Authors: Rosemary Hawley Jarman
‘You don’t want to dance!’ said Elysande lightly. ‘Think how wearisome it would be with all those clodpoll knights, and the women with claws out, each striving to outdo the other!You and I will dance together on the gallery, if you wish. That is a beauteous gown.’
She smiled. In many ways she minded me of Agnes: soft- voiced, but without Agnes’s coarseness.
‘Sweet Elysande, you lie,’ I said. ‘This gown is one the Queen gave me when she left Grafton, and it’s four years out of style.’
My eyes wandered again to the great tapestry. I stretched out my fingers to touch it. In the candlelight the gold threads held mystery, you could almost step into the picture, and the rubies were real drops of blood.
‘That’s the Siege of Jerusalem,’ said Elysande. ‘It was a gift from Sir Richard Woodville to his wife.’
One of the Flemish women woke up. Suddenly I had the feeling she had not been asleep at all.
‘So highly prized, so easy gained,’ she remarked. I looked enquiringly. Elysande was silent.
‘Yea,’ pursued the woman. ‘That arras was despoiled from the manor of Sir Thomas Cook, he that was lately Mayor of this city, on Woodville’s orders. There was talk that he had Lancastrian sympathies—and the King was persuaded by the Earl of his guilt. The Duchess lusted for this arras, certes—and it was while the Earl and Sir John Fogge sought treason in Cook’s house, they saw it there and seized it for my lady’s pleasure! Then, on mere hearsay, the Earl had Sir Tom cast into jail and fined eight thousand pounds! Queen’s gold, they call it, a fancy name for thievery!’
Elysande took a little tablet from her pouch, wrote something upon it, looking hard at the Flemish woman, then hid the writing away and smiled at me.
‘Poor Gerta has been drinking deep. She lusts to lose her tongue,’ she said, her voice so sweet that its message was blown away, like chaff in a breeze. She rose, retrieved a torn dress from the floor, swept some spilled face-paint up, snuffed a candle and, as another great roar of laughter reached us from below, looked at my downcast face.
‘That will be the King’s fool,’ she murmured. ‘They say he is the finest fool ever at court. Mine eyes have wept at his joculing.’
The thin savage note of the fiddles rose; if music has a taste, that was honey.
‘They will be at it till dawn,’ said Elysande. ‘And I doubt not there will be some sore heads tomorrow at Mass. How my lord of Clarence does guzzle wine! I vow, down there, ’tis like the high days of ancient Rome!’
I could bear it no longer, and went and opened the door into the passage. Elysande came, and took my hand.
‘Would you watch the gaiety, then?’ she asked. ‘’Tis all artifice. But come with me. Soft, for God’s love.’
It was cold on the gallery, and the stones were like ice as I touched them, to guide myself along the dark ways, for Elysande went ahead like a ghost. ‘Stand well back,’ her warm breath whispered, as we reached a little opening, a stone niche, with a torchlit embrasure through which I could peer. And down there was another world, which I surveyed, as a fallen angel might look on Paradise. There, in a blaze of colour and light, gambolled the royal court, its laughter high and loud. Along each wall a painted tapestry danced, aping the courtiers who moved and swirled on scented rushes, their feet crushing the petals of late white roses.
‘Where’s the fool?’ I asked softly. ‘I know him. His name is Patch.’
‘He makes his exit,’ said Elysande, pointing. ‘Too late, but he’ll be back, with a new jape. Now they dance again.’ She shivered.
The music took hold of me by the bones. There was something older than Christian in the thump of the tabor, the rebec’s jewelled wailing. Yet it had all the holy season in it too, with its passion and promise. I looked down at the joy, standing close to Elysande and thought: So might Salisbury, in his doomed Castle of Sandal, have heard such music with a weary smile. The cries of the dying would have sounded in its shrillness, and in the wind beating without the walls. So would Salisbury have listened, that Christmas, while his unknowing minstrels played through the hours to defeat and death.
I searched the room for the King, while the sweet high strains whirled about my head. Below, the dancers cavorted. In their leaping wind the painted knights upon the arras shuddered too, in a mocking fashion as of ghosts. Two pages with clarions blew a fanfare. From behind the great door I heard the rumbling wheels and grew rigid with sudden fear. For my thoughts were still with Lord Salisbury and that Christmas invasion. Elysande looked down at me and laughed.
‘Watch the Storming of Troy!’ she whispered.
