In the ninth installment of Catriona Scott‘s To Prove a Villain series, O Coward Conscience, even Richard’s threats cannot put paid to Harriet’s guilt. A few wrong words from Katherine, suspicious of the circumstances surrounding Hastings’ death, lead her to reveal more than she ever planned, putting them both in danger in the process.

 

Dramatis Personae

Richard Plantagenet – Mayor of New York City.
Harriet Stafford – Speaker of the New York City Council and confidante to Richard.
Katherine Woodville – Harriet Stafford’s partner
William Catesby – Richard’s chief of staff
Frank Lovell – Richard’s aide
Rebecca Ratcliffe – Richard’s aide

 

O Coward Conscience 

It wasn’t until around nine o’clock that night that Harriet arrived home. It was almost as if she had thought that working late would help, in some small way, to put her back in Richard’s good graces – and, indeed, he had seemed pleased when she passed him in the foyer just as she was leaving City Hall. He had smiled, and she knew Richard’s smiles were rare, even now when he was at the height of his power. But there was something about that smile that made her uneasy. Perhaps it was the fact that Richard rarely smiled in and of itself – or was it something more?

When Harriet arrived back at her apartment, she found Katherine waiting for her. She had expected this, but what she had not expected was for Katherine to run over to her the moment she was through the door, embracing her in an almost uncomfortably tight hug. Harriet managed to extricate herself from this – with some difficulty – before posing her question.

“Katherine, what the hell are you so pleased about? It’s not as though I was planning to stay at work overnight – ”

“I know it’s a bit silly to be so excited about this, you probably get this sort of thing all the time, and I was going to phone you but I thought I’d wait, to tell you in person – ”

“Get to the point, Katherine,” Harriet interrupted, setting down her briefcase and shrugging off her coat, walking away to hang it up even as her partner continued to talk.

“You remember that gallery in Brooklyn that commissioned some pictures from me?”

Harriet nodded. She was feeling impatient – both with Katherine’s inability to cut to the chase, and with the whole idea of art galleries in general. She understood why they were there, of course, but that didn’t mean to say she enjoyed going to them – even if some of the paintings on display were Katherine’s. She just didn’t understand the art scene at all, or what any of it meant. There were too many meanings and too much to try and take in at once.

“Well, it turns out The Times is doing a piece about the gallery, and they want to interview some of the artists – and they asked me. I mean, they asked me, but they also want you to be interviewed with me, the two of us together. Isn’t that great?

Harriet frowned.

“You didn’t agree to this, did you?”

Katherine was too excited to even look crestfallen at her partner’s disapproval of the whole idea.

“Of course I agreed to it, why wouldn’t I?”

“You know I would much rather keep our relationship out of the papers, Katherine. Why does the public need to know – ”

“But this would be a good thing, Harry, can’t you see that? Good publicity, for a start, you talking about something other than politics…”

Katherine’s explanation faltered into nothingness as she saw the look Harriet was giving her – one which mingled her frustration with something almost like pity.

“Good publicity? Katherine, darling, can’t you see that I don’t care about that? I want to keep us a secret as much as I can so that I can protect you – protect us. You don’t know what it would be like, to be put in the spotlight like that. You remember everything your sister had to put up with, with Edward in the papers all the time? I don’t want you to go through that.”

It was now Katherine’s turn to frown. It had just been over a month since her brother in law had died, and here Harry was, speaking ill of him, bringing up his front page grabbing antics – and for what? To try and prove a point? She decided not to comment on how insensitive Harry was being – she was fairly sure her partner knew it as she had never much cared for Edward when he was alive, at any rate. “But I wouldn’t go through any of that with you, you don’t go out to clubs and bars every other night – ”

“I know I don’t, Katherine, for God’s sake,” Harriet snapped. “That’s not the point I’m trying to make. If there’s nothing there the press will make up some lie, you’ve seen the sort of things they write – you see why I don’t want us in the centre of all that?”

There was a brief pause as Katherine considered this. It was true – if there was no scandal to be found, some less reputable members of the press would be more than happy to make something up. But what caught Katherine’s attention more was not Harriet’s explanation, but her continued reference to the pair of them as a couple. She was so adamant about keeping their relationship in the dark that for some time now it had felt there was no relationship anymore, even behind closed doors. Why would Harriet suddenly care so much for them? No, this was all for her, for protecting herself in order to further nurture her ambition. Of course, Katherine could have misinterpreted Harriet’s words, and Harriet could have been genuine – but even if she was, at this point, it would have been difficult for Katherine to believe her. And the time had come to make that clear.

