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The River Clyde

The River Clyde
The River Clyde Near Midculter in Lanarkshire

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Part Two. The Play for Gideon Somerville. Chapter I. Smothered Mate

1. Removal of a Blocking Knight

Winter is coming and with it, more trouble.

Richard Crawford is at Branxholm, the Buccleuch home, trying without much success to enlist if not Wat Scott then his men and hounds in pursuit of Lymond's gang. Branxholm is about as different from Midculter as possible: a cacophonous mix of screaming babies, boisterous children of all ages, argumentative adults, and assorted animals all contained within utilitarian if not pleasing walls. Buccleuch has every reason to be worried about his home and family given the cross-border raids by the English (Seymour and Wharton) that have left other estates in ruin.

Buccleuch is still pretending to be ill to avoid having to accede to Grey of Wilton (he of the mouth injury and victim of Lymond's Spanish supply train commander) and his demands for a show of loyalty. Add to these Wat's concerns over Will's fate, which Richard plays to by offering the logical argument that it would be better for a family friend and a Scotsman to catch Will than for him to fall into English hands.

Notice that Wat is perfectly happy to throw himself into a full-throated argument with Janet as a way of avoiding further discussion with Richard, although Dunnett certainly implies that the Buccleuch household is normally just this "corybantic" (wild) and noisy and unrestrained. How very different from the Crawfords, who are paradigms of self-mastery and reserve. Except, of course, for Francis, who can be quite wild on cue.

Into this madhouse comes Sybilla, purportedly looking for relief from Agnes Herries. Really? If Sybilla wants a quiet retreat from Agnes's overpowering voice, she certainly has come to the wrong house. So what is her true motive? She is once again intervening to block Richard from using Wat or his resources to find Lymond. Sybilla also lets slip the fortune Lymond created for Johnnie Bullo to tell Agnes: she will fall for a thin man with a romantic smile named Jack. This could be important because Lymond undoubtedly had something in mind when he came up with this prophecy.

Sybilla also reintroduces the plan for the discussion of the Philosopher's Stone, which leads her on a desultory journey to other topics, by which time Richard's request for Buccleuch's help is long forgotten. Once again, Sybilla has subtly but effectively disrupted her elder son's plans vis a vis her younger son. Everyone is glad when Richard leaves because Wat Scott does not want to get involved in helping him find Lymond's gang.

As Richard is leaving, Janet lets him know she agrees with him that the Scots need to catch Lymond and Will before the English do and even suggests he go behind Buccleuch's back to do so. But Richard hates conspiracies and deceptions of all kinds and will not consider it. He instead implores Janet to talk Wat round to his (and her) point of view.

Notice Richard's interesting comment about Lymond:
"I tell you, Lymond has taken three months to kill all the years of my childhood."
On the surface, this probably means something like, "his behavior has aged me ten years in three months," but I wonder if he isn't saying that Francis has destroyed all the love and affection and loyalty of their childhood together in the three months he has been back in Scotland and acting the brigand. Richard is, after all, offering to hunt Lymond down and possibly kill him on sight.

One last question: who is the blocking knight who is removed in this section? The obvious answer might be Buccleuch, but on reflection that does not make sense. After all, he has already blocked Richard's plans to hunt down Lymond and company, so he was already removed. I believe the blocking knight is Richard himself. Remember in Opening Gambit that it is Richard who steadfastly refuses to engage in finding Lymond, despite Tom Erskine and Wat Scott's entreaties. Richard was, at that time, Lymond's "blocking knight," that is, the "piece" protecting the "king." Now Richard confesses to Janet that he no longer has any family feeling or other emotional ties that will stop him from finding his brother and, if necessary, killing him. Lymond, the "king," is exposed. But through the inaction of Buccleuch and the interference of Sybilla, Richard is effectively removed from the board, at least for the moment.

2. Irregular Partie Between Two Masters

A Spanish Deck of Cards (1495-1518)
The scene shifts to "the Peel"  (their tower hideout) where Lymond's men are playing cards. We learn a great deal of Lymond's back story and have many actions explained in this section. From the initial exchange we learn that Jonathan Crouch has been with the men since Lymond liberated him from Ballaggan, that Crouch is feeling the absence of an audience for his non-stop monologue, and that Crouch is a first-rate card player who has taught Will Scott a thing or two about winning at cards. Crouch may be an obnoxious little man with a "smooth pansy face" "like cheese rennet," but he is one sharp character.

Also, over the past two months, Will Scott has developed "a certain style," which, I think, refers to more than just his improved skill at cards. He has taken the lesson of his humiliation at Hume Castle to heart and has learned from it--and from the Master.

