“The Floor of the Banqueting House” By Constance Marks
30th January, 1940
‘The impertinence! How dare a filthy beggar appear in our line of sight? Take him away and dispose of him in the river!’
Charles’ voice was high and squeaky, like a fork scraped down a dinner plate. His puny body was rigid with anger. His head, with its long, perfumed curls, shook with indignation.
Kneeling on the tiled floor, the beggar’s mismatched eyes looked up, straight into his king’s face. His smile was unafraid, pitying almost.
‘What? Not a single coin for a poor, unfortunate soul like me?’
The edge of humour in the beggar’s voice enraged the King even more. Besides, the man had mismatched eyes – one deep blue, one brown. Charles hated mismatched eyes. His father had taught him that they were a sign of the devil. Charles’ long face turned the colour of a boiled ham. With a frantic wave of one hand, he turned in his high-heeled, velvet shoes and stalked away.
Instantly, two lackeys fell upon the beggar and began dragging him towards the door.
‘No ‘ard feelings, mate, but it’s more than me job’s worth to disobey his Sacred Majesty,’ one of them said, with the grimace, as they swung the unfortunate beggar by his arms and legs before launching him into the middle of the filthy Thames.
They craned forward, eager to see his undignified entry into the river.
A long moment later, they looked at each other.
‘Well, that was weird. Where’d ‘e go? Did you see ‘im land?’
‘Nah, he disappeared, mid-air. No splash, nothing!’
The first one wiped a beefy hand across his mouth. ‘Better not tell his majesty, or it’ll be us in the river.’
With a final, pzzled look at the water, they shuffled away.
The Banquet was in full sway, and at the head of the huge oak table, Charles was tittering at his own jokes and nibbling a sweetmeat, basking in the sycophantic laughter of his court.
As he leaned back in his chair, beaming at the sea of faces turned his way, he suddenly shrieked.
‘Ouch! My feet are burning!’ he squealed, lifting both of his legs in the air like an overturned turtle.
He peered down at the elaborate tiled floor and his jaw dropped. A miniature version of himself was appearing before his eyes, somehow burning itself into the tiles of the floor, then instantly cooling and turning Delft blue.
The Charles in the floor had eyes that seemed to be wide and starting with fear. And he was standing on a scaffold! Huge crowds were surrounding him, gawping expectantly.
The flesh and blood Charles’ eyes were drawn to one particular old woman. Her high black hat and rich lace collar identified her as wealthy, an aristocrat perhaps. She was waving a white handkerchief, as if in a gesture of farewell.
And then! What was this? The handkerchief moved. It flew out of her hand, seemingly snatched by the wind. It came to a rest on the platform, just in front of the miniature Charles. A flurry of tiny blue snowflakes began to fall, dancing as they were whipped back and forth by a sudden breeze.
Charles jerked to his feet, pushing back his chair. The sudden, unaccustomed action send the blood rushing into his head. He reached out shaky hands to grasp the table.
‘Montgomery! Did you see that? Tell me – what do you see?’ He pointed at the floor where the snow was now falling more heavily , coating the scaffold and the ominous lump of wood at its centre. Now the old woman was turning away, hiding her eyes.
Montgomery peered cautiously, then with obvious confusion.
‘I see nothing untoward, Your Majesty. Do you not approve of the floor? I’m assured that the tiles are the best in all England. The manufacturer assured me that they were ‘special’.
Charles looked again. Now the floor was simply something to walk on. Nothing unusual was happening on it.
‘No! It’s possessed, I tell you. A devil’s portal. Destroy it! Tomorrow. No, today. Immediately. We will retire…’
On shaky legs, King Charles 1st staggered from the room, ignoring the concerned, confused faces following his progress.
January 30th, 1649
On shaky legs, King Charles 1st took faltering steps out onto the scaffold.
He looked up at the sky, grey as lead and promising snow. In spite of the many layers of clothing he’d put on as a precaution, he shivered.
At first, all he could see was the block. A low lump of blackened wood in the centre of the elevated stage. With great difficulty, he lifted his eyes from it to the infinite sea of faces turned towards him.
Among the soberly dressed crowd, a flutter of white drew his eyes. A lace handkerchief, being waved by an elderly woman in a tall, black hat. She was wearing a collar of fine lace. A gust of wind snatched the handkerchief out of her grasp.
Charles’ eyes followed the handkerchief. It danced through the air like a ghost before settling on the platform in front of him. A niggling worm of memory twisted in his gut. There was another uneasy jab of remembrance when he felt a cold kiss on his cheek, gentle as a passing feather. He looked up into the sky. Snowflakes were drifting towards him, as if they had all the time in the world.
Surely he had seen this before? All those years ago. The Banqueting House. That night when he’d seen strange visions in the floor tiles. Something else had happened that night. What was it? A peasant! Filthy, malodorous and lacking in respect. He’d had the man thrown into the Thames. At the time, it had seemed a trivial act. Now it seemed petty. One of many petty acts he’d ordered without really thinking about them. Standing on this block, waiting for the executioner, he wished he’d been different. Wiser. Kinder.
Here he was. The Executioner. Tall. Imposing in his black mask.
As was the custom, Charles dropped a shower of silver coins into the man’s outstretched hand. He wanted to make sure that he did a quick, clean job.
There was another custom attached to these occasions. The condemned was expected to forgive his executioner.
‘I forgive you,’ Charles faltered, dry mouthed.
The executioner hesitated, then lifted his mask. A smiling face was revealed. A face with mismatched eyes – one deep blue, one brown. A face that Charles recognised immediately, although he’d hardly given its owner a moment’s thought over the years.
It was the beggar from that ill-fated banquet, all those years ago. But he hadn’t aged a single day! Charles’ felt his heart stop for a moment. His wondered if fear was sending him mad.
The beggar/executioner gave him a chirpy wink and motioned to the block.
‘That’s quite alright,’ he said. ‘I forgive you, too.’