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A Gift Fit for a Prince | Saturday the 17th – mid afternoon

Duncan Melville

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A narrow shopfront opens to a small, but well-appointed room. Decor in rich burgundy and gold creates an atmosphere of warm wealth, with a pair of chairs supplied for the comfort of customers. A small display of jewels tempts the eye, pretty, but not the jeweller's best - only a fool would keep such things where anyone might see them!

Worthy customers, however, might request to view other items, or commission a piece, by application to one of a pair of slightly suspiciously sturdy, but well dressed and polite assistants.



A tall and somewhat thin and gaunt man entered the establishment. He was dressed in well-fitting black velvet breeches, waistcoat and justaucorps with gold thread detailing, white shirt, black silk cravat,  black leather shoes with silver buckles, and a tricorn decorated in the same fashion and pattern as the suit. The only pieces of jewellery that could be seen were a silver ring with a central garnet and carved scrollwork on the pinky of his left hand, and a huge, mazarin-cut white diamond on his cravat. His shoulder-length hair was tied back in a queue with a black silk ribbon, there was a basket-hilt sword on his left side, and an ebony walking stick on his right hand.

Once inside, he went to the display to look at its contents, finding them pretty, but not what he was looking for. Thus, he looked about, trying to call the attention of one of the assistants, so the man would help him.

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As any who had spent more than ten minutes with the young man knew, James O’Neill had no small estimation of his own talents. He was a poet on the make, an aspiring member of the literati whose self-proclaimed goal was to dethrone the established order of English and Irish verse. This was not the end of it: dark-haired, fair of complexion, and with vibrant emerald eyes, he was aware of his own good looks, as well, although these he valued less than having a clever tongue and a readiness for adventure.

No, there was no shortage of confidence, and at times – such as these past few days – this bravado even veered dangerously close towards downright grandiosity. But even he was aware that he was not particularly adroit with the handling of money.

The problem, then, was that during these peculiar days where the world seemed to be coming to a glorious crescendo of joy and Beauty, that he did not often care.

And so, unthinkingly, the poet had gravitated towards the jeweller’s, not yet certain if he was buying for himself or another, but still possessed of enough coin that he could spend it on a somewhat pricey endeavor and still have enough to buy the Baron Dundarg a promised drink. For this day on the town, he had selected an outfit of a plum justacorps, with olive brocade in the pattern of vines, with matching breeches and a waistcoat in the same shade of green as the brocade. His ostrich-plumed cavalier hat matched the spry strides which led him into the store, which was to say, jaunty and half-cocked, and a decorative claidheamh beag hung at his side.

Less colorfully dressed was a familiar sight, an acquaintance that he had not seen in some time: Duncan, Lord Melville, whose ensemble was so bleak that it could only mean one thing. The man was in mourning. James briefly frowned to himself as the connection was made, but after a moment’s hesitation, elected to make an approach anyways, lest he ignore the man and seem rude(r than normal).

“I never did take you for an ornamental type, my lord,” the Irishman murmured as he sidled up to the counter, speaking in the dying brogue of an Ulster Gael. “Developing new tastes, are we?”

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As he was addressed in a Goidelic dialect, Duncan turned to face James. His sombre countenance softened noticeably, and a feeble smile appeared as he recognized the Irish man of letters. “I regret to say that my language studies have not included the tongue of the bards… yet”, Duncan said in English. “But if you would care to carry on a conversation in Scots, I would gladly oblige”. An oversight in his education, he thought, considering that Na Gàidheil was the language of the Highlands. “I am certain the ancient Celt epics are best enjoyed and understood in the original language”. It was true of the Aeneid and other Latin works, and the Odyssey and other Greek works, so it was probably so in Gael too.

The Viscount came from a long line of Scoto-Normans. The de Mallevilles had fought at Hastings, and later settled in Lothian in the 12th Century. He was as much a Scot as any Highlander, but his speech, and the ways he went about doing things, were somewhat different. At his father’s table the language of choice had not been English of course, for no self-respecting Scot would have it so. But it had not been the language of the Highlands either. As most Lowlands nobility, Duncan’s mother tongue was Scots.

Without thinking, Duncan’s left thumb went to his pinky ring, caressing it softly.

“My lack of ornament, Master O’Neil, comes about due to my lady wife’s death”. A pause, trying to remember something. “I do not recall if you ever met her or not. She was a kind soul, who left this world due to a wasting disease that baffled medical practitioners, both modern and traditional...” the wise women had been consulted too when it had been clear that the modern doctors were at a loss as to what was happening to her. “So, my outfit is just a reflection of the state of my soul”. It did not occur to Lord Melville that the gold thread detailing could speak of hope shining through the darkness of great hardship.

