Being frankly unfamiliar with a great majority of British history, I'm not in a good position to assess the claim on Alison Plowden's book that the Tudor era was particularly packed with relevant, characterful women. I did think that the 'commoners' bit of the title was a push at best, as this shortish book really focuses on the women who shaped the politics of the sixteenth century. The most significant is Elizabeth by a margin, but there are some women who perhaps don't get the recognition they deserve. I think Margaret Beaufort probably stands as the one who made the biggest difference, being as she was central to the foundation of the Tudor dynasty, even more so than Mary, who became queen, or any of Henry's wives. One might argue for Anne Boleyn being the single most history-changing woman in the whole of English history on the basis of Henry's invention of the Royal Supremacy and thereby the Church of England as he pursued her. In any case, it is good to read a book focused on the women, their achievements and their personalities, because even the great Elizabeth - who may justifiably be described as the greatest English monarch of them all - is often written about through the lens of marriage, suitors, infuriated advisers, in short, men.
That is not to say that men don't deserve their space in the record, because history is about all of these stories, all of these characters. The thought is roughly that it is a shame that so much history writing is bereft of the things that make these women who they are, whether the various wives of Henry VIII or a real commoner doing whatever she did from day to day. One can't help but think of Anne Askew (Kyme seems to be her married name), a fiercely Protestant woman who was well-read, progressive, intelligent and unfortunately rather too good at getting herself noticed, which in the end led to her execution by burning. She deserves to be written about, not because of individual brilliance (although she may have possessed her share of that) but because she represents the time, she embodies the struggle both of the emancipation of thought from medieval Catholicism (this is not a criticism of Catholicism in and of itself, just an observation about individuals and their understanding of their faith) and the idea that women could exist as equals to men.
John Knox wrote his attack on the notion of female monarchs right in the middle of the period. I haven't (yet) read it, although it is of course quoted, mentioned and cited in just about every book I've read. It is impossible for us now to recreate the conditions of four-hundred-odd years ago, and most would not want to. It is very hard for us modern folk to see just how different it would have been for women then compared to now. It is still the case that women are in some situations undervalued, underpaid and under-represented, but there is - in general, if not in all cases - a drive to correct these wrongs. Then, the idea that the best king for ten generations would in fact be a queen was almost unthinkable. I have tried to show one idea about how Elizabeth got started, and for those that have read the first three and the various extracts from book IV on here, it is no great feat of imagination to think how, given this theory of mine, she might have ended up unmarried for all of her seventy years. My great project is to imagine from scratch a female character with as much richness, subtlety and emotion as the Elizabeth of These Matters so far. I haven't, yet, but I hope that I have sowed the seeds.
So, a review of Alison Plowden's book: it's a good read, and I would thoroughly recommend it to newcomers to the Tudor period. It's not deep enough to really reveal anything new about the individual women if you already know them, but it does bring some insight into the what-it-was-like and lends weight to the idea that “History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.”
I hate hospitals, but at least the one today was air-conditioned luxury next to the rest of the world. That today didn't quite manage to be the hottest on record did not help in the least with the frankly tropical conditions. But apparently there is nothing much wrong with me, a state of affairs that is a definite cause for celebration. So, enough of wittering on about my experiences of the healthcare system. Let's instead have an extended chunk of book III, in which the rather excellent Roger Ascham does his best to console a confused, grieving Elizabeth.
“My brother would never order me to marry against my will.” Elizabeth's voice is loud enough to attract the attention of Roger Ascham, but the tutor is apparently captivated by whatever it is he is reading. She looks over in his direction, eyeballs him for a moment, then returns her focus to Guy Fletcher, who is frowning at her. “I would refuse.”
“A moment ago, Madam, I said no one could think you naïve. Now, with respect, I must revise my opinion.”
Elizabeth points her right index finger at him. It is long, delicate and white. Guy Fletcher's eyes fix on it, following it as it jabs towards him. “How dare you say that? I am of the blood royal.”
“Your blood is of no consideration beyond that it makes you desirable to Sudeley.” For the first time, Guy Fletcher's voice has an edge to it, similar to that Elizabeth is used to hearing from Ascham. Indeed, their accents are not dissimilar. “You must not allow complacency to cloud your judgement. If your brother orders you to marry, you may not refuse.”
