Today's offering is an except from the novel THE LAST KNIGHT and the Queen of Scots, from the Chapter "Two Marguerites". The Knight of Grange has been exiled from Scotland by Marie de Guise and has distinguished himself as a soldier and a gentleman at the Valois court. He has abandoned his efforts to reconcile with his estranged Scottish wife Margaret Learmonth, who has failed to respond to his many letters. Then Margaret suddenly appears in Paris. This is one of my favorite parts of what to date has been the least read of my books in the Queen of Scots Suite.
For years afterward, he was haunted by the memory of Margot framed in the doorway of the darkened annex to the armory where she had left him less than an hour before. The first thing he saw was the radiance of her smile. She carried a reed basket that swayed under its weight, giving off the aroma of cheeses and fresh-baked bread.
`“Kirkcaldy, we must hurry or we will miss the sunset!” she called as she took three steps into the room before her eyes adjusted to the dark and froze. Tears came to him in an instant. Hers took longer. Margaret stood beside him. She moved yet closer, her hand grasping his forearm, a proprietary gesture. Then came the introductions that were at best superfluous
.“Madame, this is Lady Margaret Learmonth. My wife,” he added awkwardly. Then he spoke words directed to Meg, but his eyes never left Margot.
“Meg, this is Princess Marguerite, Duchess of Berry, and sister of the King.” He was aware of the nodding of his wife’s head, but no words were spoken by either of the women. Margot’s smile had faded to an expression of quizzical disbelief. She did not hold it long, for she was a Valois princess, namesake of Marguerite of Angouleme, and pride was inbred. Quietly she placed the basket on the floor.
“Well, I will leave you two alone to reacquaint yourselves,” she said as she spun in her riding boots and left the room. Margaret released his arm and retreated to the bench where she had deposited her gloves and satchel, deflating like a child’s balloon.
“I should have written,” was the best she could offer.
It was not his wife’s feelings that tortured Will. Joy had turned its back on him when Margot left. He would have done anything to move time backwards to the day when Knox suggested that he put his unresponsive wife aside. Had it not been for his little daughter, he would have done so.
“I should not have let this happen,” he said, more for his benefit than for hers. Margaret had regained some of her natural diffidence.
“You always did aim high, Will,” she said.
“Would you have preferred me to have directed my attentions to a laundress or one of the scullery maids?”
“It would be easier if you had.”
` Kirkcaldy did not argue the point. After minutes of strained silence, he began to pace back and forth, befuddled as to what to do next. Margaret gathered her few things and walked towards the door, stooping to inspect the basket.
“The very best cheeses and a fine bottle of wine. The bread is still warm,” she said as she bent to touch it. “A lover’s repast,” she added almost as if an afterthought.
“Leave it where it is, Meg.”
“It should not go to waste. We could take it to your Uncle James’s lodgings where I have arranged to stay.”
He was more than annoyed by the insensitivity of her frugality and her indifference to the situation. That she had somehow involved James Melville in the debacle angered him even more. The notorious gossip Melville, who knew everything about everyone, should have warned him. His mother should have warned him.
“Leave it,” he repeated. “It is already wasted,” he added, unable to discipline his tongue. She pushed past him and marched outside into the February chill
“It is not I who should be groveling, Will Kirkcaldy. You are the one who has sinned.”
He grabbed her hand and pulled her back inside the room. There was nothing gentle in the gesture. Once inside, he took her by the shoulders and held her firmly at arm’s length. She stuck her Learmonth chin out and looked him in the eyes, her own eyes communicating a defiance that needed no words. What he saw reminded him of her stern Papist mother, whom he had never really liked.
“Madame, I will not do you the dishonor of leaving you to your own devices, but neither will I apologize for seeking warmth and companionship from someone who filled the void created by your silence and neglect.”
“What I saw flash between the two of you went far beyond warmth and companionship. I am no fool.” She sunk to the floor, and much to his surprise, she began to tremble.
