In Which Gray and Joanna Play Chess, or, Joanna’s romantic difficulties (part infinity)

Author’s Note: This is another early scene – from a previous iteration of the plot in which Gwendolen Pryce’s arrival in Jenny’s household happens in an entirely different way – in which Joanna confides a difficult personal dilemma to her brother-in-law and gets some rather dubious (if well-intentioned) advice on how to resolve it. It was cut because this dilemma of Joanna’s was occupying far too much of the narrative in proportion to its contribution to advancing the plot, but it does shed some light on Joanna’s relationships with both Gray and Roland. It also contains the chess game mentioned in the Acknowledgements section of the published book, which my spouse kindly helped me with because I am hopeless at chess.

 

When Gray followed his brother and Mr Fowler into the drawing-room, he found Jenny tucked up in an armchair by the fire, and Sophie at the pianoforte, singing something in Brezhoneg that sounded like a lullaby. It took him a moment to identify Jenny’s odd posture as deriving from the bundle of blankets in her arms, over which she was bending in a frankly infatuated manner.

Everyone else looked rather sleepy. Gray shot a suspicious glance at his wife, who returned him a look of wide-eyed innocence over the top of the instrument.

“Gray!” Jenny cried, raising her head to grin at him. “Come and meet your nephew.”

Gray advanced cautiously toward the fire, and took the proffered bundle without much misgiving; the baby was obviously sleeping, and thus unlikely to wriggle out of his arms and fall to its death. He gazed into its tiny pink face, marvelling at the long dark lashes fanned across the plump cheeks, the tiny mouth tucked in at the corners. The little white-bonneted head was no bigger around than the palm of his hand; the baby’s slight weight in his arms was warm and oddly soothing, unless perhaps that were the result of Sophie’s song.

After a moment, feeling that some comment was expected of him, he said, “He looks very like Agatha. Only … smaller.”

There was an odd snuffling sound from the direction of the pianoforte; the music faltered briefly, then resumed. Gray raised his eyes to look at Jenny, and was baffled by her suffused expression.

“Gray,” said Joanna, who sat with Miss Pryce on the sofa, both of them visibly trying not to laugh, “give Yvon back to his mama, and come and give me a game of chess.”

*

2 chess pieces: black knight facing white knight

image © Kariakin Aleksandr/Shutterstock

As Gray set out his chessmen, Joanna plied her sister with meaningful glances until, at length, Sophie took the hint: after riffling more loudly than necessary through the stack of sheet music on the pianoforte, she selected a folio and arranged it before her; and finally exclaimed, “Miss Pryce, may I beg you to come and turn my pages? I do not think I can play this at sight, and turn pages, with only two hands.”

Gwendolen rose with alacrity, and with only the briefest flash of temper in her dark eyes, and crossed the room to take a seat beside Sophie. The music, whatever it was, spilled from the instrument in a sparkling flood; Gwendolen’s eyes, and Sophie’s, were fixed on the page before them. Joanna smiled in satisfaction, and leant her elbows on her knees, pretending to study the chess-board.

Gray had the white chessmen, and opened with the queen’s pawn.

“Gray,” said Joanna, moving her king’s knight. “I wanted–”

“To speak to me privately about Miss Pryce?”

Joanna shook her head.

“About Prince Roland, then?” Gray moved his king’s pawn one square; Joanna swooped in with her knight, then, realizing the danger, quickly snatched it back.

“How did you guess?” she demanded.

“If Miss Pryce is not the source of your difficulties, there is no guesswork in the case,” said Gray, with infuriating calm. Each of them moved another pawn. “Sophie asked after two of her brothers, and we then spent half an hour discussing one of them. It follows, does it not, that there must be something very particular to be said – and not publicly — about the other?”

Joanna huffed in irritation, and recklessly advanced her king’s priest out into the open. “I do not like to discuss the matter before Sophie,” she said; “she has such very odd notions. And certainly I cannot mention it before Gwendolen.”

“You and Miss Pryce are grown very intimate, however,” Gray observed. He captured her priest, and generously pretended not to hear her muttered Herne’s horns! “I take it that she improves on closer acquaintance?”

Joanna raised her eyes to the pair at the pianoforte, who were now singing a duet in, possibly, Cymric, and considered. “She is not so proud as she seemed at first,” she said; “I think she is only desperate not to be sent home to her stepmama – though she speaks often of her young brothers — and does not know what to do with herself. At any rate, Agatha adores her,” she added, grinning, “and as you know, Agatha is never wrong.”

“She certainly does not wish to go home,” said Gray thoughtfully. “I offered to escort her, on our way to Din Edin, and she looked at me as though I had tried to hand her a dismembered toad. Is it only the tiresome stepmama, do you think? Or is there something worse?”

