This year, the first anniversary of her death, the Writer's Circle decided that it would be good to link the competition to Nigel Tranter as he was special to both of us. In October 2003 I attended a meeting and talked about our knowing Nigel, his work my internet activities in his memory and collecting first editions. At the end the 2004 competition was set as'A short story about a Scottish Historical character to reflect the style of Nigel Tranter'
In all nine entries were received and with Wendy, Niall and myself adjudicating separately and then pooling our comments the winner was chosen. That was 'A Dance around the Fountain' by Catherine McArdle and I had the pleasure of presenting her with the trophy on the 10th February 2004. Because of the dual Helen/Nigel link this year it was felt appropriate to add Catherines story to the Tranter pages.
She missed her home in France, though this Palace of Linlithgow was very fine, --- indeed as they had swayed up the cobbled hill in the six-horse carriage, her mistress had leaned forward and murmured that it was, ‘the most princely home’ she had ever seen. But the loch here had wavelets breaking into dashes of white foam on its steely, grey surface, unlike the blue lake which mirrored the skies at the Chateau de Guise. There was sunshine here in Scotland too, but it lacked the vibrant warmth of France.
Of course, Francoise acknowledged, what was wrong was the separation from Jacques, her betrothed. She thought of him remembering the tall, slim figure, his hair as black as the dark of midnight and his dancing, brown eyes which could be bright with laughter as he teased her, or soft with love as he whispered in her ear. When would they be married now, since he was still in France and she here in Scotland? Her eyes filled with tears and, not for the first time, she wished that her mistress, Mary of Guise, had married into the French nobility instead of becoming the bride of the Scottish King James.
She swished aside the rich, brocade bed-hangings as her mistress said, “That is you Francoise? Ah bonjour, ---- but you cry ma petite?” Mary’s blue eyes softened as she glanced at her lady in waiting. “You miss France, like me, but I have a surprise for you. In some day’s time we are to visit the Palace of Falkland where we will hunt in the forests by day and have feasting and merriment at night. This is good, oui?” she coaxed, and was rewarded when Francoise smiled in agreement. “Oui Madame, this is good.”
Later, her administrations to Mary over for the morning, Francoise ran lightly down the circular stairs of the northwest tower. As she drew near the King’s bedchamber, which was directly beneath that of the Queen, she heard a door thud shut and quick footsteps on the stone.
A figure appeared around a curve in the staircase and she shrank back against the cold walls, pulling in her long skirts, ---- green velvet swirling on dusty stone. The narrow, darting eyes of the King met hers and she bowed her head murmuring “Bonjour Sire.” He answered in the flat, broad dialect she was trying so hard to master, tugging at his sparse beard.
She looked after him as he hurried past, his medallion clinking against the links of his gold chain. He had inherited the fine eyes, aquiline nose and auburn hair of the Stuarts and she thought him a fine figure of a man. Her mistress seemed happy enough with James. After all she had chosen him in preference to his uncle, Henry, and there had been plenty other suitors for her hand in marriage.
But the gossip in the kitchens was that James had not forgotten the love he had felt for his first wife, the Princess Madeleine, who had died within a year of their marriage, her frail health being unable to stand the severe Scottish winter. The pastry cook had told Francoise that James had re-married quickly in order to obtain the dowry that Mary had brought. It had been a grand sum rumoured to be of one hundred and fifty thousand livres.
Francoise, though, had doubts about the truth of that tale. Her mistress was a tall, shapely woman with sparkling, blue eyes and bright, red-gold hair. It was clear that the King loved and respected her. Francoise remembered the day they had arrived in Linlithgow. He had had a fountain built in the courtyard as a present for his new bride. It was elaborately carved in three tiers and was embossed with the emblems of France and Scotland.
On that day of arrival James had ordered that the fountain run, not with water, but with the deep, red wine of Mary’s native land. Francoise sighed. What feasting there had been that night. What dancing there had been. She had wished that Jacques had been at her side when she had danced around the fountain.
Blinking in the sudden sunshine she left the turnpike tower and entered the courtyard. The sunshine glinted on the water in the fountain and turned the grey-stone walls to honey colour. The inhabitants of the Palace were gossiping noisily in corners. Children, laughing, were playing with balls and hoops, some dodging between horses that tossed heads impatiently. Hooves clanged on the cobbles, bridles and reins jingled as riders exchanged the time of day.
