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Friday, 14 November 2014

A Man in Mourning - first chapter



The final battle for the crown of England had left most of the country’s inhabitants in a state of bewilderment. The men who had fought for King Richard were wondering if their lives would be spared, if their property would be confiscated. The men who had fought for Henry Tudor were wondering if they had done the right thing, pleased their side had won, but most had acted through distrust of Richard and a wish to put an end to the long, drawn out wars between the Houses of Lancaster and York, the endless turnabout of Kings.

They had seen kings murdered, kings deposed, kings reinstated until they knew not who was the reigning monarch and who was not. The last King before Richard was a little boy whose claim could never prevail in a time of such chaos, and he had been intercepted on his way to his coronation and confined in the royal apartments in the Tower of London, on the orders of his Uncle Richard.

With Henry Tudor on the throne, at last that insecurity would hopefully end, even though the man had little claim.

But those battles had cost families dearly and now the Earl of Westerby stood in the August sunshine and watched the coffin containing the lifeless corpse of his younger brother as it was slowly and carefully lowered into the ground. His brother had fought for Richard, despite the Earl’s pleas that he not risk his life. Now the Earl had no heir, but that was not what was on his mind as he stood with the warmth of the sun on his neck and watched his only remaining relative depart into the afterlife.

This small churchyard attached to the Westerby church on his own estate was reserved solely for the Westerby family and some of the gravestones bore dates going back centuries, but next to the newly dug tomb of his brother was the ten year old grave of his beloved wife, Eleanor.

As he stood with his head bent and his hands clasped loosely in front of him, his glance wandered to the giant memorial cross showing Eleanor’s date of birth and death, with the additional inscription for two baby boys, both named Ian after their father, both dead before they had drawn many breaths, before they had had a chance of life.

All the villagers and tenants had turned out for the young viscount’s funeral. Ian could feel their eyes on him, knew they were watching for his reaction to this latest loss. He was their Lord and his fate was their fate.

They came out of respect for the family rather than any feeling of personal loss, but still Ian was grateful for the support. Now his brother was gone as well as his beloved wife, there was little left for him but more mourning, more grief.

Every day for ten years he had stood in this churchyard, had paid his respects to Eleanor, even spoken to her, told her his problems. He had never wanted to move on; he was happy enough being buried in the past, because that is where Eleanor still lived, that is where the two of them still loved.

The gravedigger began to shovel earth over the coffin and Ian closed his eyes to shut out the sight, wishing he could also shut out the sound of that earth as it dropped onto the oak box. His secretary, Sir Alfred Pincher stepped forward and gently touched his arm.

“My Lord,” he said, “Come away. I need to talk to you.”

Ian turned to him with a perplexed frown. What did the fellow mean by disturbing him at this time? The man was a lifelong bachelor and an only child; he had no idea what it meant to lose the people closest to him.

“Well?” Ian demanded angrily.

“I know this is likely the worst time to mention this, but with your brother gone, you need to consider remarriage.”

Lord Westerby glared at him furiously.

“What on earth are you talking about?”

“Forgive me, My Lord, but you have surely thought of it yourself. You have no heir. Your brother fought bravely, gave his life for King Richard and the Plantagenet dynasty. If you die without issue, everything you own will go to fill Henry Tudor’s coffers. I am sure that is not what you want.”

Ian glanced about and was relieved to see the villagers and tenants, the servants slowly walking away, leaving the churchyard. He was angry now and had no wish for them to see his anger, not on this day, not in this place.

He stared thoughtfully at the man, then frowned. He was right, of course, and nobody else would have had the courage to tell him; there was no longer a male relative to inherit his title and estate, his fortune, and he did not want it to go to the Tudors, to the usurper who would soon be crowned King of England.

The Earl gazed for a few moments at the stone which marked Eleanor’s grave, ridden with guilt for even thinking of another marriage, then he turned to Sir Alfred.

“Leave me,” he ordered. “I will talk to you later.”

When his secretary had gone, Ian dropped to his knees beside his wife’s grave and whispered; he wanted no passer by to hear.

He had not wanted to admit to Sir Alfred that he had thought of this as soon as he was told of his brother’s death, but he had pushed the notion away. He had even spent a whole day going through family documents hoping to find some sign of a male relative, anyone who could legitimately lay claim to the title and estate, to spare him the need to take another wife.

