The Whispering Mime
Book III of the Renaissance Series
History is decided with a whisper.
A loose sequel to Tales of Yorr (A Mediaeval Monk in Need of a Chiropractor).
Follow William as he battles through the English Renaissance, the Elizabethan era.
Born a Catholic, raised a Protestant, William is exiled at the age of 16, finger marked to become a priest, but adventure and the written word are more his style, the theft of an ancient text, written by a hunchback monk his ticket in life.
Act I ..........................
Scene I ..........................
[A priest hole] ..........................
What would be your first words to the person about to steal your life?
I watched her there, on the bed, unravelling the parchments I slaved over for countless years.
Why would she choose this bed for her nightly repose, the marital bed so forsaken? She could have chosen
one of a dozen others, yet she chooses the one vessel that contains the secrets to my life. The confines of my priest
hole, my Catholic refuge in a land crawling with zealous Protestants, proved adequate for propping up both shoulders and keeping my back straight, but I could not live in here without food or drink. Man cannot live on bread alone, and in this
secreted, confined space within the walls of her house there was but wine for the priest and his sermons, devotional candles and the obligatory Bible. I placed my hand on the Lord’s book, but no prayer came to my lips, they had worn thin many years before. I returned my attention to the peephole, smoothed to the comfort of a telescope socket, worn through years of observation. I could watch her all night without being discovered, while she pawed over an existence no more than a zephyr in the imaginations of most Elizabethans, but intrigue can only sustain a man for a short time.
She unrolled another parchment scrawled in my hand, her flaxen hair, tinged with silver, cascading over her shoulders, as alluring as when we first met forty years before. Her eyes scoured the pages, the naked truth of my life, so often spoken of, yet so little known. Would she understand the depths of my actions? Were the written words as believable as a spoken tale?
Should I whisper or play this out in mime?
What to do, what to do?
I could step out from my priest hole, lower my playwright’s mask, and cause her waters to break. Yes, that is the trick, my decision made, I fingered the lever, swung open the door that had never drawn breath from a mouse, and stepped into her bedroom, where slumber eluded the curious.
Her face did lift with the shock of my footfall upon her floorboards, but her bladder held its nerve, the scream I expected constricted in her throat. She retreated to the headboard, this being the last room of the house, and I standing between the bed and the door. I held my finger to my pursed lips as her eyes scoured the room for a weapon. In desperation, she grappled at a roll of parchments and waved my work at me as the characters within might when cornered by the dialogue. I realized she did not recognize me. Had it been so many years? I continued, as her silence did dissipate with the resonance of a slug on a lettuce leaf.
“Where do I begin, my Anne?” She allowed the pages, my pages, my life, slip from her finely-boned hands. The royal blotches beneath a thinning skin, her first sign of aging. “Perhaps I will begin with I am born. No? Call me... now that would be telling. I am no longer sure of the name myself. You know it well enough, though. You all do. You whisper it in your sleep, Anne. I have listened to its spectral wheeze on many a night. It curses those who disturb my bones. It permeates words not spoken before I wrote them. You know my name.”
“I do not, good sir.”
“Perhaps you do not know me in this guise, at this moment.” It was difficult to hold back the sigh built up over decades. “I have played so many roles; I no longer know who I am. You have seen the pages here, and read the words. If I write as a god, plying the strings of a marionette, forgive me. I often search my face as a blind man would, with confused fingers feeling for an identity.”
I marvelled at her face, the epitome of an English rose. Sixty-seven years, if a day, yet she wore it like a newborn, a blush above her bodice pale near the cleft of her breasts.
“I assure you, Anne, you know my name as well as you know this bed… as well as I know this furniture of convenience.”
“I know not this bed.” She shuffled the parchments in her lap, a clutch of discarded autumn leaves. The edges unwilling to align, she threw them in the air with the frustration of a child. “Why do I find these novelties, these kings and sirens hidden here?”
“Because this be my second best bed, the one you shared with the husband you did not love.”
“You talk of love, stranger, as if you were a bard, courting queens and noblemen.”
I could not contain the smile wrought so innocently, yet with such accuracy. “They often say a wise
woman is born of age. Are we so old, Anne, that we understand each other without apparent knowledge?”
