Paul Doherty: The Nightingale Gallery

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Paul Doherty The Nightingale Gallery
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    The Nightingale Gallery
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Paul Doherty

The Nightingale Gallery


The old king was dying. The wind snatched up the rumour and carried it along the Thames. Boatmen whispered about it and the fat-bellied sea-going barges took the rumour further along the coast. Edward was failing; the great, blond- haired conqueror of France, the new Alexander in the West, was dying. Too late for those who had incurred his displeasure, their straggled-haired, blood-caked heads spiked over the gateway of London Bridge, marble white cheeks turning black as the ravens dug for juicier morsels.

The great king, or great bastard depending on your perspective, was reluctantly allowing the spirit to seep from his ageing, smelly body. The court had moved to Richmond in the early summer of 1377 as the winds swung south-west, blowing hard and hot from the dry deserts around the Middle Sea. The plague had appeared in London, men and women dropping as the buboes swelled in their armpits and, bellies distended, they spat out their life's blood. The king was frightened as Death, assassin-like, crept into his court.

Edward braved it well. He tried to paint his sallow face and kept his mouth closed to hide his crumbling, blackened teeth. He dressed in silver and white taffeta trimmed with gold and primped his once golden hair, even though it hung in straggly, sweaty wisps to his bony shoulders. But Death was not appeased. The heat and evil humours from the river wrapped their cloying fingers around his decaying body, and still the king refused to give in. Had he not smashed the armies of France at Crecy and Poitiers? And taken their king captive to ride behind him as he, like a new Caesar, returned to London to glory in his prowess?

Edward sat on cushions in one of his great withdrawing chambers, refusing food and physic. A priest came scuttling round the walls like a small, black spider, a Job's comforter if there ever was one.

'Your Grace,' he insisted, 'you must go to bed.'

Edward turned like an old fox, his lips, twisted by a stroke, curled in displeasure.

'Go away, little man,' he hissed. 'Death will never take me!'

He stayed where he was, staring at his finger where the coronation ring, once so deeply embedded in his flesh, had recently been sawn off. His marriage to the kingdom was dead. He had held the sceptre for fifty years and now must hand it over to another.

He shook his head and glanced at his fingers. Rings of fire seemed to circle them. Death was coming, soft-shoed, shuffling along the corridors. Edward's great heart lurched and fought back. He stood bravely as he had at Crecy thirty years before. He smiled to remember the way the wind had kissed his face as his captains had shouted 'Loose!' and the archers had sent their black clouds of living death into the advancing hordes of French. He would stand like he had then. Death would not take him if he stood. He did so for fifteen hours before sinking to the cushioned floor, his fingers clenched to his mouth. The priests carried him to his bed.

Hysteria gripped the court and the air was thick with gloom and terror. The gilded courtiers whispered about signs and portents; the River Thames, its waters swollen, broke its banks at Greenwich and flooded the palace. A huge, grey fish, the size of a Leviathan, was beached on the northern shores. The sky turned red at noonday and strange creatures were seen in the dark woods to the north. Voices were heard calling in the shadowy streets and ghostly trumpets brayed from the battlements of the Tower of London and Windsor Castle. One of the ladies-in-waiting saw a tarot card bearing the black figure of Death nailed to a royal chair. Another glimpsed the ghost of the dying king's power in the form of a mystic knight, marching along the moonlit gallery, down the stairs to the great palace doorway.

Edward III, the Lion of England, was dying. Old men recalled their grandparents telling them how the Lion, when young, had seized the throne from his mother Isabella and her lover, Mortimer. Now the Lion's day was done.

The king stirred himself. He asked for music, and a young girl in a tawny dress and lace-edged veil played the viol. The king went back in time as the ghosts gathered around his bed. His father, Edward II, done to death in Berkeley. His mother Isabella, beautiful and passionate. Philippa his wife with her dark skin and tender, doe-like eyes, dead these eight years. And one other ghost: his most precious son, Edward the Black Prince, leader of armies, a Pompey to his Caesar. The general who had taken the banners of England across the Pyrenees into Navarre but came back with nothing except a disease which rotted his body away. AH gone! His son was gone.

They brought back the proclamations about the succession back and the king knew he was dying. Seals were attached. He was leaving. His retainers melted away. 'Is there no faith left in Israel?' Edward whispered. The palace at Sheen became a mausoleum. The king was left to lie in his own sweat and dirt, alone except for Alice Perrers, his mistress. She swept into the death chamber, her fingers fretted with gold wire, her rich red dress engraved with precious stones. She, with her blandishing tongue and beautiful face, who cared for no one because no one cared for her, sat beside her dying lord and lover, hungrily watching him. The king woke from a dream and saw her hard black eyes and voluptuous lips.

'My Lady Sun,' he whispered.

Perrers smiled, her white teeth gleaming as she remembered how she had ridden in cloth of gold up Cheap- side, her head held high, her ears closed to the shouts of "Whore!", "Bawd!" and "Harlot!" Now she sat near the king, like a lioness watching her prey. An old Franciscan priest, John Hoccleve, came in but Perrers hissed and drove him out. The king closed his eyes. His breathing was shallow; a dreadful rattle had begun in his throat. Perrers waited no longer but stripped him of whatever finery he had left and fled.

The old Franciscan came back, grasping the king's hand, holding a crucifix up before the fading eyes. He intoned the Dies Irae and when he reached the verse "And what shall I, frail man, be pleading; When the just are mercy needing?" the king opened his eyes.

'Do you wish absolution?' Hoccleve whispered.

'Ah, Jesu!' the king muttered back, and weakly pressed the Franciscan's hand.

'I therefore absolve you…' the priest said, '… from your sins in the name of…' he continued, his voice growing louder as the death rattle sounded in the king's throat like the beat of a tambour. The king turned, his eyes open. One last gasp and his soul went out into the darkness. Hoccleve finished his prayer and looked down at the grey, emaciated face, remembering the golden days when the king had walked in all his glory. He bowed his head, pressing his brow into the dead king's hand, and wept for the sheer waste of it all. A few hours later in Westminster Palace, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and eldest living son of the dead king, sat alone before a great, hooded fireplace. He squatted, jerkin open, legs apart, letting the flames of the heated logs warm the chill in his thighs and crotch. The duke had heard the news as he returned from hunting, drenched to the skin after a sudden storm. His father was dead and he was regent but not king. John groaned to himself, clenching a bejewelled fist. He should be king, a man born to the crown with claims to the thrones of Castille, France, Scotland and England. And the only obstacle in his path? A golden-haired ten-year-old boy, his nephew, Richard of Bordeaux, son of Gaunt's elder brother, the feared and fearsome Black Prince.

'A heartbeat away!' Gaunt murmured. Only a short breath between him and the diadem of the Confessor. Gaunt stretched his great frame, his muscled body cracking and straining at the fury within. Regent but not king! Yet the land needed a firm ruler. The French were plundering the southern coats. The Scots were massing on the northern borders. The peasants were surly, demanding an end to incessant taxation. And the Commons, led by their speaker, were abusive and strident when they met in the chapel of St Stephen's at Westminster. Gaunt stroked his neatly barbered moustache and beard. Could he take the step? Would he? He chewed his lip and considered the possibilities. His younger brothers would resist. The great lords of the council, backed by the soft but powerful bishops, would take up arms and call down heaven's anger on him. And Richard – pale-faced, blue-eyed Richard – what would happen to him? Gaunt shivered. He remembered the old prophecy – that when the old cat died, the mice must not rejoice for the new kitten would grow into an even more dreadful monster!

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