Chapter 12 - The Curious Incident of the Knight in the Library by A.J. Hall
“Do you – ah – have to leave Gaaldine?”
Elizabeth felt faintly touched to notice that he was twisting the tassel of the heavy damask curtain round and round in his fingers, even while the prudent housewife in her wanted to slap his hand away, tell him how big a proportion of her yearly income was represented by even a yard of the smooth, silken rope he was so wantonly damaging.
One did not presume to teach practical economics to kings.
“What else can I do? The Viscount has very kindly agreed to let me and my daughter accompany his party –”
“Kindly? Accompany? The arrogant little puppy! As if you hadn’t been just as much in his employ as your brother ever was and of ten times more use. He should pay you at least what he paid Sir Hector.”
Appreciation from anyone had been scanty enough in her life for his words to start a warm glow beneath her stays. Still, a life-time’s habit of self-deprecation could not be laid aside so easily.
“You over-value me, sir. And in any event, perhaps the Viscount finds it incumbent to retrench. The expenses of the last few days have been heavy indeed.”
The King snorted; after a second she identified it as a laugh. “That I don’t doubt. It should teach him not to play high-stakes games of chance in Big Gertie’s backroom with unassuming men in ill-fitting robes.”
She pursed her lips. “The Viscount always pushes the stakes very high when he believes his opponents may lack resources. He hopes to break their nerve by inducing them to contemplate his rent-rolls. I do not, myself, consider it sportsmanlike. When I heard about it, after the first evening’s session, I felt quite distressed at the damage his opponent would have suffered had he lost. Especially when the Viscount would insist on going back the next night, at double stakes.”
“John’s losing was never particularly likely.”
“The other gamester was Dr Watson?”
“It was indeed. It takes little effort to make a plain man unrecognisable to one accustomed to regard everyone he meets as beneath his notice, especially when he is already far gone in drink. And I don’t doubt either Sherlock or Charis would – eventually – have prevailed upon John to allow them to make good his losses had he been unsuccessful. Especially since I’d had to remind them both of my edict against duelling, so John was, in a sense, acting as Charis’s champion in the first place.”
“The Crown Prince wished to challenge the Viscount?”
“They each wished to challenge the Viscount. He should thank me for holding to my principles. I’ve seen that young man at sword-play. Sherlock would have taken him in less than three passes. With Charis, he’d have had a nearer contest. On the other hand Sherlock would have accepted first blood as satisfaction. Together, of course, with a lifetime’s refined pleasure of rubbing the Viscount’s nose in his defeat. Charis is a simpler soul. She would have taken it to the death.”
She gulped. The King smiled. “Ah, yes. I had forgotten. We are savages, out here in the back of beyond, are we not? No wonder you are anxious to return to your native shores.”
She thought she detected a flicker of hurt behind his suave tones. Scarcely surprising. Most of her party had treated the people of the Gaaldine Court as if they were painted and feathered natives of some South Sea island. Not her, though. Nor, she hoped, Frances. Nor – bless him, Dr Atherton – though in his case he would, doubtless, have been equally enchanted with the South Sea islanders, and settled down quite happily with naked chiefs beneath palm trees to discuss the Nature of the One, comparative burial customs and the best way of dressing green turtle for the table.
“Not anxious at all, sir. Merely compelled by necessity.”
“Necessity? You have, I believe, no family in England to whom you need hurry back.”
She bit her lip. That, indeed, had been troubling her sleep. If Hector had left anything in England beyond debts she would be very surprised indeed. It would have to be her husband’s cousins in Yorkshire, after all. The Sutcliffes would hardly let them be turned into the streets (probably at least).
“We will manage perfectly well,” she said quellingly, and caught a flicker of surprise, hastily concealed, in the King’s eyes.
“I have no doubt of it. It’s only that – I had hoped –” He came to an awkward stop again, and then, like a rider whose horse has refused to jump a nasty place once, and so determines to beat it over the obstacle without a chance of a second look, said rapidly, without pausing for breath, “I deeply regret it is outside my power to offer you marriage.”
