The Whispering Mime
History is decided with a whisper.
A loose sequel to Tales of Yorr. 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.
Book III of the Renaissance Series
[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 cower beneath.”
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 so intriguing.
“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.”
My exit did not prove graceful, not like the well rehearsed Bess, but I did not have to be asked twice. I felt Robert’s eyes on me as I fumbled out of my chair, bumped into another, and stepped out into the garden. Upon my exit I was immediately grabbed by the arm and dragged along one of the many tiled paths.
“Where have you been? There is a fair wind and the tide is with us.”
Bess may have still been constricted by her dress, but her eyes embodied the Captain I had met by my bedside that morning. She dragged me along paths not yet negotiated, some with glazed tiles, in reds, with eagles on shields, and green and white fleur-de-lis, while others had been laid with crushed stone, all overhung with flowers.
My side ached by the time she paused for breath. Her forehead, beaded with sweat unbecoming, glowed along with her cheeks. Bess plopped down on a tiled path and plucked a rose from a bush to her right. She traced an eagle design with its stalk. I sat down in front of her, glad of the breath. A thorn caught in her finger, but she did not cry out. She examined the trickle of blood, before sucking on it, as one would a lemon.
“Now you have seen every path in the garden, William.”
“No, I have just run along the length of each path. I have seen nothing, except a flame of red hair trailing from your head.”
“Your Latin is terrible.”
“Your embroidery depicts women as men.”
“You sweat like a pig.” She wiped the back of her hand across my forehead and smiled. “You will make a good quartermaster, William. Can you procure provisions for a voyage?”
“What type of ship are we to sail, Captain?”
“A privateer’s pinnace.”
I knew of Drake and his reputation amongst the Spanish Catholics. The idea both fascinated and enticed me. “Then it is a pirate’s ship we sail and a skull with crossed bones will be required for the mast.”
Her eyes widening, she leant forward and drew me closer. “Would you follow me anywhere if I told you I knew a place these bones could be gathered?”
How could I refuse an adventure, a promise of life beyond all I had forgotten in my grief? “Aye, aye, Captain.”
Bess looked left, then right, hitched her dress to her knees, and scampered low, towards the barn.
I wondered what she had buried in there as I followed. She crept to the barn door, standing once she reached its stone wall. Peeping through the doorway, she waved me inside, beneath a web the same spider was stringing together, in time for the morning dew. I made it three steps inside, the depth my mind would allow me in the dark. It enveloped me, and I froze. Every dark box was just a dark box, regardless of the swing room, and I had no cat at hand. The idea seemed sound, but my nerve could not will me inside.
“What are you waiting for, William? Have you seen a ghost?”
“I… I cannot see anything. My hand could be slapping my face and I would not recognize it.”
“Come on, come on!”
She had me by the shirt sleeve now, but my legs were set in stone, struck by the image of a Medusa. My mouth wide open, I was ripe for a gargoyle atop a French cathedral.
“William? It is alright, there is no one to spy our thievery, and it is only a borrowing, much like the chained library in Hereford. We will not take the implement far, see? Here it is, open your hand.”
I felt her fingers about mine, prying them loose of my palm and wrapping them around a pole. “What devilry is this? Why do you lace my hand with the horn of the Devil?”
“No, silly. What kind of shit do you think I run? This is a God-faring vessel, and in your hand you have a shovel. We require bones, remember? But we have to wait until dark. You worry me, sailor. Can you stand the dark?”
“Your father said we have to be inside by dark.”
“And we are, inside the barn, and the sun does set.” She turned me about on the spot. I spied the red-trimmed clouds low on the horizon, fading from the yellow and orange of sunset.
My world was no longer dark. Shoulders, so rigid a moment hence, sagged, and my chest heaved. I leant on the shovel and felt the sweat drip off my temples. Bess draped an arm about me, her breath close to my ear the only sound in the stillness of the evening.
Lamp lights flickered to life in the house across the road. We waited. The depth of the night rolled down. I half expected Robert to lean in and clutch at my neck now the day had turned to night, but we remained a distant spectre in her Father’s vast domain.
“They will know we are not yet inside the house, Bess.”
“I stuff my bed with clothes each morning, and lay a doll on the pillow, one with real hair. She is my only vice, but more than useful, to prevent me from being caught. You… well, no matter. What more can they do to you, string you up?”
