Florence took her husband’s arm, trying for a serene look as the butler lead them through the pale hall. The fine Turkish carpet softened the sound of their footsteps and she found her eyes feasting on the fine colours and illustrious décor, so unlike their own humble abode in town. In particular, she took note of the suits of armour lining the entrance like guardians from another era.
Her striped silk dress, which had felt perfectly fine in the streets of Norwich, now seemed rather drab and silly in London. Giles had already given her an allowance for a fresh wardrobe, but the fluster of newly wedded bliss had pushed the need far from her mind. She regretted not having more forethought now.
Resisting the urge to tug self-consciously at the material was proving difficult. When she had agreed to the forthright Mr. G. Fletcher’s proposal, she had never pictured he had such friends! Yet here she was, about to be introduced in the variable palace of a baronet.
They were led to the parlour, a room no less filled with antiquarian splendour. The large, medieval tapestry embracing the back wall was truly grand, but was not the first thing to catch her eye.
A knight stood in the centre of the room.
An honest to God knight in polished armour, silvery metal entrapping the body in hard scales. For a moment, Florence thought it another display, until it moved. Turning towards them at their entrance, a muffled sound emanated from its bowels and it waved a gauntleted hand.
“Harry?” Giles wasn’t as taken aback as Florence, “Is that you?”
The knight reached up, removing his helmet and treating them to the sight of curling blonde locks and cupid’s bow lips.
“Giles!” the young baronet’s pretty mouth turned up in a grin, “My word, it’s been an age! And here you are! Married! You old devil!”
“And here you are!” Giles laughed wholeheartedly, “What in the blazes are you wearing?”
“Do you like it?” he gave a little turn, “I had it made for me in Provence!”
“It is very well, but what brought on such a commission? I certainly didn’t take you for a medievalist!”
“You say that like it’s a dirty word. I had it done for Her Majesty’s Bal Costumé, of course!” preened Giles’ friend, “Do I not look the part?”
Florence bit her lips, hoping to supress a giggle at his over the top manner. He would look quite ridiculous in his armour, she thought, had he not such a handsome face.
She clearly didn’t succeed though, for the knight’s gaze turned to her. He stared, eyes roving over her.
“Apologies,” he smiled, recovering quickly, “But come, introduce me to this charming creature you’ve brought with you.”
Giles beamed even as Florence felt a pleased blush strike her cheeks.
“This is my wife, Mrs. Giles Fletcher, the former Miss Florence Barnard,” he introduced, leading her forward, “My dear, this is my friend, Sir Henry Wallace.”
He took her hand. She could feel the hard, coolness of his gauntlet, contrasted with the gentle press of his lips on her skin. Bright, searching eyes met her own. She swallowed, unable to look away. Her heart thundered in her ears.
“Enchanté,” he greeted.
“Must you go?” Florence tried to keep the whine from her voice, “Could it not wait till Monday?”
They had tickets to the opera that night, an event Florence had been anticipating for two weeks. It was still the start of the Season in London and they hadn’t been able to enjoy any of the amusements until now. Giles’ business had taken precedence, leaving Florence to while away the time in their London house all on her own for most of everyday. Having not yet been introduced to many in London, she had no callers and little to occupy her time.
Giles cast her an affectionate smile, pausing in putting on his hat to drop a kiss on her temple.
“I’m sorry, my love,” he said regretfully, “I’ll only be a few days. This is the last, I promise. Then you and I shall enjoy ourselves.”
Florence nodded, feeling miserable. She plastered a smile to her own face instead and reassured Giles. What else could she do, after all? He had a business to run and she had her own part to play as his wife. It was only when he was halfway down the road in a hansom cab that she allowed her expression to drop.
A walk, she decided immediately, I’ll feel much better after a walk.
With this absolute, she had the maid fetch her shawl and bonnet before setting off into the streets. It was a muggy morning, the heat of summer clinging to her skin uncomfortably. She ignored it, determined to walk out the dull, cooped up feeling she had been suffering under lately.
The sharp neigh of a horse caught her attention. She looked up, leaping backwards in fright as a hansom raced by. This startled her less than the feeling of something warm and solid at her back. Large hands braced against her shoulders, steadying her.
Florence jerked round, apology on her lips, when she recognised the upturned mouth and bright eyes.
“Sir Henry!” she exclaimed, all too conscious now of his hands on her body.
Sir Henry graced her with one of his heart stopping smiles, sending a pleasant rush right down to her toes. He was out of his armour this time, but that did little to dull his presence. Adonis himself could not have shined so brightly.
“A pleasure to see you again so soon, Mrs. Fletcher,” he said smoothly, “Giles is not with you?”
Florence felt a little tongue tied, but managed to stutter out an explanation for her husband’s absence. Sir Henry frowned in sympathy, giving a little tut as he shook his head.
