Feb 28 2013 10:00am
The Jewel in the Toad Queen’s Crown
For your reading pleasure, we are debuting Jane Yolen's new short story “The Jewel in the Toad Queen’s Crown,” from Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, out on March 19 from Tor Books.
“Gaslamp Fantasy,” or historical fantasy set in a magical version of the nineteenth century, has long been popular with readers and writers alike. Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells is an anthology for everyone who loves these works of neo-Victorian fiction, and wishes to explore the wide variety of ways that modern fantasists are using nineteenth-century settings, characters, and themes. These approaches stretch from steampunk fiction to the Austen-and-Trollope inspired works that some critics call Fantasy of Manners, all of which fit under the larger umbrella of Gaslamp Fantasy. The result is eighteen stories by experts from the fantasy, horror, mainstream, and young adult fields, including both bestselling writers and exciting new talents such as Elizabeth Bear, James Blaylock, Jeffrey Ford, Ellen Kushner, Tanith Lee, Gregory Maguire, Delia Sherman, and Catherynne M. Valente, who present a bewitching vision of a nineteenth century invested (or cursed!) with magic.
The Jewel in the Toad Queen’s Crown
Why, they are quite barbaric,” the queen said to her prime minister, making small talk since she wasn’t actually certain where Zululand was. Somewhere in deepest, darkest Africa. That much at least she was certain. She would have to get out the atlas. Again. She had several of Albert’s old atlases, and the latest American one, a Swinton.
Thinking about the problem with an atlas, and how—unlike the star charts, which never varied—it kept changing with each new discovery on the dark continent, she sniffed into her dainty handkerchief. She was not sniffing at Mr Disraeli, though, and she was quite careful to make that distinction by glancing up at him and dimpling. It was important that he never know how she really felt about him. Truth to tell, she was unsure herself.
“Barbaric in our eyes, certainly, ma’am,” he said, his dark eyes gazing back at her.
She did not trust dark eyes. At least not that dark. Give her good British blue any day. Or Albert’s blue. But those dark eyes . . . she shuddered. A bit of strangeness in the prime minister’s background for all that she’d been assured he was an Anglican.
“What do you mean, Mr Disraeli?” she asked. She thought she knew, but she wanted to hear him say it. Best to know one’s enemies outright. She considered all prime ministers the enemy. After all, they always wanted something from her and only seemed to promise something in return. Politics was a nasty business and the Crown had to seem to be above it while controlling it at all times.
A tightrope, really.
She thought suddenly of the French tightrope walker at Astley’s Amphitheatre who could stand on one foot on a wire suspended high overhead and dangle the other foot into the air. She and Albert had taken the children to see the circus several times, and it had occurred to her then that speaking with a prime minister felt just like that. She was dangling again today with only the smallest of wire between herself and disaster.
Disraeli was master of the circus now, and he frightened her as had her first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, who had been careful to try and put her at her ease. It took her a long time to find him amusing.
She thought dismally, It will take even longer with Disraeli even though this is his second tour of duty. She barely remembered that first time. It had been only seven years after dear Albert’s death and she was still so deep in mourning nothing much registered, not even—she was ashamed to admit—the children.
“To the Zulus,” Disraeli answered carefully, “what they do, how they live their lives, makes absolute sense, ma’am. They have been at it for centuries the same way. Each moment a perfection. Perhaps to them, we are the barbarians!” He smiled slowly at her over the flowered teacup.
I am no barbarian, she thought testily. You might be one. She sniffed again and this time cared little if he guessed she was sniffing at him. All Jews are barbarians. Even if they—like Mr Disraeli—have been baptized.
There, she had said it! Well, only in her head. And having made the pronouncement, she went on silently, It is something they are born with. Eastern, oily, brilliant, full of unpronounceable magic, like that Rumplety fellow who spun straw into gold in the story Albert used to tell the children at bedtime.
Part of her knew that what she was thinking was as much a fairy tale as the Rumplety one. Her mama used to say that Jews had horns, if you felt the tops of their heads. But now she knew that Jews had no such thing as horns, just hair. Albert had taught her that. It was an old story, long discredited, unless you were some sort of peasant. Which I am certainly not!