The labours of my life, of love lost, lay scattered about the bed linen and surrounding floor boards.
Set free from the numerous panels of the bed head and two of the four seemingly solid,
carved oak posts. How had she discovered what many an inquisitor had failed to
deduce? Wood carved as my priest hole had been, by the renowned craftsman,
and Jesuit lay brother, Nicholas Owen. A blessed union I assure you.
She gathered the parchments nearest her and waved
them at me again. Was the action guilt or
good manners? The words on the pages, so finely crafted
in ink, drew her attention away from the intruder I had become in
my own house.
“France, Italy, and other places, no doubt all made up.”
I sat on the edge of her bed and she snatched at my hand. What she lacked in strength,
she compensated for with determination; a trait typical in one prone to longevity, when
most had given themselves to the worms.
“I see the ink here. You have a scribe’s hand, something my husband lacks. Can these be yours,
truly? Have you been hiding them here in the night? Are you my mystery mouse?”
“Shall I squeak for you or expose my tail? I cannot promise a full moon, I am aged and there is much fur there,
which I am loath to apply the wax.”
“Speak plainly, man. You remind me of my wretched husband, William.”
“And there be the rub, Anne. For Will I am, and these parchments I do not seek to stow. I performed that task many years ago. My aim is to steal them back, and you have contributed to their collection most graciously.”
The way she hugged her arms about her chest did not exude confidence. Eyes darting from parchment to parchment, priest hole to panel, she threw herself off the bed, against the wall it abutted, landing on the device she had used to wedge open my secret paneling. I did not remember such animosity in her. Nor had I ever witnessed Anne brandishing a knife, unless a fowl was involved. Perhaps I embodied the foul play she feared as she slashed at my neck, her anger mirrored in the blade, burning with the flame of the solitary candle she had used to pry through my deeds.
My lower back seized as I weaved, my throat open for discussion, but she missed the mark. It was a close shave, the hair from my chin scattered over her bed sheets, but the wedding night crimson did not eventuate.
I volleyed the return strike with my forearms, as I had been taught. Snatching at her wrist, I dislodged the blade, and the room was mine, again.
“I remember your passion, but it was never this fierce. Did I not provide you with a lifetime of joy, Anne?”
“How can I have experienced happiness from a man I do not know?”
I knew it was time for her to learn the truth, a kind of justification, for my own benefit. The parchments had been scattered without care to their order, but I knew them well enough; the beginning, a fog, the following scenes, my yesterday, despite the passage of time.
I swept my life away and grabbed her by the neck, the weight of my being smothering her escape. Her eyes bulged like a throttled chicken, yet she did not struggle. Was she awaiting her chance of escape in one of my mistakes, or had she done with this life. I continued on without knowledge, the chance to purge my sins far too ideal.
“You are present through much of this, but not where it began. The first page reads: I am conceived, by chance or by the pint, I know not as it happens, but I am here. There is no record of my birth, and I do not remember it, yet I sit before you to bear witness.”
The pride in her eyes narrowed to malice, despite the grip I had on her swan-like neck.
“Have you the eyes to read, or would you prefer I tickle your ears with my tongue?” I leant in to lick her lobe; her answer despoiling my game.
“I will listen.”
“Good. Then you will understand why I do what has to be done.” My grip relaxed as she sat back on the bed. We both drew breath. It had been many a year since I performed such a duality. “It was the year of our Lord Fifteen Hundred and Sixty… I am conceived…”
“I do not remember my parents.”
Time and again I have tried, but their faces are mere shadows amidst the flames of a winter hearth.
Not yet a man when they died in the foul autumn of 1575, I have no one to remind me of our time
together, so I do not consider myself born of them, merely conceived. In truth, I believe the birth
occurred in my fifteenth year, during a journey still vivid in my imagination, for it has no
embarkation point, just a destination. My mode of travel: a box. I do not know the length
of the journey, for I was blinded by the crate I had been stuffed into, like a
worn robe would be discarded, thrown out for the poor.
