Read The King's Grey Mare Online

Authors: Rosemary Hawley Jarman

The King's Grey Mare (6 page)

‘Below, playing at cards with your love-lorn knight,’ he replied.
‘As for your gowns,
tried to warn you of the King’s humour.’
He yawned, losing interest.
‘Come with me now.
God’s nails, I am weary worn.’

‘Come with you where?’

‘To the Queen.
She commands it.’

Renewed dismay filled her.
Margaret was enraged.
And was the King with her, ready to shriek fresh dreadful words?
Trembling, she asked the page.
He laughed raucously.

‘Nay, sweet dame.
He’s in chapel and likely to be there all night.
Saying a novena, he is.’

She bound up her hair while Barnaby held the light steady before the mirror.
She straightened her gown and followed the page through long passages with arched vaulting and faded gilt columns to where the guard stood drowsily to attention outside the Queen’s apartments.
They passed through the outer chamber of reception and through another door into the Queen’s retiring room, where she chose to renew herself with entertainment, or conferred with her ministers.
Beyond yet another door lay her bedchamber.
Elizabeth entered uneasily.
The Queen was seated on a carved chair of Spanish walnut and she had changed her gown to a pale azure robette.
Ermine fringed her throat, her face was pale.
Two men, of which one was the knight with the scar, stood behind her, studying a parchment loosely held on Margaret’s lap.
Master Francis, the Queen’s physician, mixed a draught at a side table, and Margaret Chamberlain, the royal dressmaker, was folding the purple mantle into a coffer.
On cushions near the Queen’s feet a maiden of about nine years sat alone with a chessboard.

Elizabeth knelt.
Barnaby, self-possessed and slightly truculent, prostrated himself before the Queen and said, with his face against the parti-coloured tiles:

‘My liege, here’s Dame Woodville.
And I can’t find your dog.’

The scarred man said quickly: ‘Her Grace’s dog is lost?’
Margaret smiled wistfully.
‘Yes, my lord.
Dulcinea, the lovely bitch you gave me.
She was frightened by the clarions and ran away.’
To the page: ‘Barnaby, go.
Search further.’
Then she beckoned Elizabeth.
There was the Queen’s hand under her lips, a smell of jasmine, kindness.

‘My poor Isabella!’

The Queen was not wroth.
She bade her rise.
Ashamed no longer, she looked squarely about, at the men behind Margaret’s chair, and at the chess-playing child.
Hers was a strange face; long and aware; the small, snapping black eyes were old in wisdom.
The Queen said:

‘My lords, I would present my most affectionate kinswoman, Dame Isabella Woodville.
His Grace, James Earl of Wiltshire’ (tall, swarthy, a saffron tunic – he kissed her in courtly fashion) ‘and my dear cousin–’ the Queen’s voice became heavy, as if her throat pained her – ‘Edmund Beaufort, Earl of Somerset.’

The scar added to his attractiveness.
He, too, kissed Elizabeth, and drew back smiling.

‘Ma foi
there’s naught so lovely as a blonde maiden!
But even your Rhineland fairness, Dame Isabella, cannot quench the daisy-flower!’

And his smile was turned on the Queen, as he fingered the gilt marguerites he wore about his neck.
Elizabeth thought: so this is Beaufort, York’s chief enemy.
Warwick, so men say, hates him too.
I shall therefore love him as if he were my kin.
The old-faced child got up and stood beside her.

‘This is my niece, the Lady Margaret Beaufort,’ said the Earl.
Playfully he pinched the unsmiling little face.
‘The cleverest mortal alive.
Lucretius, Tacitus, Suetonius, Sallust; all are her bedfellows.
Dame Isabella, my gold collar for your neck if you can beat her at chess!’

Solemnly the Lady Margaret set the ivory men in the initial position.
Elizabeth hesitated.
There was something to be said first, expiation to be made for her dress, her flight from the Hall.

‘Your Grace, permit …’

The Queen read her troubled face.
‘Nay, Isabella, it was no fault of yours.
The King…’ She paused.
Suddenly she looked paler, and ill.

‘The King is holy,’ said Beaufort of Somerset.
He turned to the physician.
‘Master Francis, is her Grace’s draught ready?’

The doctor presented a small vial.
Beaufort forestalled the Queen’s hand, and swilled a little of the potion round his mouth.

‘Camphor and poppy, naught else,’ said Master Francis.
‘Her Grace will sleep soundly.’

‘Two drops,’ said Beaufort.
‘Two drops only.
The rest is danger.’

The physician bowed and quit the chamber, and the dressmaker, her work finished, went also.
Elizabeth fidgeted.
Lady Margaret was waiting, eyeing her shrewdly from the spread chessboard.

‘Shall I play, your Grace?’

The Queen looked absently up from Beaufort’s hand, which still held the little vial.

‘Yes, Isabella.
I sent for you because you were sad.
Now you must be happy.
The King … the King is frail, and prone to shocks that others do not comprehend.
We must protect the King.’
Her eyelids dropped again.
Her gaze rested on Beaufort’s bronzed hand.

Elizabeth sat on the cushion opposite Lady Margaret, and, looking into the sharp eyes, knew instinctively that she would be beaten.
The child went to the game with ice-cold foresight, like a military campaigner, while above their heads, the Queen held a conversation with her two ministers.
It became apparent that they had forgotten the existence of both Elizabeth and Beaufort’s young kinswoman.

‘By God’s Passion!
He lost his gown again at Canterbury,’ Beaufort was saying.
‘He gave it away to a poor friar, a thin fellow who took such a liking to it that half my money went in its recovery.’

