Read We Speak No Treason Vol 1 Online

Authors: Rosemary Hawley Jarman

We Speak No Treason Vol 1 (6 page)

‘They will have to get their own dinner,’ snickered Agnes. For a league she jested, making me laugh with images of my Lady Elizabeth’s cherished hands cooking mutton, of her mother washing platters. I sat behind her astride the spavined palfrey, treading the road-ruts to Stoney Stratford. The day was merry. Great swathes of persil foamed in the ditches, the may-bloom hung low, and my heart lifted, through laced branches, to meet the blossom, its delicate cream and pale rose and its nested harvest of small birds, singing.

My head was bare, save for a chaplet of primroses, for Agnes said it was right seemly for a feast-day maid to go thus, and bother the priests! The sun turned my hair to gold, to fire; I saw it, falling so bright and sheen below the palfrey’s dusty sides. My lady’s cast-off gown fit snugly, slashed a thigh’s length to reveal, under its gay russet, a glimpse of tender green silk. The neck was low; Agnes had pounched and padded my bosom to show it off. The sleeves were slit in twenty tiny fronds. Five years from fashion it might have been, but I was sore enamoured of it. And I had washed my face in May dew; nay, I had rolled in it naked, so that every limb had danced and tingled with the soft, gay tears of spring. Then I had made my lady Elizabeth ready for the day. Still pale, but with a hidden glow, like a may-bud, she had tossed aside the dark dress I offered her. ‘Away with the old black gowns!’ I dared not ask her reason, either for this or for her sudden disdain of the widow’s headgear; her choice was a small gold hennin with a high veil to match a dress, shimmering and dawn-rosy, that I had not seen before. I merely knelt to straighten the long skirt and attach the broad gold cincture about my lady’s weasel-waist. Before the sun was clear of the great oak’s topmost bough, she drove me from the chamber.

‘Lady Elizabeth gave me some money.’ I stretched my arm past Agnes’s cheek, to show the half-angel in my palm. ‘And wished me good fortune at the fair.’

‘The Duchess gave me a beating,’ she answered tartly. ‘Because I was not spry enough dressing her. Jesu, what masters! I must find me a great lord who will burn Grafton about their heads. There’s a love-spell I wished I’d tried now. I’m sick of being whipped, and cursed, and virgin.’

‘Don’t, Agnes,’ I whispered.

‘Don’t what?’

‘Talk of spells, love-craft. I would not see you damned.’

She reined in to laugh like a woodpecker. ‘Well, Mistress Pope-Holy!’ she cried. ‘And what’s amiss? A little flower, a straw in the wind—all good customs, to hurt man nor beast. Hawthorn-wench, you’re as guilty as I!’

Yea, my true love would come from the north. It was then that I began to hate the hawthorn, for, after what I had seen last night, which, though sunk deep in my mind’s pit still brought unease, my little wistful ruse ranked itself with the worst spells of all.

‘A great lord, then, Agnes?’ I asked, for diversion. The pony grazed. ‘Would you desert Master Silversmith?’

She half-turned. ‘How should I do that?’ she demanded. ‘I’m his by troth-plight—no other marriage would be valid.’ The sunlight caught her dimples. ‘Besides, I lust for Master Jack right well. He’s a strong leg, a lickerish eye...’

The groom escorting Dick and Thomas Grey ahead, came trotting back.

‘Would to God you wenches would cease chattering,’ he said discourteously. ‘We’ll not make Stoney Stratford before noon.’

‘Bite your tongue,’ said Agnes. ‘Why all the haste? You’re like my lady. She chivvied me out of the house an it were on fire.’

‘Yea, they seemed passing anxious to see our backs,’ muttered the groom, hauling the pony’s head out of the succulent ditch.

‘Why, here’s another in a hurry!’ cried Agnes, staring up the road. Towards us rode a horseman. A black cloak flew behind him like a dusty sail. His mount’s hide boiled with sweat. He rode without skill; as he reached us, his horse swerved blindly and struck the groom’s beast, sending horse and rider plunging towards the hedge. He stopped to ask no pardon, but spurred on hotly and galloped off the way we had come. The groom struggled out of the ditch, shaking off broken blossoms.

‘Pox take you!’ he yelled after the departing figure.

Agnes said wonderingly: ‘Was that not Master Daunger?’

Yes, ’twas Daunger. He had swivelled his chalky whey-face and hanging lip towards us for an instant. Daunger, a dangerous name. Do-this-night-as-I-have-said Daunger. I kept silent.

‘Is the clerk for Grafton again, then?’ Agnes murmured. ‘More pious instruction for my lady?’

