King James thrust his chair back violently from the head of the long table, so that it scraped harshly on the Council-chamber floorboards, and started up, to stamp the great room with his shambling, unsteady gait, ramming down his ridiculously high hat more securely on his head. Everywhere, turning eyes to the ceiling or to each other, the entire Privy Council had to rise likewise and so stand in their places while their sovereign paraded. This sort of thing was becoming almost routine at Council meetings, unfortunately.
‘Ignorant fools! Presumptuous dolts! Numbskulls!’ The King had difficulty in getting the words round his oversized tongue, and, as always when he was excited and upset, his voice went into squeaks. ‘They’ll pass this folly and that! The Estates o’ the Realm will have this done and that done! Ooh, aye. But they’ll no’ pass my stints and taxations. They’ll no’ put their hands in their pouches. It is resolved to do this, and resolved to do the next thing – but, waesucks, never a cheep o’ where the siller’s to come frae! I tell you, my lords, it’s no’ to be borne! They refuse my right clamant demands. They delay and hold over the right fair and necessary taxes and imposts that Patrick… that the Master o’ Gray has devised. They say the realm must be strong and I must build up an army. But who’s to pay for it? Do they think I’m made o’ siller?’
Happening to be passing the bulky person of the Earl Marischal, James poked him strongly in the back. ‘You, my lord – do you think the like?’ he cried. ‘How much have you given to my royal Treasury o’ late? Eh?’
A little startled by this unexpected attack, the Keith chief gulped. ‘I… I sent five hundred crowns no more than three months back, Sire…’
‘Five hundred! What’s five hundred crowns frae half The Mearns? And you, my lord o’ Cassillis? What has Carrick sent? Tell me that. What o’ the broad lands o’ Carrick?’
‘I am gathering what I can, Your Grace. But at this season it’s no’ easy. After the harvest, may be…’
‘Harvest! Houts, man – I canna wait till harvest! This is June. I may need ten thousand men any day – and you say wait till after harvest! A hundred hands are clawing out at me for siller – and you say wait for harvest! You are as bad as the Estates yesterday, my lord!’
A Convention of the Estates, the Scottish parliament, had held one of its infrequent meetings the previous day, the 26th of June 1600. Presented with an excellent and comprehensive scheme of taxation, broadly-based, fairly-designed, it had temporised, hedged and voted for delay – whilst enthusiastically adopting the Octavians’ projects of good government and public works. The King himself had presented the demands, and had been mortified by the rebuff.
He stormed on, waving his hands. ‘It’s no’ right. It’s no’ right, I say. That the King O’ Scots should be thus vexed and constrained. For lack 0′ money to rule and govern his realm. And to support his just and lawful claims to another realm – England! My lord O’ Atholl – what o’ you? When last did you put your hand in your pocket, for your king?’
Emboldened perhaps by the fact that he was himself a Stewart, a far-out cousin of the monarch, Atholl spoke out. ‘Sire – my duty is to protect you, to support you at need with armed men – not with pounds and shillings. I am an earl of Scotland – not a merchant!’
The murmur of acclaim that greeted his assertion was faint but eloquent – and significant. James gobbled in anger. ‘My lord… my lord…!’ he got out thickly, and then turned helplessly to look for aid from Patrick Gray.
That man, standing near the foot of the table, close to Sir James Elphinstone the Secretary of State, did not fail him. ‘Your Grace,’ he said, mildly, easily, ‘perhaps my lord of Atholl, in his remote mountain fastness, has not perceived that times have changed? That the sword no longer rules in Scotland. That a tail of blustering men-at-arms is no longer the standard authority in this realm. It is four years, five, since Your Grace last called upon any of your lords for fighting men. All of you…’ He amended that. ‘All of us, my lords, have had these years of peace, to tend our lands and mend our affairs. Do we owe nothing to His Grace for these years when he has made no call upon our duty? When he has maintained the King’s peace with but little aid from us? Is the continuing good government of the realm no concern of ours? Are swords all we are good for, my lords?’
There was silence in that Council-chamber of Edinburgh Castle. Many men frowned darkly, but none spoke.
‘Aye. Well said, Master o’ Gray’, James commended thickly. In the lowered tension, he shuffled back to his great chair at the head of the table, and sat down. Thankfully all followed suit. ‘The Master speaks truth,’ he went on, banging on the table for quiet. ‘He does right well to reprove you, my lords. For it’s little enough the most o’ you have contributed, this while back, out o’ the great lands you hold o’ me, the King. Mind you that! You hold your lands o’ me. At my pleasure. You’d scarce think it, whiles. Wi’ the most o’ you. But no’ o’ the Master himsel’. Na, na. I tell you, this past year and more, the realm couldna have been managed lacking the Master putting his hand in his pouch. His own pouch, mind. God kens where he got it, but…’
‘God… and the Pope!’ a voice said quietly, from half-way down the table.
