Authors: Rosemary Hawley Jarman
‘Back to court,’ I said wistfully. ‘Well, good fortune, Sir Fool. I doubt not with your skill his Grace is pleased to employ you. But we shall never meet, and that is truth. Never in a thousand years will I come to London. I am bound to serve at Grafton Regis with the Lady Grey.’
The fool’s eyes narrowed. ‘Elizabeth Woodville?’ he said wonderingly. ‘The widow with the virgin’s face?’ He began to laugh. ‘Be not so sure, sweeting, you will never come to court!’
‘Another jest?’ I asked. A good one by the look of it; he rolled about and bounced off the palfrey which Jankin was holding for me to mount and go home on while the sky was still blue and gold.
‘The King’s Grey Mare!’ he said, and seized me round the waist, laughing like a jaybird.
‘I don’t understand,’ I said, dizzy.
‘A jape, a folly!’ he cried. ‘Ah, maiden, I love you. Forget me not!’ With a frisk, he was gone, bright red and yellow bird, plunging across the meadow.
‘I mistrust that fellow,’ said Agnes, glaring after him.
‘He would have loved me,’ I said, feeling foolish.
‘Yea, to some tune.’ Agnes slipped her foot in Jankin’s hand and swung astride the palfrey. She pulled me up behind her, asking Jankin how he had fared. Quite well, said he. He had tried his skill in the archery and come second.
‘I would not have been beat,’ he said indignantly, ‘had not one of the King’s archers, a great lummox, sneaked in and hit the highest score before my eyes! I complained to the arbiters, saying that he should be on duty and had no business with May-games, but they would not have it, and he got the prize. A cask of Rhenish, it was.’
‘You should have challenged him for it.’
‘Well, the knave was courteous enough to give me a drink,’ said Jankin, wiping dirt off his doublet. ‘I asked him why he was not with his fellows at Leicester, and he said they would have been, had not the King halted at Stoney Stratford.’
‘I did not see
at the Maying,’ sighed Agnes covetously.
‘Nay,’ said Jankin. ‘For he had taken a fancy to go hunting, the man-at-arms told me. They thought it strange, in the midst of an array, but off he rode, leaving his company blunting their weapons on apples among the village folk.’
‘No royal whim is strange,’ reproved Agnes.
‘Jankin,’ I said proudly, ‘I have had a song written for me today. In praise of my nut-brown hair. What think you of that?’
We rode homeward in an untidy line, I loitering with my thoughts as dusk fell. In a senseless way I thought that the old ballad-maker’s death was my fault. I managed to dismiss this, by thinking quite kindly of Patch. He would have loved me, despite what Agnes said. Several men would have loved me that day. I pulled off my garland and breathed its dying sweetness. Behind me I could hear the sounds of horseplay, snatches of song mingled with the blackbird’s bedtime twittering, and I mused on love, wondering at its essence. Men had found me fair—that was enough. For I suspected there was something a whit frightening in this business of love. One could die of love; that I knew well.
When we came again to Grafton Regis, the sober house was lit as for a festival. Lady Elizabeth wore her dazzling gown and a smile like the crown jewels; and my lady of Bedford had been giving her cat wine, for he lay in the hearth, dead drunk.
Even then, they contrived to keep it from us for the best part of the summer, what had happened on May Day when we had all been chivvied out into the morning, and sent safely far from home. There had been a wedding at Grafton, most secretly celebrated, the bride my Lady Elizabeth, and the groom none other than tall Ned, twenty-one years of age, comely and omnipotent. King Edward the Fourth himself, besotted and bewitched and driven to the brink of madness by my lady and her scheming mother.
Certes, she wrought a fierce work that day, did Elizabeth. A seduction which, in twenty years, was to cause the ruin of one more precious than my own soul. For this I cannot forgive her, and I never shall.
Then between us let us discuss
What was all the manere
Between them two; we will also
Tell all the pain is fere
That she was in. Now I begin,
So that ye me answere;
Wherefore all ye that present be,
I pray you, give an ear.
I am the Knight. I come by night,
As secret as I can,
Saying, Alas! Thus standeth the case,
I am a banished man.
(The Nut-Brown Maid)
Agace the cook, as I have said, was an insolent old dame, stout and proud. She considered herself accomplished; she could recite the feast days and the Saints’ Days without hesitation when she was in a good humour. As she had known me many years and had seen me beaten on more than one occasion, she afforded me scant respect. Our conversation was therefore akin to the parry-and-thrust of swordsmen.