But there was no one, and he had to explain to Eleanor, be sure she understood.

“I must do this, Eleanor,” he said. “You have to appreciate that I must try to produce a living heir. I know you always believed I wanted sons more than anything, but you were wrong. I wanted you more than I wanted babies, and I still had Alan then. Now I have no choice. God chose not to bless us with healthy, living sons, but you would never accept that, my darling, would you? I have to marry again, but it will make no difference to the way I feel.”

He waited a few moments, as though expecting an answer, then got to his feet and brushed damp earth from his knees.

He looked across the few hundred yards to the house, an old mansion with nearly a hundred rooms and emblems carved into its stone walls. He had been born in that house, his brother had been born in that house, and his sons were born their too.

There were formal gardens leading up to the double oak doors, gardens Eleanor had loved; she had even planted flowers herself. He knew which flowers they were, he would often take a stem to place upon her memorial stone so she would know he had not forgotten the hours she spent on her knees planting them. He recalled the excitement when the first buds peeped through the earth, how she had clasped his hand and run outside to show him. It seemed to her to be some sort of miracle, and perhaps it was, but there was no miracle when they really needed one.

He would stand here and in the little church and say his prayers to Eleanor, for his belief in God had died with her and had never returned. If there was such an entity as God, Ian did not think He was worth praying to. He had taken his wife and his baby boys and now He had taken his brother, his heir, forced him to think about another wife.

Ian knew his reputation was well known, that the whole county knew his heart was in the coffin with his wife, and he wondered what manner of female could possibly be persuaded to marry him, knowing he would never love her. It would have to be a cold woman, a woman whose only interest was in the title and the wealth. Anything else was unthinkable.

Yet Ian was not a cold man. He was warm and kind and if he were to take another wife, he would be as good to her as his heart would allow. He did not relish sharing his remaining years with a woman who would not appreciate his generosity of spirit. Perhaps Sir Alfred could find him an unattractive woman, one who had few suitors and would be grateful for his offer, appreciate what gifts his memories would allow him to give.

It was warm today, the August weather promising to last out the week, and that only depressed him more. Funerals should not be held in sunny weather; it made a mockery of the mourners’ angst somehow. It had been pouring rain when he buried Eleanor, a cold wind blowing as though the angels were flapping their wings and weeping in sorrow.

His hair was wet with perspiration by the time he opened the oak doors to his house, and saw at once Sir Alfred sitting beside an open window, taking in the fresh air; he frowned. His secretary wore black out of respect for Ian’s brother, but it was trimmed with colourful embroidery, unlike his own clothing which was plain black as it always was. It had been ten years since he had worn anything else, and he was affronted that this man should attend his brother’s funeral, stand before Eleanor’s grave, with fancy embroidery on his garments.

He knew what he was waiting for, and he knew he had to marry, but his heart sank at the prospect. It was not the idea of another woman in his life which he dreaded as much as the potential loss of more baby sons. That is what he could not bear, what he had no strength for. As to the woman, she was an irrelevance, a mere vessel. She would never take the place of Eleanor and he hoped Sir Alfred would find him someone who would not attempt it.

“Well,” he said as he made his way to the sideboard and poured wine. “Do you have someone in mind?”

Alfred’s face lost its worried frown and he stood hurriedly, as though expecting the Earl to change his mind.

“I do, My Lord. Lady Francesca Allinton has lost her betrothed in the battle. She was due to be married next month, but now he has gone, her father might be amenable to an offer from you.”

Ian eyed him suspiciously. It was a small county and nobles tended to know one another, although Ian had only had a fleeting glimpse of the lady in question.

“Is she not crippled?” He demanded.

“She does have a deformed leg, My Lord, it is true. But that should not affect her ability to bear offspring.”

Lord Westerby’s mouth turned down in distaste. He remembered when he had seen the lady, seen her in the distance hobbling across the market square with the aid of a bamboo cane. He had pitied her at the time, thought what a tragic waste it was that a young girl should have to depend on a walking cane to aid her. He remembered that sight now, and could not help but compare her to Eleanor, to her straight and elegant body, and his heart twisted.

“Why do you offer me a cripple? Can you not find me a woman who is at least a whole person?”

