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Penelope was seated in what her father now called his library. It was a smallish room, with an oak press on one wall containing a variety of printed books and manuscripts. In his absence she was working at his desk translating Livy's History of Rome from its original Latin. As a very young girl she had spent two summers at the then Princess Elizabeth's country home and had joined enthusiastically in the daily lessons which the Princess was taking with various tutors.
It had been one of the happiest times in her life and ever afterwards she had done her best to improve on what she had learned during those few months. One good thing about becoming one of the Queen's Ladies in Waiting would be the possibility that she might meet again some of the scholars whose instruction she had enjoyed.
The rest of the family had gone out visiting. She had asked not to accompany them, saying she had letters to write to her old friends whom she had left behind when they moved to London. This was not a lie, for she had not opened her Livy until the letters were ready to be posted.
She was disturbed by a resounding double-knock on the door, which undoubtedly heralded Brewster's arrival—he had adopted it to distinguish himself from the other servants, who were only allowed one. Penelope could not imagine what he might have to tell her.
"Enter," she called, putting down her pen. In he strode, his wand of office prominent before him, like an actor in a play proclaiming his office.
"Mistress, you have a visitor. It is Master Oliver Woodville. He has come, he says, to pay his courtesies to your father and mother and to speak to Mistress Mary. I told him that she, together with your father and mother, have gone on a visit to some of their new friends in Westminster."
He paused significantly, and gave a slight cough before continuing. "I thought it best not to tell him aught else about Mistress Mary. I mentioned that you were present today and he asked if he might speak with you. I said that I would ask you if it were convenient."
Convenient! Of course it wasn't convenient. If she agreed to meet Oliver in her sister's absence she would have the unhappy task of telling him that Mary had abandoned the vows which she had made to him and was soon to marry middle-aged Lord Castleford. Could she refuse to meet him by saying it was not convenient for her to see him, leaving Mary to tell him the truth at a later date?
No, she could not. For here she was, as free as air, with no reason to turn him away after she had lain down the strict rule for herself that truth was to guide her life and her conduct. But which would be the worst course—for him to learn from Mary of her treachery—or from Mary's un-considered sister?
Since their argument the other day Mary had not uttered another word about her one-time love. Oliver and his affairs had disappeared from the world in which she lived. She was so busy preparing not one, but two, trousseaus—the first being for the Coronation and the second for her marriage to Lord Castleford early in the New Year—that she had had no time to worry about how much she was going to hurt Oliver when he discovered that she had broken her word to him.
"You may send Master Woodville in," she said at last. Perhaps God would tell her what to say and do for the best when she met him.
Brewster bowed and disappeared, to return a few moments later to announce portentously, "Master Woodville at your service, Mistress Penelope," and disappear again, leaving them alone together.
Their first thought on meeting again was a similar one— how much the other had changed. Oliver had always been good-looking, and now he was proudly handsome with the remains of the tan of Italy on his aquiline features. He was dressed in what Penelope took to be the Italian mode, too, and oh, how it suited him. His clothing was all black and gold and cut in beautiful long lines which showed off his powerful arms and legs.
Merely to look at him made Penelope feel weak. How could Mary reject such a fine figure of a man and accept instead the middle-aged, nondescript, fat fellow which Castleford was? Quite easily, of course, for Castleford was a peer, a man of power, one of those who, like William Cecil, had managed to survive the very different reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary without losing his head— which no doubt said something for him, but quite what, she wasn't sure.
Penelope often found herself silently asking such searching questions and getting no reasonable answers. For the twentieth time she made up her mind to try to stop doing it. She hoped that she didn't look as distracted as she felt.
For his part Oliver remembered her as a little, thin child who turned big golden eyes on him whenever he came to visit Mary. For some reason he had remembered her eyes when everything else about her had faded. She had been quiet, so quiet that there had been something almost disturbing about her, as though, even at that early age, she was busy summing up everyone whom she met—including him. She was, however, always willing to talk to him.
Now she was quite tall, not so tall as her sister perhaps, and by the way she was studying him she had not lost her assessing look. Her hair, what could be seen of it beneath her cap, was a deep brown with golden lights in it, and if she were no conventional beauty she had an appearance of what he thought of as quiet strength. No longer thin, her face and figure reminded him a little of the many classical statues of women which he had seen on his travels.
She waved him to a large chair, one with arms which was her father's favourite, and sat down behind her desk again, after he had bowed low in her direction.
"You have grown, Mistress Penelope," was all that he could think of to say to her. He remembered that even as a child she had always wanted him to tell her nothing but the simple truth.
She smiled, and in some sort the smile transformed her serious face. "Not surprising, Master Woodville, since it is some years since we last met and I had not then attained my final height."
"True," he said, and then to his surprise, for he was no popinjay who wondered what women—or men, for that matter—thought of his looks, he asked a question concerning them. "And I, Mistress Penelope, have I changed?"
She considered him for a moment. "Indeed, you left as a boy and have come back as a man."
It was the best answer she could think of which did not betray how much he affected her. As a child she had offered him silent worship, and if the years since she had last seen him had taught her anything, it was that few men or women deserved such unthinking homage—she was reluctant to call it love.
Nevertheless there was now something formidable about him, whereas before he had left England he had been but a gallant youth, full of promise. To tell the truth—which Penelope always tried to do—he reminded her of the heroes of the legends of Arthur, or of the tales of courtly love which she had read in the intervals of improving her more serious learning.
