ON A GREY, STILL MORNING in January, more than a hundred years ago, through air of that chill crispness which tests the lungs and finds them wanting, four people stood at one end of a footbridge at the end of Willoughby Park and waved to three riding away. The sky was as dim as though it were evening; one had to have gotten up in the black dawn to know that it had been steadily lightening, and would grow a little lighter still. The three riders were the King and Prince of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury: 'but as we do not look the part,' the Archbishop had said, 'I think we shall be safe until we get to Cleydon-le-Marsh,' where a complement of the Ninth Army would be joining them. The King, a boy of eighteen who looked as though he were fifteen, and his brother, who was fifteen, and looked perhaps eleven, were calling back to the party on the bridge in clear, carrying voices – neither had yet broken – 'Thank you! Goodbye! Thank you for everything – I promise to practice at the crossbow, Bonnie! – We'll see you soon, Simon, Dido!', until, with a last shy call of 'Thank you!' from the Prince, they turned to the road.
'Cor, don't they look titchy, though,' muttered the foremost watcher, a lean girl of eighteen or nineteen with her hands in her pockets.
'I think he'll do well,' said the former King of England, who stood beside her. 'The more that's asked of him, the better he gets. And he shall have Father Sam with him, and his uncle that he wrote to, and us.'
'Heaven knows,' said one of their hosts, 'he has spirit. It's seventy miles of moor from here to Fogrum Hall.'
'And very little water in between,' said the other. 'I've ridden out that way, and had to turn back.'
They turned back on the road which wound up the hill to Willoughby Chase, the great house where Bonnie and Sylvia lived, and where Dido, Simon, Piers, Fred, and Father Sam had come from Clatteringshaws, to the purpose of having a respite in which to think privately over how to make the formal transfer of kingship from Simon to Piers. 'Rather than going straight back and confusing both the Palace and ourselves,' as Father Sam had remarked. It had been Piers's idea; he had promised, weeks earlier, to return to Willoughby Chase when he had finished his errand in Clatteringshaws.
'A king who keeps his promises!' Bonnie had cried, giving Simon a shove, then a violent embrace, 'that's a change, from the wicked, ungrateful, heartless sort we had before! What a liar we had on the throne, who said he would come back at holidays! It's been eleven years, Simon!'
'I wrote,' Simon had said, over her shoulder. 'First I found out that I was the heir of the Duke of Battersea, and then there was a Hanoverian plot I had got to help stop. Then I was the Duke of Battersea and there was a Hanoverian plot I had got to help stop. Then I was the King of England and I was supposed to fight off the Wends. It was a bit hard to get away.'
They had been at Willoughby a week. Piers had spent every morning and afternoon talking with Simon and Father Sam in the library, about persons at court that ought to be avoided, or could be trusted, or should be sent away at all costs. He asked a great deal of questions that Simon was unable to answer, about taxes, roads, ambassadors, laws, budgets, the Army. 'How can you not know?' he said, more than once, staring through his green glasses with his brows drawn down like an accusatory owl.
'I did my best,' said Simon, reminded of Aunt Titania, feeling miscellaneously pecked. 'I grew up in the woods – these woods! – and raised geese. I couldn't even read until I was fourteen!'
'Well,' said Piers tartly, 'you might have read since then.'
Fred, under the tutelage of Sylvia, was reading. He had got as far as being able to sound out sentences, though he had not wholly got the hang of diagraphs, and to write simple phrases: he could already add and subtract, as Mrs. McClan had thought that useful to her. He was exquisitely shy, like a wild foal, ducking his head when anyone came near him; he had been struck dumb for a full day by the splendour of Willoughby Chase, and expected to wake, any moment, in The Eagles' storeroom, with a McClan kicking him. But he could not have been afraid of Sylvia – no one and nothing ever was – nor of Piers, whom he viewed as a gentleman of the world and a great authority, and Piers, discerning his role, played it with exacting pleasure. 'It is like seeing him with his own ghost,' said Sylvia to Simon, gazing one evening at the two brothers bent over the same book, 'how wretched and white and thin he looked when he first came here, and how he woke in the nights. It gives me hope.' 'There ain't much yet in his upper storey, but it's sound,' said Dido to Bonnie, who was giving her riding lessons. 'If he keeps on eating like he does now he'll turn out taller than Simon,' said Father Sam to Lady Green.
The week had passed with the heightened sentimental pleasure of all temporary reprieves; only one thing had made Simon nervous, which was that he had several times seen a tall, spare woman of about his own age, who would have been handsome if not for a hostile awkwardness about her, watching him with great intensity. Simon, not without reason, was nervous whenever a woman seemed to fix on him, but she was not looking at him with love, or with hatred: he thought it was with something like evaluation, and with a kind of scornful envy. She reminded him of Penelope Twite. He was introduced to her one day by chance and by Sylvia, with an unusual coolness, as 'Bonnie's good friend Diana, Headmistress of Dower House since Aunt Jane is gone, and teacher on the subject of the Ancient World'. (Dower House was the school for orphans on the far side of Willoughby Park; Sophie had ridden out to see it, years ago, and used it partly as a model, when planning her own.) Up close she was tense as a rat-trap. He did not remember her, but she remembered him.
There were two things Simon had promised to do at Willoughby Chase which required daylight, which his afternoons in the library had, until now, used up: to draw Sylvia, who had requested it, and to show Dido where he had lived in the forest, as he had promised he would in Rose Alley, half her life ago. Now that Piers had gone he attended to Sylvia first, and Dido wandered through the house, idly looking for Bonnie, exploring for nearly an hour before coming to rest in a window-seat on the ground floor, which had a table to one side of it with a candelabra and heavy crystal bowls of walnuts, of figs, of crystallized fruit. She took off her shoes and climbed up onto the cushions and fell to staring out the window, slowly eating walnuts, thinking of the return to London on the morrow, of Fred and of Piers, of something a friend's father, a man with second sight, had said of her: that he had seen her with a crown in her hand. She wondered whether she had set it down, now – whether she had been carrying it, all the while, to find Piers, and to free Simon. 'Oh, I would never be Queen, Pa,' she sang to herself quietly, 'no matter who wanted me to. I'd sooner be wed to a sardine, Pa, I'd ruther drink a whole pot of glue. Afore I'd be laced up in baleen, Pa, I'd run myself off to Piru – ruther be baked in a tureen, Pa, and et up by a kangaroo…'
'Croopus,' said Simon, sincerely, from behind her. 'There you are. We had better go out straightaway, it's a quarter to two already. I'm sorry that took so long.'
'It ain't the kind of thing you can pelt through in five minutes, I know,' she said, putting on her shoes.
'She didn't fidget, like some,' said Simon, who had been trying to persuade Dido to sit still long enough to be painted for four years and counting, 'but she did talk, and talk, so that I couldn't draw her mouth. She wanted for me to paint her portrait, but there aren't materials here, nor time.'
They went into the cloakroom to put on coats and boots again, and take up a pair of firearms, against the wolves; Simon, who was an excellent marksman, checked and shouldered a musket, and Dido, who was not, looked through the gun room, which could have furnished a militia, and finally picked up a revolver.
The trees looked as though they had been stripped by hand; the winter's storms had been flung at the forest by the wind from the coast. The air was so cold that it seemed distilled, as though it were intended to be taken in sips like spirit, and the snow lay thin and eaten-away between the trunks. Here and there late-autumn fruit had frozen bright on the branch, rosehips, bittersgalls, haws, like sparks among ashes. Coquelicot, nacarat carmine, cassel earth, thought Simon, the painter.
