Read an Excerpt
The Fork Is Chosen
The cauldron is exempt from its boiling when the food, the fire and the cauldron are properly arranged, but that the attendant gives notice of his putting the fork into the cauldron. That is, but so he warns: 'Take care,' says he. 'Here goes the fork into the cauldron.'
She wanted Crawford of Lymond. His nerves flinching from the first stir of disaster, the Chief Privy Councillor understood his mistress at last.
Regal, humourless, briskly prosaic, the Queen Dowager of Scotland had conducted the audience with her usual French competence and was bringing it to its usual racing conclusion. She was a big woman, boxed in quilting in spite of the weather, and Tom Erskine was limp with her approaching visit to France.
To the most extravagant, the most cultured, the most dissolute kingdom in Europe the Queen Mother was shortly to sail, and her barons, her bishops and her cavalry with her. And now, it appeared, she wanted one man besides.
The Queen Mother was a subtle woman, and not Scots. The thick oils of statesmanship ran in Mary of Guise's veins, and she rarely handed through the door what she could throw in by the cat's hole. So she talked of safe conducts and couriers, of precedents and programmes, of gifts and people to meet and to avoid before she added, 'And I want intelligence, good intelligence, of French affairs. We had better place some sort of observer.'
Her Privy Councillor had never found her foolish before. From the Duke de Guise downwards, every member of that privileged family, with its quarterings of eight sovereign houses, its Cardinals, its Abbesses and its high and influential posts at the French Court, might be worldly, might be charming, would almost certainly be a congenital gambler; but would never be foolish.
These were the Queen Dowager's brothers and sisters-good God, where better could she go for intimate news? Granted, it was now twelve years since, a young French widow, she had come to Scotland as King James V's bride, and eight years since he died, leaving her with a war, a baby Queen and a parcel of rebellious nobles. True, again, that she would be watched, by her Scottish barons no less than by the enemies of her brothers in France. Only, for a French King, however friendly, to find an informer at Court would be disaster.
Erskine said aloud, 'Madam . . . you are supposed to be joining your daughter, nothing else.'
'-Some sort of observer,' she was repeating, quite unruffled. 'Such as Crawford of Lymond.'
With an elegant yellow head in his mind's eye, and in his ears a tongue like sword cutler's emery, Tom Erskine said bluntly, 'His name and face are known the length of France. And I'm damned sure he'll not be persuaded.' Notoriously, at some time, every faction in the kingdom had tried to buy Lymond's services. Nor was the bidding restricted to Scotland, or to statesmen, or to men. Europe, whenever he wished, could provide him-and probably did-with either a workshop or a playground.
The Queen Mother's manner remained bland. 'He is possibly tired of trifling at home?'
'He isn't dull enough to commit himself to a contract.'
'But he might come to France?'
Oh, God! 'To entertain himself,' said Tom Erskine warningly. 'But for nothing else.'
The Queen Mother smiled, and he know that he had misjudged her again, and that, as usual, streets and palaces and prisons beyond anyone's grasp lay under her thoughts. She said, 'If he is in France. for the term of my visit, I shall be satisfied. You will tell him so.'
Tom Erskine thought briefly that it would be pleasant to fall ill, to be unable to ride, to become deaf. 'It will be a pleasure, madam,' he said.
Silent in the Boat
If there be a hand-party there, and a rowing party, and a party of middle-sport, the hand-party is the swamping-party, the middle-sport party is the rowing party, and the spectators are they who are silent in the boat.
On the last Thursday in September, and the fourteenth day out of Ireland, the wind dropped to a flat calm, forcing the galley called La Sauvée to approach Dieppe under oar.
The best ships, the reliable crews and the senior captains had just brought the Scottish Queen Dowager to France. La Sauvée, built in 1520, was only fetching some Irish guests to the French Court, a common errand enough. But her captain, an able courtier, was no seaman; her seamen, through a misplaced concession, were far from sober; and her bo's'n had been taking hashish for months. Thus, two hours off Dieppe, the flags and streamers lay ready on dock, a little too early; the oarsmen, capping shaved heads, were resting and re-engaging oars; and the pilot, involved with banners, was far too busy to attend to the wind.
