Before the Crown Page 1

Author: Flora Harding

Genres: Historical

Chapter 1

Windsor Castle, December 1943

He’s not there.

Elizabeth has her eye pressed to the chink in the curtains. The velvet is worn and smells musty. It reeks of mothballs and greasepaint, of old productions carefully rehearsed, suppressed giggles, and first night nerves.

In front of the stage, she can see the audience beginning to fill up the rows of chairs. Some are taking their seats in deferential silence, others look around, defiantly casual about finding themselves in the castle. The splendid gilt of the Waterloo Chamber is dulled now by neglect, its walls stripped of famous portraits, but it retains plenty of its original grandeur. The carpets had been rolled up and stored at the beginning of the war, and now the great hall echoes with the scraping of chairs, the subdued burble of conversation, and the clearing of throats.

The front row is empty still.

‘Is he here?’ Margaret whispers, crowding at her shoulder.

‘Not yet.’ Elizabeth steps back from the curtains, disappointment a leaden weight in her stomach which is already rolling queasily with anticipation and stage fright. This will be the fifth performance of Aladdin, and though she knows all her lines, still there is that moment when the curtains are hauled back and the terror of failure clutches at her throat.

‘Let me see.’ Margaret elbows her sister aside and takes her place at the curtain as if she can conjure Prince Philip of Greece into space by the sheer force of her will.

Sometimes Margaret’s will is so strong, Elizabeth almost believes she could succeed but on this occasion her sister’s drooping shoulders indicate failure. She lets the curtains drop back into place and turns back to the stage, kicking at her satin skirts.

‘Papa said Philip would come,’ she pouts.

‘For Christmas,’ Elizabeth reminds her, trying to disguise the dullness in her voice. ‘He didn’t promise to come for the pantomime. Something may have come up.’

Margaret stares. ‘Something more important than joining the King and Queen to watch their two daughters perform?’

‘Philip’s a prince. He’s not going to be impressed by a couple of princesses.’ It is Elizabeth’s secret worry. She has spent her whole life being special, and now, the one time it matters, she may not be – at least, not for Philip.

It’s been two years since Philip of Greece took tea with the King and Queen. Elizabeth and Margaret sat enthralled as he entertained them with his wartime experiences at sea, deliberately making light of his own part and playing up the funny side of things. For Elizabeth, whose only memory of Philip up to that point had been of a bumptious cadet who had showed off terribly, it had been a revelation. The swaggering boy had been replaced by a young man who was everything a prince should be: brave, witty, charming.

And handsome. The memory of those penetrating blue eyes has been a tiny, insistent throb inside her ever since.

Not long afterwards, the royal family were invited to a party at Coppins, where Philip was staying with his cousin, Marina, Duchess of Kent. Philip asked Elizabeth to dance, either out of kindness or out of duty. She knew that much. She was fifteen and tongue-tied, burningly aware of his hand at her waist, his palm pressed against hers.

She is seventeen now. She longs for him to see that she has grown up.

‘He ought to want to come and see us,’ says Margaret stubbornly. She’s been looking forward to impressing him with her acting skills. ‘Especially you,’ she adds, uncharacteristically ceding centre stage to Elizabeth. ‘He’s been writing to you.’

‘Sometimes.’ Ever cautious, Elizabeth won’t even admit to her sister how she has pounced on Philip’s rare letters, how many times she has read and reread them, smoothing out the creases in the paper. They have told her nothing because what could they say? That he has remembered her, that’s all. But it has been enough. ‘He probably writes to lots of people.’

‘Lilibet, you’re going to be Queen of England one day. You are not “lots of people”.’ Exasperated, Margaret stalks across the stage, her heels clacking on the wooden boards.

‘Margaret!’ There is a hiss from the back of the stage where Crawfie, their governess, is beckoning. ‘You too, Lilibet. The King and Queen are just coming in now. You need to take your places for the show.’

Elizabeth draws a breath. It doesn’t matter that Philip isn’t here. She will not be disappointed. He is coming for Christmas. She will see him soon.

Beyond the curtains she can hear the rumble and scrape of chairs being pushed back as the audience stands for her parents.

‘Quick, into the basket!’ Cyril Woods scampers across the stage. Elizabeth likes him. He is jaunty and bright-eyed, and he dances and sings nearly as well as Margaret. The two of them carry her scenes, Elizabeth knows. She learns her lines and moves when she is supposed to, but she doesn’t have Margaret’s dazzle. Next to her sister, she is muted, dull. That is how she feels, anyway.

But she is the elder; she will be Queen. So she has the starring role. It is Elizabeth who is playing Aladdin, in a shockingly short jacket and tights that make her feel very exposed. Margaret is Princess Roxana, which she doesn’t mind as she gets to wear a gorgeously embroidered silk robe and a tiara.

For the opening scene, they are to jump out of a huge laundry basket. The back has been cut out so they can crouch behind it. There isn’t much room and Cyril keeps touching her leg by accident. ‘Sorry,’ he mutters. ‘Sorry.’

Elizabeth’s heart is thudding. Oh, how she hates this moment before the curtain goes up! Her mind has gone blank. Her costume is too tight and she can’t remember a single line. The wicker basket is tickling her cheek and her legs are already stiffening. As the Guards’ orchestra strikes up the fanfare, she is gripped by the longing to leap up and bolt from the stage, to run out into the Upper Ward and down to the stables. To ride far, ride fast, to a place where there is no one to fail and no one to please and no duty to be done.

But she cannot do that. The show is one of the few contributions she can make to the war effort. Proceeds will go to the Royal Household Knitting Wool Fund to provide comforts for the troops who are fighting for their country, Elizabeth reminds herself sternly. They aren’t allowed to run away. All that is being asked of her is to sing and dance. What kind of example would she set if she were to refuse even that?

It is too late now in any case. The orchestra is reaching a crescendo, the drums are rolling and there is a swishing of velvet and a creaking of ropes as the curtains are hauled back.

‘You’re on!’ Cyril jabs Elizabeth in the side and she springs up, tossing the lid of the basket aside. Her sudden appearance provokes laughter, which increases as Margaret pops up beside her, but Elizabeth doesn’t even notice.

Philip is in the front row, sitting next to her mother, and he is looking right at her. His expression is astounded and a smile is just starting to curve his cool mouth.

Elizabeth’s heart swells. Her doubts are forgotten. All at once she can sparkle like Margaret. Her feet are lighter, her smile brighter. She can dance, she can sing. She can arch a brow and cast a knowing look at the audience.

She can make Philip laugh.

He is there. That is all that matters.

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