Read We Speak No Treason Vol 1 Online

Authors: Rosemary Hawley Jarman

We Speak No Treason Vol 1 (5 page)

‘I’m ready to attend you, Madame.’ I took the heavy torch in my hand. Its flame blew a hot breath.

‘Go up,’ she answered. ‘I’ll not need you.’ She waved her long hands, a careless gesture. The wavering light etched hollows beneath her eyes. She went before me to the stairs, and the leaping darkness followed.

‘I’ll lie alone,’ she said. ‘I may spend the night in prayer. My mother likewise. Tell Agnes. She can sleep with you tonight.’

Something like joy ran through me, and I thought how pleased Agnes would be to be rid for a space of the Duchess’s demands, of the fretting claws of Gyb. Neither did I think aught strange of my lady’s whim; for I would rather share a truckle-bed with Agnes than snatch my rest at Elizabeth’s feet. For the last two or three months she had kept me awake with her tossing and mutters, disturbing my own sweet mysterious dream; parting me from my fair faceless knight. He whose harness gleamed, who wore my favour in the tournament. She left me at the head of the stairs and went towards her little chapel. As she passed I noticed that her shoulder came level with my brow. How small you are, child! she had said. Shadow and not substance, that was I.

Agnes was sitting dolefully on a chest in the Duchess of Bedford’s room. For moments I teased her, hinting at a treat, and got her to beg my pardon for jesting about the hawthorn twig.

‘Ah! God be praised!’ she cried when I told her. ‘Maiden, let us to bed right lively before they change their minds.’

We ran tiptoeing to the attic. From next door, fat Agace’s snores already shook the plaster. The moonlight mottled Agnes’s lily flesh. ‘There’s a flea in this bed,’ she complained, but was stripped and beneath the covers before I had unfastened my kirtle, throwing her clothes at the candle and leaving me to undress in gloom.

‘Perchance they will even let us go a-Maying,’ she said, while I struggled with my houpeland. ‘You should have asked her, wench, while she was so full of charity.’

‘And what should I wear, if they did?’ I asked bitterly. ‘I’ve no gowns fit to be seen. My best has a great rent where I tore it on a thorn. I should have all the knaves mocking me for a bawd, going naked in such fashion. And the one my lady gave me—why, I vow she wore it when she was great with young Dick—it swamps me, it’s too long. I should be flat on my face in two paces.’

‘I’ve made it to fit you,’ Agnes said, in a little voice. ‘While I was waiting for my lady. I’m sorry I vexed you over the hawthorn spell, sweeting.’

I flew to the bed and kissed her. ‘Dear, kind Agnes!’

‘Now, your Grace,’ she said, mocking again, ‘I’ll help you disrobe. By the Rood, what fine jewels! I’ll lay them in this coffer to be safe. There’s a knot in your laces,’ she said, fumbling. ‘I’ll have to cut you loose.’

I wrenched away. ‘Oh Jesu!’ I whispered. ‘My Lady Elizabeth!’

A trivial thing, so completely forgotten. A trivial thing, enough to change my whole life.

‘Now what’s to do?’ she said crossly. ‘Is there no peace in this dwelling? Come to bed.’

Naught really, yet it loomed like the shadows. My lady was wearing her blue gown, the dress despised for its ancient cut, into whose intricacies she had to be sewn, and further, unsewn at bedtime. Elizabeth’s possessions were jealously loved, none the less. In my mind I saw her careless disrobing, heard the split of cloth. She would burst from the plastron like the flesh of a ripened grape, with swift, high anger.

‘I must find my lady,’ I said wildly. ‘I shall be sore beaten.’ Groaning, Agnes pulled the covers over her head.

I ran downstairs, under the bright latticed moon. I knew my mistress. Useless to say she had dismissed me; useless to plead that she herself had vowed no need of me; I saw only her fury as I ran through the midnight house, now dark, now bright. She was not in the chapel, and her bedroom was deserted, save for the little dog snug-curled in the centre of the bed. I went next to the chamber of Jacquetta of Bedford, hoping Elizabeth might have tarried to bid good night. Only a candle burned there, slow and lonely. My hand slid like silk on the banister. Small and demented, I reached the hall. The parlour was unoccupied. More candles whispered there, softened tallow dropping like gentle tears.

I could have crept back to my bed. Years later, with all the mists gone from my eyes, I wished I had done that very thing, knowing that a thousand beatings would have been small sacrifice and, but for my witless pursuit of a duty, my whole existence changed.