She looked directly at Disraeli, which was another thing dear Albert had taught her. It always disarmed the politicians. No one expected the queen to look directly at a mere jumped-up nobody.
But Disraeli seemed to be paying her no mind, looking instead at his polished nails rather than at her, his ruler, which was rude in the extreme. She recalled suddenly how attentive he had been the first time he was prime minister. What had he said? Something about “We authors . . . ,” comparing his frothy romantic novels to her much more serious writing. She remembered that she had not been amused then. Or now.
She glared at him, willing him to look up. Those silly tangles of curls hung greasily almost to his shoulders. That arch of nose. Those staring eyes. She gave a little shudder, then quickly thought better of it and rang the bell for the server.
When the girl arrived, the queen said, “I have caught a chill, please bring me a shawl.” Then she leaned back against the chair as if she did, indeed, feel a bit ill.
Disraeli finally looked up briefly, then looked at his nails again and did not ask if there was something he might do for her.
Jews! the queen thought. No matter how long they have lived in England, converted, learned English, they remain a people apart, unknowable. She did not trust him. She dared not trust him. Even though he was her minister. Prime. Primo. First. But she would never say so. She would never let him know, never let them know. Instead, she would make everyone think she actually liked him. It was for the best.
He may be prime minister now, she thought fiercely, but soon he will be gone. All prime ministers disappear in time. Only I go on. Only I am England. It was an agreeable thought and made her face soften, seeming to become younger.
“Ma’am?” he inquired, just as if he could read her mind.
“More tea, Mr Disraeli?” She was careful to pronounce all the syllables in his name just as the archbishop—who knew Hebrew as if it were his mother tongue—had taught her.
Just then the girl came back with the shawl, curtsied, gave it to the queen, and left.
Disraeli smiled an alarmingly brilliant smile, his lips too wet. Those wet lips made her shiver. He looked as if he were preparing to eat her up, like some creature out of a tale. An ogre? A troll? A Tom Tit Tot? She could not remember.
“Yes, please, ma’am.” He was still smiling.
She served the tea. It was a homey gesture she liked to make when sitting with her gentlemen. Her PMs. It was to put them at ease in her presence. If they were comfortable, they were easier to manipulate. Albert didn’t teach her that. Long before they’d met, she had figured it out, though she was only a girl at the time.
Disraeli sat back in his chair, crossed his grasshopper-like legs, and took a long, deep sip of the Indian tea.
Does she really think, his mind whirling like a Catherine wheel shooting out sparks, that I do not know about her atlas with all its scribbles along the sides of the pages? Or the pretence at being the hausfrau entertaining her “gentlemen callers”? Or what she thinks of my people? He knew that in the queen’s eyes—in all their eyes—he would always be tarred by the Levant.
He thought about an article he’d recently read in Punch, that rag, something about a furniture sale, that outlandishly mocked Jews: their noses like hawks’, their money-hungry ways. He remembered one line of it where the good English Anglican buyer wrote, “Shall I escape without being inveigled into laying out money on a lot of things I don’t want?”
He made an effort to become calm, breathing deeply and taking another sip of the tea before letting himself return to the moment.
Is the queen really so unaware of all the house spies who report to me? The gossip below stairs? Her son who will tattle on Mama at the slightest provocation? Does she not recognise that I am the master of the Great Game?
Without willing it, his right hand began stroking his left, an actor’s gesture, not a gentleman’s. But his mind never stopped its whirl. He remembered that he and the queen had had this same conversation about the Irish the first time he’d been her minister. And then a similar discussion about the Afghanistan adventure. To her they were all barbarians. Only the English were not.
Well, she may have forgotten what we talked about, but not I. It had been his first climb to the top of the greasy pole of the political world, straight into the Irish situation. There was no forgetting that! He had a marvellous memory for all the details.
Leaning back in the chair, he stared at his monarch, moving his lips silently, but no words—no English words—could be heard.
Across the rosewood table the queen slowly melted like butter in a hot skillet. A few more Kabbalistic phrases and she reformed into a rather large toad dressed in black silk, with garish rings on either green paw.
