Bathsheba looked at the girl. She thought back to her own early years, but even at thirteen, fourteen, she had been more savvy than this one. She must make it plainer. ‘Listen Abishag,’ she said carefully, ‘I am only asking you what many others will ask. I want you to understand that your answer matters. Your future depends on your – status. You should answer as carefully as you can. We will believe you whatever you say.’
Well, actually, no, thought Bathsheba, none of us will actually believe you whatever way you answer. But we will modify our behaviour in line with your answer. Then, very slowly, making sure Abishag knew this was the important question, Batheseba asked: ‘Has the King ever touched you?’
In the silence, Abishag thought. She thought of the arrangements made for her sale, of the honour her parents considered it, of the respect, excitement, and something else, on the faces of her friends. How, feeling swollen with importance, she had arrived at the palace, and known within seconds her position was next to desperate. She thought of the old King into whose bed she had been thrust naked. She thought of the tortoise neck, of the calloused feet resting cold on her belly. Of the reality that he was older than her grandfather. Of nausea. That she lay night after night in the arms of a dying old man.
Fetching and carrying for him, she remembered whispers, half hear conversations. That this woman before her was not Queen Consort, but a whore who had lain in the King’s arms twenty years before and somehow stolen his heart. She thought of deaths, of divided loyalties, of whispers of doubtful allegiance, factions. Abishag wiped the thoughts away fast, in case they showed somehow.
In the silence Bathsheba asked herself if the girl had not had the sense to spend her night hours playing through each and every ramification of being concubine to a dying King, as opposed to being a virgin servant in the harem. But she would not rush the answer.
‘I am a slave,’ thought Abishag, ‘and I am desperate for some escape, back to a real world where people love and fight and break down in tears. Not because it is expedient so to do, but because they feel it in their hearts.’ Then it came to her that the old King, lucid, had began to speak to her of his loves, his fights and his losses. The old man was real, he was part of her world, passionate, impulsive. To her utter surprise, a warmth came into heart as she thought of him. Suddenly, kindliness replaced revulsion.
Abishag thought: ‘Now I will give him everything that eases him, and giving will be easy. But I do not need to tell this woman – anything. I will keep my loyalties hidden. Unless – will she help me, if she gets what she wants, what she needs?’
Abishag slowly raised her eyes to those of the most dangerous woman in the Kingdom, and answered, hoping Bathsheba would decode a cry for help and be generous: ‘No, the King has not.’