‘Not today,’ I only whispered. She had been like a spray of may-bloom, ready to flower. Could the clerk be her lover? I did not know what it was that lovers did that was so pleasant and nice and full of sin. Yet whatever it was I knew that chaste Elizabeth did it not. Agnes stood in the stirrups and clapped her hands, and I forgot all about Master Daunger, and cried with her: ‘Look! the May Pole!’

Stoney Stratford opened to us round a bend in the road. Every house door stood wide. More hawthorn, scattered with blossoms, stood in great branches at every porch. Garlands of meadow-sweet and cowslips hung from window and door frame. Folk thronged the narrow street, laughing, singing, crowned with flowers, with periwinkle, wild rose and young ivy; and in the square, with a breeze lifting its twelve gaudy streamers, the great ash-pole grew upwards to the sky. Dressed from tip to ground with wreaths of marsh-marigold, primroses and may, it stood winking in the sun. On its head lay a ring of royal lilies. ‘Worship me,’ it said.

Children ran to meet us. One pushed a nosegay into my hand, violets clustered with harebell and eglantine, still dew-damp.

‘Oh, Agnes,’ I said, lost in delight. ‘Look, Agnes!’

Agnes’s eyes darted about. She flirted her lashes at an elderly merchant, pursed her lips as a band of young clerks rolled by, arms linked. Flushed with ale, they bawled a chant far from holy. ‘How wicked the world is!’ she said, with dancing eyes.

We halted on the green, where there seemed to have congregated a host of young men. As we dismounted one fell in courtly pose upon his knee, clutched his heart and feigned a swoon. At the comical look on his face I burst out laughing. Agnes swept by with a hauteur worthy of the Duchess. I looked up at the ring of faces. A youth in a blue doublet held a buttercup under my chin and guffawed. I heard: ‘Great Jesu, that maiden’s hair!’ and ‘But maiden-hair’s a herb, Will, and she’s a flower, yea, by the Rood.’ ‘Deflower, say you?’ A great burst of mirth, and Agnes’s cross, seizing hand. ‘Stay close.’ I caught the tail of a voice, strange and yearning, like the look in John Skelton’s eyes. ‘Little and young, I grant you. But by my mother’s soul, she lights my fire!’

So I was conscious of the hot stares of men. Their looks were like lances, to prick and delve, to consume me. I knew the object of their joy. It rippled about me, hued like autumn fire, cloth of gold, a beech-nut, taking the colour from the flowers, laughing back at the sun. I say this in no conceit, for from my hair’s lustre came more fear than pride, that day.

Agnes whispered: ‘Come! We’ll lose the others, or we’ll be put in charge of Tom and Dick!’ and tugged me, squirming, through the crowd to the far side of the green, where men were shooting at the butts and slender wands, and the sweetmeat booths were set up cheek by jowl with the ale-wagons.

‘We’ll have wine,’ she decided. I bought honey cakes to go with the thin sour brew. I watched Agnes drinking, her full creamy throat tipped back. Pink drops escaped the flagon’s lip and trickled on her white bosom. I told her she was fair and she laughed.

‘There’s your great lord, Agnes.’ I pointed towards a corpulent squire of sixty. ‘Or him, look!’ turning to a man who, skinny as a thong, contorted his body into horrible shapes before an admiring crowd.

‘Nay, sweeting, he’d make too restless a bedfellow.’ She pulled me on. A juggler threw up coloured platters. Two bold-faced women balanced themselves upside down on sword-points, their skirts falling about naked thighs. A group of ’prentices stood over-close, gibing shrilly. ‘Flemish whores,’ Agnes muttered.

Lovers there were, too. Walking close-twined, sitting lip-to-lip on benches. And from the depths of a scented bush came a rustling and a soft cry. At the entrance to a side street, I saw two soldiers gazing at the Fair. Their stare was a mixture of longing and feigned disinterest.

We sat down to watch the mummers. First the Green Giant, then Robin! I sat with hands clasped, loving him. In his suit of Kendal Green, he strutted and bragged, showing his prowess in archery. Maid Marian, a pretty boy with long golden hair, piped of her love. She followed him languidly, all over the green. Wherever he went, so did she. Robin sprang into easy attitudes; Marian tripped on her gown. They performed a courtly dance, and one of Marian’s false breasts crept round the back of her waist. She fell prey to the Sheriff; Robin hammered with his broadsword, and the pair were united by Friar Tuck, much the worse for ale. Agnes and I shared a bench with four ’prentices, who leaped to their feet every minute to whistle and shoot peas at Maid Marian. Once, they upset the seat completely and began fighting among themselves. As Robin bore off his bride, the crowd bawled and chanted for more. A troupe of bagpipers who came next were hounded from the green in fury.

A strange creature capered into view. Clad in sparkling motley, one leg red, the other yellow, he frisked around the hem of the watching circle, tweaking the noses of the men, patting the women’s cheeks. He had a face so comical that even had he not pulled it into hideous grimaces, men would have smiled at him. He rolled his eyes so high that only the whites showed, and pulled down his nose with his tongue.