I went often to her kitchen, that December of 1468. Four years I had languished at Grafton Regis after Elizabeth’s departure. And I was still not resigned to the fact that she had left me behind. Even her sisters, gathered up from the length and breath of England, had gone with her to court. The Duchess of Bedford and her husband Richard Woodville, and Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers (or Lord Scales, as he was sometimes called) were firmly ensconced there. So we heard, in fleeting spasms of news. In this bitterly cold manor I was sick with ennui. Dispirited, too. My dearest friend had left me: Agnes was in Kent, a respectable matron helping in Jack’s silversmithy. Thomas and Dick were gone with their mother the Queen, to be trained at court. Their old nurse was dead. It seemed therefore that Agace and I were the last survivors of the Grafton we had known.
But this Christmastide Jacquetta of Bedford had come back. It was at least a familiar face, someone to whisper about. She had broken her journey at Grafton halfway through December, bringing an entourage of about twenty fashionable females, and complaining of the grippe. Straight to bed had she gone, and I remember it was I who had to fly around airing and sweetening chambers for the pack of them. As I stood by Agace’s kitchen fire trying to keep warm, I thought I heard Jacquetta complaining from her bedroom aloft.
Stirring vigorously at a pan of food, Agace sweated and swore.
‘By God’s bones, let us hope this dish will pleasure my lady.’ She ladled the egg mess on to soft toast. Herbelettes, she called it. The smell of the ginger and galyngale rose deliciously.
‘I know not why she doesn’t return to court,’ I said.
The cook laughed derisively. ‘Ha! I know why. This at least is her own domain. Despised, yet useful. Here she can be Queen in her own right. I trow my lady is still offended by the treatment she got two years ago!’
I thought on this for a moment. True, after the birth of the Princess Elizabeth, Jacquetta had come back to Grafton in a fine fury, swearing that she had not expected the Queen to use her thus. ‘She babbled some wild talk that it was through her that Elizabeth was Queen at all, and now she must bid her aged mother do her obeisance like the humblest vassal,’ said Agace, arraying a salver with the meal.
‘And did she?’ I wiped the foul table with a cloth.
‘Oh, heard you not the tale? After the Queen’s churching in Westminster, there was a banquet at the Palace like men have not seen in years, with four halls crammed with guests. The Queen sat in a separate chamber on a golden chair, while Margaret, the King’s sister, and my lady of Bedford attended her. They dare not speak, and when Elizabeth addressed them, they must kneel. When the board had been cleared for revelry, my lady Jacquetta must kneel again, and she vowed that her gizzard has never been right since, for all the dust that the dancers kicked up. Princess Margaret, they say, was bidden to curtsey each time she passed the Queen’s chair, even in the dance. This she did. She’s a lovely wench. But her Grace’s mother was far from pleased by her evening’s entertainment.’
I choked on laughter. I pictured the old woman glowering on her knees, while Elizabeth, regal in her chair of estate, looked loftily over her head. There was probably a grain of truth in what Agace said. Although her husband was Constable of England, and, it was said, a bounty of treasure flowed constantly into her children’s lap, Jacquetta still occasionally would rule a smaller realm. I took the tray in my hands.
‘Yes, you bear it up to my lady,’ said Agace, turning to warm her rump. ‘Great idle wench,’ she said, not unkindly. ‘Sixteen, are you? And not betrothed? You should be professed as a nun.’
‘What?’ I said, lusting to kick her fat legs. ‘This minute? While my lady of Bedford still needs me?’
‘Yea,’ she said grudgingly, ‘she seems to like your touch with her hair and finery. Outrageous vanities, she has.’ She pursed a pious mouth.
‘She minds me of our one-time mistress,’ I said, ‘when she was awaiting a visit from Ned... from the King.’
Agace tittered coarsely. ‘Mayhap she has thoughts of a leman, too. To while away time while the Earl is busy with affairs of state.’
Once I would have laughed. Now I was shocked.
‘Jesu, mercy!’ I cried. ‘At her age? ’Twould be a shameful thing!’
‘Seemingly not.’ Agace winked. ‘The Queen’s brother John wed the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, and she is nigh eighty years, and he nineteen. They call it the devil’s marriage.’
‘He cannot love her,’ I said, sickened at the thought.
‘I always vowed you were lack-wit,’ said Agace with contempt. ‘What has love to do with it, I ask you? Or with any of the marriages of the Queen’s kin? The Duchess of Norfolk is passing rich, and of ancient line. Likewise the Duke of Exeter’s daughter, lately wedded to young Thomas.’
