The Pauper Prince
Being with Isabel was comforting when she was sleeping, nursing, or wiggling her limbs around and gurgling, as babies will do. When she was inconsolable, it was a less comforting experience.
The thick door and walls muffled the shrieks within, but Mara knew what was coming. She leaned against the wall, closed her eyes, took in a good breath, and opened the door. Miss Daphne was holding and gently bouncing the little Princess, trying to use soothing words and tones which were clearly not soothing enough. She could not hide her frazzled, frantic frustration and apologized loudly over the din. Mara did not respond, but took in the scene mutely before steeling her nerves and gently taking her daughter into her arms.
For the next few minutes, Mara’s efforts were no better. Isabel’s tears would dry for no one. But in spite of the cries stinging her ears, Mara kept her cheek right next to her daughter’s. She rubbed Isabel’s back and spoke calmly, soothingly, and never gave in to her own frustration or tiredness. In this case her tiredness may have helped, for she lacked the energy to give in and scold the child… or worse.
After a long time, a miracle occurred; Isabel’s wails quieted to soft sobbing. Mara sighed in relief, then kissed Isabel’s forehead and turned her attention to Miss Daphne.
“Ah!” she sighed. “I think we might be able to hear again.”
The nanny mustered up a half-smile in response and attempted another apology. Mara ignored it and announced that she would take Isabel to her own room, and that Miss Daphne ought to take a well-earned break. When Mara left the room, it was unclear to her if Miss Daphne would actually do so, but was satisfied that she, at least, had been quite clear about it.
Just at the moment of arriving at her parlor door, Mara was surprised by the Countess Yvette, who had been waiting patiently and politely for an unknown time. Her demeanor was demure – meek, even – but as far as Mara could tell through her haze of growing exhaustion, Yvette was there to inform her that she supported Mara’s goal of improving the lot of women, but stopped short of offering any practical assistance. She also wanted Mara to know that she, the Princess, was brave and conscientious for taking such a risk and thinking of others, and that she would be an excellent Queen someday. All this and a demure, meek request to sit beside her during supper. Once Mara had a chance to speak, she thanked the Countess for her high praise and mumbled something noncommittal about the seating arrangement.
Yvette paused as if deciding to reword her request, then smiled, dipped as well as her pregnant body allowed, turned to leave, and yelped.
“Oh! Your Highness! You gave me such a start!” she said, fanning herself. Mara was not herself startled by her husband Kelvin’s arrival.
“My apologies, Countess,” he said. “Am I interrupting you two?”
“Oh, we were just finishing our talk,” said Yvette. “We were making… light conversation only. I shan’t impose any longer.”
She began to go around Kelvin, who stayed in place. “One moment, please,” he said, and took up her hand to kiss it gently. He held it while speaking. “Yvette,” he said quietly. “I just wanted to say that you’re positively glowing these days. Your husband is a most fortunate man.”
“Th-thank you, your Highness,” she said, looking down and blushing. “I shall tell him you said that.” She scurried past him before her cheeks could burst into flame from more embarrassment.
Kelvin watched her leave, then turned to get his own mild fright; Mara was standing much closer than he’d expected. Isabel fit quite snugly between them. He recovered immediately, and they shared a quick kiss, then decided together to indulge in several more, longer ones.
“My two favorite girls,” he said, smiling languidly before kissing Isabel’s forehead. He took her from Mara’s arms and carried her to a settee; his wife joined him right after. “So…” he said, placing Isabel face-up in his lap. He let his daughter grab at his hands and fingers while he spoke. “Yvette stopped by, did she?”
“Yes, but not for long,” said Mara. “I probably should have invited her in, but I was too tired. Am too tired. I think she just wanted to offer her verbal support for a new venture of mine. And to flatter me a lot. I think?”
“That sounds like Yvette,” he said. “Her parents spent most of her life trying to groom her as my docile bride, and forgot to allow her to have a personality.”
“Oh, that’s not very kind,” she said. “Unless she was just trying to curry favor with me? I hope not. But if she was, she must not know that that sort of thing doesn’t work on me.”
“No doubt,” he said. “And my jab was meant more for her parents than for her. I think somewhere along the line, they broke her spirit. The poor girl… On the other hand her husband, Count Francis, is a good man. I think that he genuinely cares for her. I think that he’ll take good care of her.”
“Let us hope so,” she said.
“And she’s supporting a ‘new venture,’ you say?” he said. “Would that be the one about overturning all our laws?”
“Wh-? How did-?” she said, then groaned. “Mother Queen?” He nodded. “She exaggerates, Darling. Let me go on record as saying that there is no sedition on my mind. I was just… I was just throwing out some ideas at a tea party. You know, the usual ‘lady’ things.”
“Really? Ladies usually talk about overturning our laws?”
“Uuuh! I am not! trying to-!”
