3. In which a still beautiful widow encounters a ghost who laments from beyond the grave that he still isn’t in the index
Alice, Lady Fitzhugh, a still beautiful widow of some fifty summers, waited by the window of her chamber, sighing softly with growing impatience. She didn’t wait for her lover, her burly and uncommunicative Master of Horse, for he had come and gone as was his wont – and very much her preference – some half hour earlier; she didn’t wait for news of the battle in which fought her sons and sons-in-law, for long experience told her that such news came, good or ill, whether she waited for it or not; she didn’t wait for the arrival of the messenger who was to tell her what to do with the half grown boys currently asleep in her second best bedchamber, for her instructions there depended on other things. She waited for a visitation from her most beloved lord and husband, long departed, greatly missed and much lamented, who sometimes popped in of a Tuesday, if he could get away.
He’d been a long time dead, and for all that Alice’s carnal needs were taken care of, her emotional needs went unmet. Henry could do neither, though he’d tried, bless him. He told her how beautiful she was and how much he wished he hadn’t died when he did; he asked after the children, his misty lips breaking into a shadowy smile when she spoke of them. He grew cross with her sometimes, telling her how lonely he was on the Other Side without her, but she stubbornly refused to die, no matter how much he begged, and no matter how delightful she found the prospect of spending an eternity with him.
Henry’s arrival was, as ever, heralded by the rattling of the window panes, a sudden short blast of warm sweet scented air and a stirring in Alice’s loins that her Master of Horse, diligent and thorough as he was, couldn’t quite quell. Wisps and drifts of mist collected and coalesced, shimmering and weaving, coiling about themselves until, finally, they took the vague shape of a man. Alice drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair. He was mighty proud of his manifestation skills, but she’d long since run out of admiring words and phrases to murmur.
“I got held up on the astral plane,” he said, as soon as he had a mouth. “The litter carrying the Choir Invisible took a tumble. Hours it took to sort out. Ten times they did a head count. Came up with a different number every time.”
“Well, you’re here now.”
He settled into a chair, which Alice found rather disconcerting. Two grey eyes looked out at her from deep within upholstery and she clicked her tongue.
“You need to work on your depth perception, dear. I’d say about two inches up and half an inch to the left.” She watched as he adjusted himself. “That’s better.”
“You seem out of sorts, if you don’t mind my saying.”
“Well, yes. It’s this blasted battle, see? We have a perfectly good King – better than the last four put together – and some landless oik from Brittany decides he has to challenge him. It’s all over by now, of course. One way or another.”
“Did our boys take the field?” Henry said.
Alice nodded. “Our boys, our daughters’ husbands. I’ve heard nothing. I don’t know who might be living and who might be dead. I don’t even know who won, though I can’t imagine anyone managing to defeat King Richard or Dickon. Oh, I wish you could be my spirit guide, Henry. I have a feeling I’m going to need one.”
“I can’t I’m afraid. I’m just a literary device. A conduit to the reader, so you can let them know – by telling me – all that happens prior to page 1; and I can operate as a kind of deus ex machina, passing things to you that you couldn’t possibly know. Somewhat trite, and not the most challenging of jobs, but it allows me to see you from time to time, and that’s enough to make any man happy.”
“If you were still alive…”
“If I was still alive, you’d be worrying about me right now, for I’d have been four square behind our good King, frail and angelic® though he be.” He sighed deeply. “I blame myself, of course. If I hadn’t been caught in that thunderstorm halfway to Scotland… And I’m so miserable without you. There’s no-one to talk to.”
“You know, I can’t find head nor tail of them, search though I might. I think they’re avoiding me.” He scowled, which had the effect of drawing a portion of the mist together into a dark thundery cloud. “Too good for me, I suppose, with their multiple entries in the index. I don’t suppose you could put in a word for me, could you?”
Alice laughed. “She doesn’t listen to a word I say.” This wasn’t quite true. It had been at her insistence, and the kind indulgence of the author, that her Master of Horse was quite as… quite as he was. She looked away, so Henry couldn’t see her face. There were some things a late husband just didn’t need to know.