Authors: Rosemary Hawley Jarman
‘Old friend, how goes it?’ he said softly.
The minstrel opened eyes clear as water. ‘’Tis you, rascal,’ he murmured. ‘Methought I felt a cold wind blowing then.’
‘Aged blood runs thin,’ said Patch cheerily. ‘How many summers, old one?’
With a twitching smile, he said: ‘I know not. Yet I remember the second Richard, and the day Wat Tyler rode on London. Richard saved that day of blood. Sweet Richard, they called him.’
This is truth: I felt a strange little pang. It would be easy for me to seek sensation, to say that in an instant the future showed itself to me, but it was naught like that... Only something in me which heard those words, and moved to tenderness.
Patch pulled off his tight scarlet cap, and I saw that he was indeed young, no more than eighteen. Tight buttery curls covered his head. He said: ‘I’ve brought you two fair maids. To mind you of other May Days!’ and laughed, a whit churlishly, and nudged the minstrel with his elbow. The hood fell back. I felt the clear wise eyes upon my face. Thin he was, and passing frail. Any lusty wind could have taken him up like a puffball. One hand left the harp and beckoned to me.
‘He has written a fair ballad,’ Patch breathed in my ear. ‘The ending troubles him. Is it finished, master?’ he bawled.
‘Sit by me, little maid,’ said the minstrel. ‘I have a song in mind, certes, it has lived in me for months. A tale of lovers. The knight, I know him well, child of my mind as he is. But the woman...’ his head drooped, wearily.
‘Is she a good maid?’ I asked.
He said, with eyes closed: ‘I am deathly sick.’ Then: ‘Yea, she is one who loved so true that she followed her love into the wilds and the desolate places. I knew such a one, once...’
Patch spat delicately. ‘Nay, master!’ he said challengingly. ‘These creatures are things of song and romance. Angels, to haunt the imaginings of men—in truth I vow they’re wayward harlots to draw a man’s soul from his body. Then they depart, leaving him sick from lust and longing.’
‘If only I could complete it,’ said the old man, uncaring. ‘The maiden’s name escapes me... I cannot see her. The Forest Maid,’ he murmured. ‘The Faithful Maid. The Lily Maid... nay, nay!’ he twanged his harp, vexed. ‘Lilies are cold and holy—this maid is warm.’
Suddenly, Patch crouched close to me.
‘Look, master!’ he whispered. ‘Look at her hair! Does this not inspire you?’
The veined hand stretched out. Taking a lock of my hair in his fingers, the old man gazed as it lay like a live thing, shining and reddening in his palm.
‘Aye,’ he said, after a long space. ‘Nut-brown hair! A Nut-Brown Maid. Brown eyes, brown hair, sheen as a fairy woman’s, and a heart faithful to death. Is that your nature?’ he asked sharply. ‘Before the dedication, I must know. Are you a true maid to your lover?’
‘I have no lover,’ I said. He smiled, a kind, veiled smile. ‘Only a dream of one, to which I’m true.’
‘A fair answer.’ Sweet uneven chords issued from the harp. Patch cried: ‘Sing! Make her immortal!’
‘Cynical Sir Fool,’ murmured the minstrel. ‘My first verse then, shall echo your philosophy.’
‘Be it right or wrong, these men among
On women do complain,
Affirming this, how that it is
A labour spent in vain
To love them well, for never a dele
They love a man again;
For let a man do what he can
Their favour to attain,
Yet if a new to them pursue,
Their first true lover then
Laboureth for naught; for from her thought
He is a banished man.’
I felt Patch stroking my hair, gently.
‘We will have it in two voices,’ said the rhymer. ‘That first shall be sung by the man, in his ignorance. Now the damsel sets him right.’
‘I say not nay, but that all day
It is both written and said
That woman’s faith is, as who saith,
All utterly decayed.
But nevertheless, right good witness
In this case might be laid...’
His strange acute gaze fell on me, sweeping my hair, my face, my body. ‘Can you write?’ he asked. Someone thrust pen and paper before me. ‘Set this down,’ he said. ‘I have but a little time.’