“I teeeease, I teeeease,” he said, pulling her close and kissing her temple. “Mother said that you’re dissatisfied with our laws as pertaining to women, and want to debate with us about them.”
She sighed loudly in relief. “So she did understand me.”
“She was a bit more dismissive about it than I just presented to you, but that’s how I interpreted it.”
“And…?” said Mara.
“And what?” said Kelvin.
“Are you dismissive about it?” she said. “What I hope to do?”
He looked down at Isabel and stroked her cheek. She grabbed at his hand and wrapped her fingers around his thumb. He relaxed his hand and let her move it around like her own little plaything. He kept his gaze on her while speaking.
“Do your research,” he said. “Make a plan. Present your case.” Now he looked at Mara. “There’s nothing to dismiss if you do that well enough. Just bear in mind that Father believes in our laws, and so do I.”
“I’m not trying to upend the kingdom,” she said. “Just suggest improvements. Changes. Change isn’t always bad, yes?”
He smiled. “I think we’re proof of that,” he said. “Wouldn’t you say?” She was momentarily puzzled, then blushed. “You could make the argument that you’ve already upended the kingdom. A commoner becomes royalty, hmmmm…”
She scoffed. “People would know it’s been upended if I could tell them I was a commoner. I can’t even tell Heather the whole truth. I don’t like it, you know.”
“I know, I know,” he said, holding her close. “But look how long it took to convince my parents of the rightness of our marriage. Now imagine having to convince not just everyone in this kingdom, but every other kingdom, all at once.”
“Yeees, I know,” she grumbled. “Trust me, I’ve said nothing that I’m not supposed to. Else war would begin, the skies would turn black, oceans would run red, cats and mice would live together. Chaos would reign over all.”
“We’re mostly trying to avert war,” he said. “But now you have me worried about the cats and mice.”
“Why do people even care,” she grumbled. Then Kelvin’s joke caught up with her, and in spite of her best efforts, she laughed. “Ahhh,” she said. “Yes. Well. I still wonder what business it is of anyone’s. Speaking of real royalty, I need to feed our little Princess.” The royal seamstresses had made several dresses for Mara that opened in the front, allowing for much easier feedings. She made quick work of the fasteners and soon had her torso exposed. Kelvin gladly handed the little Princess to her mother, then removed his cloak and draped it over his wife’s shoulders. He kept his arm around her as she took Isabel to her breast.
“Don’t think for a minute that you’re not real royalty, too,” he said.
“Am I?” she said. “If we were to divorce, would I still be a Princess?”
“Divorce?” he said. “You think there’s a chance of that for us?”
“I meant that as… as an ‘if,’ as an experiment, if you will,” she said. “For argument’s sake only: suddenly we’re no longer married. What would I be?”
“Inconsolable, I should hope.”
“Please take this seriously.”
“I am,” he said. “Very well, if– that happened, officially, no, you would no longer be a Princess. But you’re still a Countess in your own right. And you’re Isabel’s mother. You would be well taken care of. Darling, is this something you-?”
“I’m not asking for my own sake,” said Mara. “Of course, I absolutely do not want to lose what I have, but if, somehow, I did… Well, you know where I was. If there was nothing for me here, I could scratch out a living like I had before.”
“Ah. I see,” he said. “This is about your friend, Countess Lucinda. Is it?”
“Possibly,” said Mara, then eyed him warily. “Is there something I should know?”
Kelvin looked away in discomfort. He rubbed his chin, then resigned himself to it. “Count Richard has asked permission to divorce her.”
Mara’s eyes unexpectedly grew moist, and her throat tightened. She had known what he was about to say, but actually hearing the words was not the same experience. “It’s true, then,” she whispered. “She told me of his intentions earlier. I wish I could help her. She’s so miserable.”
“As is he,” said Kelvin. “We’re considering his request. We have to. He claims that she’s barren and unfaithful.”
“What was that?” said Mara, straightening up. “He said unfaithful?”
“Yes,” said Kelvin. “When you spoke to her, did she confess to it?”
“No,” said Mara. “She… She insisted to me that she’s blameless, and accused him of it.” She groaned and covered her face with a free hand. “I don’t know what to do for her anymore. As her friend I should take her side, and yet… Perhaps I’m not really her friend.” Her voice began wavering. “I spoke harshly to her, Kelvin. Not even an hour ago, I called her cruel, and implied that her woes are her own doing. What sort of friend says such things?”
“Sometimes it’s the truest friend who has to say such things,” he said.
“Stop that,” she said. “It doesn’t make me feel better. It’s not right that she lets her envy and anger rule her, but being without child is not her fault. I didn’t blame her for that, but I should have… been more kind, I think.”
Kelvin sighed. “In fairness, those two can be as twins sometimes. I think they both prick and jab at each other, and always have. Richard is known for his sharp tongue and biting words.”
