Authors: Rosemary Hawley Jarman
‘All the sisters went to court,’ I said, half to myself. ‘The cousins, and their cousins’ cousins, a legion. And they went in a gilt coach. I would go in a cart.’
‘Mistress,’ said Agace slyly, ‘you aren’t the Queen’s kin.’
‘Is it my fault,’ I demanded, ‘that I have no royal blood?’
Agace had one black tooth-stump. It showed as she howled with laughter.
‘Christ in Glory!’ she said, wiping her eyes. ‘Have they? Better than you or I, mistress, but common, none the less, common as English earth. Hence there’s so many ducal tempers aflame!’
I knew naught of ducal tempers. I knew only that the Woodvilles were apart from me now, by reason of rank and greatness; aeons distant. Yet there was one close at hand, growling with the grippe, one who would like to be petted; that I knew well. I drained the posset into a jug.
‘I will go up, Agace,’ I said.
‘Coddle her well,’ the cook mocked me.
At the door I said: ‘I did but think Bess Woodville would go to court as the King’s leman. Not as Queen of England.’
‘So did we all, mistress.’ She started to laugh again. ‘I can read you like a pack of cards. Do you have your way, speak, I pray you, for me also, and the stable churls. For it’s as likely I should dance with the Duke of Clarence in Greenwich Great Hall, as you should accompany the Duchess to court.’
‘Save my supper,’ I said, closing the door.
But I got no supper that night. For from the moment I stepped into the bedchamber again, with my healing draught and words of honey, the breeze blew strong and my ship began to turn onto its course. I got no rest either, for from the instant I began to brush Jacquetta’s hair, and held up the mirror with the murmured words: ‘A queenly face, my lady, a right queenly face,’ she would have the service of none other but me. I brushed and brushed her scanty hair, and at the right moment when she looked down to see the tress laid over her shoulder I whispered: ‘Madame, it has the touch of gold.’ Lie was it none; a strand of my own lay beneath it.
As we left the snowbound fields and came down Watling Street into Chepeside, I could not longer contain my excitement and started to ask questions, my voice raised through necessity over the bawling of the ’prentices—‘Come buy! What d’ye lack!’ and the constant clamour of church bells—the deep song of the Jesus Bells in their fat stone tower, the sweeter burden of St Paul’s near by; the yells of the chestnut and apple sellers touting for custom and the cries of the cook-knaves at each shop door. Even while we approached through the milling street past the goldsmiths and silversmiths with the banners of their gilds and patrons in lavish display over the entrance, we caught the sharp strong odour of pigmeat and brawn, spiced venison and game, an advancing gale, pungent to the nose, weighty on the stomach. St Paul’s steeple towered to half a thousand feet, monarch over the hundred other spires that pointed to Paradise. Houses huddled together, leaning dizzily, gilded and painted and bulging into the street, and the buzz of close life from within them dazzled the crisp urgent air. Shouts of song came from the taverns, the Mermaid, the Mitre, the King’s Head, while the gay signs that hung outside, blazing blues and reds and gold, had been framed overnight by an angel with frosty fingers. Down along Chepe we came, and the dwellings leaned close and hugged each other lovingly, and my joy made me believe that they, too, wished one another fair Yuletide greetings, and that in all the world, every face smiled. One great mansion soared high above the rest; in the distance I could see its mighty roofs, silvered by snow and sun. I turned eagerly to the woman at my side. All the Dowager Duchess’s ladies seemed to be larger than I, and in the swaying litter I was crushed in the corner, the end of a fur rug wrapped about my knees.
‘What is that building—where is it?’ I cried.
‘Guess,’ she said teasingly, addressing a bumpkin.
‘Is it... her Grace’s residence, Ormond’s Inn?’ I asked wildly. I had heard of the magnificence of the Queen’s town house, with its hangings of French cloth of gold, exquisite ornaments, where her wards were trained, and the scores of retainers awaited her occasional visits.
She burst out laughing. ‘That is at Smithfield!’ she cried, and I felt foolish. Then, more kindly, she said: ‘Nay, over there is Bishopsgate, and the high building, Crosby’s Place.’
‘Crosby’s Place,’ I repeated. A fleeting disappointment rose in me. The name said little.
‘’Tis Sir John Crosby’s home,’ she said reprovingly. ‘He’s a very important man.’
Still it meant naught, and how was I, no soothsayer, to know its very name would one day warm my cold blood?