“If there is anything worse, she has not confessed it to me,” Joanna said, “or I should certainly have told Jenny. But, Gray, I do need your counsel in the matter of Roland.”

“Say on, then, sister dear.”

Joanna gave him a narrow-eyed stare, but could detect no bite of sarcasm under the words. “You must swear not to tell anyone,” she said, moving a pawn without much attending to its position. “Anyone at all, not even my sister.”

Gray frowned a little. “I am not in the habit of keeping secrets from Sophie,” he said.

“Of course not,” said Joanna impatiently, “but this is not your secret, is it?” Seeing him still hesitating, she gave another huff of exasperation and said, “Very well, then, I give you leave to tell Sophie if you truly feel you must. But I wish you would not.”

“Fairly spoken,” said Gray, nodding; “I so swear.”

“Well.” Joanna drew a breath, and let most of it out again. “I think I had better show you. I had this from Roland on Marday last.”

From her reticule she extracted a folded sheet of writing-paper, passed to her by a page — again under cover of a memorandum to Sieur Germain — during a meeting of the Privy Council. “There are more,” she said; “this is only the latest.”

While Gray unfolded the missive and began to read it, Joanna studied the chessboard, and tried not to blush.

At last he put it down and said, in a tone of deep bemusement, “Prince Roland has been writing you sonnets?”

“Once it was a villanelle,” said Joanna, blushing furiously despite her best efforts, “and once a song to the tune of ‘O Waly, Waly,’ or so he said. But mostly sonnets, yes. It has been going on for months.”

She darted a look up at her brother-in-law’s face, preparing a blistering retort if he should dare to laugh at her; but Gray only looked nonplussed, and for some moments was silent.

At length, in a cautious tone, he said, “It is not a very good sonnet, but if he is writing love-poetry to you, he has better taste than I had supposed. But I suspect this preference does not much please his father and mother?”

Joanna shuddered at the thought. “I should imagine it would not, were they to discover it,” she said.

“And … yourself, Jo?”

“How can you ask?” Joanna demanded, glaring. “You cannot imagine that I should ever encourage him?”

Gray’s eyebrows lifted in what appeared to be genuine surprise. “I meant,” he said mildly, “to ask whether you might reciprocate his feelings — not whether you had been encouraging his suit. It is very difficult to give good advice in the absence of full information.”

No,” said Joanna firmly. “I am very fond of Roland, but a thousand times no. And besides—” She shut her lips, just in time, on the words his father means him to marry the heiress of Alba, and hastily amended, “imagine the scandal, considering whose daughter I am! Sophie’s would be nothing to it.”

Gray looked very thoughtful, and said nothing.

large open book with yellow flower

image © izzzy71/Shutterstock

“So, you see,” Joanna went on, “I want to know what I ought to do. I thought at first I had best ignore him, for surely he must soon tire of seeking poetical ways to tell me that my eyes are grey. But he would keep writing sonnets, and giving me meaningful looks, and finally I resolved to have it out with him, and make him stop…”

The chessmen languished forgotten as Joanna related her attempts to discourage Roland’s pursuit. “He will not listen,” she concluded, in a furious sotto voce mutter, “and it is perfectly infuriating; even if I had ever wished to marry him, it is so infuriating never to be listened to, that I think by now I should have changed my mind. And I cannot understand it at all, Gray, for he was used to be such good company, before he took it into his head to fancy himself in love with me!”

“I have seen it happen to many a better man,” said Gray. Joanna suspected there might be laughter lurking behind his grave hazel eyes, but if so, he did her the courtesy of keeping it hidden. “And what would you have of me, Jo, if I am to tell no one?”

“I hoped … well …” She hesitated, then leapt: “You were Roland’s age once, after all! Can you not tell me how to make him hear me when I speak?”

Gray shook his head with a rueful half-smile. “If only I could,” he said. “If experience is any guide, nothing will cure him of being in love with you, but falling in love with someone else. Unless, of course,” he added, suddenly thoughtful, “you can contrive some way of sinking yourself in his esteem. But you and Roland know one another so well already, that I think you must find that very difficult.”

“I could hide behind trees in the gardens and pelt him with conkers,” Joanna suggested, only half in jest. “Or make it a habit to trip him up in corridors, or put salt in his tea …”

“I fear,” said Gray, really laughing now, “that for a young man of Roland’s age, any such tactics might only constitute encouragement. Though, as his poetical efforts suggest that he has reinvented you as an ethereal maiden of wintry eye and” (he consulted the sonnet, then passed it back to Joanna, who stuffed it irritably back into her reticule) “remote and stately grace, perhaps you have got the right idea after all …”