“This is not the place for you to do your weeping, Margaret. You’ll soil your gown.” His ingrained sense of chivalry invaded him, and he extended his hand to help her to her feet. “We will go to Melville’s lodging and sort this out,” he said, dragging her from the room. In the distance he saw Margot riding astraddle at a dangerous clip, jumping the hedges as if it she were in a tournament. There was absolutely nothing he could do to bring her back.
He recalled Montmorency’s words of the year before. The heir to a lairdship in impoverished Scotland was not a match for a French princess, no matter how each of them had joked of it. But both of them had faced the bittersweet inevitability of a tearful parting, not the unanticipated appearance of an estranged wife.
When they arrived at Melville’s lodging in the Scottish quarter, he was not at home. James had made the avoidance of unpleasantness an art form. His housekeeper escorted them to one of the spare bedchambers on the second floor, where Kirkcaldy saw that Margaret’s baggage had already been deposited, her chest opened and partially unpacked.
“I take it you intend to park yourself here,” he chided. She walked to the sea chest and began refolding her belongings, as if operating on rote. She did not turn to face him, and with her back turned, he could hardly hear her words.
“You should have put me aside, Will. It would have been better for both of us. There are aplenty protestant-leaning priests who follow Knox in Scotland now. You would have been able to persuade one of them that our marriage was a sham to protect the legitimacy of our child—that there never was a hand fasting.”
When he approached her, there was a solitary tear rinsing the travel dust from her cheek.
“I would never do that to my daughter,” he said. There was no compassion for Margaret included in his declaration. He towered over her and with his closed right fist, tilted her head upward, forcing her to look him in the eye.
“Why are you here, Meg?” His demeanor announced that this was not a question born of curiosity. It was an interrogatory. “Why now?”
She did not shirk away. Her dark eyes challenged him, and while she spoke, they never drifted from his own.
“I am in France to escort my mother to the convent of Saint Pierre les Dames in Reims. It has been her lifelong dream to see the cathedral there and after my father perished at Pinkie, her desire was to settle in the convent. The Dowager and her brothers have arranged it with their sister Renee, who is the abbess. But that is not really your question, is it, Sir? I am in Paris because your mother insisted that I come here, to explain my estrangement to your face. On my own, I would have endured my agony without any help from you, but I owed it to your mother to do what she had asked of me. I did not know that you loved this woman.”
“The woman you mentioned with such distain is the Princess Royale,” he scolded.
“From where I stand, Sir, it makes little difference who she is.”
Kirkcaldy realized that he was the focus of a family conspiracy, betrayed by the one person he trusted beyond all others. He was not surprised that the Guise had instigated Meg’s unfortunate visit. What vexed him most was the fact that they had engaged his mother as an accomplice.
“Why would my mother sponsor such a pathetic ploy?” he asked.
“Oh, make no mistake, Sir. I have not turned your mother away from you, nor made her any different than she always has been. She is still your champion, William. And she is still devoted to her principles of forthrightness and honesty. But she knew that I had never shared my anguish with you, Sir, and she could not forgive that in a wife. She has never deceived the laird, as well you know. For that reason, she urged me to share the truth with you, so you would know that my silence was not because of contempt of you, but because of my failure as a proper wife.”
Kirkcaldy withdrew his fist from her chin.
“Let’s have it, Meg. What is it that would cause a daughter of the laird of Dairsie to estrange herself from her husband? Was it popery that came between us?”
He gestured to the bench near the fire and while she composed herself, he sought some brandy. She took a sip and put her glass aside, then dropped her hands into the lap. She no longer locked upon his gaze.
“When little Janet was born, I remained in Dairsie for my laying-in. My old room became a birth chamber. I chose Dairsie because I felt the need of a priest and I knew that your mother would suffer a crisis of her conscience were I to bring one into her house. I was attended at the birthing by my brother Patrick’s wife, who brought a midwife from the village. When the pains began, I felt I was going to die, but I believed they were natural to the condition.
On the dawn of the third day, they brought nausea and unconsciousness, but when I was awake, I noticed strained whispering between my sister-in-law and the midwife. The pains were intense, but I judged that no bairn was coming with them. Although they did not consult with me, they sent a servant to bring the barber from the village, a man who had in the past performed births in the manner of Caesar’s on the corpses of women whose wombs could not expel their bairn.
