“I have a great duty to ask of you.”
He frowns in response. “I had hoped to accompany you. Perhaps make my return to England.”
“I will grant you that wish, in time.”
“What, then?” he asks,
“Remain here. With her. Mary.”
“And do what?” He remembers himself. “Madame?”
“You are her most loyal servant. The rest of them, they are…”
“French? As are you, Madame.”
“No, Sir, it is that they are loyal to the king, or his dauphin. Not to my daughter.”
“She is - how do you say it? - fucking the king.”
Pike’s face creases into a broad smile at this crudity. “And you think I will be a good guardian? I can barely speak your language.”
She eyeballs him. “You are a poor dissembler, Monsieur. I know you understand all that you hear.”
He smiles again. “That is true. But I find it hard to make myself understood, all the same.”
“No, William,” she returns, and now she is smiling herself, and it is when she smiles that the resemblance between her and her daughter is striking, “it is the people here that refuse to understand you.”
“Then I am without power to protect her.”
“You will find a way. I have watched you.”
As the masters of subtle understatement My Chemical Romance have it, "Well if you wanted honesty, that's all you had to say
I never want to let you down or have you go, it's better off this way..." The Musketeers have a fantastic attitude to honesty: what matters to them above all is honour, and telling the truth is absolutely nowhere on their list of things that have a value in and of themselves. If that means holding something back to save the honour of someone important, then so be it. If that means concealing something because revealing it would be hurtful or harmful, then conceal away. D'Artagnan's father tells him never to sell the sandy-coloured horse that attracts so much attention in Meung. By the time he has been in Paris for a day, it is sold. Anne of Austria gives him a diamond ring that presumably he is supposed retain as a keepsake, but that too is sold shortly afterwards. Aramis' affairs with grand ladies are obvious enough, but he never shares them explicitly even with his three great friends. Even their names are a mask. It's a strange sort of deception, though, because although it sets out to hide something, it is somehow out in the open. Athos is not his name. You know that all along, of course. But the very fact of the nom-de-guerre points out that there is an unshared truth, one that might be interesting, revelatory, exciting even, but one that his choice, to hide as he does behind the assumed name, denies you. Athos would not begrudge you wondering, but he would begrudge you asking. That is not the done thing, nor would sharing his secret be right even if you managed to discover it.
Just to prove that my restless brain is never far away from a Pirates quote, here's one to finish this point off: “Me? I'm dishonest, and a dishonest man you can always trust to be dishonest. Honestly. It's the honest ones you want to watch out for, because you can never predict when they're going to do something incredibly... stupid.”
There's something Jack Sparrow-ish about Edward Strelley, though he isn't so ruthlessly selfish. I can't help but feel that James Longshawe is the one who might, at some point, risk his life to tell the truth. He hasn't done yet, but I can just see him being asked an awkward question, probably by Elizabeth, and giving her an answer that she won't like. Pike would side with Longshawe, and both of them are poorly equipped to maintain any sort of deception. I do wonder: if you're bad at lying, does that make you think lying is bad?
There's a reason that the three (or indeed four) musketeers are so often co-opted to some adventure that wasn't originally conceived by the great man. Indeed, there's a decent amount of discussion about whether Dumas himself did the conceiving, or whether it was his collaborator Maquet, but whether the stories are entirely his, or his adaptations of a plan he was given by Maquet, Dumas' achievement remains utterly spellbinding. The derring-do and heroism of Walter Scott, Dumas' English predecessor in the publication of historical novels, is frankly pedestrian by comparison. The first dozen-or-so chapters of the Musketeers (that is, The Three Musketeers) is amongst the best of all writing. It's not especially deft, it's not clever in the way that a lot of modern literary fiction sets out to be. It's just thoroughly, completely absorbing. The Musketeers' adventures across the three (or five, depending on how you count them) books are widely misunderstood and misrepresented, with a much lower sword fighting and chandelier-swinging count than you might expect.
It's fair to say that Dumas is a hero, both of mine and of writing, storytelling, literature as a whole that makes him worth reading. There are things in there that have made their way into popular culture generally, things that you know even if you don't know that they're from the Musketeers. Things that are part of the fabric of modern writing, that inform me and just about anyone who sets out to write a novel set in the past. In some ways, it's disappointing that the gradual Americanisation or, more specifically, the superheroisation, of the Musketeers has obscured what they are. Athos is injured when first we meet him. There is a real sense that the Musketeers are human, vulnerable, real in a way that the film and TV portrayals of them almost always fail to capture. That's my agenda, I suppose, to get away from the modern hero way of writing historical fiction and go back to the Dumas way. He is supposed to have set out to novelise the history of France. One day, perhaps, when I don't have to go to work, I might make the sort of progress on these books that will eventually allow me to start pursuing that goal for English history. Hope is a fine thing, of course!