A wintry wind blew off the Thames as we approached London Bridge and, to our left, saw the chalky pinnacles of the Tower. A few kites mingled with the seagulls, swooping and tearing at objects that were spiked upon the gates of the Bridge. I looked up in interest to see what it was they attacked so merrily, and looked hastily down again in the next instant. For they were the heads of what had once been men, empty-eyed skulls with tattered hair, whipped by the wind. A bird flew carelessly past our litter, a large piece of pallid flesh in its beak. ‘Pirates,’ said the woman next to me, and yawned. Still I gazed at my lap until the sight should be gone. Pirates, felons, thieves, they might have been, but once they were men, and mayhap well-favoured, and sometime loved.
The deep boom from Westminster Clock House calling the hour struck at my ears. The mighty river, choked with merchant galleys, rich barges, wherries and flotsam flowed strongly. A swift tide was running. Giant cranes lined the docks. Petermen offered pennypassage over the icy waters, their voices hoarse and salty. And on the crowded frosty river rode a thousand swans, like brave white blossoms fighting the swell. Our litter ventured cautiously towards the Bridge, for the road was foul with great wounds to catch at the horses’ legs. I looked up at the score of arches formed by the joined house gables under which we were to pass, and was marvelling again, when we halted abruptly. The little brachet bitch on the lap of the lady opposite fell to the floor and set up a sharp yapping. Gently I picked it up, returning it with the sweet and docile smile which I had worn for days; I was thankful we had not brought Gyb. All the ladies seemed bored; they had made this journey before, and the Dowager Duchess was dozing in her corner. But I quivered like a lute when played by the master, and struggled to peer out of the side of the carriage.
‘God’s curse on this delay,’ said one of the women languidly. ‘What, is London drawbridge up at this hour? Why have we halted?’
Swaying gently, the litter waited. I could hear the shouts of men, the crisping of hooves on the snow, and as I looked out I saw a great body of horse advancing over the bridge. They will pass very close, I thought; there was small room for two such cavalcades and a crowd had suddenly gathered to swell the confusion. People lined the street: merchants, pedlars, monks, women with young children, ragged beggars, red-nosed with the cold—all pointing, gabbling in low excited voices. A milkmaid set down her pails in the dirty road, to arrange her gown in a becoming fashion. A father raised his infant high the better to see. What, is the King coming? I thought. The very air was alive. The King is coming to meet the Duchess, I thought, and was about to give my mind a voice, when a great roar went up from the people, a shouting tumult to make the heart beat fast.
‘Warwick! Warwick!’ they cried, like thunder. The echo rolled off the house gables and curled about our litter like a lash.
‘Warwick! Warwick!’ they roared, and the name was an anthem of praise.
All the gentlewomen lay back on their cushions, assuming disdain. I cared naught for their strange disinterest. I craned to see who rode towards us.
Had I not known the King by sight I would have hailed this one as his Grace, so royal was he, both of countenance and bearing. Astride a great black horse he came in magnificence. The beast was housed to the knee in cloth of silver, the bit and bridle and stirrups fashioned of gold and studded with pearls and diamonds. A score of archers on foot surrounded horse and man. They walked as one man who wears one badge, and that emblem, the snarling Bear and Ragged Staff, was painted clear and bold upon the banners waving above them. A score of noblemen, sumptuously clad, surrounded Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, and none heeded them, for all eyes were on their master. He wore a long gown of dark blue velvet, the sleeves rich with ermine, over which, slung carelessly, lay a wide gold chain heavy with sapphires. A vast diamond flamed in his velvet bonnet. His eyes were a keen clear grey in his square dark face, and his hair fell in black curls to his jewelled collar.
For all his greatness, he halted to pinch the cheek of the waving child, doffed his cap in honour of the milkmaid, bowed to the priests and merchants and threw a fistful of gold among the beggars. His swift gaze swept our entourage, and in a flash the benign eyes changed. A cold look of contempt, a thin veil as of snow over black ice, entered them. He bowed to the Dowager Duchess’s litter, spurred his horse through the narrow way and rode quickly past with his train, leaving the townsfolk in a turmoil of excitement. I sank back, trembling, and thought with admiration and wonder of the noble Earl right up unto Greenwich, where the King and Queen kept court for the holy season.