Robin Stewart, baulked of small talk, had found a chair in the poop beside the fat Irishman, who was asleep. There were three of them, and it was Stewart's task as one of the Royal Guard of Scottish Archers in France to bring them safely to Court. For a century and a half, Scottish Archers had guarded the King of France day and night, had crowned him, fought with him, buried him, and were looked on, by others as well as by themselves, as the élite of the men-at-arms who served the French Crown. Thus Robin Stewart was used to odd jobs; ferrying the King's less sophisticated guests to and fro was just one of them.
Ahead was a reception party on the quay, a speech, a meal at the best Dieppe inn, and a good night's rest on a bed before the ride inland to deliver his guests. Nothing difficult there; but little to earn him money or fame either. Heir to nothing but an old suit of armour and a vacant post in the Guard, Robin Stewart had always been deeply interested in money and fame, and had for a long time been convinced that in a world of arms, skill and hard work would still take you to the top, however doubtful your background.
It had only latterly become plain that success in the world of arms ran a poor second to success in the world of intrigue; and that while no one worked harder, a good many people seemed to be more skilful than Robin Stewart.
This was palpably impossible. He applied a good analytical brain to discovering how other people managed to give this appearance of excellence. He also spent a good deal of time trying to breach the stockade between reasonably paid routine soldiery and the inner chamber of princes or of bankers, or even at a pinch of the fashionable theologians. At the same time, he could not afford to lose ground in his regular job, however irritating its calls on him.
He looked round now, counting heads. At his side, the Prince's secretary was still asleep, in a poisonous aura of wine, his black head bound like a pot roast by the sliding shadow-pattern of the rigging. Whether from panic or habit, Thady Boy Ballagh had been asleep or stupefied for two weeks.
Further off, Piedar Dooly the Prince's servant was just visible, fitted into a recess, like something doubtful on the underside of a leaf. And beyond them was the Prince himself, their master, and his third and most important charge.
Phelim O'LiamRoe, Prince of Barrow, son of Milesians, descendant of Carbery Cathead, of Art the Solitary, Tuathal the Legitimate and Fergus of the Black Teeth, cousin to Maccon whose two calves were as white as the snow of one night, was thin and middle-sized, with a soft egg-shaped face thatched and cupped with blond whiskers. And at this moment, Stewart saw, he was bent double in fruitless converse with a coal-black bow oar from Tunis; thereby closing the main thoroughfare of the galley to seamen, oarsmen, timoneers, soldiers, warders, ensigns, lieutenants and captain alike.
The sweating Moor, bearing down on fifty feet of solid beechwood, crashed back regularly and wordlessly on the five-man bench like a piston, rowing twenty-four strokes to a minute, while the voice of The O'LiamRoe, Chief of the Name, Prince of Barrow and feudal lord of the Slieve Bloom in the country of Ireland, warmly cordial, went on and on.
'. . . And it would be queer if we didn't agree, with leverage itself the great wonder of the world, as my own father knew, and my grandfather twenty-two stones and bedridden. When they came from sluicing him down at the pump they would lay the coffin lid over the turf stack next the bed and sit my grandfather at one end. They had a heifer trained to jump on the other. When the lid was nailed over him at the end my grannie was blithe, blithe at the wake; for she got a powerful lot of bruising when he landed. . . .'
Robin Stewart winced. He had had two weeks of it. At Dalkey, Ireland, he had had his first sight of the great man, as The O'LiamRoe had shinned ineptly and eagerly up the ladder, to stand revealed on the tabernacle of La Sauvée, a carefree, mild and hilarious savage in a saffron tunic and leggings. His entire train, for which Mr. Stewart had cleared a compartment, consisted of two: the small wild Firbolg called Dooly and the comatose Mr. Ballagh.
Robin Stewart had been mortified: not by O'LiamRoe's looks, or his dress, or his simple enjoyment of useless knowledge, but because he not only invited questions, he answered them. As a student of human nature, Stewart enjoyed a long, difficult analysis; his onslaughts were memorable. A man talking amicably about the art of the longbow would find that, by means known only to Mr. Stewart, this led straight to God, his total income, and where his schooling had taken place, if any. In one day, the Archer knew that O'LiamRoe was thirty, unmarried, and resident in a large, coarse Irish castle. He knew that there was a widowed mother, a string of servants and five tuaths filled with clansmen and the minimum wherewithal to sustain life with no money to speak of. He knew that, in terms of followers, O'LiamRoe was one of the mightiest chieftains in English-occupied Ireland, except that it had never yet occurred to him to lead them anywhere.
