Table of Contents

Chapter 7 - A Stoop to a Rake by A.J. Hall

The next days, as Charis awaited the churchman’s answer, were a foretaste of Purgatory.

The palfrey the master of the horse found for her might as well have been a sofa. Its gait was significantly more lethargic than any horse’s had a right to be. Charis half-wondered if the master of the horse was feeding it poppy seeds.

The routine of their rides never varied. The cavalcade would form up, comprising the master of the horse, Charis herself, two grooms, two arms-men and an elderly gentlewoman, some distant connection of Lestrade’s mother, living out the last of her blameless days in a small house in the grounds.

Once set in motion, they plodded a tortuous circuit along overgrown tracks heavy and buzzing with biting flies. At the first sign of restiveness on Charis’s part the master of the horse would bring the entire cavalcade to a halt and, in a voice dripping false concern, announce, “My lord’s orders are that my lady must not over-tire herself. We will return to the castle forthwith.” All attempts at remonstrance were met with the same smiling blandness, the same invocation of “My lord’s orders.”

Nor did she fare much better when not on horseback. Lord Lestrade’s decision that she was to be represented to the outside world as a gentlewoman of northern Gaaldine meant all her meals were taken in her room, not in the castle dining hall, lest some visitor to the castle notice her and draw conclusions.

What added gall to the cup was that her absence left Sally presiding as lady of the feast. From what Jean had told her of Lord Lestrade’s dining companions — cadets of money-strapped noble houses, out to win fortune by the sword, and grizzled mercenary captains, probably own brother or cousin to the bandits they hunted — Charis hardly envied her the honour. The noise rising from below of an evening made the Royal menagerie at feeding time sound like a haven of tranquility. Nevertheless, it was the principle of the thing. Jean tried to apply balm to the smart by telling her that however united the public face Lestrade and Sally tried to display, she still kept the doors to her suite barred against any more private rapprochement. It was limited comfort.

During the endless hours of over-watched solitude Charis took refuge in drawing. At first it was merely to relieve boredom, but soon she conceived a bolder purpose. Lord Lestrade, she realised, still saw her as the child whom he had first known. Perhaps he saw all women as equally limited. If she could only show him different.

Numbers were a language in which almost anything might be expressed. Nor need one betray what one was about by writing them in the Roman or Arabic forms. The up and down strokes either side of a upright did just as well; the unlettered had used them to tally debts and record wagers for centuries. Better, they could easily be disguised as something else — for example, the fine hatching one used to indicate shade in pen-and-ink work.

Shaded by a wide-brimmed hat, her face protected from flies and the curiosity of passers-by beneath a fine-mesh veil, she directed Jean to set up a sketching stool and easel in various points of vantage around the castle.

After two days she had compiled a respectable portfolio of pen-and-ink drawings. A military engineer might (had he troubled to concern himself with a gentlewoman’s little daubs and scratches) have noted the drawings’ unusual clarity when it came to issues such as sally ports, clear lines of fire, optimum positions for ordnance and location of wells and cisterns.

Even such an engineer, though, would have been hard put to decode the clues built into details of decoration and ornament (ornament which, when compared to the original, might be seen to display a startling degree of artistic licence). But someone who knew what to look for might have noted that every single particular a besieging force might wish to know about the castle had been pinned elegantly to the paper.

She signed each one with the tiny acanthus device she had been accustomed to use, back in Gaaldine’s palace, to signify a sketch which held a puzzle (not that Sherlock had ever needed the hint, she recalled with a pang.)

When Lord Lestrade next called for her — when, perhaps, he would be holding in his hand the canon-law opinion which laid the path clear to their marriage — she would show him. She would show him.

On the fifth day after her arrival, her resolve crumbled. She had told herself that she was not going to raise the matter again; she would wait for Lord Lestrade. Each time she had seen him, though, he had been distant and distracted, pacing along the terrace scanning the northern horizon or giving quick, low-voiced commands to his officers, commands which, as often as not, were negated a turn or so later.

Nor had it escaped her notice that her bête noire, the master of horse, seemed to have progressively fewer horses under his day-to-day command, nor that mounted troops passed daily out through the buttressed gateway, and did not return.

By way of Jean, she learned of an oddly specific sequence of cattle and sheep raids on the farms to the east. It seemed almost as if someone were deliberately trying to provoke the great outlaw families who were also, in their own way, lords of the Borders.