“But enough of me. Pray, tell, what have you been up to since we saw each other last? I hope you enjoyed Melville House’s hospitality that time. I think it was the last time my house saw a gathering that was gay as opposed to sombre”.

Edited by Henry Grey
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Unbidden, James barked out a hoarse, sleepless laugh, responding immediately with, “Er…Ah ainlie ken a bawherr o' th' Scots leid*, my lord.” On his left, his fingers strummed his side errantly, feeling compelled to offer up an explanation. “It isn’t much favored among the Cenél nEógain*, it’s not.” For reasons that ought be obvious, sir. Never especially patriotic, there was potential for Duncan to have touched a nerve there – while he didn’t necessarily loathe the Scots of Ulster, he knew a bit of their tongue only through the consequences of the Plantation.

Even those of his clan loyal to the Crown, such as the Baron O’Neill of Iveagh or some of their southern cousins, were proud. Theirs was the line of Niall of the Nine Hostages and thirteen High Kings – to have their lands burned, plundered, and stolen by the Scots left a bitter taste in the mouths of even the apolitical sorts, such as James.

But even in the throes of this racing, nay, soaring emotional ride, the poet could perceive that Melville meant no offense. Hell the expression writ over his face seemed to say that the man couldn’t muster offense even if he wished to. And then he learned why.

“My lord…” James’ jaw tensed, and his right hand toyed anxiously with a loose strand of hair. “I-“ Am so very bad at this. Wit and poesy came easy to him, eloquent sympathy did not. Duncan had been kind to him in their previous interactions, and now he fumbled for words. “I find myself at a rare loss for words,” he muttered, with his face straining into a sad smile. “You have my utmost condolences, my lord. I- I’m positive she was a fine woman, to affect you so.”

“I have oft wondered if the dead are not the lucky ones, for their passing shows the cruelty of this world.”

The poet frowned, feeling his jaw click as he tensed it again, chuckling nervously. “Lord Melville, my friend, I…fear that whatever I tell you will seem insignificant in this light, but I remember your hospitality fondly, as well as the company we kept.” It was a fonder memory of Lucas Cole, and he could recall enjoying meeting Lady Toledo and that sharp-tongued Scotswoman. Mayhaps that charming sister of his has also returned to court...? The thought seemed inappropriate given the context. “But life has been…full, sir, for want of a better description.”

“I’ve kept busy in the service of my master, Ormonde, and the company he keeps, and…” The somber mood was broken, perhaps briefly, by James’ sharp, dimpled smirk as he admitted, “Completed what I believe to be my greatest piece yet, a manifesto of the spirit of His Majesty’s isles and even prepared it for publication...”

*I only understand a bit of the Scots tongue

*The “Kindred of Owen”, a branch of the Northern O’Neills historically rooted in Tyrone, Derry, Antrim, and the western part of the County Down.

Edited by James O`Neill
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Duncan nodded. Before he spoke, he had not considered that many Irish saw the Scots just like the Scots saw the English. “Let us speak in English then, unless you prefer a neutral language like Spanish or even Latin”. He had meant no slight and hoped none had been taken. “I should learn Gael. Perhaps you would point me to a good tutor?” Duncan had almost asked James to teach him but decided against it. It would be a job, not an appointment, and the man might take umbrage. But the Scot did want to learn the language, as it would make communicating with Highlanders much easier.

“Your sentiment is much appreciated, Master O’Neil, and may God pay you a thousandfold for it”. The words were sincere. “If we were all like she was, there would be no wars. She was the kindest person I ever met”. Then the Viscount took a moment to assimilate James’ words about who were the lucky ones, nodding. “A man of the cloth told me that it is the good ones that leave. Those of us who need a bit more work stay until we are ready”. It had been a Presbyterian cleric who had told him that. Duncan thought it was the truth.

“His Grace Ormonde? May you rise in his appreciation of you!” The more Ormonde liked James, the better the Irishman’s life at court would be. Then, a completed work was mentioned. “A completed work?” An eyebrow rose appreciatively. “Congratulations! I do pray it is a resounding success”. It was a sincere sentiment.

James had unwittingly succeeded at drawing Duncan away from gloomy thoughts. His face had brightened noticeably. Although the Viscount was not an erudite, he did have a facility for languages. Reading, he had come to realize, kept one current on manners of speech. Also, in the case of His Grace Charles’ three kingdoms, the written word spoke about social undercurrents rather eloquently. Thus, anything written by men like James was worthy reading.

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“I would volunteer myself, Lord Melville, if I knew all the differences between what we speak in Ulster and what your countrymen would speak amongst themselves,” James mentioned almost immediately, being willing to teach a few words and grammar to a friend. Unfortunately, while tutoring may have suited as an outlet for his energy, Irish and Scottish Gaelic were only intelligible to varying degrees (as an Ulsterman, his comprehension was better than others).