“Ever the hard worker, our Giles,” he commented, “There is a delightful little coffee house not far from here. Please, allow me to escort you.”
He offered her his arm with a small bow.
Florence felt even more flustered by this unexpected invitation. He persisted though and she found herself looping her arm in his, feeling a small thrill at his proximity.
“Thank you, Sir Henry,” she managed.
He flashed his pearly teeth at her.
“You must call me Harry.”
“Oh no, I-“
He lifted his hand, silencing her.
“I insist!” Harry exclaimed, “All my most intimate friends do. Now come, my dear Florence, let us depart!”
As he led her on, Florence couldn’t help but think she rather liked the way he said her name.
The following days were a whirlwind. Giles’ business trip was extended, leaving her in the very enthusiastic hands of his knightly friend. Florence, pleased with the chance and her husband’s blanket permission to enjoy herself in his absence, was in a flurry of happiness. Harry was an excellent escort, an avid listener and an enjoyable companion.
Harry was more than a medievalist; he was a true convert to the chivalric ways of old who could not in good conscious as a gentleman allow her to languish alone. They enjoyed long walks together in the parks, visits to tea houses and many of London’s amusements. His tastes in reading leant not to Chaucer or even Shakespeare but to the troubadours of Aquitaine and Provence. She loved to listen to his voice wrap around lines of poetry, transporting her with him to a time long ago.
What could be more glorious than the courts of good Queen Eleanor or King Arthur? What heroes more courteous and braver than Sirs Roland, Galahad and Gawain? And who would have fit into them more than her dear Knight, Harry?
Oh hers! What a delightful thought!
She wore a new dress to the theatre that night. It was a sumptuous evening, couples gathered, wine was poured and she had the treat of Harry’s private box. He looked very fine in his black suit, a fleur-de-lis pinned to his lapel and his golden head teased into a halo of curls. He had surprised her that evening by greeting her at her door with a single red rose and a gentle kiss to the cheek. Red was her colour, he said.
She wore the rose in her hair now and could still feel the brush of his skin against her face. She hardly paid attention to the stage; the voices of the performers muffled against the thrum of her own heart.
He was so close.
She fanned herself, trying to maintain her composure as Harry leaned forward to whisper in the shell of her ear. She could feel the heat from him, the caress of his elbow against hers and the all too male scent emanating from him. Her toes curled in her shoes and she felt a burning in the base of her stomach.
A turn of her head and he was there. His face lingered inches from her own and their eyes locked. In the shadows of his private box, Sir Henry Wallace kissed her.
His hand rested first at her waist, sliding up her body, her breasts, her neck. She let him in, wanting more. Yearning for more of his skin against her own. The fire in her belly blazed, yet she felt gooseflesh rising on her arms in a delicious contradiction.
“Let me worship you, sweet Florence,” he breathed against her lips, “You cannot be mine, but please, please let me be yours.”
What could she say to such a declaration? What could she do but pull him closer? Bask in his affection? Attention? Dare she say it…love?
Whatever fine feelings she might have had as a married lady swiftly fell away under the intensity of the moment. The players played, the crowds cheered and Florence let the world melt away until there was only her and Harry.
Giles was home and Florence hadn’t seen her Knight for several days.
His absence made her ache.
Was this une affaire? They had done no more than kiss, no more than speak of their feelings, but there was never any doubt that she must uphold her marriage vows. Harry was persistent on that. A promise sworn before God must always be honoured.
Giles was indulgent upon his return, taking her out at every opportunity and treating her to surprise gifts. The next night they would attend their first ball together as a wedded couple, one where the Wallaces would be guests. Giles smiled tenderly at her excitement. She felt guilty wanting someone else to be at her side.
Florence consoled herself with the books her Knight had recommended, finding more passages to excite her fancy. Each evening she and Giles would read together in the parlour before going to bed. It was a quiet, comfortable time, only disturbed by the rustling of turning papers. It was in the pages of Capellanus’ De Amore that she found the answer to her confliction.
Although marriage was sanctified, it was different from romantic love. True love couldn’t exist between a husband and wife. It was secret, emboldening and above all faithful. It inspired men to great deeds. It was virtuous and enduring.
It was her darling Knight.
Florence pushed away the guilt.
What she had with Harry was nothing wrong. It was a pure, chaste love. The kind poets spoke of and envied for its devoutness. She hadn’t taken him to her bed, hadn’t betrayed her steady Giles.
Feeling bold, she walked over to where Giles was reading his paper and kissed him. It held none of the thrill of Harry’s kisses, but was agreeable nonetheless. Her heart even skipped a beat when he cupped her breast and drew her closer. His clumsy fingers struggled with her dress and she smirked, reaching to help him. Tonight, was for Giles, tomorrow would be hers.
The night of the ball there was a heavy rainfall. Giles escorted her in under a hefty, black umbrella and she tried not to think of her poor shoes. Once inside, though, the ill weather was soon forgotten. Florence had commissioned a dress of red silk, which had even Giles staring at her in wonder. She knew she would draw his eyes to her immediately.