There entered a walled city on wheels; a most wondrous sight, pushed by an hundred sweating yeomen. Banners fluttered from its heights. Women, clothed in flimsy stuffs of gold and peach and crimson, sat atop the battlements. In the wall nearest the royal dais was set a door fashioned from beaten brass, studded with bright beads and wide enough to admit a small army. Then slowly the candles around the outer edges of the hall were dimmed, bringing darkness broken only by the occasional flash of eyes, or the glitter of a jewel, so I could no longer see the vibrant, hot-breathing press of lords with their dragonfly ladies. Invisible were they, as were the butlers and guards, and waiting, quaffing unseen goblets, whispering in expectancy as through the great door, with only a faint rattle of pulley and chain, rolled the great Horse of Troy. Painted gold and white, garlanded with flowers and blowing real fire down its nostrils, it was, Elysande whispered, full of murdering Greeks.
‘The King likes well this disguising,’ she murmured. Pinching my arm gently: ‘Jesu! It’s cold in this place. I’m going back.’
She slid into the darkness and I was left alone, staring till my eyeballs ached at the mummery below. Though the whole court was mad with enthusiasm, smiting the tables with their hanaps and roaring bravos, I was not sorry to see the bloody battle finish. It was, after all, a man’s sport, and I would liefer watch the dancing again, gazing at the rich gowns, the gracious gestures, jealous and a little sad.
Suddenly I saw Patch. He came riding a donkey, bringing light into the gloom with a blazing torch held high. His mount was caparisoned in red cloth of gold. Peacock feathers waved on his head and a blackamoor child ran at his stirrup like a hound. He circled the Hall smartly. As he passed below me I saw his face. Patch indeed, Patch, untrimmed by the years, still wrinkled and smiling wickedly, oddly dear to my sight. And the Hall was bright again, and I drank eagerly of the company, my eyes seeking first the royal chair of estate, beneath whose great broidered canopy King Edward lolled. His hair was ruffled, but he was more well-favoured than ever. His fine teeth showed in his laugh, he was tall as an oak, fair skinned and straight of limb, with diamonds flashing on his doublet. Behind his head, thirty yards in. measure, hung the royal dorsal with the leopards and lilies of England, watching with tapestry eyes the fickle splendour of their court.
Beside the King, Madonna-like, sat my late mistress, Elizabeth. Elizabeth the Queen, whose ivory face betrayed neither joy nor distaste for the scene under her eyes. The King drank, held his goblet to her lips, which pouted, smiled, declined. He dangled a bunch of grapes before her, made some jest, at which she smiled again, with downcast look. She took one grape, kissed it, and popped it into Edward’s mouth.
Swiftly I scanned the others round the royal dais. I saw Earl Rivers, flushed and heavy faced, leaning close, talking earnestly in the King’s ear. Anthony Woodville also bent his handsome head near the dais, smiling unceasingly. The torchlight flamed up and caught the coldness in his eyes for an instant. I remembered those eyes, how they had terrified me once as a foolish child. Never again would they affright me.
Patch was capering in the centre of the floor. Someone threw an orange, and he caught it deftly, speared it on his dagger, and strutted, mimicking the royal orb with his new-fashioned toy. The court howled with laughter, looking to the King for his approval, and seeing it, Patch turned a somersault, landed on a slippery square of rushes and fell on his rump. A great hound rushed snarling from under the King’s table and flew at him. The fool yelled in fear and fled, round and round the Hall. Gales of laughter swept the company, and watching each face, anxious to share in their enjoyment in my unseen way, I realized that there were those who did not laugh.
The Earl of Warwick did not laugh. For the second time that day I marvelled at the icy splendour of his mien. In dark green satin crusted with rubies, the hilt of his dagger heavy with gems of price, he stood near the door, his arm about the neck of a tall, golden-haired youth, who held a brimming wine-cup. From his likeness to the King, I knew him instantly to be George, Duke of Clarence. Warwick was murmuring in his ear, gesturing the while with a glittering hand. I saw his glance fly to the little company about the King, and there again was the same disdain as when he passed the Countess’s litter.
George of Clarence listened, nodded, laughed a little too loud, and drank more wine.
‘All artifice,’ Elysande had said. I pondered on this deeply, my eyes raking the crowd. Nay, not all were happy; that was sure. One small lady, in a rose-pink drift of gown, stood alone, wistfully smiling. Middle-aged, a woman alone; but those were not the reasons for her obvious sadness. Some strange intuition told me there was more. All artifice, was it? I searched the throng deeper and saw that some were the worse for wine, lolling white and heavy-eyed back in their chairs. From my eagles’ eyrie, I saw sly fingerings of naked breast and arm, hot kisses pressed on cheeks in unlit corners, quiet speech between men and men, looks of love and hate and jealousy darting like lightnings from eye to eye.