“Delicious tea, ma’am,” Disraeli said distinctly. “From the Indies, I believe. Assam, I am certain.”
The toad, with a single crown jewel in her head, poured him a third cup of tea. “Ribbet!” she said.
Though, Disraeli mused, that is really what a frog says.
“Oh, I do agree, ma’am,” said Disraeli, “I entirely agree.” With a twist of his wrist, he turned her back into Victoria, monarch of Great Britain and Ireland, before anyone might come in and see her. It was not an improvement. However, such small distractions amused him on these necessary visits. He could not say as much for the sour, little, black-garbed queen.
The queen sat quietly while her lady’s maid pulled the silver brush through her hair. Tangles miraculously smoothed out, since she insisted that the maid put oil of lavender on the bristles.
“No one, ma’am, still uses lavender,” the woman, Martha, had said the first time she’d had the duty of brushing out the queen’s hair.
But Victoria had corrected her immediately. Best to start as one means to go on, she had thought. “I have used oil of lavender since I was a child, and I am not about to change now. I find the very scent soothing. It is almost magic.” She had suffered from the megrims since dear Albert had passed over, and only the lavender worked. Albert would have called that science and explained it to her, but she was quite certain magic was the better explanation.
“What do you think of Mr Disraeli, ma’am? Have you read his novels?”
“I do not have time to read novels, Martha,” the queen scolded, though she had indeed read Vivian Grey and found it lamentably lacking and exceedingly vulgar, and the ending positively brutal.
“But you read people so well, it must be like reading a book,” Martha said, her plain, little face scrunching up as she worked.
“I do indeed read them well,” Victoria said.
“And Mr Disraeli . . . ?”
“He is a puzzle,” the queen said, a bit distracted. Normally she would never discuss her prime minister with a servant. But she knew that Martha was discreet.
“Puzzles are meant to be solved, ma’am,” Martha ventured.
“Sometimes I think you are less a lady’s maid and more a fool, Martha.” Victoria turned and smiled. “And by that I mean no offence. I use the word in the old sense, like the fools who entertained the kings of England, with their wit and their wisdom.”
“I couldn’t be that kind of a fool, ma’am, being a mere woman.” Martha swiftly braided the queen’s hair and tied it with a band.
“Martha, did you not know that Queen Elizabeth had female fools?”
“No!” Martha’s hand flew up to cover her mouth. “The blessed Elizabeth!”
“And her cousin Mary of Scotland as well. In fact she had three.”
“I am tired. It has been a long day,” the queen said. “Leave me.”
“You will solve the puzzle of Mr Disraeli, ma’am,” Martha said, helping the little queen to stand and easing her to the bed.
“Indeed I will,” Victoria said, nodding her head vigorously. “Indeed I will.”
Martha was pleased to see that the band held the braid’s end. Some things she could do well. Even though she was a mere woman. Especially so.
Once home again at Hughenden, Disraeli could finally relax. He got into his writing clothes and headed out into the garden. As he walked the pathways, he nodded at one of the young gardeners, but said not a word. The servants all knew that when he was alone along the garden paths, going in the direction of his writing folly, he was not to be distracted.
No more playing at being the prime minister, he thought, and smiled to himself. I am to be a writer for a fortnight. He stopped, turned, looked back at his house, for once shining in the last rays of the day’s sun.
He cared little that the nearest neighbours had mocked the fanciful pinnacles of his house, calling it witheringly “the little redbrick palace.” It was his comfort and his heart’s home. He’d heard that pitiful epithet for the first time from Mary Anne right after he’d transformed the place. Evidently her lady’s maid had carried the tale to her and she then to him. She admitted it after he’d found her weeping in her beloved garden, sitting alone on a white bench.
Silly Peaches he called her because of her gorgeous skin, even though she was quite a few years older than he. “Silly Peaches, how does it matter what the unwashed masses say of the house. We adore it.” He’d sat down beside her and put his arms around her then. “You know I married you for your money, but would do it again in a moment for love.” In fact, as they both knew, she’d little money of her own. It had all been for love—the courtship, the marriage, the house.
