Sixth in the legendary Lymond Chronicles, Checkmate takes place in 1557, where Francis Crawford of Lymond is once again in France, leading an army against England. But even as the Scots adventurer succeeds brilliantly on the battlefield, his haunted past becomes a subject of intense interest to forces on both sides.
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Liepard laisse au ciel extend son oeil
Un aigle autour du soleil voyt s'esbatre.
Quand ceux du pole arctiq unis ensemble
Et Orient grand effrayeur et crainte.
What the celebration at the castle had been, Austin Grey never discovered. He rode in to his tryst at the Tournai and found the inn ankle-deep in drunk burghers, thronging the common room and spilling out into the courtyard where inoffensive travellers like himself were attempting to sup their bread and mutton and chicory salad in the airless July dusk of Douai.
He avoided using his title. Money, and a steady, effective insistence, procured a room for him. There he removed the dust of his two days' journey through French-speaking Flanders from Calais.
He had meant to dine indoors, but the heat and the smells forced him down to the yard where he cut food as best he could, between the elbows of a wheezing book-pedlar and a talkative merchant from Antwerp, playfully intent on the bodice-strings of the serving-maids. A group of students somewhere under the gallery were hymning cuckoldry (co co co co dae) with an artistry worthy of a Magnificat; and a pair of fishmongers, locked in liquescent brotherhood, reeled up and sent his cup rolling. A black-eyed Piedmontese slid past, limping, with a dubbed duckwing cock churring under his elbow.
There was no sign so far of the man he had come to Flanders to rescue. Austin Grey sat, seemingly quite at his ease, expertly deflecting the attention aroused by his uncommon good looks and reviewed, without pleasure, the mission he owed to his uncle, of the English fortress at Guines, beside Calais.
'If Francis Crawford wishes to leave Western Europe,' irritably had said Lord Grey of Wilton, 'then it is England's duty to help him. Do you want him to lead the French armies into battle against us? Do you want him to go home to Scotland and encourage his countrymen to cross the Border and march into England? If he intends to go back to Russia, I for one will be happy to send him. You have his message. There is no doubt that it is authentic. Go to Douai and fetch him. You won't be in any danger. He's already thirty miles on the wrong side of the French frontier if he's got there. He'll be skulking, not you.'
And seeing the sleek, grey-bearded head turning to other business already-'You have considered,' had said Austin Grey gently, 'that this may be a French trap?'
And his uncle, an irascible but by no means unjust man, had laid down his pen. 'This I can tell you. If anyone else here were able to recognize Crawford of Lymond or be recognized by him, I should send him in your place. But I really cannot see any man laying an ambush for you at Douai, with Pembroke and the whole English army to one side of him and King Philip at Valenciennes on the other.
'We are invading France, Austin; and this man, if he stayed in France, could be a danger to us. It is enough to know that the French will not lightly release him, and that he has turned to us for help.
'You dislike him,' had said Lord Grey, folding his hands and raising the combed grey beard at his nephew. 'You cannot possibly dislike him as much as I have reason to do. But you will go to Douai. You will tell no one your mission; and you will take the most excellent care that no one discovers that Crawford has crossed into Flanders. For much as I esteem our lady Queen's husband, I should prefer King Philip of Spain to win this war and those after it with the distinguished commanders he has, and without the services of your much-sought-after gentleman at Douai.'
But the man best known briefly as Lymond had not come to Douai, and now the torches were fit and full night had fallen. Also, as the tavern trestles were cleared and pushed together to form a square-walled platform, the presence of the duckwing was abruptly accounted for.
The fatherless only son of a despot and the last of a long line of soldiers, Austin Grey, Marquis of Allendale, had been compelled as a boy to witness altogether too many cockfights. He rose, intent on leaving the courtyard, and halted.
In front of him, blocking his way, stood the Italian he had already observed in the Piedmontese bonnet. In either hand this time the man held a linen bag within which something live struggled and grumbled. He smiled, displaying a swollen, broken-toothed mouth and reaching across, hooked both bags into place on the wall behind Austin's shoulders and stood back, arms akimbo, regarding him. 'You wish to lay a wager, monsieur?'