“Do you know who you sound like?” Elizabeth hisses. This change of tone does not at first seem to be noticed by Ascham, but a careful observer might note that his eyes have stopped moving along the lines of text. “Strelley! The way you ride reminded me of Longshawe. But the things you say...”
Fletcher tries to maintain his cool, but his anger is rising. He too hisses in a way that cannot fail to attract the attention of Roger Ascham. “Is that so bad a thing? He would want you to steer away from danger. He would not let you become impetuous.”
“He would...” Elizabeth begins, but her voice falters. She looks across at Ascham, who is still studiously avoiding turning to look at the two young people. Then she looks back at Fletcher, holding his eyes for a long time. Tears roll down her cheeks. “By God I miss him, Guy.”
“As do I, Madam. But he is gone and I am here now.” Fletcher puts his hand on Elizabeth's shoulder. “Take comfort in what you have.”
“I wish I could. It makes it harder.”
“It should not.”
“Do not misunderstand me, Guy. I do not desire him, not in that way. I wish only for his company. I do not pine for his love.”
Fletcher sighs and throws back his head, frustrated. “Might you not, Madam, value the company of others in his stead?”
Elizabeth frowns, then sighs, then frowns again. “Do not be vexatious, Master Fletcher.”
“I do not wish to be so, Madam. Do you want me to return to Longshawe and send him?” Fletcher's face is downcast as he speaks. “Is it him that you wish for?”
“You are infuriating!” She waves her hand at him. “Why must you concern yourself with my affections so?”
Fletcher says nothing, but closes his eyes and breathes deeply several times. When he opens his eyes again, he does not look at Elizabeth, but instead out of the window. Elizabeth watches him, her own chest rising and falling more noticeably than before. Her colour, always pale, is unusually white. Then, her eyes twitch as she realises the significance of Guy Fletcher's questions, and she reddens.
“Madam?” he asks. “What-”
“Please do not, Guy. I understand what you have said. Why you have asked me those questions. I cannot speak further with you now. Please leave me to my lesson.”
Guy Fletcher stands, bows deeply, and walks off. As soon as he is gone, Ascham is out of his seat and approaching Elizabeth.
“My dear girl,” the tutor says, putting his arm around her shoulders. “You do not need to tell me what he said, not if you do not wish it.”
“I'm not sure you would understand.”
“Elizabeth... We old, fusty academics may not seem to you to be wise in the ways of the world, but we do see things, we do comprehend.”
“I did not take Strelley to be a suitor.” Elizabeth's bold declaration does, despite his assertion, take him a little by surprise. She continues, “but that does not mean I cannot miss him. As I miss Grindal. I want him here.” She looks at him, trying to read his expression and trying not to give her own thoughts away any further.
Ascham gives her a sympathetic smile, and does not force the issue further. “Madam, your grief is understandable. You spent a great deal of time with those two admirable men. That you reflect on it with affection is no surprise.”
“As I told you, I'm not sure you would understand.”
“I do not have to fully understand, Elizabeth. I can see that Edward Strelley was of great significance to you, whatever the substance of it. I do not pretend to replace him, nor indeed do I aim to.”
“Sudeley had him killed.”
“You have told me that before. It is a most serious accusation, and one which you should not persist in making if it is not grounded in demonstrable fact.”
“I-” Elizabeth begins, but she notices that Ascham is smiling. “What? It is no trifle to be smirked at!” She reddens again, then starts to rub her hands together, as if they are cold and need to be warmed.
“I do not smirk, Madam. I think you underestimate me.”
“Master Ascham, for the second time in ten minutes someone has spoken to me in riddles. I did not appreciate it from Master Fletcher and I most certainly do not appreciate it from you.”
“I am a careful, conscientious observer, Madam. I spend much of my time in these rooms with you as you learn your lessons, and as you read your books.”
“That is true, but I do not see how it signifies.”
“I see what it is you read.”
“I do not follow you.”