She patted me on the shoulder and slid her arm away. I could hear movement, but afraid to drag my eyes from an imagined sun, now set, did not seek her out.
“What do you do there?”
“I am making myself ship shape.”
A candle burst to life on my left and floated out into the garden, an ethereal being. Below this, and guided by it, another shape formed; a corset… with legs, and arms… not that I knew what a corset was before that day, but I knew what was not visible.
“Where is your dress?”
“That thing is too cumbersome for a captain on a treasure hunt. Come on, and do not forget the shovel.”
I followed the meagre glimmer of light Bess had prepared. The garden, mere shadows was devoid of colour, swelling and subsiding as if the ocean beneath a watchful moon. Where its smell had soothed me an hour before, each movement filled me with suspicion. Our journey proved mercifully short, but the destination seemed uncertain.
“What is this place, Bess?”
“The tomb of a king.” Her candle shone down on the slab that capped his existence. “Time for you to dig, sailor.”
She held the candle aloft. I scraped away at the edges of the slab until it was clear of growth, mostly moss and lichen. Bess pointed to a chipped edge. “I’ve been wanting to lift this for ages. My brothers all developed bouts of poultry, and this is a task for two men. The minds I can match, but the muscle is lacking. Lift it up, William, and I will help you slide the slab across.”
I imagined the curses that lay buried here, but I knew not of this king. Nor did I think he existed. Why should he be here, of all places?
The blade of the shovel did little to shift the King’s stone, save buckle under the weight. Bess watched on, eager for me to lift the accursed slab. I slid the shovel out and used its handle in the hole where the stone had been chipped. The gravestone shifted.
“That’s it, William, you have it now. Lift!”
The stone did not rise, but it did slide, perhaps a foot, opening a void where there used to be solid ground. Bess knelt at the edge and lowered her candle inside, almost blowing it out with her sigh. The bones she required were not obvious.
“You will have to climb inside.”
Her plan seemed sound, but the mere idea sent shivers up the back of my neck. She looked up at me with those eyes, so boyish in the morning, those of a girl so late at night. I knew it was my duty to serve the ship, so I took a deep breath and volunteered.
“Step aside, Bess. Hand me the candle once I am inside.”
I kept her candlelight to my face and slid feet first into the hole. Chin on the edge between quivering hands, my feet dangled, with no sense of a bottom for my soles to land upon. Bess hovered over me, whispering a prayer for the martyrs offering a candle in exchange. Her face showed signs of uncertainty for the first time; not the hour for her nerves to show.
The candle within reach, I tried to grab onto it. My remaining hand slipped, and I dropped into the grave. Bess screamed. Visions of an endless void filled my mind as I fell, but my path did not reach the initial sweep of his Hell. Either he had the design wrong or this was not the domain of Satan.
I had rediscovered my box, without the carriage, without the horses’ hooves, and I felt myself shrinking into the earth, being sucked into the walls, as I had the box.
Her hand reached into the hole, enveloped by the echo of her voice. She delivered me the candle. I reached up and took it with one hand, while crossing myself with the other. A new fear crept up my spine, as if I was not alone, and I felt the need of a third hand to wield a weapon of some kind, any kind.
“What can you see?”
There was only the hole and this light. “A candle.”
“Behind you. What can you see behind you?” The adventure Bess had designed was now devoid of humour, the bravado I had possessed, lost.
“I do not wish to look.”
“Enough!” The wretched girl would wake the dead. I turned, my candle held low to the ground for fear the spectre would blow it out. The bones she desired did not materialize, but the tomb was not empty. Two bundles, wrapped in calfskin, lay at my feet. I crouched, my eyes searching the gloom, while my fingers fumbled with the first bundle.
“What are you doing down there? Where are my bones?”
“There are none, but there is a…” I unraveled the calfskin and lowered my eyes, “…a book.”
“A what? Are you delirious? Has Father spent too much of the day on your study that you now imagine you are still in the library?”
I lowered the candle to the parchment. The words were plain, The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. I opened the manuscript and discovered what appeared to be a tale.
“What king did you say lay down here?”
“Richard the third.”
