Authors: Sandra Heath Wilson
‘Sweet God above, what a fool I have been. I should have known! Things become clear suddenly.’
‘You should not be faced with such a thing.’
‘You think me too fragile?’ He smiled.
‘It is just another thing to be a weight upon you.’
‘And your silence has been because you think of me?’
‘I will always think of you.’
He drew a long breath. ‘Cicely, I will have to take steps to—’
‘Do not punish her,’ she said quickly. ‘She cannot help her feelings, and if you turn your back . . .’
‘I have to do
Cicely. I can hardly continue to behave like the only idiot in the village. That is certainly how I must have appeared until now, I think.’
‘It is talk. No more.’
‘But not talk I would wish to continue. You do see that?’
She nodded. ‘Yes, I know. Oh, I feel so guilty. I have broken her confidence, and now it is on your shoulders too. I am so sorry.’
‘I should have had my wits about me, but it simply did not occur to me that . . .’
‘A niece could desire her uncle?’
‘Something of the sort.’
He was the King of England, but had an allure that breached boundaries. There was no side to him, nothing that could ever lead to mistrust. He eclipsed everyone around him. Had any other king ever been as natural and gracious? She did not know how long she had gazed at him, until he teased her again.
‘Does my appearance meet with your approval, my lady?’
She coloured again. ‘Yes.’
‘And yours with mine.’
‘About Bess . . .’
‘I will not hurt her, Cicely, save by not being able to return her affection. I cannot view her in that light. She must understand that.’
‘She does, but it is not always possible to fall out of love.’
His grey eyes were almost luminous. ‘Oh, that is something I know only too well. Go now, because I think John is waiting.’
Cicely withdrew, feeling all that was disloyal to her sister, but it was done now and could not be undone. Then she saw John, and all else went from her mind as she ran to him. Jack had gone.
When Cicely next saw Bess, it was to learn that Richard had already sent for her.
‘Cissy, I managed to turn the situation to my own advantage, but it cannot last too long, I fear. I admitted I was in love with someone already married, and said I accepted that the man in question would always be beyond my reach. I then asked Richard if he would stay his decision until I was over the heartbreak.’ Bess blinked back tears. ‘He said he would speak to me again when the New Year was well on its way. Jesu, if only he knew that it was
whom I longed for,
whom I loved so!’
Cicely could not meet her eyes, for he
know. ‘He is our uncle,’ she said.
‘And do I not realize it. He was a little . . . changed, I thought. As if he did not feel entirely at ease with me. Do you think someone has told him, Cissy?’
‘I . . . cannot say. Possibly.’ Cicely felt dreadful.
‘I do pray not.’
‘Did he ask you the identity of your mysterious love?’
‘No. Strangely. He simply said that when I was ready, he would proceed with the Desmond match.’ Bess drew a long breath. ‘I was so tempted to tell him the truth.’
‘Maybe the earl will be to your liking, Bess.’
‘No one can be to my liking. Only Richard.’
It was Christmas
and the tables in the dining hall groaned beneath their great load of festive delicacies. The banquet was lavish, the food sumptuous and the company brilliant as Richard’s court celebrated the season. The spangled gathering made merry to the full. Everyone was there, except Bess. So many minstrels, jugglers, tumblers and fools performed that it was difficult to know which to watch or listen to first. The great hall rang with merriment, the noise was deafening and the spiced smell of the dishes still lay heavily upon the warm air. To Cicely, now so happy with John, the atmosphere was as sweet as nectar.
Richard had remained true to his decision on returning to London after his son’s death. There had been no mourning, only a celebration of his lost child’s life. He was bright, brilliant even, and gave no sign at all of what was in his mind. To many, especially Cicely, it was as touching as if he had enveloped himself in swathes of unrelieved black. Others saw it as callous disregard for the dead, especially those like Lady Stanley, who was always ready to defame him.
Cicely sat immediately below the royal dais, with her mother on one side and Robert Percy on the other. John stood behind his father and the queen. Cicely was wearing the blush gown, and it felt good. She was also wearing John’s ring, no longer around her neck, but on her right hand—not her left—for all to see. Word had spread of Richard having agreed to her marriage to John, but somehow it was not yet out about Bess’s proposed contract with the Earl of Desmond. This resulted, as always, in renewed whispers about why Bess had not yet been matched. Even the third of Edward IV’s daughters had been found a future husband, but not Bess, the first. And now she was absent from the celebrations. Richard was subjected to continual glances. If he had looked towards the top of the steps, everyone would have believed he anticipated his eldest niece. But he did not look.
Robert’s green eyes twinkled with laughter as he held a dish of cheesecakes before Cicely. ‘You sit there without eating, my lady. Will you not partake? I vow they are the finest ever baked.’
‘You are kind, sir, but I am too nervous to eat.’
‘Nervous? Why so?’ He discarded the cheesecakes and lifted a small dish of flowers of violet instead. ‘Then these surely cannot offend.’
She took some of the sweet confection, and paused. ‘I do not really know why I feel like this,’ she confessed.
‘Then you have no business feeling it at all,’ he declared firmly.
