Bordeaux France, 1554
Lise sat next to the window, a book open on the table before her, and a look of intense concentration on her face. Margarete could see Lise’s expression clearly from where she sat across the room, and experienced a pleasant mixture of pride and smugness. She had been teaching Lise to read, and had found her a far more apt and disciplined pupil than Margarete herself had ever been.
The family finances in Margarete’s household, always precarious, intermittently allowed for the presence of a tutor for her younger brother and, out of boredom as much as interest, she often sat in on the lessons. Her attendance had risen sharply after Lise had come into service as her servant/lady’s companion. For Lise, who had been orphaned young and raised haphazardly by a group of travelling street performers, education was a hitherto undreamed of luxury. With all the force she could bring to bear on her mistress, she impressed on Margarete that it should not be wasted, or treated frivolously. Margarete was puzzled, but willing enough after each morning with the tutor, to impart what she could to Lise of history, geography, mathematics, languages and astrology. All this was done in secret, for Lise’s true background was known only to Margarete. All others in the household thought Lise an experienced governess, educated and cultivated. This led to some awkward moments when Lise made errors of etiquette and comportment, which Margarete covered up, and about which she instructed Lise later in private. This complicity deepened the bond between them, which had existed almost from the moment of their meeting. The story of their meeting was scandalous and rare, and known only to themselves.
Lise raised her eyes. Her expression had shifted from concentration to amazement. “Have you read this volume?” She asked Margarete.
“You’re reading Tacitus are you not? No, I keep it because it belonged to my mother, but I haven’t read it, why?”
“There’s a most extraordinary passage here about a queen in Britain who fought against the Romans during the invasion, actually fought, rode a chariot and led her followers into battle!” Lise’s eyes sparkled. “Can you imagine that?”
Margarete’s eyes grew round with surprise. “A woman soldier? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“Read aloud.” Margarete knew that she was asking much of Lise, who wished always to be competent in all she did. Lise’s reading was still slow and laboured. She had spent years as a street musician however, and compensated with the performer’s practiced poise.
Margarete sat spellbound, hands still on the lute she held, as Lise read aloud of wild-haired Britannic women bearing torches into battle, Druids casting spells on their enemies, and Boudicca, the Icenian queen rousing her troops and leading them into combat. Afterward the two women stared at one another awe-struck.
“Think of it!” Lise exclaimed, “Women fighting on the field, riding chariots, wielding swords!”
Margarete’s face grew thoughtful and she shifted restlessly. “These Britannic women hacked at men, pierced them with swords? I can’t think of doing such a thing. Were they truly women do you think?”
“Of course they were truly women!” Lise shifted restlessly too, and her expression was one of eagerness. “Why do we have no queens today who take to the field thus?”
Margarete peered at Lise’s hungry expression. “Would you like to bear a sword and be a soldier? To run someone through?”
Lise’s eyes turned inward. “No, well, I don’t know; I never thought of it in that way before. There have been times when I wished to know the quick use of a blade.” A shadow crossed her face, and Margarete dropped her gaze to her lute.
She knew there were darknesses in Lise’s past, but felt diffident about inquiring into them. Her own life had always been safe, if often lonely. Until she had met Lise, she had had nothing against which to value this safety, and though Lise was her servant, Margarete had respect for this woman who had survived such a precarious life, and who was now altering herself daily to fit into the security of Margarete’s ordered world. To draw Lise’s attention outward from whatever memories held her, Margarete said, “Read that passage about the sacred groves once more.”
That night, in the quiet safety of her bed, to which she was still unaccustomed, Lise dreamed of a foreign shore where men stood with arms upraised, invoking powers other than fists or blades, and women prowled, hair flying, ready to employ strength, skill and ferocity to fight the invader. She woke suddenly as though from a nightmare, but her sensations were not those of fear, but of excitement.
