‘Can’t you find something more cheerful to look at than that thing?’ The Midget asked next morning, referring to the Richard portrait which Grant had propped up against the pile of books on his bed-side table.
‘You don’t find it an interesting face?’
‘Interesting! It gives me the willies. A proper Dismal Desmond.’
‘According to the history books he was a man of great ability.’
‘So was Bluebeard.’
‘And considerable popularity, it would seem.’
‘So was Bluebeard.’
‘A very fine soldier, too,’ Grant said wickedly, and waited. ‘No Bluebeard offers?’
‘What do you want to look at that face for? Who was he anyway?’
‘Richard the Third.’
‘Oh, well, I ask you!’
‘You mean that’s what you expected him to look like.’
‘A murdering brute, wasn’t he?’
‘You seem to know your history.’
‘Everyone knows that. Did away with his two little nephews, poor brats. Had them smothered.’
‘Smothered?’ said Grant, interested. ‘I didn’t know that.’
‘Smothered with pillows.’ She banged his own pillows with a fragile vigorous fist, and replaced them with speed and precision.
‘Why smothering? Why not poison?’ Grant inquired.
‘Don’t ask me. I didn’t arrange it.’
‘Who said they were smothered?’
‘My history book at school said it.’
‘Yes, but whom was the history book quoting?’
‘Quoting? It wasn’t quoting anything. It was just giving facts.’
‘Who smothered them, did it say?’
‘A man called Tyrrel. Didn’t you do any history, at school?’
‘I attended history lessons. It is not the same thing. Who was Tyrrel?’
‘I haven’t the remotest. A friend of Richard’s.’
‘How did anyone know it was Tyrrel?’
‘After he had been found guilty, of course. Before he was hanged.’
‘You mean that this Tyrrel was actually hanged for the murder of the two Princes?’
‘Yes, of course. Shall I take that dreary face away and put up something gayer? There were quite a lot of nice faces in that bundle Miss Hallard brought you yesterday.’
‘I’m not interested in nice faces. I’m interested only in dreary ones; in “murdering brutes” who are “men of great ability”.’
‘Well, there’s no accounting for tastes,’ said The Midget inevitably. ‘And I don’t have to look at it, thank goodness. But in my humble estimation it’s enough to prevent bones knitting, so help me it is.’
‘Well, if my fracture doesn’t mend you can put it down to Richard III’s account. Another little item on that account won’t be noticed, it seems to me.’
He must ask Marta when next she looked in if she too knew about this Tyrrel. Her general knowledge was not very great, but she had been educated very expensively at a highly approved school and perhaps some of it had stuck.
But the first visitor to penetrate from the outside world proved to be Sergeant Williams; large and pink and scrubbed-looking; and for a little Grant forgot about battles long ago and considered wide boys alive today. Williams sat planted on the small hard visitors’ chair, his knees apart and his pale blue eyes blinking like a contented cat’s in the light from the window, and Grant regarded him with affection. It was pleasant to talk shop again; to use that elliptical, allusive speech that one uses only with another of one’s trade. It was pleasant to hear the professional gossip, to talk professional politics; to learn who was on the mat and who was on the skids.
‘The Super sent his regards,’ Williams said as he got up to go, ‘and said if there was anything he could do for you to let him know.’ His eyes, no longer dazzled by the light, went to the photograph propped against the books. He leant his head sideways at it. ‘Who’s the bloke?’
Grant was just about to tell him when it occurred to him that here was a fellow policeman. A man as used, professionally, to faces as he was himself. Someone to whom faces were of daily importance.
‘Portrait of a man by an unknown fifteenth-century painter,’ he said. ‘What do you make of it?’
‘I don’t know the first thing about painting.’
‘I didn’t mean that. I meant what do you make of the subject?’
‘Oh. Oh, I see.’ Williams bent forward and drew his bland brows into a travesty of concentration. ‘How do you mean “make of it”?’
‘Well, where would you place him? In the dock or on the bench?’
Williams considered for a moment, and then said with confidence: ‘Oh, on the bench.’
‘Certainly. Why? Wouldn’t you?’
‘Yes. But the odd thing is that we’re both wrong. He belongs in the dock.’
‘You surprise me,’ Williams said, peering again. ‘Do you know who he was, then?’
‘Yes. Richard the Third.’
