Disclaimer: Characters and situations based on Friedrich Schiller's versions of historical people as given in Don Carlos.
Timeline: set directly after the play.
Warning: off-screen death by a discussed yet not appearing character (due to history and strongly implied by the play's ending).
Author's note: while this is Schiller fanfiction, I couldn't resist slipping in some non-Schillerian historical tidbits as well, as long as they don't clash with his version of events.
A faint cannot last forever, and thus Elisabeth finds herself escorted to a convent as soon as she allows herself to regain consciousness. Not by her ladies in waiting. They, she discovers, have been taken from her, with the exception of the Princess Eboli. At first, she assumes this is the King's idea of punishment and humiliation, to lock her up with his mistress, and then she remembers: she herself has ordered the Princess to be brought to the convent of Santa Maria to await further sentencing. The Abbess must have assumed that now was the hour this sentencing would take place, and thus has told Eboli to join her.
In the dull, aching void that is her heart right now, she has to surpress the kind of bleak laughter only the desperate are capable of while the white-faced princess kneels at her feet. In truth, she had had no idea what to do about Eboli. She'd been Elisabeth's favorite lady in waiting before, not just for being younger and less formal than most of the others, but for her daring nature; Ana de Mendoza, Princess Eboli, who'd taken up sword fighting like a man and lost one of her eyes for it, not intimidated by this in the least but wearing a black eyepatch like a fashion accessory, daring anyone to comment. They would have loved her at the French court, too, Elisabeth had thought, und had favoured her until learning of the woman's double betrayal from Eboli's own lips.
It seems so odd now, the hurt that had caused, tiny when compared to the maelstrom which has engulfed her. There will be no hope for Flanders, nor any kind of reform in any territory ruled by Spain. Posa is dead. Carlos is in the hands of the Inquisition. And if Philip has gone so far as to hand over his only son and heir for judgment, he will not spare him at the last moment, no, not he. As for herself, Elisabeth has no idea what her fate might be.
„Rise," she tells Eboli, and despite herself, adds: „What news have you learned, Princess?"
True, Eboli has been shut up in a convent for days, but the woman has always been excellent at finding out gossip; Elisabeth has no doubt she will have charmed the nuns here into telling her whatever news have found their way into this seclusion.
The news, Elisabeth learns, are that Prince Carlos has been arrested for trying to desert Spain for the Netherlands, has been shut in his rooms, for the heir of the throne can, even in disgrace and accused of treason, not be put in a prison. There are rumors the Grand Inquisitor is with him, trying to induce a soul-cleansing confession which would spare the country a trial. As to Carlos' eventual fate, confession or no confession, the nuns appear to fear the worst. The King, they say, is not in a mood for mercy.
Eboli tells this in a low voice, not necessary, as they are alone in this stark, white room, and haltingly, as if hoping that Elisabeth would interrupt her, protest that none of this is true, question her, order her to stop. Eventually, her words fade into silence once again. Then she exclaims: „I never wanted any of this, your grace, you must believe me!"
There is truly something childlike in the Princess, and Elisabeth, who is in fact a bit younger than Eboli, though not by much, has not seen it until now. „Presumably, you didn't want to lose your eye, either," she replies, before she can stop herself, „and yet you did, by your own actions."
There is now a degree of pettiness in her own voice, and she welcomes it, unworthy as the feeling is. Her disagreement with the Princess is of so small a scale, so human, that she can deal with it. What she cannot begin to grasp is the horror that threatens to engulf her if she allows her mind to consider the full implication of what she has heard. Posa has died for nothing, or even worse; his death has ensured both that Flanders would suffer and Carlos would die as well, for nothing but to satisfy his father's disappointed, lonely rage. No, better to contemplate the mundane betrayal that is but one small peg in this avalanche of evil: that one of the few friends Elisabeth had thought she'd made in Spain had denounced her to her husband even while sharing that husband's bed.
