“Clemence Dane” was the pseudonym of Winifred Ashton, who started adult life as an artist and actress before deteriorating health during World War One led her to begin writing. “The King Waits” was one of her first published stories, following Dane’s first novel, Regiment of Women (1917), notorious in its time for its portrayal of a lesbian schoolteacher at an all-girl’s school. “The King Waits” did not attract the attention that Regiment of Women did, or that Dane’s second novel, Legend (1919), did. (Legend also has a lesbian theme, leading to persistent speculation that Dane, who never married and had a “secretary-companion” of many years, was gay). Dane began writing plays and found success in that medium, with her A Bill of Divorcement (1921) becoming a hit and eventually a 1932 film starring Katherine Hepburn and John Barrymore. Dane continued to write plays but added screenplays and mystery and fantasy novels to her resume. In 1946 she won an Academy Award for Vacation From Marriage; among the literary set, she gained fame as one of Noel Coward’s “muses.” Later in life she edited a series of science fiction novels for a British publisher, publishing John Christopher and C.M. Kornbluth among others.
Dane was largely a mainstream writer–and, obviously, a successful one–but the supernatural can be found in some of her stories and novels, whether overtly, as in Legend and The Babylons (1927) and “Frau Holde” (1935), or more subtly, as in “The King Waits,” which is also notable for its portrayal of Anne Boleyn, who in Dane’s hands is neither evangelizing, religious, or remorseful, but proud and not a little frightening.
The morning was a Friday, the month was May; it was the twenty-eighth year of the Eighth Henry’s reign over England, and it needed five minutes to be noon. On Richmond Hill, under the great spring-leaved oak, stood Henry the King. His outstretched hand commanded silence, and his huntsmen stilled the restless coupled hounds in dumb show, with furtive, sidelong glances, fearing that outstretched jewel-laden hand, that arrogant glance. Who will disobey Harry the King, calling in that furious voice for silence? Even the midday sun, as a little cloud slipped from its face, poured down such an answering concentration of heat upon the green hill-side that the noon hush seemed an act of grace from one royalty to another. There was instantly no sound at all save the panting of the half-throttled hounds and the dry whisper of innumerable caterpillars hissing in innumerable leaves; for there was a blight that spring in the oak-woods.
For one minute—two—three—the silence endured; then a burst of wind broke it: and all the trees in Richmond Park began once more to strain, creak, rustle, and the scent of the May drifted by again in gusts, and high overhead the clouds too renewed their voyage eastward through the heavenly blue. Over the Tower of London, as the wind lulled once more, they banked together again, a white tower of the sky.
Far below the scent of the white may drifted over the town and in through the windows, doorways, and courtyards of the Tower, and over the Tower green. Through slits in the wall the river sparkled in the noon sunshine; but still it lacked four minutes to be noon.
Across the green to the new scaffold came Anne the Queen, dressed in black damask with a white cape, and her hat was in the fashion. The Lieutenant of the Tower helped her to mount the steps. She had her glance and her nod for the waiting swordsman; then she looked down upon her friends and upon her enemies gathered close about her harsh death-bed; said to them that which was in her mind to say; adjusted her dress and freed the small neck; then knelt. But she would not let friend or enemy cover her eyes, and though she knelt she did not bow her head, but looked again keenly upon the silenced crowd: and for the last time called upon the ready blood to flush her cheeks.
She had always been able to redden thus into beauty when she chose; and now the hot blood did not fail her. It was at its old trick, brightening her black eyes: and this was ever the sign of crisis with her. With that sudden flush she had won her game— how often?—with this king and husband who had now beaten her. She felt a strange pang of longing to remember, to finger once again her glorious victories over time, absence, malice, envy, a queen, a cardinal, a king—and her own resentful heart.
She was not used to deny herself any wish; so, lifting her head, she let the spell work for the last time: and her executioner, meeting that full glance, hesitated and turned aside, as if his part were not yet ready to be played. Again he advanced: again she looked at him, and had the last triumph of her beauty as she won her respite. He would wait her pleasure for a minute, no more than a minute; but she knew now that the tales they had told of drowning men were true. The dying see their lives in a minute: she, dying, would see again her life.