Little Tom, who played with me, Hoodman Blind. A wedded husband.
‘I trow my lord of Warwick was ill-pleased with that,’ Agace went on cunningly. ‘The maid was promised to his nephew.’
Here was a name to play soldiers with. The great Warwick. The man who had saved England by the sword. The King’s strongest ally, who had set him on the throne.
‘Yea, Warwick,’ said Agace, watching me. ‘He who roasts six oxen for a breakfast, then throws his doors wide to all. Did you know? He welcomes men, strangers and knaves from off the street, to take as much meat as their dagger can bear away.’
She laid a spoon beside the platter. ‘Now, carry this up to my lady, and pray it’s to her taste!’
What should I call her, I wondered, mounting the draughty stairs. Countess? Dowager Duchess? Among all the riches Edward had showered on his Queen’s kin lay an earldom for her father, Sir Richard Woodville. I tapped and entered Jacquetta’s chamber. The air was pungent from reeking herbal potions. Gyb, white-muzzled now, added his rank odour from the centre of the bed,
‘Try to take a little, Madame,’ I said, proffering the meal.
The Dowager Duchess sneezed, and glared at me.
‘Her Grace was right,’ she croaked. ‘This is a plaguey chill place for such as I to spend the holy season of Christmas.’
I made her a curtsey, looking under my lashes at the ill-tempered old face. White bristles, like those of Gyb, sprouted on her chin.
‘The court would be warmer, Madame,’ I agreed. I picked up her satin robe from the floor and hung it on a hook. I waited patiently while she spooned a mouthful of Agace’s egg dish between her lips. As I expected, she spat it out into the bowl, like a cross-grained infant.
‘I cannot eat this pap,’ she declared.
Fighting an urge to throw the tray, I sympathetically smiled. ‘They have wondrous cooks at court, have they not, my lady?’ I murmured. ‘I hear that the subtleties are fashioned so cunningly that one can hardly bear to eat them. Yet when they are tasted one cannot leave their enjoyment.’
‘Yes, yes, it’s as you say.’ She nodded grudgingly. ‘Men gorge themselves on forty, fifty courses, and think naught of it.’
‘I fear Agace cannot attain such heights,’ I said. ‘Will the Earl be here for Christmas? We must order more provisions.’
She shook her head. ‘I know not what his plans are. Her Grace begs me to come to court for Yule.’ (She gave the holy season its ancient name.) ‘But I fear with this malaise I’ll be unfit for the journey.’
A strategy so beautiful that it made me tremble began to form in my mind.
‘I will have you well, Madame, I promise,’ I murmured tenderly. Gyb stretched out a paw, talons spread, as I tucked the covers about his mistress. ‘I will prepare you a posset myself. And I swear you will be recovered. Right speedily.’
The old eyes flickered in my direction. She looked surprised, and in my conceit, I thought, gratified. ‘You are a good child,’ she said, not for the last time.
Returning to the kitchen, I rudely pushed Agace away from the fire.
‘Give me room, dame,’ I said. ‘I am to brew a simple to have my lady on her legs again before Christmas.’
The cook gave me a shove equally strong.
‘What are you meddling with?’ she demanded. ‘I don’t want her up! Certes, we have more peace while she’s abed.’
‘You will have peace aplenty, Agace,’ I said, smiling a secret smile. I crushed herbs between my fingers. Already I knew what would cure a chest cough and the sniffles. I had some powdered dandelion, too, for her lost appetite. The cook peered slyly into my face.
‘By the look of you, you’re brewing more besides a posset,’ she said. ‘And it’s no secret how you lust after the court. I’ve not forgotten how you bawled when the Queen left you behind! And she gave you all her old dresses!’ she added enviously.
I stirred away, red-faced from the fire. ‘I had liefer gone to court in my shift than remain in this place with a score of dresses.’
My thoughts turned round and round with the ladle. Tangy as the smell of boiled dandelion, they rose and hung above me in a secret cloud. Though I had never been an actual cozen of the Duchess, at no time had she shown signs of dislike. Now here she was, under our roof again, her will doubtless low-ebbed from sickness. Mine to approach in servitude, but in a servitude passing kind. I thought of my destiny as a ship, drifting anchorless. But if I, through stealth, could blow a strong breeze, hold back the tide, bend the gale—then might I come into the slack water of my heart’s desire, and sail towards London, the city of gold.