It is the last bit that still sticks in her throat whenever she looks at Eboli. She would have forgiven the other woman the accusation itself, caused, as Eboli had confessed, by being in unrequited love with Carlos herself. But to imagine her whispering that accusation while Philip held her in his arms, her firm, slender body eager – that still is infuriating.
The Princess flinches. Then she surprises Elisabeth and comes closer, unbidden, the palms of her hands gracefully pressed against each other, as if in supplication to a saint. „You grace", she says, „when I lost my eye, I learned to fight with what was left. You must not surrender, either. Don't let the King do this."
„The King is chosen by God Almighty to rule", Elisabeth returns bitterly. „He will not listen to earthly counsel. And certainly not mine. He might have respected me once upon a time, but no longer, and love, he never felt. Not for me."
In the past, she had reconciled herself to her fate by reminding herself not just of duty, but of her childhood and youth, when she had seen her father, the King of France, humiliate her mother on a daily basis by displaying his mistress at his side day in and day out, to the point of letting her raise his children by his wife and treat his queen as nothing better than a walking womb to breed them. This, Elisabeth had told herself, Philip would never do, and if she could not love him, if she did not believe that he loved her, they could at least respect and trust each other.
„Not for me," she repeats, and Eboli, evidently taking this as an accusation, protests: „The King does not love me, either."
Elisabeth sighs, and voicing it for the first time out loud, puts in words what she regards as the bitterest irony of it all: „I know. And yet he loved. He loved the Marquis Posa."
Posa himself, she thinks, had not understood this. „What were I to the King?" he'd asked her, when she'd at last made him confess his plan to her. „In such cold soil no rose of mine could bloom."
He had not seen what had been increasingly evident to her, who'd tried to win from Philip for years what he had given Posa after a single encounter; his complete trust, his confidence, true political power. All thrown away because Posa thought that to be the only way to save Carlos, and with him, the future of nations. „In my great friend," he'd continued, „must Europe's future ripen."
Hearing this, she'd accused Posa from seeking a noble death, courting it as eagerly as Carlos, poor, doomed Carlos courted her, and Philip courted Posa without knowing this was what he was doing. Perhaps you had to grow up at a court where at least pretending to be in love with the King's mistress was the only way to advance to see it, not here in Spain where passion was more often than not a death sentence, even if it was passion for God. Posa may have considered himself a citizen of the future, but in the end he'd been so very Spanish.
Without meaning to, she must have started to cry, for she can feel the wet salt on her cheek when Eboli, ending her supplication pose, hands her a hankerchief.
„You loved him, too," Eboli whispers, sounding faintly surprised. For a second, Elisabeth doesn't know whom she means. Posa? The King? Carlos?
„I loved the future none of us will have now", is all she will ever be ready to say on the subject.
The Princess Eboli is not a political creature; she'd have tried to use the information Carlos had inadvertently given her for leverage, otherwise, instead of lashing out where she could only hurt, not help anyone. Elisabeth, on the other hand, had been taught about alliances and the fates of kingdoms as soon as she could understand the words. And yet there is some comfort in Eboli's insistence on the personal over the political when she replies, fiercely: „There is still a future, your grace, if you fight for it."
For there is no question in Elisabeth that the Princess doesn't refer to Flanders, or Spain. She means Elisabeth's own, personal future, and presumably also her own; possibly even that of Carlos, locked up with that gruesome old prince of the Church whom Elisabeth has avoided whenever possible. Elisabeth's mother, the niece of Popes, has never left her in doubt that the clergy is as eager for power as any of the nobles, and has to be managed as carefully. Eboli has never looked that far at the horizon, and occasionally, Elisabeth has found that frustrating. But Posa has looked only at the horizon and, she feels, lost sight of the human beings right in front of him, and now she wonders whether this was not as damaging.
„Fight with what?" she asks curiously. „The King and I are past pleas now. I could spend my remaining days on my knees in front of him, and he would not listen."
