‘Beatrice Takes a Stand’ A monologue by Harper Oldale

The Rows in 1644 – the English Civil War

BEATRICE, A MERCHANT’S DAUGHTER, A GENTLEWOMAN, STANDS ON THE CHESTER ROWS:          

All it takes are two words. “No surrender!”  The walkway tilts, and I lurch sideways, snatch at the rail, and cling on.  The man beside me shoots me a look.  “No, I am not drunk, sir, neither am I ill.” 

But for a moment, I am lost; it takes a moment to comprehend the swell of noise which has risen about me.  They’re cheering, by God!  I clutch the rail, as all about me, people cheer and shout, and pound the boards with their feet. This noise sickens me: it’s like cannon sounding our doom. 

A hand at my elbow: “Are you all right?” 

It’s the man from before. He looks concerned, though only for a moment.  Another cheer, and he joins in, almost by reflex.  I simply stare.  I stare at them all.  We’re more like animals than we know.

Prince Rupert waits to continue his oration.  He uses the pause well; he smiles, graciously, waiting for the noise to die down.  You have to hand it to him: the man certainly has charisma.  It’s reflected in the faces of those about him.  Like my father. They’re clinging to his every word: “Tell us what to think! Tell us what to do!” And the good Prince smiles. He knows what he’s doing. And he revisits those two words, because why dilute a simple message with anything more?

“No surrender!”

The crowd goes up, howling.  Madness.  Utter madness.  After such a grievous defeat, his army — Chester’s army — the soldiers of ours he stole to fight at York — butchered in their thousands, York overrun … And with our city exposed, and Parliament’s armies closing in again, he tells us, “Don’t give in.”

Is it desperation?  Is it pride?  This morning, the Rows were alive with talk of the defeat, the losses, no good news anywhere: even Charlie’s on the run.  But Rupert’s no fool.  He likely had men out early this morning, gauging the temperature of the crowd. But why can no-one else see all this?  I want to shout, to scream out: “Don’t you understand what this means? He’s taking all our men!”

For a moment, it’s almost as if he’s heard me.  I fancy he even looks my way.  And then he gives his response, so reasonable in its simplicity, it chills me to the bone. 

“Of course, it means that Chester will soon be short of soldiers, so give pikes to the young boys, muskets to the old men, and knock down some of the city, to reduce defences.’ 

It’s a bold piece of rhetoric.  And it nearly doesn’t work.  Just for a moment, the reality of this causes a frisson of alarm that ripples through the crowd.  For a moment, the applause falters.  But as I see it, so does he.  The Prince steps up, and proves that not for nothing is he a commander of men. His rhetoric swells, his chest comes up, and once again, he grows.  That’s all it takes.  I see my father, standing among them. He’s copying the Prince’s pose, left foot forward, chin up, chest out. His cheeks, rosy from last night’s wine, which became this morning’s breakfast, gleam like pearls in a fire.

What if we were to stand up to him, this Damned Prince? Greet his foolishness with stony silence?  What would happen then?  But that is inconceivable for men like the cheering fool standing beside me, and my father standing below me, because Kings and Princes are never wrong: they are second only to God, who made us, and therefore made all this madness, and God’s never wrong. 

But what do I know? I’m just some silly girl, who knows nothing of the world, or politics, or war.  Because God, in His infinite wisdom, didn’t make me to understand. I’ve spent my life playing the part my father appointed for me: of a doll, mute, acquiescent, while my fat fool of a father sucks up to anyone who will help him pretend he’s master of his tiny patch of earth.  I could say something.  But what could my shrill voice hope to achieve, screaming in this gale? 

For a moment, I laugh at the absurdity of it all.  And then despair crushes me. My eyes drift downwards.  This is how it must feel, the moment when you drown.  But then I see Mother.  Her head’s down, but I catch a flash of white cloth in her hands. I gasp for breath. She’s holding the lace from my brother’s shirt, that they cut from his body, that she secretly kept. It’s wrung so tightly about her knuckles, that even from here I can see her fingers are turning blue.  And with each declaration, and every cheer, she twists some more. 

And that’s when it happens.  Rage explodes in my chest.  Dimly, I’m aware I’m howling, but of course, they all think it’s just another cheer.  The man next to me grins: at last, I’m joining in.  I hate him.  I smash his foot with my heel.  Then I turn and walk away.  I shall be a doll no longer.