I tried to raise my head to speak to them, to ask for a priest, but each time I did so, I fell into a swoon.
Sometime around the noonday, my frail mother escorted a priest into the chamber, followed by the barber. While the priest was administering the rites, I saw the barber shooing the midwife away from the foot of the bed. There came a pain so intense that I cannot describe it to you, and I was aware of something invading me before I lapsed into an infinite white glow that I believe is heaven. Then the darkness came, and in my belief, I passed from his life to the next.
“…What happened in the room while I was with the angels was told to me by my mother, who had had knelt near the foot of the bed in mourning of my passing. The barber, who had pulled back the birthing sheets that had twisted around my bloody legs, whispered something to the midwife, then took his hand and shoved it inside me, and according to the report, grabbed our daughter, placing his finger in the infant’s tiny mouth, as he rotated the child’s shoulders within the womb as gently as he could until the head was down and she was facing properly. When my unconscious body began to spasm, he pushed upon my belly, and expelled the child’s head. He quickly cut away a wider opening, and the bairn came into the world without the need of a Caesarian birth from which no Scotswoman has been known to survive. However, much blood came along with it, and afterward, tissue that was not afterbirth. He and the midwife did what they could to patch me up. My sister-in-law later said that she believed a part of my womb had been expelled with the afterbirth, but the barber repositioned it into my insides as best he could. He also sewed the incision he had made to widen the birth canal, and cleansed the wound. Although he did his best, there was still much bleeding, and little expectation that I would live.
“… I lay in a coma for two days, and even when I awakened, my mother believed I would only live long enough to see our daughter, and would bleed to death soon after. By then, Lady Janet had arrived. I saw her kiss the ring of the priest and hand him a purse of coin. She directed my mother and the women to rest, and she stayed beside me until I was well enough to take some broth flavored with garlic and thyme, and to keep it down.
She rubbed my body with an herbal oil and rubbed garlic on my wounds. She changed my dressings as soon as they were soiled and no one was allowed to touch me without washing. She would not allow me to raise my head without help, and forbade me to sit up.
She massaged my legs and arms, and kept me clean of the blood. Often she would read to me, sometimes in Scots and sometimes in French.
She told me stories. Three times each day she had the wet nurse bring Janet to my side, but she would not let me nurse the child until three days had passed. Then she put Janet briefly to my own breast, because she believed it would help me heal. At first when she did so, I would feel a gush of warm blood, but as the days passed, it subsided. It was weeks later when she and my brother helped me to my feet, and miraculously, there was no bleeding….
“…At the end of the month, your mother returned to the Halyards, but before she left, she and my poor mother converged upon my bedside and together they told me that I would bear no further children. On that day I willed myself to die. Only the presence of our child kept me from finding a sgian dubh and ending my life. That is why I could not write to you. I could not bear to tell you that I could not provide you with an heir. I was certain that some sin of mine had brought this upon us. I did not wish to taint little Janet or let her suffer from my morose, so I forced my brother to send her to Halyards, to your mother.
“When my father died and Patrick became laird of Dairsie, I joined our daughter at your parents’ manor house, but whenever I saw her, I began to cry. I was not fit for mothering, and I was not to be allowed a second chance. You would never have heard this story had your mother not insisted that I tell it to you myself. She and your father wanted me to tell you when you were in Haddington, but I could not find the courage, and I made both of them promise not to reveal any of this to you. I thought it better than you believe yourself saddled with an uncaring, hateful wife, bitter from the separation that followed the fall of Saint Andrews. Part of me hoped you would find a way to end our marriage, to put me aside and find a healthy woman to give you sons. John Knox would have helped you with a divorce. But Lady Janet insisted that should you make that choice, you needed to do it with full knowledge of why I had rejected you.”
Then, for the first time during her sad narrative, she began to sob.
… “I have every one of your letters tied together with little green ribbons that I wore in my hair on the day of our hand fasting. I am saving them for Janet when she is old enough to read them. Your poetry I know by heart. I often sing the verses to Janet as she sleeps.”
Kirkcaldy drew her into his arms and held her while she wept. It was the least that he could do.