Tea with Catherine
I find her in a secluded corner of the sprawling palace gardens, surrounded by her normal retinue of a couple of ladies-in-waiting, two small dogs and a man whose purpose I can’t quite grasp at first. The man is by far the flashiest of the party, with so much lace and ribbons decorating his person it’s difficult to determine the actual colour of his coat and breeches. Pale yellow, I decide some time later, and by then I’ve concluded he’s the queen’s secretary – why else would he have a page place a foldable desk in the shade and commence penning letters?
The queen is a total contrast to her flamboyant secretary. In a pleasing shade of caffe latte brown, a large hat that leaves most of her features in shadow and long gloves in rakish green, she kneels on a cushion and begins harvesting roses, all the while conversing with her ladies. They talk in French and Portuguese, now and then in English.
“For the king’s bedroom,” the queen says, handing an armful of red roses to the youngest of her ladies. The girl speeds off and one of the other women laughs, an elegant hand fluttering to arrange an escaped curl.
“Why thank you,” she says and rises to her feet. “Ma’am,” she adds and curtsies before languidly walking off. If the queen’s eyes had been lasers, the woman would have been burnt to crisp before she reached the nearby box hedge.
“Puta,” she spits.
Ah. The departing lady is the lovely Louise de Kerouaille, preferred bedmate of the English king.
“How do you stand it?” I kneel to join her by the flower bed.
“Stand what?” Two beautiful dark eyes meet mine, shaded secretive eyes that give nothing away.
“Well … err … umm …” I jerk my head in the direction of Louise.
“Oh that.” The queen’s mouth sets for an instant.
“Me, I’d stab him with something,” I say.
“Him? Stab him? Why on earth for?”
“Because he’s your husband?” I say. An unfaithful hound of a man as I hear it.
“He’s a man, a handsome lusty man.” Something flutters over her face, a delicate flush colours her cheeks. “Besides,” she adds harshly, “I’m the one at fault. I’m the barren wife, incapable of giving him a legitimate heir.” Snip, snip, snip goes her scissors, and one perfect rose after the other flutters decapitated to the ground. It may be a coincidence, but she stops at twelve – the number of acknowledged royal bastards.
Catherine gets off her knees. “Tea?” she asks, and whatever emotions she may be experiencing are hidden by her bland smile.
As we cross the lawns a tall man in breeches and shirt comes striding towards us. As he gets closer, I realise this is the king himself, face florid with exertion. His long dark hair is damp. Here and there his shirt is wet, the linen clinging to his skin. His face is dominated by an impressive nose but it is the mouth that attracts my attention, a soft, generous mouth bracketed by lines that indicate a propensity to laugh at whatever life may throw his way. A wide smile spreads over his face at the sight of his wife. She smiles back and skips to meet him.
“Swimming?” she says.
“It’s hot,” he says. The king tucks her arm under his and together they stroll towards her quarters. He talks, she listens and nods, he talks some more, she laughs and shakes her head. At the door he stops, lifts her hand to his mouth and kisses her palm. With a slight bow he takes his leave, promising to join her for supper.
The queen presses the palm he just kissed to her mouth and closes her eyes for an instant. When she opens them she gives me a brilliant smile.
“He loves me.”
“Yeah,” I nod. You and a dozen of others, I’m tempted to add, but I don’t. Catherine has her eyes glued to the distinctive shape of her husband.
“He gives me as much of himself as he’s able of giving,” she says. “What more can I ask of him?”
With that she leads the way towards the waiting tea.