She found herself struggling for breath. Her marriage, a quarter of a century ago, had been an arranged, pragmatic affair; a childless widower, twenty years older, looking for companionship, sound housekeeping skills (even at seventeen her distinguishing feature had been her practical commonsense) and willing to demand little by way of dowry. There had been no other offers, whether before James Pickering or after his death. Even in the most optimistic moments of her girlhood she had not dreamt of being wooed by a king.
And you aren’t being wooed by one now.
She summoned up all she could of that commonsense. “That’s just as well. Such a marriage would cause insuperable difficulties. I am, after all, a communicant of the Church of England and you are a Roman Catholic.”
The King raised his eyebrows; she thought he was suppressing a smile. “Not a very good one.”
“So I inferred from the events of All Hallows Eve,” she said tartly.
He snapped his fingers dismissively. “You were, as I recall, there too. And in any event, fornication was not what I had in mind. I’ll consider repenting of such-like amusements when the Archbishop stops accepting rent from Big Gertie. My difficulties are more theological in nature. I confess, when the Host is placed on my tongue not only do I find it difficult to feel the True Presence, but I find the thought somewhat distasteful. But that is not a viewpoint it would be politic to share with my subjects. A King of Gaaldine may only marry a Catholic, she being above a certain rank, or it would unleash civil war on the land.”
“I honour your scruples. As you know, my husband lost friends, family and – in the end – his estate in consequence of the civil war in my country. I very much fear those days are soon to come again.”
“As you will no doubt have noted, tensions are high between Gondal and Gaaldine, and we, too, have our internal troubles. If you were to stay, I could hardly offer you peace, either.”
She looked at him and folded her arms. “Your grace, would it be possible for you to clarify what it is we are talking about? So far you have assured me you can offer me neither marriage nor peace. What, if anything, are you trying to offer me?”
“Well, myself. Hadn’t I made that clear?”
“No. Not clear at all.” Her vision suddenly blurred; the iron control which had kept her back straight through what she had always known would be a painful farewell meeting crumbled into rust. She sagged against the chair arm.
“Oh, Elizabeth. Oh my dear.”
Strong arms were about her, soft warm lips against her cheek. She tried to move, found herself trapped by a weight pinning her skirts.
The King. He’s kneeling at my feet. On my feet.
She choked back a semi-hysterical giggle and rested her forehead against a velvet clad shoulder, inhaling his spicy, masculine scent. The grip around her tightened. What bliss, for once, to have someone to lean on, not be the one leaned against. And how much easier to have an awkward conversation when one didn’t have to look at the other person!
“Your grace. Do I understand that you are proposing an – an irregular arrangement?”
“Certainly not.” The rumble of his indignation vibrated through her; his grip did not slacken one iota. “Everything done properly and with due order. I was proposing to settle a townhouse on you and an estate – it’s not large, but a convenient half-day’s ride from the capital and its home farm is famous for its dairy cattle – except in the very hottest months there should be butter, in case you miss it –”
“Actually, that was Lady Diana. I’m perfectly content with oil –” And how the devil did one end up discussing the comparative merits of cooking fats when a King – when the man you – loved – was offering you – was offering you –
Her heart sank as her mind finally got to grips with what, indeed, he was offering.
“All for love, or the world well lost,” she murmured.
She struggled out of his embrace, back into some semblance of an upright self-possession. A hopeless and implausible counterfeit; her dishevelled hair, rapid uneven breathing and flushed skin were all telling witnesses against her.
“Your grace, I am enormously sensible of the honour you wish to do me –”
“If it’s children you’re worrying about,” he interrupted, “be assured I would acknowledge any with whom we were blessed with pride and the greatest of pleasure. They’d lack for nothing; tutors, fencing masters, musical instruments, war-horses, Toledo blades –”
“And for the boys?”
The jagged, open expression in the King’s face – torn between laughter and a painful, yearning hope too fragile to be borne – almost undid her. She forced her voice level.