There was a stir, with exclamations, muttered charges and counter-charges.
The King was slapping the table again. ‘My lord! My lord o’ Gowrie!’ he cried. ‘Watch your tongue, I say! It ill becomes you – aye ill. To make sic-like observes. And against your cousin! You, but who yesterday raised voice against me in the Estates.’
‘Not against you, Sire. Never that. Against your advisers, only. Upon a demand for more moneys that your subjects have to give – your poorer subjects. And for a purpose which all true men must conceive to be dishonourable.’
Clearly, firmly, and unflurried, the youthful voice answered the King. The speaker was a man of only twenty-one years, good-looking, fine-featured, well-made – John Ruthven, third Earl of Gowrie and sixth Lord Ruthven. Son of the late Lord Treasurer Gowrie, who had been executed fourteen years be-fore-for alleged treason after a murky Court intrigue, he and his family had long been under official royal displeasure – for had it not been to Ruthven Castle that the young King James had been kidnapped and held prisoner for nearly a year, in the lawless 1580s. After his father’s execution, the young Earl, with his brother, at the age of fifteen, had been sent abroad, and had spent six years at the University of Padua – to such good effect that he was now in fact Rector of that great seat of learning. He had been back in Scotland only since April, and was already making his presence felt. The day previously he had been the only great lord actually to raise his voice against the King’s demand to the Estates for one hundred thousand crowns as an immediate levy on the burghs and lesser barons and lairds.
James was all but speechless. ‘Dis… dishonourable!’ he croaked. ‘You! You, to say the like! You, son o’ a beheaded miscreant! Grandson o’ yon black devil who knifed Davie Rizzio in my own mother’s presence! You…!’
Only Gowrie’s clenched fists betrayed how he disciplined himself. ‘Sire, my father’s and my grandsire’s actions are not my affair. And were dearly paid for. My father’s in money as well as blood – for did Your Grace not accept a loan of eighty thousand pounds no less, from his hands? As Treasurer. Which moneys have not yet been repaid…’
Again there was near uproar in the Council.
It was not the excited clamorous voices which prevailed, but the young Earl’s calm and measured statements. ‘What I hold to be dishonourable,’ he managed to resume, ‘is the policy of raising an army to invade England. This costly threat to enforce Your Grace’s claims to the throne of Queen Elizabeth…’
‘Have done, I say!’ James interrupted him furiously. ‘Do you dare so decry your prince’s legitimate endeavours? We a’ ken why you’re so kindly concerned for Elizabeth! We ken that you spent two months at her Court on your way home – aye, often close-chambered wi’ the Queen hersel’, we’ve heard! No’ for nothing, my lord – no’ for nothing, I’ll be bound! Meddling in matters that are no concern o’ yours. To your prince’s prejudice -aye, prejudice.’
‘Not so, Sire…’
‘Silence! You will remain silent, sir! This, I’d remind you, is my Privy Council – no’ yours! Learn you how to behave! My lords,’ James declared agitatedly, great eyes rolling as he looked round at all of them, ‘the situation o’ my royal succession to England is serious. Most serious. Elizabeth is auld and crabbit, and daily grows less clear-like in her mind. She refuses most contumaciously to name me heir. I have ay been her true heir, a’ these years. You ken it, she kens it – a’ true men ken it. But she’ll no’ say it, the auld… the auld…!’ He swallowed, but even so, a deal of the royal saliva was lost.
‘I had’ done a’ that man can to bring her to the bit, my lords,’ he went on. ‘Cecil, her Secretary, and Willoughby, likewise. But to no avail. The stupid auld woman has it in her head that if she once names her heir, she is as good as a corpse! Heard you ever the like? Hersel’ a sick and failing husk, and England lacking the sure knowledge o’ who’ll be on her throne tomorrow! It’s wicked, my lords – wicked! And as a consequence, the land is fu’ o’ plots and schemes. To put this on the throne, and that! God kens a’ the claimants there are now sprung up – wi’ no’ least title o’ right to them! There’s even a party, they tell me, for Vicky Stewart here, Duke o’ Lennox…’
Ludovick, sitting at the King’s right hand, as nominal President of the Council, had sat silent throughout – as indeed was quite customary when he attended at all. Now he spoke, briefly but strongly.
‘Your Grace knows very well, as do all others, that I have no interest in the throne of England, or any other throne. Indeed, if all England, and your royal self, offered it to me in gift, I would refuse it without a second thought. I seek nothing of kings and rule and courts.’
