The Pauper Prince – Part 36

The Pauper Prince
Chapter 36

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Adding insult to injury was Count Richard’s challenges in finding a clergyman to agree to preside over his wife’s funeral. Lucinda’s suicide was categorically declared a great sin, with her chances of salvation moot. One pastor dared to claim it folly to pretend that she was resting at peace, rather than being tormented for all eternity. It took all the Count’s self-restraint, which was weak at best, to refrain from severely damaging the clergyman for that opinion. He knew what would change the church’s mind, but did not have the means to do so.

He had no favors to call in, and so went in debt to his friends, King Silas and Prince Kelvin. The King was willing to aid the Count in his time of need, and though he could not order any clergyman to perform the Countess’ memorial, he and Kelvin managed to “persuade” one after a dip into their coffers. Richard had little to give himself, but contributed from his meager funds to get the funeral back on track.

The Count made a mistake that almost cost the Prince’s aid; he let slip that he blamed the Princess for Lucinda’s death. The Count was overheard  that the Princess “filled (his wife’s) head with nonsense that did naught but bring her to despair and lead her to her end!” When Kelvin learned of this, there was some groveling on Richard’s part, lest all of their efforts be dismissed. In no uncertain terms Richard was ordered to give no indication that he resented her presence. This was his price in order to give his wife the burial he desired. That she deserved.

Kelvin did not inform Mara of any controversy behind her attendance; this was a fruitless effort, for castle gossip was an unstoppable force. Ladies in waiting let that juicy tidbit slip out in her presence – whether it was on purpose was unknown – but any hope to get a rise out of Mara was quashed. Her response to them had been stony silence; since learning of her friend’s death, she was scarcely able to speak due to her grief and personal guilt. But she would be damned if Lucinda would not have her last respects.

The service was respectful and somber, and gave her at least some sense of peace. Still, if only she could have remained behind; she could have saved her friend. But she did not begrudge her family for ordering her to leave, for Anne’s need for support was just as great, if not greater.

But.. she could have saved her!

Couldn’t she?

*******

Mara’s dark clothing was limited to two dresses, so she traded them off for two weeks until they truly needed a washing. While those were away with the washing-women, she wore dark bands on the sleeves of her normal clothing, and other accessories, such as a dark bonnet. But it was not all darkness. News of new life had reached the castle: the Countess Yvette had borne a son – healthy, by all accounts. It was still ill-advised for Isabel to travel long distances, so Mara sent her a letter and a gift of a crib. Visiting in person would happen once she and Isabel could travel together.

Her first staff meeting upon returning from Halliard, which still consisted of only Heather and Miss Daphne, was pleasantly civil and calm. It gladdened Mara to find that they had not devolved back into bickering in her absence. That, or they were simply being somber for her grief’s sake. Isabel sat upright on her mother’s lap and sucked on her carved wooden horse rather than play with it. She preferred gripping and tugging on her mother’s emerald betrothal ring, which for now, her mother allowed.

Heather was eager to update her Lady on the latest news. There were no new births on the grounds, but there had been some birthdays, two promotions from apprentice to journeyman, one wedding, and two wedding anniversaries. Mara took the list and set it aside for later action. Heather tried to move on to gossiping; Mara ended that quickly. Miss Daphne clearly had no taste for it, either, given all her yawning this morning.

A subject change was in order. “I was wondering how you and Leonard have fared in my absence?” said Mara. “If you’re willing to discuss it.”

“Oh…” said Heather. “Perhaps later. But I will say that things are much improved. Both of our parents have been of great help. I think… I have greater hope for us now.”

Mara smiled and nodded. “I’d like to see sometime what you two have made of your home. If it wouldn’t be an imposition?” She had other questions, but they would wait.

“Mm… No, of course not, ma’am!” said Heather after a jot of hesitation. “That would be lovely. By all means. I’ll let you know my– our choice as soon as we know.”

Mara had not had the chance to update her staff about her visit with Anne and her family. She began to describe highlights of the visit, including the somber, but already known, news about King Phillip’s passing. From sadness, to joy for Rupert’s coronation, and then grief for Lucinda. The room grew quiet at that. Mara did not milk the somberness, and spoke after a moment.

“Heather, I have a task for you-” she was stopped by a loud snort. Mara’s and Heather’s heads snapped over as one, to see that it had come from the nanny, who sat limply in her chair, fast asleep. Mara cleared her throat, which did nothing. She reached out and gingerly patted the nanny’s knee. Miss Daphne snorted again and jerked herself awake. Realizing that she had an audience, she quickly straightened up and adjusted her clothing primly.

“Miss Daphne,” said Mara, “Have you had enough sleep?”

“Er, yes, your Highness,” she said. “I was merely resting my eyes. Please continue.”