'Did you know Sylvia well, when you lived here?'
'Oh, no. I only met her just before I left, when I helped them to run away from the orphanage in Blastburn, and once before. She must have been a little older then than you, when I met you, but she was awfully delicate – easily shocked. She was afraid of my geese.'
'She's like one of her own china cups,' said Dido. 'Blue and gold and white and pink.'
Simon, caught by surprise, laughed.
'She is – exactly. Oh, Dido, I almost wish I could paint her now, I should like to do a painting on that idea. The poor creature, she has had a difficult time of it since I last saw her, with a weakness in the chest: they sent her all the way to Abastumani to take the waters there, and she did get a bit stronger, but only enough to come home; she says they are always trying to fatten her up, and keep her still, and if not for Bonnie's help in the insistence on the virtues of fresh air she should never be let out of doors.'
Dido thought of Sindy Rogers, who had let every child in Rose Alley have a turn on the ice-skates her father had made her, consumed to a handful of twigs, guttering down in her cot. She wondered where Abastumani was. Hold your hush, she thought, be glad them what's still alive is still alive.
'They could try her on treacle and whale oil,' she said, not insincerely.
They made their way over the knotted roots and thin iced-over creeks and fallen trees; Simon had begun to follow some path which was invisible to her.
'You were King hardly a year,' said Dido, after a while.
'Yes, and nearly every day I wished myself here, with a flock of geese,' said Simon. 'Sleeping out in the forest in summer and waking with the leaves all patterning overhead. No one wanting more of me than a handful of dried corn. Here we are. Lord, I wasn't the size of a mouse.'
He had pried open a rough wooden door, covered and concealed by moss and tiny frozen mushrooms, in a hillside which sloped up unevenly in a series of shale rock-faces.
'No one has taken it over, I don't think, as we went by the chimney vent and the snow was built up round it. Still – hello?' he called down the tunnel, which might have gone to the centre of the earth. After a silence he lay down the musket and pulled off his gloves and lit a lucifer, then, as it spat and sparked, gingerly lit the lantern he had brought, and carried it in.
She followed, unable to see past him, down a passageway which at first rustled and snapped underfoot, then shifted and gritted with sand. He set the lantern down in a blackened central hearth, which provided a light which leapt and trembled and settled upon the room, and sat down against the wall, to get out of the way. The cave was bell-shaped, tall enough for Dido to stand in most of it, though low enough for her to put her hand to, and nearly bare: bundles of straw and of bracken, lashed together, which must have been a bed, with an old ragged fur folded at its foot; two rough pottery jars; a slab of smooth wood with two flat stones stacked atop it; a low hollow to one side, filled with cut wood and pieces of coal. A cup carved of horn, sized for a child's hands, by the stones. It had the obvious care in arrangement, and the fine even dust, of a tomb. Dido thought: it was like he was thanking it, to leave it so spruce. And she thought: he knew, even then, he wasn't to come back.
'I can see how you'd wish you was here, when you allus had a mob a-nattering at you when you was King. It must a' been so quiet, and warm. It don't do you any good to have a hundred rooms, when you can only ever be in one of 'em at a time.'
'Bonnie said something like that, once, when she came to see me here.'
'You can't outfox what you was meant for, can you?' said Dido abruptly, out of a silence. 'Not anyone. D'you remember Justin, that they thought was the rightful heir? What's the odds that he'd be turned over so? If it hadn't a-happened that way with you and Sophie, it would of a-happened another. Mr Holystone that came all the way to England, when what he was meant for was in New Cumbria, so that he had to go all the way back. Piers and Fred. Lot. Mister van Doon. Like trying to push an apple underwater, or make a stone float. There ain't nothing for it.'
'I don't know,' said Simon, getting to his feet, the edge in his voice set against the edge in hers. 'How are we to know what we are meant for, but to go on living? I have had ten years of silver mirrors, china cups, lilies, carriages, liveries – strawberries in the middle of winter, with cream and sugar and snow. To think I might have lived here all my life, and never so much as drawn with a pencil – never done so many things. And yet, set upon the throne in St James', I would have given crown and country over for – chestnuts,' and he traced with the knuckles of his first two fingers down the sleeve of her jacket, a fox-brown colour with a narrow cream stripe, which was loose and rumpled, rolled up at the cuff above her reddened gloveless hand, 'and goose-down,' and only one finger now, still bent, passed like a brushstroke, like a canvas moving against a brush, across the lashes of her eye, 'and straw,' and his whole hand, fingers moving, curling as if to catch, but opening again, passed through the silky tangled hair.
He took his gloves from his pocket and put them back on. She had not moved. He went to the gate of the cave and looked into the sky, for want of anywhere else. 'As, you see,' he said, 'those are warm; and china and glass and the like, all cold as the grave. If I haven't got a taste for them by now I don't suppose it's ever likely to take.' He went out as though he had come alone and she listened to the steady light step rustle over the leaves and fade. She still had not moved.
She had been waiting for his hand on her arm or wrist – she had felt nothing but the cloth moving, as though it were moving of its own accord – for him to touch her face or shoulder. She had been waiting, too, for more than that.
'I have always thought of her as a sister,' said Simon, after supper, holding the stem of a snifter pressed between two long fingers, the belly of the glass suspended above his palm. The pine logs in the library fireplace were lively with pitch; the flames snapped and leapt and raced up little branches, turning the needles to spines of fading fire. If I hold this glass very extremely carefully and keep the brandy exactly level and don't let the bowl or the base touch my hand, thought Simon, he will not bring Dido into this. All right? All right.
'She is tremendously taken with you,' said Sir Willoughby.
'I think that the natural outcome of circumstance,' said Simon. 'She was hardly ten when I met her – very innocent and impressionable. And then, that I was able to play some role of assistance to her – and that her health has so far prevented her from meeting very many young men. We hardly know each other.'
'That would be easy to amend. I understand how my Bonnie may remind you of the Lady Sophie,' said Sir Willoughby, who had met Sophie when she had come to look at Dower House, 'but my word!, Sylvia is so unlike her – as like as Aphrodite to Athena, or a pearl to a ruby. Do you truly think of her, too, as a sister?'
'I'm afraid so,' said Simon, studying his glass.
'A great deal has changed in the last dozen years,' said Sir Willoughby. 'Might not this change as well?'
You mean, thought Simon, that I am not your gooseboy any more.
'The bonds of family are especially sacred to one raised as an orphan,' he said, and raised his tense hand to let the stem tilt between his fingers so that the lip of the snifter fell against his own; he drank off the brandy, and carefully, carefully set the glass down.
Dido woke as all the clocks struck two: a solemn, patrician gong from the standing clock in the front hall, midtone bells from other floors, tiny chimes like silver arrows from the mother-of-pearl clock on the desk in her room. She arched her back and stretched out her hands in a lazy way, then all at once curled inwards and slipped from the slippery silk bed, fully dressed. The chill that had settled on her earlier in the woods had passed. She had that evening for the first time drunk the small goblet of cassis that had been placed by her plate, as at each of their plates, every supper; liquor reminded her of her father and she disliked it as a friend of her enemy, but it had done what she had wanted it to do and put her straight to sleep.