‘Aye. I’ph’mm. Just so.’ James looked sidelong at him. ‘But that’s no’ the point, Vicky. The point is that on account o’ Elizabeth’s right stubborn silence as to the succession, there’s folk scrabbling for her throne like hound-dogs for a bone! That throne is mine by right, in blood, in reason, and in the policies o’ our two states. And, as God’s my witness, I shall have it! These two kingdoms shall be united under my reign – to the glory o’ Almighty God and the peace and prosperity o’ both peoples!’
There was even some applause for this resounding affirmation of faith, led by the Master of Gray. Encouraged, the King went on, leaning over the table. ‘You a’ ken, my lords, how we’ll benefit – you’ll benefit. It’s to your most notable gain. No more wars. Peace on the Border, for a’ time to come. A share in England’s wealth, my lords. Appointments at my English Court. Offices o’ profit and honour. Broad English lands in my gift. Trade for your burghs and merchants. Aye…’ That goodly catalogue, ending in a long royal sigh of contemplation, had not only James Stewart licking his lips.
‘It’s near, my friends – near!’ the King went on eagerly, if wetly. ‘It could be the morn’s morn. Ours! But.. we maun be prepared to take what’s ours, if others seek to steal it frae us. If Elizabeth doesna name me heir, before her death, there’ll be plenty seeking to get sat on her throne the moment she’s awa’! Seeking, wi’ armed force. They’re no’ a’ like Vicky Lennox, here! There’ll be war, my lords. I must have a Scots army standing ready on the Border, a stronger host than any the others can raise, to march south the instant moment the word o’ Elizabeth’s death is brought. No less will serve to win me what is mine. And for that, my lords, I must have siller. Much siller.’
Now, he had most of the Council with him, or at least interested. White-faced, set, Lord Gowric stared straight ahead of him. Ludovick looked down at his finger-nails, expressionless. Certain others frowned or murmured. But by and large the general air of hostility was abated.
‘I must have that hundred thousand crowns I asked the Estates for, and more,’ James told them, nodding portentously. ‘And at once. If no’ frae them, frae you, my lords! You’ll get it back, mind – ooh aye, you’ll get it back. Wi’ interest. Once I’m in yon London. You can do it fine and easy, if you set your minds to it – you ken that. Some, mind, ha’ been right generous already. My lord Marquis, in especial…’
Huntly, who had seemed to be asleep, opened his eyes, nodded casually in the direction of his monarch, a crooked grin on his big red face, and shut his eyes again.
‘Aye. And the Constable, my lord of Erroll, has done right nobly likewise.’
There was some throat-clearing at the especial mention of these two Catholics. James nodded again.
‘Others, o’ maybe a different conviction, ha vena yet seen fit to do the like/ he added.
Ludovick almost opened his mouth to observe that his Protestant wife’s deep coffers, at least, had been most thoroughly and consistently raided – but thought better of it.
‘So there it is, my lords,’ the King declared. ‘If you would have your prince King o’ England – wi’ a’ that will mean to you – then waesucks, you’ll just ha’ to find me the siller! And forthwith. I must raise and equip an army, without delay. How many ha’ we got there now, Patrick? And in what-like state?’
‘Sir James, I think, can best tell us such details, Sire.’
The diffident but efficient Secretary of State kept his eyes down-bent on his papers, even though he did not require to consult them. ‘You have four thousand and three hundred men enrolled, Your Majesty. Some three thousand trained and equipped. But horses only for eleven hundred. More horses are coming from the Low Countries, and arms from France. But… these are not yet paid for, Sire.’
‘Aye. And I need at least ten thousand, my lords!’
Into the murmur of talk which arose, Patrick Gray raised his melodious voice again. ‘Your Grace – may I point out our especial need? I hear noble lords saying that they will supply men, rather than money, as formerly. But this will not serve. Bands of men-at-arms, my friends, are not sufficient for His Grace’s purpose, however many. This host must be disciplined sternly. To stand and wait. Possibly for months, even years. It must obey no orders but the King’s. If it has indeed to march into England, it must do so under strict control – for it must not assail or offend the English people, the King’s new subjects. You know your men-at-arms, my lords – we all know them, all too well! They will not serve, in this.’
None could controvert him.
‘Moreover, it is not only the soldiers,’ he went on. ‘There are many in England who will support the highest bidder! Unprincipled gentry, no doubt – such as none here would countenance!’ He smiled round them all, genially. ‘Such disbursements and subventions, to carefully chosen persons in the English Court circle, although costly, will afford most handsome interest. But, alas, His Grace’s coffers are empty, scraped clean as a bone. As is my own humble purse.’ He nodded with entire goodwill in the direction of his cousin Gowrie. ‘God – or even the Pope, my lord – are but unchancy contributors, I fear, and the widow’s cruse would appear to have run out!’
