Nigel Tranter: The Courtesan

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Nigel Tranter The Courtesan
  • Название:
    The Courtesan
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    Исторические приключения / на английском языке
  • Язык:
    Английский
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Nigel Tranter


The Courtesan

Chapter One

THE girl picked up the much creased and battered looking letter, smoothed out the folds, and began to read the dashing, sprawling handwriting. She knew that she ought not to be reading it; but equally she had known that she was going to do so from the moment that she caught sight of the broken-sealed paper lying there on the table. She had seen the shipmaster from Dundee handing it to her father in the castle courtyard that morning – and had cried out then, was it from her Uncle Patrick? David Gray had turned away abruptly, thrusting the letter deep into an inner pocket of his doublet, jerking a rough negative. And few people ever found it in themselves to be either rough or negative with Mary Gray.

Her slightly pouting red lips silently formed the carelessly vigorous letters into words as she read – such different writing from her father's own neat and painstaking hand, so much more difficult to read. Yet how vividly it spoke to her of her Uncle Patrick himself; all the gallant, mercurial, laughing brilliance of him, casually masterful, shatteringly handsome -beautiful indeed, the only man that she had ever seen who could be so called and yet remain indubitably and essentially masculine. If there had been a mirror in that purely functional modest chamber in the north-west flanking tower of Castle Huntly – which of course was unthinkable in a room solely her father's – Mary Gray would have had little need to conjure up any mind-picture of the writer of that letter, as she spelled out the words, for what she would have seen therein would have served better than any such year-old memory, better than any painted portrait however expertly limned.

The girl knew that she was quite fantastically like the absent Master of Gray, and in more than mere features, colouring and expression – embarrassingly so to a great many who saw her, though never to herself. Mary Gray was not readily embarrassed, any more than was her Uncle Patrick.

Slightly but gracefully built, at fifteen she was nevertheless already showing more than the promise of a lovely and challenging young womanhood – for women as well as men ripened early in the vehement, forcing days of James Stewart the Sixth, and of Elizabeth Tudor. Dark, of a delicate elfin beauty, she was exquisitely made alike in face as in figure, great-eyed, lustrous, with that highly attractive indeed magnetic expression, unusual as it is apparently contradictory, which seems to combine essential, quiet gravity with a more superficial gaiety, even roguery. Mary Gray left none unmoved who saw her; that would be her burden as well as her guerdon all her days. Only some few women are born with that fatal stamp upon them – including that lovely and unhappy royal Mary after whom she had been named. The girl read with a sort of still absorption.

'My good and respected D.,

Will you hear a sinner's plea? I write in all humility, not to say trepidation – for you did not answer my last. It is important that you heed me now, I assure you. Important for your upright self, for both dear M.'s, for whom – dare I say it? – you will not deny me some mede of devotion if not responsibility? Even for our noble progenitor – whom, however, God may rot if so He wills!

Heed then, good D. The glorious and utterly accursed lady whose price was above a ruby will, within a three-month, meet her deserts. This beyond a peradventure. The two most catholic have decided it at last, and all is in train. Your humble debtor has the ear of H.C.M., if not of H.H., and is satisfied that this time justice will be done. These eyes have indeed looked on the ready-forged sword of that justice, and are content. Here is no plot, no conspiracy, but invincible persuasion sufficient to the task. More than sufficient, craft replacing craft, nota bene. You have doubted my word times a-many, D. Doubt it now at your peril. You are a deal less dull than you seem, and it will not have escaped you, I vow, that H.C.M. is testatory heir to that other unfortunate lady, against whom the fates waged such unrelenting war. Now, great as must be our gratitude to this paladin, I judge that you will agree with me that an overdose of good things is seldom a kindness. Moreover we have our errant young friend J. to consider. Accordingly certain precautions will be advisable.

Here they are. Inform our blustering northern cousin H. of all this forthwith. Urge that he brace himself, and swiftly. Likewise S. and the C. and others of that kidney. A month must suffice them. Then, only when they are ready, inform young J. But not his tutor and servitors, lest the lad be unduly distracted. J. to write to H.C.M. offering a mutual arrangement, satisfactory to both – pointing out, needless to say, that short of some such convenient understanding, it might be necessary for him to go to the thrice-damned woman aforementioned. He will take the point, I have no doubt.

This should serve, I think. See to it, D – and swiftly. Not for my sake but for all you hold dear – lest the office be set up on Castle-hill! Do not doubt the choice before you.

My own M. would send you all too much of love, I fear, if she knew that I wrote. She is well, as am I.

Do not withhold my worship and devotion from those whom I also hold so dear and on whom I pray God to smile – though your stern Reformed God never smiles, does He? Who knows, I may see them, and your own sober visage, sooner than you think. Salutations.

P.'

Mary Gray had worked her way once through this peculiar epistle, and, wide brows wrinkled slightly, was part-way through a second reading, when a sound from the open doorway drew her glance from the paper. David Gray stood there, frowning, lips tight, a more formidable figure than he knew.

The girl did not start guiltily, nor drop the letter. She did not even look discomposed. That had ever been the problem with her from earliest childhood – how to assert parental authority and suitable sway over one so strangely and basically assured, so extraordinarily yet quietly judicial, so patently quite unassertively master of herself and her immediate situation. Even my Lord Gray himself did not attempt to impose his imperious will on her; indeed, he had always spoiled her shockingly.

'What do you mean by reading that letter, girl?' David Gray demanded, jerkily. 'It is not for such eyes as yours. Is nothing private to me, even in my own chamber? Can I not leave my table for two minutes, but you must come prying, spying? I did but go to speak to the foresters…' He stopped. Not for him to explain to this chit of a girl. 'Put it down, child! Think you that all my affairs must be business of yours? I will have you know otherwise, 'fore God! I lock my door from such as you?'

He went on too long, of course – and knew it. Too much school-mastering, too much the petty tyrant as my lord's steward. At the clear and unwinking regard of those deep dark eyes, he cleared his throat loudly and rubbed his cleanshaven chin.

She ignored all that he had said – or perhaps not so much ignored as listened to it, considered it, and dismissed it as irrelevant.

'What does Uncle Patrick mean, Father, by the lady whose price was above a ruby? He calls her accursed. And the ready-forged sword of justice? I think that I understood some of his letter – but not that. Nor this, where he writes of craft replacing craft? What means that? And who is H.C.M. and H.H.? And all those others? "Both dear M.'s", of course, means Mother and myself. But these others? Tell me, if you please.'

There it was, the almost imperious demand, none the less infuriating for being quite unconscious, quite devoid of any undutiful intent, any impertinence, yet ridiculous, insufferable in a girl still in her teens. So might a born queen speak and look – not the bastard daughter of a bastard, however lofty the standing of three of her grandparents. Davy Gray's problem, self-assumed, for fifteen years. Or one of them.

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