Authors: Sandra Heath Wilson
She turned with a start. He was leaning carelessly against the carved stonework of a pillar, an attitude so reminiscent of his father that she almost gasped. He was in the shadows, his fair hair dulled by the dim light, and he was curious. ‘What is it, Coz, do you see a ghost?’ Even his low laugh was Richard’s. He straightened and came closer, his hair restored to its silver-fair colour in the light from wall torches and the great wheel-rim candle holders suspended overhead.
‘I—I must apologize, sir,’ she managed to say, feeling gauche. ‘It is merely that you were so like your father just then that it quite startled me.’
‘It is no king you see before you, Cicely, only poor John of Gloucester, your devoted cousin and servant!’ He bowed extravagantly, and then hesitated. ‘Have I presumed by addressing you by name?’
She looked into his eyes again. ‘No, sir, you do not.’ She felt hot, because she knew that was not the answer she should have given.
‘Will it be even more of a liberty if I beg you to call me John?’
‘I . . .’ These moments were far too forward. She should be aloof and pretend to be offended. But why be artful? She liked him very much, and was sure by his attitude that he liked her. ‘As I believe I was saying . . . John . . . your resemblance to the king is noteworthy.’
‘Why so? He is responsible for my existence on this earth and so I would expect to resemble him in some manner!
resemblance to him is more remarkable. You seem more like father and daughter than uncle and niece—it has been commented upon.’
His words touched a chord in her heart and she was back in time, her father’s arm slung carelessly around her. ‘Well,
Richard, with that hair she is more your daughter than mine, eh?’
‘Cicely?’ John was awaiting a response.
‘My father once used those words, and so has yours since.’
‘He likes it that you resemble him. My father, that is. It amuses him that it has been wondered if he once coupled with your mother behind your father’s back.’
‘I know. He told me.’
John was startled. ‘He did? That surprises me.’
‘I find it easy to talk to him, and he to me. I do not pretend anything to him, nor, I think, does he pretend to me.’
‘I am jealous that he is so deep in your confidence.’
‘Jealous?’ She smiled. ‘He is my uncle.’
Their attention was drawn away because there was a stir as Richard conducted Bess back to her chair and then took his leave of the gathering. He was unable to stay away from Anne a moment more. ‘I do so feel for him, John,’ she whispered, tears pricking her eyes.
John nodded. ‘He has much to bear. His son, my half-brother, is not at all well. It is the same with the queen.’
‘He and the queen love each other very much, do they not?’
‘Yes. Why?’ John looked at her.
‘Oh, nothing, it was just an observation.’
He glanced at her a moment longer, and then lightened the moment. ‘I am truly glad you
King Edward’s daughter, because you otherwise would be my half-sister and I would blush to feel as I do.’
She blushed. ‘Now you do presume, sir.’
‘And will presume even more. I find you most to my liking, sweet Cicely.’ He smiled, his eyes laughing.
‘You tease me.’ That was the second time she had been called sweet Cicely tonight, once by Richard, and once by his son. Other people had called her by that name as well, for the herb sweet cicely was common enough, but tonight it meant more.
‘No, upon my heart I do not.’ He placed his hand on his breast. Then he looked towards Ralph, who continued to watch from his place further along the hall. ‘Poor Ralph, he had great hopes of you.’
‘Does the whole of creation know about it?’ she demanded crossly. ‘He had no right to presume. I gave him no reason at all to think I would marry him.’
John put his hand on her sleeve. ‘I do not for a moment imagine you did.’ He smiled. ‘After tonight I will no longer be in his confidence, I think.’
think I wished to marry him?’
‘Well, he gave my father cause to think it was a virtually settled matter, until you left no doubt it was not
wish. I am glad Ralph means nothing, because I mean to pursue you.’
She laughed. ‘And what makes you think I will regard you with more favour than I did him?’
‘I know you do already,’ he answered quietly.