Plunged into makeshift night, and held fast until the box was
opened, I surmised, by the movement of the container
I crouched within, and the clatter heard
thereafter, I had been loaded aboard a carriage. The sun did not greet me,
but the moon did lurk beyond the shoulder of the man who did.
“Get out, boy.” The coachman appeared to be no valet. “This be your journey’s end.”
“And yours too?”
“Aye. I be from Leicester.” He waved his hand towards the shadow cast by the moon as it peered through
vengeful clouds, wishing to take one last look at a condemned Northerner. Evil eyes winked from unknown
ports amidst the silhouette and the thought of being delivered unto Dante’s Inferno spread goose flesh all over
my body. “Don’t stop there in the cold, boy. There’s the door. Scrape the crud from your shoes before you enter, and find yourself a place by the fire. Robert will see to you He does so for all the master sends to him.”
The front door did not open in welcome. I had been delivered through the rear garden, set down by the stables. A bitter wind flung open the carriage door, the coachman searching for bedevilments I could not be privy too, for the box I had travelled in had been mounted at the rear of the conveyance. Death had granted me a reprieve into a life uncertain. I often wonder if the grave would not have been kinder.
I climbed out of the box, with no appreciation of the coachman’s lingering chuckle. The thought of being directed to another unknown man, somewhere in the rear of a shadowy edifice, fermented in my throat, as had an apple I once ate, grown of its own purple-grey rabbit fur. My legs failed me; the coachman’s boot on my back side no compensation. My limbs, those of a puppet, manoeuvred me poorly over rough ground, although the path here seemed mercifully smooth.
The fire, I had been sent to, appeared to be the only light beyond the back door of the house. Its flames elongated my diminutive shape along the floor and up the stone wall, a creature of magnitude I was unaware I held captive within. I started at the beast, and felt warmth spreading down my leg.
“I’d not let the Master see you fertilise his floor so.” The voice matched the monster of my shadow, the face attached to a pale prune with beady eyes and five fangs, smacked with partially denuded gums.
The warmth I had felt soon chilled my flesh and the claw of the creature grabbed me by the scruff of the neck. It dragged me through a dark recess beside the fireplace, fit for an entire pig on a spit, and into a hovel with a small bed. There was no comfort in the darkness beyond the fire, just the shredding of my clothes and a clip behind the ear.
“Get in there. These rags are for burning. Mind you don’t follow them into the flames.”
I crawled between the sheets and fell asleep, for fear my eyes would introduce me to Dante’s Satan with three faces. Sleep did not find me easily. I tossed until cocooned in the bedding, an itch to my nose bringing on an ill ease. My arms were trapped, my legs immobile, my senses frozen and in search of the reaper. He arrived by my bedside, reached out his bony forefinger, and scratched my twitching nose.
“Is that better, Master William?”
The voice did not bear the traits of age I expected, even if the action that accompanied it seemed wisened; as all names on Earth were registered in the black book of death. Mine seemed to be already scrawled within, and it let loose my tongue, bewitched.
“How did you know?”
“A good captain knows the ills of all the men aboard his ship.”
“Aboard? Have I stumbled across a gang-plank without my knowledge? And should there not be a ferry to cross the River Styx and a coin for the Ferryman?”
“Why would you need such devices? We serve the good ship Pascha. I am Captain Drake. Do you require a blade to cut you loose or will a roll reversal suffice?”
With that, Death, in the guise of Drake, did latch onto the bedding and flip me until I was free. I sat up. The hooded form stood, diminutive in size, yet it leered over my naked form. A sheathed arm dropped garments at my side.
“Wear these, sailor.”
I hugged them to my body with one arm. The other reached out to the cloaked creature and patted its head in thanks.
My arm quickly recoiled.
“You are not Francis Drake, nor Death. You are a creature, a satyr. I feel your horns beneath the cowl you
It cocked its head; perhaps picturing itself de-cloaked, and chuckled. I had every reason to believe
this would be my last day as the creature pulled back its hood, just far enough to reveal its
face. I had imagined all sorts of evil visages for Death since my parents passed; flaming
skulls, headless spectres, eyes of lightning bolts, but not the fresh-faced boy of my own
age, who responded with a broad smile.