‘That they love true and continue:
Record the Nut-Brown Maid,
Which, when her love came her to prove,
To her to make his moan,
Would not depart, for in her heart
She loved but him alone.’
A circle of listeners formed about us. They were quiet. The slow voice’s tune was passing soft. The verses flowed by. I wrote feverishly, knowing my spelling poor. I blessed the nuns of Leicester, who had taught me my letters.
‘It standeth so: a deed is do
Whereof great harm shall grow;
My destiny is for to die
A shameful death, I trow.
Or else to flee. The t’one must be:
None other way I know
But to withdraw as an outlaw
And take me to my bow.
Wherefore adieu, my own heart true!
None other rede I can;
For I must to the greenwood go,
Alone, a banished man.’
‘’Tis Robin Hood!’ mocked Patch. His nose was out of joint by the attention the crowd was giving to the old ballad-maker, who only smiled.
‘This is an allegory,’ he said softly. ‘Know you not that every tale can have two, three, an hundred meanings?’
‘Are we not in the greenwood?’ demanded Patch.
‘Your mind is no sharper than it seems,’ said the harpist. ‘The greenwood can be the battlefield; the tomb, even. He of whom I sing, simple or noble. Construe it as you will.’
He struck a chord, I gripped the quill. Three or four filled sheets already lay on the grass. I found myself trembling at the words’ beauty, glad that I should have aided their birth, if this was indeed truth and not the guile of a cunning showman. Then, glancing at the white fingers like crabbed stalks, I knew him too kindly, too much upon the next world’s threshold to be counterfeit.
‘Now sith that ye have showed to me
The secret of your mind,
I shall be plain to you again,
Like as ye shall me find.
Sith it is so that ye will go,
I will not leave behind.
Shall never be said the Nut-Brown Maid
Was to her love unkind.
Make you ready, for so am I,
Although it were anone,
For in my mind, of all mankind
I love but you alone.’
‘Yea, that I do,’ said Patch suddenly, close.
Rhyme snapped at the heels of rhyme. Frantic, I wrote.
‘By Venus and St Valentine, I love thee, maiden,’ he said, whispering.
‘What next, what next?’ chanted the crowd, as the ballad-maker paused.
‘Good people, give me space to wet my throat,’ he said wearily.
‘I do not speak false,’ muttered Patch. ‘You’ve robbed me of wit. I think you even rob me of my soul. I love you.’
‘Peace, Sir Fool,’ I said, full of impatience. ‘I cannot hear the minstrel’s words. I’ll laugh at your clowning later.’
But he leaped from the grass with an oath and swung away, broke through the crowd and was gone. A few turned to look after him, with little interest.
‘I counsel you, remember how
It is no maiden’s law
Nothing to doubt, but to run out
To wood with an outlaw.
For ye must there in your hand bear
A bow ready to draw;
And as a thief thus must you live
Ever in dread and awe;
Whereby to you great harm might grow:
Yet had I liefer than
That had I to the greenwood go,
Alone, a banished man.’
The tale of the Nut-Brown Maid leaped lightly from the ballad-maker’s tongue, across the strings like sparkling rain, grew strong, sweet under my pen. She was constant and true, as I would be. She would cut her hair off by her ear, her kirtle at her knee, and so would I. The sheets of verse lay scattered like flowers. Now the lover tested his maid, tempered her steel with sorrow.
‘If that ye went, ye should repent;
For in the forest now,
I have purveyed me of a maid
Whom I love more than you;
Another more fair than ever ye were
I dare it well avow,
And of you both each should be wroth
With other, as I trow;
It were mine ease to live in peace
So will I, if I can;
Wherefore I to the wood will go,
Alone, a banished man.’
Someone cried: ‘Shame!’ I set down my pen. ‘Master, I am unworthy of the song,’ I said. ‘I think I could not brook such a betrayal.’
The ancient eyes scanned my face.