The candle she had left on the writing desk had burned down to a bud of flame at the bottom of an iron well. She lit another from the first, which she snuffed by pressing the new one down into place, and opened the desk-drawer. There had been few chestnuts left on the ground in Willoughby Park at year's end and most had been got at by damp or by mice but she had found three good ones, and polished them with her sleeve. She had got a handful of hay from the stables and a handful of goose down after picking a few of the stitches out of the cover of the bed, which she pinned shut again without remorse. These things she put into her vest pocket and went out in her stocking feet to the landing; she was on the fourth floor, she knew, and the room they had given Simon on the third. Why you'd want a house you need a ruddy map for, she thought, the floor cold under her soles, is something I'll never tumble to; Simon and Sophie have the right of it, only keeping a bit o' the top for themselves.
She stepped along the edges of the halls and the sides of the stairs, largely without creaking. The doors in Willoughby Chase opened inward: if she laid her things in a row along the bottom of Simon's he would see them in the morning. She came to what she thought was the right one and bent to make sure that there was no light below the door, which, as though noticing it was being looked at, opened.
Drabbit it, thought Dido, straightening.
'Oh! Hallo, brat,' said Simon.
'Hallo, Bakerloo,' said Dido, not wholly as with the joy of the lover beholding the beloved.
'What are you up to, this time of night?'
'Cup o' tea,' said Dido. 'What are you?'
'Thunderbolt woke me,' said Simon. 'Wanted to come in and spit up bones on my pillow. Do you know where the kitchens are? If you go though the next door over, Bonnie told me, you drop ten feet into the dungeons. I'll go with you, to haul you back up.'
Drabbit, blister, strike and blast it, thought Dido, alone in the dark kitchen, gnawing on the thin cold rim of a teacup with her elbows on the great rough block of the central table, kicking her heels against the rungs of her chair as the little blue fire of the spirit-lamp worked away on the kettle. Hang it, Simon, what could I have said?
'That's a darling little demi-vierge he's got there,' said Diana, as the clocks in Dower House struck three.
'My own dear âpre-vierge,' said Bonnie, on one elbow, 'unless you have been at her with a rushlight, I think you are presuming much more than you know.'
'No such luck,' said Diana Brisket. 'But I saw them in the woods to-day. He hasn't had her. Bet you a long-tailed finnip. Isn't it funny, though? How you always planned for him to turn up like the prodigal and marry Sylvia, so that he could be gentry, as you felt he deserved; and here he was crowned King quite without your help.'
'I think you are ignoring the spirit in favour of the letter,' said Bonnie, turning onto her back and slipping her arms, white at the shoulder and fawn at the wrist, behind her head. 'I thought that he was a foundling gooseboy who wanted to be a great painter, and to that end it would be nice if he had a few coins to knock together, and that it would be nice for Sylvia if she didn't have to wait til she was thirty-five to come into her money.'
If she lasts that long, thought Diana, who knew from experience that to hint at this would send Bonnie into a fury. She drew her arm back from where it had rested across Bonnie's waist with her hand pressed to the windowpane, and pressed an icy fingertip, hushing, teasing, to a warm lip. 'If she doesn't marry, who's left to people this isle with little Willoughbys? Your father worries so, that the line might end with you.'
Bonnie bit. 'It is always the same thing with you! I am tired of it. Would you listen, Papa would never want me to marry unless I wished it – and I have told you a thousand times that it would change nothing – I shall never want to live anywhere but here.'
'As much as the world has so far seemed, Yvonne, to run in deference to your wishes,' said Diana, sliding her bitten finger into Bonnie's mouth between the red tongue and the white teeth, 'some things would change. May I draw the curtain-lecture to a close? I must be up in three hours.'
As she pinched out the candle with her left hand, not permitting a reply, and pulled the hangings of the canopy around them, Bonnie withdrew her right and kissed it.
Across the Park, only just visible, the light in Simon's window at Willoughby Chase still had not gone out.
ON THE THIRD FLOOR of Bakerloo House, Simon and Dido were having an early supper, set out for them by Mrs. Buckle, the housekeeper, who was surprised and delighted by their arrival and the news that they would be taking up residence in the house again. The dining-room on the third floor had once been a library, and still was, only with the carpets taken up; a deal of invention had gone into making the top storey independent from the rest. Sophie, when she had turned eighteen, had carried out without a moment's hesitation her plans for turning the Bakerloo estates into homes for orphaned and indigent children. This, and her marriage to a sign-painter, who, once wed, continued about his work as placidly and paint-spatteredly as ever, had caused, as she put it drolly, 'my star to descend, among the great ladies of Albion. But I think the poor dears believe they are punishing me, by not asking me to three-hour teas with their aunts, who would faint if one ever said a really coarse word to them, like “thumb”. Or by not inviting me to balls, the point of which is to see if they can catch some poor woman in the act of wearing the same dress twice, and then have her drawn and quartered.'
Sophie and her husband, David, inescapably nicknamed Podge, divided their time between Loose Chippings Castle and Bakerloo House, the top storey of which could have comfortably accommodated twelve persons not counting the servants, but which contained, generally, Simon, Dido, Sophie and Podge and their son Henry. The first three floors had been given over to housing for the more independent of the street children, the never-stronger Birthday League; the rules were that you got a bed and a wash nightly and breakfast in the mornings, and then you cleared off to go to work: the lodging was free on the condition that you either had a trade or had a plan to start one. Loose Chippings was for those who were too small, or weak, or timid, or otherwise unsuited to the muddy, savagely enthusiastic street life in London; it was run after the fashion of Dower House, with lessons in embroidery and wood-carving and grammar, and boys who presented with unfeigned symptoms of religion were sent, if they wished it, to Otherland Priory.
Outside the high windows of Bakerloo House loose strands of the ivy, dry and bronze-coloured from the frosts, tapped continually against the panes as though there were a tune running through its mind. The two returned travellers at the table were quiet; they had taken hot baths when they arrived, and the library, as Simon could not break the habit of calling it, with all of its copper braziers lit was very warm. The train journey to London had been calm. No one had recognized Simon. They had slept in watches, neither liking the defencelessness of sleep in a public space, and played hnefatefl (which Dido had learned, long ago, on Aratu Island) to pass the time during the day.
'There's one here for you, Dido, sent on from St James,' said Simon, who was going through the notes and letters that had come to Bakerloo House in his absence.
Dido, mouth full of Welsh rarebit, took it with a nod.
'Who the pize is this?' she said, a moment later, holding out the stiff card. 'Court Musician and Song Writer, who wants me to call at my earliest convenience. Some chum of Pa's, d'you reckon? I don't have a thing to say to any old cullies of his.'
Simon, mouth full of marmalade pie, made several incomprehensible gestures. 'Not your father – your cousin!' he said, as soon as he was able. 'Arun! Arun who was friends with Davie Stuart. Arun who Is wrote you about. I sent word to him some time ago that he should have a position in court if he wanted one – for Davie, partly, but also because he sounds as though he has your father's gift. But he was so long in coming that I thought he wouldn't be. He turned up just after you left for Clatteringshaws, with your sister and a child. I suppose they only asked that a message be sent to you, and didn't write it themselves.'
'Is! I was hearing the rummest things of her in the street, from the kids as came from Blastburn. She's here?'