Leaving the courtyard by the south-entrance pend, she passed through the massive archway, nodding a greeting to the guards wielding their battle-axes then made her way to the herb garden. There, among lavender, mint and the fragrance of rosemary, she found her Scottish friend. Kate was playing with one-year old Prince James and gently rocking the new baby Arthur in his cradle. As always her black cat was by her side.
Francoise hurried forward exclaiming in her lilting accent, “Kate, I knew you would be here. I have news for you” and she proceeded to tell her friend of the proposed visit.
“Wait Francoise,” laughed Kate, stemming the excited flow of words. “I know already and the time is to be brought forward. We leave tomorrow, because the King wishes to talk with the French workmen he has sent to Falkland. They are working on the façade of the Palace, carving out ornate designs on the buttresses. The King wishes his castles to be as fine as those of his uncle in France.” The two girls sat in the sunshine discussing their plans while the black cat watched.
Next day the skies were dull. Light rain fell and dripped from the chestnut tree outside her window. However she was soon caught up in the bustle and excitement as the court entourage prepared for their journey.
En route she shared a carriage with Kate, but fell silent as she glimpsed the turrets of Falkland, thinking how if Jacques were there he would love to hunt with the royal party in the forests. They would sit together at the long table, feasting on wild boar and other game, tasting the strange puddings the Scottish people liked and sipping the garnet coloured claret shipped from Bordeaux. They would dance to the strains of the lute and lyre. But her thoughts were brought to an abrupt end with their arrival and the following hours were busy, while she settled her Queen in the royal chambers.
And now Francoise was strolling in the gardens although night was falling. The rain had refreshed the countryside and the air was heavy with the scent of roses and new-mown grass. She turned to leave and as she did so a pair of strong arms clasped her waist and spun her around. “Mon Dieu,” she gasped but her fright turned to amazed delight as she saw the twinkling eyes and smiling face of Jacques. Almost crying with pleasure and excitement she threw her arms around him then led him inside, laughing and talking at the same time.
Later Jacques told her that King James had sent for him to oversee work that the French masons were carrying out on the Palace. Not only that, plans were being drawn up to embellish Stirling Castle with sculpture and statuary and Linlithgow Palace was to have more stone fireplaces built. The work would take years. “And so, ma petite," he concluded, "we can be married here in Scotland if you so wish.”
The remainder of the week flew by in a happy daze for Francoise and on return to Linlithgow she had made plans for her wedding although they had been marred by the illness of the two young princes. Eventually the marriage was postponed altogether as the court went into deep mourning over their deaths. The Queen was devastated with sadness and Francoise felt it was her duty to give all the care and attention she could. Time dragged by in weary sadness although Jacques and Kate consoled her.
Then eventually Queen Mary had sent for her. “Francoise,ma petite,” she had smiled. “It is time for your wedding to go ahead. For I am once more with child and the time of mourning must end. It is time to think of the future. My two sons have died, perhaps, --- perhaps next I shall have a daughter.” Her blue eyes were wistful. “If so, I shall call her Marie, --- they will call her Mary in Scotland, but you and I Francoise, we are French and will call her Marie.
So now Francoise sat at her wedding feast and thought of the last hours. There had been the ceremony in the Chapel Royal. The sun had shone through the stained glass on to the carved angels and glinted on the jewels in the snood that Kate wore. Afterwards there had been a play by the King’s friend David Lindsay. Thankfully it had been a short one, unlike the ‘Satire of the Three Estates’ which had been performed the year before. She remembered what a rage the King had flown into at the end. He had pushed his chair over with a clatter and thrown a gold wine-pitcher to the ground with an oath as he berated the assembled archbishops on the dubious morals of the clergy. Wine had seeped scarlet on the flagstones, like a stream of blood.
But now her play, ‘The Pretty Maiden’ was over and she sat by her husband’s side at the top of the long table, which stretched the length of the Great Hall. The statues on the wall brackets stared ahead blank-eyed and light streamed through the windows highlighting the rich red and green, blue and gold of the tapestries hanging from iron tenterhooks and covering the stone walls.
Francoise looked around at her friends who were laughing and talking. There was the Queen, her mistress, in her blue, velvet robe, smiling over to her. There was Kate in a silk gown of green, glancing over to her cat, which sat in its favourite place at the side of the hooded fireplace. It was watching flakes of ash fall slowly from the smouldering logs.
Francoise was just thinking that at last she felt at home in this land of Scotland when a cry went up that the minstrels were in the courtyard strumming their lutes. She and Jacques followed the chattering crowd through the Great Hall, down the winding turret to the courtyard. There, along with Mary of Guise and King James, Francoise and Jacques danced at last on the cobblestones around the fountain.