body. The girl had looked at her pleadingly when she was down to just her grey wool shift. However, Petronella had not relented from her original sentence and off it had come and that lovely body had been tied to the post of a four poster bed and writhed under twelve hard lashes with a horse whip, administered by one of Sir Arthur’s man servants, who undoubtedly had enjoyed his task more than he ought to, grinning all over his face. Perhaps she should have done it herself, but she doubted if she could have done it. She remembered the crack of the whip and the girl’s shrieks. She had yelled lustily, to quote a much repeated phrase, but one that on this occasion was quite true, and she had felt sick herself and only just avoided crying her eyes out. The girl’s back and buttocks had been covered in weals, which had both excited and distressed her watching mistress.
Said mistress had been kind and forgiven her maid up to a point and not dismissed her, but of course there had been no more lovemaking and everything had been icily formal. It was not altogether a surprise when Susannah suddenly disappeared one day.
But there was a question surrounding Susannah’s disappearance that still troubled Petronella all these years later. On the same cold January morning, his majesty King Charles I, urged on by the lady Petronella Simon’s own mistress, Queen Henrietta Maria, finally took action against his Parliament, going there to arrest the six MPs who had taken the lead against him during the previous eighteen months. However, somebody or some people warned Parliament and the King famously arrived to find ‘The birds flown’. And a few days later the King (and Petronella and her father with him) left Whitehall, to only return for his trial and execution seven years later.
It was quite possibly not Susannah who had warned Parliament that the King was coming to make the arrests, but Petronella was uncomfortably aware of her maid’s later career as a spy for the Parliament and she was all too sure that there had been more whispers among the Queen’s ladies about the King’s great plan than there should have been over such an important matter of State.
It could so easily have been her maid and lover who had thwarted the King’s plan and effectively caused a civil war; she could only devoutly hope that somebody else was responsible. If it was true, then Susannah deserved her sad end, quite apart from anything else she might have done. For some reason, Petronella paused in her half sleep to wonder if her former lover had been forced to mount a ladder or had the cart driven away from under her when she was hanged, but what did it matter!. It was most certainly something NOT to tell her grandson in the morning, something she would always be ashamed of.
© Jane Fairweather 2016
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