Watching the lord of the Slieve Bloom straighten and move happily off, tripping over an old pennant with a salamander on it, the Scotsman was moved to an irritation almost maternal. 'And anyway, what in God's name's a tuath?'
He had said it aloud. A voice replied in his ear. 'Thirty ballys, my dear. And if you ask what in God's name does a bally do, it holds four herds of cows without one cow, desperate lonely that they are, touching another.' The fat Irishman in the next chair scratched his black poll and recrossed his hands over his comfortable little stomach 'Surely The O'LiamRoe told you that? Bring in any little fact and O'LiamRoe will wet-nurse it for you.'
Mr. Ballagh, asleep or drunk, had so far escaped the Archer's attentions. In the dark-skinned, slothful, unshaven face he thought he saw disillusionment, intelligence, the remains of high aspirations perhaps, all soaked and crumbled into servitude and cynicism. He said easily, 'Ye'll have been a long time with the Prince?'
Mr. Ballagh's answer was succinct. 'Three weeks.'
'Three weeks too much, eh? You should have made enquiries about him beforehand.'
'So I could, then; but who would answer me? The fellow lives in a bog and devil the person has laid eyes on him from one end of the country to the other. I heard from a friend of a cousin of a cousin,' said Mr. Ballagh on a little wave of wine-coloured confidence, 'that he was wild for a true-bred ollave who could talk in French for him, and here I am.'
The O'LiamRoe had no French. That he had English was a welcome surprise. France, from the lowest of motives, had entertained not a few of the powerful leaders of her downtrodden neighbour, and had sweated over their plots and counterplots in Gaelic and Latin. 'What's an ollave?' asked Mr. Stewart.
Master Ballagh recited. 'A hired ollave is a sweet-stringed timpan, and a sign, so they say, that the master of the house is a grand, wealthy fellow, and him for ever reading books. An ollave of the highest grade is professor, singer, poet, all in the one. His songs and tales are of battles and voyages, of tragedies and adventures, of cattle raids and preyings, of forays, hostings, courtships and elopements, hidings and destructions, sieges and feasts and slaughters; and you'd rather listen to a man killing a pig than hear half of them through. I,' said Mr. Ballagh bitterly, 'am an ollave of the highest grade.'
'Well, you're wasting your time here,' Robin Stewart pointed out. 'You should be getting grand money for all yon, surely. And what made you take up poetry anyway, for heaven's sake?'
'Grand money, is it; and everyone forced by legislation to speak the English?' snarled Mr. Ballagh. He calmed down. 'The O'Coffey, who ran the bardic school near my home, had a hurley team would make your mouth water and the blood come out at your ears. I was the fifteenth child, and the nippiest, so why should I object to what my father and the O'Coffey might arrange? The fifteenth. And the nippiest . . .'
Master Thady Boy Ballagh smoothed the doubtful black of his pourpoint, flicked the limp grey frills of his cuff, and wrapped the stained folds of his robe over his knees. 'Hand me that bottle, will you?'
And by then it was too late. The squall was already coming, a streaming blemish over the water, and lying over before it the Gouden Roos, a three-masted galliasse caught with every rag on the yards. For a moment still, La Sauvée slid peacefully along. Claret flowed from the leather down Master Ballagh's throat. Stewart, his arms folded, watched O'LiamRoe's head bob and the fifty blades rise, catch the red sun and fall into glassy green shadow.
They rose again, but this time the shadow remained. The whole galley disappeared from the sun in the fair blue waters of the English Channel as a thousand tons of galliasse drove at them broadside on.
She was Flemish and foul-bottomed, her sheets paid out on a lee helm so that the westerly squall had caught her and was spinning her leeward on top of them, hurled on by wind pressure on sides, sails and gear. Then the wind caught La Sauvée too. Master Ballagh's bottle fell from his hand; the chairs in the poop slid, and the galley heeled, her shrouds whining and the long lattice of her shells spiked and quilled along its 150 feet by the oars, clenched, thrashing or rattling loose. The shadow of the galliasse darkened and the captain jumped, shouting, on the gangway. The oarsmen on the starboard side were on their feet. Spray hissed and then clattered on the bared benches, and for a moment the stentorian voice of O'LiamRoe, sliding with twenty others in the mess of pennants and tenting around the open holds, was heard bellowing: 'The key! The key for the leg irons, ye clod of a Derry-born bladder-worm!'