She turned her eyes away from the frightened faces of her women, from faithful Mary Wyatt’s weeping agony: she looked in turn upon her gaoler Kingston, on courteous Gwynn clutching in his hand her last gift, on thankless Cromwell, on Suffolk’s exultant face. But here her glance checked, her very heart checked on its beat, for beside Suffolk, her enemy, stood a nearer enemy; it seemed to her that her husband’s eyes glittered at her, set in a younger, comelier countenance. So Henry had sent his bastard to watch her die! She smiled to herself as she thought that it was like him, like her fool and tyrant, her Henry, husband, king! She thought that he himself would have been glad to watch her die: he could not for his dignity, so he sent his left-hand son, young Richmond. Yes, to act thus was like Henry, and young Richmond, watching her, was very like Henry: she had seen on many a May morning that eager parting of the full, pinched mouth, that glistening of small, hard eyes.
Suddenly her thirty-odd years of life began to speed across her eyeballs, quickly and softy, like the scudding clouds above her speeding over the Tower in the spring wind. Childhood and youth at Hever Castle—in a flash she saw those spring years pass, and herself journeying to France in the train of Henry’s sister. Little thought fifteen-year-old Anne Boleyn that she would ever call the Queen of France sister! But she saw herself, nevertheless, all unconscious, dancing, dressing, laughing, learning, learning always to be a queen. And so home again to England, to the Court at Windsor Castle, like that last lone small cloud above her scudding across the sky to join the massed castles of the air. And there she saw herself for a little while serving the good dull Katharine; but she had no memory of Katharine’s lord, Henry King of England. Another face and form flitted across her eyeballs, of another Henry—Henry Percy, heir to the dukedom of Northumberland.
A high wind drove in upon the clouds as she watched, and scattered them all ways, while the executioner whispered with his underling. Thus boisterously, she thought, had Henry the King driven in upon love and lovers. Henry Percy is rated by the butcher’s son, Wolsey, the hated cardinal; and his father summoned; and shamed Anne is dismissed the Court.
Home again goes Anne to Hever, her marriage and her heart broken, and never knows, so innocent is this earlier Anne, why misfortune cut off her happiness at a blow, like a skilled swordsman striking off a queen’s head. But when a guest arrived at Hever Castle—then Anne knows!
Henry the King comes to Hever very sure of his welcome. And indeed her father and her stepmother may scour the county for fish, flesh, fowl and fruits in their season; and summon country gentlemen and ladies, and handsome boys and pleasant girls, to make feasts and plan pleasures for the King. But Maistresse Anne keeps her chamber. Henry is master of Hever, not of Anne. Anne knows now who has parted her, with Wolsey’s help, from Henry Percy, true love, first love, and she will teach that greedy mouth, those glistening eyes, a lesson. Henry the King is the singular good lord and favourable prince of Sir Thomas and Lady Boleyn; but Maistresse Anne Boleyn keeps her chamber. Let the King learn what it means to part lovers! Let him wait and chafe and learn!
She watched him in memory once more as he rode away from Hever, an angry, hungry king, spurring his horse. She watched him and his train dwindling in the distance to such ant-like folk and swallowed up by young green and pure white may hedges, under just such a blue sky in just such windy weather. What a wind! There’s no sound at all in the world but the hurry of the royal wind. When will it strike twelve? Is it a minute or a lifetime since she knelt?
More clouds scud across the sky, more years scud across her dying eyes. She saw again her father, and smiled as she remembered that he, too, had been among those who condemned her. Strange father! Coward father! But he had liked his new title, all those years ago—Viscount Rochford sounded well; and her sister’s husband was glad enough to be Gentleman of the Privy Chamber; and for herself there was a place at Court again, and jewels! (But Henry Percy is exiled to Northumberland!) Once more she saw that greedy mouth; once more she fell very humbly on her knees, summoned the lovely blood to her cheek, and said her say to Henry the King:
“Your wife I cannot be, both in respect of mine own unworthiness, and also because you have a queen already. Your mistress I will not be.”