“Hm,” said Mara, and was lost in thought. She wiped at the tears on her face. “Did Richard claim faithfulness on his part?”
Kelvin thought a moment, then shook his head. “I don’t recall him saying as such.”
“Perhaps his saying nothing says more than he thinks, then,” she said. “Darling, is his request going to be granted on his word alone? Will Lucinda’s voice be heard… and listened to?”
“I don’t see why not,” he said. “Planning to be her lawyer, are you?”
“This is not a time for jesting,” she said. “I just want her to be treated fairly. So many of our laws, especially about marriage, are not fair. Not for women!”
“Now, let’s both just… step back a moment from this,” said Kelvin. “I want what’s fair for them, too. Richard has made his request, and that’s all we have for the moment. Nothing’s in court yet. And honestly? It’s been on my mind all day now, and I don’t want to hear any more of it until tomorrow. Right now I just want you, not the politics of the day.”
Mara had no answer. For one, she agreed with him about letting the matter rest for the moment. She burped and switched Isabel with practiced ease, and spent more silent time watching her. Kelvin rested his chin on her shoulder and joined in. After a few minutes she felt his lips caressing her neck and shoulder. This rarely failed to melt away her cares and woes. She closed her eyes, allowed a smile, and craned her neck.
“Kelvin,” she whispered.
“You’re right about one thing: I would be inconsolable.”
His only reply was to keep kissing her. She did not need his words.
Neither Lucinda nor Yvette sat beside Mara at supper. That privilege went to a young Duchess who enjoyed talking about her horses and other animal companions. Rather undramatic conversation, which suited Mara just fine. Something for her to smile and nod politely to and not actually speak about. She was too tired for anything else.
Heather returned to work both invigorated and tired. In between the customary activities for newlyweds was ongoing preparation of their new home. Unpacking, repairing, modifying… all of the things that were needed to make their quarters a true home. Mara had gone out of her way to leave Heather be, even if it meant nothing else but a smile and a wave from a distance when their paths neared.
Once the heartfelt reunion and rapid-fire recounting of all things newlywed had finished, Heather let her Lady get a word in edgewise, and was surprised by the new task – no, mission – before them both. Researching and compiling every law on the books having to do with women? That was quite a departure from the usual business of keeping her Lady’s affairs in order. She wasn’t certain yet if it was a welcome departure. It sounded a bit… tedious.
This made Heather’s next bit of news perhaps more ironic than she had intended. Suddenly her smiles disappeared, and she was somber. “Leonard doesn’t think I should work for you anymore,” she said. “That is, not work at all. Except as his wife. I understand why he would want such a thing,” said Heather, “But…”
When her words faded away, Mara started to reply, but Heather turned out to be unfinished. She fingered the edges of the law books nearest her while speaking. “You know, perhaps it’s just as well that we’ll be reading through these laws. Maybe there’s one that says… that I don’t have to leave you.”
“Did Leonard give you a reason for what he said?”
“Just that… as my husband, he should be able to support us both,” said Heather. “And… even if I stayed with you now, once I have a child, I would have to leave, anyway. To raise any and all of our children. He said that, I-I may as well leave now. To keep house and– be his wife.”
“What do you want to do?” asked Mara.
Heather sighed. “I see no reason to leave you before it’s time,” she said. “And even if I have a child… Even then, I… m’Lady… Would it be selfish and wicked of me to want to stay with you, even then?”
Both women were quiet now. Mara was as determined as ever to begin their mission, but before her eyes, here was a bit of gray in what she’d seen as black and white.
“I… I don’t think you’d be selfish or wicked,” she said quietly. “I’m hardly one to judge, with a nanny and other women available and willing to nurse Isabel when I cannot. Other women here don’t have those opportunities.”
“Mmm, but they do,” said Heather. “The other mothers here, they help each other with their children. I think they have meals together and other things, too. Ophelia is part of it, I’m sure.”
“What? How did I not know this?”
“I don’t know,” said Heather. “Don’t the Ladies of the court do the same thing?”
“No,” said Mara. “I mean, some have children, and we talk about them, but then they return home and… Those other women are here on the grounds. Hm. I wonder if they wouldn’t mind… Do you think they’d be open to my joining them?”
Heather stared at her Lady a moment. “Is that a serious question?”
“Why do you ask that? Oh. That means ‘no,’ doesn’t it?'”
“It means ‘yes!’ said Heather. “They’d be thrilled that our Princess would join their group!”
“You don’t know that,” said Mara. “They could just as much… not want me joining for the same reason. But really, I’m just a mother, like them. I hope that– I’ll ask Ophelia. But-but we’ve been side-tracked. We must return to you and your marriage. I’m concerned, Heather; you’ve barely exchanged vows, and there already seems to be trouble? Is that so?”