Now that he was prime minister—again—the neighbours were creatively silent about the manor. And darling Mary Anne, dead these three years, couldn’t have carried tales to him about the foofaraw even if the neighbours had still been talking.
But, oh—I’d let them natter on if only you were still here beside me, he thought, brushing away an actual tear, which surprised him as he’d begun the gesture without knowing a tear was falling.
Walking along the twisting paths to his little garden house, the place where he wrote his novels, though not his speeches, he forced himself to stop thinking about Mary Anne. He had planned a fortnight to set down the final draft of a climactic chapter of Endymion that had been giving him the pip. As long as there was no new disaster in the making that he had to deal with, he would surely get it done. But, as he well knew, the prime minister’s vacations were often fraught.
Also, he wanted to read more about a particular sort of kabbalah that Rabbi Lowe had practised a century earlier. It was in a book he’d discovered in his father’s library many years ago, after the old man had passed away. With all the horror about Mary Anne’s death and the fuss about his being raised up again to PM, he’d misplaced the book and only recently rediscovered it.
What he knew about Kabbalah should have been deep enough already. He’d read a great deal about it. He understood the ten Sefirot, the division therein of intellect and emotion. He acknowledged as the Kabbalist did that there were forces that caused change in the natural world as well as corresponding emotional forces that drove people to change both the world and themselves. It was a fascinating idea, and he’d been playing with it for years.
First he had read about Kabbalah as an exercise in understanding where his ancestors had come from, and perhaps where his personal demons had come from as well, after an anti-Semitic taunt by O’Connell in Parliament to which he’d replied, “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the Right Honourable Gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”
He’d turned again to Kabbalah when Mary Anne had died, hoping to find solace in his reading. He had even built a Kabbalistic maze in the garden where her gravestone rested, thinking that walking it might give him some measure of peace.
Finally, he’d learned a few small Kabbalistic magics, such as the momentary transformation he’d done on the queen over tea. It was for a distraction, really, not that he put great store in magics. He put more in his ability to change England—and thus the world—by improving the conditions of the British people. As he often told his colleagues in the House of Commons, “The palace is unsafe if the cottage is unhappy.”
But it was only when he’d flung himself back into politics, back into the Great Game, that he realized why he’d really studied the old Hebrew magics.
“If I can learn the great miracles, not just the puny little transformations, I can make England rule the world.” He whispered the thought aloud, in the sure knowledge that no one was near enough to hear him. “And that will be good for the world, for Britain, and for the queen.”
So thinking, remembering, justifying, and planning, he finally got to the little folly he’d claimed for his writing. He stopped a minute, turned his back on the building, and surveyed his land. It still surprised him that he had such a holding having started from so little.
Then he turned, opened the door, and went inside, shutting out the world.
The queen was not amused. The prime minister was late. Very late. No prime minister had ever been late to a meeting with the queen. Neither the death of a spouse or a declaration of war sufficed as an excuse.
She tapped her fingers on the arm of her chair, though she resisted the urge to stand up and pace. It was not seemly for a queen to pace. Not seemly at all.
When Disraeli finally arrived, nearly a half hour after he was supposed to be there, in a flourish of grey morning coat and effete hand waves, she was even less amused. She allowed him to see her fury and was even more furious because of that, especially as he did not seem cowed by her anger.
“And where, Mr Disraeli, have you been?” She pointed imperiously at the clock, whose hands were set on nine twenty-five, in a frown similar to her own. She had already had tea and three small slices of tea cake, two more than were absolutely necessary. Another black mark on his copybook.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I’m afraid I overslept.” His face was pinched as if he hadn’t slept at all.
“Afraid . . . you . . . over . . . slept?” Each word was etched in ice. She no longer cared that she was showing how much anger she felt. She was the queen after all. “Have you not a man servant to wake you?” It was unheard of, in his position.
“I was writing late into the night, ma’am,” he said by way of explanation, sweat now beading his brow. “In my garden folly. My servants know never to disturb me there. I fell asleep.”
“In . . . your . . . garden . . . folly?” She could not find the words to set this thing aright between them, watching in horror as he took out a silvergrey handkerchief that matched his coat and wiped his brow.