And so home again to Hever in just such soft blue weather, to read humble letters from a once blustering king, who knows now what it means to be a lover parted from his love. How did his letter go?
“I beseech you earnestly to let me know your real mind as to the love between us. . . . If it does not please you to answer me in writing, let me know some place where I may have it by word of mouth; and I will go thither with all my heart. No more for fear of tiring you.”
But he tires her none the less, and she will not go to meet him. Let him wait! Let him wait his four years!
They scud by like clouds, as her cheek burns with a new memory of hate and reckoning. What of Wolsey? How shall Wolsey be paid if Anne pines at Hever while die King waits unsatisfied?
So Anne Boleyn comes to town again and serves the Queen again, and takes her place at last as King’s bliss: queens it at Hampton, at Windsor, and at Greenwich, and holds her state in the Cardinal’s own York House. How else should Wolsey be taught what it is to part lovers? (But Henry Percy has married a wife and will not come again!) Let Wolsey learn what he has to pay for crossing “the foolish girl yonder in the Court.”
She saw herself again, while Katharine, her mistress, sat weeping and praying and sewing with her dull maids, reigning at the feasts the shaken Cardinal prepared for her; saw herself May Queen on May mornings and Lady of the Revels on Christmas Eves; till, at the Greenwich midnight masque, the French ambassador watching, she danced (mark it, butcher’s son!) in public with the King, the flush upon her cheek, and listened afterwards to Henry’s own song:—
The eagle force subdues each bird that flies:
What metal can resist the flaming fire?
Doth not the sun dazzle the clearest eyes.
And melt the ice and make the frost retire?
The ice, indeed, is melting. Lord Cardinal! You were not wise to go to France; less wise when you returned to dissuade a king from changing old queens for new. Anne Boleyn has other weapons than her brilliant eyes, her burning cheek, her dancing feet, and quick tongue. Henry has been jealous once; he shall be jealous again! King Henry is not the only lover who sings to Anne his own verses. Besides, Tom Wyatt has a look of Henry Percy (married, out of sight, never out of mind!), and is a bolder man than Percy.
She lived again through the day when Henry stole a ring from her finger and swaggered out to play at bowls with Wyatt. Again she watched all from her window, and heard all—King Henry crying out that he wins: and Wyatt telling him that, by his leave, it is not so!—and Henry’s chuckle as he points with his new-ringed finger, crying:
“Wyatt, I tell thee, it is mine!”
But Wyatt, too, wears a keepsake under his Court suit over his heart. What can a poet and a lover do but draw from that hiding place the jewel swinging on its chain.
“Give me leave to measure the cast with this, and I have good hopes yet it will be mine!”
Once again she saw him stoop, measure, and prove winner; and rise to face the Tudor thunderstorm.
“It may be so, but then I am deceived.” And away storms Henry to her chamber crying~”What is Wyatt to you?”
She remembered how easily then she dealt with him and his jealousies: how she struck her bargain: and how, five years later, while she, the new-made Marchioness of Pembroke, sat on the King’s knee, and he kissed her, not caring who saw, she heard Wyatt’s voice singing to her new ladies-in-waiting his farewell song—
Forget not yet thine own approved,
The which so constant hath thee loved.
Whose steadfast faith has never moved;
Forget not yet!
Poor Tom Wyatt! The scent of the may drifts across the scaffold like the scent of the rose-water that it was his office to pour upon her hands on her coronation day. And there was another May morning to remember—the best to remember!
The flush on her cheek deepened, and her head sank as she saw herself three years ago, only three years ago, journeying to the Tower, this same Tower that now witnessed her last journey’s end. She saw the press of cheering folk at Greenwich, the branches of the oaks cracking under the weight of citizens, the may-bushes clambered over, with gaping faces thrust out, scratched and red and laughable between the pure clots of bloom. She saw again the Lord Mayor and his scarlet haberdashers, and felt the jewels on his glove dent her fingers as she put her hand in his that he might lead her to the State barge.