‘So that’s who it is, is it! Well, well. The Princes in the Tower, and all that. The original Wicked Uncle. I suppose, once you know, you can see it, but off-hand it wouldn’t occur to you. I mean, that he was a crook. He’s the spit of old Halsbury, come to think of it, and if Halsbury had a fault at all it was that he was too soft with the blighters in the dock. He used to lean over backwards to give them the benefit in his summing-up.’
‘Do you know how the Princes were murdered?’
‘I don’t know a thing about Richard III except that his mother was two years conceiving him.’
‘What! Where did you get that tale?’
‘In my school history, I suppose.’
‘You must have gone to a very remarkable school. Conception was not mentioned in any history book of mine. That is what made Shakespeare and the Bible so refreshing as lessons; the facts of life were always turning up. Did you ever hear of a man called Tyrrel?’
‘Yes; he was a con. man on the P & O. boats. Drowned in the Egypt.’
‘No; I mean, in history.’
‘I tell you, I never knew any history except 1066 and 1603.’
‘What happened in 1603?’ Grant asked, his mind still on Tyrrel.
‘We had the Scots tied to our tails for good.’
‘Better than having them at our throats every five minutes. Tyrrel is said to be the man who put the boys out of the way.’
‘The nephews? No, it doesn’t ring a bell. Well, I must be getting along. Anything I can do for you?’
‘Did you say you were going to Charing Cross Road?’
‘To the Phoenix, yes.’
‘You could do something for me.’
‘What is that?’
‘Go into one of the bookshops and buy me a History of England. An adult one. And a Life of Richard III, if you can find one.’
‘Sure, I’ll do that.’
As he was going out he encountered The Amazon, and looked startled to find anything as large as himself in nurse’s uniform. He murmured a good-morning in an abashed way, cast a questioning glance at Grant, and faded into the corridor.
The Amazon said that she was supposed to be giving Number Four her blanket bath but that she had to look in to see if he was convinced.
About the nobility of Richard Coeur-de-Lion.
‘I haven’t got round to Richard the First yet. But keep Number Four waiting a few moments longer and tell me what you know about Richard III.’
‘Ah, those poor lambs!’ she said, her great cow’s-eyes soft with pity.
‘Those two precious little boys. It used to be my nightmare when I was a kiddy. That someone would come and put a pillow over my face when I was asleep.’
‘Is that how it was done: the murder?’
‘Oh, yes. Didn’t you know? Sir James Tyrrel rode back to London when the court was at Warwick, and told Dighton and Forrest to kill them, and then they buried them at the foot of some stairs under a great mound of stones.’
‘But it doesn’t say that in the book you lent me.’
‘Oh, that book is just history-for-exams, if you know what I mean. You don’t get really interesting history in swot books like that.’
‘And where did you get the juicy gossip about Tyrrel, may one ask?’
‘It isn’t gossip,’ she said, hurt. ‘You’ll find it in Sir Thomas More’s history of his time. And you can’t find a more respected or trustworthy person in the whole of history than Sir Thomas More, now can you?’
‘No. It would be bad manners to contradict Sir Thomas.’
‘Well, that’s what Sir Thomas says, and, after all, he was alive then and knew all those people to talk to.’
‘Dighton and Forrest?’
‘No, of course not. But Richard, and the poor Queen, and those.’
‘The Queen? Richard’s Queen?’
‘He led her an awful life. They say he poisoned her. He wanted to marry his niece.’
‘Because she was the heir to the throne.’
‘I see. He got rid of the two boys, and then wanted to marry their eldest sister.’
‘Yes. He couldn’t marry either of the boys, you see.’
‘No, I suppose even Richard the Third never thought of that one.’
‘So he wanted to marry Elizabeth so as to feel safer on the throne. Actually, of course, she married his successor. She was Queen Elizabeth’s grandmother. It always used to please me that Elizabeth was a little bit Plantagenet. I never was very fond of the Tudor side. Now I must go, or Matron will be here on her round before I have Number Four tidied up.’
‘That would be the end of the world.’
‘It would be the end of me,’ she said, and went away.
Grant took the book she had lent him off the pile again, and tried to make head or tail of the Wars of the Roses. He failed. Armies marched and counter-marched. York and Lancaster succeeded each other as victors in a bewildering repetition. It was as meaningless as watching a crowd of dodgem cars bumping and whirling at a fair.
But it seemed to him that the whole trouble was implicit, the germ of it sown, nearly a hundred years earlier, when the direct line was broken by the deposition of Richard II. He knew all about that because he had in his youth seen Richard of Bordeaux at the New Theatre; four times he had seen it. For three generations the usurping Lancasters had ruled England: Richard of Bordeaux’s Henry unhappily but with fair efficiency, Shakespeare’s Prince Hal with Agincourt for glory and the stake for zeal, and his son in half-witted muddle and failure. It was no wonder if men hankered after the legitimate line again, as they watched poor Henry VI’s inept friends frittering away the victories in France while Henry nursed his new foundation of Eton and besought the ladies at court to cover up their bosoms.
All three Lancasters had had an unlovely fanaticism which contrasted sharply with the liberalism of the Court which had died with Richard II. Richard’s live-and-let-live methods had given place, almost overnight, to the burning of heretics. For three generations heretics had burned. It was no wonder if a less public fire of discontent had begun to smoulder in the heart of the man in the street.
Especially since there, before their eyes, was the Duke of York. Able, sensible, influential, gifted, a great prince in his own right, and by blood the heir of Richard II. They might not desire that York should take the place of poor silly Henry, but they did wish that he would take over the running of the country and clean up the mess.
York tried it, and died in battle for his pains, and his family spent much time in exile or sanctuary as a result.
But when the tumult and the shouting was all over, there on the throne of England was the son who had fought alongside him in that struggle, and the country settled back happily under that tall, flaxen, wenching, exceedingly beautiful but most remarkably shrewd young man, Edward IV.
And that was as near as Grant would ever come to understanding the Wars of the Roses.
He looked up from his book to find Matron standing in the middle of the room.
‘I did knock,’ she said, ‘but you were lost in your book.’
She stood there, slender and remote; as elegant in her way as Marta was; her white-cuffed hands clasped loosely in front of her narrow waist; her white veil spreading itself in imperishable dignity; her only ornament the small silver badge of her diploma. Grant wondered if there was anywhere in this world a more unshakable poise than that achieved by the matron of a great hospital.
‘I’ve taken to history,’ he said. ‘Rather late in the day.’
‘An admirable choice,’ she said. ‘It puts things in perspective.’ Her eye lighted on the portrait and she said: ‘Are you York or Lancaster?’
‘So you recognise the portrait.’
‘Oh, yes. When I was a probationer I used to spend a lot of time in the National. I had very little money and very sore feet, and it was warm in the Gallery and quiet and it had plenty of seats.’ She smiled a very little, looking back from her present consequence to that young, tired, earnest creature that she had been. ‘I liked the Portrait Gallery best because it gave one the same sense of proportion that reading history does. All those Importances who had made such a to-do over so much in their day. All just names. Just canvas and paint. I saw a lot of that portrait in those days.’ Her attention went back to the picture. ‘A most unhappy creature,’ she said.
‘My surgeon thinks it is poliomyelitis.’
‘Polio?’ She considered it. ‘Perhaps. I hadn’t thought of it before. But to me it has always seemed to be intense unhappiness. It is the most desperately unhappy face that I have ever encountered and I have encountered a great many.’
‘You think it was painted later than the murder, then?’
‘Oh, yes. Obviously. He is not a type that would do anything lightly. A man of that calibre. He must have been well aware of how heinous the crime was.’
‘You think he belonged to the type who can’t live with themselves any more.’
‘What a good description! Yes. The kind who want something badly, and then discover that the price they have paid for it is too high.’
‘So you don’t think he was an out-and-out villain?’
‘No; oh, no. Villains don’t suffer, and that face is full of the most dreadful pain.’
They considered the portrait in silence for a moment or two.
‘It must have seemed like retribution, you know. Losing his only boy so soon after. And his wife’s death. Being stripped of his own personal world in so short a time. It must have seemed like Divine justice.’
‘Would he care about his wife?’
‘She was his cousin, and they had known each other from childhood. So whether he loved her or not, she must have been a companion for him. When you sit on a throne I suspect that companionship is a rare blessing. Now I must go and see how my hospital is getting on. I have not even asked the question that I came to ask. Which was how you felt this morning. But it is a very healthy sign that you have interest to spare for a man dead these four hundred years.’
She had not moved from the position in which he had first caught sight of her. Now she smiled her faint, withdrawn smile, and with her hands still clasped lightly in front of her belt-buckle moved towards the door. She had a transcendental repose. Like a nun. Like a queen.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14