“I’ve finished my story,” said Mara. “How well did you sleep last night?”

“Oh,” she said, “As well as I ever do, your Highness. Would you mind if I have some tea?”

“Please,” said Mara. “This is our meeting, after all. We have whatever we like. And what is ‘as well as you ever do,’ if I might ask?” The nanny seemed perplexed. “How well do you usually sleep?”

Miss Daphne had been pouring tea for herself, then paused and smiled nervously. “Please, your Highness. There’s no cause for taking notice of my brief lapse. I am wide awake now, and ready to serve, as you can see.”

“I can,” she said. “Please answer my question.”

Miss Daphne finished pouring her tea, set it and a saucer on her lap, then glanced at her Lady while taking a first sip. She set it down with precision and attempted another smile. “It is… it is an affliction I have lived with most of my life, your Highness,” she said. “It is… very rare that I have a full night of sleep. But then, that is a trait that serves me well in my duties as Her Little Highness’s caretaker. If I slept as a stone, then her stirrings would never wake me, would they?”

“I can see how that would be so,” said Mara. “But now I must ask: it is very rare that you sleep? What is this affliction?”

“I beg your pardon, your Highness,” said Miss Daphne. “My words were too strong. It is only that I– it is rare that I’m able to sleep. And when I do, it is hours before I finally do, and if I wake– again, hours more to sleep again.”

“Is it Isabel?” said Mara. “Does she keep you awake?”

“Oh, no, your Highness,” said Miss Daphne. “It’s no fault of Her Little Highness. Not at all. As I said, this… challenge… has been with me most of my life. And… sometimes it catches up. But I give you my absolute assurance that my care and service are unwavering.”

Mara reached for some tea herself, but given the awkwardness of managing it while balancing her daughter on her knee, Heather leapt into action to serve her Lady. Mara thanked her, took a sip, and left it to Heather to keep her cup and saucer nearby.

“Miss Daphne,” she said, “Be plain with me. No roundabout stories or long explanations of this or that: Did you get any sleep last night?”

The nanny chuckled once, finished her tea, set it aside, and straightened her skirt. “Your Highness, because I have lived with this most of my life, I-”

Did you. Get. Any. Sleep. Last. Night?”

The nanny froze in place, struggling to keep her breathing slow and even. Heather stood quietly and went to the next room, also as silently as she could. The nanny’s struggle to slow her breathing made her voice a whisper.

No, your Highness. I did not. But-”

“When was the last time that you did?” said Mara, and gave her a Look that dared her to answer in any other way than ‘plainly.’

“…Ah,” she said, rubbing her neck nervously, “I have… bits and pieces of it most nights, your Highness.”

“I see,” said Mara. Isabel suddenly looked up at her. Mara and her daughter locked gazes as if intending to begin their own conversation. Isabel broke the stare by smiling. Her mother chuckled and kissed her nose, then the top of her head.

“Miss Daphne,” she said, “I want you to return to your room and rest. Sleep. Take as long as you need.”

The nanny spoke with alarm. “Your Highness! I-I assure you that there is no cause for-”

Miss Daphne.” Mara was careful to temper her frustration so as not to unduly alarm Isabel, who had proven to be sensitive to her mother’s moods, for good or ill. “Please do this. I have no doubt that you’ll strive to do your duty to your utmost, as you always do. But if you have not slept, you only damage yourself by ignoring it.”

“Your Highness, please…”

“When we first met,” said Mara, “I offered you a day of rest each week, for you to have no duties. A free day of your own. You turned it down, and I respect that. But I also said that I want to learn to care for my child on my own. That there would be times I would care for her all day, on my own. This will be one of those days.”

Your Highness,” Miss Daphne whispered. There was a waver to her voice, but her eyes remained dry. “Please don’t think this diminishes my ability to fulfill my duties.”

“Please don’t make me–” said Mara, then sucked in a breath and bit her lip to hold it in. She let it out and relaxed. “Don’t make me order you to rest. I try not to be a stern mistress. I try to be fair. I want those who assist me to, to be content in their work. Even though it is work, but still. Dear Miss Daphne, I am not trying to punish you. This is not a reflection on your work. I mean to help you. There is no shame in caring for yourself for once. Look after your health. Take today – all of today – to sleep. Rest. Whatever you need to be refreshed. I can ask someone to care for you today. A handmaiden. A valet. Solomon. Please do this. I don’t want to order you to.”

As if on cue, Miss Daphne was overwhelmed by the need to yawn. She covered it immediately, but it was too late. Isabel was pulled along, as will happen for a yawn. Mara managed to resist the spell, but only barely.