‘We have known each other for barely half an hour, and so you cannot possibly—’
‘But I do know, Cicely. And so do you.’ His eyes were serious, his voice soft.
‘That . . . is
forward,’ she whispered. Her heart was racing.
‘Is it not part of my irresistible charm?’ He spoke lightly, but drew her hand tenderly to his lips, dwelling over the moment.
It could so easily have been art on his part, a knowing way that he had employed many times before with great success, but somehow she did not think so. ‘John, I—’ Something snatched her attention away to Bess, who was accepting Francis Lovell’s invitation to dance.
John released her hand. ‘Your sister is very beautiful,’ he observed. ‘She has turned the heads of many men here tonight, and yet she notices no one. Is her heart given elsewhere?’
She avoided his grey gaze. ‘I think she is a little shy, that is all.’
‘Shy?’ He snorted. ‘Cicely, please, she is most certainly
shy. She flirted outrageously with my father, testing her wiles, no doubt.’
It was perilously close to the truth, and Cicely could not help drawing back. ‘Forgive me, I—I must go to my mother.’
‘Have I offended you?’ he asked anxiously.
‘No, of course not.’
‘Then do not go.’
‘I must, John.’ She wished she had held her silly tongue, because she really wanted to stay. But it had been said, and she would look foolish if she changed her mind. She was angry with herself. If she could not remain calm when something, no matter how innocent, was said about Bess’s manner towards Richard, then she would do far more harm than good.
For a moment his hand stayed her, but then he accepted. ‘Promise me we will speak again?’
She smiled gladly. ‘Of course.’
‘I live until then,’ he said quietly. Again, it could so easily have been light flirtation, but she knew it was not. They looked at each other, silent exchanges between them, and then she hurried away. She still felt as if she lacked substance, and her heart pounded as it had never pounded before. She remembered what Bess had said, and knew that tonight she had met someone who would always mean a very great deal to her.
She reached her mother, who was seated where she had been throughout. ‘Mother? I thought I would come to speak to you.’
‘Really? How very thoughtful,’ was Elizabeth’s dry response. ‘So, you flutter your doe eyes at Richard’s bastard?’
Cicely did not reply. Could not her mother set sarcasm aside, just for once?
Elizabeth’s critical glance moved over Cicely’s gown, and her lips pursed. ‘Hmm, you look well enough, I suppose. I would not have thought lavender was your colour.’ Then she gathered herself. ‘Well, as the king has departed, we will also. I have no wish to appear over-eager to enjoy the delights of court life once more.’ She stood, allowing no dissent from her dismayed daughter, who so regretted leaving John of Gloucester that she could have wept with the frustration.
Bess was summoned from the floor, and Elizabeth led her daughters towards the steps up which Richard had gone only minutes before. Immeasurable pride carried Elizabeth, and she gave no intimation of the effort she had to make to disguise her hobble. She glared at her daughters when they moved to assist her.
If Richard had still been present, Bess would not have left so willingly, but without him she had no interest in staying. As they reached the top of the staircase, Cicely turned, seeking but one face in that crowded hall. At last she saw John, still standing where she had left him, but accompanied now by Sir Robert Percy and Ralph Scrope, whose face was a study. He appeared to have just said something to John, and not received the response he required.
For a fleeting moment she and John of Gloucester looked at each other again. He smiled, and she knew that she was already more than a little in love with Richard’s son.
Cicely awoke the
next day to the sound of the royal cavalcade beginning to gather before the palace. She remembered that this was to be her first complete day free of the abbey, and with a flush of uncommon warmth she also recalled the moment Richard had presented his son to her, and then how they had danced together. Not that she could remember much about the dance, for she had been so excited, so swept away with happiness that she feared she would not even remember the steps. But after that, she remembered every word, every touch and every smile.