“There is a single piece of paper that you keep. You read it between the leaves of your books sometimes. When you do, it brings a great sadness to your eyes, but somehow it seems to relieve you of whatever the burden of the day happens to be.” Ascham has leaned in very close to his young charge. “I have not read the contents of that paper. But it is your link to him.”
“He left it before he died.” Elizabeth is again on the edge of crying.
“No one leaves a note before they are murdered, Madam. I am a fool in some ways, but not one to be fooled by that.”
Elizabeth's eyes are streaming with tears, now. Ascham pulls her to him, the warmth of his embrace entirely for her as a father's might be for his daughter.
“Your pain, Madam, I do understand. To grieve is hard, but faith and trust in God will overcome even the devastation of loss. But to live without... That is something beyond even the most faithful.”
“You think it better that he had died?” Elizabeth forces out the words, through her weeping. “You think I would be at peace if he was truly gone?”
“No, Madam, I do not. But pining for his return will not give you peace either.”
It's all there: walking moodily towards the camera, the talking heads, the fog and the crows of history, the NYPD Blue camera-work. If you were looking for them, the tropes of history-on-TV are all there. John bloody Redwood is in it. This is narrative history at its most dramatic, with the drama acted out by appropriately-costumed re-enacters, although they don't speak. Well, fine. I appreciate that I am possibly not quite the target audience for this series. I had briefly tried to find one of these grand dramas that Netflix is supposed to be good at, only to find that the period in which I am interested is grossly under-represented, as though no one feels they can do much good with Tudors because the definitive programmes have already been made. Perhaps they have; I have watched many, and curiously I haven't appended them to the 'other folks' fictions' page on this website. I wonder if this is pure prejudice: some of them certainly stand as more comprehensive, detailed and realistic versions of the history than some of the novels.
What do I want in a history programme on TV? Tricky, because if it's about the mid-Tudor period, I probably know more of the details than would be appropriate for a one-hour documentary. If it's about another period, I want atmosphere, impressive buildings, tapestries and paintings, experts. But my own special interest is almost thereby not worth watching anything about, because I end up shouting at the TV. The dramas - as with the novels - generally focus on the big characters, rather than setting imaginative fiction in amongst the history. I will accept that book IV of These Matters is, more so than any of the others so far, bound tightly to the real historical story and has perhaps been longer in the making for this exact reason. But I don't particularly engage with the novelisation of history, preferring if I can get it the Dumas / Walter Scott version with the imagined hero doing all the work behind the scenes. No one who has read Twenty Years After could settle for the prosaic version. The villainy of Mordaunt and the oh-so-nearly heroism of the Musketeers just is affirming, exciting, better in some real way than the actual history.
For whatever reason, I have been buying and reading a new set of books for research, and I will review a selection of them on this news feed in due course. I think perhaps a change of scene in my main work has driven it, leading to a reigniting of the desire to tell this story that bubbles inside me all the time and sometimes even makes it onto the page. With that in mind, here's an excerpt from an existing story for (hopefully) reading pleasure:
“That Sudeley had Strelley killed? The baron went too far with me, in the garden. Do you know about that?” Ascham tilts his head, non-committal. Elizabeth frowns. “The day after that, Strelley was gone. Then we hear that some merchant has dragged his body out of the river.”
“The baron saw the body himself?”
“He went all the way to St Paul's to see it. Sudeley hated Strelley, because Strelley had no respect for his nobility.”
“Is that really why?” Ascham rests his chin in his hand.
“No, that's not it.” Elizabeth struggles to regain her control. “Of course it's not. Sudeley hated Strelley because Strelley was... because he thought I...”
“So you see, we both begin to understand more clearly. Baron Sudeley is not a man to be trusted, and so he is a man to be feared. He is ambitious, far beyond his ability, and he is uncle to the king. That his brother is Lord Protector drives him mad with jealousy.”
“You knew all this before you arrived.”
“Of course. But I did not know where his next move might be.”
“And you do now?”
“Sudeley has been removing the barriers to his getting close to you, has he not?”
“What are you suggesting?”
“Madam, you are not so innocent as that, surely? Sudeley plans to make you his wife.”
“Baron Sudeley is married.”
“Baron Sudeley is not one to let such a trifle get in his way. Catherine was once queen. You may yet be queen. Which do you think is more attractive to him?”