She smiled and slipped the confection into her mouth, but as she savoured the honey taste, a great roar of approval was raised as the final great dish of the banquet, called a subtlety, was carried in upon a golden platter and placed before Richard and the queen. Such dishes were served at the end of every course of a banquet, but this one was the most splendid of all. The exquisite mixture of sugar and eggs was formed into the shape of the Virgin and Child, and was particularly beautiful.
Richard laughed aloud when he saw it, and lifted his goblet in a toast. The cheers that followed made known the court’s delight. After that his attention was required to other small ceremonies, and John moved closer to engage the queen’s attention.
Anne wore the cherry and gold gown, but seemed lost inside it. There was a trace of her beauty, but it was very faint, and she tried so hard to be strong but had often reached for Richard’s hand. It was something Cicely found hard to watch, because he was being deceived. John was dressed in green, the green of Sherwood, and his father’s badge was on his collar. He smiled at his stepmother, and was as kind and attentive as Richard himself would have been.
The king missed nothing. His hand went momentarily to John’s arm, a gesture of appreciation even while he was diverted by so much else, and in that small moment, that fleeting acknowledgement from father to son, Cicely loved them both all the more. She had believed herself happy in her father’s court, but the court of her uncle, Richard III, made her even happier.
Glancing around, she saw Jack, who raised his cup to her and winked. His almost black curls were as untrammelled as ever, and his dark brown eyes had that lazy warmth that could so easily seem to caress. She found herself blushing. Everything about roguish Jack de la Pole suggested he was a consummate lover. He was said to have left a trail of broken hearts behind him, and she could well believe it. Had she herself not wondered what it would be like to lie with him?
Many of Richard’s friends and supporters were present tonight, and his true allies, but she knew Margaret, Lady Stanley, was not his only enemy. There was perfidy in the air, intercepted glances, pursed lips, bland faces that gave nothing away, except perhaps to the Devil. She could hardly bear to think of Richard being surrounded by false friends as well as implacable enemies. Why could they not see what a good king he was? How he was essential to England? Why did they not see him as she did? And if that were beyond them, why did
not deal with them as her father would have done?
She was unswerving in her support for Richard. Left to her, he would not long have such enemies.
She needed distraction from such dark thoughts, and what better distraction could there be than John? Richard’s attention was all on Anne again, and so John returned to sit with Cicely, Sir Robert Percy making room for him. If John were legitimate, she thought, he would be a truly worthy heir to his father’s throne. He still was, if such a thing were to ever be permitted. She smiled then, because if he were legitimate,
would not be allowed to marry him! There could not be an illegitimate Queen of England. It was another thought she did not wish to entertain, because for John to be king, Richard would have to be dead.
John turned to her suddenly. ‘Why has not Bess come down?’
‘I think she must be indisposed,’ Cicely replied tactfully.
‘Perhaps you should go to her. My father has asked where she is.’
‘He has?’ Cicely’s heart sank.
‘Yes, and knowing him, he is likely to ask again. He expects his brother’s eldest children to be here tonight.’
What of Edward and Dickon?
Cicely could not help the thought, for although Richard had permitted her mother to visit the princes at the Tower on one occasion, no one else had been so allowed. They were lodged in the Garden Tower which apparently suited them admirably as they could indulge in all manner of boyish activities in the bushes and gardens which surrounded it. Dickon was full of his apparent prowess at archery, and Richard’s Constable of the Tower, Sir Robert Brackenbury, was well liked by them both. He took them occasionally to the Lion Tower and permitted them to watch the king’s leopards and suchlike beasts that were kept there.
Now the boys were not seen at all, and Richard had told her, in the strictest confidence, that he had sent them elsewhere for fear of another attempt to abduct them, such as John Welles had attempted just before Buckingham’s rebellion. Welles, although free, had now fled the country and was said to be in Brittany with his half-nephew, Henry Tudor.
A little whispering had begun about the princes’ whereabouts. Or their dreadful fate. It was beginning to be suggested that their disappearance indicated a dark deed had been done at Richard’s command, and their failure to be seen only fanned these nascent flames. Cicely had urged Richard to produce her brothers and put a stop to it, but he had not, preferring to keep them safe in obscurity. Maybe he was right, but somehow she did not think he was.
John sensed what she was thinking. ‘Your brothers are safe, Cicely. My father would never harm them. You know that as well as me.’
Cicely managed a little smile. ‘I know, for he has told me so, and I believe him. I always do. I wish they could be free and here now, though. Well, one of them. Dickon is all I could wish for, but Edward is . . . an odious little sack of self-importance.’
John was taken aback. ‘Really? You have not said that before.’
‘No, because I have always hoped he would change, but when Mother saw him at the Tower she said he was as irksome as ever. Apparently he behaves as if he is still the only person of importance in England. It is time for him to accept his new lot. I have had to.’
‘How very disapproving you are,’ John said sternly.
She smiled. ‘And in the season of goodwill. Shame on me.’
He bent to kiss her cheek. ‘You are perfect in my eyes, Cicely Plantagenet.’
‘And you in mine,’ she whispered, closing her eyes with the pleasure of his lips against her skin.