He was a travelling cock-master, and there would be others with him. Austin said, also in French, 'Later. Just now I wish to hear the singers.'
'Les Amis de Rabelais? We had them last year. They perform at the castle. Four students from Montpellier, monsieur.'
He knew that already, having been struck half-way through his meal by the quality of the singing, close as a toothcomb. All Calais spoke of them. The cocker said, 'But being English, monsieur, the words maybe escape you?'
His French was good but not good enough, apparently, to pass him off as native. They were singing Je fille quant Dieu with the Swiss countertenor, silk in the weave, in the girl's part. Austin said, 'Thank you. I know both meanings of quenouille,' and made smiling to pass.
The cocker stood aside. 'Saucy, yes? And the Battle of Marignon? Ah!' And raising a mellifluous tenor he warbled:
'Soyez hardis, en joye mis,
La fleur de lys,
Fleur de hault pris
Y est en personne.
Suivez Francoys . . ."
He broke off, grinning, to a chorus of drunken hissing and catcalls.
Follow Francis. Austin Grey stared at the Italian cocker and the cocker, grinning, addressed him in perfect English. 'Go and hear the singers, Lord Allendale. That is where you will find him.'
He went and heard the singers: four young men in breech hose and buff jerkins led by solid Hunno, the bass: Andreas, the lank, pale-headed Saxon tenor, Oswald of Basle, baritone, brown, energetic and cheerful; and auburn-haired Hilary from the eastern cantons whose ragged moustache and bleeding cheek told of the violent and continuing battle to defend his virility. From behind the moustache emerged the delicious head-voice of a eunuch, while the three others chanted, with the force and precision of wire-weavers:
La plus belle de la ville, c'est moy
La plus belle de la ville, c'est moy
Non est, non est, je vous jure ma foy
Non est, non est, je vous jure ma foy . . .
Then someone shouted a pleasantry and the next moment Hilary had leaped straight into the thick of the crowd, followed protesting by his three colleagues striving to restrain him. Deafened and buffeted, Austin was standing, searching in vain for his quarry, when Francis Crawford made himself known, as a quick, amused voice in the m?l?e. 'Faith has a fair name, but falsheid faris bettir. In your room, after the cockfight.'
But when Grey twisted round, there was no one behind him that he recognized.
He would have gone to his room then and there, but the Piedmontese cocker waylaid him. 'You heard him? Till then, you're to stay in the courtyard.'
'Who are you?' said Austin Grey
He had wound a filthy scarf round the torn mouth, but you could tell the dark face was grinning. 'A friend. Did you not see who he was?'
'He spoke from behind. No,' said Austin.
'The counter-tenor. There he is, at the cock platform. Go and watch. But do not speak to him,' said the cocker; and grinning, made off through the crowd.
Austin gazed at his back. Then he forced his way with extreme firmness to the mat-covered platform of trestles.
Les Amis de Rabelais were there, vociferously proclaiming their bets from the opposite side of the platform. And there, visibly battered, his fists full of livres and sols and deniers, was Hilary of the tousled red hair, bouncing with glee like a clown on a clock spring.
It couldn't be. This half-fledged, ebullient Graindor could never be the man who controlled armies in Russia; whose skill in war was so celebrated that Lord Grey was prepared to take any risk to help him leave France; and even to keep him out of the hands of his allies.
And yet . . . Take away the moustache, and the hair, and you had a man nearer thirty than twenty; whose eyes had seen more than the frets of a lute and the inside of a medical college, and who had learned lessons other than his praxis and chirugia and theoria.
It was Francis Crawford of Lymond. He drummed his fists on the ledge, and talked and quarrelled and shrieked with his friends, casting no single glance in Austin's direction. But Austin, all through the fight, watched him silently.
It was not, he thought, acting. Most men of war delighted in cock fighting. Socrates had drawn from it an example of valour; the sons of the Emperor Severus had been brought to watch it daily before being sent to reduce England. And Themistocles had braced his army to vanquish the Persians with the same analogy: Behold: these do not fight for their household gods, for the monuments of their ancestors, for glory, for liberty or the safety of their children; but only because the one will not give way to the other. In Christian lands, to give one's cocks strength, one fed them filched bread from the altar-table.