Charis knew what that meant. The great game of chess, played out across the centuries between the three kingdoms, had its own time-honed gambits and stratagems. Stirring up local banditry as cover for an incursion was a tactic which went back millennia.

War, then, was on the wind.

If so, in her private opinion, Lord Lestrade seemed distinctly lacking in preparation. That great German-style mansion, with all its glass, could withstand no sustained assault by ordnance, and yet no effort had been made either to disperse the household into the countryside or transfer their quarters into the older, more defensible parts of the castle.

Perhaps, Charis told herself, with a kind of desperate optimism she barely believed herself, if she could get the marriage business sorted, it might free Lord Lestrade’s attention for matters military.

She chose the hour before the evening meal. Jean had revealed quite a talent as a tiring maid, at least for an up-country place where Charis was not expected to make formal appearances. She arrayed Charis in the lavender silk dress and did something simple but unexpectedly effective with her hair. Thus armoured, Charis went in search of Lord Lestrade.

She found him in his accounting room, head bent over a pile of deeds and papers. Flies buzzed around in a desultory way, doubtless drawn by the half-empty glass of sweet wine by his right hand. The casements were shut and the air stale and musty; it was not, she guessed, a room much frequented. He did not look up as she entered, but continued scowling at the mess on the desk with the air of a man who had added up the same column of figures with the same result nine times already, but nonetheless hoped the tenth time would prove the charm.

“My lord, have you had any news?”

His head jerked up. “News? What news? Why should I have had news?”

A horrid suspicion gripped her. “News of the canon law opinion on annulment, of course. Surely it should have arrived by now?”

He made no more than a token effort to rise, then waved her into a seat on the far side of the desk. (Like a steward, here for orders, a miserable inner voice observed.)

“My dear girl, how charmingly naïve of you!” His laugh was horribly unconvincing. “Those of us who have had dealings with lawyers — for our sins — would scarcely have expected a response in under twice the time which has passed.”

It might be the difference between being royal and being merely noble, but her father, to say nothing of Mycroft, would have had the hide of any man of law who had the temerity to keep him hanging for the best part a week for an opinion. “But surely — when did you send for it?”

Lord Lestrade’s expression told her everything. In this, as in every other act since they had left Cavron, he had failed her; treated her not as a woman but a child, to be humoured, chided and misled.

“So you haven’t written. Not at all? When you said —”

“I said that you needed to consider very carefully the implications of such a step!” The words burst out, those of a man pressed to the end of his rope by the unreasonableness of those around him. “Look, when we spoke in Cavron, I believed we shared a certain understanding as to how things stood. It was wrong of you — very wrong indeed — to withhold important information and put me into this position in the first place.”

Blood rose and thundered in her ears. “Me, withhold information? And what about you? What about Mistress Donovan?”

“Leave Sally out of it. That’s quite a different thing. Whereas this — you idiotic girl, can’t you see how King James will respond to any attempt to annul your marriage and marry me? He will use every power at his disposal to stop it. Every power, without quarter.”

It was as if Lord Lestrade had conjured the Pretender into the room. She felt the dissecting gaze of his cold, black eyes; heard the high voice he affected, which could swing from charm to murderous anger in a single beat; saw that characteristic shake of his head from side to side.

How on earth had she thought she could stand alone against him? The thought slipped out before she could stop it. Alone. At last her mind acknowledged what her heart had been telling her for days now.

Defiantly, she sat up a little straighter. “Nonetheless. I would not have consented to come here without believing I could make everything honourable and above-board, no matter what it cost me. I stand by that. I keep my promises.”

“Why, you — ” He half-rose from his chair, leant across the desk towards her, and sent his wine-glass flying, spreading its contents all across the desk. Charis pushed back her chair only just in time to save the lavender silk.

The interruption, damn it, gave Lord Lestrade a chance to regroup. By the time the wine-sodden papers had been removed by his clerk, and they were alone again, he had regained much of his normal poise. He cupped his chin in his hands and summoned the soulful expression she had always found so irresistible before.

“Look, suppose you went through all that degradation and did not emerge a free woman? Suppose the canon court held your marriage to that Gaaldine popinjay valid? Suppose they disbelieved your protestations of virginity?”

For a moment she thought she had misheard. Then she recognised the glint in his eye, that of a man who has laid an unbeatable hand down on the card table, and knew she had not.