She could write to France, of course, try to use her mother the Regent as leverage. Philip distrusts her mother – „too much wit for a woman, and too little honesty for a queen," he once said about Catherine de' Medici -, but he is keenly aware of her power, and the fact that French Protestants would love nothing more than for their country to side against Spain in the Netherlands, with which France has a border. But even if Elisabeth could find an honest courier who would deliver her letter as opposed to handing it over to the King, this would take weeks, months until her mother's reply, and by then Carlos would be dead and she herself, at best, still in a nunnery. They shut queens away in Spain when it suits the men in power, this Elisabeth has always known; Philip's grandmother Juana had been dealt with that way, declared mad and then kept prisoner by her father and her son. And Juana had lived for a long, long time.
„If you are right," Eboli says, „and he loved the Marquis, then all his ire is still due to this: believing himself scorned in favour of another." For a moment, she turns away, but then she swallows and adds: „My queen, I have good reason to know the wish to destroy where one has loved in vain. But I also know this: the love itself does not pass, and once destruction has been wrought, one would do anything to bring back what was lost."
Elisabeth ignores the plea for forgiveness underlying these words. However she feels about the Princess right now, she can sort it out later. There are more important things to consider. „No one save our Lord can bring back the dead" she replies, not reprovingly, but trying to understand what Eboli is aiming for.
„A father lives on in his child", Eboli says. „The King does not love himself; in truth, from what I saw, he rather hates himself. Which is another reason why he cannot feel tenderly about the Prince. But – if it were in his power to save Posa's child?"
There is none, Elisabeth wants to say, then chides herself a simpleton. The Princess clearly is not suggesting a truth here, but a lie.
A lie like Posa's, trying to save Carlos by arranging for the blame to fall upon himself, making it look like he was the one to feel illicit love for her.
She is appalled, and yet she is her mother's daughter. She can see the reasoning; how to use a lie which has already been planted once. The King, so easily distrustful, surrounding her with spies since she arrived at court and still not satisfied, would never trust her honor. But he might be all too ready to trust in her capacity for betrayal, especially if the result could give him what his heart longed for.
„He might believe", Elisabeth says slowly, „believe and act on that belief. But it would be only a matter of weeks, or even months, before he would discover the deceit. For there is no child."
Eboli shakes her head, but not in denial. „There is no child yet, your grace," she says. „But there will be."
She holds her hands pressed against each other again, only this time above her belly, and Elisabeth understands. She also knows that the nuns, not that unused to royal bastards and discarded mistresses, even in Spain, would keep this secret. But what Eboli is suggesting is something altogether more audacious.
„You would give me…"
„A child I took from you," the Princess finishes, and the affection in her eyes is umistakable. All the same, a part in Elisabeth, sounding suspiciously like the late Marquis de Posa, tells her not to trust Eboli again, under any circumstances, conjuring up a scenario where Eboli wants nothing but to drag her mistress down into the abyss once more and will report Elisabeth as the instigator of what she proposes. This opinion of Posa's regarding Eboli had been his reason for starting his self sacrifice, after all, when finding Carlos about to trust Eboli again.
Well, I am already in the abyss, Elisabeth concludes. And I am not in love with death, Marquis. You made me promise to guard the future; very well then, I will try once more.
She steps towards Eboli and embraces her, for the first time since Eboli's confession. The black silk of Eboli's eyepatch rubs against her cheek as Elisabeth whispers: „Then let us attempt one more time to give life the victory over death."
It takes some effort to reach the King, but by the end of the week, he grants her an audience, alone. He does not visit the nunnery; instead, he has her brought to the Escorial. Of course he does. Here, where every stone has been shaped into the form he wishes it to have.
She has been permitted to see her daughter first, which Elisabeth takes an encouraging sign that he might be cruel, but not pettily so. No one, of course, has spoken to her of Carlos. The girl does not, either. She has spent so little time with her half brother that she might not know he is any relation of hers at all.
Philip she finds to be as she left him, stony control over every inch of his body, rage and fear altered into ice. If either she or Eboli have misread him, this could be her last sight.
„Madame", he says, „I have been told there is something you wish to confess to me, and only me."
