Authors: Rosemary Hawley Jarman
‘Amen,’ I said, out of customary politeness.
‘Now,’ he said, smiling, ‘he is Knight of the Garter, Admiral of England, Ireland and Aquitaine. The King is proud of him. He is having him trained in arms under Warwick himself. At Middleham in the North. And Warwick is the most powerful knight in the world.’ Even I knew of Warwick; the man who made kings great, by sword and by will.
Just then Dick and Thomas Grey came into view, sparring out on to the lawn with their wooden weapons. I was glad to see that they were dressed. Dick was wearing my hennin; he had torn its veil. A look of amiable scorn crossed John Skelton’s face as he watched them. He said:
‘I saw Richard of Gloucester training just lately. He fights like a man. He is so frail and weak it seems he would drive himself twice as hard as any of the other henchmen, to prove his worth to King Edward. All the young knights cry quarter...’
‘Tell of Burgundy,’ I begged. ‘The court of Duke Philip...’
He smiled. ‘We were royally welcomed, exiles though we were, and regaled with strong pleasures. Mistress, you would have loved a sight of Master Caxton’s library. You know of Caxton?’ I shook my head. ‘A worthy mercer, friend of King Edward. In Bruges, he has hundreds of manuscripts, illuminated in the colours of the rainbow, their bindings crusted with gems. And at Duke Philip’s manor at Hesdin, there is naught but engines of most cunning trickery—books which, when opened, blow dust into your face; a great hall where lightning shoots from the ceiling and thunder rolls overhead; marvellous birds and beasts, and bridges which collapse midway and tumble the unwary into a stream below.’
We had reached the stables by this time. I was about to ask more questions, when suddenly through the archway leading from the courtyard came the sound of hooves. Lady Grey was returning. Behind me, I heard a window in the east gable fly open. The Duchess of Bedford was on watch. I had wasted an hour.
‘Farewell, sir,’ I said at once. I gave him a curtsey, down to the ground. He laughed, tipped up my chin again.
‘A kiss,’ he said. I looked away, confused. ‘’Tis a courtly custom,’ he said. ‘Ned would tell you. Ned!’ and laughed again, kissing me lightly on the laugh.
I might have been a whit enamoured of John Skelton. But he had told me naught of the court, naught of my lady’s lover, had prattled only of King Edward’s weakling brother.
He mounted and sat his horse, an ordinary enough man yet to me the emblem of glamour, with the
rose en soleil
shining from his breast. He smiled at me; the beast curvetted and sprang forward. I felt my hair whipping about my face, and his eyes upon it. Then he was gone, and a little space after, Lady Grey rode in, riding sidesaddle, in the Bohemian fashion, her face fair and serene and haloed by the shabby wimple. Beside her rode an elegant figure. It was her brother, Anthony Lord Rivers. So he had come to visit us again. He frightened me.
Behind them came a scattering of ragtag henchmen and a man I had never seen before; a holy man, a black-robed clerk, with a wild, rolling eye and face the colour of whey.
I dreamed often of a knight, one whose countenance was never visible to me. Neither fair nor dark, pure nor swarthy, he would appear in dreams, mounted and armed, at the edge of a green meadow. The horse’s legs were clothed in mist to the pastern, the rider’s armour wore a sheen of fog. Always his visor was closed, but I would know that he watched me, with a deep, mailed look through his eye-slits, while I stared and stared, trying to penetrate that steely mist, in vain. Long after he had faded his essence remained, always a mystery. I told none of this dream; I knew it for what it was, a longing. Yet for what I longed, I had no knowledge. Once, the rider came close, and I touched the burning mail of his hand. The touch brought fear.
On the evening which changed my destiny I thought on him, my faceless knight. May Eve it was; I stood at the same window with which I began my tale, late and long past bedtime, a weird and weary hour, waiting to undress my lady when she rose from the parlour where she and her mother kept company with the pallid clerk. Agnes and I had discovered his name. This was his third visit to Grafton in as many weeks; from Stoke Newerne he came, a half-hour’s ride off, and they called him Master Thomas Daunger. This night he had dined with them, and now it seemed that he would never leave. I left the window and crossed the landing to the stairhead, where I seated myself, yawning and shivering, upon the topmost stair. Below, the great curved balustrade disappeared where the motley-coloured tiles of the hall were lost in shadow. A thin line of candlelight licked under the parlour door; there was the constant low sound of voices, murmuring. I could distinguish Elizabeth’s, now and again the harsh high rasp of her mother, and very occasionally the clerk’s quavering tones. His voice, fit mate for his countenance, was milky and sour.
