“Your Majesty? Is all well?”
The lady-in-waiting leaned forward fractionally, concerned to see tears in her monarch’s eyes, but afraid to intrude on the great lady’s privacy.
“Yes, yes – no matter.” The Queen waved away her companion’s concern, then discretely mopped the wetness from her cheeks with long fingers, and allowed her hand to fall over the side of the barge and rest in the sunlit water.
It was a glorious day, with few clouds and little wind. The royal vessel was being propelled smoothly upstream from Hampton by four burley oarsmen. It was not the grandest one available to convey the sovereign, as this was a more private outing than most, but nevertheless it was decorated with spectacular gilding which glistened in the sunshine, and was draped inside with cloths of the brightest colours.
A small group of lesser nobles from the royal Court today enjoyed the Queen’s indulgence and sat conversing quietly amidships, trying their best not to show their nervousness at the honour bestowed upon them, and stealing only tiny glances towards the royal person.
In the bow, three young musicians played soothing melodies whilst under the Queen’s canopy, four of her ladies sat on padded benches, watching the lush green countryside pass by, one of them struggling slightly with a tiny brown lapdog which yapped and fidgeted more than was seemly.
It was a rare moment of peace for the Queen. She had insisted on this unscheduled excursion into the country, sending the kitchens into a frenzy as they hurriedly prepared a suitable picnic. Her advisors jostled for permission to attend her but she refused them all. She was preoccupied with a private sadness and needed just a brief space of time to compose herself. Could she not steal one afternoon for herself, before the demands of state once more took hold of her life?
The attendant who had expressed concern for her Queen was the young and rather plain daughter of wealthy landowner who had lately performed for his monarch some more than dutiful deed. Her name was Caroline de Bret, and in truth she was the Queen’s current favourite, for, compared to the others, she was more self-conscious and less self-serving, and seemed to feel a genuine sympathy for the Queen’s often troubled moods.
Caroline, who was sitting closest to her mistress, now most unexpectedly felt her hand clasped by the Queen, who seemed only to want a reassuring touch, for she declined to speak or even turn her head in Caroline’s direction.
Ignoring the jealous glances of the other ladies, Caroline kept her eyes fixed on the rings decorating the Queen’s fingers and, though she was still very young and unschooled in the ways of the world, found herself wondering whether it was a matter of the heart which was troubling the great lady. She had heard the gossip of course, the ceaseless speculation about who the Queen might take as a lover, and more than that – who she might favour as husband and King. She had heard names mentioned – this noble and that, the Earl of here and the Duke of there – but had never herself observed anything more than pride and perhaps humour in the Queen’s manner towards her many admirers.
But something, it was apparent, was making her weep, and young though Caroline was, she felt a surge of sympathy for her mentor, who could sometimes be so harsh and difficult, and yet today felt the need to cling tightly to another human soul.
The barge presently approached the chosen picnic site, and as it drew against its mooring, the musicians stopped playing and leapt onto the grassy bank with the guards, where they stretched their legs then began to help with unloading the picnic paraphernalia – an assortment of seats and cushions, hampers and bowls and flasks.
The male courtiers knew their moment, and rushed to help the Queen up the barge’s steps and onto dry land. The stateliness of the moment was rather ruined by the dog, which finally broke free from its hapless keeper and rushed past the Queen into the meadow, barking madly and immediately chasing butterflies. The Queen only laughed though, and allowed herself to be accompanied a little way uphill to a shady spot beneath some oak trees, which she had herself picked out as an appropriate picnic place on a previous rural excursion.
Settling herself in the chair brought up for her, and accepting a beaker of wine, she made herself comfortable, looking beyond the fussing attendants to the vista of fields and forests now visible to her, through which the river wove, broad and bright and sparkling.
“Ah, England!” she sighed under her breath, and for a moment the secret heaviness lifted from her heart, and the echoes of her painful dreams receded.