‘Certes! ’Tis the King’s fool!’ said a low voice behind me. ‘Poor Patch. The richest man at court.’

‘Edward must be hereabouts.’

‘Leicester,’ said the first voice cryptically. ‘Ah, Jesu!’ liquid with laughter. ‘Will you look! He does my soul good!’

He was not a tall man, this jester; only about a head higher than I, and Agnes would have dwarfed him standing. Neither was he old, he was lithe and supple, but his face was patterned with lines, like a withered fruit. He came skipping, and stood before us, duck-fashion; he pinned the pike of one shoe to the ground with the other, scratching his head; he looked mournfully about, cried: ‘Succour!’ bent bow-legged and, agile as a monkey, seized the offending foot and tossed a backward somersault.

‘Ah, bravely done!’ cried Agnes.

The fool’s head turned. Unerringly, he pranced over to Agnes, and grasped her hand. He pressed a lingering kiss into the palm, gazing into her face, with lifted, mocking brows. I stared at the fretted cheeks, the temples with the heavy painted lines from each eyelid, the curling mouth, still kiss-puckered. The eyes were a clear dove-grey, and shrewd. He took my hand next. I felt his teeth nip my thumb.

‘You’re gallant, Sir Fool,’ I said shyly.

The fool gave a great cry of passion and clasped his breast. ‘Beauty has spoken soft words,’ he declared. Everyone watched, grinning. ‘Madame, my heart is yours. Keep it.’ He delved in his overlarge scrip and drew out the glistening, blood-clotted heart of some animal, sheep or calf, or man! I know not what it was, save that it made me scream. The men roared. I felt sick, as the horrid thing dripped before my face. And he knew it instantly—no fool, this fool—for he dropped the offal on the grass and bent close, asking: ‘What ails the little maid?’ his voice deeper than the high whine he gave his audience.

‘It’s a weakness,’ Agnes sounded vexed. ‘A certain delicacy.’ They were giving me wine. ‘And she hates cock-fights. And bear-baiting.’

We had already passed the bear, with his poor burned feet, stamping a chained, ceaseless circle. And that was only a dancer.

‘Strange, but forgive me,’ said the fool. ‘’Twas a crude jest. Am I pardoned, fair one?’ This in a loud whine; the crowd was impatient for him to continue. I looked in his grey eyes, saw tenderness, touched his gay shoulder with a trembling hand. He sprang away, tipping himself on to his hands, and sped thus around the eager circle. The hobby-horse, gaudy-ribboned, chased the fool across the green as the Moorish dancers ran before us in a straggling file. They wore green and red fustian, dagged sleeves, bells. ‘Clack!’ went their staves as they feinted in the dance. The smell of trodden grass rose sweet and sour. But my joy in it was dulled by the fool’s nasty jest. Though I had forgiven him, the bad taste of it lay heavy in my mouth, and when he bounded back to us I looked upon him without pleasure. He had a bauble on a stick, a monstrous moon-face, gilded with a smile on one side, a frown on the other.

‘Ladies, follow me!’ he pleaded, and Agnes rose from the bench. The fool’s eyes travelled up her height.

‘By the Rood, maiden, you are lofty,’ he remarked.

‘’Tis you that is low,’ she said haughtily, but I could see he charmed her in the same way as did the young birds, the flowers. He stretched out a hand to me, as I sat motionless.

‘Marry! the little maid’s still wroth,’ he said. ‘Come, my honeycomb. We’ll find a friend of mine.’

He skipped ahead, Agnes admonishing him, but smiling, for as he went he sang about a lustful friar, and most of the words were nonsense. I lagged behind; Agnes nudged me on, like a dog herding sheep. Patch prodded a passing belly with his bauble; an important, a fine belly at that, clothed in murrey and fur with a broad gold pouch. And the belly’s owner merely loosed a great guffaw and slapped Patch round the shoulders.

‘Jesu, Agnes!’ said I. ‘He’s bold.’

She gave a knowing little grin. ‘Well ’tis the King’s fool, forget it not,’ she said; and I ran after him, eager at last, wanting to ask about the King, the unknown magnificences that were his daily fare. He threaded through the revellers, supple and broad in his motley, and once he turned with a grimace like some evil sprite leading me on to danger. I ran beneath the sun. Red and yellow, the day.

I thought he might be taking us to meet a courtier, but he halted at an old man’s bench. Despite the fierce heat, this man was cowled to the ears in threadbare wool so that little of his face was visible. Across his knees he cradled a harp of most ancient design. Pale as lilies, his hands were translucent and veined. The fool stretched out a hand to pluck one string of the lyre. The sound was a drop of silver rain falling.

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