Austin continued to watch. The docked birds dashed to each other and remained beak to beak, each shaved serpent neck straining upwards. Then came the familiar, blustering rattle as of a masterless sail in a whirlwind. Beating, gnawing and striking the cocks sprang from the mat, wrung together, and the red-haired student screeched and shot his arms over his head, half concussing a dyer and knocking a barber's hat over his face like a chafing dish.
Then the birds dropped, in a fury of warm, gouting blood and black feathers, and Austin saw that the birchen grey, a big eight-pound fowl, had a spur sunk up to the hilt in its enemy's neck, and the fight was already over.
He would have gone then to his room, but the crowd behind held him stapled fast to his place. They took the dead bird out for the pot, and the owner, his beaming face red in the torchlight, lifted the victor tenderly in his thick hands and with his tongue began searching its injuries.
Soon, stinking with curative urine, it would take a pat of sweet rosemary butter and be put to stove in the straw of its sweating basket. It had been fortunate. He had seen a fight between two wounded cocks last a couple of hours, even though the spurs were cut smooth and sharp with a penknife. As the ancients had said: in their raging pride, indifferent to pain and injury, they would fight to the end of their powers.
Looking through the eyes of the man opposite you could, he supposed, see a barbaric magnificence in it. You could admire the quick, graceful movements of the bird they now put on the mat, with its tight glossy plumage and muscular thighs; brilliant yellow on shoulder and saddle. Or the sprightly strut of its black and red adversary, the polled head darting and glinting; the spurs growing low and wicked and curved on the white and sinewy legs.
They liked to fight, it was said. It was their instinct. They would seek battle regardless of the presence of man, and would pine if denied it. And here, in the darting bodies, the sparring, the dodging, the high, rustling flirts when with beak, foot and spur, bird grappled with bird, there was strength and fire and a most unflinching valour for men to admire and emulate.
Half an hour went by of the struggle. By the end of it the golden fowl, slashed and impaled, was sorely beaten, but continued steadily to attack its superb and untouched antagonist.
Then it weakened. In silence among the screaming spectators Austin Grey watched the tired legs beginning to tremble; the beak to open; the tongue to palpitate. One barred yellow wing trailed on the mat and when, in the flurries, it sought to grip with its beak, the rich red wings of its foe beat it down, and the other's strong spurs struck again and again, at its head, its throat or its neck, or the place in its back where, sinking through, the sharpened point would spear through its vitals.
Austin had laid no wagers. But when, in one such bustle, the golden cock struck to the head and against all expectation, the bigger bird disengaged and dropped aside, staggering, he was glad; as if he and not the duckwing had been suffering. Then he saw what the chance blow had done. The black-breasted red had lost the use of its eyes.
Silence fell. The yellow bird, its abdomen slit, was almost vanquished. It moved as if drunk, toppling first on its breast and then on its ragged docked tail and you could see sweat, like citrines, on the torn feathers. It lay, red eyes glaring its challenge.
And the red, strong still, trod forward groping in darkness and found and gripped the fallen bird with its beak. Then, beating down its cut wings, it attacked and went on attacking its enemy's body.
It should have been the end. The yellow bird twitched and raised its stained head. It lifted itself, shivering. It stood, and might have fallen. Instead, in a single magic explosion of courage and anger, it hurled forward the naked head and caught the blinded red foe by the throat. Then springing high in the air, the yellow cock brought down its spurs in a stroke no living bird could have fended.
The black-breasted red toppled and lay, in the jumping, glistening stream of its blood. And the yellow stepped on its back, and moved its one wing, and throwing back its gored head, crowed in triumph.
Courage, of a noble and humbling order. Courage of the brute, subject to neither reason nor discipline. Courage which could inspire emulation or greed, or brutality. What were they celebrating now, these bellowing figures about him, but a win against odds, and the making or losing of money?
Opposite him, the red-haired student had won his wager. The others had thrown him in the air and he descended upside down, in a rain of silver, attempting through hiccoughing laughter to semaphore to himself a serving of Auxerrois.