“It’s not us you’re worried about, Harry,” Katherine said, her tone surprisingly calm considering her accusation. “It’s you – you and your ambition. You would have cared about us before, five years ago, when we first got together. But now? You’re different. You’ve changed.”

Harriet had not been expecting Katherine to stand up to her, but this did nothing to lessen the derisive nature of her reaction.

“For God’s sake, Katherine, you don’t understand – ”

“I understand a lot more than you think I do, Harry, and I have done for years. I’m not stupid.”

“Well, you could have fooled me.”

With that, Harriet moved past Katherine and towards the dining room – Katherine followed just in time to see her remove the whisky decanter from its cabinet and pour herself a large measure. She was about to say something, to try to defend her position, but it was Harriet who spoke first as she turned back to face her, unsurprised that Katherine had followed her into the room. She even went so far as to sit at the dining room table, as though this were a staff briefing, although the fact she had brought the decanter with her somewhat ruined the illusion.

“What do you think you know then, Katherine? What do you understand?”

There was a long pause. Katherine wasn’t sure where to begin, or, indeed, what Harriet was expecting. But then, there was no point in looking back years, telling her partner all she understood of the scandals and cover-ups and misinformation of the past. Now was the time to focus on the present. She had been suspicious of events ever since the night of the elections and how easily Richard had been able to win his brother’s seat. And it wasn’t just the elections themselves, either, but the circumstances that surrounded them. Will Hastings had died just over a week after Edward, and his death had been suspected as a suicide. Katherine just knew something wasn’t right there, but that was not the place to begin.

“The elections,” she said, at last, moving a little further into the room but continuing to stand, hoping this more powerful position would give her some advantage in this altercation. “Something about them was wrong – and you were involved.”

Harriet had taken a drink from her glass as Katherine spoke, but she found herself spluttering with laughter mere seconds afterwards, as if hoping this would disguise her fear at how on the mark Katherine’s accusation had been.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Katherine,” she replied, with a shake of her head.

“I’m being serious,” Katherine replied hotly, moving further into the room. Then, changing the topic slightly, “And if we’re going to have a conversation about something like this, you shouldn’t be drinking.”

“Surely if we’re having a conversation like this, that’s all the more reason for me to drink?” Harriet replied, without missing a beat, but there was a palpable note of relief even in this attempt at a joke, as she lifted the glass to her lips again.

Katherine moved further into the room now, closer to her, and Harriet found it was all she could do not to shrink away, clutching her precious glass close to her. First Richard, now Katherine? Was it any wonder she had recently been finding greater comfort in the bottle than in the arms of her partner, or the words of her co-conspirator?

“It’s been getting worse, Harry, you know it has. It’s not one or two that bother me, it’s when you have five or six that I get worried. It’s been getting worse ever since – ”

“Ever since?”

Another attempt at delaying the inevitable, another sip from the glass. Almost empty now.

“You know when.”

Harriet nodded, almost in spite of herself. Her voice was quiet when she spoke again.

“Hastings?”

“Who else? Something didn’t feel right about his death, and – ”

“Nothing ever feels right about death!”

Another sip.

“You know what I mean!”

Another. There was nothing left in the glass. She could no longer hide behind it. Unless…

“Harry, what happened?”

Harriet set the glass down, reached for the decanter again. But even as she did so –

Harriet.”

She stopped just shy of reaching the bottle, retracted her hand. She could no longer hide behind the glass, nor could she keep avoiding, keep denying, the truth of what she had done. But she could not tell Katherine, she could not confess…Richard would kill her if he found out, and not metaphorically. But he wouldn’t find out, would he? Somewhere inside herself Harriet knew that he would, but at that moment she felt this strange, liberating feeling of not caring whether he did or not – she had to confess, she had to tell Katherine what she had done, or else she would start to go mad…

“I can’t.”

She knew she had to tell Katherine, but she couldn’t. She just couldn’t, no matter how fearful or guilty she felt. Everything would change between them, irreversibly – but then, hadn’t it already, even in Katherine’s unknowing? Katherine would no longer love her, Katherine would leave her… All these panicked thoughts and more mingled with her guilt and fear of confession, and she found herself struggling to hold back her tears, especially when Katherine moved over and sat down beside her, taking her free hand in hers, her manner gentle, comforting. Just what Harriet needed at the moment – and what she did not need.

“Why not?”

It was fear and guilt – plain and simple. Harriet began to reel off her list of excuses, her voice rising as her panic fully began to take hold.