'She came with him – I imagine she is. And, Dido, there's something from Piers here too – he wants to see us both, as soon as possible, so you shall be going to St James' tomorrow already. If you write a note to Arun our replies can go with the same messenger.'
Through St James' the next morning, following a pigeon-toed footman, Dido walked with a private mixture of vengeance and benevolence towards the Palace: he's well shut of you now, you old heap! The very slowness of the footman was a pleasure: she was enduring it because she chose. And yet, now that the worn walls were not supposed to be accepted as home, she could apply to them the same indiscriminate sympathy she had for old tatty mokes and nags and mogs; she would have drawn a thorn out of the Palace's paw, had it come to her limping.
She was shown into a cold room the size of a stable with brocade walls, outside the windows of which a thin snow was grizzling down from a dark sky, and a long polished table with twenty chairs at either side: which were deserted, but, looking round, she heard a whistle and turned to see the fireplace at the far end of the room with chairs and small tables gathered around it, where sat a stocky child and a tall, angular boy in brown velvet, and—she ran and caught the bony hands up in her own:
'IS! Is! You little carriwitchet! I heard all kinds of things about you! You brought down Blastburn! And they're a-naming it after you? And you killed off some other bugger was nicking kinchins? And you dug up a treasure! And you're studying to be a doctor? Did you ever pick a birthday?'
'The thirty-first of August,' said Is. 'The sea brought down Blastburn. Tangerine diamonds killed Dominic Twite. And I'm a-going to be a surgeon. As to the rest, yeh, more or less.'
She spoke without apparent great interest, but her hands gave a quick hard squeeze to Dido's before they dropped them.
What a funny prickly thistle, thought Dido, looking her over, did I look like that?
Is's hair, lighter than Dido's, was cut close to her head and very untidily (Arun had been the barber), so that it stuck out like the back of a ruffled sparrow, and though she must have been fifteen or sixteen nothing would have indicated her sex had she been stripped to the waist; she had on some kind of jacket of brindled fur, which looked newly made, and breeches over green woollen stockings. All in all, very shipshape, thought Dido: o' course if she hadn't been tough she'd have been dead before I met her, but strike me if she don't look like she could do most things handier'n a soldier now.
'A surgeon!' said Dido.
'I'm studying under a Dr Abernathy, out of Guildford,' said Is. 'Took a bloody long time for 'im to come round to a girl prentice, I had to cut my arm open and stitch it up in front of him afore he'd listen, but now he wouldn't trade me for all the gentry boys in Lunnon – you see how neat I done it?' She shoved up her sleeve and showed Dido a faint fine white line about three inches long, across the top of one sinewy arm.
'—Stone my crows, Is,' said Dido, momentarily struck dumb. 'You – I – I hopes we're always on the same sides of the fight. But, Is! – heyo, sorry, mates – I still need an introduction to this lot.'
She inclined her head to the older boy and to the child, who was perched on the edge of a table. The boy, who had been sitting in one of the tall cushioned chairs, rose and came to shake her hand; he padded like a cat, never setting his heels down, and his hand was long-nailed, with odd islets of calluses, and rather hot and dry. He looked at her, quite expressionlessly, up from under his lashes, and with an astonished, amused annoyance, she felt a touch of a blush pass over her cheeks. Sweet Saint Sigrensian, thought Dido, I bet he can't step outside without all the mollies in London lining up to take notes.
'So you're my cousin as well,' she said, bravely, inanely. She looked from Is's sharp little face to his: his hair was darker, almost reddish, and his mouth fuller and softer, where she and Is had Penny's snip-snap grim line, and his nose longer and – like her own – less pointed than her sisters', but geeminy, she thought, he's ours. Anybody could tell. It makes a right change, to meet a good Twite. And she thought, surprised: I bet my Pa looked like this, when he was young; I bet he got out of a lot of scrapes with his pretty face, afore he turned into the piece o' pickled old jerky he was when I knew him.
'Arun,' he said, to confirm. She couldn't tell if he was shy or cool-blooded.
'Dido. I reckon Is told you about me?'
'I heard one of your songs already – got all the way up to the Wet-countries. The Last Snowflake of Winter.'
'Oh, that's an old one,' he said at once, 'and only a street song, but I'm putting proper music round it now, now as I've been fixed up with instruments of my own, not to mention a whole orchestra.'
Shy, she thought, what d'you know. 'What instruments? Hoboy and shawm like my pa? Or a piano or spinet, or what?'
'I tried them all, at first – I never touched one of any kind afore last month – I'm going to be catching up all my life,' he said, 'but theorbo and rebec, for now.'
'You'll have to give a plink at 'em for me,' she said, at which he grimaced, and she smiled, and turned to the child, who looked to be about seven, pale as a new plank, and whose sex she was unable to determine. Is's tattered letter, when it had finally reached her the year before, had mentioned that she would be travelling with 'my cosin Arn and our frend Py'. The friend had a face like a pudding with a prow, which looked as though it had recently developed the look of exhaustion, and the bony nose, which it ought to have grown into at forty, and was wearing over an ordinary shirt and breeches a heavily vermeil-embroidered jacket which appeared to have belonged to a very small brigadier-general.
'This,' said Is, 'is Pye, who ain't talking much at present, and likes her finery.'
Arun laid his hand on Pye's shoulder with affection, and Dido could see a kind of flicker, the thought-language, go between them.
'Pye! Dido. Hullo. You,' said Dido warmly, 'you're the one as spoke in my head when I was out on Nantucket, I knew when I saw your face. That was a prime trick, there – lay it to me again?'
Pye fixed her with her pale, hollow eyes, and after a long moment Dido felt something like listening to a train nearing – like listening to a train nearing with your ear to the track and you can't move, she thought, or more like listening to a flood coming down a tunnel with you in the tunnel, and tied to the wall or something, and the walls pressing in – oh, criminy, let me go, she thought, with a rushing in her ears and nets of sparks wheeling and falling about her – but an instant before she would have had to put a hand to the wall to keep from falling Is squawked 'Blimey, Pye, don't roar so!', and Arun, who had been watching Dido, said tensely, 'Pye, you're hurting her—' and her vision cleared and left her in a sudden vast absence, the bottom of a lake, a blinding snowfield. She put her hand to the wall and shuddered.
'Never tried that hard to reach a body close,' said Pye in a queer hoarse little voice, shrugging.
'All rug?' said Is. 'Sit down.'
'Sort o' crawly, but it's passing off,' said Dido. 'Why couldn't I hear it? I heard you 'cross dunnamany miles of ocean, before.'
'I'm not right sure you'd want to,' said Is slowly, sitting down herself. 'Once you get past – well, when they get to be a bit younger'n me, that's when people ain't able to twig it anymore, mostly. The ones that still can, or that pick it up again, it's allus a trade for something. You must a' seen, or done, or come to know something since then, that changed you. The Silent Sect can come to it if you teach 'em but they lose it again if they talk. Arun's ma used to be one of them, and she couldn't hear it, and then she went back to 'em and now after near on a year without her givin' a chirp she's started to be able to hear him, just. But the grown ones as come to it quickest are the ones whose children have died, or who were sick to dying themselves sometime. Like you get primed by listening for something that won't come. Even with us, we think Pye's best at it acos she went through a life's worth of trouble before she was five, but now that she's a-working on the army she don't say ten words all put together some weeks – ' Is broke off, plainly hearing something from Pye, with whom she exchanged a scowl – 'There's a feller at Oxford studyin' some of us, and he thinks it's to do with innocence, and that's why girls lose it when they bleed, but if something wrong happens to you early, it twists, and it doesn't go up from you, but in, so it eats at you, but you keep it…'
'Innocence,' said Dido, dubious. 'I don't know as some is ever innocent, when they're born to rannels and drunks. But if you have to be mum as a mouse for years, or that bad hurt, I don't suppose I mind being kept out of it. The army?'