‘Yea,’ he said, softly, smiling. ‘Yea. You could, you will. A loving woman does not cease to love. Child, so will it be, even though your tears flow; flow like wine on a feast day.’
I thought: how should he know? And then: I must strive to be the brave maid of his dreaming. I thought on my petty failings, and was ashamed.
‘But a happy ending, I pray,’ I breathed.
His mouth quirked on a smile. ‘How fortunate that we can shape our romances to fit our will!’
‘Though in the wood I understood
Ye had a paramour,
All this may nought remove my thought,
But that I will be your.
And she shall find me soft and kind
And courteous every hour;
Glad to fufil all that she will
Command me, to my power:
For had ye, lo, an hundred mo’,
Yet would I be that one,
For in my mind, of all mankind
I love but you alone.
Mine own dear love, I see the prove
That ye be kind and true;
Of maid, of wife, in all my life,
The best that ever I knew.
Be merry and glad, be no more sad,
The case is changed new,
For it were ruth that for your truth
Ye should have cause to rue.
Be not dismayed, whatsoever I said
To you when I began:
I will not to the greenwood go,
I am no banished man.’
Fainter, the minstrel’s words murmured on.
‘...I will you bring, and with a ring
By way of marriage
I will you take, and lady make,
As shortly as I can:
Thus have you won an Earles son,
And not a banished man...’
His hand crept to his breast, as if it sought something long-lost. The wan face grew paler. I touched the hand gently.
‘Are we finished?’ I asked. Before my eyes, he was fading. Shrinking into the coarse cloth of his habit.
‘The heavenly dedication,’ he whispered. ‘One verse more...’ I could scarcely catch the words.
‘Here may ye see that women be
In love meek, kind and stable,
Let never man reprove them than
Or call them variable;
But rather pray God that we may
To them be comfortable,
Which sometime proveth such as He loveth,
If they be charitable.
For sith men would that woman should
Be meek to them each one;
Much more ought they to God obey,
And serve but Him alone.’
His head bowed low. Two men with fiddles stepped up. ‘Give us the air again, master,’ they said. ‘We have two here to do your ballad justice.’
A boy and a girl stood behind them, she with a chaplet of lilies on her head, he swarthy, eager. ‘Bring wine for our poet, fellows!’ they cried. ‘The best there is, and we will pay!’
He was so still. I crept kneeling and touched his cheek with fingers soft as butterfly. The heavy head fell on my breast, the frail weight into my arms.
‘The song is ended,’ Agnes said sadly.
A priest came near, his sombre cloth ill-tuned with the flowers, the sunshine, and the cups of wine. He knelt by the silent form on the grass. Awkwardly, men doffed their caps, shuffled their feet, uneasy in the presence of this unseen, unbidden May Day guest. I turned away. I wept a little.
Agnes and I went together across the green. I looked up at the sky where the sun was tipping rosily towards the west. The minstrel seemed a good old man; I wondered if he were there already, young and strong again, playing a better lyre, smiling with those loved years ago. He, who had called me his Nut-Brown Maid, and dedicated a bright song, not to some great lord, but to me. Me, and none other.
Then Patch came running, catching at my hand, his words stumbling, and a different emotion for each of the comic lines on his face; humble and repentant and mocking and mischievous, and with an odd sad desperate gleam, like that in John Skelton’s eyes, and the yearning voices of the men in the crowd who had touched my face and hair. Yea, he would be my lover, he said, and do me solemn duty, yet he begged my pardon for his churlishness and for speaking in an ill-advised, goatish way. Was he, once more, forgiven?
Again I had to say I was not offended, which was true, for at no time had I paid him much heed, being caught up with the joyous song and sorrow of the day, and I said, sadly:
‘Your old friend died. Why do men die?’
He could not answer this, the silliest question in the world, but dropped his jaw and hung his head; then asked: ‘May we still be dear friends?’
‘I’ll look for you next May Day.’
He shook his head. ‘My life hangs on the King’s whim,’ he answered. ‘This time next year I could be in France, or Byzantium. I ride for London tomorrow.’