“Well, he certainly left his mark.” I wrapped the book in its skin and reached out for the corner of the second bundle. It did not slide easily, as if its master were clinging on for dear life. I raised the candle. There were bones, stretching out to the bundle, clutching it with an accusing finger. A scream welled within me, but not before my arm lifted involuntarily, revealing the creature’s crooked spine and his leering grin. My cry of fear became a strangulated gargle as something latched onto my throat, pinning me to the earthen wall. I hung there gasping for breath, until it dragged me up the cut of the grave, the candle lost to the monster, who seemed to have waxed lyrical long before I was born.
“What do you think you’re doing down there? Have you no respect for the dead? Is this how they brought you up in the North? Speak, boy, speak.”
I had no words that had not paled in the aura of the spectre in the grave.
“Has the King severed your tongue with His knighthood, or do you go searching below for treasure, William? You cannot steal a crown from this King. It has been passed on, nigh on a century ago. We have endured five Tudors since Richard’s time, and we have a new Church. Do you know what you do, boy?”
Robert’s words gushed out of his grizzled chops with the spit of a Spaniard. Bess stood shivering in the lamplight he had brought, hugging her disposed dress to the corset, unseen by a man’s eyes before this day.
“I… he… it’s…”
“I would have your head, except I know this be the Miss put you up to it. Perhaps I will return you to the grave, and give the king his due. His attempt at knighting you may slip across your neck and save my temper.” He prodded me in the chest, turning me away from Bess and her uncovered form. “There is no digging to be done in this garden. It has been grown wild to protect the graves of the Greyfriars. Do we see eye to eye, boy? Man to man?” I nodded. “Good, as you will soon be one, and you have more with which to concern yourself than a King who could not defend himself. Get inside, the pair of you, and brush off the clothes your cousin was good enough to give you, where your father could not.”
Bess had the dress over her head, pulling it down to reveal a smile, as Robert replaced the stone and shovelled dirt over the plot. I understood. I had revealed the treasure, solved the mystery her brothers had refused to acknowledge, sated her desire and discovered something new. We would be fast friends, despite the dress.
Fear. I now understood several variations on the theme. That it did not permeate my existence at Wygston’s House came as a surprise. I sat up in the rafters of the barn watching the men of the house complete their chores. Each was hardened, gruff, and tight at the lip, yet I had been welcomed by all.
Robert was clay in Bess’ hands, which served my continued adventures well. They seemed to amuse him in subtle ways. He never afforded me a smile, but he would often turn his gaze or leave unexpected treats on the cobbled floor of the barn, knowing we were aloft. I eyed his most recent treats greedily as his shadow shrunk into the garden.
Bess saluted me from a distant beam as I coiled a rope about my wrist. I swung out into the rectangular shape of sunlight the open doors created, prepared to swing until my feet found the floor of the barn. She had other designs. Her dress dropped to the floor, a distraction for me, and she leapt out into the void, a perfect swan dive, her figure framed by her corset. She floated down, the arc of a diver, her rope tied to an ankle. I swung towards the cobbles, a pendulum, my eyes on the prize, as the bones of her corset scraped the floor. She snaffled Robert’s treats on the first pass, the momentum swinging her up and onto the beam where I had launched my descent.
“What are you doing down there, William?”
“One day you will misjudge the length of that rope.”
“Then Robert’s treats will be all yours and you will have no one to play with.” She tossed an apple from the cache down to me. Bess was rarely without a smile. It framed her day as she discovered new words and phrases, it brightened her brother’s every meal, and I would swear it added serenity to her daily swan dives.
I bit into her apple, but did not climb back up to her, as I did most days. The sun was setting somewhere out beyond the garden and drew me to it. Our first adventure together still resonated. The fever she had instilled in me burned deep. Dormant during the day, the night brought on a change in me. I stepped out into the garden.
The sweep of Bess’ next dive ruffled the fashionable fringe I swept off my forehead hourly. She touched down lightly beside me, her bare feet propelling her a few steps ahead. I walked on, but she turned and poked her forefinger into my chest.
“No, William. Robert has forbidden it.”
“Robert rewards us for breaking many of the rules your Father sets. Why is this any different?”
“It is a King’s grave you wish to steal from. This is not Father’s horse, or Maisie’s cooking.”