“I could . . . show you the folly if you like, ma’am. It would be a great honour if you would visit Hughenden.” He took an awkward breath. “There is a superb maze I can commend to you. It is a replica of the Great Maze mentioned in the Bible.”
The queen could not think where in the Bible a maze was mentioned, and her hand went—all unaccountably—to her mouth as she used to do as a child when asked a question she should have been able to answer but couldn’t. This was, of course, before she had become queen. Long before.
“King David’s dancing floor,” he said, as if he saw her confusion and sought to explain it to her.
She remembered King David dancing, but she thought that was simply done before the ark, not on any kind of dancing floor. There was a dancing floor in one of the Greek myths, she distantly recalled. Then she blushed furiously, suddenly remembering that King David had danced naked before the ark. It made her even angrier with Disraeli.
The gall of the man, saying such a thing to a lady. Saying it to the queen! She waved him away with her hand, waited to see him go.
Instead, his own hand described a strange arc in the air. She wondered if he was drawing the maze for her. She wondered why he did not leave. She felt dizzy.
“More tea?” she croaked, at the same moment realizing that he’d had none before. Her hand went a second time to her mouth and she felt sick. If she had been a man, she would have uttered a swear, one of the Scottish ones John Brown had taught her. They were perfect for every occasion.
The only way out of this situation, Disraeli thought, is to go further in. He turned the queen into a toad for a second time. He knew he must never do it a third. She might just stick that way. But at least it would buy him a little time. Time to figure out his next move, a move that—should it prove successful—would be for the glory of England and the queen. Would possibly mean an earldom for himself, though such would be worth so much less without Mary Anne alive to be his lady. Still, a peerage was hardly the reason he was doing this thing.
There is danger of course, he thought. There is always a danger in such grand gestures. And such great magic.
He’d stayed up all night thinking about all the aspects. He’d even written them down, the reasons for and against. The reasons for far outweighed the rest. His plan simply had to work.
The toad looked at him oddly, its green hands wrangling together. The jewel in its head is what had given him the original idea, that moment a week ago when he’d first turned the queen into the creature.
He didn’t regret doing so then nor now. He might, he knew, regret it in the future. But that was part of the chance he had to take, for this was, indeed, the Great Game.
“Ah, Peaches,” he whispered, “in the end it’s all for love.” Love of queen and country, he thought, though goodness knows she was a difficult woman to love, black-garbed Victoria, the Widow of Windsor, as the papers called her. A child and a grandmother at one and the same time. Silly, small in temperament and understanding. Her mind only goes forward or back. Never up and down. Never through the twisting corridors like . . . like his own mind, he supposed. She simply isn’t interested in . . . well, everything. His mouth turned down like hers. Albert, at least, had had a more original mind if a bit . . . he smiled . . . well, Germanic.
He made another quick hand signal, and the queen became human again. Just in time.
“Fresh tea is here, ma’am,” he said as the girl came in with the pot on a tray. “Shall I pour or will you?” He put a bit of persuasion in her cup, a simple enough bit of magic, along with the two lumps of sugar. He wasn’t certain it would help, but knew it couldn’t hurt, something his mother used to say all the time.
The Queen was a bit uncomfortable at Hughenden Manor. All that red brick, she thought with a shudder. All those strange Gothicisms. Still, she did nothing but compliment the prime minister. His taste was—the redbrick house notwithstanding—actually quite good. Looking back at the house, though, gave her a headache, so she looked ahead at the garden path.
To be fair—she always liked to think of herself as fair—the ground-floor reception rooms with their large plate-glass windows are delightful. And the south-facing terrace, overlooking the grassy parterre, has spectacular views over the valley. She said it to plant the words firmly in mind for when she spoke of the house later to her family. She wondered where Disraeli had made his money, worried that it might have been in trade. It can’t have been from those books. She shuddered.
The day was cool but not cold, the skies overcast but not yet raining.
“A lovely afternoon for a walk in the garden, ma’am,” Disraeli said.
For once she agreed. Though she was used to her black garments, her stays, they made walking in the summer heat unbearable. Usually, she would be tucked up in her bedroom, a lavender pomander close by, ice chips in a glass of lemonade.
