The second in a series looking at favourite Dunnett quotations – this time from Checkmate.
“She thinks, as a maiden lady, I should wear my hair down…”
“As a maiden lady, you would wear anyone down…”
“I shall call you mon compere, as the King does the Constable. You haven’t enough artillery, have you?”
“Against you or the Germans?”
These two seemingly casual quotes, dropped in before two of the most dramatic episodes in the series, are amongst my favourites. Both for their examples of Dorothy’s humour and for their subtle and leading insights.
Lymond and Philippa are on their way to the House of Doubtance in Lyon. Lymond is now Captain-General in charge of defending the city and is busy dealing with rich merchants who would rather escape or even switch sides, but must take time out to honour the Dame’s will. Marthe has schemingly arranged that Philippa, who arrived at the house of Marechal de St Andre disguised as a boy, should also be there. Philippa is attempting to discover as much as she can about Lymond’s origins in order to heal the rift between him and Sybilla. We know, but Philippa does not, that he has fallen in love with her but has decided that he cannot pursue such a match despite the fact they are, by force of circumstances in Istambul, married. He is thus trying to keep a certain distance between them, and still desires to obtain a divorce and return to Russia where he is second in power only to the Tzar.
From her escapade as ‘Annibal, Lymond is discovering even more about how resourceful and quick-witted she is, and must find their verbal sparring both a delight and a trial. Here she flits between innocent (or is it?) banter and incisive insight into military status and strategy, and Lymond has to parry almost defensively.
These two quotes, following on from the byplay with the fan and Annibal’s resourceful double bluffing as Lymond unmasks her, show us that the two of them are now much more closely matched. Philippa is more than capable of standing up to him and trading quips, and she is also quite comfortable in befriending the Marechale or twisting the Schiatti brothers round her little finger. No longer is Lymond in undoubted control of the relationship as he was in the Mediterranean. His advantages in age and seniority have seemingly evaporated (“Do you consider I’m old enough to stop calling you Mr Crawford?”), and his aura of untouchability and the scathing tongue that scares his men rigid mean very little to her.
Of course we are being manipulated. Dorothy is preparing us for events that will take place later that night when the heady mix of mortal danger and ingenious escape will combine to provide Philippa with her own revelation of love. But she does it with such a light touch that we are hardly aware of it at this stage. A probing remark, a description of an outrageously ostentatious dress, a pun here, an unexpected change of subject there. We are entertained, lightened, admiring this sophisticated and attractive girl (Jerott doesn’t even recognise her at first) who deals so easily with our irascible and tortured hero. So that when the moment comes it is the most natural development in the world. Yet without those two apparently insignificant pieces of conversation – easily missed or forgotten compared to the high drama of the Dame’s voice from the grave and the chase through the traboules – the following chapters would be far less of an inevitable progression, the rhythm of the narrative weakened.
This is the difference between a talented author and a genius.