Afterwards she had sent Biddy to ask discreet questions about him, and now knew that he had been born in 1468 in the great Yorkshire castle of Pontefract. That was his other name, John of Pontefract, but he was generally known as John of Gloucester. It was also known that he was very high in Richard’s favour. Of greater interest to Cicely was that Biddy had been unable to find any rumours of him having a sweetheart. There was one cloud upon her new horizon, however, because she did not know if he would accompany the king and queen when they set out for the north that morning.
Later, after hearing Mass in the royal chapel, Cicely and Bess joined the great gathering in the hall for their breakfast, where Cicely was further disappointed by John’s continued absence. Indeed, none of the younger men in Richard’s household were there, because theirs was the task of preparing the uncompleted progress for the long journey.
Elizabeth had remained in her rooms, saying it was because her knee was now much more painful, although whether this was true her daughters could not decide. Certainly their mother had not enjoyed her lesser position in the great hall the previous night.
Cicely was daunted by the enormous variety of food and the smell of rich spices that hung heavily in the air, and she ate only bread. She had eaten well at her father’s court, of course, but after so long at the abbey, with the plain fare that was provided there, this was all a little much.
Bess smiled, taking a huge piece of meat from a platter, and cutting it deftly with a knife. ‘Come on, Cissy, why do you not eat a little more? You cannot starve simply because your John is not here.’
‘You seem in a very good mood, considering our uncle is leaving today,’ Cicely observed, but before Bess could reply, the queen entered the hall and they all had to stand.
Accompanied by her ladies, Anne came directly to the sisters. She had donned a bright blue travelling cloak but her sweet face was ashen against the vivid colour. She motioned to everyone to be seated again, and then drew closer to Cicely and Bess. ‘It saddens me that I must leave London so soon after your return to us, but I hope to deepen our friendship when I return.’
Cicely smiled at the queen, whose gentleness touched her. ‘We are honoured, Your Grace.’
smiled as well, but Cicely sensed her lack of spontaneity. Anne shared Richard’s bed, and that was something Bess, so suffused with unutterable jealousy, could not forget.
Anne did not seem to notice, however, for she was speaking of Middleham and Yorkshire and her only son, Edward, whom she so longed to see again. She pulled on her gloves at last. ‘I must leave you now, and bid you farewell until our return.’
Cicely stood in haste. ‘Your Grace, may I accompany you to the yard? I would very much like to.’ She was hoping to see John there, but Anne was delighted and they walked from the great hall together. Bess remained behind, because it was believed Richard would also come that way, and she hoped for a chance to speak to him. Be with him. Only for a moment, maybe, but it would be all she could have for weeks.
As they came out into the morning sunshine and paused at the top of the palace steps, Cicely gazed down at the bustle of waiting horses and baggage, and also a curtained litter bearing the queen’s arms. Anne looked sideways at her. ‘I suppose
cannot imagine having to forgo riding in favour of a cumbersome litter.’
Cicely laughed. ‘You did not see me yesterday, Your Grace. It was not edifying. I could scarce remember what it was like to be on a horse.’
Anne smiled. ‘A very diplomatic answer.’
At that moment someone emerged from the palace behind them, and they turned, thinking it might be Richard, but it was John. Cicely’s eyes began to shine, and her lips parted slightly with the happiness that suddenly leapt through her.
Anne noticed and leaned closer. ‘He is comely, is he not?’ she whispered.
John bowed low to his father’s queen and then to Cicely, but there was no way to read his face. Cicely’s spirits fell, not only because of this, but because by his clothes he was clearly to accompany his father on the journey.
Anne broke the awkward silence. ‘I . . . er, will proceed now, for I think the king approaches.’ She beckoned to her ladies, acknowledging the farewells of Cicely and John.
Alone with John for a moment, Cicely looked at him miserably. ‘Please forgive my foolishness last night.’ She had to bite her lip and stare hard at the stone steps, for she was afraid to see no welcome response in his eyes, but he took her cold hand and kissed it.
‘Sweet cousin Cicely, there is nothing to forgive, but if it gives you pleasure then I will say I forgive you.’
‘You jeer at me?’
