Authors: Rosemary Hawley Jarman
wo little boys played naked under an April sun. I leaned from the upper window, laughing at them. Tom, the elder, who was taller by a hair than Dick, had set up the quintain for lance-practice. It was a fearful Saracen’s head, carved from wood and painted, and balanced so that the lightest thrust would send it spinning, arms opened wide to fell the jouster. Adding to the hazard was a bucket of water placed atop the Saracen. As I looked, little Dick, raising his weapon to shoulder height, made a charge untimely and unskilled. The infidel swung round. I heard a thud, saw the sparkling cascade then, howling, Dick sprawled on the sodden lawn, while his brother roared in triumph.
‘They’ll catch a chill.’ Behind me came the grumbling voice of their nurse. ‘Lord, Lord, what will their mother say?’
Say? Why, she will say naught, I thought to myself. She is too preoccupied these fair spring days. But I merely smiled at the nurse. I kept this secret as I kept my admiration for the absent Dame Elizabeth, for she was beautiful, my mistress. Tall and gilt-haired, with a small pouting mouth and heavy, mysterious eyes. I knew that, uncaring, she would let her boys run bare beneath the grudging sun, when they should be at their lessons. I imagined she had much on her mind.
So I said: ‘They are hardy,’ and went on watching them.
‘Tchah!’ said their nurse.
‘Lady Grey approves of their sport,’ I murmured. ‘She says it will harden them for battle.’
And she had gone out riding, this day. Riding in Whittlebury Forest, where once she had met the man; the man with hair like the sun, and a body like a slim oak tree. I often wished that I were fair as Dame Elizabeth.
‘Battle!’ said the nurse.
‘’Twill be a long time yet,’ I said comfortingly.
‘Will it, in truth?’ she answered crossly. ‘I’m not so sure.’ Her wrinkled eye was upon me and I searched my mind for a task undone, a duty neglected. I had been beaten once already that day; thus was I standing to watch Dick and Thomas Grey from the window. I could not sit down easily.
‘From what I just heard,’ she went on, ‘babes and sucklings ride to battle.’
I was dying to know what the courier had said. From the moment of watching him ride through the crumbling courtyard an hour ago, I had been a-boil of curiosity. It was unusual enough, even in these days of fretful peace, to have such a messenger visit Grafton Regis. A real royal courier, with the
rose en soleil
shimmering on his surcote. There were so many things I was hot to know. He might even be able to tell the name of my lady’s handsome stranger, the sun-haired knight. So I laid my cheek against the nurse’s sleeve, fawningly.
‘What said he, sweet dame?’
‘He talked of the King’s brothers,’ she said grudgingly. ‘One of them leads the levies to join the royal army. Like a real captain, and he only twelve years old. They are encamped at Leicester.’
Ah, Leicester. This gave me a pang. For it was at Leicester that I had been reared, in a nunnery, under the most virtuous Prioress that ever drew breath. Through war and peace and changing monarchs, in riches and penury, Leicester had been my home, both physical and spiritual. There I had lived with my mother until her death, and there had my father, dying, willed me to Grafton Regis and the service of Sir Richard Woodville’s widowed daughter, Dame Elizabeth Grey.
‘To my mind, it’s shameful,’ said the nurse, looking dolefully at the drenched boys. ‘Nowadays, knaves are men before they’re out of swaddling bands. Look at those two! And as for little Gloucester, I doubt he’ll stand the journey.’
I knew hazily of King Edward’s two brothers; there was George of Clarence, and this other, younger one, whom few had seen, who led an army, and who was of scant interest to me.
‘Why did he not send my lord of Clarence instead?’ I said. ‘If this Gloucester is so young and weak besides...’
‘George was appointed no commissions, the courier told me,’ she replied. ‘And the King thought it would be good for Richard. To give him confidence, courage.’
I dismissed this with a yawn. Then, eagerly, longingly, asked:
‘Did the man... did he know aught of my lady’s leman? The most handsome man, the hottest in love, for that he must be. Did he...’
Without warning, she boxed my ear. The wide sleeves of her worsted flew about.
‘Leman! Lover!’ she growled wrathfully. ‘Cease this shameful talk! Remember always, there’s none more chaste than Lady Grey!’