“I will tell you what is down there, a skeleton with a hunched back.”
“You cannot know that.”
“I know what I saw, Bess. You may call it my imagination, my fear of the box and the darkness that dwells there, but I read that book, and I saw him smiling up at me. His neck was crooked. No head lies at such an angle, and no back curves as a serpent like his did. I swear on everything that is dear to me...”
She held her hand up to my mouth. “What could be dearer to you than your own life?”
“You, Bess.” The thought had never occurred to me, yet it slipped from my lips as a foal would from a mare, landing on all fours, to gallop away with itself. “I swear on your life that I will dig that plot up and read the words inscribed there.”
“All you will read there is a curse: a plague on both our lives. I want you to promise, promise me, William.” She grabbed my finger and raised it up to my chest. “Promise me you will never enter that tomb. You said you would do anything for me, so promise me this, promise!”
“Good. Now cross yourself, and swear an oath to the Lord, our Father.”
I traced Christ’s symbol on my chest and spoke the words. “I swear.”
She threw her arms around my neck and whispered in my ear. “Thank you. What would I do without you, William? What would I do if you were cursed and taken away from me, into damnation?” She pulled away as quickly as she had latched on, searching for inspiration in the tiles at our feet, before strolling off between the flowers, and teasing a bumble bee to land on the back of her hand.
I followed, as I had for a year. No other member of the house matched our age, all considerably older. I understood her lingering loneliness; so many to talk to, so few with which to converse. I often wondered whether the eyes of the household followed our paths through the garden in the evening. Bess was so often sans dress here, her one time of the day when she could avoid becoming the woman they desired her to be.
“Bess, why do they call the barn Heyrick’s?”
“After another cousin, John Heyrick. He bought this land, the old Greyfriars. I suppose they could call it Greyfriars Barn, but they already have a street named for them, and the barn will not be lodging any monks while Queen Bess sits on the throne.”
She dropped to her knees and I sensed a new game was afoot. A finger, poked through a cascade of snapdragons, highlighted the subject matter. Her brother, Henry, ran towards the barn, and he was not alone.
Bess mouthed two words, come on, and scampered off along the path. She did not head towards the barn door, where the spider spun its web each night. The barn had other secrets and we had explored them all. I knew where she was headed, to the far wall, which faced the morning sun. A door had been placed high up by the rafters, for goods and feed to be hoisted through. The actual entrance to the loft could only be accessed from the inside, unless one managed to shimmy up the pulley rope.
Bess pulled herself up, hand over hand, a coil about her foot, as I held the rope taut. Once she was up, my task proved more difficult. The rope slithered beneath me, grounded to naught but the wind. Fortunately, our adventures had made me strong and I hoisted myself up beside her quicker than either of us expected. She held a finger up to her lips, and then beckoned me on.
I crawled in after her, across a beam splattered with pigeon dung, and hung with webs. Fragments of insects clung to the spider traps, yet they spared our path, so well known to them. Bess crept on, a mouse seeking the grain of adventure.
Voices rose up to us, a man and a woman, Henry and Hermione Sutton, a local lass I had seen at church. Bess stationed us above their hideaway; they were wedged between horse stables and a hay store. The couple were arguing, or so it seemed.
“Your father will not accept me, Henry.”
“Why should I care what he thinks?”
“I care.” Hermione slapped his hands away and turned her back on him. He wrapped his arms about her waist and pulled her close. His lips caressed her neck and her head lolled back. “You are a wicked lad, Henry Chettle. Would you lay me down in the day old hay there and soil my dress?”
He squeezed her tighter. Bess rolled her eyes and puckered her lips to thin air.
“The hay is fresh today, Hermione. I forked it in there myself.”
“And I suppose you will be wanting to fork me now?”
She wrenched herself from his grasp, turned on him, and waggled her finger at him. Hermione’s smile did not befit the action, and she seemed to know this. Hitching up her dress, she threw herself back into the hay. Henry dived in after her, his head landing between her legs, where it stayed.
“Can he breathe down there, Bess?”
“Oh, he can breathe alright, while she pants and moans and screams; if she is anything like my other brother’s wife.”