The next day, thoughts of blades and sacred groves were driven from their minds by the arrival of Margarete’s uncle Charles from Paris. Brother to Margarete’s dead mother, Charles made the long trip from Paris at least once a year mainly for the purpose of seeing Margarete. Each visit reinforced his opinion that Margarete’s father and older brothers were self-absorbed profligates with a reckless interest in gambling, and overindulgence in wine. Since her mother’s death six years ago, Margarete had been left to the care of servants. As a bachelor, Charles was in no position to do much about this, but his heart grieved both for the loss of his gentle sister, and for the loneliness of his loving but more spirited niece.
His welcome was a flurry of hugs and exclamations from Margarete, inquiries about his health after the long journey, passionate explanations of all the things she wanted to do during his visit. He endured this avalanche with a joy that cramped his heart. In appearance, his niece was very like her mother, more so as she approached womanhood, but her exuberance was all her own.
When Margarete’s excitement had subsided a little, and wine had been brought, Charles noticed a quiet figure in the background, an attractive young woman with black hair, alert features, and a posture and bearing that suggested her present immobility was not quite to her taste.
“My uncle,” Margarete said enthusiastically, “This is Lise. I wrote to you of her. She has come into service with our family as my attendant. You know that old Marie was taken very ill and had to go away.” Margarete’s bright eyes clouded, then cleared. “And anyway I am much too old to need a nurse.”
Charles’s eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed as he inspected the young woman more closely. Margarete had indeed written to him of this, but she had not conveyed the youth or vitality of her new servant. Charles had been led to expect a stayed governess, a woman of mature years who would be a suitable guardian for a very young woman.
Margarete looked on anxiously. Lise was walking forward to greet Charles, but she had forgotten Margarete’s coaching about manners. Lise was giving Charles stare for stare, and Margarete was mortally afraid that Lise would forget to curtsy. With her uncle’s attention thus focused, Margarete risked some frantic blinking which caught Lise’s eye, then a subtle bending forward. Lise understood. She lowered her eyes demurely, and curtsied. Lise was an apt pupil, but often missed the cues for proper behaviour that were second nature to Margarete.
She could feel her shrewd uncle forming questions and speculation, and sought to forestall him. “I wrote you that Nuit was going to foal, well it happened last week. You must come and see!” She knew Charles was too tired for a trip to the stable just then, but to her relief he let himself be distracted into talk of Margarete’s beloved horses and dogs. Seating herself once more and taking up her embroidery however, Lise was certain that the questions and speculations had been deferred, not avoided.
This supposition was born out two days later when Charles asked Margarete to tend to his horses. He avowed that no stable boy would take the care with grooming that she did, and he sent her off to the stable alone. When she had gone, he sent for Lise.
Lise entered the parlour to find him sitting in front of a table upon which rested the family’s chess set. She stood before him, remembering to keep her eyes downcast.
“Sit my dear,” he said pleasantly, indicating the chair across from him. “You play of course?”
“Of course.” Her disciplined face didn’t betray her consternation. Margarete had instructed her on the moves, and the barest rudiments of strategy, but with no love and little skill for the game, Margarete’s tutelage hadn’t achieved much. He had set the board up so that she must make the first move. She did so. They traded several moves in a silence during which her tension grew. She liked this man, but she could see that he was neither a fool, nor an indifferent guardian. It had taken some guile to deceive Margarete’s father and brother’s about Lise’s past, but not much. Once the problem of Margarete’s care had been dealt with, they were content to ignore Lise’s presence in their home so long as nothing troubled their habitual self-centred pursuits. This uncle however, was clearly a man of the world, not necessarily taken in by facile misdirection. He cared deeply for Margarete; that was obvious. Lise nursed a rapidly growing fear that he would see through her disguise, judge her as unworthy, and send her away from the safety of this quiet, stable home, and Margarete’s loving affection.