Had I been older, I might have mistrusted this fire-hot defence of virtue, and been wrong, for all that. Had I not witnessed a certain scene with my own eyes, I might have wondered on it. But, enthralled, scarcely comprehending, and a little afraid, I had seen the evidence of Dame Grey’s incorruptible virtue. What I saw occurred not long after her first meeting with the great golden knight; a meeting which, in itself, had seemed a strange, oddly predestined thing. Elizabeth had gone out into Whittlebury one day, on foot, and unescorted save for the two little boys—and very sweet they looked, if a little ill-nourished and pale—hanging on her either hand. We had feared for her; the royal hunt was reputed to be about, and there was the hazard of her being trampled in the chase. Yet she returned at dusk, smiling, softly flushed, no harm having come to her save that the horse of a young nobleman had splashed her with some mire. It was soon after this that this man, terrifyingly handsome, like a saint or a sungod, had begun to visit Grafton Regis. I did not know his name, though I strongly suspected that others in the household did. He often called himself ‘Ned’—sometimes ‘poor Ned’—this with a rich laugh—or ‘lovelorn Ned’ in songs he composed himself and accompanied on the lute. My awe of him was great. For one thing he was so tall his golden head seemed to graze the clouds. That he came to Grafton at all was a kind of miracle; so might a saint step down from heaven, or the sun itself swing low for a brief space to bless our days. Young and sturdy, he had a happy voice and a purseful of gold angels ready to drop at any small favour done him. Once, he pinched my cheek. I blushed and shrank; he called me ‘hinny’. Then, Lady Grey entered—he forgot me and grew pale with longing.
And my days were filled with pleasant duty, brushing out Elizabeth’s long hair of spun silver, bathing and perfuming that white body. It grieved her that she had but a handful of dresses in which to receive her splendid guest, so that I was forever refurbishing them, taking the tassels from one, the gold passement from another, to make of a third a thing of beauty. We were poor at Grafton. Poor by any standards, for Sir John Grey, while he lived, had fought for Lancaster, and most of his estates had been forfeit to the Crown. I think this saddened Elizabeth; she had a passing tragic look at times, enhanced by the widow’s barbe and wimple custom bade her wear. All her lovely hair was hidden, save for one little lovelock, a gilded promise that surmounted the broad brow, full lips and pointed chin. Lovesome was she, while she laughed gracefully and drank wine with the fair nobleman, she kept about her a cloak of chaste piety which might, I thought, have chilled his ardour. It did not; he was mad for her, as rams are mad in spring.
I rubbed my smarting ear and thought of the day I went to the herb garden on an errand for Elizabeth’s mother. The old Duchess of Bedford, who lived with us at Grafton, kept her own small knot garden behind the long yew hedge next to the stables. A clipped, neat sward of lawn lay between beds which themselves were filled with strange plants and stranger fungi, most of whose names I did not know. Once, Jacquetta of Bedford had been as fair as her daughter, and now she spent hours brewing skin salves, or potions to revive her thinning hair. On this occasion she had sent me only for a few sprigs of rosemary and some cherry-blossom, should it be flowering yet. So I went down and the rich borders welcomed me with a joyous waft of perfume, so intense and inviting that my latest worry, the need of a new gown, fled from my mind, and I lay down, stretched out along the edge of the flowerbed, hidden by the bushes, watching a beetle staggering through the grasses, breathing thyme and sweet gale and pennyroyal, thoughtless and content. So their voices startled me, when Lady Grey and her tall young suitor came slowly down the lawn between the rectangles of raised shrubs. His velvet cap was tucked beneath one arm. With the bright light circling his head, he looked like the spirit of the sun. Yet he seemed ill-pleased about something, and a petulant smile lay on his mouth. Elizabeth’s eyes were demurely downcast; as she walked she plucked a flower-head, a primrose growing in moss halfway up the garden wall. She held it for an instant to her lips. Instantly he snatched it from her, quite roughly, thrusting it deep into the breast of his doublet as one might plunge a sword into the heart. He took her hand. Their footsteps slowed. They stopped a few paces from where I lay; I dared not move or make a sound.
‘Lady, be kind,’ I heard him say. Then, desperately:
‘Sweet Bess, why do you torment me so? I pray you, be kind. ’Tis little to you, and the whole world to me.’
She murmured something, low as her downcast eyes. She began to walk on, but he sprang, clasping her in his arms. She made no move to evade him; she merely stood, smiling that same, faint smile, and looking at the ground.
‘Flesh and blood, Madame?’ he asked gratingly. ‘Or stone, Madame?’ Then it was I became uneasy, frightened. He was so changed, so fierce. With a sharp movement of his great hands he tore the wimple from Elizabeth’s head. Her silvery hair spilled over his arms. Bending, he crushed his face into her throat, while she stood, motionless. I gripped a bunch of rosemary and prayed they would not see me. Lying there, afraid, I thought I heard the pounding of their hearts.