The description Bess offered was played out to perfection, as if the couple were on a players’ stage, acting for Queen Bess, who feigned to be a Captain. She clamped her hands to her ears. Henry seemed equally confounded. Surfacing from beneath his mistress’s dress, he relived himself of his breeches and threw himself upon her. The screaming ceased.
“Well, he seems to have plugged that hole.”
“No, William, he has discovered another, and this is a most interesting change of fortune.” Bess leant out over the couple, taking in every detail of their flailing limbs, while coiling a rope about her wrist. “Care for a closer look?”
Whatever the two were doing now, I could see it well enough from the rafters, but Bess fed out her rope. She tested her knots, stood up on the beam, and she leapt. A perfect swan dive. Hermione screamed. Her fingers, scraping down Henry’s shirt back a moment before, pointed towards the rafters.
“Henry!” Hermione threw her partner off, gathered her skirts, and scurried from the barn.
Bess completed her dive, just above her brother’s flushed features. He swatted her away, before scampering after Hermione, his breeches dangling about his hips. For the first time on Bess’ makeshift ship, I understood what it meant to be breached.
My companion swung across the hay, let loose her rope, and landed as softly as Hermione had several screams before. I hoisted up the rope and swung down after her, landing in the hay where her brother had lain. Bess’ chest heaved with mirth.
“Why do you laugh?”
“You do not know?” She shook her head. “Close your eyes, Northerner. Has no one told you what men and women do at night, when the lamps are extinguished?”
“Of course. They sleep, like you and I.”
She laughed again, but her heartiness subsided. “Close your eyes, William.”
I felt her hand on my chest, and her hair, wilder today than usual, tickled my nose. Her lips brushed my cheek, which burned for no reason I could muster.
“How did that feel, William?”
I barely understood her whisper as she nuzzled her face in my ear and left the mark of her wet lips there as well.
“When were you last kissed?”
I remembered my mother, but her touch did not feel like this. I could not answer, opening my eyes instead, to find Bess hovering over me, a Cyclops, wetting her lips with a tongue I could not remember ever seeing.
“Close your eyes, William. A boy needs to taste this before he becomes a man.”
The touch of her lips on mine was moist, soft, filled with her breath and her ideas, but it did not linger. I opened my eyes again, and she was there, searching out my reaction. I pulled her closer, so our lips touched again. The moment was brief.
My words were lost in her lips, my fingers in the curls of her auburn locks, her arms about my neck. I did not understand the moment, but I understood her brother’s fascination with Hermione.
Bess rolled away, her arm tucked beneath my head, her eyes a wonder, chest heaving in her bodice. She followed my eyes down and smiled. Her free hand pulled at the laces on her clothing, ripping at the cord, without success.
“Feel free to assist me, kid sir.”
I had seen her struggle for breath in this infernal contraption before, but never to this extent.
“Why do you tie them so tight?”
“So I am more of a boy for you.”
“I think I prefer you as a girl.”
“So do I.”
The bodice gave. The flesh Bess hid more abundant than I could have imagined. I found my lips drawn to them, without thinking why. She grabbed at my hair, pressing my head down to her.
“You are all I think about, William.”
She had consumed me as well, but never like this. Never in my imagination, which ran wild most days when Bess kept close company. The sensations heightened as she whispered, breathless, to a willing conspirator.
“I can feel you, William. It swells like an armpit with the plague, but will it last as a more seasoned mast would?”
Her legs enveloped me and she writhed against me, as Hermione had Henry, and she found her lips on mine again. I wanted to explore her as we had the garden, to understand the sensations tingling through every hair follicle. Where had they come from, and why? She grappled at my breeches, her brother’s movements fresh in my mind. Bess did not scream or moan, she sighed, with every new touch.
I discovered the last of her external barriers. Beneath, a warmth I had not expected. The place seemed so uninviting, so smothering, yet I wanted to know that place... I desired it. I found my way to it as she moaned my name.
“William, no...” She clasped my face between her hands. “No, William. I am so sorry, but not like this. Not like her.”
She covered her chest and pulled the laces tight.
I rolled away.
Bess ran off, into the night.
Swollen with guilt, I hid my embarrassment. I had carried the moment too far. I had betrayed her confidence, and lost my best friend.
Robert closed the door behind me as I trudged inside Wygston’s House. His nightly tirade, regarding my soiled clothes, eluded him. Did he know what I had done? Had Bess told him? I found my bed quickly. Ignoring the basin set out for me and the clean bed clothes.