“Lovely indeed.” She put her hand on his arm, which allowed him to help her along, he straight-backed and she nodding approvingly at the gardeners and subgardeners busy at work but who stood appropriately and bowed as she passed.
Well done, she thought.
The gardens, while not nearly as extensive as her own, of course, were nicely plotted and cared for, the grass perfectly cut and rolled. The flowers—banks of primroses, and a full complement of bedding plants— were in the formal part of the garden surrounding a great stone fountain. She must remember to ask about the fountain later when Disraeli would certainly introduce her to the head gardener.
There was also a lovely, intimate orchard of apples and pears, only a few of them espaliered, as well as a fine small vinery. None of it was too much. It was rather perfect, and the controlled perfection annoyed her slightly. She wanted to find something to scold him for, or to tease him about, and could not.
Disraeli was in full spate about the gardens, the plants, the hedges and sedges, the blooms. But as they headed toward the folly and the maze beyond, he grew unaccountably silent.
I do hope he has no political agenda on his mind, she thought a bit sniffily. It would not do to spoil a lovely day out of doors with such talk. She simply would not allow it.
She was still thinking about this when the sun came out and she be- gan to perspire. It gave her something else to gnaw on.
Now that he’d enticed the queen into the garden, and they were approaching the maze, Disraeli was suddenly full of apprehensions. What if it is dangerous? Or if not actually dangerous, perhaps wrong? Or if not wrong, perhaps even unsupportable. He had tested the maze many times over the last few weeks, using first an undergardener, then his secretary, even his dog. They were all easily tricked into doing his bidding, by a sort of autosuggestion. Only it wasn’t like that German impostor Mesmer a century earlier. There was real magic in the maze. It made the things he wanted to happen, happen.
But, he thought, the worry turning into a stone in his stomach, this is the queen, not an undergardener or a secretary. He felt the pressure of her hand on his arm and turned to give her his most brilliant smile. She may be resistant to the magic. She may not be so suggestible. She is possibly . . .
Then he saw a bead of sweat on her brow and chuckled inwardly. A queen I have twice turned into a toad with a jewel in its head, he reminded himself. She is as human as I. “Ma’am?”
“Are we almost there, Mr Disraeli?” she asked, like a child in a carriage agonizing about the rest of a long trip.
He wondered if the heat was getting too much for her. All that black silk. And she is no longer a slender, young thing.
“Just on the other side of that small rise,” he said, pointing with his left hand, past the folly that commanded the top of the little hill. “There is a bench at the centre of the maze that will make the perfect garden throne. You shall rule my garden, ma’am, and my heart from there.”
“Then I shall have to solve the maze quickly, to get to that throne.” She smiled winningly up at him, almost as if they were a courting pair.
“All thrones in England belong to you, ma’am. And in the Empire as well.” There, his plan was begun.
He recalled saying to a friend long ago, during his first turn as prime minister, that the way to handle the queen was that one must, first of all, remember that she is a woman. He had all but forgotten his own advice over the past few years, so he added, “If I had my way, you would rule the world.” Everyone likes flattery, and when you come to royalty, you should lay it on with a trowel. Step two in his plan. He wondered if he was succeeding in planting the seed.
She patted his hand. “Perhaps that would overreaching, even for you, Mr Disraeli.” But she said it lightly, as if she hadn’t dismissed the notion entirely, nor should he. “To the maze then.”
“You are, ma’am, the quickest woman at puzzles I have ever known. I think you will have no trouble at all with my little maze.” He knew he had, indeed, laid it on with a trowel, but evidently he had said the exact right thing for she was grinning broadly.
“So I have been told, and recently. Though you are the maze, dear sir.”
He had no idea what she meant and no reason at all to follow up the conversation.
They walked on, she clinging even more tightly to his arm.
At the top of the rise, she stopped as if to admire the view, which was quite lovely. But really, it was so she could catch her breath. Below, where the hillock smoothed out once again, was the maze. It did not look particularly difficult to her. She could see immediately straight into the heart of it.