Even in the stifling, late-afternoon heat, Charis’s teeth began to chatter. Only the energy of anger let her speak at all.

“How can they disagree with the evidence of their own eyes? In such cases, I am led to understand, there is an — an examination carried out by a qualified physician, in the presence of a jury of pious matrons. It will be unpleasant, doubtless, but I am confident in the outcome. And it had not, before, occurred to me that any man who lays claim to the title of gentleman could doubt my given word on a point of such a nature.”

He raised a languid hand in a gesture of deprecation. “I’m not talking about my doubts. I’m talking about how it will appear, or can be made to appear, that you satisfy the appearance of a maiden, but nonetheless are nothing of the sort. The suspicion which will arise — and it gives me no pleasure to mention it — will derive almost as a matter of course from your husband’s notorious preferences in matters of the flesh. But I can hardly discuss that point further. It’s not a topic fit to be discussed with a gently-raised young lady.”

It required no effort to make her voice icy. “It seems, Lord Lestrade, that if you are correct it will be raised in a court of canon law, before an entire crowd of lawyers, churchmen, interested parties and general hangers-on. It would surely be no more than practical common sense to inform me of it now, in private.”

“I wanted to spare you this,” Lord Lestrade said. In a characteristic tic, his tongue flickered out to moisten his lips. “But, since you press the matter, your husband has long been known to use boys after the manner of the Bulgars. I hardly like to mention this to you, but apparently there exist women so depraved that they also allow themselves to be so used.”

“I know about that,” Charis said. “We had one in the hospital once. One of the girls from one of the houses — not Big Gertie’s, of course — but the man must have used her far too forcibly in that way. She had a most terrible fistula, and Sarai almost despaired.”

Lord Lestrade went first dead white, then red. “You can’t say things like that.”

“I just did say it.” The knowledge that she had succeeded in shocking him made her feel better, a very little.

“Well, don’t say it again. Coarseness on your part creates the worst possible impression. The very fact of your knowing of such matters will create suspicions as to how you came by that knowledge.”

“I told you. It was by working at the hospital.”

“Quite.” His tone held a hint of savage pleasure. Instinct screamed, Walk wary.

“What’s wrong with working at the hospital? Neither the King nor Sherlock have raised any objection. Besides, it’s a work of charity, and I’m good at it.”

“So they tell me.” The savage note deepened; there was assuredly something unpleasant coming. “A job no woman of quality should stoop to, and yet you do it as if to the manner born. Have you never wondered why that might be so?”

“Lord Lestrade.” She knew, as surely as when it happened in the fencing salle, she had lost the initiative. Nevertheless, she would not concede the bout. “I beg you, make yourself intelligible. I cannot see what bearing my charitable works at the Poor Persons’ Hospital have on this matter.”

“No, you wouldn’t. I don’t doubt that the matter was carefully kept from your ears. And no-one with any hope of preferment at the Court of Gondal would be likely to raise it, either. Men have been exiled for less. Or worse.”

“Again, intelligible, Lord Lestrade?”

“Since you force my hand. If you were free to marry me tomorrow and the King’s disfavour were by some miracle not a consideration, nonetheless most of my friends at Court and all my surviving family would counsel me against it, for the sake of my posterity.”

Pompous really didn’t suit him, she thought irrelevantly, before she decoded what he was actually saying.

“What? But I —”

He raised his hand again. “Please. You demanded my explanation. For God’s sake, then, stay quiet and let me give it. For more than five generations my family can show untainted noble ancestry. No commoner, still less a bastard, has married into the house of Lestrade in all that time. Our records on the point are meticulous. But — since you came in here to talk about matters of canon law — I know as a certain fact that King James holds a cardinal’s opinion, based on credible testimony, which shows you to be both bastard and commoner.”

The room spun. She gripped hard at the arm-rests of the carved oak chair and prayed for smelling salts. Deep breaths had to suffice. After a second or so she raised her head and glared at him.

“You — how dare—?”

“I dare do no more than say aloud what has been whispered in every corner of the Court since first your mother was with child.”

Logic raised its head, inopportunely. “You can’t possibly know that. You were no more than six yourself when I was born. You weren’t at court.”

“Oh, Charis, do grow up. Whether at Court or not, I heard the rumours from my earliest years. I put them down to malicious gossip, naturally. But his grace the King cannot afford to be so generous, however his personal inclinations may lie.”