When Johnnie Bullo slips in unannounced and silently, we find out from him some extremely valuable bits of information about Lymond. At the battle of Solway Moss in November 1542 (five years earlier), Lymond was captured by the English, taken to London as prisoner, supposedly committed the treasonous act for which he now wanted, and rewarded for this betrayal with a fine English manor.

Lymond might have wanted Johnnie to tell Will this story as part of the younger man's education, but it may be that Johnnie, as a free agent, does it on his own initiative to show no man is his master.

Crouch now learns why Lymond freed him from Ballaggan but has not yet sent him home: Lymond thought Crouch might be the man who betrayed him to the Scottish government five years ago by making his treason known to the authorities. Lymond is now convinced Crouch is not the man. But why? I do not think we know what exactly convinced Lymond that "the titmouse" is not the man he is seeking. Lymond also makes clear to Crouch et al. that Andrew Hunter's interest in Crouch was to entice Lymond, in part to earn the bounty on Lymond's head and in part for reasons yet to be disclosed. I suspect that Lymond suspects Hunter of very specific motives which he is as of yet loathe to articulate.
The ride to the Ostrich Inn offers another opportunity for exposition. Will Scott has been developing his "certain style" by watching Lymond and learning from him. He, as all the men, is in awe of the Master, who seems super human. Nothing in Will's experience has prepared him for Lymond. Once again, we hear of Lymond's many masks: he never lets anyone see him ill or weak. Even such normal human emotions and experiences as disappointment, worry, genuine (not feigned) anger, or even sleep are weaknesses to Lymond. The "omnipotent" persona he has created must be taking a huge toll on Lymond emotionally and physically.

And, once again, Johnnie Bullo is more than a little eager to take this opportunity to tell tales about Lymond behind his back. Johnnie does not work for the Master, so he is under no obligation to keep his mouth shut. Johnnie also recognizes Will's utter fascination with Lymond, so he makes an eager audience for the gypsy king's stories.

The Ostrich Inn
The Ostrich Inn
Just as with Will Scott, through whose eyes we see the events in the Ostrich unfold, it is difficult for the reader not to succumb to the heady atmosphere of the Ostrich--the noise, the alcohol, the music, the heat, the smells, and all the people. We know at least one reason the gypsies were going to the Ostrich: to ply their trade. What else do we know?
  • Lymond quickly disappears. Where? Why? Will does not know.
  • Molly has known the Master for some time and he has rewarded her loyalty quite nicely. Once again, Lymond's wealth is emphasized.
  • Lymond reappears, clean and dressed in new clothes. He must keep a room at the inn.
  • Will Scott flaunts his wealth as well by wearing a jewel in his helmet, which allows Molly to size him up quickly as another potential benefactor.
Lymond takes the occasion of Molly's showing off her gifts to Will for another lesson: in effect he tells him, "Will, if you go around with a flashy jewel in your helmet, do not be surprised when someone tries to take advantage of you."

When Lymond takes the key from Molly and leads Will upstairs, what does Will think is going to happen? 
Where there is no custom of reticence in childhood, there is no vice in which a well-brought-up young man need be ignorant...
Does he think Molly has arranged women for Lymond and him? Or does he, perhaps, think Lymond himself is proposing a homosexual encounter? Remember, Lymond has been watching Will watch him; Will cannot take his eyes off Lymond, so it would not be out of the question that Will might think Lymond has this in mind.

Whatever Will is expecting, it is John Maxwell. But when Will realizes they have come to meet Maxwell, he has enough presence of mind to salvage proper behavior "out of the wreckage of his emotions." Whether Will is relieved or disappointed (or a bit of both), this assignation is all business.

A quick reminder about Maxwell. In Part I, Chapter V, Lymond set up the attack on Maxwell that allowed him to rescue Maxwell, thus putting him in Lymond's debt. Also recall that Maxwell, as a border laird, is in a precarious position vis-a-vis the English.

Maxwell is well connected to the Douglas family: his uncle is James Douglas of Drumlanrig, who is George Douglas's brother-in-law; Maxwell's brother-in-law is Archie Douglas, the Earl of Angus (married to Maxwell's sister Margaret). All three of these Douglas men were at Drumlanrig along with Andrew Hunter when Richard and Agnes recuperated there following their dousing in the Nith (Part I, Ch. IV).

