I wrote this one-woman show for San Francisco based actress Catherine Luedtke while we were both sheltering in place during the COVID-19 Pandemic. While it might not be “King Lear”, I do think it reflects not just the plight of the historically valiant (if hard-headed) Empress Matilda, but also a lot of the insecurities both Cat and I were dealing with at the time, and the world as a whole was wrestling. In that sense, I think it serves the true point of historic fiction, namely to use the past to help us understand the present and better conceive of a future.
THE SNOW WALK OF THE EMPRESS MATILDA
by Stuart Eugene Bousel
(The edge of a forrest, in the dark of night, in the middle of winter. Snow. Enter Matilda, 39, dressed all in white, wrapped in a massive fox fur cloak that sweeps from her shoulders to the ground. She does not see the audience at first, but then suddenly stops, midway across the stage, as if sensing them. She turns. She sees them. She’s startled- but she conceals it. A moment. She straightens herself to her full height, cocking her chin imperiously, fixing them with her eye. She smiles. Her teeth are gritted between the lips.)
I know what you’re thinking: how did she climb out a window… in that?
That’s good. That’s a good question. I’m glad you’re asking it. It’s a better question than, “What’s she doing out here all on her own?” And it’s a much better question than, “Doesn’t she look familiar? Doesn’t she look a little bit like…?”
I get that all the time. Of course, then people get all in a fluster, trying to figure out which title to use. I have so many. I mean… she… has so many. So many titles. Mistress. Lady. Countess. Queen. Empress. So many titles. So little… actual… power. No, that’s not the right word. So little… freedom. But then who am I to complain? Especially to you. Especially out here.
Are you cold? I’m positively frigid and I’ve got this on so… so you… you must be… is it hard, being common? I always imagined it would be, but right now, looking at you and that entirely practical ensemble, I’m thinking well, Maude, your second mistake was the fox fur but honestly, if you think I was going to just leave this and trust it would follow me to Abingdon with the rest of the baggage when every Tom, Dick and Wulftang in the castle is losing their bloody mind then you really don’t know who I am do you? Besides, it was the only thing I had that was white. And warm. It’s the combination, you see, that was the problem. One doesn’t really make winter clothes in white, does one?
I suppose now you want to know what my first mistake was. Me too. Been pondering that one for days. The trouble is, I don’t recall having all that many choices, so I’m not entirely sure, where I could have made a mistake… but heaven knows I must have. Somewhere. Or we wouldn’t be here right now, would we? No. We would not. So I must have made a mistake. And I must be being punished for that. You don’t get to be called Mistress, let alone Empress and not be punished for your mistakes.
Rather, she doesn’t get to be.
Heavens, where is that escort that was supposed to meet me?
You really don’t have to wait. I’m sure they’ll be here any moment. But really, how kind of you. What gentlefolk you all are. Though clearly… not. Worth ten of them though, believe you me, each and every one of you. And I’m not just saying that because it’s Christmas. Was Christmas? Will be Christmas? I have no idea what day it is. Not even sure what the time is now though I’m hoping close…er… to dawn? It’s so dark. But I’ve been walking for…. Well long enough that it should be getting light. I think. It takes so long for the sun to rise at this time of year, doesn’t it? I remember thinking, when I was a little girl, that there were nights I worried it would never rise again, and we’d have to live in the nighttime forever. Oh, how that terrified me. How it would keep me awake for hours, listening to the wind howl over the hills, counting the seconds till Vespers, and from Vespers till those first golden glimmering beams would slip through the window carrying the church bell chimes on their backs. Usually I would fall asleep before that happened, to awake suddenly in the morning, all memory of the previous night gone and all hope in the goodness of the world renewed, each dawn Eden on earth again. But some nights I just couldn’t, and the minutes and the hours would stretch and stretch as I lay as still as possible, too fixed with worry to even toss and turn, like an adult would. When you’re a child, you just fear, without knowing why, and so you lay there, hoping not to attract the attention of anything that might be worse than your imagination. When you’re an adult, you flail about, each muscle twitching with each new horror as it plays itself in your mind. As a child you worry the night will never end. As an adult, you know it will, but worry you may not live to see it, or that something worse will be revealed by the light. In those moments, I think, restlessness is our way of signaling to God to “please do SOMETHING!”