There was a laugh at that, for young Gowrie was known to be of a notably religious turn of mind, almost a Puritan indeed, and the Biblical reference apt. The statement also was literally true, although the speaker hoped that only he and Elphinstone knew how true. The Pope’s largesse, which had so largely kept the protestant ship of state afloat this past year and more, had now dried up. His munificence had amounted to more even than the hundred thousand crowns demanded of the Estates. But in the continued absence of any sign of Scotland turning Catholic or King James making any public pronouncement towards that end, His Holiness was now limiting his benevolence to promises – even if princely promises. Two million crowns, no less, would be despatched from Rome the moment that James published liberty of conscience for all subjects of the two kingdoms, and moved his forces over the Border for London. Patrick Gray, of a night, was apt to dream longingly of that two million.
‘Aye, my lords – that’s the way o’ it,’ James took him up. ‘I’ve been Elijah ower long. I charge you a’ to reckon up forthwith what moneys you can raise out o’ the lands you hold o’ me, and inform the Secretary here. Aye, and dinna be grudging, my friends – if you’d have me remember you kindly in London-town! Then awa’ wi’ you and gather together the siller. Is it understood?’
If the depth of silence was the measure of the assent, then there was no misapprehension in the Privy Council
The curiously unsteady yet for once determined royal glance made a slow circuit of all the faces at that table, until it came to that of the Earl of Gowrie, and there halted. For seconds on end these two eyed each other, as all men watched – and it was the monarch’s regard which dropped first.
‘Aye,’ James jerked. ‘Mind it! I say, mind it.’ He got to his teetering feet. ‘This Council stands adjourned. God preserve you my lords!’
As the others rose, he was already making for the door. Patrick Gray was there first, nevertheless, to open the door wide, having signed Elphinstone back. ‘Magnificent, Sire,’ he murmured as the King lurched by. ‘I am lost in admiration! Only – Your Grace omitted to mendon the Duchess of Lennox’s contributions, as I suggested. It would have been wise, I think.’
‘Guidsakes – I clean forgot! It was yon Gowrie – yon ill limmer, Gowrie! A curse on him! To owe the likes o’ him a’ that siller! Eighty thousand Scots pounds! In this pass. It’s scarce to be borne, Patrick – scarce to be borne!’
‘As Your Highness says – scarce to be borne,’ the Master repeated evenly, and bowed to the royal back as the Guard outside escorted the sovereign hence.
Ludovick Stewart stroked the dark curly head of the six-year-old son at his side – and quickly the boy broke away and darted across to the edge of the tiny terrace garden carved so cunningly out of the cliff below towering Castle Huntly, keeping his small square shoulders stiffly turned away from the visitor.
‘See you that!’ the man complained. ‘He scarce knows me – his own father. Is that right? Is that proper, Mary?’
The young woman bit her hp. ‘It is near two years since he has seen you, Vicky. Do not blame him…’
‘I do not blame Johnnie,’ the Duke answered her. ‘It is you that I blame. It is not his fault that he and I are all but strangers, Mary – it is yours. You who keep us apart. Will you not, for his sake if not for mine, come back to me? Back to Methven, at least. His heritage. Where we can be together at times, if no more than that. It has stood empty, waiting, all these long years. It is all that I live for, I swear.’
Troubled deeply, she eyed him. He had never seen her look so lovely, in her simple country gown, with the basket of cut flowers on her arm. Now twenty-five, Mary Gray was in the fullest bloom of fair womanhood, of an exquisite beauty of feature and figure to tear at the man’s heart, patrician grace and carriage in every line of her however humble her attire and modest her demeanour.
‘Not… not in front of Johnnie, my dear,’ she murmured, low-voiced. ‘I beg of you – not now.’ She moved a little away over the short turf of the narrow terrace in the warm July sunshine. ‘You have ridden far today, Vicky?’
Shortly, abruptly, he answered her. ‘Only from Falkland. The
Court is there again. Since four days. I crossed the ferry at Erroll. No great distance, as you know.’ He glanced down at himself, frowning. ‘It seems to be my fate ever and only to come to you thus, covered in dust, booted and spurred, smelling of horses…’
‘Do you think I care for that – so long as I see you?’ she asked, reaching out to touch his arm lightly.
‘You can say that – when still you keep me from you!’
‘To be sure – for I did not cease to love you, my dear, when we were forced to part. You should not visit me here – that is certain. But when you do, can I help it if my heart all but bursts at the sight of you?’
Quickly she went on, before he could make too much of that. ‘It is twenty long months since last you came to Castle Huntly, Vicky. That black day when… when…’
He nodded. ‘I have been far since then. In London. And Paris. Burgundy. The Low Countries. Sent on embassages, now here, now there. Sent, I do believe, to get me out of the King’s sight, out of Patrick Gray’s sight – even out of your sight!’