Elizabeth holds her hands up, fingertips touching. Her breathing is noticeably heavy, and she does not look directly at Ascham.
“Why would you be on my side?” she asks him.
“Master Grindal was a great friend of mine. He spoke very highly of you. He loved you as a father loves a daughter. And Master Strelley... His memory deserves my dedication. He had a reputation as a great thinker at the University.”
“He was sent down.”
“He was sent down for being ungovernable, not for being incapable.”
“Did you know him?”
“I taught him. A little. He soon surpassed me in his reading of ancient and foreign languages.”
“You knew him?” Elizabeth repeats the question unnecessarily.
“I knew him well. I did not find him an easy student to teach, but I saw that he was a good man struggling to deal with his gift.”
“What do you mean? His gift?”
“More a curse, perhaps. His mind would not accept any conclusion, not without endless probing and questioning. He found it very hard to understand the need for faith.”
“You mean he had no faith?”
“I do not know. I pray for him, too. You see we are neither of us consistent with your brother's law. Cranmer would tell us that our prayers for intercession are so much wasted breath.”
“Only their own faith could have saved Strelley or Grindal.” Elizabeth nods, understanding. “That is well. At least one of them went to his grave truly believing in God.”
“Indeed,” Ascham says. Elizabeth returns to her page, and as she looks away from him, Ascham smiles broadly, one eyebrow raised.
Liberty may suffer much at the hands of oppressors, but never shall her sacred cause be betrayed by us...
I think the line above is from Holinshed's Chronicles, but it is challenging to interpret the referencing 'system' in use in Revd F. W. Russell's book about the Norfolk rebellion. The book is most definitely worth reading, achieving as it does a synthesis of the work of Nicholas Sotherton and Nevylle, as well as Holinshed's later chronicle, Edward VI's own journal, and Hayward's Life and Raigne. My reproduction copy (one of these scan-and-print jobs that seem to be starting to gain some traction as print-on-demand really starts to work) has the utterly infuriating foible of the 'r's being in a smaller typeface than all the other letters. There is the additional challenge of lengthy passages being quoted directly from the original sources, which at times can be very difficult to decipher. It's not usually the words, but the sentences, those forms that have shifted over four hundred years and now don't quite do what they used to, that cause the problem. And I am not ashamed to confess that a decent proportion of it needs at least a second reading and sometimes a third before it settles in my mind.
In writing about the Norfolk rebellion, I have followed this synthesised account quite closely in terms of the timing of the various events. As is my general strategy, I try to stick as close as possible to the events as they happened, but let my characters do their stuff in their own way. Here, then, in a rare burst of 'historicity', is the exchange between the herald and one of Kett's rebels at the Pockthorpe gate:
“Stand to!” Longshawe has his men arranged in their defensive formation in less than a quarter minute. As they move into their positions, the herald starts to speak.
“Get back to your camp and say to them from the Marquis of Northampton, the governor of the king’s forces, that His Majesty commands and admonishes them now, at length, to repent and put an end to the outrages they are committing. Should they do this, they will be safe and by his clemency be free from peril, and no man might will be charged with those crimes of which he may be guilty.” The herald stands framed by the gate, waiting for the effect of his speech.
The large man at the front of the crowd turns briefly to them, raises an eyebrow sardonically, and gets a ripple of laughter from them. Then, he turns, and paces backwards and forwards as he makes his reply, just as loud and clear as the herald.
“Your Marquis of Northampton is a man of neither courage, counsel or good fortune. I think nothing of him. Indeed, I despise and mortally hate him, infamous, worthless, always standing in need of the help of others, guilty of all disloyalty and treason. We have always been the staunchest defenders of the king’s safety and dignity, and we would be ever ready to spend, for his sake, all our goods and fortunes, even our lives! We have taken arms not against the king, but for those things that we might hope are for his welfare and our own. We are not convicted by our consciences either of wickedness conceived in our hearts, nor of treason against the king. What are we here doing? Is it not defending the king’s name, his dignity, providing for the common safety; defending the rights of law and liberty, preserving ourselves, our wives, our children and our goods. We are here to defend the commonwealth against the detestable pride, lust and cruelty of our enemies!