She stands firm. She is a daughter of France, and the blood of Charlemagne flows through her veins. She is also the daughter of a woman everyone dismissed as the offspring of Florentine merchants when Elisabeth was a young child, only to find her outmanoeuvring all her enemies and ruling over them. She will survive this day.
„Sire," she replies, „I came to speak to you of the Marquis de Posa."
„He is dead," Philip says grimly, „and as of this morning, so is his tool."
That blow is almost physical. For a moment, she is fourteen again, and told she would marry the Prince of Spain, who was her own age exactly; she is fifteen, hearing the prince's father changed his mind, and would marry her himself instead.
„I am sorry, Sire," Elisabeth says tonelessly. „It is a hard fate for a father to lose his only son."
Carlos, openly burning with the emotions all around him repressed, so sure at last he had found his cause when taking his leave of her. That final, final leave.
„There could not have been a trial", Philip states. „Not for a Prince of Spain. It would have set precedent. But it was just. He did betray his king and country. Just as Posa did."
With an effort, she pushes away all that threatens to overwhelm her and focuses on the plan. „Carlos lied to you, Sir," she says, summoning the image of her mother being sublimely polite and friendly to Diane to Poitiers while hating her more than anyone, „when he told you the Marquis died for him. He wished to hurt you, like the wounded, rejected child he was. But the truth is the Marquis never cared that much for Carlos."
This, at last, shocks Philip out of his icy calm. „What?" he exclaims, that one syllable hanging in the air between them.
„Ask their school fellows," Elisabeth says. „Carlos eagerly sought his friendship at Alcala, it is true, but Rodrigo de Posa turned down his every overture." Until, at last, Posa gave into the naked need that was Carlos, but this she is keeping to herself, aware that no one still living would be able to countersay her version of what had been entrusted to her.
„But…why would he then…you are playing games, Madame. Do not play games with me!"
Elisabeth resists the impulse to kneel. She might never be able to get up again.
„No games, Sire. The Marquis tolerated the Prince, at best. But how could a mind like his respect someone so childish and immature? No. Eagles do not pair with roosters. They look for other eagles."
Philip wants to believe her, she sees it in his eyes. But he has been flattered by courtiers from his own early childhood onwards. Everyone around him has tried to manipulate him for decades. Casting him none too subtly as an eagle might have been overdoing it.
„And yet," he returns coldly, „this man has gone to some considerable effort to make me believe in his not-friend's innocence, and his own betrayal. Why, he even wanted me to assume he was the one with illicit desires towards you. Why would he do this, if not for love, or at least out of a wish to shape the future of this country through…" Evidently he can't bring himself to pronounce his dead son's name. „… his friend?" he finishes instead, and nearly spits out the last word.
„He acted out of love. Just not for Carlos," Elisabeth says, and forces herself not to move a muscle under her husband's burning gaze. Until now, Philip has been seated, letting her stand in front of him. Now, he rises, but keeps his distance from her. Instead, he moves to the room's only window. The daylight there illuminates him, casting his shadows in stark relief. She remembers Jephta, who killed his daughter in the Book of Judges, and ruled over Israel a shell and a name, with what was human gone from him.
„No," he says. „No, not again. I'll not fall for another woman's lies."
Against her will, she imagines him with Eboli once more, and wonders why he chose to bed the Princess. Because he could, because he hadn't had a mistress since their marriage, because he felt uncertain, because he knew a lady of the court would not reject him? Because he knew Eboli was her favourite lady in waiting and he wanted to hurt her? It doesn't matter, except for all it implies about the jealousy he was showing towards her, Elisabeth, at the same time.
Guilty of sin, he had believed her capable of it as well, had needed to believe it to justify his own behavior. Guilty, he would believe once more.
„Sire, I never loved your son except in the way fitting for my position. But I did love the Marquis. I have loved him since he came to France as a part of the Spanish delegation on the occasion of my marriage. He wore my colors at the tournament celebrating our all too distant union, and my heart was his."
He stares at her. „You are lying", he states, but without force. There is doubt creeping into his eyes. Doubt, and desperate recognition.