What does Lymond's interview with Maxwell tell us?
  • Lymond's intelligence network is, as George Douglas imagined, enviably broad and meticulously accurate.
  • Maxwell was impressed enough by Lymond at their last meeting (when Lymond "saved" Maxwell) that he looked into the men Lymond is seeking and discovered their names, which Lymond already knows via Crouch.
  • Also at that time Lymond had proposed the idea of a propitious marriage for Maxwell but one that John does not think likely given his current standing with the Queen Dowager (i.e., under the thumb of the English).
  • Lennox, as George Douglas proposed in Part I, Ch. IV, is going to bring an English force north into Scotland in the dead of winter (it appears George's wild idea has hatched into a live goose).
  • The Lennox raid can be arranged to be bungled, with Lennox blaming his own men and Maxwell getting the credit with the Queen Dowager.
After a conversation detailing Lymond's plan, Maxwell leaves at midnight, but not before begging Lymond not let his "mad, antic mind" come up with any more bright ideas. Once again, we get the sense that Lymond is an exhausting person to be around, a buzzing hive of mental and physical activity. Lymond for his part believes Maxwell is equal to whatever lunatic schemes he might devise and, to Will's surprise, Maxwell finds that comment amusing. Q.E.D. The comment about mulberry trees into silk shirts (silkworms live in mulberry trees) indicates Lymond expected this encounter to be yet another moment of edification for Will. Likely it was not because Will, like the company in the inn, is barely conscious. Lymond will have none of this somnolence: he is ready for a uproarious night of wine, music, and general debauchery. 

We are now treated to one of the greatest scenes of frenetic hilarity in literature. I recommend rereading the way Dunnett introduces the bagpiper. It takes a minute to realize what she is describing, but once you do, could you imagine a better way of painting that image in words? Stunning. In fact, the way she casts her spell in unwinding the chaos of that night is so vivid you can almost feel the heat and hear the roaring din and smell the bodies.

Why does Lymond stir up the sleeping crowd into a night of frenzied activity? On a practical level, it ensures that anyone who was at the Ostrich this night will have memories only of the riotous events after midnight, thus defeating any efforts to ferret out Lymond's broader designs. I also think Lymond craves this madcap activity to keep him from going mad. He needs the release and he knows his men need it, too. But, unlike most of his men, he is awake, alert, and dressed for the day before dawn.

One other aside: I suspect there is a little private joke in this scene. Lymond says, "Sleep! Whoever slept at the Ostrich between midnight and five in the morning?" I recall hearing or reading that Dunnett said she wrote her novels between midnight and five in the morning. I have often thought she must have never slept! I at least strongly suspect she was a terrible insomniac, her mind racing with ideas and story lines and images at all hours. So let us be thankful for the grace of the wee hours in which the magic came to our Darling Dorothy.

And then comes the last line of the the section spoken by Francis Crawford, who can hear the music of the spheres, unheeded by other ears:
"Look up," said the Master, "and see them. The teaching stars, beyond worship and commonplace tongues. The infinite eyes of innocence."
Wow. Is that not exquisite? Possibly for the first time we get a glimpse of a more profound Lymond with secret depths of insight and character.

"The teaching stars." Watch. Wait. See.

3. Cross Moves by a King's Knight

This is a short but significant scene because we meet Gideon Somerville for the first time. He makes a very good impression: he served his king but as soon as the king died, he had the good sense to take his wife, child, and money and head out of court for good and all. He is good-humored, compassionate, and honest (he admits he is not only worried about Kate's skin but his own). He is also dutiful if reluctant, although he really has no choice but to do what Lord Grey wishes.

The most important thing we learn in this scene is that the man Lymond seeks is not Gideon but Samuel Harvey, although Lymond does not yet know this. How does Grey know about Harvey? Because the ever-reliably well-connected George Douglas told him. Or course, we do not know how this bit of news came to George, but he has an excellent spy network. It also means George knows why Lymond wants Harvey; otherwise, how would he have been able to connect the suspects' names to a specific person? One of them has damning information about Lymond.

Grey wants to use Somerville to trap Will Scott, who humiliated him at Hume, and that infernal Spaniard who used him even more ill. And George Douglas gets Lymond in the bargain. It is extremely amusing that Grey still does not realize there was no Spanish captain!

Poor Gideon is stuck in the middle of this muddle, realizing again that you can take your life out of the court but you can't take the court out of your life.

  1. Who is the "blocking knight" that is removed in section 1? Is it Richard?
  2. Why does Johnnie Bullo tell Will the story about Lymond's purported treason when Turkey Mat makes it clear Lymond hates having people talk about him behind his back? Did Lymond put him up to this for some reason or is Johnnie telling tales out of school?
  3. By telling stories about Lymond's fallibility Johnnie Bullo diminishes Lymond in Will's eyes. Why would he do this?
  4. Why is Lymond convinced Crouch is not the man who he is seeking?
  5. Who do you think Lymond suggested as a wife for John Maxwell?
  6. How did George Douglas figure out that Samuel Harvey is the man Lymond is seeking?
Favorite Line
"The teaching stars, beyond worship and commonplace tongues. The infinite eyes of innocence."
Words That Describe Lymond in Smothered Mate
  • wild
  • frenetic
  • sarcastic
  • cynical
  • crafty
  • manipulative
  • inventive
  • conniving
  • ruthless
  • controlling
  • extremely athletic
  • poetic
  • profound

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