“We are free from offence. So shall we be free from punishment. The Herald’s offer appears magnanimous, but were we to accept, we would be deprived of our freedom, restrained in our endeavours, and shut out from all defence against the meek and cruel death we should then face. We are innocent, and we are well-armed. We are perfectly secure and so we need no offer of pardon. Our intention is to restore the broken commonwealth, broken by these so-called gentlemen who lead these forces that claim to represent the king. Either we shall, or we shall die in the attempt. Liberty may suffer much at the hands of oppressors, but never shall her sacred cause,” he says, flourishing his arms to a great cheer from the crowd behind him, “be betrayed by us!” The mass of people behind him explodes in shouting, jeering, singing.
Not my ideas, by any stretch of the imagination, but lightly treated to fit the general tone of the piece. Hope you enjoyed it and look out for news on giveaways for Books 1-3 and progress on the publication of book IV right here on this news feed.
Another one of the 500 word efforts... This one is called CS65.
The morning is unusual, unsettled. Characterised by questions, asked but unanswered. And then the news comes. Meet. At morning break time. There can be only one explanation.
A dozen people sit in unaccustomed seats, facing what is, for them, the wrong way. Normal would be up on the dais, explaining. But now they sit on the high stools, facing the front. Not facing the room. She is not here. Of course she is not here. That is why we are meeting. I am there, but I am not, floating around on my own tiredness and a growing fear that this is real. But it is as though the whole day, life itself is not real.
Outside the room, others equally desperate to know, equally touched by the news, are forbidden entry. They cannot be told. We cannot let rumour escape and do what we ought to do ourselves in telling them. As ever, it is this taking control of information that might best be shared, this withholding, this secrecy that masquerades as kindness when it is not. It is only much, much later that I know this, when the moments of shared honesty hidden among all the masks, all the talking around, all the lying that I have to do for my own sake, when those moments of shared honesty touch this moment.
He stands at the front. Dignified, perhaps, calm in this moment of crisis. We do not know yet, but we know. Yesterday, she wrote ‘I’m not well, and I think it’s accumulated stress but in any case I can’t breathe properly.’ Her last message was, simply, ‘Sorry to dump you in it.’
He says something which I barely listen to. His words do not make it into my mind, held away from me somehow. I am sheltering behind some sort of armour that I have built for myself. The last time, I heard him say it and I immediately thought of them, the ones who needed us most, and I spent the day with them doing what I could.
“… could not revive her.” It is, even in this moment of heartbreak, vague and imprecise. Is she gone? That is how the others react. That is the news. She is gone. I think of her, the fight with her cancer, the plan, the dog, the move to London. It is not the cancer that has taken her. It cannot be. Her treatment had worked. It is something else. Something unexpected.
She had planned to see a doctor. The world might be different now if she had done that then, instead of waiting and hoping. I write about waiting, and hoping, and love, and death. And I think of her, her child, her husband, the puppy that must not have joined their family. But mostly, I think of me. And my secret: her insight into me, that terrible sentence that I wish she had never uttered. That she has taken with her. Goodbye, friend. Ave atque vale.
It's most notable with song lyrics: you know the effect you're going for, you know the cadence, how many syllables, what you've got to rhyme with (if you can be bothered with that sort of thing). Then you pick up your pen, phone, laptop or whatever and the words just don't fit the shape. Sometimes they end up mangling the rhythm, sometimes it's a stubborn refusal to make the point you want to make. I often find that the most fitting set of words for the tune is not the ones I would have chosen to express the idea. For a case in point, take Always. In the chorus, the line originally went 'to stay your arm...' Now, it's 'stay inside your arms', and that expresses not just a slightly different idea, but pretty much the opposite one altogether. It's sometimes easier to let someone else write the words, rather than cast around for the best way. And I would go as far as to say that it can be easier to sing someone else's words, as well, because you sort of put your meaning into them, rather than, as with your own lyrics, trying to get them to mean what you want them to there on the page or in the song. I, sadly, am no singer, but I do enjoy the occasions when I get the opportunity to sing, even if no one else does. My lack of technique (by which I mean my wince-inducing tunelessness) means that singing to someone is a most dangerous gamble, even if the person is a little one and unlikely to have high standards of musical correctness.