“I am no satyr or imp. I am Drake, but still a lad in his mirror. Come
see my ship. We should be old enough to sail it soon and
I will be wanting a crew. Are you game?
Would you see the New World with me and gather gold from the
Spanish for Queen Elizabeth?”
I stood and saluted, forgetting my tackle, which generated another chuckle, and
forced me to pull my newly acquired clothes over the skin of a broiled pig.
“My apologies, Captain Drake. I would seek adventure before I am trapped in this place, this
embodiment of Dante’s twisting pathways that curl through every level of Hell, with a wicked Master,
who complements his servants.”
The captain ran off, sword at his side and bare of foot. I had no weapon, but my feet were chilled by the
flagstones, and dampened by the garden foliage as we raced outside. The sun greeted us through brick chimney
stacks, twisted upon themselves as they spiralled skyward from various ports on the horizon.
I chased the Captain across a road and beneath the eaves of an ancient stone barn, but he disappeared into a wild pasture beyond. The flowers, previously cloaked by the night, waved in the breeze. Their design in the landscape appeared random,
yet the grass beneath my feet gave way to tiles. The likes I had seen in churches, one of which I now assumed overlooked my parent’s graves. That is my one memory of them; two imaginary mounds of dirt, one cross each.
My companion appeared in a clearing, short of breath and stature, hovering over a much larger tile than I had already traversed; a flagstone in the garden, where no such stone should exist. He knelt and crossed himself. Was this where his parent’s slept?
“What is this place?”
“This is an ancient garden, a monk berry moon delight, Master William.”
The wordplay proved beyond my comprehension, my mind focussed on what I could see before me. “And what is this stone?”
“A tomb, for a king.” The response from this Captain was so matter of fact, it seemed believable, yet it had to be impossible.
“Why would a king lie beneath a stone slab in this unkempt field? Where are the cathedral walls, and the stained glass commemorating battles and pious deeds?”
“They were torn down and reshaped to repair St. Martin’s Church, over yonder,” he nodded his head across the road we had crossed, “during the disillusionment.”
He meant the Dissolution, but I did not correct him. It was another vague link to the words of my parents, so stale and moulded, but I did not understand how this could be possible given my mind’s refusal to recall them.
“Why did they leave a king here, without a church to prevent the weathering of his name?”
“Robert says he was a monster, and the slab is cursed, and England will be covered in darkness if he is ever disturbed.” The Captain’s voice became a whisper. “Some nights I can hear him scratching away at the stone.”
I could hear distant hooves on cobbles, but no scraping of fingernails on stone. The boy skipped off, the stone a mere curiosity, and I remembered his ship. Where could he hide a vessel in this garden? Could this be a magic place on a midsummer’s morn, with ogres and trapdoors, ships and... and spiders.
The web glowed in the sun, dripping with dew, playing its own wily tune as each drop dripped onto the next silken strand. It held a doorway together, one carved from bold beams, slotted together at precarious angles. The Captain ducked below the web and disappeared inside. I found myself following, eagerness in every step, only to be astounded beyond the lair of the spider. He pointed upwards and delivered four words, which required no enhancement.
“Welcome to my ship.”
The construction of the vessel was clear, set out by massive oak beams that supported the roof of the ancient barn. These were the ship’s ribs, raised in dry dock, inverted in the sun and set to mature. The Captain climbed amongst them, fearless, as if scaling a mast. He paused mid-clamber and clung on with one arm, while sweeping the other toward me.
“Come aboard the good ship Pascha, William.”
Completing the climb, he crawled out on a beam and hung his feet out over a deck of flagstones and cobbles. I pulled myself up after him, the danger of the stones below no hindrance, having just escaped an embodiment of Hell. Sitting beside him, our four legs dangled, unaccompanied by words. This could be my final moment of freedom and in the stillness that engulfed
the space, I found peace. The Captain was clearly fascinated by the forest that had fallen into the sky, held aloft by
carved versions of itself. Knots formed eyes, which inspected the rise and fall of our chests for fear, ruts created lips, whispering our intentions, and tenon joints shaped noses with warts and all. The faces in my life had never been
“Bess? Are you hiding there, daughter?”
