The King’s Concubine: A Novel of Alice Perrers (9 page)

BOOK: The King’s Concubine: A Novel of Alice Perrers
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She was well-nigh invisible in her anonymity.

Philippa of Hainault.

The years had not treated this woman with gentleness. All trace of youth, any beauty she might have had as that young bride who had come to England from the Low Countries to wed our vigorous King Edward more than thirty years ago now, were lost to her. And where was the expression of regal power? Her gown might be of excellent quality, but it lacked glamour, the colors of the silk damask more muted than glowing, in browns and ochers and russet. Nor was the cut of the cloth in the fashionably sleek, close-fitting form, but wide, ample enough to hide the lady’s stout figure and broad hips. She was not elegant. She was not tall. She did not overawe. She wore no jewels. As for her hair, it was completely obscured, every wisp and curl, by a severe wimple and veil. Queen Philippa was neither a handsome woman nor a leader of fashion.

How disappointing!

My first thought was of Countess Joan, who would eclipse this dowdy little woman after wedding her royal prince. The frivolous royal Court would circle ’round the vivacious new Princess rather than this fading, unprepossessing Queen. Was that not the order of things? Who could admire this aging, shuffling woman?

The Queen halted. There was the faintest gasp for breath. She must be even older than I had thought. I looked again—longer than a glance—and instantly chided myself for my lack of compassion. There was a reason for the excruciatingly slow progress. The Queen was ill. She was in pain. With a hand resting heavily on the arm of her attendant, she continued to make her small, uneven steps because each one pained her beyond endurance. It seemed to me that she could barely move her head, her neck and shoulders were so rigid with a spasm of
the muscles. The hand that clutched the arm of her woman was swollen, the flesh as tight and shiny as the skin of a drum. No wonder she wore no rings. How would she push them beyond her swollen knuckles without unbearable discomfort?

We curtsied as Her Majesty passed. She inclined her head in unsmiling recognition, pausing almost as she drew level with me to take in another breath. I saw the substantial bosom of her gown rise sharply on the inhalation, her nostrils narrow, and a crease deepen between her brows. Then the royal feet moved on—only to stumble on the uneven paving so that she fell. Without her grip on the arm of the young woman at her side, it would have been a disaster. As it was, she sank to her knees with a cry of agonized distress. Horrified by the quality of her suffering, I gave up pretending not to look.

“Help me,” she murmured, to no one in particular, eyes closed tight in agony, her free hand outstretched to snatch at some invisible aid. “Dear God, help me!” And Queen Philippa dropped her rosary beads. They slid from her fingers to fall with a little clatter of pearls and carved bone on the stones before her.

“Help me to my feet.…”

And because it seemed the obvious thing to do, the only thing to do, I stretched out my hand and took hers in mine. The Queen’s hand bore down, and as it did I froze, my mind skittering to the past. The rescue of Joan’s monkey, a selfishly calculated action, was one thing. But to take the hand of the Queen of England on sheer impulse? I would surely be punished for my presumption. I fell to my knees beside her as she gripped me as hard as she could. There was not much force in it, but she groaned as the skin covering her swollen flesh tightened with the effort.

“Blessed Virgin!” she murmured. “The pain is too much!”

The tension around us, the shocked stillness, held for a moment. Then all was movement and sound: the lady-in-waiting lifting Her Majesty to her feet in a flutter of anxiety, the Queen’s feverish clasp of my hand broken, the distress of her labored breathing deepening. Looking up from where I was still on my knees, I discovered Queen Philippa in the midst of all the fuss regarding me. Once, those eyes might have sparkled with happiness, but now their rich brown hue was strained
with years of suffering. I could not bear to see it, and lowered my gaze to where the rosary still lay on the floor. She was quite unable to stoop to recover the beads for herself, even if a woman of such rank would deem to pick up her own belongings.

So I did it.

I lifted the rosary and held it out, startled at my temerity even without the sharp warning murmur of Mother Abbess, who was approaching, her habit billowing with the speed of her passage like a cloak in a gale, intent on snatching the rosary from me.

“Thank you. I am very clumsy today, and you are very kind.”

Incredibly, the Queen’s words were for me. I felt the touch of her fingers on my hand. For a brief moment the devastation in her face was overlaid by a softness of gratitude.