On those nights it was the worst, I would sometimes slip out of my bed, past the sleeping nurse, through the door, past the guard in the hall, and down to my brother’s room, where I would lift the latch so slowly and so quietly that, if he were sleeping, he would remain so, and if he were not, it wouldn’t frighten him into pretending to be. Then I would run across the cold floors in my slippers and lift the covers, get under them as quick as could be, and, whispering his name over and over again, burroughs my arms around him until he would roll over and hold me back, our foreheads touching, our noses just barely apart so that I could listen to him breath and the sound would blot out the worst of the wind. And if he was also awake, we would sing to one another, softly. He first, then me. One song after another. Sometimes the same song, call and response, and sometimes together, our eyes always closed, so that we couldn’t see just how dark it was under the covers, under the roof of the castle, under the depth of those bleak, January midnights.
I really should have brought a lantern, shouldn’t I? But the point was not to be seen, except by the escort. On the positive, if they can’t see me, then THEY can’t see me. The other They. On the negative… if THEY can’t see me, then they can’t see me, and it’s very possible that I might die out here before… anyone… sees me and… now that I’ve said that aloud… it has struck me that… I very much do not wish to die out here in the snow and the cold… and also… I’m wondering… how… you… can see me. And what exactly you’re all doing out here.
All right. Fine. No bullshit. You deserve better than that, and I’m guessing you already know everything anyway. You certainly seemed to before when you blocked our way to Westminster and made your voices known. How I mistook you for common country peasants when even a dog wouldn’t be out on night like this, just me, says a lot about where my brain is at but obviously, no, you’re not peasants, I should have known you were Londoners by the dreadful sneers and the abominable hats. This version of you, this silent version, is substantially more accusatory so I suppose I congratulate you on having found a way to haunt me even at my lowest moment so hurrah and huzzah, you win once again and your prize is my humbleness that you so constantly and viciously demand: yes, I am the Empress Matilda, or Lady of England or whatever it is you’re calling me- to my face, at least- and yes I am still not the Queen, yes I am escaping Oxford Castle, and yes I am throwing myself on your mercy once more even though I know you all bloody well hate me. You made that perfectly clear in London, when you previously all felt an enormous need to turn up at just the right moment only louder, to stop me from doing the one bloody thing I am permitted to do. Nevermind that I am the rightful heir to the throne of England. Nevermind that my father, who you all loved and preferred to me, declared me his rightful heir. Nevermind that, as God’s appointed on this miserable, cold earth that should have been enough for you all, but no, oh no, you just couldn’t accept a woman, could you, even if she was undeniably smarter than her father, certainly had a better constitution than her dear departed brother, and was already ruling an empire at least three times the size of this frozen shitpile of an island? You just couldn’t accept that, could you? Eve bites an apple once and now we’re all doomed to be underestimated, undervalued, and undercut, oh how I hate that and hate how it rules all your small minds- no matter how many times we prove ourselves. You just won’t accept us, will you?
Or is it actually about me? Is that actually why?
Because that’s what my husband, Geoffrey, said. Before I had him bugger off to Normandy for that one. I mean, it was a strategic choice too, someone has to protect the home base or we’ve nowhere to retreat to. Not that we’ll need to retreat- this is a temporary setback, I assure you. But he had to go and I needed to be… unquestioned. A woman with power is never free to keep it without the total support of every man around her and while I know he was just trying to… help… well, it wasn’t helping. And that’s all I should need to say.
I’m sure you all think it’s actually about me and not that other inconvenient fact of my sex but they can’t exactly be separated so… enjoy Stephen. And since you only all still have him because I was feeling gracious that day and made a trade I now realize I probably shouldn’t have made, you can also thank ME for him. But you won’t will you? YOU ungrateful unwashed squabbling ignorant herd of shit sniffing SWINE!