So, for a change of tack, here's some of book IV. Edward Strelley has just arrived in the village of Sampford Courtenay, where the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 began...
“The Lord has sent you a great trial, Father. I see that. I have had mine. And I fear that I have failed it.”
“What form did this trial take?”
“A woman. That I loved - love - as much as a man can. But I cannot be with her. Her station prevents it.”
“Many of us have loved that which we cannot have.”
“She would have had me, I think.”
“Then you are a good man for not allowing it.”
“I feel as though I could live another fifty years and never enjoy a day. Without her, life is purposeless.”
“Your grief will lessen, in time.”
“That is what Cranmer told me.”
“You have spoken to the archbishop? Of this?”
“That book,” Strelley says, gesturing vaguely, “is as much mine as it is his. I sought his counsel as well.”
“Then mine is redundant.”
“Not so. You are here. He is not. You are a man of the people.”
Harper smiles again. “I thank you for your flattery. All I can say is that God does not punish us for our sins if we repent them.”
“Which is the sin? To deny the love we both feel? Or to break the law?”
“You are a man of great intelligence, Edward Strelley. Here you are, distant from this lady. You have found a reason to travel far away from her. Your conscience says you must not be together.” Harper’s mind catches up with the conversation. “You say that is your book as much as Cranmer’s?”
“That is a little unfair on him. Some of it is mine. Most of it is his.”
“Whatever the people think of it, it is beautiful. One day, the people of this nation will live, love and die by your words.”
“Cranmer’s words. Mostly.”
Harper puts an arm around Strelley’s shoulder. “This is not all that troubles you, is it?”
Strelley looks at him, head cocked to one side. “No.”
“You have not failed the trial of this woman, Edward Strelley. And yet you spoke of failure.”
“God sees all, does he not? If I have done wrong… Even if I have contemplated doing wrong.”
“God will not hold you to account for wishing that the world were different.”
“No one, Susan, has ever looked at me the way that young man looks at her.”
“He is desperately in love, Madam,” Clarencieux replies.
“I hope that God blesses them. Truly, I do. But I wish he would bless me so,” Mary says, and Clarencieux wraps her arms around her.
Blackaller gives him a frown. “I am betting my house on you.”
Strelley laughs. “It’s your life, Sir Mayor, not just your house. If we lose, we’re dead men. You understand that? They will not hesitate for a moment now. There are no more innocents here in Exeter, just enemy fighters.”
“Then,” Blackaller says, with a grimace, “we had better win.”
The streets are quiet. After a few instances of near misses from gunfire and arrows shot from longbows, the citizens are mostly cowed into taking cover, not exposing themselves to danger. One man, however, is walking down West Street with a spear over his shoulder. He stops for a moment, staring out towards the hillock from which the gunner, named by Strelley as ‘Hammon’, fired his shots a few days previously. Strelley, Fletcher and Blackaller follow his gaze. Hammon is there, standing by the gun which has been silent for a couple of days, looking out into the city. For a moment, everything is still. Smoke issues from the gun as Hammon touches his match to the hole. It takes a heartbeat for the report to reach the three watching men, and another heartbeat for the ball, aimed with deadly accuracy, to find its mark. The man who was walking along West Street explodes in a pink cloud.
Blackaller swears loudly. “Jesus Christ!” He starts running towards the stricken man. Fletcher looks at Strelley, who shakes his head.
“If he can hit him, he can hit you!” Strelley calls after Blackaller. “Find cover.”
“So now what?” Fletcher asks as he and Strelley watch Blackaller cross the street into the cover of the buildings. “We’re lost.”
“I think a venture out of the city might be called for,” Strelley says. “Persuade Master Hammon that this isn’t the way.”
No title, as yet. Nothing stands out as unquestionably title-worthy, but there are plenty of candidates. I'm enjoying a bit of swashbuckling from Strelley and Fletcher at the siege of Exeter, because it presents an opportunity to write in this more energetic style, with explosions and daring night raids. Interspersing that with some of Strelley's grief over Elizabeth has been interesting, because I've noticed that Strelley functions when he has something to do, but given even the remotest sense of space to reflect, he disappears into thinking or talking about Elizabeth. That means that I have to act the part of the 'director' a bit more, and only have him 'on stage' when there's plenty for him to do. I'm sure that, in the days between the bits that get written, he's sitting with a book or a blank sheet of paper, desperately trying to get his mind to focus on something else, and failing. But that point is made... It's not clear to me what the outcome of that particular storyline is. Clearly there can be no happily-ever-after for these two, because one cannot alter Elizabeth's history to accommodate it and I am not in the business of subjunctive (or counterfactual) history. But it seems almost contrary to the story itself that it would just fizzle out. We shall see, I suppose, because whilst there is a framework of things that definitely happen, what there most certainly isn't when it comes to These Matters is a well-worked-out plan of the long-range plot.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought