The fire crackled, and a log shifted and settled. John, Duke of Bedford started out of the doze into which he'd fallen, looking round at the bed before he was even fully awake. In the dim candle-light he saw that his brother was still sleeping, face pale amidst the rich hangings and covers.
He stood up slowly, stretching to get the cricks out of his back, for comfortable as it was the great chair was not designed for sleeping. Then he trod softly over to the fire, and added another log; then to the window, to check that the shutters were securely closed against the cold air, for it was freezing hard, this third night of the New Year's gathering at Windsor. Stretching his arms again, he returned to the chair, sat, and contemplated his brother.
Henry was still asleep, but restlessly, his limbs twitching slightly and his eyelids fluttering. The malaise had lasted nearly a week now; not the plague that had swept through southern England again this autumn, but even so his life had hung in the balance for a few days. Henry's physicians had dosed him with draughts for the pain and had refused to do much else - ‘The King is young and strong. We will do best to let the illness run its course and trust in God's grace,' they said, and stressed that he should be warm and quiet; and since he had seemed to take comfort in their presence, his brothers and uncle had taken turns sitting with him. Bedford and Gloucester had taken the evening and night watches by mutual, unspoken, agreement, and Exeter the short daylight hours, as being so much better suited to his temperament.
Bedford shifted in his chair. He was fully awake now, and faced a few more (he was ashamed to admit it) tedious hours before his watch was over. He pulled a book from the case on the table close by, looked at it again - his own copy of the Canterbury Tales, he noted, so that was where it had gone! Well, if Henry recovered, he could keep it and be welcome to it. He pulled the candle closer and began to read.
When he looked up again, his heart lifted as he saw that Henry's eyes were open. Was he conscious, though? Often enough in the past week he's seen those eyes glinting under half-opened lids, but Henry had been insensible. He bent closer to his brother.
‘Yes, I'm here.' He heard the relief in his own voice, though he knew it was premature. This was the first time in days that Henry had known him. ‘How are you feeling?'
‘Terrible,' whispered Henry ‘... how long?'
‘Nearly a week.'
Henry grunted, and looked up at the painted ceiling, apparently trying to reckon up the days, turned his eyes back to Bedford and murmured something of which he only caught the word ‘herald.'
Exasperated beyond measure, Bedford protested ‘You're not well enough to work now,' and yet somehow he was not surprised; if he was on his deathbed Henry would be trying to work.
‘Now.' That was the king speaking, or rather whispering
Bedford prayed, briefly but fervently, for patience, and said ‘Which one? I think Leicester and Lancaster are both in the Castle.'
‘Montjoy.' Deprived of speech, Bedford gaped at him for a moment. The Frenchman had been attached to the court these last few months, acting as liaison with Paris and doing the job well, in his own understated way, but Bedford could not imagine any reason for him to be needed here and now. Then, encountering a narrow-eyed look from Henry, he threw up his hands in defeat and went to the door to summon a page.
Montjoy appeared sooner than he would have believed possible, barely nodding at him before going straight to the bed and kneeling beside it. ‘My lord.' Henry worked a hand out from under the covers and Montjoy took it, holding it to his cheek for a moment before kissing it while John looked on in confusion.
‘It's been too long,' said Henry, his voice a thread.
‘Six days. I couldn't get to you. Gerard's sick too, and the new man wouldn't let me in.'
Gerard, the king's faithful old body-servant... He had been letting the Frenchman into the royal bedchamber?
‘Mm. We'll have to do something about that. Need you here now, though,' and Henry looked at the pillow next to his own. Montjoy went swiftly round the bed, shrugging off his jacket, and toed off his boots. Henry's hand reached out again for his and Montjoy clasped it. Then he slid under the covers, his arm slipped round Henry's waist and he kissed Henry's hair, normally so bright, now dull and lank.
‘Go to sleep, lion-cub.' The barely audible murmur brought the faintest of grins to Henry's face.
Bedford came out of his shocked trance and said ‘I'll, er. Be in the next room. Just call if you, er.'
Henry blinked round at him and nodded, and he made his escape.
Not two minutes had elapsed since Montjoy had arrived in the room.
Next morning Bedford intercepted the page who had arrived with a tray of food, knocked, and took it through himself when Henry's weak voice called him in. They'd swopped positions in the night, Henry now lifting his head from Montjoy's shoulder, and Bedford was relieved to see they were both decently clad in night-shirts. He had had a ridiculous fear that he would find them both naked.
‘Are you able to eat?'
Henry considered this. ‘Maybe.' He half-sat up, Montjoy hitching up the pillows and then sliding behind him to support him.
‘I'll make sure he eats.' The Frenchman gestured for the tray to be brought round to him; Bedford deposited it on the covers and was ready for flight when a thought occurred to him.
‘Our uncle will be here to sit with you before long. Do you want me to tell him, and Gloucester?'
Henry exchanged glances with Montjoy, and then he said, ‘Just the bare facts. Thank-you, John.'
Bedford was just in time to prevent Exeter from striding full-tilt into the room.
His uncle was surprisingly philosophical about it. ‘It could be a lot worse. Remember Scroop?' None of them would ever forget Scroop, or understand why he'd turned traitor. ‘At least this way there'll be no half-brothers or sisters to muddy the succession. If the prince should die, you're next in line, Bedford. No long minority and we know what we'd be getting with you. Same goes for you, Gloucester.'
‘But a Frenchman!' John could hardly articulate how inappropriate he found the whole affair.
‘Best of the bunch by a long way. Sounds as though it's been going on for a while, too, but there's been no breath of rumour and no sign of favouritism. No, he'll do. Pity he isn't English, but then, Scroop was English, and so were his cronies.'
Gloucester, resigned, said ‘It's pointless trying to talk Henry out of anything once his mind's made up. You know that, John. Anyway, you seem to trust Montjoy, or you'd never have left them alone together last night.'
Bedford had to acknowledge the truth of that. Henry had been weak, defenceless, completely vulnerable, and he'd left them alone without a moment's anxiety.
Still, even though Henry was recovering (and in fairness he attributed that in no small part to Montjoy's continued presence) Bedford could not be easy in his mind over his brother's latest liaison. For, he thought, if Montjoy could abandon his duty to France to be with Henry, might he not one day abandon Henry for his duty to France? But then he would remember their hands, touching gently, and the murmured endearments. Or thinking further back; how they'd looked at each other whenever they met during the campaign, that rainy autumn in France - how had he not seen it even then? And in truth he had, all their attention so focussed on each other that the rest of them might not have existed; or their faces scant inches apart as they knelt in the mud of the battlefield. He could not but believe Montjoy sincere in his love; but then, so lightly to abandon his own duty, was he worthy of Henry's affection? And yet, since then, no whisper of gossip had got out, no sign of venality on Montjoy's part; and the contrast with the traitor Scroop could not be greater.
In the end, sick of the uncertainty, and one day finding Henry alone in his bedchamber, he approached him as he sat in watery sunlight in the window seat, well-wrapped in furs. His mood was apprehensive, but he had to have the matter out.
‘Well, brother, tell me what's troubling you,' said Henry, rather to John's surprise - was he that transparent? And Henry himself, still looking pale, seemed very much to wish that John would do no such thing, but regarded him steadily as he listened to his concerns.
‘I know you feel it's your duty to tell me all this,' he said when John had finished, ‘and I'm not surprised it's you rather than anyone else who's come to me. If ever a man took his duty seriously, it's you. But there's no need. Montjoy and I have already talked it through, often enough.'
‘He's a Frenchman,' repeated John stubbornly.
‘Is that all you're worried about? Nothing else at all?' asked Henry, with a smile.
‘Oh, you know I didn't like your affair with Scroop.' Henry's smile vanished, and he turned his head away to stare out of the window at the wintry landscape of the Great Park. ‘But you're the king. The country must come first for you. And wouldn't his own country come first for him, and if not, how can he be worthy of you?'
Henry looked back at him. ‘Our own people come first for both of us. But the treaty holds, brother. If it breaks, we've agreed that we must part, and he'll go back to France and I'll carry on here alone.'
Which gave John a sudden inkling of by how slender a thread his brother's happiness hung; the fragile peace, the absolute importance to Henry of both his country's weal and of his French lover, and how much he must hope that each could be the other's guarantor.
He shook his head. ‘I've never known you take the easy path, brother, but this is the edge of a precipice that you're treading.'
‘Maybe. But it isn't just for his sake and mine that I'm treading it. There's my son's inheritance to think of, as well, and England's prosperity, and France's too. We've managed, so far, but it's only been a few months we've been together. It could still all come crashing down, and you could be the one to bring it down, but I ask you, John, to what purpose?'
And put like that, of course, the question had no answer. ‘Ah, well, I've got no objection to him personally,' he conceded, with perhaps less than good grace. ‘I can't deny that he's a better choice than Scroop.'
‘My thanks, good brother,' said Henry solemnly. ‘But I believe I had already realised that.'
John had to smile, albeit reluctantly. ‘Then be happy, Henry. He's a good man. I always saw that. Even though he's French!' This last reiterated still with some slight sense of indignation. ‘And I could see the other night how he cares for you, and you for him. You don't have to hide it from me anymore.'
Henry put his hand affectionately on his arm, and returned his smile. ‘Thank-you, and I'm glad I don't have to keep it from you; because I tell you truly, John, while I live I will have no other.'
Then there was a knock at the door, and John went to answer it, to find the Frenchman in question standing there, and saw how his eyes went straight to Henry, and the slight smile warming his lean face as he saw him sitting up in the window, and he knew that his fears had been groundless.
He put out his hand to Montjoy in a gesture of greeting and alliance, and said, ‘I'll leave you two together. Take care of him, Montjoy,' and then, with a quiet heart, left his brother in the Frenchman's safe hands.