“Accept my apologies, Majesty.” Mother Abbess directed toward me a look that boded ill for me in the Chapter House the following day. “She should not have pushed herself forward in this manner. She has no humility.”

“But she has come to my aid, like the Good Samaritan to the traveler in distress,” the Queen observed. “The Holy Virgin would honor such help to an old lady. What is your name, my child?”

Before I could reply, she cried out, more sharply than before, one hand spread across the damask folds over her abdomen.

“I need to sit down. My room, Isabella—take me to my room.”

And her attendant, with a fierce frown and a firm grip, lifted her to her feet.

“I am so sorry, Isabella.…” The Queen’s voice caught on a sob.

“You’re tired,
Maman
. Did I not say this was too much for you? You should listen to me! And now you need to rest.”

“I am aware, Isabella. But some things needed to be done, and I could not wait.”

For the first time I did more than give passing cognizance to the Queen’s companion. So this was her daughter, the Princess Isabella, whose arm had been gripped so tightly: a tall, fair young woman with a sprightly demeanor and a barely disguised expression of displeasure. How could I have ever mistaken her for a mere attendant? The Queen might be clothed in muted colors, but the Princess proclaimed her
position in every embroidered thread and jewel, from her gold crispinettes to her gilded shoes.

“Some things could be left until you are recovered,” Princess Isabella remarked crisply. I watched with pity as the little group made their way along the nave. At the Abbey door the Princess looked back, briefly, over her shoulder. Her gaze landed on me. “Don’t just stand there. Bring the rosary, girl.”


Something will turn up
!” I had said to Greseley. I did not need telling twice.

In spite of her daughter’s determination, the Queen refused to be put to bed.

“I’ll be in my bed long enough, and then my coffin, when death takes hold of me!”

I stood inside the door of the Abbess’s parlor as the Queen was made comfortable in a high-backed chair with sturdy arms that would give her body some support. I could have put the rosary down on the traveling coffer beside the door and left, invisible to all as Isabella issued orders for a cup of heated wine and a fur mantle to warm the Queen’s trembling limbs.
Stay!
my instincts urged. So I stayed. If I stayed, perhaps the Queen would speak to me again. The kindness in her voice had stirred my heart, and now as I saw the woman behind the face of royalty, my heart hurt for her. My first impressions were all confirmed. She was ill, and her suffering came not only from physical pain but also from grief. She was worn with it, and she had seen the truth in it: Black-cloaked death seemed to hover behind her shoulder. It did not take a dabbler in magic signs to see it. Never had I thought to feel sorrow for a Queen, but on that evening I did.

“And don’t tell the King!” she ordered, voice harsh with exhaustion.

“Why not?” Isabella took her mother’s hand and pressed the wine cup into it.

“Don’t tell him, Isabella. I forbid it! I do not wish him to be worried over it!”

Her voice might be a mere thread, but how strong was her will. My
admiration and compassion for her were profound. Did the King still love her? Had he ever loved her? Perhaps it was not expected between those of royal blood whose marriage had been contracted for political alliance. Was she ever the woman he had wanted as his consort, a mirror to reflect his magnificence? I could not imagine it. What must it be like to feel old and unwanted? And yet the Queen would protect her husband from concern over her pain.

As if she sensed the direction of my thoughts, the Queen pushed aside Isabella’s hand with the cup and straightened herself in the chair. And there it was after all. There was regality. There was authority. In spite of the pain, she could give her attention to me and smile. Her face warmed, the harsh lines smoothing, until she became almost comely. Had I thought her broad, almost coarse features lacking charm and beauty? I was wrong.

She stretched out her hand with difficulty. “You have brought my rosary.”

“Yes, Majesty.”

“I told her to.” Isabella poured a second cup of wine and drank it herself. “By God, this is poor stuff…! We were too busy with you to worry about a string of beads, if you recall, trying to prevent you from falling on the floor before a parcel of ignorant nuns.…”

“Nevertheless, it was well-done.” The Queen beckoned and I came to kneel before her. “A
conversa
, I see. Tell me your name.”

“Alice.”

“You have no desire to become a nun?” Putting a hand beneath my chin, she lifted it and studied my face. “You have no calling?”

No one had ever asked me that before, or even addressed me in so gentle a manner. There was a world of understanding in her eyes. Unexpectedly, unsettlingly, tears stung beneath my eyelids.