Heather considered her answer, then sighed again. “I don’t know,” she said, then perked up suddenly. “Ah! You could tell him that you’re not allowing me to leave! That you need me as your assistant, and that’s that!”
“Well, of course I do, but– No,” said Mara. “No, Heather, this cannot be resolved that way. You two must-”
“What do you mean?” said Heather. “Of course you can do that!”
“I can. do. that,” said Mara. “I know. I’m trying to say that it would be far better for you two to try to resolve it on your own. To work out a… ah, what’s the word…? compromise. Yes, a compromise, where you work out something that benefits you both. You two are married now, and are husband and wife, and are a couple. Partners. Partners must resolve their difficulties. If I stepped in and took that from you, there could be… strife from it. Bitterness. I don’t want to be the cause of that.”
Another silence fell between the two women. Mara took a book and began leafing through it idly. Heather let out a long, loud sigh and slumped back in her seat, folding her arms. She pursed her lips several times.
“Are you upset with me?” asked Mara. Heather mumbled a reply that Mara did not understand. “A little louder, dear,” she said.
“I’m not, m’Lady,” said Heather. “I understand what you’re trying to do. Last night was the first that we talked about it, and then this morning he ‘reminded’ me as I was preparing to come here. I was… it all surprised me so, I didn’t say much in reply. Before we were married, he didn’t seem to care at all about who had the higher rank. It was his parents who seemed to mind. But now…”
“Higher rank,” echoed Mara. “Yes, you… having the ‘higher’ one. Officially.”
“Yes,” said Heather, nodding. “And then suddenly he wants me to abandon that? When he went on about being the man and me just being a wife, I reminded him that my work is more important than his.”
“Ohhh, no, you didn’t say that,” groaned Mara.
“But it’s true!”
“It–” said Mara, then covered her face and sighed. “Ahhh, Heather. Dear Heather. You don’t– Ahhhh. Don’t say such things to your man. To your husband.”
“Why not?” she said. “He’s the one who began it with his ‘I am the man, I will support us both now.’ Telling me that his work is more important, yes?”
“Look, it sounds like both of you are… approaching this the wrong way.”
“Why won’t you just tell him that you need me and that I can’t stop being your assistant?”
“Heather, please stop putting this on me,” said Mara. “Look, I’m hardly a-a seasoned veteran of many years of marriage, but I do know that you two must discuss this, and work out a compromise. To start, stop telling him that you’re better than he is.”
“I didn’t say better, I said that my rank is higher. And who’ll tell him to stop telling me to quit my work?”
“But that’s what you two need to discuss.”
“What if the law is on his side?” said Heather, roughly flipping open one of the books. “Hm? What if every law we find says ‘The husband can order the wife to do whatever he wants?’ What then?”
“…Then we need to find that out,” said Mara quietly. “And try to change that. But… even so, if you two truly love each other, the law only goes so far. As Prince – never mind my husband- Kelvin could, according to the law, do anything to me, I regret to say. But he doesn’t. He won’t.”
“Yes,” said Mara. “He could. But he is a good man, and I don’t know Leonard as well as you do, but he seems to be a good man. And seems to love you. Is he? Does he?”
Heather was quiet in thought, and then slowly nodded. “Yes,” she whispered. “He is. And does.”
“Then you two must talk about this,” said Mara. “You must find a way to…to be partners, not rivals.”
“All right,” said Heather. “But when we talk… Do you think you could be there with us?”
“Still you try to put this on me?”
“No, I meant as… a mediator?” said Heather. “To help us talk? Not to order us. You could make sure we don’t argue.”
“I don’t know,” said Mara. “I couldn’t stop you and Miss Daphne from hurling insults at each other. It was Isabel who ended that argument. Perhaps she could be your mediator.”
Heather smiled and chuckled. “Yes, the louder her cries, the less we’d argue. Oh, but in seriousness, my Lady, we both respect you. And… I want us to work it out. I don’t want us to argue. Last night I…” Her voice wavered. “I think I wept myself to sleep, just thinking about having to leave my work. You know that I love working for you, don’t you?”
Mara smiled warmly. “I love having you,” she said. “It was my pleasure to give you that time to yourselves after the wedding, but I did miss you. Not just as an assistant, but your companionship.”
“Will you be there while we talk?” asked Heather. “Ma’am? My Lady? Your Highness? Most Royal Princess of-?”
“Yes!” said Mara, now chuckling. “Yes, I will see if I can mediate for you. I make no promises, though. I’m… just as new at this as you, remember.”
Heather threw herself at her Lady for a tight embrace. “Ohhh, thank you so much, my Lady! IloveyouIloveyou!”
Mara allowed the fawning for a few seconds, then peeled her off and straightened up. “Hm!” she said. “Yes, well– On to business, assistant! Let’s begin our research.”
Heather’s face was one big grin. “At once, my Lady.”