The food was served, the musicians began to play again, and the ladies and the courtiers flirted, or played at cards, or went for little walks. It became apparent to all that the Queen was happy to sit quietly alone, and would not be demanding constant amusement on this occasion. Only Caroline stayed near to her, picking buttercups and smiling to indicate her readiness to assist, should she be needed.
The sun climbed to its peak, and after a little more wine, the Queen dropped into a slumber.
When she awoke, the music had stopped and there was a strange stillness around her. Glancing at her Court, she saw that everyone appeared to be asleep, slumped over cushions in ones and twos. Even the guards were not at their posts, but sprawled on the grass beneath the trees.
She should have been angry at this, but felt only calm and detached, and wondered hazily whether she was perhaps still asleep.
And then she noticed that walking towards her along the bank of the river, was a strange old man with long grey hair and a loose blue robe, and carrying in his arms a huge bunch of wildflowers.
As his appearance was rather wild and unusual, she should have been concerned, she should have roused the guards, but somehow she only rose to her feet and stood watching as he came closer, crossing the meadow with giant strides, smiling as he came and with kindness in his eyes.
“Dearest Majesty!” he pronounced once he stood before her, and then bowed, long and low, and thrust the meadow bouquet towards her – bright red poppies, tall white daisies and long brown reeds from the riverbank, together with a myriad other blooms and fronds she could not have named. “Please accept this small token of the countryside,” he said. “Oh, how many times I have seen and admired your gracious self from a distance – how pleasing it is to at last meet you in person!”
With only a moment’s hesitation, the Queen accepted the flowers, and their beauty, as well as their unexpectedness, made her heart swell.
“Sir, I thank you. You say you know me, but I know you not. Will you enlighten me?”
“Your Majesty,” the stranger replied, “I am but one of your loyal subjects – no doubt there are many such as I who admire you, but whom you have never met. Fear not,” he added, as the Queen glanced, despite herself, at her sleeping guards, “I have no ill intent, and you will have no need of your men.”
The Queen looked into the old man’s eyes and tried to understand what it was that she saw there. In the end she concluded that it was compassion, but this was such a rare thing for a Queen to see in her subjects’ eyes, that again she wondered if this were just a dream. And with that thought came a shiver of fear, as it was uncontrollable dreams that had recently been disturbing her peace.
“Am I enchanted?” she asked suddenly of the stranger, but he shook his head.
“No – they are,” he replied, indicating with a sweep of his arm the sleeping guards and attendants. Nearby, the lady Caroline lay curled on the grass, her eyes closed but her lips smiling. Even the little dog lay snoring gently at the side of the Queen’s chair, its tiny nose twitching like a rabbit’s.
“Madam,” the stranger held out an arm. “Would you do me the honour of walking with me? I have so longed to meet you, and I am concerned for your pain.”
Wondering how he could have seen so quickly Into her heart, the Queen set the flowers aside and took the old man’s elbow. They set off together across the meadow towards the riverbank, with not a soul to see them and not a soul to overhear of what they spoke.
“Tell me what troubles you,” said the old man, and the Queen began quietly to weep again.
“Ah, it is the child! I dream always of the child I long for but which can never be mine! She slips always out of my arms, a sweet little girl with my own features and tiny fingers. I long to hold her for just a second, but always she drifts away from me – oh, the dream is so cruel, and my heart breaks with grief when I wake.” She paused and looked out for a moment across the rolling meadow. “Such is the secret torment of a sad and sorrowful Queen!”
Her companion squeezed her hand gently. “But why is it,” he asked, “that you cannot have a child, for surely you may? Have the doctors told you it is impossible? Is there a reason you are denying yourself this pleasure?”
The Queen sighed. “No, doctors play no part in it. It is my own resolve that creates my anguish.” She turned to the old man, and spoke with deliberation. “For how can I raise one suitor above all the others? How can I trust anyone? How can I risk the good of the country? My mind plays over and over all the dreadful things which could go wrong, and I always reach the same conclusion – the thing cannot be done. But I did not expect – ” she swallowed “ – I did not expect to be so plagued with troubling dreams and so distracted by my own desires. I am appalled at my weakness.”
The stranger, who now no longer seemed like a stranger to the Queen, was thoughtful for a while, but at length spoke again.
“Do you remember, when you were a girl, you would ride your pony along the riverbank and teach it to jump hedges which your tutor insisted were far too high? And that time you went against advice and agreed with the petition from the villagers – I heard your speech, you were magnificent in your resolve! Of all people, dearest lady, I do not believe you are at all weak willed. You are stronger than you know, and wiser.”
“But how do you know these things about me? Who are you?”
“Dear lady,” the old man pressed her hand, “I will tell you who I am. I will tell you what I have never told a mortal soul, because I see that you are a very great and special person who will leave this country a great legacy. I will tell you because I admire you and respect you, and know something of your torment. And because I long to tell my own secret and in all these years have seen none more worthy to tell it to.” He paused. “Of course later, you will believe it all to be a dream – but hopefully a better one than the other. Your mourning will pass and your strength return. And you will know happiness!”
The curious couple stopped by the side of the water and with a flit of blue a humble kingfisher witnessed the grand occasion.
“I,” the old man revealed, “am Old Father Thames. I am the spirit of this great river that flows through your land. As you guard your country, I guard my watery domain.”
The Queen was smiling. She looked at Old Father Thames with a piercing eye and exclaimed, “Well! I am so very proud to make your acquaintance!”
And so their walk resumed, back and forth along the riverbank, and for nearly an hour Old Father Thames told the Queen of England of his beginnings and of some of his many adventures, while she listened with a keen ear and wondered what wisdom she could glean from this encounter.
At length they found themselves back at the picnic, the attendants all still asleep on the hill.
“So do you see, fair lady, how much we have in common?”
The Queen nodded. “I do, and I have understood also your message to me, which must indeed be borne of enchantment. As I am sovereign of this beautiful country, you are king of your own domain. And in the same way that you are so tightly bound to it, that you cannot stray too far from its banks, so am I bound to my country before all, and must do my duty to it, putting aside all thought of escape or hope of a different life. You have helped me to see it clearly. I will do my duty, as you have done yours. I will guard and care for my realm as you do yours, and know that in doing so I have found my true purpose and my true self.”
Old Father Thames smiled and nodded. “Indeed, we are alike. And your stewardship will bring you joy, and will cease to be a burden – you must trust me on this. But now look, you must resume your proper place, for your companions awake!”
And the Queen felt herself drowsy once more, and the old man’s face seemed to be growing fainter. “But will I see you again?” she asked in a rush. “May we speak like this in future?”
“Certainly you will see me, for I will be all around you each time you take to the water and I will watch you in your splendour when you walk along the shore. Whenever your reflection falls on the water, I will be there, and if ever again your tears should mingle with these endless tears of mine – I will come to you, I promise.”
And then the Queen was seated on her picnic chair, awakening with a start, and the face before her was not that of the river god, but that of the lady Caroline, her favourite attendant.
“Oh!” the Queen exclaimed, taking the girl’s hands and looking into her blue eyes, so full of concern. “Ah, my dear – fear not! I was not well but now I am better! My heart is light and my troubles have passed. Come!” she gestured to the musicians who were looking around them bemusedly. “Kind sirs, play your jauntiest tune! Sweet child, dance for me – dance in this delightful meadow, so that you may share my newfound joy!”
And so all the courtiers danced and sang beneath the trees, and none wondered of the Queen’s good mood, for they all shared it.
And life in England seemed good, and England’s Queen grew more loved and more admired than any before her.
And she did her duty, and she put aside her heart, and if ever she felt any doubts, or any sorrow, or any tiny tremor of grief, she would take to the river, and, gazing down into the sparkling waters, draw secret strength from the smiling face of Old Father Thames, which always appeared to greet her.