The Queen drew in her breath, as if she were in pain.

Pardieu, le pauvre Roi
she said softly.

‘La pauvre Angleterre
,’ muttered the Earl of Wiltshire, and bit his lip.
Lady Margaret moved her King to the right, and almost smiled.
Elizabeth sat, her eyes fixed on the chessboard, listening.

‘I mentioned to him once more Richard of York,’ continued Beaufort.
‘He’s dangerous; I’ll not forget his face when he saw me in the King’s tent at Blackheath; by the Rood!–’ he laughed arrogantly – ‘York was sure I had been banished.
The King’s Grace knew not what he did when he summoned me once more.
I thought that York would fall in an apoplexy, that day last February.’

‘Nay, he knew not what he did,’ said Margaret slowly.
Elizabeth advanced her pawn two squares and looked covertly at the Queen’s troubled face.

‘Better than York have failed to quell me,’ said Beaufort of Somerset with a chuckle.
‘Yet he is far from conquered, and so I told the King, who replied: ‘By St.
Richard Plantagenet gave me his word, in holy St.
Paul’s, to keep the peace, to raise no troops, and be forever obedient.
All the saints witnessed his sacred oath.’
Then it was that he bestowed his mantle on that puling friar.’

‘Is the Duke still at Fotheringhay?’
asked James of Wiltshire.

My scurriers report his standard flying there.
His Duchess is again with child.’

Lady Margaret Beaufort, taking advantage of Elizabeth’s inattention, put her King in safety and brought her Rook into play.
The Queen sighed.

‘So Proud Cis is
,’ she murmured.
‘Doubtless with another son.
Well, Isabella?’
She had caught Elizabeth’s eyes upon her unguarded face.
Guiltily, the other answered: ‘I was but musing, Madame.’

‘Musing on what?’
the Queen said stiffly.
Elizabeth babbled: ‘Why, your Grace, husbands … I thought, if it should please you, I will take Sir Jocelyne after all.’
It was the first refuge she could think of.
The Queen’s face eased instantly.
Beaufort of Somerset laid a light hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder.

‘Isabella,’ he said.
‘Marriage is but a licking of honey off thorns.
You will have many eager to plight their troth.
Wait a little while.’

The Queen rose.
‘I am weary,’ she said.
‘This evening was not a glad occasion.
We must devise some entertainment – a fair, a joust.
Yes, a joust!’

The two Earls agreed heartily, and Elizabeth, who had never seen a tournament, was overjoyed.
The anticipation lingered, after she had bidden the Queen good night, and had congratulated the impassive little Lady Margaret on her victory.
Light-hearted, she made her way back to her own apartments.
Beaufort walked some little way behind her; she was embarrassed in case he did not wish for her company so went faster, her small shadow and his tall one thrown in wavering procession on the walls.

At the staircase she saw Queen Margaret’s dog.
A slim little whippet that had been frightened by the noisy trumpets, and cowered and snarled as she bent to pick it up.
Beaufort came quietly up behind her.

‘I will take the beast,’ he said, quite roughly, and scooped it, thin and trembling, up into his arms.
He began to walk slowly back towards the Queen’s chambers.
The torches were flaming brightly and the Palace was quiet, so that Elizabeth saw how he buried his face in the little dog’s neck and heard his broken, passionate whisper.

My Marguerite!’

Barnaby met Elizabeth at her door.
He was in a fury.
He had been awakened from snatched sleep to summon the leech to Ismania Lady Scales, who was vomiting and purging.
They could find no reason for her malady.
It was quite unaccountable, like the work of some mischievous spirit.

She rode to the jousting ground in a litter with the Countess of Somerset and Lady Margaret Beaufort, and she was pleased that the other ladies were somewhere behind in the entourage, more subordinate than she, the Queen’s chosen lady.
That evening in Margaret’s private apartments was a covenant of favour which none could gainsay.
Her mind often returned to it; to the soft, quicksand conversation going on above her head; to the Queen’s kindness; to her own extraordinary witness of Beaufort in the passage giving way to the festering wound of a forbidden emotion.
She held that scene in her heart, like the tales of the old Court of Love.

Upon the rough road the litter swayed suddenly and she was thrown against the stiff brocade side of the Countess of Somerset, who smiled dreamily.
What would you say, my lady, if I told you that your lord loves the Queen?
She knew, without asking, the answer: We all love her, Dame Isabella.
God strengthen her.

‘Is this your first tourney, Madame?’
Lady Margaret Beaufort’s pompous voice broke through.
She sat, small and composed, with a massive brow and those dark eyes that probed calmly.
Beside her, her aunt the Countess looked ruffled and homely; sweat gleamed on her pink cheek, for it was warm in the litter.
The Beaufort maiden continued to study Elizabeth.
To avoid the penetration of that look, she bent her head and gazed through the window let into the side of the barrel-shaped carriage.
London Bridge, with its row of felons’ heads rotting over the drawbridge, lay seven miles behind, and the sparkling river had coiled beside them and finally withdrawn.
Now the procession passed on down the long rutted road to Eltham.
The way was divided by quickset hedges; fields sprawled on either side, peopled by scores of peasants.
They watched as the royal train, with its banners and blazoned arms, went by.
They dragged off their caps and knelt in duty as the King, black-clad as usual, rode mournfully past; but as the litter bearing Queen Margaret rolled by, a man, tall, ragged-bearded, took one pace forward and spat covertly towards the daisy-flower emblem.
The Countess of Somerset was leaning back with closed eyes, but Lady Margaret Beaufort missed nothing.

‘The fellow is a madman.
None the less, had I the power I should have him instantly beheaded.’

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