“Everything will change, it has changed already.  I’m not who you think I am, I can never be that way again and if I tell you I’ll be in danger, we both will be, you’ll stop loving me, you’ll leave me…”

Katherine opened her mouth as though to protest, to question what this outburst meant, perhaps even to try and comfort her – to say whatever it was couldn’t be as bad as she was making it out to be – but Harriet cut across her, her grip on her partner’s hand almost unbearably tight, her voice suddenly quiet, almost a whisper.

“Please don’t make me tell you.”

Katherine, for her part, did not know what to think, how to react, at first. To say she was worried would be an understatement – she had been right in her fears about the corrupt elections, not to mention the circumstances of Hastings’ death. But what worried her even more was the fact Harriet had said she was in danger – but she knew it would be unwise to give into her fear, as Harriet was. She needed to stay calm for Harriet’s sake as much as her own.

“Harry, please,” she said, after a moment or two. “Whatever it is, you can tell me, you know that. I love you.”

It was at these last three words that Harriet snatched her hand away, shaking now with rage as much as with fear.

“Don’t say that…don’t you dare say that!” she snarled. “It’s not true, it can’t be true, not when I tell you…but I can’t tell you, I can’t…”

She got to her feet then and made as if to leave the room, but something stopped her. Perhaps it was the way Katherine was looking up at her, a mix of fear and confusion, but there was love there too. Even in her fury and fear, Harriet could not deny that. She didn’t want that expression to change, the love Katherine felt for her, and it would change, she knew it would. But she also knew she could keep this a secret no longer – not now. Richard be damned.  But even so she could not face Katherine as she spoke, instead looking at the opposite wall. It was almost as if she were giving some speech, confessing her guilt before a court.

“Hastings’ death…”

She paused and took a deep, shuddering breath. When she spoke again her voice was no longer steady, and the confession spilled out of her like the whisky from the bottle.

“It wasn’t natural. It was unnatural. But it wasn’t a suicide, he was – ”

“He did this?” Katherine was on her feet now too, but more from incredulity than fear. But then, why should she be incredulous? It made perfect sense, he had been one of Richard’s rivals for the position, and yet, the fact that this crazy, awful idea, the fact that this was not just an idea, a twisted theory, but the truth

“W-what?”

“Richard,” Katherine exclaimed. “You’re saying that he – ”

Harriet shook her head. If she was going to tell the truth, she would tell the whole truth.

“He killed Edward. But he didn’t kill Hastings.”

Katherine, stunned, sat back down again. What else could she do, when she was shaking so much it was too difficult to stand?

“Edward….but he….Richard was his brother…”

The slightest of pauses, as an even greater realisation dawned.

“No….no…Harriet, what are you saying….you don’t mean…”

Harriet did not say anything, but instead reached out a hand for the whisky decanter again. This seemed to be enough of a confirmation for Katherine, however – she got to her feet again and reached for the decanter too, pulling it away from Harriet but with such force that it slid across the table, falling onto the floor and breaking upon impact, shards of glass bursting in a bloom across the floor, the amber liquid swiftly following suit.

You could say that this was symbolic, for any number of things – this new side she was seeing to Harriet, the broken-ness they both felt, the violence and destruction that had led to this moment. But now was not the time for such sentiments. Now was the time for cold, hard facts and facing the truth. It was a truth neither of them wished to face, but they had to.

Harriet had looked over at Katherine as she stood, alarmed at the ferocity of her action. She flinched as the decanter hit the floor and shattered. Now she looked from the shattered glass to Katherine again, unsure of just how to arrange her expression, never mind what she could possibly say. But it was Katherine who spoke first.

“That’s enough, Harriet. That’s it. I’ve had enough, I thought it was just the drinking, the lies but this….this is just… I don’t want to believe it…I knew something was wrong but I never would have thought – ”

Harriet moved towards her then, moving as though to take her partner’s hand in hers, but Katherine recoiled even as Harriet said her name, desperate, pleading.

“Don’t touch me!”

“Katherine, please – ”

But Katherine would not stay to listen to any more of Harriet’s words or her confessions and pleas. She had heard enough, more than enough. She was walking away even before she fully knew where she planned to go, out of the apartment and, more importantly, out of Harriet’s life. Now, more than ever, she knew she was no longer part of it.

The next morning there was a headline on the front page of The Times, and every word clanged like a death knell, to Harriet’s relationship with Katherine, to her partnership with Richard – even now, she feared, to her own life itself.

ANONYMOUS TIP-OFF RE-OPENS INQUIRIES SURROUNDING WILLIAM HASTINGS’ DEATH

Catriona Scott

 

Disclaimer:
This serial is inspired partly by historical fact and partly by historical fiction (that being Shakespeare’s 
Richard III); however, as the setting (New York City) is very much a real location – as are other businesses and events I have used – I felt the following disclaimer to be necessary. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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