In contrast to the dim stillness of the house, the night outside blazed with life. A moon like a white, perfect fruit hung in a lattice of oak leaves, the humpbacked yews trembled as I watched from my vantage point near to a deep recessed window, and across the lawn long shadows flung their sleeping arms. A nightingale was singing, over and over the same careless tune, and was joined by another and another, until the fluid melody filled the night. From the border herb-scents rose, strong as incense in the Mass. Between the house’s quietness and the perfumed song, I sat clasping knees on the top steps, my thoughts wandering; no doubt looking ridiculously small-statured, and wishing Agnes would come to me. I had not seen her since before supper, and on this, the last day of April, she had made me a promise.
Folk said it only worked on May Eve: the hawthorn-spray trick, that was. I had given mine to Agnes, and she had vowed it would be dropped at the nearest crossroads, where the wind should take it. And down whichever way the breeze snatched my spray, thence should my true love come. Agnes had no need to toss a thorn twig; she was already betrothed, to a silversmith’s ’prentice in the south, and when he had made his masterpiece they would be wed and she would leave Grafton. I fell sad at this; I should be lonely. I wondered if my Lady Elizabeth had ever used a hawthorn spray. But then, she needed to even less than Agnes. Her own love had already come a-riding. Nay, she did not need it, any more than the face balms, the potions her mother made to beauty’s cause. This set me thinking of the Duchess of Bedford’s skilled alchemies, and the last time tall Ned had come to call. I had been very close to him that day; in truth, the Duchess asked my help in a small work, to please our guest. She had let me pour him a flagon of wine. But before pouring, she had taken a little vial from her pouch, filled with dark liquid fresh and sharp-smelling like the earth at night. I had to mix this with the wine, stirring in a special way: six times to the left, five to the right. A little strand of the herb clung on the tankard’s lip, and she brushed it off. It looked like the five-leaf grass, ruled by Jupiter for strength, a flower whose purpose I did not know.
‘Our guest is weary,’ she said. ‘Stir strong; that is good! He has a melancholy. Men mislike to be cosseted. So let this be a secret work, for his well-being.’
Then, of all things, she asked if I were virgin. Truly I thought she wandered in her mind, but gave her fair answer, and she nodded, with folds of skin over her small bright eyes, and seemed well pleased. She gave me a thrust towards the chamber where they sat. He did not seem melancholy to me, only with love. He sprawled, long and sturdy, and listened to Elizabeth playing her little harp, with his chin propped on one hand and his eyes making their slow hot journey over her body. I poured his wine, as the Duchess of Bedford had told me, and those love-lorn eyes, with the pupils large and lambent, like the middle of two blue flowers, never left my Lady Elizabeth, not even while he drained the cup as if he drank her lips. Later the Duchess prepared him a special supper, a rare mushroom with a sharp sauce. Sometimes, if they had some unusual delicacy, Agnes and I were allowed to share the remains. On this occasion, however, Agnes had tried to taste the mushroom on its way to the table and had been rewarded by the Duchess with a blow on the neck. After he had eaten, Ned fell quiet and muttered to himself, while Elizabeth knelt before him, stroking his lax hand. When I bent to fill his cup again, I stole another glance at his careless eyes, and saw that their blue flowers had folded inwards, and were tiny, like the eyes of a bird.
Now I am wise, and skilled in herbal knowledge, I know that dish was of the
the most wicked fruit ever to foul God’s earth. But then, being innocent, ignorant beyond thought, I reckoned naught of it and recalled the incident with pleasure, for he seemed utterly content, and I had poured his wine.
I sat thinking forward to the morrow. Last year, and the year before that, neither Agnes nor I had been allowed to go to the Maying. In every part of England I knew they would be raising the great striped pole; there would be music, itinerant trinket-sellers, jugglers and the like. Gay clothes, strange faces, excitement. A country court in truth, just for one day, and, for both of us, forbidden. We could not be spared from duty. In a corner of my awakening judgement I knew this unfair—even the villeins and yeomen hirelings all around Grafton would be early on the road for Stoney Stratford tomorrow. ‘They come home a disgrace, penniless and drunk,’ fat Agace had told me tartly. Yet there was that in her face which told me she, withal her disdain, would gladly go, given the chance. Therefore I put it away from my mind, as a lost thing, and wondered for comfort about the destiny of my hawthorn twig, and where Agnes had got to.
I conjured her up, or so it seemed. In the next instant she was at my side, the flaring moonlight stroking the curve of her round face. Her hair escaped its kerchief in wisps. She sat down beside me on the step. I felt for her rough warm hand. Its touch comforted me.
‘Oh, Agnes! You scared me,’ I said.