And she was right.
Through the crowds of elegantly dressed couples, the clinking of crystal glasses and the shining gaslights, he came. It took every ounce of her self-control not to tear away from Giles and run to her beloved. More than propriety, what stilled her was the woman on his arm.
Elegant and tall, an older woman with greying blonde hair stepped in easy rhythm beside him. She was soon introduced as the illustrious Lady Wallace, Harry’s mother.
Giles gave a small bow prompting Florence into a rushed curtsy, relieved that the other woman was no rival. For her husband, Lady Wallace spared a warm smile and let him kiss her hand. For Florence, her lips tightened in barely masked disdain.
“What a pretty little thing,” she commented, “You’ve done well for yourself, Giles.”
Giles puffed up and cast a proud glimpse to Florence.
“I am a very lucky man,” he agreed.
Florence dared not look to Harry, afraid of what his expression must be. She demurred modestly, squeezing Giles’ arm.
“You look very fine this evening, Mrs. Fletcher,” Harry’s voice was a balm to her nerves, “Resplendent!”
She cautioned a look, wondering if everyone else could see the bright love shining from his angelic face. He smiled at her reassuringly.
“Ah, Harry I’ve been meaning to come by,” Giles said suddenly, “There’s a friend of mine I wanted to introduce you to. A singular gentleman, I think you’ll like him.”
“Well, with such a recommendation, how could I refuse!” her Knight laughed. The men made their excuses, leaving the two women alone.
Florence tried for small talk, but the impenetrable gaze of Lady Wallace never deigned to turn her way. She could see now where Harry got his good looks and height, though his personality must be all his father’s. Finally, after what seemed an age, Lady Wallace spoke.
“You share an interest, I gathered, with Henry’s intellectual pursuits?” she inquired, “Middle age romances and the like?”
Florence lit up.
“Oh yes,” she enthused, “Sir Henry has been an invaluable resource. His reading recommendations have kept me highly entertained.”
“I see,” Lady Wallace frowned slightly, her nose crinkling with the effort, “You like…stories about knights?”
“Yes?” Florence was unsure of where this conversation led, “Even Sir Henry holds a knighthood.”
“It’s a hereditary title,” Lady Wallace laughed derisively, “Henry wishes he were a “true” knight. If he could have lived in the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her court, he would have been very well pleased. Alas, he must live in the real world.”
Florence was struck by the dismissal.
Lady Wallace sighed deeply.
“You are very young,” she commented, “Do not fool yourself. My son is no Galahad, but you are dangerously close to becoming a Guinevere.”
An insult. Adulterous Guinevere, the undoing of her Arthur.
Florence felt the heat of anger and tried to retort. Lady Wallace wasn’t done yet though.
“I do not mean to embarrass you Mrs. Fletcher,” her voice droned, “But I have seen many a young woman ruined over less. If you were not already married, this…this relationship you have with my son would bring you both to scandal. My interference is kindly meant. Now, if you will excuse me, I see a friend I wish to attend.”
She removed herself so quickly from Florence’s company, the young woman felt it as surely as a slap in the face. The mortification of being dictated to in such a manner! To be accused of being in the same class as Guinevere! To be dismissed so!
It was more than she could stomach!
Not wishing to linger longer than she had to, she went off in search of Giles and her Knight. The glittering lights of the ballroom lost some of their lustre as dark thoughts roved around her head. She found Giles speaking with an acquaintance, a whiskey in his hand and an honest smile lighting up his face. She smiled fondly, leaving him to his evening.
She smiled less upon finding Harry.
He stood surrounded by three young women. Debutants in white dresses, not one of them much older than Florence herself. Yet she felt older. What did they know of love, after all? What experience of honest and true men? Theirs was a world awakening, but Florence had already basked in its glowing morning light.
They simpered around her Knight, trying to entice him into a dance, but Florence knew better. She beat her jealousy down aggressively and waited. Sure enough, he came, eyes fixed to hers.
Faithfulness he had promised her. Devotion. Worship. All were hers.
Her loyal chevalier. Her Tristian. Her Gawain. Her Lance-
No, she shouldn’t doubt.
“You are exquisite,” he crooned, voice awed.
Florence wanted to ignore Lady Wallace’s words. Guinevere’s love had been doomed, but not hers. Never hers. Not with Harry at her side.
His warm hand encircled her own, pulling her to the dance floor. It would be so easy to slip back into pure ecstasy and feed the growing feeling in her heart. So easy to forget Giles and her duties. So easy to only think of her chivalrous Knight and their surreptitious affair.
He was hers and she was his. What he asked of her, whatever he asked of her, she would gladly do. She decided to take a motto for herself then and there, wrapped in her Knight’s loving embrace.
Amor Vincit Omnia.
Love conquers all.