‘But, yes. Who knows, perhaps out of Jean Campbell’s sight, also!’ ‘Your wife…!’
‘I prefer to call her my duchess!’
Mary drew a deep breath. She turned, to call the boy over to her, to hand him the basket of flowers. ‘Johnnie – take these up to Granlord’s room. Tell him that I shall come to see him very soon. Talk with him, Johnnie. Tell him of the martin’s nest you have found in the cliff, here…’
‘How is he? The old lord?’ Ludovick asked, as the boy ran off.
‘A broken, done old man,’ she answered, sighing. ‘But the empty shell of what he was. He seldom stirs from his chamber, high up at die battlements. Staring and staring out over the Carse all day. Lips moving but not speaking. He will see only Davy and myself. And Johnnie. And even us he does not seem to know, at times. Oh, Vicky – how terrible a blow Patrick struck him, that day!’
‘Aye. When Patrick strikes…! God only knows – perhaps I should never have come, that day. To warn him. Perhaps it would have been better, kinder, to have let the matter take its course. He would have resisted the arrest – Lord Gray. There would have been fighting. And that would indeed have been treason. But he would have gone down like a man.’
‘No. You did what was right. And generous. This would have happened anyway – this of Granlord. The bad blood has been working its ill between them for long. All my life. Indeed, it may be that my life was the cause of it all – my birth that raised the wicked barrier between them. Sometimes of a night I lie and think of that, Vicky…’
‘That is folly, lass. Those two would have clashed on any and every issue. And sooner or later Patrick would have struck. As he always strikes – unexpectedly, like a scorpion, a snake, a viper! As, I fear he will strike again…!’
Tight-lipped she turned to him, eyes asking, but wordless.
He nodded grimly. ‘Aye, it is Patrick that brings me here again – since I must needs have an excuse to come to you,’ he told her bitterly. ‘Patrick, and the King. I fear now greatly for another man – Gowrie. I fear for him, Mary.’
‘The Earl of Gowrie? John Ruthven? The Lady Beatrix’s brother?’
‘Yes. And your cousin. The Lady Gray, Patrick’s mother, was sister to Gowrie’s father, was she not?’
‘I scarce know him, nevertheless, Vicky. Always he has been away. Abroad. I had heard that he was back, that is all.’
‘He is back. And putting himself in Patrick’s way, the King’s way. Honest and fearless, but not knowing what he does, what he hazards. I have tried to warn him – but he will not heed me.’
‘You think… you think that Patrick means him an injury?’
‘I know it. Is not anyone who opposes Patrick in danger? Gowrie opposes his policies openly. He condemns the English succession policy. He openly refuses to contribute to the King’s levy. He cares not what he says, so long as he believes it right – noble behaviour but dangerous, fatal. You know it. We have seen so often what happens to those who run counter to Patrick. Gowrie is in deadly danger. I am sure of it. I see all the signs. I have sought to tell him. Twice I have spoken to him.
But to no avail. There is so little to point to, for Patrick is never obvious. And Gowrie does not know him. He was only a child when he left Scotland, six or seven years ago. He does not know that he is dealing with the Devil himself!’
Patrick’s daughter gulped, but said nothing.
‘Gowrie, I think, conceives me as but a fool, or worse. He sees me as close to the throne, a tool of the King’s party, warning him off. To keep him quiet. Also, he does not love me, on account of his sister, Sophia. My first wife – if you could name her that. God knows, I had no responsibility for her death! But the family think the less of me, in consequence. I spoke to the other sister, the Lady Beatrix, your friend. But to no better avail. I urged that she tell him to leave Scotland. To go back to Padua. He is a scholar, Rector, of the University there. But she herself does not know the danger, as you and I know it. And her brother is noways close to her, almost a stranger to her, seeing her also as of the King’s company, a lady-in-waiting to die Queen. So… I come here, Mary.’
‘But what can I do, Vicky?’
‘You, and Davy Gray. I thought that Gowrie might listen to you, perhaps. Patrick’s daughter and brother. You might persuade him. You are clearly not of the King’s company…’
‘Davy is away. Visiting Granlord’s properties in The Mearns.’
‘You are the more important in this. Gowrie is at his town-house in Perth. He left Falkland yesterday. If you would ride there, with me, to speak with him. It is not two hours riding. He might listen to you, Mary – for all men listen to you! You are related to him. You can speak of Patrick as no other can…’
‘You are asking me to… to witness against my father? To this stranger?’ That said low-voiced.
‘I suppose that I am, yes. That he may possibly be one less stain on your father’s name and conscience! As I fear he will be, otherwise.’
She said nothing.