“I do not know how it is in…pardon, where is your estate? The lowlands?” He cocked his head to the side slightly, dark curls bouncing. The information that poured out of him was stream-of-consciousness, an impulse that would not be denied. “But surely you know that most villages of decent size have their own poet or seanchaidhe*?” While he’d always got on with the viscount, truthfully, James didn’t know enough of the man’s background to know if he understood the ways of doing things before the English. “I had one such as a tutor growing up. Failing that, ah…said tutor, a true bard by trade, told me that the greatest of his caste among your people are of Clan Currie.”

The poet finally took a breath as the conversation switched back to the other man’s late wife. Moving to Melville’s side, James hesitated for a second before placing a hand on his shoulder, thinking that was the done thing. “She sounds like a lovely woman, my lord,” he managed, upon hearing the lady’s description. “Er, it is trite to say, but kindness – base, boring kindness – is undervalued. May she…ah, be an example as we continue our work.”

James O’Neill could turn a phrase with the best of them, but platitudes – no matter how sincere – did not come easy, even if there was a bleeding heart deep within reflexive irony, well-deserved arrogance, and a taste for whatever impulse came his way.

Abruptly, though, Duncan seemed to embrace the news he had to offer. “It is service to His Grace that brought me to court in the first place, and I spend much time among that family. More importantly, you’ve my gratitude, Lord Melville.” James grinned as he said this, ever proud of his work. “In truth, my piece – The Rising of the Britons, as I call it – has been completed for some time, but it hasn’t been ready, if you follow. Theatrics with the publishing house, that sort of thing,” he explained breezily, dismissing those theatrics (in truth, having been caught in bed with the older woman who ran the printing press) with a wave of his hand.

“But ah, the omens are good, my friend!” His smirk was triumphant, his speech continuing to ramble to great excess, at a hurried, unnecessary pace. “My Boudica will become a symbol for His Majesty’s kingdoms, I simply feel it, I do.”

*Pre-1948 Irish word for a kind of bard, a “bearer of old lore”, oral historians/storytellers that survived past most of the bards – themselves a dying breed in our time period  

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  • 2 weeks later...

James was open to the idea of teaching Duncan himself, but his reason not to do it was quite valid. “The Lowlands, yes. Lothian. I have not had much contact with those that follow the old ways…” that was an understatement. The Melvilles had been on the side of Anglicizing the land for many generations, so old-blood Scots tended to evade him and his whenever possible. “But I have recently met a wise woman. She might know who could help in this”.

For a moment there was a flashback of pain. The wise woman had been approached when the doctors had told him there was nothing they could do to help his Book Mouse. To cover his inner turmoil, he took out his meerschaum pipe and leather tobacco pouch. The pouch smelled of cherries. He then proceeded to load and light the pipe using a sulfur-based match a piece of phosphorous-soaked paper*. After a few puffs, he was back to some semblance of calm.

“Clan Currie…” Duncan committed the name to memory. “I will seek them out if other inquiries fail to produce a result”.

If Duncan had known the reason why the book was not ready, he would have laughed until tears came out. Women were troublesome, every man knew it and, to some degree, every man expected it. “You must let me know when and where I can purchase a copy as soon as the printing, collating, and binding is finished. My library would not be complete without it”. The library at Melville House was larger and more complete than most, and Ophelia had been the main reason for it. “And if you were to sign a dedication on the first page, I would be most obliged”.

OOC: Matches have been around for a surprisingly long time. The first sulfur-based matches appeared in the 1200s, and a way to strike them using phosphorous-soaked paper was devised in the 1600s.

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  • 3 weeks later...

While fond of English culture and far less resentful of their rule than many who claimed the name O’Neill, James nonetheless felt a keen sense of what the Portuguese termed saudade when confronted with the reality of the Gaelic way of life. Like his father and the moderates of the Confederation in years past, he saw ties with England as a way to preserve what the Gaels had on either side of the Sruth na Maoile. To hear that Melville, like many Lowlanders, was not in touch with that heritage was not surprising – as mentioned, the Plantations were riddled with Anglicized Scots – but it served as a reminder of the death by a thousand cuts being inflicted upon the Gaels and their adopted cousins, the Old English.

And so the poet was left with a sense of longing for a time he had never truly experienced, its history a beautiful song that was not ending so much as fading out. Distantly, a part of him vocalized a sense of pity for Duncan and the Lowlanders, who had lost too much to peer into two separate worlds and find the beauty between the two. “A wise woman, truly?” James asked, curiosity piqued. “That might work, but, ah, hm.

His jaw tensed, considering. “She must be wise indeed to ply her trade. My understanding is that the cunning folk are less tolerated on this island than back on Erin.” That was another dying breed – the modern English lacked the sense of wonder and fear for the ways of the Earth and the Otherworld.