It was easy now to get away from the mat. Austin Grey turned, his face unsmiling, and ran up the gallery stairs to his chamber.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, book descriptions, and author biography are designed to enhance your group's reading and discussion of Dorothy Dunnett's six bestselling novels in the Lymond Chronicles. We hope they will enrich your experience of these imaginative and adventuresome works of historical fiction.
First set in sixteenth-century Scotland following a disastrous war with England, the Lymond novels have as their hero Francis Crawford of Lymond, a nobleman and soldier of fortune possessed of a scholar's erudition, an elastic sense of morals, and the tongue of a poet. The six novels take this compellingly charismatic figure on a perilous and colorful tour through the glittering courts and power centers of sixteenth-century Europe.
To these novels, Dorothy Dunnett brings an effortless narrative mastery, in-depth human portraiture, and an uncanny ability to reanimate the past. The Lymond novels are works of marvelous intelligence and pure enchantment, adventures for both the heart and mind.
1. Checkmate opens with a cockfight that has a decidedly symbolic feel to it. What are some of the symbolic possibilities in the conflict between the red and the gold birds? Does it in some respects mirror the developing antagonism between Francis Crawford and Austin Gray and the climax of that antagonism?
2. Marthe explains to Sybilla Crawford that the reason her marriage to Jerott Blyth has failed is that each partner "has married the other as a substitute for somebody else." What does she mean? What does Marthe want from Sybilla Crawford? What does she want from Francis Crawford?
3. First seen as a shouting five-year-old in The Game of Kings and then as a defiant and imperilled seven-year-old in Queen's Play, Mary Queen of Scots is a complex teenager in Checkmate. How does the novel assess her character? What does her character portend for the future of Scotland?
4. After a long and difficult romance the hero and heroine of the Lymond Chronicles finally return to one another and to Scotland at the end of this novel. What has been blocking these returns, and what unblocks them? What losses balance this gain?
For discussion of the Lymond Chronicles
1. The hero of a long series of historical novels, like the hero of a crime or detective series, lives properly in a milieu of struggle and physical violence and is likely to be the object of this violence over and over. Yet, of course, he must survive it if the series is to continue: "Popular resurrections are a tedious pastime of Francis'," says Lady Lennox in Queens' Play, trying to recover from yet another reappearance by the handsome nemesis she had thought was dead. What are the most interesting or important examples of the deaths and resurrections of Francis Crawford in the series? How and for what purpose do such scenes play with the feelings of the reader?
2. In its various travels and stories, the Lymond Chronicles encompass several religious systemsRoman Catholic, Protestant, and Russian Orthodox Christianity, as well as several forms of the Islamism of the Ottoman Empire. What is the series' attitude toward religion, religious institutions, and authentic spirituality? What do figures like the Dame de Doubtance, John Dee, and Michel de Nostradamusastrologers and scientists, mystics and psychologistsrepresent in this respect?
3. Over the length of the Lymond Chronicles the protagonist must withstand the attacks of three powerful antagonistsMargaret Lennox, Graham Malett, and Leonard Bailey. How do these figures of evil differ in their reasons for wanting to possess or destroy Francis Crawford? Does the manner of their deaths or downfalls seem particularly appropriate to their characters?
4. As the secrets of the Crawford family structure surface one by one, through the very last few pages of the last novel, the questions raised in the first novel about Francis Crawford's relationship with his father, his brother, and his sister acquire disconcerting new dimensions. What new father, brother, sister does he need to integrate into his understanding of his family? One thing never changes, howeverthe centrality of his relationship to his mother for his psyche, his sexuality, even his politics. What by the end do we think of Sybilla Semple Crawford?
5. The essence of a good historical novel is its capacity to create colorful scenes for pure entertainment value, while also offering shrewd characterization, complex plot evolution, and acute political and social insight. Is the comedy of a scene like the feast and fight at the Ostrich Inn in Part II of The Game of Kings, for instance, a good balance for the pure thrill of the swordfight and chase into Hexham in Part IV? How do these scenes illuminate character, plot, and relationships?