“Sir, it isn’t our hypothetical future children –” she cursed under her breath as a break in her voice almost betrayed her. “What about Frances? A girl’s marriageability is bound up with her mother’s good name. How can I destroy her chances by sacrificing that? Whatever my personal wishes.” It occurred to her the instant the phrase slipped off her tongue that she had betrayed a little too much. Judging by the King’s expression, he knew it, too. She cursed, inwardly. She had been around stupid men too long. Or, at least, men so indifferent to her she could have said anything in their hearing and they would pay it no mind.
“Judging by the fact that your daughter remains in single blessedness at the age of twenty-four, it would seem that a life lived in blameless rectitude amid Oxford’s cloisters has not done a great deal to enhance her marriageability, either. Perhaps it’s time you tried a different stratagem.” He exhaled. “Or accept that, perhaps, Frances does not consider marriage her main aim in life.”
A man had no business understanding her deepest fear, let alone voicing it, especially not when he was in the process of trying to persuade her to act against her better judgement.
“Rubbish. All girls want to be married,” she said, with a robust confidence she did not feel. The King raised his eyebrows again.
“Really? I do wonder, then, how the very well-populated convents of this kingdom find candidates. Perhaps, if you stay, you should find time to discuss it with the Abbess of Norburyness.”
“If I stay as your mistress, I scarcely foresee the Abbess being willing to talk to me.”
“Why not? You could compare notes. The Abbess only discovered her vocation after my grandfather’s death, after all. Though they do say, do they not, that there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner -?”
“I doubt they say it as an inducement to commit the sin in the first place.”
The King was silent for a moment. Then he leant forward and cupped her face in his hands. “Elizabeth. I want you. And – I’ll not lie – I am used to getting what I want.”
Are you? Truly? In anything that really matters?
Where had that thought come from? This was honestly not the time to start feeling sorry for him – once she went down that road she was lost, for sure.
His voice continued; slow, melodious, fluent, only betraying by the smallest hesitation on “v”s and “s”s that he was not a native speaker of English.
“But I do not wish you to feel compelled, trapped, constrained in any way. Look – don’t feel you have to travel with the Viscount’s party. Leave them to get themselves into – and out of, if they can manage it, which I doubt – every mess they can find between the Gaaldine border and the white cliffs of Dover. If you wish to go, allow me to arrange couriers and a suitable escort. And – Elizabeth – I have agents in London. It is little harder for me to acquire an estate for you in – say – Sussex than it is for me to do the same in Gaaldine. Allow me to do that for you, at least.”
“In Sussex? The whole breadth of Europe away? And how does that benefit you?”
He flushed. “It affords me the satisfaction of knowing that the woman I love is not eking out a squalid existence as the poor relation of uncouth Yorkshire churls.”
Her jaw dropped. “How did you – that can’t have been your agents in London. You haven’t had time.”
The King shrugged. “It can hardly be a surprise to you that your late brother was both garrulous and indiscreet in his cups. Particularly when flattered by my interest.”
But if he asked Hector –
“When did you determine to pursue me?”
He did have the grace to look somewhat sheepish. “When I read my agents’ reports on your party, when you first crossed the border from Gondal – don’t look at me like that, I said tensions were running high, surveillance of aliens is an ordinary precaution – it occurred to me that to have avoided disaster for so long given the provocations you were, as a group, offering on a daily basis at least one of you must have more than uncommon talents. I was agog to discover which of you it could be. But I confess, the moment when you chose to tell my brother he was making a damaging show of himself –”
Her hand went to her mouth. “I was over-tired and I never intended –”
The King grinned. “Oh, I rather think you did. And, blessedly, he listened. He actually listened. Have you any idea how uncommon that is? I knew then my world would be incomplete without you. Of course, he’s likely to react badly to your coming under my protection.”
“So, your grace, outline the advantages of your proposal once more. No marriage, no peace and no encouragement from your family –”
“And no butter, at least during the hot months,” the King concluded, nodding. There was a giddy hilarity in his voice, which was, somehow, infectious. She found herself desperately trying to restrain an urge to giggle.
“In that case, I believe I am left with no alternative. I have to accept.”
And his arms were around her and his lips upon hers and the giggles had somehow got mixed up with tears but that didn’t matter, nothing mattered except this moment and the two of them.