‘Mary – if, by speaking to Gowrie, you can save an evil deed being done, should you not do it? How would you feel, my dear, if you withheld, and later Gowrie was brought low by some wicked intrigue? I am no friend of his – but that is what I ask myself. That is why I am here.’
‘Very well.’ She raised her head, decision taken. ‘I shall ride with you, Vicky. First, I must see to Granlord. Then, in an hour, I shall be ready…’
Accompanied by two of Ludovick’s grooms, presently they rode through the July afternoon the fifteen miles along the fertile cattle-dotted Carse of Gowrie to Saint John’s town of Perth. So long it was since the girl had ridden at this man’s side, that at first she could only delight in it, despite the object of their journey. To begin with she was almost gay – and Mary Gray, like her sire, could be sparkling gaiety itself. But as they neared Perth, following the narrowing Tay by Seggieden and Kinfauns a silence descended upon them.
‘Mary:’ the Duke said, after a long interval. ‘How long is this to go on? How long will you keep me away from you? Hold me off? Is there to be no end to it? When we love each othei. When our son sees his father only as a stranger? It has been three years now – three endless years.’
‘I am sorry, Vicky,’ she answered him, almost in a whisper.
‘You said the same two years ago! You said to wait. I have waited, Mary – God knows how I have waited! How much longer must I wait?’
‘I do not know. I only know, my heart, that I cannot share you. Not with any prospect of joy or peace between us. I am sorry. I know that it is my grievous fault – wicked pride, no doubt. But I know myself sufficiently well to be sure that if I made myself come to you, shared your bed again, there would be always that other between us! The true trust and dear unity would be gone, my love – broken. And that I could not bear. We would be less happy than we are now. Believe me, it is so.’
‘Then, shrive me – what is there to wait for? Do vow wait for a miracle? For Jean to die, maybe? Do you wish her dead…?’
‘Ah, no! Do not say that. It is not true. I am a wicked proud woman, Vicky – but not so vile as that. I swear it! No – I ask you to wait for something in myself. Some change…’
‘I would seek a divorcement – since it was no true marriage. But the King and the Kirk would never hear of it.’
‘No. For it was true enough marriage to produce a child,
Vicky. You have a daughter, I hear. Is she… is she fair? A joy to you?’
‘No. I scarce know her. I am unfortunate with my offspring, am I not? Her mother keeps her close. I seldom see the child…’ ‘Vicky – is that fair to the bairn?’
‘I know not. I would not have the child to suffer – although she has been a sickly creature from the first. But Jean hides her away. We can hardly be said to live together, you understand. Have not done so for many months. She goes her way – and goes it boldly, as I know – and I go mine. Though, to be sure, mine is a more lonely way than is hers! We see each other about the Court – that is all.’
‘Oh, Vicky – what a tangle it is!’
‘No such great tangle, Mary. Nothing that we could not cut through this very night – had you the will for it!’
She lowered her head, and they rode on unspeaking.
Crossing the bridge of Tay into Perth town, they were quickly at Gowrie House, which indeed faced the river, its gardens running down to the water’s edge. It was a great rambling establishment, turreted and gabled, forming three sides of a courtyard, with one wing flanking the street of Speygate. With the tall Kirk of St. John, it dominated the town – as indeed had done its family for long. The young Earl had been but a week or two back in Scotland when he was appointed provost of the town and chief magistrate.
The visitors were first received by the Earl’s brother, Alexander, Master of Gowrie, a cheerful, smiling youth of nineteen, who had been playing tennis with a page. Obviously much taken with Mary Gray, and suitably impressed by the eminence of the Duke, he led them by many corridors and stairways to a moderate-sized room off a great gallery on the second floor, evidently a library. Here his elder brother was surrounded by books and parchments strewn on tables and floor, and was dusting and arranging them. Although he envinced no great joy at the interruption of his task, he greeted his guests courteously, requesting the Master to have wine and refreshments set before them, and explaining that the house bad been long standing unoccupied and that he was concerned to discover what of value might be in his father’s library, Ludovick was little of the diplomat, and came quickly to the point. ‘This, my lord, is the Lady Mary Gray, mother of my son – who would be my wife if I had been able to have my way. She is natural daughter to the Master of Gray – and therefore your own cousin in some degree. I have brought her here because I believe that what she can tell you is of the highest importance to your lordship.’
Gowrie looked at Mary keenly, thoughtfully, and inclined his head. ‘I am honoured by your interest,’ he said quietly; I have not failed to hear of the lady. But how do my poor affairs so greatly concern her, my lord Duke? Or indeed, yourself!’
‘Myself, I have already spoken to you. To but little effect, I think. The Lady Mary may be more successful. I pray so.’
