Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "Behind a Great Woman"

This poem came out of the November 6, 2012 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was prompted by janetmiles.  It was selected in an audience poll for sponsorship out of the general fund.  This poem belongs to The Steamsmith series, which you can explore further via the Serial Poetry page.

This microfunded poem is being posted one verse at a time, as donations come in to cover them. The rate is $.50/line, so $5 will reveal 10 new lines, and so forth. There is a permanent donation button on my profile page, or you can contact me for other arrangements. You can also ask me about the number of lines per verse, if you want to fund a certain number of verses
So far sponsors include: general fund, technoshaman

141 lines, Buy It Now = $141
Amount donated = $25.50
Verses posted = 4 of 27

Amount remaining to fund fully = $115.50
Amount needed to fund next verse = $2.50
Amount needed to fund the verse after that = $4

Behind a Great Woman

Toward the end of June there came an invitation
for a garden party to be held at Chiswick House
which the Duke of Devonshire
particularly desired Maryam to attend,
and so of course she obliged.

Maryam dressed in a suit of fine pale linen,
which set off her chocolate skin quite smartly,
accented with a shirt of aquamarine silk.
The women flitted about the garden
in gowns of gauze and crepe,
pastel shades of lavender and mint,
peach and cream and primrose.

The food was just as splendid,
silver platters heavy with scones and butter,
sliced fruit and flavoured ices, caviar on crackers,
sandwiches of cucumber or slivered beef,
and lobster salad in tiny pastry cups.

A croquet match was going on the green
and a quartet of musicians played in a pavilion.
People strolled along the winding paths,
admiring the statues and the knotworked herbs.
Persian rugs lay over the grass here and there,
with white chairs where tired guests might sit to rest.

Maryam noticed something about the attendees -- 
most of them were young, in their twenties or thirties,
still more ladies than gentlemen with the army
rattling its sabres over on the Continent,
but a lively mix overall.

Cavendish and Percy had got together, of course,
chatting about politics and plans for the Channel Tunnel.
Their sisters Charlotte and Margaret were busy
making introductions and charming conversation.

Maryam recognised a few more faces 
from the Duke's parties, and paused to make sure
that blind Cecily had her plate refilled
and was not being ignored by the harried servants.

"Have you heard who's here?" Cecily said,
a high colour on her cheeks showing her excitement.
"Half of London, it seems," Maryam said dryly.
Cecily giggled.  "I shan't spoil the surprise, then,"
she said, "but you should watch for the Duke.
He has been looking for you."

So Maryam set off through the pleasant paths
between banks of blooming flowers.
It was the Duke who spied her first, though,
and Maryam was so shocked by his companion
that she missed hearing most of the introduction.
Hastily she bowed to the Queen.

"Ah, the alchemist!"  the Queen exclaimed.
"You sent Us that amazing carriage for Our birthday."
"Yes, Your Majesty," Maryam said demurely
as she straightened from her bow.
The Duke gave her a wink and then heartlessly 
abandoned her in a circle far over her head.

The Queen stirred the balmy air with a silk fan.
"That's enough formality for the moment, I think,"
she said.  "I've managed to escape the palace for a day,
in hopes of meeting some people of fresher mind.
I have Lady Theresa Digby and Lady Charlotte Copley,
but most of my ladies-in-waiting are twice my age."

Maryam looked at the two women behind the Queen,
thinking about the politics of the appointments
and the tension said to lie between the Queen and her mother.
It must be terribly lonely to sit on the throne,
and yet have so little leverage that one 
could scarcely even select one's own friends.
The Queen looked delicate, and determined, and a bit tired.

"The Duke hosts a fine event," Maryam said.
"Surely no one could want for good company here."
"They all want to talk politics, though," said the Queen.
"The topic shall be whatever Your Majesty wishes," 
Maryam said, wondering who had been pestering her.

The Queen arched one slim eyebrow.
"And if I wish to discuss the weather?" she said.
"It's a lovely warm day, and we're lucky to have the sun,"
Maryam said without hesitation.

A glint in the Queen's eye showed that it had been a test.
"I should like to find a few allies," she said,
"who notice things and give good counsel.
So far all I hear is how I ought to find a husband."

"That would be a direct route to more authority,"
Maryam pointed out.  "A mother has much less say
over a married daughter than an unmarried one.
There would be no shortage of supporters
for a prompt marriage -- it would simply be
a matter of making a match to Your Majesty's ends
instead of to someone else's ends."

"Who do you think would suit, then?" 
the Queen said, narrowing her eyes.
"Everyone else seems to suppose
they know what is best for all England."

"Your Majesty, I am an alchemist,
so I do not suppose where I have no knowledge,"
Maryam said smoothly.  "Suppositions in the laboratory
lead to going about without one's eyebrows for a fortnight."

The young queen gave a delighted peal of laughter.
All across the green, heads turned.
The two ladies-in-waiting shifted in place,
flicking their fans open and then closed.  
The Queen nodded minutely.

"We must be on Our way," the Queen said.
"Perhaps our paths will cross again someday."
Maryam bowed low.  "At Your Majesty's pleasure."
The Queen and her ladies swept away.

Maryam saw several older women drawing near.
She stepped into the centre of the path
and walked briskly forward, causing
a brief tangle as they tried to pass her.
It was worth the scolding hiss from one of them
if it bought the Queen a few more minutes
of not-quite-privacy and almost-freedom.

There was a little gathering beside a pool
where some of the younger gentlemen
were holding a race of steamwork yachts.
Percy's quickly took the lead,
and he jeered at his hapless opponents.

"Who is winning?" asked Cecily.
"Percy, if you couldn't tell by the shouts,"
Maryam said.  "He fields a fine ship."
"Fine in fair weather," Cecily observed,
"but not so much with a bit of wind."

"I met someone interesting in the garden,"
Maryam said, wondering if Cecily had too.
"Ah, so did Charlotte earlier," Cecily replied.
"What did you think of her?"

Maryam thought about how the new queen
had cleverly eluded her overseers
by attending a perfectly proper garden party,
carefully sifting through the attendees to see
who would pander to her and who might stand firm,
who would pursue their own goals or aid hers.

She thought about how two of the ladies-in-waiting
had supported their mistress, however difficult
it might make their lives considering their elders.
Behind every great man stands a great woman,
Maryam mused to herself, and so perhaps
behind a great woman stand ... more women.

"I think," Maryam said slowly, 
"that a great many people
are making a grave mistake 
by underestimating her."

Tags: cyberfunded creativity, ethnic studies, fishbowl, gender studies, poem, poetry, reading, science fiction, writing

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