A tear rolled down the side of my face, one I would have wiped away in her presence. We were ship mates, but she had that bursting bust line and the other place. If she were a boy...?
I remembered my scriptures and slapped my face. I preferred her as a girl, this writhing, enveloping, kissing creature. I slapped myself again. I had heard stories of monks and their flagellants. Perhaps I could fashion one for myself. I slapped myself again.
“And do not blaspheme, William, or I will be forced to slap you myself.” Bess crawled in beside me. It was not the first time, but before this moment there had always been a space between us, and maps or plots of some kind. She had never held my head so close to her chest and caressed me so, and I had never felt...
She wiped my face of the tears. “Do not shed these over me, William.”
“I cannot help it. I thought I had lost you, and... and the thing is there again.”
“I know, I can feel it.”
“Is there something wrong with me, Bess?”
“Has it not swollen like that before this day?”
“I... I dare not tell. Will your father evict a man so plagued?”
“No, William. Not if we ask him the appropriate question first.”
I sat upright. The mere thought of admitting my disorder to her father anathema. She stroked my chest. Was my heart about to burst? Is this the punishment God had bestowed on me? Her eyes were a study in fascination, as if I were a spectral being, unseen by her until this moment. What was I, if not her William? What was she, if not my Bess?
The touch proved gentle, yet her hand forced me down to my pillow. Her head followed, nestling in beside mine. A finger traced the tears I had shed and I turned to face her. She smiled. Not the broad, light-encompassing feature usual for Bess. This quivered at the corner of her mouth with uncertainty.
“Will there ever be another for you, William?”
“How could there be? Have you not always been my Bess?”
“I have, and I will always, for if Bess I be, then Will I am.” Her lips on my cheek did not stir me within as she had earlier. I felt relief in her touch and in the words that followed. “My Father loves you, Will. I know he will accept you as I have, if you accept me.”
“Then I am off.”
She rose from the bed, but I grabbed her arm. “Do you run from me again?”
“I must tell the world of my love for you, William, and my Father must be the first to share my joy. You will have a lifetime. If I remain here with you until dawn, I will be wont to fling open the window and shout my love to the world.”
Before I could speak, her lips met mine. I can still feel them there. The first moment she was truly mine. I released my grip and she skipped from the room, more a girl than she had ever been, yet blossomed into a woman.
I did not wish her to return. She always would, that much I understood, even if other sensations from the day were beyond my comprehension. Another tear traced its way from the corner of my eye, its journey as smooth as my youth. It remained untouched, as did sleep, my head filled with the possibilities of a life with my Bess, too full to slip into dreams. There was little room for unrequited imagination on such a day, everything seemed possible.
The morning sun greeted my bleary eyes, ready to invite Bess in again, as they had every day for a year. I rolled out of bed, too exhausted to greet the exuberance associated with the day. My evening basin of rose water, now chill, heightened my senses as I immersed my head. Venturing to open my eyes, I studied the bowl as a fish, the freshness of the water relieving the swelling of a night without sleep. I latched onto the bowl with both hands and raised it as I lifted my head, dousing my entire body. I shuddered; awake, from the back of my neck, down my spine to the protrusion, which seemed quite unhappy with the shock of the cascade.
“You will have your day, my friend, if I understand the purpose of your morning salute.”
Dried off and clothed, I heard the manor stir. It was a new day, with a new adventure; the love of Elizabeth Chettle. I stormed through the upper floor, room after room, hidden panel by wood-framed door, taking the spiral staircase two, sometimes three, steps at a time.
Richard Chettle sat at his desk as I burst into his library. He was expecting me, much as I had hoped. His smile buoyed my boyish ambitions. I skipped to attention at the edge of his reading seat.
“Sit, William. I have been expecting you these many hours. Your patience impresses me. You hold yourself well compared to my Bess.”
Words exploded in my mouth, their form uncertain, my tongue unwilling to tackle them. I remained silent, my fingers clawing at my knees. Chettle continued.
“I have thought of you as a son ever since you joined us here in Leicester, William. I will always think of you as a son. It seems, however, that Bess sees you less like a brother as the weeks pass, and more as a... um, suitor. Does she have your intentions clear?”