I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t yell, I’ve been told it makes me unattractive, and that’s also part of the problem, thank you for THAT, Father. At least Henry attacked my personality instead of just my feminine mystique. Also, I’m sure it massively increases the likelihood of me being seen by THEM and so… I should… probably… be still. Like a good little girl. Even if that’s what I want to be the least. Still. Like a frightened little girl. Alone in her bedroom. At night. God. My God. But I can almost hear him saying it to me. “Now is the time to hide yourself, Maude. To save yourself. Lie still. You have to hide yourself to save yourself.” I hate that. “I know you hate it. But you have to.” But I don’t want to. “But you will.” Yes, I will, thank you, Adelin, thank you.
Why does it feel less insane to talk to you, than to talk to myself? Well, to my brother, actually. Who did you think I was talking to? God? Please. Do you think a woman my age, with my experience, not to mention my level of responsibility, talks to God, like THAT?
Oh, stop with the glares, please. I already apologized. Isn’t that enough for you? Of course it isn’t.
Christ, I’m cold.
Sorry. Of course you’re all very devout, aren’t you? When it works for you, that is.
Look, don’t repeat any of this, all right? Any. Of. It. But especially the bit about Stephen and the deal I struck to have him traded for Robert. No, not because Stephen’s the King. This week. You think I’m afraid of that? You think I would be even if it were permanent- which it is not, believe me, this is a temporary setback. Look, you all may not like me very much, but I think we can all agree that I’m not a scared little moppet, now am I? And who could be scared of Stephen? The most threatening thing he has going for him is that mustache and I wouldn’t exactly call it dangerous even if it is on the offensive. All the time. Season to season, as it were. But I would rather it not get around that I was so flippant about setting him free in exchange for Robert. Or that I may have thought twice about that, since then. Especially, you know… while crawling across all that ice wearing this. You see, Robert’s been very kind to me and very supportive of me. Especially for a half-sibling. Especially for a male half-sibling. Especially for a male half-sibling with his own potential claim on the throne. God, I hate that I have to qualify like that but you do understand, don’t you, that THAT is my life. See, I must qualify every relationship I have, because I can trust virtually nobody to begin with and even less since my Father made them all swear to support me. You see, knowing who is doing whatever it is they do for me as opposed who is really just doing it for dear old dead dad is not only the cross I must bear but the cross we’re all sort of pinning our hopes on right now. Furthermore, by the by, it is the reason I’m out here all alone because there was nobody at Oxford I trusted enough to stay there, let alone here, with me, in the dark, the freezing dark, helping me escape from that bristle brush cousin of mine. I mean, half of them would hand me over to King Mustache without even thinking twice about it and the only consolation I have for that is knowing they’d do the same to him if they had the chance. And as for the other half… well, let’s just say a significant portion of those probably couldn’t be bothered to hand me over alive. If you’re thinking oh, poor Maude, her life sounds lonely… well, it is. And I understand that many of you are quite… poor. Maybe even starving. Certainly not pleased about being stuck in the middle of all this. But there are some advantages to being common. One of them is friends. Family. Freedom. And no, I’m not talking about the freedom to do whatever you like whenever you like to whoever you like. Nobody has that. Not even me. Not even King Mustache. I’m talking about the freedom to not second guess every blasted thing in your life constantly because you have to second guess every blasted person who crosses your way.
The only real friend I ever had was Adelin. You’d know him as William, of course. My younger brother. A very nice boy. Maybe the nicest there ever was. Hopefully not the nicest there ever shall be but… who can say? And who knows. If the nicest boy ever is out there or is born tomorrow, I won’t ever meet him. He won’t ever play a role in my life. I received my allotment of good and pure human right up front and now that it’s gone, it’s gone, and my best case scenario will be fair to decent and less ambitious than myself. You know, the Roberts and Geoffreys of the world. Not the Adelins. Even if there are thousands of those wandering about, we all only get one. If we’re lucky enough to get one at all. How’s that for midwinter gloom, eh? Maybe he wasn’t all that nice. Maybe he would have turned out rotten if he’d had the chance. Most little boys do. Honestly it was all a very long time ago. Thirty-one years, really. I mean, he died when I was seventeen, but our childhood ended nine years before that, and the truth is, I didn’t know him all that well for the brief, glimmering moment he was a man. It’s hard to be someone’s older sister, when you’ve suddenly become Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. After I left for… after I was sent to… Germany, I imagine he must have been very very lonely. God knows, I was. Especially after having spent all that time together while our father was traveling. And all the time before that, of course, when he was around, but just couldn’t have been bothered. For so long we had each other, to sing to. To cling to. And then all at once we didn’t. But I, at least, had a journey to go on and a destiny to fulfill while Adelin was just… one more boy in a castle, waiting his turn. I suppose that’s when he must have started to grow close to her. The other Matilda.