‘My lord,’ the young woman said earnestly. ‘My position is difficult, unhappy. When you have heard me, you will absolve me, I hope, from any charge of meddling, of undue interest in your concerns. I am a woman of no position or importance – but I have this one qualification, that I know my father, the Master of Gray, very well. Sometimes to my sorrow!’
‘Whether this is a cause for congratulation or for sympathy, madam, is for you to say. For myself, I have had few dealings with the Master, cousins though we be – nor have ambitions for more!’
‘Anyone who takes any hand in the affairs of this realm, has to deal with the Master. Whether he knows it, or not, my lord! If you run counter to the King’s present policy – as I am told that you do – you run counter to the Master of Gray. And that can be dangerous!’
‘Is it so? All must agree with His Grace’s every notion, then – or risk my cousin’s righteous displeasure! Is that the way of it? A dire matter!’
At the young Earl’s tone of voice, Mary shook her head. ‘I am sorry,’ she said. ‘Be patient with me. Small disagreements, minor dissensions, would not matter. But you, my lord, I understand to oppose the King on a great issue – the issue nearest to his heart. The English succession. The matter above all others which over the years my father has worked for. You are against the finding of tins money, as the Duke tells me, for the raising and providing of an army, to hold in support of His Grace’s claim. You may well be right – indeed, although my poor woman’s opinion is of no value to any, I would think also that this is not how the succession should be assured. But this is scarce the point…’
‘You will forgive me asking it,’ Gowrie interposed stiffly. ‘But what is the point? If the rights and wrongs of the matter are not!’
‘It is hard, sore, for me to say it, my lord – but that because of this course, you are in real danger, I fear.’
‘Danger, madam? Of what? And from whom?’
‘From the Master of Gray. Of what, I cannot say. My father is not one to make his moves apparent, to be guessed at. But this I do know all too surely, that those who oppose him in major matters are always in danger. Most real danger. It has been proved too often to be in doubt, my lord.’
‘A most convenient reputation for the Master to cherish!’ the other commented coldly. ‘None must oppose him – or they suffer terrible but undisclosed dangers! A valuable celebrity, fostered and published by his household and friends!’
‘Do not be a fool, Gowrie!’ Ludovick burst out. ‘We are not here on the Master’s account, but on yours. We fear – we more than fear, we are certain – that some move will be made against you. What we know not – but I have observed all the signs…’
‘You would have me jump at signs and shadows, my lord Duke? I note your warning, and shall be on my guard. But I cannot esteem such shadowy fears to have any justification. I do naught that any other member of the Council has not a right to do – to oppose the expenditure of moneys on a policy which was before the Estates. It is no more than my duty, if I conceive the policy wrong. As I do. Are all who voted against it in the Estates likewise in danger of the puissant Master’s ire?’
‘ Fore God, man – can you not see this as it is? Not as you would wish it to be? It is not some mere taking of sides in a debate on the state’s policy. It is a direct attack on the King’s most cherished project, his lifelong ambition. And today the Master of Gray is behind all the King’s projects, and moreover believes this succession to be the greatest good that Scotland can achieve. At the Estates, it was your voice raised that turned the tide against the King’s tax. And in the Council you could not but see how hot was the King against you for it. Since then you have stated that you will give nothing towards the levy which is being demanded of all great land-holders. No others have seen fit to say as much..Others may hedge and delay and seek to win out of it. But you, of all men, ought not to have cried your refusal to the heavens.’ ‘Why me, of all men, I pray?’
‘Because, my lord, the Crown owes you for eighty thousand pounds! That is why. And no debtor on this round earth could love the man to whom he owed such a sum!’
There was silence for a few moments. For the first time, Gowrie seemed in any way affected or concerned. The Master and a servitor came in with food and drink, and no more could be said until the latter at least was gone. The Earl dismissed his brother also.
‘I have not demanded any immediate repayment of these moneys,’ he told them, presently. ‘Knowing, indeed, that I would not get them. Am I now expected to throw good money after bad?’
Ludovick shrugged. ‘I care not if you never give James another silver piece. But to oppose him openly, and to lead others to do the same, is folly.’
‘Such is to break no law. What can they do against me?’
‘My lord – you do not know my father, or you would not ask that!’ Mary Gray declared. ‘If you stand in the way of anything to which he has set his hand, he will find a way of pulling you down. Many have discovered that, to their cost…’
‘My father did!’ Ludovick interrupted harshly. ‘His close friend. I now know that he brought him low, to his ruin and death. His own father, the Lord Gray, he has recently dragged down likewise, without shame or compassion, for his own ends. And your father, my lord – what of him? The first Gowrie – Greysteil. He was beheaded on a charge of treason, was he not? After making a secret confession, under promise of pardon, and so brought to his doom. Whose hand was behind that, think you?’