‘No, never that, Cicely. Never.’ He kissed her hand again. ‘Please, I think too much of you to hurt you.’
She smiled, her fingers tightening against his. ‘You are going to the north as well?’
‘Yes. But I will return, of that you may be sure. Can I trust you not to find another in my absence?’
She gazed at him. ‘You know I will not.’
‘And you know that I will not play you false either. You
know that, do you not?’
She nodded. ‘Of course,’ she whispered, closing her eyes as he leaned forward to kiss her upon the cheek. His lips were cold from the March air, but so wonderful to her. ‘God be with you, John of Gloucester.’
‘And with you, Cicely Plantagenet.’
‘You are a Plantagenet as well,’ she reminded him.
He smiled and would have said more had not a herald announced the king. Richard emerged with his northern lords and gentlemen, who all wore his white boar badge. He was richly attired in mulberry velvet. Mulberry—murrey—was the colour of the House of York. There was a heavy cloak over his shoulders and the circlet of gold rested around his forehead, but before he could approach his son and younger niece, Bess emerged from the shadows nearby. They were just beyond Cicely’s hearing, but she could see the love on her sister’s face as she spoke to him. His followers continued politely down the steps, but Cicely was dismayed to notice their exchanged glances.
Richard put his hand to Bess’s cheek and smiled, and then left her to come quickly towards John and Cicely. His hair fluttered in the breeze from the river as he smiled at her. ‘It seems my brother’s daughters wish to bid me farewell in person this morning.’ He raised an eyebrow as he saw her hand, still tightly clasped in John’s, and he put a gauntleted finger to her chin, tilted her face up and kissed her cheek. The freshness of mint touched her. ‘I fear the time has come to part, Cicely,’ he said, ‘but know I will do all I can to ensure my son’s swift return.’
She blushed and felt foolish, but he smiled again and then was gone, descending the steps to the great dappled stallion as it was led forward. As he mounted, Cicely saw John’s dun horse being brought as well, and with great reluctance she released his hand. He paused, and then bent his head to kiss her fully upon the lips. It was a kiss that fluttered hesitantly upon her mouth, uncertain of its reception, but for a final second it grew strong as it was returned.
He gazed into her eyes for a moment and then hurried down to his horse. Some of his companions cheered and made comments, until Richard silenced them with a raised hand. Then he, John and various nobles who had been in the palace with him accompanied the queen’s litter out of the yard. They would soon join a much greater procession of lords waiting on the outskirts of the capital. With much noise and clatter, the slow baggage procession began to trundle out as well, but was soon left behind.
Cicely watched until the last packhorse had passed beneath the gateway and then walked slowly back into the palace, wondering how long it would be before she saw John again. His kiss still tingled on her lips, and she did not know if she was deliriously happy or wretched because it would not be repeated for weeks, maybe even months.
Bess barred her way. ‘My, how swiftly things progress, little sister.’
‘Not more teasing, please.’
‘Come on, it is a fine morning, so let us walk in the garden.’
Soon they were treading the grass in the walled garden, beneath the apple trees which were stirring with blossom at the approach of spring. Daffodils nodded against the stone wall, although they were yet to open in the chill March air. The sisters leaned against the parapet, where Cicely had leaned the day she overheard her mother and Thomas the Tub, and looked down into the eddying waters of the incoming Thames tide.
Their reflections swayed as Bess glanced at her sister. ‘Well, I most certainly did not imagine you would so soon face the futility of suppressing an emotion as fierce as love, but you feel a great deal for your John, do you not?’
Bess sighed. ‘Perhaps you begin to understand why I love Richard. Everything about him strikes an answering chord in me. When he failed to come to the hall after you had gone, I could no more have stopped myself from waiting by the steps than I could have flown. I know my conduct is reprehensible, especially when Anne is so kind and friendly towards us. It is my shame to admit how much I resent her.’ She looked at Cicely. ‘Do you believe he lies only with her?’