I spun on my heel, shaking, as a sharp noise brought the blood to my face. I was unquiet, prowling the manor at this hour. Ghosts and demons rushed about me, catching at my breath, then the sound came again: a rough, grating buffet, and I knew it as the outer door swinging on its hinge. So, angry at my own dread, I went firm and resolute to make it fast. Even as I reached for the latch, it blew open again, and I saw my lady and her mother, limned clear upon the shining lawn. I opened my mouth to call to them and in that instant saw what they were about. My mouth stayed open. Unbelievingly, I watched the Duchess raising both hands to the moon’s blank face. In one of them a small object gleamed. I put my foot over the doorsill to see better. It looked like a small manikin, a baby such as cottars’ children play with, rough-cut from wood, or wrought in some fast-hardening substance. The Duchess leaned towards her daughter. Her voice came clearly through the soft white night.

‘Have you his hair?’

Elizabeth scratched in the beaded pouch that never left her waist.

‘Yes, Madame—I took three strands last time, but it grows less easy... I pray God...’

The Duchess hissed like a snake.

‘Woman! Do not invoke
that Name
at this late hour in our work! Know you not that all power lies close... Our task is nearly done. Be still.’

‘All power!’ repeated Elizabeth. She looked about fretfully. I shrank back into the dark porch.

‘Yea! All richness, all knowledge, all might! From the moment of your birth, all was written, and shall be. Give me the hair, then. I have his blood, mixed in the image. His blood; where his hand was torn upon your brooch.’

‘Madame,’ I heard Elizabeth say uneasily, ‘is there still need for this? Is not the prize gained already, I ask you?’

Heedlessly, her mother stretched bony arms to the sky.

‘Mithras attend me,’ she said devoutly.

‘Fortune defend me,’ cried Elizabeth. Then: ‘But, all is arranged—he will be here tomorrow, and were we caught at this craft... ah, Jesu! we should lose everything!’

I saw the Duchess’s snarling teeth, like an animal’s.

‘Men are fickle, daughter, fickle, fickle!’ she crooned. ‘Let’s leave naught to chance. Forget not the other! Had she slipped your mind?’

‘Nay,’ said Elizabeth, twisting her hands together. ‘But he’s mad for

Jacquetta of Bedford was busy with the manikin, binding something about its head. From her pouch Elizabeth took another small figure, one that had breasts and was crowned with a gilded wisp.

‘Shall they embrace?’ she asked, bringing the thing close to the larger one. As she spoke, a black shape trotted over the lawn with a little lilting noise. The Duchess stooped and lifted it in her arms.

‘Ah, Gyb, my sweet!’ she cried softly. ‘See, daughter, I did not need to call him. Now he can bind the charm. Yea, place them together, so...’ and I saw my lady mould the little dolls as one... ‘And the pelt of a black beast can seal the matter.’

She rubbed the entwined manikins swiftly over Gyb’s arched back. He let out a high hoarse cry and leapt from Jacquetta’s grasp into the shadows. The Duchess laughed, a pleased noise, and muttering, elevated both figures towards the moon.

‘Attend me, Mithras,’ said Elizabeth, kneeling. ‘And send me my heart’s desire.’

A terrifying little wind arose. It swayed the dark massed yews and ruffled the pale flower-heads sleeping against the stone house wall. It passed curiously through my hiding-place, and with cold mocking fingers lifted my hair. A drum throbbed fiercely. I touched my breast with the Blessed Sign; I touched the drum; it was my heart. For a further instant I stood motionless, staring to where the Duchess held the figures high, like a priest raising the Eucharist to heaven. The wind dropped, leaving me more afraid than ever in my life. Even when Elizabeth and her mother began to cross the lawn towards me, I could not move. Then, at the last second I ran back; I slid into a little closet before they reached the door. In the passage without, a candle bloomed. I heard a man’s voice, a deep, soft chuckle. So Anthony Woodville had also left his bed.

‘Is it done?’

‘Aye, my lord. I’m drained of strength.’

He laughed again, unquietly. ‘May our lady mother’s wiles bring fruit, sweet sister. Yet I doubt not that yours would have sufficed.’

‘It will be a rich harvest, my son,’ said the Duchess wearily. She said again: ‘All is written.’

‘It’s heresy.’ This, with a trace of fear. ‘Remember Eleanor Cobham!’

‘Bah!’ said the Duchess scornfully. ‘She grew careless. And this is worth any hazard. You will see, a year hence. Come, Gyb!’

Calling him softly, she went away. I stayed in the closet. A quivering ran up and down my sides, as if I were being stroked with feathers. Then I felt a soft nudging round my legs. A roaring purr filled the chamber, and I knew it to be, not the foul fiend, but Gyb. I dared not even shove him away with my foot. The Duchess was returning.

‘To bed, Mother, I pray you.’ Elizabeth’s voice was alarmingly close. ‘I’ll need you in the morning, fresh and bright.’

‘I can’t find my sweeting,’ said the Duchess petulantly. ‘Puss? Where are you, poppet?’