Something made him glance up at a gallery behind the royal dais, and she saw the three small, very sleepy faces of her youngest sisters peeping through the carved balustrade. They had been brought from Sheen to enjoy the Christmas festivities. He took her hand and they hurried up to speak to them. Little Bridget was almost asleep, but five-year-old Katherine squealed with delight and ran to them.
John caught her and swung her up high. ‘Well now, my little lady, and how are you enjoying the celebrations?’
Katherine was excited. ‘It is all so pretty. The ladies are so beautiful. One day I shall have a gown that is like a rainbow, and lots of jewels, and I will dance with all the princes.’
‘Slow down, sweeting,’ he laughed, ‘for you must grow a little first. There is plenty of time yet! ‘ He put her down and turned to see young Ann—whom everyone called Annie—still peeping over into the hall. ‘And what of you, Annie, do you try to seek your future lord in that crowd?’
The nine-year-old slate-blue eyes turned fully towards him and she smiled shyly. ‘I have tried, but I cannot see Thomas Howard. Do you think he will be handsome? Maybe he is not here tonight. I hoped he would be. I want to be a duchess one day.’ Pouting, she looked at the hall again. ‘If I was old enough I would be down there dancing and not sitting in my room in a sulk like Bess.’
Cicely was concerned. ‘A sulk?’
‘She is dressed for the banquet but will not go down. She told me to go away. I think she has been crying.’
John looked quickly at Cicely, and with a nod she slipped away.
She found her sister alone by the fire, and the sight of her took Cicely’s breath away. Bess was wearing the gown of cherry and silver brocade. At her throat shone a diamond necklet with a solitary black drop pearl, and her hair was held back by a small lace cap.
Caught unawares by her arrival, Bess struggled to compose herself. ‘What brings you here, Cissy?’
‘Annie told us that you were unwell. I have left John with our sisters. Why have you not come down, Bess?’ Cicely sat in a chair opposite.
Bess smiled wryly. ‘Can you not see for yourself? I did go as far as the gallery, but when I saw the queen, I could go no further. Cissy, the gowns are far too similar. I dare not present myself because it will look as if I seek to challenge Anne. Everyone talks of me as it is without it being any worse.’
‘Bess, the king has noticed your absence.’
Bess closed her eyes. ‘My absence, but not me.’
‘Do not pick my words apart, Bess. He has noticed, and John believes he may ask again because he expects you to be there as well as me. You cannot stay away. Come, you will be with me, and with John, I am sure, for he knows nothing of it all and will gladly stand beside you.’
‘You have not told him?’
‘That my sister wants to bed his father? I think not. Whether or not he knows from elsewhere I do not know. He has never said anything, or indicated anything.’
Bess rose unwillingly. ‘I will do as you advise, Cissy, but I think it is a mistake. Perhaps if I change the gown. . . ?’
‘Richard chose it. He remembers so many things that it is quite possible he will remember that as well. Stay as you are, and outface them all.’
‘I am not as brave as you. Maybe I once was, but no longer.’
‘You are Father’s favourite daughter, Bess. That is all you need, remember.’
John awaited them and was clearly taken aback by the gown. He looked enquiringly at Cissy, who answered, ‘The king chose it.’
He did not say any more as he accompanied the sisters to the foot of the great staircase. There was a considerable stir, but to Cicely’s relief Richard was engaged in conversation with Francis Lovell and Robert Percy. He did not even seem to notice the change in the atmosphere.
The revels faltered, but then continued, with the music, dancing and entertainments. Everyone watched Bess, but discreetly, as John conducted the sisters to where their mother was seated. Elizabeth’s eyes flickered angrily over the gown but she inclined her head civilly enough. What else could she do?
Once Bess had taken her seat, her eyes lowered to the floor, her hands clasped in her lap, John led Cicely out to join the dancing. He spoke every time they twisted past each other. ‘You did not mention the gown.’
‘The king chose it,’ she repeated.
‘The devil he did.’ John glanced towards his father.
‘He did not know.’
‘Oh, I am sure of that.’
He glanced at her. ‘I
heard the whispers about her feelings for him,’ he said quietly.
Richard had perhaps not been as unconscious of events as perhaps seemed, for he glanced around at Bess, saw the gown, and then looked quickly at Anne. Although his face did not change, Cicely knew he had forgotten choosing Bess’s brocade, and how dismayed he now was. He looked at Sir Francis and said something. Francis nodded and moved swiftly towards Bess, bowed, and clearly requested her to dance. Richard then turned to Anne, leaning closer to speak to her. She too looked at Bess, and then put her hand over his sleeve. Cicely saw her fingers tighten, as if in reassurance, and knew he had asked her forgiveness for his part in his niece’s gown.
‘Poor king,’ she whispered, forgetting to dance, as Richard himself had done on that other occasion. She could have wept for him, and John led her swiftly from the floor.
‘It is not
fault, sweeting,’ he said gently, proffering a handkerchief.
‘John, I feel everything so keenly where he is concerned. I cannot bear it when he tries hard to do the right thing, yet finds himself in a pit.’