‘I cannot answer that! Bess, you may be in love with him, but his private life remains none of your business. Perhaps the queen is too ill to be a wife in all the senses of the word, and perhaps he is forced to seek solace elsewhere. I could not blame him if he does. He deserves to be happy. I love him too, you know.’
‘And you have more of him than I,’ Bess replied sadly. ‘What can I do to stop this feeling? I do not care that he is so close in blood, that to lie with him would be wicked before God, because I would do so if I could.’
‘Oh, Bess . . .’
‘You have no notion of how fortunate you are to love John of Gloucester, because
is not beyond your reach. Nor would he wish to be.’
‘Bess, please . . .
do not ever be tempted to reveal your true feelings to Richard.’
Bess gave her a rueful glance. ‘Do not worry, Cissy, I will not be so foolish.’
‘And can you imagine how
would feel?’ Cicely asked softly, thinking of his kindness. ‘He would not only be dismayed because you are his niece, but also because he is not a man to heap blame solely upon you. He is so tactile and warm by nature that he would wonder if he had seemed to encourage you. Richard should not be burdened like that, Bess.’
‘His wife and heir are in poor health, Cicely.
could give him a healthy boy,’ Bess replied in a detached tone.
Cicely recoiled. ‘Sometimes I do not know you at all, Bess.’
‘Sometimes I do not know myself.’
The quiet of the garden was interrupted by the laughter and chatter of children as their three little sisters came out of the palace with their nurses. Bess hurried to dance around with them, and did not see Margaret, Lady Stanley, emerge as well, seeming almost to float across the grass, carrying her open prayer book in her hands. Her black skirts slithered silently as she approached Cicely. Her pinched face was sour and her thin lips pursed. Maybe she could no longer
purse them, Cicely thought.
‘Good day to you, Lady Cicely.’
‘Good day, Lady Stanley.’ Cicely was careful to execute a respectful curtsey, but as she did so she wondered why on earth Richard had allowed such a bloodsucker back to his court. He should keep Henry Tudor’s scheming mother as far away as possible until she drew her final breath. And she would draw it very soon indeed if Cicely Plantagenet were Richard.
‘Lady Cicely, it has been noted that you are becoming acquainted with the king’s bastard, John of Gloucester,’ Margaret observed.
‘He is my cousin, my lady, why should I not become acquainted with him?’
‘Do not let your hopes run too high.’
Cicely met her gaze. ‘What do you mean?’
Margaret dissembled. ‘Oh, simply that the course of love is always difficult. I know, for I have had four husbands.’
God help them one and all, Cicely thought.
Margaret’s cold glance moved to Bess, who chased little Bridget around a nearby apple tree, making her squeal. ‘How very undignified,’ Henry Tudor’s mother murmured, watching.
A sudden cold hand touch Cicely’s heart, for she could see Margaret’s hatred for the young woman who in her eyes had committed a heinous crime by making it known she did not want Henry Tudor as her husband, by showing her preference for Richard’s protection. Margaret resented it greatly that her son needed Bess—or Cicely herself—if he ever overcame Richard and mounted the throne. To keep the peace, he needed to unite York and Lancaster, or constantly risk his own overthrow.
Gradually Bess became aware of her scrutiny, and came quietly to join them, her chin lifted with pride and defiance.
Margaret was all honey. ‘I bid you good morning, my lady.’
Bess inclined her head. ‘My lady,’ she replied.
‘It gladdens me to see you so happy, but no doubt you will miss the king during his absence.’
Cicely wondered if there was a double meaning in the query. Had Margaret too perceived the truth about Bess?
Bess smiled. ‘Of course, my lady. How could I not? He is my dearest uncle and I love him.’
‘Even though he has had you declared a bastard?’
‘Yes, even though,’ Bess responded immediately. ‘He can do no wrong in my eyes.’
‘So I am given to understand.’
Cicely was dismayed. Bess was definitely being whispered about at court.