The Captain held his fingers to his lips, while a man, with a jacket of broad shoulders and a neck
of netted lace, strode into the barn below us. His eyes searched the shadows, low to the
ground at first, then up into the rafters where our legs hung.
The Captain smiled, and with a nod, leapt from the beam where we were
perched. I did not see the rope coiled about an arm, which
allowed my accomplice to swing down and
out over the floor of the barn,
landing gracefully on one knee before the intruder, as Drake had at the
feet of the Queen.
I shimmied down the same rope, my landing more awkward than a newborn foal, the
scruff of my neck shaken before I could stand.
“What are these rags? Why have you no shoes? Is this how my cousin lived? Well, answer me, boy.”
“I gave him the clothes, Father, for use in the barn, to protect his better ones.”
The Captain’s father pulled the hood from the horns. They were softer in design than expected; two coils of hair,
bound above the head of a girl.
“He has no better clothes, that is his circumstance, but you are a disgrace, Bess. You will be a woman soon.
Why do you still play like a boy?”
“Because I hate needlework. I would study instead.”
“And so you shall.”
Her father’s face ran soft in the lines of his smile, designs I did not expect from a man with such a gloomy house. “You shall study with young William,” he leaned in close to her ear, “and prove who is the smarter cousin. See he is washed and dressed properly, and present him in my library within the hour.”
He strode from the barn. My attention returned to my companion, her sheepish smile no comfort. What pit from an evil mind had she delivered me into this morning, one where humans shifted shape from one day to the next?
“You are a girl?”
“I will be a woman soon. Do not fear, William. I will not tell anyone about your bits.” She reached up and unpinned the buns in her hair, which fell over her shoulders a fiery red. “Come on. I will show you where to wash, and I promise not to look… much.”
She ran off, out into the garden. Despite her devilment, I felt compelled to run after her, through the flowers, along the tiled paths, across the road and into the half-timbered establishment where I had slept. If adventure led to my early death, then I would die well this day.
The house was no longer a shadow of itself, the gloom of its dreary night face enlivened by the morning sun. From the rear it befitted a palace, with more windows than I had ever seen. I wondered which room would be mine, or if I had already spent the night there. Perhaps I did not have one. There may not be any need. Who was I to these people? How did they know my name and why had the secreted me here? And what could they possibly want with someone who could not tell a boy from a girl?
“Boy!” I remembered Robert from the night before. His shadow loomed over me, as I entered the rear door, a reverie into darkness after a brief respite in the sun.
“This is William, Robert.” Elizabeth stood between the two of us, mirroring his stance, all elevated chin and arms across her chest. “I am to have him washed and dressed and presented to Father.”
The older man stepped back and allowed her to pass through the house. “I do know who he is, Miss Elizabeth, but…”
“But you are the servant and this is my Father’s house. Come, William, even I do not keep my Father waiting too long.”
“Miss Elizabeth, he is a boy, and…”
She turned on the keeper of the house with the bearing of the Captain she had portrayed earlier. “I have five brothers. Nothing this boy has could possibly surprise me. Besides, thanks to your mismanagement, I have already seen all that he has to offer.” She flashed me a wink. “Come, William. Father waits for no one.”
I did not notice her command at first, my attention having been grabbed by the most magnificent set of stained glass windows that adorned the lower gallery. I caught glimpses of the Virgin Mary in annunciation, coronation and ascension. There were other sacraments depicted, but Elizabeth tapped her foot impatiently and I was bound to follow.
She did not watch me wash or dress. Elizabeth guarded the door to the room she led me to, pacing a shadow where it
almost met the floor. The room did not require a candle for illumination, one wall framed by another magnificent window.
I ignored my fears and all else, focussing on the fluctuations within the glass, which shimmered across the floor
boards and over the bed. The warmth from the morning sun, free from flames, gave me hope my ascension
continued, so I searched the room. A basin sat on a pedestal table. It served me well; the smell of the rose petals
in the water reminded me of my mother, whose face now seemed like a stone effigy in a church nave. She
would have approved of this Spartan room, its bed of carved oak, plain but robust.