I had to hide myself to save myself. But she didn’t have to hide because she didn’t matter.
It’s all my father’s fault, really. First he essentially abandons us then he swoops back in with all the plans in the world and nearly two dozen bastards he’s been fathering around the kingdom the whole time but only my brother and I can truly be of service to his grand designs so off I go to meet my first husband, Henry, and I’m not even ten years old and Adelin’s left in the care of his half-sister who may have the same name as I but only half the grit. And certainly only half the wit. Tender enough, I suppose, or Adelin wouldn’t have grown so fond of her, but nowhere near the brains and certainly no sense of place or poise. She was a needy, showy, incompetent thing, she was. But Father’s so neglectful it really doesn’t take much more than a friendly hello somewhat on the regular for us, his brood that is, to feel something akin to what you people call love. A thing you have in abundance, by the by, compared to us. A luxury you can afford precisely because you can afford so little else but that’s the trade, don’t you see? That’s the bargain. You get to have love, it’s what makes you important, for a moment, for one another, and we… I… get to be important. For a moment. To everyone. But no love. No affection. No family. Just position. Obligation. And this fox fur cape that’s keeping me just warm enough to not die and, hopefully, help me blend in with the snow, also so that I can not die. I imagine that Adelin and Lesser Matilda must have had something akin to the momentary love that makes peasants into kings and queens. How else do you explain what happened?
They were all in the ship, you may remember. Of course your remember. You remember everything that forces you to have to deal with me, you’ve got stitched onto your brains like the Bayeux Tapestry: The White Ship, swiftest barge of the whole fleet, so large that it could fit almost the entire court on it- and they certainly tried. A little too well. And when it went into the channel on the fateful day, it was already too heavy. And they were all far too drunk to think too much about it. Oh, yes, it was a pleasure cruise and nobody in the tale looks terribly brilliant, except King Mustache, who was just Lord Mustache then, but somehow smart enough to decide to disembark after being downwind long enough to know the captain was sauced enough to drive the hull straight into a reef, which he did, and suddenly all 300 of them, including Adelin… He heard her calling, you see. The other Matilda. She was drowning, like they were all drowning. All of them except for him- he had been rescued. They’d pulled him into a rowboat, and he would have been fine, they would have rowed him back to shore, but he heard her screaming for help and he went back to rescue her and they swamped the boat and in he went… I want to believe he found her. I want to believe he was able to swim to her in time, and that she… she put her arms around his neck, just as she must have done a hundred times before on land, and pulled him down with her into that water so grey it is like the stones piled over a highwayman’s grave, even when the sun shines down upon it. I want to believe that, if she couldn’t leave him for me, at least she didn’t leave him alone.
Did I mention that my father was also supposed to be on the ship? Yes. He was. But he took another. And he was spared. Like Lord Mustache. Who is now King Mustache. You see, it really is, all daddy’s fault.
And where’s my mother in all this, you ask? Where are the mothers ever? And would it matter if they were around? Half of us are raised by wet-nurses because our mothers are either dead or already hard at work on the next back-up heir, while the other half of us are raised by wet nurses because our mothers are too busy dressing for festivals and pleading for mercy on behalf of whoever got cornered in the perpetual chess game of our lives this week. Still, mine is decent enough, kind enough, the Robert of mothers, really. If I go by Maude instead of Matilda it’s because I do admire her, enough so that one could, if one were squinting, mistake it for affection. And besides, with so many Matildas running around for a time there, it was important to remain distinct. And Adelin called me “Maude.” So I was “Maude.” And I’m still Maude. Though perhaps not to you. Lady will do for you. Though I’d prefer Queen.
