The monk leans over the bed, his ear against the old man’s chest. Sitting on the opposite side, I carry on holding my grandfather’s hand, though I know he’s already left us. The monk doesn’t move for a very long time, listening intently for even the faintest sound of a heartbeat. Finally, he rises and slowly shakes his head. Gwen, my wife, wraps her arms around me as the bishop makes the sign of the cross and says quietly but clearly, “The King is dead.” He pauses for a very long moment, then turns toward my uncle Harold, seated beside the hearth. “Long live the King. God be with you, my son, as you take up your new journey.” Harold leans forward and buries his head in his hands. The silence of deep sadness engulfs the room.
At long last Harold composes himself and rises from his chair. Though our family dispenses with many of the formalities of protocol and address in private, we always strictly observe the formal rituals of transition. My father kneels before his brother and intones the ancient pledge of loyalty to a new king. My uncle Rupert follows. I remain at my grandfather’s bedside, knowing that my elder brother, John, is next in order of precedence.
The bishop makes toward the door, preparing to deliver the news to those who wait in the outer chamber, but Harold raises his hand. “A moment, please, if you will, Bishop. Alfred, I know why you haven’t come forward, but I’d like to receive your pledge now even though you’ll have to repeat it out there for the sake of protocol. There are things I want to say that some people may not be ready to hear, but it requires your pledge before I say them.”
And so, in an unprecedented act, I kneel before my uncle and make my pledge. As he raises me up in acceptance, he invites us all to sit with him around the fireplace.
“Edward . . . Rupert . . . it’s only the timing of my birth that places the crown on my head and not on one of yours. I’m no more special or capable than either of you . . . just older. And though I’m not sure Father was ever fully convinced I’d learned the lessons he tried to teach, he really did help me see that you’re more adept at some things than I am.”
His comment takes me back to an evening almost four years ago. It was the night before Ranulf’s raid on the reservoir project. We were sharing a bottle of wine in my quarters, my usual companions being away on various assignments. Harold was in a reflective mood, revealing some of his most intimate thoughts, and I remember noting at the time just how much self-awareness he seemed to possess.
“Alfred,” he continues, “I want you to take your place alongside Edward and Rupert to help me chart a course for the kingdom.” He nods toward the departed king in his bed. “That man spent your lifetime preparing you for such a role, and he gave me ample opportunity to see that you’re ready.”
“I’ll do my best, sir.”
“I won’t make any formal announcement – just let men observe my actions.” We all know why. John is ill-suited to such a role and yet is of the temperament to be resentful and insolent about any overt slight to his current position in the succession.
“And now for practical matters,” Harold resumes. “I’ll stay in my current rooms until after the burial and then go to the monastery for the traditional period of seclusion before the coronation. But as I have no wife, that leaves the question of preparation of the king’s apartment. I wonder, Alice,” he turns to my mother, “if I might prevail on you? Perhaps Catherine and Gwendolyn could help?” I’m astonished how quickly he’s made the transition to using the name Gwen prefers for all but her nearest family. Grandfather started the practice, saying that whatever name the king uses will be imitated by everyone else.
“Of course, Harold,” Mother answers for all of them, knowing that Rupert’s wife and mine would agree.
Turning back to his brothers and me, he continues, “After I’ve spent a week in seclusion, I’d like the three of you to join me. Come quietly – no guards – and be prepared to stay for two or three days. Your squires won’t be needed; I’ll arrange with Abbot André for the monks to attend you.
“And Gwendolyn, please join us for the midday meal on the second day. That little project you’ve undertaken on my behalf is now a matter of some urgency.” Since his wife and baby died in childbirth many years ago, Harold has been exceedingly reluctant to remarry. But with some gentle encouragement from me and a growing awareness of the possibility of John eventually ascending the throne, he’s at last turned to Gwen for help in finding a suitable wife and queen.
Silence descends over the room once again, each of us consumed with the gravity of the change that’s about to overtake our lives. Finally, Harold speaks. “I suppose we’ve delayed the inevitable long enough. Bishop?”