“Ah, a pity, my friend, that I did not find you sooner. The few drafts that I have are in the possession of those whose favor might enable the work to be appreciated for what it is, you understand.” The old verbal tics were at it again, interjections repeating themselves as words moved quicker than thoughts. “Your lordship will be one of the first to receive a copy, you will, under the sole condition that it is read in its entirety first.”

He flashed Melville a smirk, adding, “I’ve one copy with the dedication included in type, already signed. But, as you might imagine, there are…others in line for such a gift.” A poem exalting the spirit of the ancient Britons and their descendants simply had to have had a royal dedication, and in the absence of a patron, the traditional dedicatory sonnet served just fine.

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If James had but mentioned the concept of Old English, and perhaps explained it a little, Duncan would have had an easier time at understanding the differences in their ways of thinking. Duncan had always considered himself a Scoto-Norman, someone from an old family that had been originally Viking, then somewhat French, and finally Scots; he had never considered his family or himself as English. Although the concept pertained to those Normans that had settled in Ireland and adopted Irish ways, there was an equivalent reality north of Hadrian’s wall. The main difference, perhaps, was that Duncan and many like him considered His Grace Charles, to use the proper Scots form, their rightful king, and felt Scots had a better claim to him than the English.

“Wise women need to be… discrete, even north of the Wall”, Duncan agreed. “But when my wife got sick, and the best English doctors could do nothing, my mother knew where to find one. The dowager has far more connections than I. Sadly, not even a wise one was able to help”. A shadow full of sadness passed over the viscount’s face. “I do not hold my dear lady wife’s death against the woman. It was Providence that decided she was to leave this good earth”. His pain returned. “But I found the wise one's words and ways soothing. I am a devout Christian, master O’Neil, but she knew what to say to keep me sane. Perhaps she should get a more permanent position within my household, without announcing to the four winds what she really is, of course”.

Then the topic changed, and the Lowlander did his best to focus his mind away from his loss. “If there is need to satisfy the printers’ inclination to filthy lucre, Master O’Neal, do not hesitate to tell them to send me their bill. Oftentimes I have seen merchants step back when Sir Cedric Doolitle mentions that I, his partner, am a Scots peer”. He was as indirect as possible, trying to be both helpful and polite. “And yes, I promise to read the work in its entirety, and then to go back to a few passages later to savour them at leisure”.

At James’ oblique reference to the royal family, Duncan assented. Lord Melville did not think of himself beyond what was proper. He was in the lowest rungs of the noble social ladder, and he knew it. He would strive to climb up, of course, but until he did, he knew he had to keep his peace, and his place. "I will wait patiently, but with great anticipation", he said.

“Although I have a gift for the Christening of Prince Charles Henry, I came to this establishment looking for other options. Perhaps there is something more appropriate than what I have…” Duncan had purchased a mint copy of the first complete King James Bible printed in Scotland in 1633. It was a Roman Letter octavo which had been printed in three editions the same year. The viscount had found a first edition copy, and had page edges gilded and the cover wrapped in full-grain red-tinted leather with the Prince’s arms embroidered with gold and silver thread on the front. The Lowlander thought it was a gift befitting royalty, but he was not certain.

The Scot looked for an attendant.

Edited by Duncan Melville
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  • 4 weeks later...

“Again, my lord, you ah…have my utmost sympathy.” James was yet unsure of how to console a man very much his senior about such a loss. To that effect, he stammered slightly as he found himself in agreement with Melville’s assessment. “But t-that you found a way to ease your heart somehow is…very much a blessing. I-I should think, anyways, that it is not blasphemy to find such wisdom.”

“The Almighty does not want us to suffer.”

This was a more resolute statement than his previous ones; the poet held dear a piety that may have been curious to most who knew of him and his extracurricular activities. It was a piety that thought less of the God of the Bible and more of a God of What Was Good and Beautiful, an artist’s Christianity that favored Christ with the leper than fire and brimstone.

Duncan pledged to both read the poem and fund its publication if need be. The latter statement, of course, sat awkwardly with James: he had swallowed his pride enough during those long months in Mistress Constance’s bed. That experience had been pleasurable, to be sure, but most poets of his (perceived and self-proclaimed) caliber found patronage with high-ranking figures, not common women who de facto owned a printing press. “I will bear it in mind, my lord,” James assented lightly, trying to skirt over the negative feelings. “At any rate, the work will speak for itself soon enough, when my Boudica comes alive.”

Melville explained his presence at the store, and James let out a self-deprecating bark of a laugh. “Ah, and I came here looking to waste some of my ill-earned coin. The duality of man!” He remembered little of philosophy, just enough to make that joke. “What is this gift of yours? In the absence of the assistance of one who knows what they’re doing, I might be of some small assistance, I might.”

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