‘I will find the creature, Madame,’ said Anthony Woodville easily. ‘Go now. I’ll bring him to your chamber.’

Lady Elizabeth soothed her mother away. As their slow steps faded, I stood, frantically plotting escape. There was no way out other than by the door into the passage. I heard Anthony Woodville calling the cat. Fiend that he was, Gyb yelled in answer. He pressed against my legs, uttering pleased chirps and a long, wise wail. The candlelight grew brighter. Filled with terror, I closed my eyes. A drop of hot wax fell on my neck. My eyes flew open: Anthony Woodville, tall, slender, elegant, looked musingly down at me. Gyb sprang to him, rubbing and roaring. Gently, he was pushed aside.

‘Away, Gyb!’ be said, just as if I were not trembling there in the flickering light. ‘You are a plaguey monster. You have put hairs upon my new hose.’

His voice did not hold the anger I dreaded.

‘Well, maiden?’ he said. ‘Why do you dawdle here? I was about to make fast the doors. We are late tonight.’

I swallowed. My throat was dry as old bread.

‘Speak!’ he said, more sternly. ‘Are you moonstruck?’

I found my voice; I begged his pardon. I was but looking for my lady, I said—I was passing sorry. In my sight, his features looked long and thin. Sharp.

‘Did you find her?’ he said. His voice was gentle again.

‘She was without.’ I pointed to the door. I trembled. Then I heard him whisper a quiet oath, bitten off midway.

‘Tell me, good maid,’ he said, in the same even tone, ‘how long were you here? You surely saw my sister and my mother in the garden—why did you not go out to them?’

Then, he needed no answer. My chattering teeth, my face, sufficed to inform him that I had seen something not for my eyes, bewildering and wholly bad, yet not altogether understood. I felt his long fingers on my arm. They gripped tight.

‘What saw you, maiden?’

‘They were playing with the cat.’

‘What more?’ His fingers bit my bones.

Suddenly something made me wise, more than I deserved. ‘Naught else, my lord,’ I said steadily.

He remained silent. I made a tiny flurried motion towards escape. His hand stayed firm.

‘Do you dream o’ nights?’ he asked..

‘Yes, sir, but why...’

‘And your dreams are passing real, I doubt not,’ he broke in. My arm was beginning to ache. ‘So real, so true, that when you wake, you vow the dream was part of life. Is’t so?’

‘Yea.’ My trembling stirred the candle flame. He smiled. His grasp relented. I rubbed my shoulder with an icy hand, my eyes fixed on his face.

‘I’ve hurt you,’ he said wonderingly. With great delicacy he drew aside the collar of my gown. ‘How easy it is to bruise young flesh!’ he murmured. ‘Last week in London I saw a wench flogged at the cart’s tail. The poor wretch had stolen a trifle of her mistress’s beauty salve. And, though this good dame was fond of the child, she had no choice but to watch her punished. Unfair, think you? I vow there’s no maid alive who does not snatch a morsel of this cream and that lotion, especially if the mistress be old and ugly, the maiden fair. Is it not fitting for hands that prepare the bath to take a little healing balm to cheer their soreness? Or perfume to lighten a weary heart?’

In his eyes I saw myself, a tiny, wavering figure. He knew about the rose-water cream. ‘My lady is not old and ugly, sir,’ I whispered. Through my lashes I saw on his face a look that reminded me of Gyb, after devouring a bird.

‘Yes, whipped at the cart’s tail,’ he said, musing. ‘Jesu! how that poor damsel’s back was bloody! A pretty skin. But that was at the start of her journey.’

My stomach began to churn and plunge, like the courtier’s horse. I began to cry. Anthony Woodville lifted my face with one finger.

‘Do not weep,’ he said. ‘All shall be well, if you are wise. What saw you this night?’

‘Naught, my lord,’ I sobbed, and this time I myself believed it.

He smiled. ‘You had a dream,’ he said, and his eyes were large and sharp, eyes from a dream. ‘Back to your bed. Tomorrow, you shall bring in the May.’

Agnes wondered why I wept. She held me in her arms and nursed me sleepily. But I would not tell her. I would tell no one of the dark and hateful things—then I had no wish to speak of them. And strangely, all was as my lord had said. The night faded, in the space of my drying tears, as if it had never been.

We were waked by a merry sun, and fat Agace banging on the door, dressed already in her scarlet kirtle, with glowing face to match—through joy, for we were to go a-Maying, all of us down to the smallest scullion; all of us, without exception.

Other books

The Suburban Strange by Nathan Kotecki
Pigeon Feathers by John Updike
The Jazz Kid by James Lincoln Collier
Haunting Grace by Elizabeth Marshall
The Pursuit of Pearls by Jane Thynne
The Sea King's Daughter by Simon, Miranda
American Thighs by Jill Conner Browne Copyright 2016 - 2024