Miss Daphne all but forced her mouth to shut until the urge passed. “As you wish, Ma– your Highness,” she said. She blushed at her near-miss. A chink in the armor. It was a start. “You will not need to order me. I think you are… a fair mistress. You do show care and concern for your servants. All here do, I think. I will… I will rest today, as you say. I-I shouldn’t need a handmaiden, though. They serve you and Her Majesty; they are not for the likes of me.”

“They are for ‘the likes’ of anyone we wish,” Mara said gently. She offered a gentle smile as well, which the nanny struggled to return. Finally she managed a crooked facsimile of relaxation. Mara took Isabel into her arms and stood up. Miss Daphne was on her feet immediately after. Mara held Isabel closer to the nanny. “Give her a farewell hug and kiss?” Miss Daphne gave her a wary look. “Farewell for today,” said Mara. The nanny relaxed and primly kissed her charge on the cheek. No hug followed.

Miss Daphne curtsied deeply. “Your Highness, I will return as swiftly as possible.”

“You will return,” said Her Highness, “When you have properly rested. No sooner.”

“Yes,” she said. “That is what I meant.”

After Miss Daphne’s departure, Heather was clear to return to the room. Mara thanked her for her discretion, and then immediately followed with a description of Heather’s new project. She did not give the reason for it, but Heather assured her that it would be handled quickly, given her penchant for organization.

*****

That same day Mara had made several attempts to read to her daughter from her favorite history book, but the afternoon proved not to be the time for a bedtime story. Isabel preferred crawling at a fast clip, grabbing and tossing things, and general babbling over listening to tales of the kings and queens of old. It wasn’t long before Mara gave up, and tried to keep pace with her on her hands and knees.

There was a familiar knock on the door. She stood quickly and scooped a reluctant Isabel into her arms, then called for their visitor to enter. She knew it was Kelvin before he entered, but they had a polite agreement to knock first if their chamber doors were shut. They had both taken to knocking in particular ways.

“Ba!” said Isabel, smiling and reaching out.

Mara gasped playfully. “Look, Isabel! A strange man has entered our room!” Kelvin paused a moment, then showed a subtly wry smile before coming towards them at a leisurely pace. “Whatever shall we do?” Mara looked to her daughter, who gurgled happily at her advancing father. “Shall we flee and hope he doesn’t pursue?”

“Zhhee!”

“Or shall we stand our ground,” said Mara, “And face him in all our bravery? Hm?” Kelvin cocked his head and kept his hands behind his back as he approached. Isabel laughed for reasons known only to her. By now he was an arm’s length from his wife and daughter.

Mara smiled and spoke dreamily. “I agree, little one,” she said. “We shall stand our ground before this strange… handsome… man.” She closed her eyes and met him in a kiss. They parted, then exchanged several more, with the final one lasting several breaths.

She whispered, “Forgive me, Isabel.” {Kiss} “I am powerless-” {Kiss} “-before him.” They both closed their eyes and stood forehead to forehead. Isabel grunted in frustration – or perhaps just envy – which worked; her father kissed her tiny hand and nuzzled her face. Mara was content to watch their happy interactions as long as they kept them up. Eventually Isabel allowed him to part, but insisted on keeping a firm grip on his hand.

“What news, dearest?” said Mara.

He shrugged his shoulders lightly. “No news to give,” he said. “Take it as a blessing?”

“I do,” she said. “And I’m glad that you’re here. Not that I aren’t always, but there’s something I hope to discuss. If you have the time for it?”

“I am at your disposal,” he said, placing his free hand over his heart.

“Excellent,” she said, and sat on a settee, then beckoned him to join her. He did, and took Isabel from her to place on his own lap.

“What news, dearest?” he said.

“Oh,” she said, then forced a chuckle at his jest. “Ah ha. Yes. Well. First, I have a question: do you think it would… reflect poorly on me, or on us – the kingdom? – if I tried to sell any of my possessions?”

She had rebuttals ready for him, but did not expect silence from him. His expression was subtle, but she could tell that he was curious.

“I want to raise money – on my own, as much as I’m able – to build a school,” she said. He went from curious to perplexed. “For women. A school for women.” Now he sighed and turned away. “I know, Darling,” she said, placing a hand on his arm. “I know this seems like a mad scheme, or worse, an impossible task, but it’s something I’ve been turning over and over in my mind for a long time. I want to do something to benefit women. I’ve thought about a sanctuary for ill-treated women and their children. A hospital. A school, as well, and I asked Mother Queen and other Ladies about it. They thought I was joking, of course. But I’m not. And… and I know that Count Richard thinks that I harmed Lucinda by teaching her about different laws. Do you believe him? Do you think that I made things worse for her?”

He considered a reply, then shrugged lightly again. “I don’t believe so. But only God can say for certain. We know she’d been troubled long before. Who’s to say her path wasn’t inevitable? Do you blame yourself for her death?”