'The Ursa. The United Saxons. The ones Simon found muddling around in the woods?'
'Oh,' said Dido, 'them! The blokes what can sit down on the air! What are you doing with them?'
'Pye's teaching 'em. They can hear her since they been training, though they can't send, and she's got them moving things by all thinking of 'em at once.'
'They got every leaf in Blackheath Wood to point north, yesterday,' put in Arun.
'They turned an old mill ten times, where the creek had gone dry,' said Is.
'Blackheath Wood,' said Dido. 'Where's old Penny-lope?'
Is grinned, and Dido, looking at her, was struck with a sudden answered happiness, that she still could. 'Blackheath Wood!' said Is. 'Wolves and all! She won't leave for nothing. She likes bein' alone too much! Simon offered her a royal appointment, to do all the sets and props and things for the King's Players. And she said she liked her life jist as it was. We go and stay with her sometimes – bring back things to sell – she makes wolf masks as would fright you to death – You should see the barn, Dido, she had it built up again, and went and built the chimbley up tall as a tree and built two rooms around it atop each other, so they're warm – it's all-over ladders and trapdoors, she must of got a taste for it on the ship – '
'We lived in a ship in a tree, it's where we all got to know each other.'
'You better begin at the beginning, Is, from where I last saw you – every time you explain one thing you unravel about ten more. What happened to Mister van Doon, anyway?'
Is began at the beginning and Arun joined in, and Dido put in every so often what had at the same time happened to her, and sleet struck the windows and slipped down the panes, and Pye fell asleep on a sofa. When they had got to the present, which was about noon, Is sent Arun to fetch his rebec, which he had not wanted to do, but what was clearly a flurry of thought-language passed between them, waking Pye, and as he went out they all wore the same expression in three different directions, a faint, preoccupied, rueful smile. What does that remind me of, thought Dido, as Arun came back and played a tune he said was called 'The Hothouse Quinces' and which he also said afterwards had been full of mistakes, only one of which Dido had been able to hear. But she lost the thread, listening to the music wind and turn, catch and leap, and only thought, with a keen subtle joy: it is like Pa's, it ain't lost any more.
There was a soft knocking at the room's far door, which Dido opened to find the same man who had shown her in. 'Send word when your orchester does its first concert,' she called to Arun as she went out, meaning it. What a queer set, she thought, walking behind the footman again; that's what it was, they're like Cris and Tobit, except still queerer, seeing as there's three of them: there's three who will never marry, I reckon. But there's three as does things nobody else can do.
In another of the better-kept rooms of the Palace she found at a large octagonal table Simon, Father Sam, four men she did not know, and the boy she had found a year ago curled up under a table in a cell, over whom she cast a long look before he saw her. She and Simon had been right, she thought; the idea that he was being relied upon was working on him like a tonic or a kind of food. He had still been tense and hunched when they had travelled to Clatteringshaws; he held his head high now, and his shoulders relaxed. The long shallow runnel across his cheekbone, like the fuller of a sword, the scar of a badly healed burn, gave his features an odd grave grace: it looked like a battle scar, which, she thought, you could say it was. It was where Lot had held him down and pressed the toasting-fork to his face; Lot, who had thought he would be King – Lot, whose bones lolled, picked over by eels, in the mere off Otherland Priory. The symmetry pleased her. She thought of Is as she had first seen her, with her filthy shift and chilblained feet, and how she had said that she wished to stay alive only for revenge. Is, who had outlived everyone who had ever mistreated her. Is the surgeon. I should see to it that Fred meets Is and Pye and Arun, she thought suddenly, but at that moment the King, noticing one of the men glance at her, turned to the door.
'Oh, Dido,' he said, indicating the eighth seat, 'come in. This is Henrik Siebel,' he went on, with a gesture, surprisingly elegant, which Dido, knowing him, thought he must have practiced at a mirror, 'John Chaloner – William Kersey – formerly of the Ordnance Geological Survey – and this is Sol Ligonier, who was responsible for the other half of the accidents which were prevented from happening to King Richard, and to King Simon, for that matter. We were discussing the things that have got to happen before I can be properly coronated.'
He knew her well enough to know when she was teasing, and, he had told her, he liked it; it gave him a kind of practice in maintaining equilibrium, and to hear her call him with affection by the name Lot had given him took all the fear and shame out that had been in it. 'Are you sure you're a full-growed sovereign, Woodlouse? If you'll forgive me, you ain't yet long enough for all your names.'
'I do appear to have been cheated out of a couple of birthday cakes, somehow,' he said cheerfully, 'but I can have as many as I like, now, whenever I want them. I ate one yesterday, to start catching up. And it means I can start looking about for a Queen to be coronated with me.'
'A Queen!' said Dido. 'Ain't that kind of hasty? What do you want one for so soon?' She bit her tongue before she added that as far as she knew he had known a total of three girls in his life, herself being one of them. Oh, well, she thought, it's about time he picks up acquaintance of a couple more.
'Why not? My parents were married when they were twelve and thirteen, and they were very happy. I am making a list of all the world's princesses and the eligible girls of their courts, and I will invite them all one at a time, in alphabetical order, and when I find the nicest one I'll ask her.'
'I advise you to omit the Princess Jocandra of Finland,' said Simon, unable to stop himself.
'Yes, isn't she about nine feet tall?'
'Who have you been talking to?' said Simon severely, and a little guiltily. 'Six and three-quarters at the very most. And I don't mean leave her off because you don't think you'd like the way she looks – that's a terrible way to choose a Queen, if you want a litter you can marry a rabbit but if you want a wife for anything else you had better pick the cleverest one, if she'll have you – I mean leave her off because she'd probably chop you up and reassemble you to show she liked you.'
'What?' said Dido, startled for several reasons.
'If we can return,' said Father Sam, who had in his mind's eye a procession of prospective brides on whom he would need to advise his King trundling forwards perpetually, 'to the business at hand. Before Piers is coronated, it would be best if we were to make quite certain that there are no challengers to the throne. Do you remember King Richard's Aunt Titania?'
'Yes,' said Dido. 'That is, I never met the gammer, but I know as she was playing both ends with the Burgundians, and she was one of them as went over the cliff out by the Priory where King Dick died.'
'Yes,' said Piers, 'that would be the one. She had a son named Frithuwald, who was reported to have died in Lower Saxony about ten years ago, in the Harz mountains.'
'But he didn't?'
'He might have. But that was a cagey branch of the family. And there is a fellow who is said to be an Englishman, who nobody seems to be able to get a hold of, who bought out one of the silver mines and began to run it just before Frithuwald is said to have died, and is still at it.'
'Did he have children?' said Dido, thinking of the Baron Rudh.
'He never married.'
'That ain't how they're made,' said Dido, 'but never mind. I reckon we can't know. So you think old Waldo is up in the Saxon mountains? Waiting for what? Wouldn't he of a-sprung on the chance of poor King Dick dying? Or is it that you remember Lot? Why wouldn't Lady Titania of put her own sprog first? Was he born in England, Fiddle-de-wald, I mean? Does he come afore you in all them charts?'