‘Lord Jesu! I lust for my bed!’ she answered swiftly, squeezing my fingers. ‘Why, you’re nervous tonight! Are they still employed down below? Chatter, chatter. My lady will not be up to hear Mass in the morning. As for her mother, two hours I’ve waited to put her to bed. The warming-pan’s cold. Such an evening I’ve had. Jesu! I mislike the looks of that fellow!’
‘Yes, Master Daunger. When I was handing him his meat, he gave me such a look from those drooping lids I well-nigh dropped the salver. Like a black-beetle. Why does he come here, know you?’
‘Maybe he’s giving my lady spiritual instruction,’ I murmured.
Agnes laughed shrilly. ‘I would say rather she could instruct him. She’s that pious... nay, sweeting, her drift tonight was something odd. As if a torch were lit inside her. And ill at ease. She knocked the chess-board off the table, and when I got down to pick the pieces up, that foul beast, Gyb, bit me.’ She pulled up her skirt. On her moonlit flesh a neat set of fangs showed black. I rose and leaned on the window sill.
‘Did you take my thorn twig?’
She came to stand by me. ‘What a moon for May Eve!’ she said softly. ‘’Tis like the sun. Nay, Jankin took it. He had to go to the maltster’s.’
‘Tell me,’ I said eagerly.
‘Well, mine blew southerly, as usual. But yours! It did but lie sorrowfully in the dust, and never moved.’
I whispered: ‘Jankin speaks false.’ Agnes often teased me but this time I was unsure. She should not jest about this anyway; it was a heathen practice, frowned on by the priests. Then she pinched me and laughed, and said:
‘’Tis I who’s false, sweeting. All’s well. Your true love will come from the north. The wind took it a little way north, then it caught in the hedge.’ I knew no one in the north. None save the nuns at Leicester.
‘Mayhap a Scotsman!’ whispered Agnes gleefully. ‘Yelling heathen foreign oaths, soaked in his foes’ blood.’
I stared hard at the moonlit lawn, so as not to mind. Gyb’s figure played in and out of the shadows, tossing up in his paws some luckless small beast. Only a little cat in the distance—I could hold him in my palm. He seemed unreal. At that moment I felt as I often did: something part of the moon and trees, intangible. One whose destiny was ordered, like my hawthorn spray, by the dictating breeze of others. Something that was shadow and not substance...
The parlour door opened abruptly. A voice said: ‘’Tis best he does not lie under our roof tonight.’ And I heard the clerk answer: ‘There is wisdom. Good night, my dames.’
‘Till the morrow,’ said the Duchess of Bedford. ‘Speed our endeavour.’
‘To our good fortunes.’ Master Daunger was kissing hands in the doorway. Someone held up a light. His chalky face blazed in it; he looked like someone in Hell, like the pictures in my missal. Elizabeth said, very quietly: ‘You are sure?’
‘It cannot fail,’ said Daunger. ‘Do this night what I have said...’ The tail of his words was swallowed up. They walked across the hall and went out.
‘God be praised,’ yawned Agnes. ‘Now my lady will retire, and I can rest. If Gyb lets me. Last night he clawed me, even in sleep.’ She ran upstairs, lighting her candle-end. She slept at the foot of the Duchess’s bed, as I did with Elizabeth, in case they should wake in the night for food or drink or cosseting.
Lady Elizabeth came to the stairfoot, holding up the torch. The light fell about, casting quivering darknesses. Descending, I stole a look at her face; pale and marble-smooth, the blue eyes fire-bright, the lips like petals set firm. Demure and unyielding, and cool as spring water she was, but beautiful. I looked at her, marvelling; she was at least thirty years old and the mother of two great boys, but she had a maid’s body, an angel’s face. Yes, she was beautiful, that night.
‘Who’s there?’ she asked sharply. ‘Oh, ’tis you, wench. Where are the others? What’s o’clock?’
‘Nigh midnight, Madame, and everyone else is abed,’ I said timorously. Then, ‘It’s May Eve, lady.’
In her hand the flame lurched suddenly. I wanted to explain: all I meant was—May Eve, the harbinger of May Day, when people pleasured themselves, and why not we? But I knew it to be useless. I stared at her like a moon-calf; she was tall and slender in the blue silk dress, a passing pretty gown, into which she had to be sewn. It had an intricate plastron under the kirtle, and she despised it as old-fashioned. She beckoned me with a long white finger. ‘Why say you this?’ she demanded. Saying naught, I looked at the floor, where fire and moonlight made patterns. She was ill-ease, in truth. I feared her swift temper. Then she said, quite kindly: ‘How small you are, child,’ and ‘Get you to bed.’