‘That was on account of the Ruthven Raid. Patrick Gray, they told me, worked for his pardon. That was Arran’s work, was it not?’ The Earl stared.
‘Arran scarce moved a hand, in statecraft, without Patrick behind him. He was Chancellor only in name. The business bears all the marks of the Master’s hand.’
‘I’ll not believe that. His own mother’s brother!’
‘Who gained the administering of your great Ruthven estates while you were under age, my lord? Who had your sister Sophia married to me – bairns, both of us? And why?’
The other plucked his chin, looking from one to the other of his visitors.
Mary was wringing her hands. ‘My lord,’ she said, ‘this of your father, I do not know. I was too young. It may not be so. But… there have been others, I fear, in plenty. Patrick… Patrick is a strange man. He has great qualities – but he can be the Devil incarnate! He is, many will say, the most able and clever servant that any King of Scots has known. The realm has never been better ruled, most will admit. But he has no least scruple, where his path is crossed. I urge you. I pray you – do not fail to heed us. Do not dismiss your warning..
‘In God’s name – what would you have me to do?’
It was the Duke who answered. ‘Go back to Padua,’ he told him tersely. ‘Before it is too late.’
‘Shrive me! Padua! Do you jest? Leave Scotland…?’
‘Aye, my lord. Just that. Leave Scotland – while there is yet time.’
‘This is nonsense! Unthinkable! I shall return to Padua in due course. Next year, it may be. For my affairs there are still to settle. I am still Rector of that University. But not now. I am but three months home! Think you I will go running, like some whipped cur? From the Master of Gray. I – Gowrie!’
‘It is not only from him – from the one man. It may be from the whole power of this realm. Which he may use against you. Do you not understand? It is for your own safety and weal…’
‘Is it, my lord Duke? Of a truth? Is it not perhaps for Patrick Gray’s weal, rather, that you come? Perhaps a device to get me out of his way, at no cost? Are you sent to scare me off…!’
Ludovick jumped to his feet. ‘Have a care, sir, what you say!’ he exclaimed. ‘Lennox is no lackey of the Master of Gray, or any man, I’d have you know! You will not speak to me so…’
‘Nor will you frighten me with bogles!’ Gowrie also rose. ‘I will not be threatened…’
‘Vicky! My lords!’ Mary cried, ‘Not this – I beseech you! Be patient – there is so much at stake. Hot words will serve nothing…’
‘No words will serve with my lord of Gowrie, I think!’ the Duke asserted. ‘I, for one, will waste no more on him.’ ‘For that, at least, I am grateful, sir!’ ‘Come, Mary…’
‘Is our journeying to be quite fruitless, then?’ the young woman asked, helplessly. ‘Will you not be warned, my lord? Perceive your danger…?’
‘I perceive, of a truth, that Patrick Gray would have me out of his path! That, at least, is clear,’ Gowrie said, moving after Ludovick towards the door.
‘You will take heed, then? Take precautions…?’
The Earl did not answer. They went down the stairs singly, the Duke hastening in front, Gowrie next, and Mary lagging in the rear. At the outer door, where the grooms waited with the horse in the stone-flagged courtyard, the girl turned again to the stiff younger man.
‘You will do something?’ she urged. ‘Be guarded well? Ready to fly if need be…?’
‘I shall pleasure myself by keeping away from Court, at any rate,’ he told her, distantly. ‘I have lands in Atholl which I have not seen for long. There I may visit. But I fly for no man…’
With that they had to be content, and took their departure with only bare civilities.
As they clattered over the cobblestones of Perth, Ludovick alternately raged against the stiff-necked folly and blind self-sufficiency of the man they had set out to succour, and apologised for having brought the young woman on this thankless errand. Loudly employed thus, he did not at first hear when Mary presently called urgently to him – and by the time that she had succeeded in attracting his attention and directing his gaze where she indicated, it was too late.
‘Amongst that throng of drovers and Highlandmen,’ she called. ‘Around the alehouse. It was Logan! Logan of Restalrig.
I swear it was he! Looking at us. He turned and hurried off. When he saw I perceived him. Down that vennel. It was Logan, Vicky!’
‘Restalrig! Here, in Perth? That bird of ill omen! You are sure?’
‘I would not mistake that face. It has cost us too dear, in the past.’
‘Patrick has had his outlawry annulled. He hangs about the skirts of the Court. I have never seen them together, but…’
‘Should we go back? Tell the Earl? Warn him?’
Ludovick snorted. ‘Warn that one! Tell him what? Think you he would thank us for the information that one of Patrick’s bravoes is in his town? Besides, it may have nothing to do with Gowrie.’
Preoccupied and with no hint of gaiety left to them, they crossed the bridge over Tay and turned their beasts eastwards for the Carse.