Ligonier, inspecting his hands on the inlaid tabletop, did not wholly repress a smile.
'We—don't know,' said Piers, who was not used to being on the muzzle rather than the trigger end of seven questions at once. 'About whether he's alive, or whether he died without issue. But he was and he would, or could, before Simon, anyway. One of the things we do know is that he quarrelled with his mother shortly before he died, which was about the time that King James was crowned. Which might mean anything. But it would be best, I imagine you would agree, if we knew for certain whether he is dead.'
'Which is where we come in,' said Chaloner, a slight, tanned man with the bright eyes and quick manner of a starling. The buttons of his shirt didn't match, Dido noticed; it looked like he had lost a few, and sewn replacements on by himself. 'We have been filing for years to get a pass of conduct into the Harz Mountains, so that we might do a study of the plants, and see how the height changes them; there's other teams going to Vosges and the Palatine, and the Lepontine Alps. We've just got it. We're to smuggle you in.'
'Ho!' said Dido, surprised, but with an immediate, controlled excitement: the hound, watching the hare set free. 'Me, to hunt down Waldo-and-sons?'
'You seem to have a knack for turning up lost heirs,' said Piers, 'or perhaps for attracting them, like nails round a magnet. Yes, you and Simon, as he is the last living person to have spent any amount of time with Aunt Titania, and should prove useful in recognizing Frithuwald, if he's living.'
'Not that I don't want to give over the Crown as soon as I decently can,' said Simon, who seemed to have heard this already, but to have thought of something, 'but isn't it a bit suspicious for the former – as far as anyone knows, the present – King of England to be strolling about Lower Saxony?'
'We have thought about this a little,' said Piers, nettled. 'I don't think anyone knows what you look like, though, do they? You didn't reign long enough to have a portrait done. Or to meet anyone from Lower Saxony. I went over your schedules. If you only didn't use your name you'd be all right. You could say your name was Simon Butterbean. And if you were still worried about being recognized you could grow a beard,' he said wistfully.
Simon caught Dido's eye and had to cough.
'I will take that under advisement,' he said.
'Simon will be going as their botanical illustrator – ' 'We need one, truly', put in Siebel, weathered and lantern-jawed, with the gawky severity of a heron, and an accent Dido could not place – 'and you might go as a sort of student being taken along as a favour to someone, or as Siebel's daughter, or as Chaloner's wife.'
'Daughter', said Dido so quickly that she nearly interrupted, and then, with an apologetic nod to Chaloner, who was trying devoutly not to laugh, 'so's to have the fewest things to pretend. If somebody came at me with a heap of apothecary words they could catch me out for a sham, as a student. And I ain't never been a wife, I don't know how they do. I have been a daughter, though. I can play that all right.'
'We'll be going first to Ghent,' said Chaloner, having visibly straightened his face, and now getting up and going over to a large map of Europe on one wall, carrying a little box of enamelled tacks handed to him by Kersey; the people at the table all turned in their chairs to varying degrees, to watch him map the route.
'Oh!' said Simon suddenly, pleased, 'we can take Mashka and Vashka with us! They could walk back to Russia, or live in the mountains.' Then, observing seven varying expressions: 'You know, the bears! The bears sent from Russia, that were with me when King Dick died. They've been homesick, and the climate here is all wrong for them.'
'Are – are they tame?' said Chaloner, whose newly achieved deadpan was being sorely tried, pausing with a tack raised in his hand.
'They're tame as pertains to Simon,' said Father Sam, 'and they leave alone anyone who's with him. I think they would be useful, against gentlemen of the pad. You can say they are specimens that you are studying.'
'I daresay we – ought – actually – to make some notes on them,' managed Chaloner. 'Well. We will be going first on an errand to Ghent, as it is in our road, and because Siebel owes some English bugs in jars and things to the University, and from there to Antwerp', pushing in a tack with a knuckle, 'and then from Antwerp we will be passing through Brabant, you see, here, the border, and Eindhoven, and then the other border at Venlo, where we'll cross into Kaldenkirchen, in Rhenish Prussia…'
Several hours later, they had gotten nearly everything arranged or agreed; Siebel had given Simon and Dido lists that he had written up – lists of things to bring with them, lists of towns with hand-drawn maps, lists of phrases in Plattdüütsch, all in his gaunt, elegant, level handwriting, like that of a monk – Simon Butterbean and Dido Siebel had been incorporated into the papers the group would travel under, they had worked out a few code phrases to use amongst themselves, and they had set a date for another meeting to take place before they left.
'Oh, Dido!', said Piers, as Siebel and the others went out. 'Stay a moment.'
She sat back down; Father Sam had stayed too.
'You must have wondered, earlier – I've been thinking – ever since you helped me out of Fogrum Hall, and specially since I found I was King, and then I heard more about you from Simon – you've done an awful lot of good turns by the monarchy, haven't you?'
'I suppose,' said Dido, wondering what Simon had said.
'I mean, you have been risking life and limb for the Tudor-Stuarts since you were – what, nine years of age? And you have done more than many of the men whose responsibility – whose whole life's work – that is supposed to be. This is a display of the failings of the cabinet in place to protect the Crown, of course, but it is also a display of your skill.'
'Skill!' said Dido. 'It's a display of having a blasted scaly pa, who kept trying to mux me up in his dealings. That ain't skill, it's luck. The bad luck of being his get, and the good luck not to've died of it.'
'Dido,' he said, and she saw something imperial in his face which had never been in Simon's, 'tell me which man was sitting at each of the places at this table, and describe them.'
'Well,' she said, surprised, 'next to you, Father Sam, was Kersey,' and went on til she had come to Ligonier, next to Piers, and, half-closing her eyes in concentration, finished by saying, 'and those spectacles weren't his, and his hair weren't that dark without dye.'
'How would you know that?' said Father Sam, as though idly.
'Oh, it was a bang-up job, don't look half as queer as dye usually does, and on his eyebrows too, but they ain't done his hands; the hair on them was light, and a dark man's hair will go light in the sun, but he ain't seen sun in some time, to go by the colour of his arm. And the specs – he looked over them, down at the Ordnance papers, but then he had to look over them again to the map on the wall – they only got in the way of his eye, far as I could make out.'
Piers and Father Sam looked at each other; Father Sam looked about to speak, but checked himself, and only nodded.
'You did that without trying,' said Piers. 'That was not luck. Who thought to moor the Cathedral, or to double-switch King Richard and van Doon in the tunnel? Who got me out of Fogrum Hall?', he said, almost impatiently. 'You're as good a strategist as any of the fellows I was at school with, and you have never been to school at all.'
Dido thought of Mr Holystone, reading to her out of Marcus Aurelius, and of how she had spent the years which she might in a different life have spent at school – cleaning three tweed beads a week, she thought wryly, with the King's Regulations on my nob. I was lucky, all right.
'The bit with the tunnel was me and Simon and Podge all together,' she said, to be fair, 'but no, it weren't all luck.'