“No,” she said quietly. “I have my guilt for it, but I don’t claim the cause. She was… a difficult person to love. I hope I’m not speaking ill of the dead to say it.” He shook his head and leaned over to kiss her cheek. “But my interest in aiding women has been rekindled. I think a school would honor her memory, though her husband would disagree. We shared a love of history, you know. In fact, she gave me that book, which has become my favorite. So… what do you think, dearest? I know there are so many things to consider. Where to put it? How much will it cost? How big? How many students could be housed? Um… Who would teach there? And if anyone were willing to teach, would anyone else out there… accept it?”

“Hm,” he said, finally turning in his seat to face her. “It’s good that you have those questions, because I do, too. I think your last two are the most significant.”

“People were willing to teach me,” she said. “I don’t agree that one must be high-born or wealthy to have such opportunities.”

“I have another question,” he said. “Let’s say that a low-born, poor woman attended your school. What would she do with that knowledge?”

Mara looked aside and was quiet. Her brow was furrowed; it was difficult to tell if she was thinking or was frustrated.

Kelvin shrugged. “I’m only playing devil’s advocate-”

She held up a hand. “I want to say ‘anything she wants,’ but I know that would be folly. I know that the notion of a learned woman is laughable to some, even though here I am, walking about with books in my hand all day, and no one titters. But if a farmer’s wife or daughter tries it…!” She sighed. “I don’t expect a miraculous new world for women. But what if a tiny part of it is new? Is that enough? Here and now, a woman may be a Queen, and command a kingdom and be served hand and foot her whole life, and yet no woman may be a doctor? A judge? A sheriff?? I suppose there might even be those who call it heresy, what I hope to do. But I still hope to do it.”

She paused to give him more chances to “play devil’s advocate,” as he put it, but his silence was discomforting.

“Kelvin, please speak, and speak it plain,” she said. “Will you support me? Will you support your mad wife and her mad schemes?”

In spite of himself, this brought about a chuckle. He tucked his free hand under her chin. “I’m glad that you see the madness of this,” he said. “The danger, in fact. You know this is a dangerous idea, yes?” She nodded. “But yes. I support you.” She laughed, her eyes moistened, and she kissed his hand reverently.

“Know this, my love,” she said. “If you didn’t, I would still try. But having your blessing means everything to me.”

“Somehow that sentiment sounds familiar,” he said with a wink. She recognized it, too, and laughed with him. “Mara… Dear… I don’t suppose you have a list of the possessions that you intend to sell?”

She tried to hid her contrite expression. She picked up her book and leafed through it, then handed Kelvin a folded up paper. “Heather made a list for me.” He nodded and read the list in silence. “It was her big project of the day.” She smiled nervously. He nodded again and continued reading. Occasionally an eyebrow went up.

“You know that the oak chest by your bed was Flora’s?” he said.

“Oh,” she said, “So… it should be removed?”

“Mmmm… We’ll ask Mother,” he said, and scanned the list again. “Hm. Your armoire? Really? And by ‘jewelry,’ what sort do you mean?”

“Oh,” she said, “Well… You know, some items that, that I don’t care for or could not use. Uh, like earrings, because I will never willingly wound myself. Not in the ears or anywhere. And I don’t care for, uh, bracelets and other dangly things. B-but I realize that everything I own was a gift, one way or another. I imagine that I would need to be careful not to approach the very person who gave me said gift.”

“I would agree with that,” he said. “In fact-” He folded up the list and handed it back to her. “-Why don’t we do this? First, I’m proud of what you’re trying to do. I am. But you know that I’m not the only one to convince of this ‘mad scheme?'”

She smiled at his jest, until realization came. Then it faded. “Oh. Yes. B-but we can speak to them together. If they can agree to and bless our marriage, surely they’d allow this?”

“We shall see,” he said. “But what I was going to suggest, our King willing, is that I would present these items, not to your Lady friends, but to their husbands and suitors.” Off her confused look, “Your friends might have interest in them, but they’re not the ones who’d buy them. Savvy?”

“…Oh,” she said, nodding. “I suppose you’re right. But dear, this is my project, not yours. Would that be too much trouble?”

He cocked his head and gave her his own Look. “You asked for my support, yes?” She nodded. “Then you have it. In fact, now you’ve got me thinking. Perhaps I’ll have some valets pick through my own belongings. See what trash – or treasure – they can find.” He kept his expression deadly serious, then cracked it with a wink and a wry smile. It was only the presence of their daughter that prevented Mara from immediately tackling and ravishing him. Instead they took the time to place her in her playpen, fill it with entertaining objects, and then tackle and ravish one another until suppertime.

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