I suppose the other observation is that you can sing a song of thirty or fifty lines, and there can be only a couple that carry any real meaning for you as the singer. I put song lyrics, quotations from my own and others' writings and all sorts of stuff on the front page of this website partly because someone once told me that frequent updates led to more google-juice but also because those words might have struck me as particularly relevant or powerful that day, perhaps I was absently singing them just before picking up the laptop or for some reason that was what I chose to listen to. In the case of Snow those lyrics are not mine, but the idea - of a persistent thinking of someone, not a happy, settled relationship but a desperate, denied yearning - came from me. Anyone who has read what I have written will instantly be able to identify the model for that thought. So they're not my words. But, for the most part, they get the point across in a way which I could not have achieved. I also think the tune has some merit!
Does it happen when I'm writing These Matters? As I have mentioned before, I don't have a very settled plan for the events of the books. In fact, book IV (title to be decided fairly soon; I have rejected Rebellion (Lies) as someone else seems to have thought of it already) has proved a difficult technical challenge because there are some unavoidable historical hummocks that constrain the plot, and I have had to go into great detail in the research - buying and reading books and pamphlets of which I can be fairly sure I am the only living owner - to get ideas of how to untie some of these knots. My most frequent experience of trying to plot carefully is that as soon as I have anything approaching a settled plan, a scene emerges which forces a substantial change almost immediately. So it's quite free-flowing, in that sense. Not, perhaps in the sense of words written per day or week, though. I've also seriously miscalculated (or misread?) my characters' motivations in some cases, most notably not realising that Edward Strelley and Elizabeth were falling deeply in love with each other until I was told by one of my mates who had read the books. I don't feel like I'm writing These Matters. When I'm able to give it the time, it writes itself.
My dad gave me his copy of 1066 and All That probably 25 years ago. I remember - vaguely, but it definitely happened - that I read it, and didn't understand why it was supposed to be funny. That, I guess, is the mark of what I might call (if I were feeling that way inclined) my cultural capital. I didn't get that some of it was even supposed to be a joke at the time of my first go with it. I'm not sure it's worth the effort of trying to read about over a thousand years of British history just to get a few nifty puns and deliberate obfuscations, the odd reference to burnt cakes and surfeits, but it highlights to me that the era of knowing things for the sake of knowing them is over. Now, anyone (normal, at least) wanting to know about British history refers to Wikipedia - I know I use it for a rough-and-ready reference guide when I'm in 'historical' mode - rather than consulting the large, dusty volumes that reside on my shelves. I will say this, though. The books may not be perfect in the scholarship, or the argument, they may embody Victorian prejudices, or fail to excite in their literary style, but there is something abundantly beautiful about the books themselves. There's a sense of the history of the book itself, as well as the history about which it is written, something additional about the object rather than just the text. For some reason, that matters more to me with my history books than it does with my novels, although I do enjoy a good Victorian Octavo or even better a Duodecimo for reading one-handed on the bus or the tube. But that is a practical preference, not led by a loyalty to the object itself. My Hunter's History of Hallamshire was, frankly, well expensive (although someone else paid for it!). And if you clicked on the link, you'll realise that you don't actually need to buy it to read it. But owning the book is a great privilege. In fact, I see myself as a kind of steward of it for some future generation of amateurish historian.
I have a similar attitude to knowledge, I think. I see it as my role to pass it on: "Pass the parcel. That's sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That's the game I want you to learn. Pass it on." Whether that be the feeling of Harmison getting Michael Kasprowicz out at Edgbaston in 2005, or the political peasants in the Monty Python Holy Grail, or Artemisia Gentileschi's paintings, I try to find an excuse every now and then to pass just a little bit of something on.
On that theme, here's another thing I'm passing on today, and for the next couple of days: This Matter of Faith and Heaven's Avenging Angels for free on Kindle. That'll be a decent chunk of a life's work right there, eh?
Perhaps it was all a bit lost in translation. But he really did seem to be saying that if there were to be a female successor as Dalai Lama, she'd best be easy on the eye.