'I should like to appoint you a Royal Emissary,' said Piers, and then, observing her face, 'which is the polite name for a spy. Only they are usually formal ambassadors, who sit in foreign courts like stuffed owls, in the hopes that someone will eventually forget that they are there and say something interesting in front of them. This has its uses, but it has not warned us of many of the Hanoverian intrigues, or the Burgundian, or the Wendish or Veletian. Ligonier believes – and I agree with him – that we need many more, outside of the ordinary contexts – persons prone to being overlooked, who can go about as you will be doing. So I should like to appoint you to go on doing, essentially, what you have done all your life. As your loyalty is unquestionable and your record of success so high, it would hardly be fair to treat you as a beginner, or a sort of cadet – you should draw, I think, two hundred pounds a year, to start.'
Dido stared. He went on casually:
'Given that you have been, more or less, employed in this trade for ten years, I should say you are owed about two thousand pounds.'
'C—coo,' said Dido, speechless for the second time in three hours.
That kind of money is trouble, she thought, draws trouble, ants to sugar. That's the kind of money turns you mad, or a miser – changes you, poisons you. But she thought: Not Simon, nor Sophie, nor Podge. But if not poisoned, changed. She thought: Abednego and Ella Twite. She thought of King Richard in the tower of St Paul's: ye should ha' been a general, lassie. She sat staring, eyes unfocused, frantic and numb; if she had eaten anything she would have wondered with what she had been drugged. She felt the immense, diffuse sadness which comes of being forced to gaze at an unplanned future. She thought: Penny. Penny and the button-hook man. You got to have something of your own. But all that, I never. Could I jist have fifty, to bury in a tin. No, ridicklous. Oh, Lord, Dido, raise up, catch hold! You can't go on for ever on whatever jetsam and rinds and ends o' things turn up in your road like some poor nidget of a maiden auntie. Pry ope your yap, girl—
'Simon warned me,' said the Woodlouse, tousle-haired, smiling, Britanniarum Rex, sitting with his scrawny arms about his knee, shin up against the table and foot on the seat of the chair, 'that there was a fair chance you'd not want it, but that you might be reassured that it comes to you so inconveniently. You could do nothing showy with it, so as not to elicit suspicion. It is a requirement of your position that you should go on living much as you always have. But you might step down from the position, I should add, whenever you wished.'
'Piers,' said Dido, feeling that she must find the catch, 'it's right kind of you, but you can't go pouring brass around willy-nilly. You'll run the Treasury dry.'
She threw a mizmazed glance at Father Sam, as though throwing a hot potato. He caught it calmly.
'My dear,' he said, 'this was my idea. Since my appointment as Archbishop I have had to do a deal of moving in the society of men ostensibly in the service of God and Crown, and found that nearly all served only Mammon. It seemed criminal that you should have done so much for nothing, when so many do nothing for so much. I assure you that far greater sums are spent daily on matters of far less value.'
Simon was waiting in the hall.
'Hallo, Emissary of the Crown,' he murmured, very low.
'What,' she said, a kind of restrained panic setting in, 'am I going to do with such a deal o' mint sauce?'
'Put it in a bank and every so often think of something useful to spend it on,' said Simon. 'I can't imagine what else one does. Chin up, girl, think of all you've escaped – he could have given you lands or a title, had he really wished you harm.'
Her face, left to its own devices, naturally had an expression of wary determination; she wore it without knowing it now. She was walking along still disoriented, ready to be angry, or to laugh, or to have to blink back tears as one does after a near miss in an accident.
'They only told me this morning, or I would have warned you,' he said, still lightly, then: 'I thought of appointing you to something similar, when I was King. But from me, I was afraid, you would have thought that it had been given, and not have seen that it was earned.'
Dido thought of Yorka on her pyre of spices, of the redheaded page under the ice, of Lord Herodsfoot's decayed-bird face. The row of severed fingers on the windowsill of Fogrum Hall. She could not conceive of money in relation to these things.
'All I ever done,' she said, 'is to be lucky, and to try to do things like they ought to be done.'
'Oh, Dido,' said Simon, who had, surprised, caught the shadow in her tone, and put out his hand to steady her, 'that is all that can be said for the best of us.'
DIDO, WHISTLING 'The Hothouse Quinces', went up the stairs that led to the north attic of Bakerloo House, in which Simon had his studio.
She had let herself in with her own key, by a side-door. It was early evening and the lamplighters were walking out in a finely sifting snow. The sky was darkening like a dish of water into which drops of indigo ink were being stirred. She had had a good week; she had got in a deal of practice riding. She had been out to Loose Chippings to visit Sophie and Podge, and come back to London to spend a couple of nights in the rooms above the warehouse where her friend Wally Greenaway, Podge's brother, lived with their father. Wally had signed on as a storekeeper with the Royal Navy, and was due to leave in a week's time. She had pierced his ears with a boiled needle and a cork: 'to improve the eyesight,' he had said archly, cross-eyed as ever, as she had given him a rag doused with his father's apple brandy to hold to the punctures. And she had ridden out to her sister Penny's strange house in the forest, three rooms and three storeys, and to which, when she had been asking the way in Chislehurst, where she had left her horse, she had been directed under the name of the Witch Rail. She had brought Penny a patterned tin lantern, as she had seen used throughout Nantucket, and Penny, who would not admit at knifepoint to liking anything, had hung it up at once in a corner and glanced at its spiky, starry light throughout the evening as they had sat at her table, she sewing and Dido twisting wire for animal armatures. Dido had pretended not to have heard of their adventures from Is, so that Penny would be obliged to talk; she had spoken, as she had always spoken to Dido, as though each word were a needless expense, but when Dido had woken in the morning before the hearth, she had found that a quilt had been drawn over her.
She came to the narrow landing, the fourth of several narrow, sharply turning landings, and went up the last few steps to the studio. It was the room she liked best in the house; it was large and old and plain as a ship, save for the long sky-lights Simon had had put into the high slanted roof, and always in pleasant industrious disarray, with canvases half finished leaning against the walls or in racks, heaps of clean rags, sharpened bits of charcoal saved in teacups, glass jars of oil of poppy and of linseed like indolent light, and over everything, drifting and receding like a sea, the clear, eldritch, resinous scent of turpentine.
Looking in she saw no one, but as the door was open and a lamp on one of the tables lit, she went in and, coming round a table, nearly tripped over Simon, frowning and cross-legged, playing chess with himself on the floor.
'Dido!' he said, pleased, getting up. 'I hadn't expected you til tomorrow.'
'Hallo, Butterbean,' she said. 'Penny sends her love.'
'She never,' said Simon, laughing. 'She sends a glower with a mouthful of pins. Is she all right, then, out in her hermitage? I should be happy to know that she's well.'
'Oh, she's as fit an old cross-patch as ever et a wolf,' said Dido, going to look at some watercolours on the drafting desk.
'She eats them?'
'She's skinned a heap of them, I can tell you that,' said Dido, 'and I never knew Penny to let anything go to waste. What are these?'
'Practice,' said Simon. 'Also, left to right, alyssum, holly, and barley. Oh, and the tailor sent your things in parcels and Fidd brought them up here – I think he thought they were costumes for being painted in – they're,' he cast about, 'they're – here, on the canvas, I haven't spilt anything on them yet.'
Dido went to unwrap them, rustling and crackling, and lay them out on the bundles of canvas: linens, breeches to the knee and to the ankle, shirts of thinly striped cotton and of fine soft wool, and a heavy jacket of grey serge, full of pockets and lined very warmly in quilted red satin, which she held up and regarded with immense satisfaction.
'Oh, ain't this prime! Last thing that was made for me, made to me, was that blue dress Sophie done. Last and only, til now.'
'No dresses in this lot,' said Simon in inquiry, who had not seen Dido wear a dress since she was nine.
'To go to Saxony in January? Mussy, you'd freeze your knees clean off. You would know that if you'd ever tried going out in skirts in winter,' said Dido, folding the jacket back into its tissue-papers.
'I do. I have,' said Simon. 'All the times that Sophie went about dressed as me, who did you think went about dressed as Sophie? We could hardly pull it off now, but when we had only just begun to be presented to society we thought it the greatest joke. If you've got enough layers of skirt it can be warmer, when you're sitting down under them all; it's like being in bed. But mostly, I admit, it's not.'
Dido, remembering something, looked over the tables and the alchemical litter of bottles and pots and vials.
'D'you have a pair of shears about? I got to cut my hair.'
Simon had rather liked the look of her with her hair to her shoulders, tied back sometimes with scraps of ribbon or leather or occasionally twine, but he thought correctly that there would be no use in saying so.
'Off! It's a blame nuisance. And it looks like – like I was growing it a-purpose, like some bit-o'-muslin.'
'Are you – Do you want to go as a boy or a girl?'
'Do I what?'
'To Lower Saxony. If you wanted to have a sort of character as a boy. I daresay you could. You look handsome in a page's uniform,' he said with the kind of blitheness which, being English, they both understood as signalling gravity, 'and, I mean, in life. All this time, did you want to be a boy?'
'Do you mean, am I like Bonnie?' she said at once, sharply.
This named, he could not look at her. 'Yes. Is that what it's been? All this time.'
There was a silence which frightened him, and then 'My stars,' she said, exasperated, 'it's enough trouble being Dido Twite, which is a girl in breeches, and sometimes takes 'em off. I never thought of being aught else. Don't look so blooming tragical, Simon, that ain't a yes. I don't want,' she said, and started again, 'That wasn't why – Why did you think I took on so, in the Priory?'
'As you wouldn't tell me,' said Simon, 'I didn't know.'
'It wasn't over no girl,' said Dido, with her eyes, intent, on his.
Oh, God, he thought, always stopping short, always shearing away: meet me, or leave me. He took her shoulders in his hands, less as though about to embrace than as to shake her.
'Dido,' he said, 'I don't care any more if you marry me,' at which he saw a fear, or a terrible resignation, come into her face, and then he saw, with love like a tide rising round a boy on a rock, love like a heavy crown, he saw how in an instant she drew upon her will, and her gaze became only clear and steady again, 'if that is all that's keeping you from me – I should never be married either way. I won't ask you again, I'll leave it for you to ask me, if you should feel like it some day, but that isn't the better part of what I want. What I want is that you should call Bakerloo House home, your home always in the way it's mine, and that you should call me – the only one for you.'
For a sick and hollow moment he thought she was pulling away from him: but she was reaching inside her jacket and fumbling something out of a pocket, which proved, when she had got it out awkwardly in her left hand and turned his palm up and open with her right, to be a small glossy chestnut, warm in his chilled fingers.
'Always were,' she said, gruff as ever. 'Allus have been.'
After they had stood a long time with the chestnut closed hard in his hand, her cheek against his shoulder, his against her hair, he drew back a little, to see the fierce grey eyes in their brightness, sun upon the winter sea, and put his lips to one fine brown brow.
'Nec desiderio minus est praemium,' he said, very quietly, and then, as she was about to speak, 'that's what's meant to follow the thing Father Sam said, when he crowned me. I asked him.'
'What is it?'
'It's out of something they sang. Nor the fulfilment come short of the prayer. That the thing you want – lives up to how much you have wanted it.'
She did not say anything more, and he could not see her face, but her hands, on his back, knit together.
The attic was dim now; it was nearly night: past the whisk and hiss of drifts of snow blown across the skylights the cold final blue of winter dusk came down, but the lamp burning steady on the table cast on the buttons of their shirts, the nails of their hands, their lips, even upon strands of Simon's black hair, traces and glimmers of gold.
THEY LANDED AT CALAIS in the rain, a light, desultory rain, less fit for January than for March. The sea about the pier was rough and dark, vert emeraude mixed with monastral blue, thought Simon; at Dover it had been celadon, with cream-colored licklets. There was not a great deal for their party to unload, unless one counted the bears, which unloaded themselves amiably and went to sit by the horses, which had, if not without reservation, got used to them. Simon located and woke the missing Siebel, who had been sleeping on some unrelated bales of wool, and helped him get his leather cases of specimen jars together, and stepped, for the first time in his life, onto foreign ground.
Dido, last off, came leading a small slender gray mare ('Her name is Caroline,' Simon had said, in the Bakerloo stables. 'She ain't half come up in the world since I seen her last,' Dido had said, not missing a beat. 'Many of us have,' he had returned dryly), and gave a quick look about the party gathered on the docks.
'We got everything?'
She had cut her hair with Sophie's old sewing scissors and no mirror, to about the level of her ears, and there was a fine, whetted look about her brow and nose and cheekbones, colour in her cheeks from the wind. The grey serge jacket gave her a commanding, canny aspect, like a lieutenant in some foreign army: but she has always had that, thought Simon, there is no outfoxing what one is meant for. He did not know what Kersey and Chaloner and Siebel had been told, that they listened to her so alertly; perhaps they had not been told anything at all. He understood why she had cut her hair, but he thought now that she had not needed to.
'Five persons, seven horses, two bears,' he said, 'all accounted for.'
She looked happier now, he thought, than she had since the moment when they had realized he would be able to give up the throne. This, too, is home for you, he thought, with pride and with a premonitory sadness, watching her deftly check the fastenings of Caroline's saddlebags: ranging out in the world, to listen and search and find, and to lead. What was it that she had said about marriage, up in the attic – that she was afraid it would turn to Fare-ye-well-lovely-Nancy, and she wasn't having none o' that. But your neat little feet to the topmast have gone, he had said, what do you think I could do about it? Half-consciously he put his hand to a place at his collarbone where her hand had lately lain. Stop your cavilling, he told himself: you are with her, this time, and as far from you as she may go, we have got across at last the only distance that mattered, in the end.
They mounted their horses and got the two pack-horses in line, secured to Kersey's Connemara pony. Mashka and Vashka ambled at the rear, tinkling: someone at the Royal Menagerie had, plainly out of some sort of ancient rulebook, seen fit to provide them with cloaks or horse-blankets of oilskin fringed with bells ('We're going to be asked to have them dance,' Chaloner had said, appalled). The road that would take them to Ghent was well-paved, better than English roads, and wide; grand gusts of the cool wind swept straggling leaves and bits of rubbish along it, and flung spatters of rain over their shoulders out of a high gull-coloured sky. The other travellers, walking and riding alike, gave them a large bear-margin, and the horses, restless after the ferry, pulled at the reins. Simon, who had been at the front of their procession, slowed his horse so that he would not get too far ahead, and Dido, overtaking him on Caroline, caught his eye and grinned – a grin like the flash of white under the wing of a plover in flight, a pleasure in open sky, animal, amoral, lovely. He inclined his head to her, a faint reflection passing over the mirror of his own mouth, and they both turned again to the road with the sea wind at their backs, Saxony before him, and the world before her.