„He was, of course, too honorable to do anything not fitting a knight who knew I was his sovereign's bride. But this is why he kept away from your court all these years, until this summer. And then…"
„They told me you were alone with him," Philip mutters, „because he brought you messages from France, that's what they said."
„He tried to resist, to be true to you," Elisabeth insists. „But even a great man can be weak once. I seduced him, I admit it, as Eve did Adam. And then guilt ate at him night and day. This was why he felt unworthy of the friendship and trust you bestowed so generously on him, Sire. This was why he had to destroy himself in your eyes. A knight to the end, he wanted to shield me, and of course he tried to exculpate the Prince whom he knew to be innocent of all but desperation for his affection. But he could not continue to live with his shame, and every kind gesture on your part made it worse. He loved you and respected you, Sire, more than any other man alive."
The silence between them, thickening, becomes unbearable, but she does not add anything else. A good liar has to know when to stop.
A good liar also has to use the truth as much as possible, though Posa would hardly have recognized the portrait she has just drawn, and nor would Carlos, for whose soul she has to pray if ever she is able to pray again.
Any man, her mother once said, any man will blame a woman if he can, and believe himself a noble victim of her depravity rather than face his own darkness. And any man would rather think better of another man than of a woman.
Philip at last turns from the window towards her, and she holds her breath. His face is ravaged. All control is gone. This is not the King of Spain. It is a man alone in a dark cave who had but briefly tasted fresh air and sunlight, only to have it taken away again.
„He could have lived!" he hisses harshly. „He could have – if not for you, he could have lived!"
Now for her last lie. She is painfully aware that she is not only gambling her own life, but that of the child the Princess Eboli is carrying, and Eboli's life as well.
„A part of him still does," Elisabeth says quietly. „I would have spared you the knowledge, Sire, but for this. I carry his child."
It is so silent now that she can count her heartbeats. Elisabeth is past fear for herself. Her situation can not be worse than it has been; either way, Philip has believed ill of her, and if she is not dead, then only because he would not have a return of the endless wars between France and Spain right now. But she finds she does care what becomes of that child produced by Philip's own weakness and Eboli's anger, and she most definitely still cares what will become of Spain.
A bastard must not rule, and yet some bastards have done, are doing so still; her namesake, the present Queen of England, is but one example.
On the other hand, a man capable of killing his legitimate son is more than capable of ordering the death of his bastard child, or, for that matter, his wife's bastard. Unless, unless, unless. Unless he considers that child to be the offspring of the only being he has been able to love unreservedly, for however brief a time. Unless his own pride can be salvaged by the surety that no one else would know this, yet he himself would.
Philip steps towards her. A man, not even a king, but just a man, killing his unfaithful wife who carries another man's bastard is considered justified in most countries she knows of. He reaches out to her, not to hit, not to embrace, but to put his hand on her belly. Of course, there is nothing there. Even if she were speaking the truth, he would not be able to sense anything. But the human imagination is a most powerful tool.
„His child," he breathes.
She knows then she has won, but does not allow her body to feel any relief. This is the thinnest of victories, hers to squander with one false move.
„Son or daughter, Sire," Elisabeth says, „he will live on in this child. Now you may wish it to be raised in obscurity, as is only proper. The child will still thank you for its life."
„No," Philip says, „no", and for a moment, she is afraid, truly, deeply afraid, with that fear all creatures share in the face of death, no matter what they tell themselves about their bravery. And then, disbelievingly, she sees him smile.
„No, it will not be raised in obscurity. This child, Madame, is our atonment, which we must face each day. It will resemble him. And it will love me."
At last, Elisabeth closes her eyes and exhales. „Yes, Sire."
Princess Eboli will remain at Santa Maria until the child is born. Then she will return officially to court, to her old position at Elisabeth's side, the gossips silenced by her marriage to Ruy Gomez. As for Elisabeth, she will live with a lie and her grief. But she will live. Live in the hope that the country has a future other than death again, and she will be able to shape it.
This is her hope for today. And all the days that God will grant her after.