We can only hope that he had recently (re?)read The Twits:
“If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it. A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”
Let's all hope that he was thinking about this passage, and he didn't have in mind the more conventional, obvious version of female attractiveness. I was about to mount a defence of my general unwillingness to comment on either female or male characters' attractiveness in my writing, but I have recently written that Lady Fleming, Mary Queen of Scots' governess, did not deserve her nickname of 'the beautiful Scot', so maybe I should keep quiet. In fairness, though, this is her portrait:
Hard to tell what the artist was going for, but you can't imagine him handing over that painting and her going 'Well, yes dear, you've really set my features off to good effect.'
Anyway, continuing the short series of short stories, here we have one that hasn't even managed to get itself a title. Enjoy...
I had been gathering these papers for close to ten years, all of them describing encounters with impossibly old men. Some were little more than stories, following that theme. Many, I do not doubt, were spurious, the fictions of imaginative tale-tellers. But some – and now I can't tell you which – had a nexus of truth that brought a thrill on each new potential discovery. They told of one man, possibly two men, born before modern civilisation began, who in their ways shaped the world, not as kings or emperors, but as shadows, gently pushing progress this way and that, as might a Cagliostro or a Père Joseph.
Three months ago, I travelled to Jerusalem, where a trader of antiquarian books called Corso sold me four manuscripts each bearing a monogrammatic 'ES', with dates around the middle of the sixteenth century. Though they were three hundred years old, they were readable, unaffected by age. Before then, I had only seen two similar documents, clearly in the same hand, in the library of Queens' College at Cambridge. All of these ES papers were magnificent, detailed translations of sadly missing, presumably ancient texts. One cannot therefore be certain that this ES was a perfect interpreter, but his English prose was throughout sublime, the Jerusalem papers showing a more mature, refined translation than the poetry of the older Queens' papers.
Though that is all from memory. I have neither the papers themselves, nor the notes I made on them, as I write. I can remember fragments of the stories that they contained, but little more. I will write this now in the conviction that it will not be read, though I shall continue to hope.
As I made my way back from Jerusalem, it became clear that I was being followed. I am no intelligencer, given to illicit dealings in gloomy alleys, but even I could fathom that I was being tracked, as the man doing so made no attempt to hide the fact. He boarded the same packet steamer as I, used the same hotel in Athens, then in Belgrade, then in Venice. I ignored him throughout the journey, hoping at some point that he would disappear and my alarm would prove to be unfounded. But at Paris, still being chased, I decided to test my theory. I stayed in a cheap, dirty hotel, in contrast with previous refined opulence, and chose a simple brasserie that was close by. As I entered, he was sitting with a newspaper, eating some sort of cheese-and-toasted-bread concoction that did not attract me at all.
I approached his table, and stood by it, waiting for him to acknowledge me. He did not, and after a quarter minute, I coughed loudly, trying to gain his attention. He folded his paper and looked up at me. His face was coldly handsome, his eyes slate grey and unnervingly still.
He addressed me in English, although it did not seem to be his native language. “Yes?” He said. “Can I be of service?” Russian, perhaps, or Baltic. “I have seen you as we have travelled.” His observation was matter-of-fact.
I stared at him, trying to fathom him. “You are following me.” I tried to be dispassionate.
“Perhaps you are following me.” He replied. That same tone again.
“I shall report you to the Gendarmerie.”
“For what?” He smiled, revealing even, white teeth.
“As I have said, you are following me, and I do not wish to be followed.” I felt my anger and I could not hide it from my speech.
“Do you have something you wish to remain hidden? Secret?” Finally, a question.
“I have nothing further to say to you.” I turned and left, but I could feel him watching me. I returned to the hotel, and considered finding an officer there and then, but it was late. I would go in the morning. I chafed, unable to sleep, reading my papers over and again. How I wish now I had committed them more firmly to memory.
I awoke in the dark of the middle of the night. The hotel was already afire. The smell of burning wood and plaster choked me. I scrabbled for my belongings, the precious papers I had paid so much for. They were gone. I climbed out of the window and descended the metal fire escape into the street. My shadow was absent. But he has returned. He is watching me now.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought