[Eleanor]: 668.Margaret - Grethe.VIII
“When you left home,” Margaret said, not letting go of my hands, “I became very lonely. Ilsa was some comfort to me, but she had already started dropping hints that she was thinking about retiring to the country to live with her niece and her many children. Your nurse left when you did, as you know, and she had been a great companion to me over the years. I had suddenly lost my two best friends with a third preparing to go. Your father was deeply involved in trade negotiations with ambassadors from neighbouring realms and Percy was being dispatched to see to matters in remote corners of the land. I have never been interested in the goings on of the other maids and ladies in court and found myself very alone.
“All that changed when I engaged Stephen to accompany me on the viol. At first I was impressed by his musicality and his patience with me, for I was very rusty from not having played regularly for many years, but soon I realized that of all the people in the castle, he did not hold me in regal awe and put me on a marble pedestal. He treated me as an equal, as a fellow musician and human being. We became friends. After we had finished rehearsing, we would talk: sometimes about music, but often about books or our interests in other areas; and we discovered that despite our widely separated ages and classes, we had much in common.
“Soon we were meeting in the library so that we could recommend books that we thought the other might enjoy, or taking long walks in the garden to see what plants were flowering. Being naturally solitary, he often went for long strolls in the park or woods and would find interesting objects that he thought I might like. Once he brought me a bird’s nest that still had most of an egg shell, the baby bird having fledged; another time he had found a bee’s nest in a tree and wrapped a piece of honeycomb in a large leaf. I don’t know how he avoided getting stung, but he just laughed at my concern and said he could charm the bees out of their sweets. Other times he would find wild blueberries and bring me a pocketful. I have a drawer full of butterfly wings, colourful pebbles, bird feathers and other such natural items that Stephen gave me.
“Apart from my friendship with Stephen, nothing had changed in my life. I still missed you, looked forward to Percy’s returns, and even though your father was always very busy with his royal concerns, my love and devotion to him never faltered. It never has. Edward means the world to me and I would do nothing to alter that. But after a year of friendship with my accompanist, I found that our relationship had become something more. On the occasions when we met in the corridor going in opposite directions, or I glimpsed him playing with other musicians in the gallery while we entertained visiting officials, my breath would catch and my pulse quicken. Often as I watched him, he would raise his head and smile at me and I would be filled with gladness. My loneliness fell away, I became very affectionate to your father, and felt years younger.
“It was not immediate, in fact it took me many weeks to realize what was happening. One morning I woke up looking forward to meeting Stephen in the music room and it dawned on me that this was how I had felt when your father first courted me. I could not deny that I had fallen in love with another man. While I knew nothing could ever come of it, I resolved that I would say nothing, but just enjoy this wonderful feeling; and that is what I would have done until it was spent if one day Stephen had not declared that he loved me as well.
“As you know, I am never without a chaperone, and so I was never alone with Stephen. Either Ilsa or some other servant was always there, ready to report any indiscretion to your father, or to start malicious gossip in the palace. One day Stephen handed me a sheaf of music manuscripts, among which was a page on which he had penned, ‘I know how you feel, and I feel the same.’ That night, alone in my chamber, I reread that message, ran my fingers lovingly over the ink, and then burnt the paper until it was nothing but powdery ash. I could not risk anyone finding it. Ever.
“My joy was elevated to an intensity which could not last. It did not last. My world crashed about me with my father’s death. I was devastated at the loss and filled with guilt that I had not been a better daughter, not visited more often or brought him to live with us in the palace when he was still well enough to do so. My music sessions with Stephen were fraught with a sense of desperation as we both gazed at each other, knowing that what we desired could never be. When we were able to speak frankly, when our chaperone was out of hearing distance as we walked in the garden, I would urge him to leave, to forget me and find happiness elsewhere. He steadfastly refused. He loved me, he said, and unless I specifically banished him, he would remain, for I was his sole source of happiness.
“I tried to tell you,” my mother said, the tears running down her still smooth cheeks. “I wanted so desperately to confide in someone, but in the end, I could not. I felt so guilty, that I was betraying your father, that I was denying Stephen the future he deserved, and that I could not be a part of it. I still feel that way. Nothing has changed. If I were able to split myself in twain, I would, so that one of me could remain here and the other run away with Stephen. But even then, the one who remains would still love him, and the one leaves would still love your father. As well, I am twice Stephen’s age. He will still be hale when it is time for me to join my parents in death. When I point this out to him, he refuses to consider it an obstacle to our happiness. But I am miserable.”
The queen lapsed into silence and I handed her my clean handkerchief so she could dry her tears. “Why Grethe, Mother?” I asked. “How does she fit into all of this?”
Margaret glanced at the girl where she sat by the window, her hair shining in the afternoon sunlight. She had laid down her needlework and was watching the dust motes that danced in the slanting beams of light.
“I needed a maid,” said my mother, simply. “I wanted my privacy, mine and Stephen’s. Who better to be my chaperone than a mute who watches flecks of dust? No matter what she saw or heard, she would not betray me. Grethe is that person.”
Conflicting emotions arose in me, yet I tried to maintain a professional demeanour. I had vowed that I would help and that I would keep her secret, but the thought of my mother and Stephen together made me itch between my shoulder blades. Then I remembered my own hopeless love and the despair I had felt when we took our final parting. “What is this favour you’re asking of me, mother? What do you think I can do to help?”