Suddenly I thought: if the case stood thus, and I could choose, there is none here I would have for my lover! If this were the court, the true splendour, for the privilege of whose enjoyment men slew each other, I was sorely disappointed. Patch had finished his joculing, and was creeping back across the Hall, feigning a mortal hurt. His face a mask of pain, he crawled out of the door under my gallery and disappeared to roars of applause. Clarions sounded, and music swept into life again. The sweet wholesome sounds of viol and cithern, shawm and lute and psaltery soared to my ears. Earl Rivers bowed to the Queen and sought her in the dance. The King urged her from her chair, kissing her hand as she descended with cool grace.
It was the music. That was all my joy. The music froze me like ice, burned me like fire. It rose to unattainable heights, wailed and sobbed and laughed. The voices of spirits were in it, songs of the laughing dead, borne on the wind of rebec and string and cromorne, and the heartbeat of the lusty living too, struck from the skin of a joyous tabor. Poetry and battle, love and death, all grew strong in that music, and my skin had lumps like those on a plucked goose, as I clasped my hands and forgot my own existence, following the courtly pattern of bright dance with misted eyes.
Footsteps were approaching along the passage and I shrank into the concealing shadow. I heard a voice muttering to itself, rude oaths, but a voice that I knew, none the less. I stepped out into the flaring torchlight.
‘Patch!’ I cried.
All colour fled his face.
‘Jesu!’ he said with quiet gladness. ‘’Tis a ghost, a lovesome sprite. Come to taunt poor Patch.’
‘’Tis truly I, Patch,’ I said merrily, and kissed him on both cheeks, while he swung me off my feet.
And all he could say was ‘Well met, well met’ and babble about love, his favourite jest and one which I thought he always saved for me, and he swore himself a prophet, for he had vowed that I should come to court, and here I was, and he also, with all the favourable planets swimming in Heaven for him, for he had thought often of his own true love.
‘Give me space for a word,’ I said, laughing and struggling from him. ‘Are you well? Your skill is undimmed, I see.’
‘I do well enough,’ he answered. ‘So my lady Jacquetta brought you? The Queen Mother. Mother of the King’s Grey Mare!’
Now I could laugh at an old jest. We talked of Grafton for a while, then I turned back to the embrasure, which drew me like the moon the tide.
‘I have been watching the merrymaking.’ I looked again to where men and women disported themselves in the Hall. Patch leaned close to me against the stone.
‘A fine spectacle,’ he murmured. ‘Often I come up here to watch—’tis better than any May-Games, and none know we are here.’
He pointed out several celebrated people, among them a group of Bohemian knights whom the King was entertaining; the Queen’s sisters and the Duke of Buckingham. He even spotted Dick and Thomas Grey, playing merels together in a corner. Tom’s wife, the Duke of Exeter’s daughter, was the one in the green gown. She had a furious temper. I pointed to the small lady in rose-coloured silk, the sad lady, and asked her name.
‘That is Katherine. Countess of Desmond,’ said the fool, and all merriment left him. ‘Poor lady.’
Then he was saying other things: possibly the Countess of Desmond’s history, or he may have been reciting a psalm; or making his will, for whatever he said, I heard it not. I heard no more, though his voice went on and on, as a background to the beating of my heart, which started up enough to frighten me, as if I were in mortal fever. For my idle gaze had suddenly fallen on one who had not been in the Hall when I looked before. To this, I may swear.
And had I been an old old woman with three husbands buried and twice as many children, or had I been a coal-black queen from the East with the whole of Byzantium under my hand; or had I been an idiot with no tongue, no ears, and only eyes, eyes to see whom I saw then, and a heart to feel as my heart felt; had I been any of these, I would have done as I did. And being what I was, a virgin maid, with but an armoured dream to cherish, I looked that night upon a man, and loved.
Next to the Earl of Warwick he stood, but apart from him. He was solitary, young and slender, of less than medium stature. His face had the fragile pallor of one who has fought sickness for a long time, yet in its high fine bones there was strength, and in the thin lips, resolution. His hair was dark, which made him paler still. He was alone with his thoughts. Ceaselessly he toyed with the hilt of his dagger, or twisted the ring on one finger as if he wearied of indolence and longed for action. Then he turned; I saw his eyes. Dark depths of eyes, which in one moment of changing light carried the gleam of something dangerous, and in the next, utter melancholy. And kindness too... compassion. They were like no other eyes in the world. Like stone I stood, and loved.