He continued to make no comment on Lise’s strategy or lack of it, contenting himself with an unwavering scrutiny that would soon reduce her to fidgets, she who prided herself on self-discipline and composure. Unbidden, the image of a tall, straight woman standing in a chariot floated before her. In her mind she heard a commanding woman’s voice ringing out across a field of fighters. She had read and reread the words of Boudicca the warrior queen so many times that they came without effort: words of outrage, of determination, of fearlessness, of power.
Somehow the image, and the memory of the words relaxed her. She felt the tension leave her body, and a small smile curve her lips. Deceitful she might be, but not out of perfidy. She loved Margarete just as Charles did, though differently. The bond that had formed between the two women had been quick and complete, feeling more like something remembered than something discovered. If Lise was complicit in deception, she wanted the same for Margarete that Charles did, to protect and cherish her, to give her guidance, companionship, protection and love. She would not let this man intimidate her.
“You are a very young woman to be in a position of care and guardianship,” he said evenly.
“Yes,” she agreed unargumentatively, “That is true. I take my role very seriously.”
“Margarete wrote me that you were an experienced lady’s companion, but surely you’ve not had much time to occupy such a place.”
“This is only my second post. My first mistress and her father died of fever, and I was left with no means to support myself. It was the purest of good fortune that I met Margarete and her brothers in the city, and kind of them to engage me.” She spoke this constructed story easily, and deliberately raised her eyes from the board to his face, willing him to believe her. This fabrication of Lise’s past had been carefully crafted to involve places Margarete’s family had never been, and an employer who travelled widely, leaving no settled life for anyone to inquire into. Lise conveyed these details with her performer’s ease. It seemed to her that the tall, proud woman hovered at the edges of her vision, shield and blade held boldly before her. If a woman could go bravely into battle against an invader, then surely she herself could summon the skill and force to look a shrewd man in the eye, and lie to him in a good cause.
As their game progressed, Charles’s questions moved to Margarete’s education, and Lise’s obligations as her guardian/companion. Lise relaxed inwardly. Charles had heard Lise and Margarete play and sing together on the previous evening, and his enchantment had been unstudied and complete. Lise did not have to pretend passion when the talk turned to scholarship. She spoke with more animation than Charles had yet seen from her about books. When she mentioned Tacitus, she saw his expression soften for the first time. “I remember that book well,” he said with feeling, his hand hesitating on the chess board. “It belonged to our mother, and my dear sister kept it. Margarete reads from it you say?”
“Oh yes,” Lise said warmly, “She loves the book for its place in your sister’s heart, and for itself. In fact I have been wondering whether you might help us in growing the family’s library. Margarete’s father and brothers have little interest in my requests on this matter, but living in Paris, you must be able to come by books that would be suitable for Margarete’s education. She sits in with the tutor at my insistence, but she would benefit from a wider exposure to literature on history, rhetoric, mathematics and astrology.”
At last she had reached him, she knew it. Their eyes met, and she let her devotion to her young mistress, and her own passion for learning show as fully as she could.
When Margarete returned from the stable, dusty and happy, it was to find her beloved uncle and her beloved Lise leaning across an unfinished chess game, engrossed in a discussion of a lecturer Charles had heard at the University talking about discoveries in the New World. She had so hoped that these two would come to like one another.
Charles saw her and beckoned her in. “Come my dear, your companion and I were discussing your education. She tells me that you have developed a passion for reading, and long for more books. This pleases me!”
Margarete kept her smile in place with an effort as she approached them. She had absolutely no passion for reading, but she knew Lise must have her own motives, so said nothing to contradict her.
“Your horses are in fine form my uncle. They’re being well fed, and their coats now gleam with brushing.”
“Excellent,” he said, putting an arm around her where she stood beside his chair. “Now go wash and tidy yourself, you smell like a horse.”
With a surprise and elation she was careful to conceal, Lise reached out and moved one of her chess pieces, and said in a neutral voice, “Check.”
“Well played,” was all he said, but one corner of his mouth turned up with a satisfaction of his own, which he likewise strove to conceal.