1635: A Parcel of Rogues – Snippet 20


August, 1634

What force or guile could not subdue,

                                  Thro’ many warlike ages,

                                  Is wrought now by a coward few,

                                  For hireling traitor’s wages.

Chapter 11

“I hope my Lord Montrose will forgive me not rising,” Mackay said, indicating with a gesture the uselessness of the legs under the blanket. He’d had a couple of footmen, with Meg fussing, lift him and move him into a chair. Sitting up for any length of time hurt damnably, and he could all but feel it wearing his life away like a blade on a grindstone, but he was determined that the last of him to go would be his manners with guests. Besides, the pain made him sharp in his mind, and he’d need that.

Montrose, polite himself, waved it aside as of no matter. “A broken back’s excuse enough for any man,” he said, “and if it would serve you better to lay down, I’ll not hear it said I made a man suffer for formality.”

“I have comfort enough as I am, my Lord,” Mackay lied. It would not do to admit any more weakness than he absolutely had to until he knew which part Montrose had taken. He’d known of the Graham clan chief’s summons to London, and word of his elevation to the Lord Lieutenancy had preceded him back. Was he talking to Charles Stuart’s bought-and-paid-for man, or simply the nearest the king could find? Scotland’s peerage was stacked to the rafters with men no more constant than the nation’s weather. “Will you have a drink? I find a brandy at this hour helps.”

“Wine, if it’s to hand,” Montrose said. “I’ve mair folk to see the day, I’ll save the brandy for when I’m done. Don’t let me stop you with the brandy, though, I’d want one myself were I afflicted as you are.”

That was a common reaction. A fall from a horse could happen to any man, and it was a rare and skilled horseman who never had so much as a bruise, and not many more who hadn’t at least broken a bone or two. A broken back, well, anyone could look on a man damaged as Mackay was and shudder that there but for the grace of God went he.

Mackay let Meg put the brandy in reach of his hand and a decanter of good wine by Montrose and leave them. The afternoon was a pleasant one, the rain outside soft on the streets of Edinburgh but otherwise it was warm. The faint smell of wet wool was about the place, not strong as the showers were stopping and starting, and there was promise of a fine fresh day in the later afternoon.

“I’ll be blunt, my Lord,” he said after they’d taken a moment to have a small drink, glasses raised to each other in a polite, if silent health. “I’m more than a little mithered as to what His Majesty’s about with yon Earl of Cork, who I’ve long thought an equivocator of the worst kind, which is to say the kind that comes out on the winning side every time. Did he not spend time imprisoned over the Irish business all those years ago? I was but a young boy myself and not minding matters in the plantations overmuch, but I recall he was a rebel for a time with his people in Munster.”

Montrose shrugged. “He stood acquitted of all the charges and Her Majesty of England granted him high office, after. That much I have from some of my older people; it was before I was born. If it’s between us two here and now, I’ll not gainsay you on the man being devious, unprincipled and after naught but his own advancement.” He held up a hand. “If you think that’s the beginning of me saying he’s an evil counsellor, as the saying has it, think again. The sense I have of the man is he has a wildcat by the tail and dare not let go. If anything, the man regrets his move against Strafford, who’s in all likelihood Wentworth again now. They were drawing up attainder and impeachment when I left London. But Cork? If he’s a lying, back-stabbing, unprincipled snake of a man, and I do rich insult to snakes with that, he’s exactly the man His Majesty needs in England these days. And now, without His Majesty on a secure throne, Cork is, and pardon my crudeness, fucked.”

As such things went, that was as good a dissection of the cadaver of English politics as Mackay expected to hear from anyone. And it came from this sharp young man, of an age to be his own son, who’d met all concerned, and that recently. He nodded. “A sorry state for the state of England, I’d say,” he said.

Montrose’s expression was distasteful. “No more would I want the like here in Scotland, if I can help it.”

“Aye, I’ll raise my glass to that notion,” Mackay said, doing so.

Montrose answered him likewise. “His Majesty has charged me to secure silence north of the Tweed, among other things,” he said, after taking a sip. “I’m to ensure that there’s no reversal for the episcopal party, although, and here I sense Cork’s hand, there’s no charge on me to advance the swine either.”

Mackay raised an eyebrow. “The king’s ain party in the kirk? Swine?”

Montrose chuckled. “I’ll swear any oath you care to name I said no such word. Concerning those swine nor any other lot. I’ve no time for prelates, we had well rid of them in my grandfather’s time, but added to that I’ve not much patience with presbyters neither. Their place is in the pulpit, not in the governance of the realm.”

“That would sound awfully like the separation of church and state, My Lord, and I should be much obliged if you could explain to me the reason it is not so?”

“Well, as His Majesty is the head of the Kirk in Scotland, is it not the case that he may command the presbyters thereof to leave off the secular governance? As he guarantees their establishment, is it not reasonable that they — “Montrose gestured vaguely, looking for a phrase.

“Render unto Caesar?” Mackay suggested, suddenly taken by the imp of the perverse.

Montrose grinned. “Aye, or words to like effect. I shall have to remember that one.”

“The presbyters will call it a short step from freedom of religion,” Mackay said, sure they’d call it worse than that if given the least liberty.

“If it’s a lack of freedom they desire, I’m empowered, and on one reading charged, to administer it them, and that right harshly. I’ve charges from His Majesty, but as long as they hear nothing south of the border, how I undertake them is a matter for me.”