“My Lord, may I speak freely?” Ian nodded. “There are not that many ladies available who are happy to wed a man still devoted to his dead wife.”

Ian glowered at him angrily, his fists clenched, but he said nothing. Sir Alfred but voiced the very thoughts Ian had been thinking himself only a short while ago. He accepted that finding him a wife would not be easy, but if he had to do this, he wanted someone independent, not a needy woman who would look for love where there was none to find.

“Lady Francesca is a beautiful woman, My Lord,” Sir Alfred went on. “She has inherited her mother’s dark Latin splendour and she is young, only sixteen years old. She can bear you many sons.”

“I do not need many sons, Alfred. I need but one. Can you be sure her deformity is not also inherited?”

“It is not, My Lord. It is the result of an accident some two years ago. Her brother and sister stand straight.”

Ian pursed his lips thoughtfully, recalling what he had heard of the village gossip.

“Yes, I remember now. A horse threw her, then reared and stamped on her leg.” He paused thoughtfully for a moment, his memory full of Eleanor, and he shrugged. “Very well,” he said. “It is of little moment. Has she agreed to the marriage?”

“I have not made my proposal yet, My Lord.”

“Well, do so, the sooner the better. Let us get this over with before I change my mind.”

When Alfred had gone he sat before the open window, breathed in the smells of fresh grass and wild flowers, and tried to imagine another woman in Eleanor’s place, another female form in his bed, in his arms, giving herself to him. But would she give herself? Or would she lie still and accept his passion with tolerance and distaste? If she accepted him out of desperation, because there was no alternative, she might not feel inclined to return his ardour, even assuming there was any ardour to return.

He had not had the comfort of a woman since the death of his second son, a little over ten years ago, and he cursed his brother for getting himself killed and forcing this marriage on him.

He recalled the argument he had had with Alan, when he announced he would fight for the King.

“You cannot go,” he had told him. “What will happen if you are killed? You are my heir; one day you will be Earl of Westerby and Westerby Hall and the whole village will be yours. Are you prepared to risk all that for the sake of a dynasty which is already in the throes of death?”

“Ian, I have to be able to do this. Henry Tudor has no business laying claim to the throne and you know King Edward always favoured our family.”

“I need you to be safe, Alan. You must marry and have sons to carry on the title, to inherit the estate after we have gone.”

Alan returned his plea with determination in his countenance.

“The King has summoned me to take up arms for him. I will be condemned as a coward and a traitor if I do not go. Have you received no summons?”

Ian glanced away for a moment before he finally replied.

“I have, but I refuse to support King Richard. Were it his brother, or his nephew, I would be eager, but I do not believe in him. He had his brother’s marriage annulled, made his brother’s children bastards so he could declare himself King. And there have been no sightings of the princes since Richard sequestered them in the Tower. Why would I fight for a man like that?”

Alan sighed impatiently, then that teasing grin of which Ian was so fond flickered about his mouth.

“Well I am going,” he said. “Who knows? If I am killed in battle, it might spur you to put Eleanor in the past where she belongs and take another wife.”

Ian scowled at him, saw the mischief in his eyes and smiled. It was his way and he had never approved of Ian’s devotion to the past, but now the Earl must accept that he would never see that mischievous glitter in his brother’s eyes again, never smile at that teasing grin which he found so endearing. He was dead, buried deep in the ground alongside Ian’s wife, and his flippant words had become a prediction, even a premonition.

The house felt empty without him, without his whistling, his singing as he went about the place and his laughter as he teased the servants and made them laugh indulgently. Perhaps if Ian had insisted on Alan taking a wife he would have had a son of his own by now, and not left Ian with this awful dilemma. A wife might even have made him think twice about going into battle at all, but he would have none of it. He said it was Ian’s fault; he had shown him what a marriage for love could be and he wanted nothing less for himself.

Ian poured more wine and closed his eyes, dragged up the memory of Lady Francesca. He had seen her for but a brief moment and she would not have aroused his interest at all had it not been for the pronounced limp, the bamboo cane. He could barely recall what she looked like; he only remembered the dark hair and the uneven walk.

Still, if she could give him a son she would do. It is all he wanted, then he could return to the love of his life, to memories of Eleanor and ghosts of the life they had once shared.


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