Lightly, as if she were once more the girl she had been when she ascended the throne, she let go of Disraeli’s arm and began to run down the hill, a kind of giddiness sending her forward.
She gave no thought to the man behind her. She never gave any thought to the men behind her. Not even dear Albert. Or dear Mr Brown.
Her delighted laughter trailed behind her like the tail of a kite.
Disraeli was overcome with fear, and it almost riveted him to the top of the hill. The queen, corseted and bonneted, was bouncing along like an errant ball let loose by a careless boy. Any moment she might come crashing down, and with it, all his dreams.
He was the careless boy, letting the ball go. What had he been thinking! This was madness. All his calculations for naught. The maze all by itself was exerting a gravitational pull on the queen, and neither he—nor God, he supposed—knew how it was going to end.
He pulled himself loose of his fear and began to run after her. “Ma’am!” he cried. “Take care. The stones . . . the hill . . . the . . .”
But he needn’t have worried. She reached the bottom without misstep and threaded through the maze as if it were a simple garden walk. Before he was down at the hill’s bottom himself, she was already sitting on the stone bench, huffing a bit from the run, her face flushed, a tendril of greying hair having escaped from the bonnet and now caressing her right cheekbone.
“Ma’am,” he said when he got to the centre, “are you all right?”
“Never better.” She looked, somehow, years younger, lighter, happier.
She held out her hand and he knelt.
He realized then how foolish he had been, playing about with kab- balistic magic. She was the royal here, as high as King David. He knew now that he was only a minor rabbi in this play. Of course she can command the magic, whether or not she knows it is here.
“What you will, ma’am.”
“I will be an empress.” She smiled down at him. “But I will not ask to be higher, not like the foolish old woman in the story Albert used to tell the children.”
“I can make you an empress, ma’am. But will you allow me one question?”
“Of course I will allow it.”
Still kneeling, he asked, “What story, ma’am?” He wondered if he would ever understand this woman.
“She wanted to be God,” the queen mused.
“Why would anyone want to be God? It’s a terrible occupation.”
“Ah—that is two questions, dear man. And that I will not allow.” But she was joking, he could tell, for a coy smile hesitated at the corners of her mouth.
He felt he was back in familiar territory and grinned at her. “I will make you Empress of India, ma’am. It will be the jewel in your crown.” He dismissed the toad out of mind. It was as if the toad had never happened. “Forti nihil difficle.”
“Nothing is difficult to the strong. That will be a fine start,” she answered. “Now get off your knees, man, we have work to do.”
The queen looked at Disraeli, at his sweet curls, his liquid eyes. She thought that she liked him best of any of her prime ministers. And if he did somehow manage to make her Empress of India, pushing it through a recalcitrant House of Commons, why, she was certain that she could find him his just reward.
He has, she thought, a most original mind. Funny, I have only now noticed. It’s just like Albert’s, if a tiny bit more . . . more . . .
She could not think what, until finally it came to her . . . more Jewish.
That made her laugh.
And he, standing up at last, laughed, too, though whether he quite understood the joke was another matter altogether.
About “The Jewel in the Toad Queen’s Crown”
My interest in Disraeli and Queen Victoria began a number of years ago when I included the scene of his turning Victoria into a toad within a much longer story called “The Barbarian and the Queen, Thirteen Views.” I always wanted to revisit, rewrite, and reimagine those few short paragraphs in a longer story, so when the invitation came for this anthology, I jumped at the chance.
In 1876, Disraeli did make Victoria Empress of India, and India became known as the Jewel in the Crown. She conferred upon him the title of first Earl of Beaconsfield that same year, a title he held until his death five years later, though in private she called him Dizzy. As he lay dying, Victoria asked to come and see him. But he wrote back saying, “No, it is better not.” To his secretary he said, “She would only ask me to take a note to Albert.” When he died, Victoria sent a wreath “from his grateful and affectionate Sovereign and friend, Victoria R.I.,” the I standing for “India.” She lived for twenty more years after Disraeli and never forgot him. If that odd friendship came out of mutual admiration, mutual interests, or magic, it is not for me to say. I only speculate.
“The Jewel in the Toad Queen's Crown” copyright © 2013 by Jane Yolen