Oliver laughed. "You were always an honest child so I take that remark as a compliment."
Penelope smiled sweetly at him. "If you like," she said, offering him another small smile.
"I do like," he said, although what he would have liked even more was to be exchanging banter with the older, not the younger, sister.
"What I would also like," he added, "is for you to tell Mary of my visit and to assure her that I shall, if it is convenient, call here on the morrow and renew our vows so that we may shortly marry."
When he spoke of Mary he looked so eager and so much like the ardent boy who had left England three years ago that Penelope's heart bled for him. Whatever the cost she must tell him the truth. It would be cruel to allow him to live in a fool's paradise where simply to be re-united with Mary would mean that they might start making plans to be wedded as soon as the ceremony could be arranged.
Her face must have changed when she thought this, for he looked anxiously at her, saying, "Are you well, Penelope? I thought that for a moment there you seemed faint."
She shook her head. "Quite well, but, oh, Oliver, there is something which I ought to tell you, and which will grieve the pair of us in the telling."
"Mary!" he exclaimed. "Do not tell me that she is ill— or has been ill?"
"No, not that. I scarce know what to say, or how to say it..." She paused. "Let me ring for Brewster to bring you a glass of hippocras before I do."
Oliver stared at her. He had left his lodgings that morning full of hope that he might be seeing Mary before noon. Instead he had found her younger sister, who was looking at him as though there had been a death in the family.
"No," he exclaimed, roughly for him. "I thank you, but no hippocras for me—simply tell me your news."
"Very well, it is this. Mary is contracted in marriage to William Vassall, Earl of Castleford. The preliminary public, and binding, pledging de futuro which signifies the betrothal has already taken place. The final contract of verbis de praesente, followed by marriage, will take place early in the New Year after the Queen's crowning."
Penelope knew at once that she had dealt Oliver a body blow. His face had turned as white as hers had done a few moments ago.
"No, I don't believe you," he said at last. "And if your news be true then her father must have forced her into this union against her will. He surely knew that we exchanged vows before I left."
The truth: she had vowed always to tell the truth and so she must not deceive Oliver however much telling it might cost her.
"All has been done with her full co-operation. I cannot say more than that. It is for her to explain her reasons to you when you meet."
He turned away from her and walked to the window to look out on a lawn with a herb garden on its far side, a sundial in its middle. He had left behind a young woman of modest fortune who had seemed to be happy to marry him but had returned to find that her family had gone up in the world, that she was co-heiress to a large fortune and was contracted to marry a powerful nobleman.
His face ravaged with pain, he swung back to face Penelope, exclaiming, "Are you telling me the truth? I cannot believe it of Mary: that she would throw me over for another."
Penelope's answer was a simple one, simply given. "I would not lie to you," she said.
"Forgive me," he begged her. "I was wrong to accuse you of such a thing. I must speak to her myself, though, to hear what has passed from her own lips when I call on the morrow."
It was plain that he was having difficulty in believing that Mary had abandoned him. Despite his stoic expression his pain was evident to Penelope, and in knowing that, she knew of another thing: that she had always loved him, but that, as her sister's suitor, he had been denied to her.
Now he was doubly denied, for in telling him the truth about Mary she would always, in the future, be a symbol of his pain.
"Indeed," she replied. "I am sure that she will wish to see you."
His smile was bitter. "Will she? I trust that you will forgive me if I ask to leave immediately."
"No forgiveness is needed," she replied, but even as she spoke, there was a commotion outside and the sound of voices, most probably those of her parents and her sister returning early from their excursion. His meeting with Mary would be now, not on the morrow.
Oliver said, "Does that noise mean what I think it does? That your parents and sister have arrived?"
He was well aware that it was a stupid question, because he knew the answer, but for some reason he seemed to be unable to think clearly. The news of Mary's desertion of him had been so unexpected that it had shaken the foundations of his life. Perhaps Penelope was mistaken, or even lying—but no, that was a piece of folly, for why should she lie to him? Or was it possible that she could have been misled?
In any case, when he met Mary he would shortly discover the truth of the matter for himself. In Rome he had lost Harry, his best friend, and now, in London, it seemed that he was about to lose the woman whom he loved.
Penelope had risen, and was saying, "You will want me to inform my father and mother—and Mary—of your arrival. You might wish to remain here until I do so."
What could he do but agree with her? To be left alone would give him time to gather his errant thoughts, time to collect himself, time to be calm when he saw Mary again.
"Yes," he said, "that might be best," and said no more. He looked out of the window so that he might not see her leave the room, for, as Penelope had suspected, the sight of her was painful to him. He had returned to find the wrong woman still free—and the right one promised to another. Once he was alone he walked over to stare at the book she had been studying when he had disturbed her— to find that it was no light poem or courtly romance, but Livy's History, and that she had evidently been reading the Latin easily, for she had made some notes in that language on a piece of paper—for future reference, perhaps.
Oliver clenched his fists. Penelope, at least, had remained constant to something, even if it were only her desire for learning, a desire which had caused her elder sister to tease her constantly. For some reason her steadfastness, so different from Mary's, enraged him. As a consequence when the door opened and Mary and her father and mother walked in, immediately after the officious Brewster, his desire to be temperate in manner proved difficult to sustain.
"Well met, Master Woodville," said John Jermaine, all affability. "I learned but this morning that you had returned, and am greatly pleased that you chose to visit us haste, post haste. First, I must commiserate with you on the loss of your friend, Harry Grantly: it must have been a sad end to your journey."