‘Yield to me Elizabeth!’ he said in a terrible voice.
I could not hear her reply, it was so soft. Sunlight stabbed at the blade of a drawn dagger, and jewels burned at its hilt. He was holding the knife to her throat, the white throat bruised by kisses.
‘Yield, Madame,’ he said, like a madman. ‘Or, by God’s Blessed Lady, none other shall possess you. Bess, Bess,’ he said, like a child, ‘would you have me insane?’
Standing bravely, she said, calm and pleasant: ‘Sir, I am too good to be your leman. Too good, Ned, to lie, even with you, in sin.’
Fierce colour mottled his face. He cursed and swore. He threw the knife, its hilt a jewelled rainbow, to the farthest end of the garden. Then he turned and strode, all swift anger, towards the house. For a moment Elizabeth stood musing, then coiled her hair deftly, rearranged her wimple and followed him, without haste, stopping only to pick up the dagger that quivered in the soft lawn. I rose and ran in the opposite direction, still clutching the bunch of rosemary for my lady of Bedford.
At one time I did wonder whether they were perchance enacting a scene from a play, or rehearsing some new disguising, some foolish romance, and that this was all in sport. Her calmness made me wonder thus. Yet I thought on it, and pondering, knew it had been no game. And so I learned of Elizabeth’s stern chastity. He did not come again for some weeks; Elizabeth showed no sign of missing him, but her mother fell in a black fury, out of all proportion to the case. Her body-servant, Agnes, who was my dear friend, suffered the lash of Jacquetta’s tongue, and nightly in whispers she and I surmised the reason for this wrath. We reached the conclusion that the old woman was in love herself with Elizabeth’s suitor, and forgot our bruises in stifled mirth. But when he came again, all smiles and sweetness and contrition, we saw no signs of such a passion; in truth, Jacquetta withdrew into her private solar, and mixed more herbals. Agnes swore she was at work on an elixir to make her young again.
The pain in my ear was fading. I sought to placate the nurse.
‘Is the courier still here, sweet dame?’
‘Aye, he is,’ she said gruffly. ‘His horse cast a shoe, and that’s why.’
I was disappointed. No news of battles, then. Not that I wanted a battle, God forbear. No summons to the Court of King Edward, either, for any of us. That had ever been a lackwit dream of mine. I had heard that the King, whose deeds of courage were legion, was wonderful to behold, and his court a splendour. But the nurse was babbling again of the King’s brothers.
‘Such a babe to lead an army,’ she mused. ‘So they say. And so frail. Unlike his brothers, I have learned. While both his Grace and George of Clarence are ruddy and fair, Richard is small, low statured. Blue eyes, nearly black. His hair is very dark. Almost that colour.’ She touched the oak settle. ‘Wistful of mien, not given to smiling.’
He sounded a passing dull fellow, ‘Is he to fight already, this Richard?’ I asked mockingly. ‘And who’s the foe?’
‘He’s only leading the levies,’ she replied with restrained patience. ‘Though, mark you, he could fight. They say he was trained in arms by the Earl of Warwick, at Middleham Castle in the north parts. And the King dotes on him.’ She looked tenderly out of the window at Dick and Thomas Grey. ‘Babes in harness,’ she said. ‘Certes, these are terrible days.’
‘One king is the same as any other’: I had heard it many times, until the sack of Ludlow, when we at the nunnery had been so terribly afraid. It was Queen Margaret, the French vixen, who had bred in us this chilling fear. She had let her men pillage and burn and ravish; it was only King Edward Fourth who had put a stop to it. As for her spouse, the old Lancastrian king, Henry—folk said he had been mad for years. My own father had fought for Lancaster, and those days had been far more terrible than now. We were at peace, and King Edward, from all accounts, was a good king. It was what a man was by instinct, blood and loyalties, not what his policy made him, as the Prioress at Leicester–the Mother whom I still missed—used often to tell me.
‘Have you naught to do, child?’ the nurse said, suddenly sharp. ‘What of my lady’s mending? Her shifts are in ribbons. And there is work aplenty in the stillroom for those idle, lady-hands of yours.’
‘Is the courier well-favoured? May I go down and see him?’
Gaze fixed again on the boys, she was not listening. They ran and leaped, the sun shifting on their pallid bodies. Thomas had captured the large black cat which belonged to the Duchess of Bedford. He was tying a rusty spur to its tail.