I slipped on the clothes laid out there; breeches, shirt, hose and shoes. All hung on me as limp sails,
but the fabric was not coarse, as my ship’s clothes had been.
I closed my eyes, the memory of my own room already fading, the house of my
parents a smoky blur. The door clicked open, and my mind returned in kind.
“Father will be waiting, William.”
“And what work of slavery will he set me to?”
“The same as he sets me.” She raised her eyebrows, intimating we were equals.
I was not convinced, yet she ignored the folding of my arms. “Do you like your room?”
She took my hand. “It belonged to my elder brother, Robert, but he found himself a wife,
and she has too many clothes for this chamber.”
Her father’s voice echoed across the many rooms of the house. She dragged me on, through the paneled door
that led to another bedroom. A further panel in the corner of this chamber, which she pulled open, despite any
obvious sign of a handle, revealed a stone, spiral staircase. The stairwell led down to the large room with the
stained glass. Elizabeth’s father waited, pacing the floorboards that lined the grand space.
“Welcome, William. You may call me Richard. I was your father’s cousin, twice removed. This rummin beside you is Elizabeth. I expect you know her as the Captain Drake. We like to call her Bess.” He frowned at his daughter, yet a smile lurked deep in his eyes. “Consider my house, your home. The locals call it Wygston’s House, after the man who had it built. You will see his initials, R and W, in the glass you cannot drag your eyes from, but do not be fooled. Our family name is Chettle. Elizabeth and John will show you the rooms later. Until then, you must be assessed. Your father’s precious time was much usurped, and I must see how you have fared. Have you Latin?”
“Then your father has served you well. I hope to complete the task, as asked some time ago, before the tragedy that befell your parents. Bess, you can wash and dress, more appropriately. You have had enough adventure for today, far too much for a young lady. It is time for your study.”
She skipped from the room, seemingly happy enough to be subservient outside the realms of her ship. Richard Chettle sat me down at a desk, opened two books, each the same, but one in Latin and the other a Greek translation. He asked me to read from both. Occasionally, he would interrupt me to explain the conjugation of a verb, or to ask me to interpret the passage. I followed his instructions to the best of my ability and thought I had completed the task well, until a trill of laughter from behind me suggested otherwise.
“Enough, Bess. There was a time you could not manage the passage from either book, let alone understand the meaning within.”
“Are we not of the same age, Father, or is his problem the other thing?”
“Sit, and open your books, we will not speak of that in this house, not while Good Queen Bess sits on the throne.”
Bess sat beside me, now an obvious candidate for a girl. Her robes of velvet, demure to the neck and ankle, her hair now caught in braids, quickly fashioned, judging by the various loose ends that had escaped the twists.
“You will have to study well to better our Bess, William. She is somewhat of a zealot. There have been too many men in this house to influence her, the sisters all married off before she was of an age to be taught more feminine ways.”
We studied each other while Master Chettle set us to studying the classics. Each word was a chore for me, hidden in the blackness of that box, emerging as the morning sun cloaked in a dewy cobweb. Bess had no such struggle. Every word came to her as second nature. She seemed to be born tri-lingual, and fully aware of my shortcomings.
Her father relieved us of our labours in time for dinner. We were joined by the entire household; her unmarried brothers, but no mother.
I leant back in the high-backed, wooden chair when full, listening to conversations rich in life, law, and church affairs. I could not remember ever being so hungry or so full afterwards, for food or company. The Chettles did not make me the centre of attention. They drifted onto Leicester life; farming, iron-mongering, and the local law, the Master of the house being Constable of Leicester.
My eyes drooped with contentment. Bess tugged at the clothes I had been loaned. The action occurred beneath
the table, her accompanying words just as surreptitious.
“William, come. There is still time enough to play.”
“Are we to board your ship, Captain?”
“Perhaps, but sometimes the paths in the garden shift and take you places most unexpected.”
There was only one word to describe the fire in her ice-blue eyes; adventure.
Despite this, she asked permission to leave the table, and curtseyed once it had been given.
She did not run outside, although I thought I spied a skip in her step, beneath the
camouflage of her dress.
“You may leave too, William, but be inside by dark.”