“No, Majesty.” Since she seemed interested, I told her. “Once, I was a novice. And then a servant—who became a wife. Now I am a widow. And returned here as a lay sister.”

“And is that your ambition? To remain here?”

Well, I would not lie. “No, Majesty. I will not stay longer than I must.”

“So you have plans.…How old are you?”

“Almost seventeen years, I think. I am not a child, Majesty,” I felt compelled to add.

“You are to me!” Her smile deepened momentarily. “Do you know how old I am?”

It seemed entirely presumptuous of me to even reply. “No, Majesty.”

“Forty-eight years. I expect that seems ancient to you.” Well, it did. It seemed to me a vast age, and suffering had added a dozen more years to the Queen’s face. “I was younger than you when I came to England as a bride. It seems no time to me. Life flies past.…”

“Take another drink,
Maman
.” Isabella replaced the cup in the Queen’s hand, folding the swollen fingers gently around it. “I think you should rest.”

I expected to be dismissed, but the Queen was not to be bullied.

“Soon, Isabella. Soon. But you, Alice…Have you no family?”

“No, Majesty.”

“And your father?”

“I don’t know. A laborer in the town. A tiler, I think.”

“I understand.” And I felt that she did, despite the distance between us in years and rank. “How sad. You remind me of my own daughters.”

Isabella sighed heavily—
“Maman…!”
—whilst I shook my head. How could I remind anyone of a Princess of the Blood?

“Why should I not speak of them?” the Queen replied sharply. “If I don’t speak of them, they will be forgotten. We exist on this earth only as long as the memories of us are shared. My two beautiful daughters. Mary and Margaret. Who will remember them when I am dead? You are of a similar age,” she explained, as if I had spoken my doubt. “Such beautiful girls, full of promise. Both dead last September. Plague has a cruel bite.”

Thus her grief.

“I miss them. That is why we are here, you see. To pray for them. I believe it is God’s will that I make an endowment in their names. We buried them at Abingdon together, didn’t we, Isabella? A sad day. It’s too far for me to travel there now. All my girls gone…” Tears welled in her eyes.

“You have one daughter still at home,
Maman
!” Isabella handed her mother a square of linen.

“Yes! A daughter I wish were married and gone!” the Queen responded with a remarkable surge of spirit.

Isabella gave what I might have considered a grin, if she had not been a royal princess. “And I might be, if you provided me with the right suitor.”

“We gave you the right suitor! More than ten years ago…”

“Who would have driven me to madness within a month!”

This weighty exchange that flowed above my head from mother to daughter intrigued me with its depth of affectionate tolerance. I imagined it to be a much-aired conversation. I was invisible between them.

“You should wed for suitability and power, Isabella, not for some ephemeral emotion such as love.”

“You found love,
Maman
.”

“My marriage to your father was arranged whether I found love or not. It was simply an added blessing that we discovered such pleasure together. You’ll be an old unmarried woman, Isabella, with nothing but lapdogs, stitchery, and prayer to sustain you; you mark my words. But of course you don’t!” The Queen turned her attention back to me. “You are young to be a widow. Would you seek to wed again?”

“No, Majesty!”

“Is it not what every young woman would seek?”

“They say I am too ugly to attract a man.” For certain, Janyn had been guided by practical self-interest. “No man would look at what I could offer.”

“What can you offer?”

I considered the sum of my talents. “I can read and write and figure, Majesty.” Since someone actually showed an interest, there was no stopping me. “I can read French and Latin. I can write—and more than my name. I can keep accounts.” Ingenuously, I was carried away with my achievements.

“So much…” I had made her smile again. And how did you learn to keep accounts?”

“My husband, Janyn Perrers. A moneylender. He taught me.”

“And did you enjoy it? So tedious a task?”

“Yes. I understand what I saw.”

“You have a keen mind, Alice of the Accounts,” was all she said.
Perhaps I amused her, and I wished I had not boasted of my hard-won skills. She took hold of one of my hands, running her fingers over the evidence of hard digging in the heavy soil. My nails were cracked, the skin broken, and the aroma of onions was keen. “Blisters and blemishes. You look as if you have been digging.”

BOOK: The King’s Concubine: A Novel of Alice Perrers
4.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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