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The Last Duchess

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We will bury my lord tomorrow. He was too young to die, though he had already outlived too many of his siblings. His life was exhausting, I cannot deny. I think perhaps he was ready to leave. So tired, by it all, by the end. The wars, of course the wars. The weight of administration – though he enjoyed the work, and never tried to hide that unprincely fact. The Savoy, his prideful palace, and its grief-loaded loss. The uprising peasants, the lords, the Lollards, the Commons… endless uprisings marked his life. His father's senile lusts. His exiled son, damn that high-nosed Harry. The infuriating intransigence of his more-damned royal nephew – though I shall smile at Richard when he comes to mourn, and bend my knee deep, as befits the commoner he thinks me.

(That does not concern me. Even I have trouble thinking of myself as John's Duchess. Too many years as the mistress leave their mark.)

The scandal of us. That perhaps aged him more than anything, as he defied convention… and then buckled to it. Always guilty, no decision ever the right one, because he could not please Her and me and himself together.

Life throws such things to us. Perhaps I should be astonished that he lived so long.

I am old too. Not ancient, but certainly greying and reflective. I cannot help but think on my predecessors: Lancasters past, Lancaster passing. Who has her fair share of him?

*

It is thirty years since Blanche died. (Her grace, I should say, and did say while she lived.) He will be buried where she is buried. St Paul's gaping cavern will keep them in gloom and grandeur, under the tomb that has been waiting for him for a quarter of a century.

His effigy does not flatter.

I can't truly resent Blanche having the victory in the end. She was first, when the world was simple. She was fragrant and fragile and holy and good. My sister's husband has tried to describe her goodness, but even his quill doesn't quite capture her sweetness.

Sometimes it's hard to believe that Blanche was real. It's so very long since she died. I know that she smelt of roses, from her pomander and the fragrant petals sprinkled in her trunks. I know that she was pale, as though honouring her own name; so transparently fair that she seemed to be vanishing even before the plague took her. Yet I can't capture anything else to bring her to life in my mind.

They were young, and loving. Life was good to them: married for lands, but happy in their marriage nonetheless. Would they have been happy still, if she had lived? John believed it. His tears on her death were true enough. His tears when first he broke and begged to bed me were true too. He thought he was betraying her memory.

I think… he had already noticed me, the governess to their children, living under his roof. I think... I was rosy and not made of holy transparency. I think… life would have been different, had she lived. But I do not think we should have escaped temptation and doubt and guilt. Neither of us had the temperament for simple happiness. Not once we had set eyes on one another, certainly.

*

I think also of Constacia, though even in my private thoughts I still name her Her, as though the name has a magic to conjure Her curse on me again. He died where She died. That makes a bond, perhaps. But they will not lie together for eternity. Is it the mistress in me that insists he wanted to avoid sharing a cold bed forevermore?

Yes. It is. I'm catty-cruel and on no basis, for She never wronged me, except by existing, and possessing that illusory, tantalising name.

My Lord of Spain. Well, he took Lancaster through Blanche. I daresay he fancied he could take Spain by marriage too. I may laugh, with hindsight, and the bitterness of the woman forsaken for royal dreams, but men did not laugh when first he took the title. They quaked. Castles, lilies and lions quartered on his arms: the world could read his ambition wherever Lancaster's standard flew. They thought he wanted to rule our quarter of the Earth. Some fools thought he might succeed.

He was one of them.

I could shake him for it. Still, and always, it infuriates me that he needed to try so much, to win so little. Was England not enough for him? Was it so vital that he should rule in name, instead of in mere fact and substance?

When he died, this was my second thought, after the piercing of loss itself. Why did you waste so much time on that Spanish mirage? I hope no one but my maids heard the words. I would not have that titbit shared with the court, or beyond. (I know my gossips. For 'mirage', they would hear 'marriage', naturally. But my pain is not only for the competition in his bed.)

I never did know what She thought of me. Her own mother was a wife-mistress of infamy. She must have understood my feelings for the un-royal fate of my own children. Perhaps that is what She feared: familiarity, and pity.

In the end, their daughter has married Spain, and won it as her father could not. Disinherited her parents by the same stroke, the clever, malicious little madam.

Perhaps John's strategy was not folly, after all. But by God's bones, I wish he had left that destiny to another. It was that which twisted his life, and mine, and Hers.

*

In the end, though, he was mine and mine alone. I won the war, through longevity rather than virtue, beauty or riches. It was perhaps a less than complete victory, but it was sweet all the same.

We had a mere four years of our open, respectable, church-sanctioned love, and it was not enough. Thirty would not have been enough – but it is still agony to think we could have had thirty, if we had dared.

(Is agony the word I want?)

Anger might be closer to the truth. I have lost him again. Not to Spain, not to Her, nor even to the sacred memory of Blanche. I cannot win against this enemy.

No. Agony is the word. We are burying my lord tomorrow, and then the only one who will be left is me.

*

Coming to lay him to rest, I have walked through history. We have passed Westminster, which revolted. The Savoy, which burned. St Clement's, where I married. I married another man, but nobody wishes to remember that today. And he is gone, as is John, as is Blanche, as is Constacia.

I go on.

I do not know where I will be buried. But it will not be with him. He has gone back to Blanche: to pride, to simplicity, to clarity and virtue. To when the world was young. He is Lancaster. I am not.

*

Tonight is a time for truth, however. There was agony. There was shame. They will not be forgotten. The sins of the father are visited on the new generations.

But I would do it again, if he came into Blanche's children's schoolroom once more, and saw me, and smiled.

***