Or Empress. I still am one, you know. I was crowned. In St. Peter’s. They can’t exactly take that back, you know. Not that my father didn’t find a way to muck that up too. Certainly my mother would not have. And the worst part is, I could have stayed. I would have stayed. It would have been a lot warmer in Italy, that’s for certain. But of course he demanded that I return to him in Normandy, immediately after my Henry died. And I… being a good little girl…. afraid to make a noise… did. But… I brought with me money, jewels, and the hand of Saint James the Apostle. Like you do. And I also brought with me a great deal more than that. Primarily in attitude. You see, I said yes, like I knew I was supposed to, but I had already done and seen so much, you understand. And while my father knew I was enough his daughter to expect more than some wilting English rose, I also suspect he wasn’t quite prepared for what he got. But how could I be otherwise? It’s hard to go back to being a pawn, when you’ve had a taste of what it’s like to rule the board. Then again, he did declare me his heir so… but then what was his choice? Adelin drown with the other Matilda’s arms around his neck, no doubt, and no sons left. All that hope at the bottom of the Channel and nobody getting any younger so what else can you do? People think it was a compliment, Father declaring me the heir, but it wasn’t. It was desperation. The last act of a man who knows he’s tired and broken and done. So much so that he’ll make a choice he would never have made otherwise, because if you’re going to choose the Devil you might as well choose a devil with your bone structure. The bones are, after all, what this is all about. The bones in the crypt that we’ll all one day be after we’ve played our part. The bones at the bottom of the sea that never got their chance. The bones buried in the fields that we all fought so hard over, and push their way up through the soil to become trees that stretch their skeleton hands up against the night, praying for some kind of spring to warm and dress and crown them once again. And now here I am. No better than he was. Paying for my mistakes. Waiting in the dark, King Mustache and his cronies at my heels, dogs and horses and all the rest banging at the castle door, and my best summer gown utterly ruined, feet numb and nose ready to fall off, pleading my case to… well, after all. You’re not really here. I know that. So I suppose I am my own jury and judge, aren’t I? You’d think, knowing that, I’d be less worried about winning the argument. Thank God, at least I have a son to pin my hopes on, when I at last give in. Not that I will. This is only a temporary setback.
I don’t believe in ghosts. Do you? Well, you should not. Believe me, if any woman were to be haunted, it would be I, and I’m telling you now, there’s nothing. No Father. No other Matilda. No Adelin. Nothing badgers me, nothing scares me, nothing screams at me in the dark or walks around with its head under one arm and its ass shitting Satan’s fiery bollocks or what have you. When the night falls in my life, no faeries or goblins or specters come prowling about to torment me. There is just darkness, maybe stars, sometimes wind, and even if there is, under that, just silence. There is nothing there. And there should be. But there is not. And that’s worse. I sometimes think I would give anything, even my crown, even the crown of England, for one little ghost. But there’s no one to make that trade with. Not even you. You’re only here, because I needed someone to stay angry enough at to keep warm. When I leave, you’ll be gone too. You don’t exist without me. And before that offends you, please stop and think about how lucky you are to be so needed by me.
Good lord, Uncle David, where are you?
Yes, David, king of Scotland. I’m related to everyone it’s… exhausting.
Next time this happens, and I’m sure there will be a next time, there always is, we’re going to have a better plan than “walk across the frozen river and into the frozen woods in the dead of the frozen night and just hope you and the rescue party meet up before you freeze to death.” I’m thinking I’d prefer something… easier. On the feet, if nothing else. Perhaps I shall have them dress me as a corpse or something. That way I can be carried. On a litter. A kind of… Cleopatra In The Rug but for modern times. They could even wrap me in winding sheets. Keep the white theme going. White Winding Sheets. White Winter Slicker. White Water… Ship. Oh, William. Adelin. How could you? How could you? Knowing all that there was at stake. Knowing all that you had to give to the world? How could you go back for her and leave it all for me to deal with?
I didn’t climb out a window, by the way. It was a door. They all have back doors, you know. Castles. And they all have tunnels. It’s not glamorous, not in the slightest, but… I had to hide myself, to save myself.
Oh, look! There’s a light! See it! Just coming over that hill.
But I can’t tell if it’s a torch or the dawn.
What do you think?
(She looks to the east. She shivers. Slowly, the light fades to black.)