The Hidden Evil by Barbara Cartland is the third, and likely the last, of her romances that I will read. This novel was longer than the two previous ones I had read, so Cartland spent more time developing her story and the characters didn’t seem to fall in love instantaneously. Sheena McCraggan is a young woman who is sent to France to be a companion to the very young Mary Stuart, also know as Mary Queen of Scots. Life at sixteenth-century French court was abounding in lascivious affairs, where everyone from the servants to the king himself was getting it on with whoever crossed his or her path. The palace was overrun with lechery. Sheena is first taken aback by all this unwanted attention yet comes to accept it as part and parcel of court life. I had a chuckle over a remark made by her accompanying servant Maggie, who, speaking in Scots dialect, commented on the sorry state of Sheena’s wardrobe:
“‘But, Mistress Sheena, ’tis crazy!’ Maggie expostulated. ‘When they asked last night for your measurements I was that happy, for I knew even before we left home that your clothes were not right. Och, I’m not saying that your father didna fork from his pocket as much as he could afford, or that Mistress Macleod didna sew to the very best o’ her ability. But one look at the ladies that ye see here must ha’ told ye that ye look a rare scarecrow with your narrow skirts and thick woollen shawls.'”
The most suspenseful moment occurred when Sheena is captured by a group of peasants who mistake her for the king’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, the Duchesse de Valentinois. The Duchesse is reviled among the peasantry for her undue influence over the king. Sheena is bound and tied and set to burn in an auto-da-fé. Flames lap at her toes yet she is rescued by the Duc de Salvoire, whom she is torn over but admits in passionate exclamations that she really truly loves.
The Duc comes to her rescue once again when Sheena, (for there could be no one more tragically unfortunate in any romance novel) is drugged and made part of a black mass ritual where, among the various other satanic rites, is stripped naked and a rooster is sacrificed over her. Its blood is poured all over her body. I could only picture Cartland, reclining on her chaise longue with her lapdog in its appropriate anatomical place, writing (or rather, dictating this story to her secretaries) and getting worked up over devil worship. How anyone could survive being almost burned at the stake and then make it out alive from a satanic black mass, without later wanting to kill herself, I do not know. Yet there is no spoiler in revealing that Sheena and the Duc decide to marry and escape the French palace of horrors and travel the world in peace and happiness.