It waited for her on the breast of the sparkling river, the same sparkling river sparkling now through slits in her prison walls. But then the river was alive with pageantry, and instead of black damask she wore cloth of gold; and the world was full of noise where now was deadly silence and the executioner’s foot behind her, breaking the silence.
But her mind rejected utterly that stealthy sound: it was filled with memories of the glorious noises—the cries of all the people and the tinkling of the fluttering, bell-sewn flags as the barge poled out into mid-stream with fifty lesser barges following. All London moved that May morning with her towards the Tower, so that her progress turned the very Thames back upon its course. (Why not when she, Anne Boleyn, had already turned back history, shaken Spain, defeated Rome, killed a cardinal, and wrecked a queen?) The great fiery dragon spat fire from the foist, and from the bachelor barge came trumpet-calls once more, and, from the maiden’s barge, unceasing high-pitched singing, sweet as the singing of the waking birds had been when she met Henry Percy, not Henry of England, by stealth under the Greenwich hawthorn trees. Well, she had avenged that lost sweetness! Wolsey had parted her from Henry Percy, and where was Wolsey now? fallen, as she was falling: dead, as she in another instant must lie dead! But Henry Percy had been gaoler to the great cardinal before the end, had led the cardinal, his legs bound beneath his horse’s belly like any other felon, to his prison and his grave. She had taught the greatest man in England what it cost to part lovers.
A smile lit up her face as she remembered that lesson, and the watchers saw it and wondered, and weeping Mary Wyatt called her in her heart “saint” and “innocent”; and young Richmond thought of his father, awaiting on Richmond Hill for the boom of the cannon, and wondered if he should report that inexplicable, triumphant smile. How slowly the man from Calais goes about his business! Look, he swings his sword! Does the kneeling creature know that the French executioner is swinging his sword?
But Anne did not see the present. She was smiling at her achieved past. She saw that she had done what she set out to do unafraid. She could say, when her sins rose up and looked at her, that she had never, in life or death, been made afraid. She had been fit mother for kings and queens: and—who knows? Wheels turn!—her Elizabeth might yet rule England, like her mother, unafraid! She saw again so clearly, lying open before her, the book of prophecies found once in her room, hidden there to frighten her by friends of Katharine. There had been a picture of Henry and weeping Katharine, and herself between them, kneeling at the block even as she knelt now. But when her frightened maid called out, “If this were prophesied of me, I would not have him, were he emperor!” she had answered—
“I am resolved to have him, that my issue may be royal, whatever may become of me.”
She murmured the words again half aloud, and heard Mary’s gasp from the scaffold foot—”She prays!” and saw the sudden upward flash of faces, watching a movement that she heard behind her but could not see. What? had so many years, had her whole life flashed before her eyes in so brief a minute? Yet the minute was too long, it seemed, for these watchers! Thy grew impatient and would hurry her into death. Let them know that the Queen dies at her own minute, not at theirs! Not thus had they hurried her two years ago from Greenwich landing to the Tower. They had led her slowly to the Tower then, that all the town might see her beauty. And Henry, her king and husband, had met her in the gateway and welcomed her most joyfully. She felt again upon her lips his loving kiss, and his great arm flung about her neck.
It fell upon her neck again like an all-ending blow; and there was a booming in her ears….
The echoes of the gun went rolling round and out over the Tower walls, went rolling over the City and its suburbs, went rolling with the river up to Richmond Hill. Henry the King, motionless beneath the oak, like a painted monarch, like a card king of hearts, heard the heavy voice and understood the awaited, welcome message.
He started joyfully from his trance and, stripping a little ring from his finger, flung it into a bloom-laden may-thorn bush ten yards away.
“The deed is done!” cried Henry. “Uncouple the hounds and away!”
He clambered to his saddle while the statues of his huntsmen, his horses, and his hounds came to life about him, and, spurring his eager beast, led the hunt westward, ever westward, towards Wiltshire and Jane Seymour, and his wedding morrow.