“Trust me, I know quite enough of the Pretender’s personal inclinations.” Charis paused. “And of his lies. Doubtless, this is all some contrivance of his. He’s had long enough to plan it. And to set rumours running in support.”

“Don’t be absurd. And for Christ’s sake, keep your voice down. And don’t use that term. If you can’t bear to give his grace his proper title, use nothing, rather than call him that.”

She nodded, tight-lipped. “Go on. These are the basest falsehoods, but let’s hear them out.”

Marguerite sounded as a counter-chime in the back of her mind. Her lady of the bedchamber had been dead for more than eighteen months, but certain hints and portents she had dropped, over the years (dismissal or death for saying more, of course, that rang true) came uneasily to mind.

“Well, of recent years your late — that is, King Ambrosine — neglected many things which should have been attended to. Now, King James’s necessary reforms and the tax exactions to pay for them have made him unpopular in certain quarters.”

“It could only have been a matter of time before his greed and cruelty became more widely known.”

“Charis, will you shut up? You’re in Gondal now; this is no place to talk sedition. Which, come to think of it, circles us back to the matter under hand. Chief among his grace’s opponents is a rabble of malcontents and treason-mongers who call themselves the Modernists —”

“Papa would never have called them treason-mongers. I believe he had a secret hankering for their ideas himself, but he never thought the time was ripe to bring it up in Council. Many times I’ve heard John say he wished he had, and perhaps had he not become ill when he did he’d have had the energy to do it. John, my physician, you see, was a leader of the Modernist cause.”

“No wonder, since he stood to gain the most from it.”

She sensed an abyss yawning below her. “What do you mean?”

Lord Lestrade gave a smile of smug satisfaction. “What, I told you the King had a cardinal’s opinion proving your bastardy, and you never thought to ask who your true father was?”

She was too sharp not to sense where this was going. “Holy Virgin. John?”

“The very same. John Watson. The son and grandson of surgeons — that accounts for your low taste for blood and gore, doubtless. As for the late Queen’s low taste — well, who can say? But if the Modernists had had their way, Watson would have seen his light-skirt’s base-born get upon the throne of Gondal. What a triumph for an army sawbones, that.”

A hot defence of Mama rose to her lips — and stayed there. What, after all, was there to say? Lord Lestrade had, in truth, laid down an unbeatable hand.

“Excuse me,” she said, her throat so choked as to make her voice almost unrecognisable. “I must go to my chamber.”

She had no idea how she got there, and only the vaguest memory of waving away Jean and the serving maid who bore her evening meal upon a platter. For a long time she sat on her bed, dry-eyed yet shaking, thoughts circling inside her head, unstoppable and unchanging.

Mama and John. John and Mama. Mama. Beloved Mama: lost once and now lost again. Mama. A forsworn wife, a wanton, a whore, something less than the dung on a man’s shoe.

And with John, too. John: her friend, her confidant, her physician — the director of her studies, too, before the nuns, as governesses came and went — and all the time this secret lying at the heart of all. What could John have been thinking, so to betray Papa, his friend, his patient and his king?

Poor Papa — beloved, distant, amused Papa — whom she supposed she ought now think of as “his grace”, like any other bastard commoner.

And then, bitterest and last, as it had been bitterest and first, Mama.

My true parent.

“Like mother, like daughter.” So the Court dowagers would clack, when news of Charis’s disgrace reached Gondal town.

Lord Lestrade would never have married her. She saw that now. The dowagers would have seen it from the beginning. The wanton daughter of a wanton mother, starting a little early on the path bad blood marked out for her. That was what they would say. That was what she had let herself become.

And poor, poor Sherlock. Trapped by deceit into marrying a sham princess, enviegled into a marriage he could never have wanted in the first place. (Known to use boys after the manner of the Bulgars. Not that she had ever seen evidence of anything of the sort, but how could she trust her judgement here, when it had failed her so in every other instance?)

At the thought of Sherlock, a very faint flickering of light eased the utter blackness of despair. A cold kind of light, like those the country folk lit over the newly interred, but light, nonetheless.

She had abandoned honour and had no hope of mercy. There remained, though, the chance of doing one small act of reparation. Sherlock should not be forced to live shackled to a forsworn wife, wearing a cuckold’s horns and enduring the scorn of the Pretender and all his cronies. There was, at least, something she could do about that.

Charis rose from the bed — her limbs had stiffened from long sitting — and stalked towards the stair to the roof-walk, head held high.