Dimly, I heard the women talking, fierce icy voices. ‘Devil damn the popinjay!’ said one. ‘To make my lady wait!’ The Duchess waked from her half-doze, chuckled and snarled, and I smiled at her. I knew and cared for naught, save that I was in London. I was too stupid to be afraid, and God guards fools, that I am sure; thus might I have thought had I thought at all, springing to the side of my lady as we ascended the Palace steps. Some of the gentlewomen’s looks were like half- sheathed daggers, but I stayed milk-mild, taking from Jacquetta’s limp hand the musk-ball she had carried against the stink of London, giving her the ivory cane with the jewelled handle. I whispered sweetly in her ear, ever solicitous for her comfort. False, was I? Nay, at that instant I was a true maid, for I could almost love the old woman for bringing me to this place, this glory. I wore the Queen’s old gown, but I was in the Queen’s household, for good or ill.
Agace had warned me, before I left:
‘Guard well your tongue, mistress, and your ways. For I hear the court is not all you would have it be; trust few, for there’s envy and hatred there. Let no fickle knight or false nobleman weasel into your bed. Without it be the King, of course.’ I had scoffed: ‘Peace, old dame!’ in a flurry of preparation. She had said, to my amazement, for we had had many sharp words: ‘St Catherine keep you.’ I thanked her for her blessing, but tossed her counsel aside as an empty nutshell, for I believed in Providence and the armour of my own keen wit.
So, of this mind, I came to court, and never shall I forget that first evening, with its disappointment and its drama, its joy and disillusion. With a throng of gentlewomen, I was swept up a twisted staircase into the Duchess’s apartments which, within minutes, became a bedlam of bright plumage and chatter, spilt vials of perfume and barking dogs. Women were delving into trunks and coffers, drawing out dresses, yelling for the laundry-pages. Harassed servants kindled the fire, smoothed damask sheets upon the Duchess’s bed, hung wreaths of herbs around the curtained gardrobe, lest a stink should creep through heavy velvet to annoy my lady’s nose. I stood alone, my back to a great tapestry, its threads grazing my hand. For something to do, I turned and studied this rich arras, and found it more beautiful than belief. Worked on red cloth of gold, each figure sprang to life in silver thread, real pearls, with here and there a diamond’s gleam. Ruby blood spouted from the wounds of golden knights. All along one wall of the chamber the tapestry shook, a shimmering blaze of beauty. I had heard of the phrase ‘a king’s ransom’. This was it, in truth.
The Duchess was surrounded by chattering, ministering women. So I stayed, lonely and ill-ease, backed by beauty, and wondering how to occupy myself. Then a voice fragrant with a foreign accent spoke in my ear, a cool hand touched my wrist, and I turned to look into eyes so like Gyb’s that I almost laughed. For how could a cat’s eyes live in a woman’s face? Yet they were shaped like Gyb’s, uptilted, a sparkling hazel green; and so kindly that I could have wept at their kindness.
‘Child,’ said the soft voice, ‘the Dowager Duchess needs you now. I’m right joyous to see her well again. We’ve missed her sorely at court. Come, sweet, she would have you dress her hair for the evening’s revels.’
I went gladly. The rest of the women faded into an antechamber. I lifted the Duchess’s hennin and lovingly began to pluck the stray hairs from her forehead to give it the noble height she needed, while the fair, cat-eyed lady knelt beside us.
‘Fetch me a gown, Elysande,’ the Duchess told her. ‘There’ll be dancing.’ She shrugged under my touch. ‘Make the brow right clean, child. By my faith! I can scarcely feel you. You’re more skilled than those squawking abigails!’ I could hear them, laughing in the antechamber as they dressed each other for the evening. My gladness grew, excitement began to ferment in me. When Elysande returned with a crimson gown I whispered ‘Shall we be dancing, too?’ and could not believe it when she, smiling, shook her head.
The lady Elysande sat with her arm lightly through mine. An hour earlier the Duchess had descended to the Great Hall with a stout train of attendant ladies, most of them ill-favoured, some of them downright ugly. In the antechamber full of truckle-beds, half a dozen of us were left; Elysande and I, and four stolid Flemish women who had shared the supper brought up to us by pages and who now slept resignedly on the floor, their backs against a linen-coffer. I was full of rich food and bad humour. Had it not been for Elysande’s kind company, I might well have shed tears.
‘Banquets are not for you and me,’ she had said, giving me a quick kiss. ‘We are
to her Grace. Is it not an honour to be left to guard her possessions while she adorns the court?’
Below, I could hear the sounds of music and laughter, drifting from the direction of the Great Hall. ‘They have started the dancing,’ I murmured.