“She does, sir.”
“Very well, I am glad there is no misunderstanding. You know, William, men rarely marry for love. The tales of minstrels lead we ordinary men astray. Marriage is a convenience of fortune more often than should be the case. Love is something only a few are privileged to enjoy, and I certainly was for a short time. I could hope for nothing less with my only daughter. Do you feel the same about her?”
“Yes, sir.” The words were deliberate, yet delivered with a dry mouth. I had not considered them before this moment, but no more natural response did I ever utter.
“And there it is. Was it as sudden a realization for you, as it was for her?”
“I think I have always known, I just did not understand.”
“Then it is done, my boy.”
If I had breathed since I sat down, I did not remember doing so. This breath, and his words, filled me with as much joy as Bess’ words had the night before.
Robert entered with a tray, which he placed before my adopted father. Master Chettle flicked through the letters delivered without opening any, yet he looked up at the servant as if something was missing.
“Stay, my loyal friend.”
Robert obeyed, and I stood, deeming there to be private business afoot that did not concern me.
“If I may, I would like to see Bess, sir.”
He scrunched the topmost letter into a ragged ball.
“Bess is not here, William.”
I could not remember a day in the past year when Bess was not in residence at Wygston’s House.
“I do not understand you, sir.”
“You are not supposed to, my boy.”
“When will she return?”
Richard Chettle had a most direct manner, but his eyes dropped to the desk. His hands, so particular in the way they laid out his papers and letters, fumbled through the pile before him. I was certain he had read their labels earlier, yet he seemed to be eyeing them again, one by one. He did not look at me as he spoke.
“Bess will not be coming back, William.”
“But... we were to be...”
“There will be no union between the two of you.”
The ploy of avoiding the word in question did not escape my attention. It was the first ‘M’ word in my life considered an unmentionable. Some thought this one a life sentence, a heightened existence other ‘M’ words did not always attain. I slammed my fists on her father’s desk, his office hemming me in like the box that brought me here.
“She said-” Robert had me by the arm before I could finish.
“Shall I take the Master to his room?”
“No, Robert. Let the boy vent. His words will not pass these walls.”
“Why?” I shook off the servant’s hand. “What do you intend to do with me? Why will I not leave this room?”
Chettle smiled. “You will leave this room, William. I promised your father I would protect you, but I also made a vow to protect my Bess.”
“I have that promise on my life.”
“Keeping an oath was something dear to your father, and while I am pleased you carry this trait in your heart, this will be one promise you cannot keep.”
“Am I so abhorrent? Have I been such a chore to keep?”
He shook his head, shuffled his letters, and stood. I backed away, fearing for my life, but he approached me with words. “You have been a true joy to teach, second only to Bess... my Bess, William. If things had been different... if the world was not what it is...”
I was taken aback by his glistening eyes, ripe to overflow.
“What is this world of which you speak?”
“Your, world, William. One very different to the one we Chettles call home.”
“How is this possible? Do I not live in the same space and eat the food you do?”
“Perhaps,” he reached out and took hold of my shoulders, “but you are a Catholic, my boy.”
I sunk back into the chair. This was a Protestant kingdom; one where the Pope could not intervene above the word of the Queen. Yet I had attended the State Church every Sunday with the Chettles. How could this be? The question did not pass my lips, but it must have been obvious in my eyes.
“You were born a Catholic, William. As was I, and my cousin, your father. However, I am a recusant, like many under the rule of Good Queen Bess.”
“Then I will become a recusant.”
He shook his head. “I made a promise to your father, an oath, and you understand the importance of such things now. Most men would die for a cause.”
My head sagged a little more, the room was becoming smaller. “This cannot be.”
Chettle nodded to Robert, who left the room, throwing the lock upon his exit. My eyes shot towards the secret panel Bess and I had so often used.
“Henry stands guard through that passage, William.” He sat down and leant back in his chair, contemplating the ceiling. I had become the world upon his shoulder. “Do you still remember your parents?”
“Bess has always been most forthcoming. Why do you think I allowed you to spend so much time together? I understand everything you have done since you arrived at the manor, all seen through her enthusiastic eyes. She is most particular about details, but then I think you would know that.” He leant forward. “Always be wary of the information you impart. Details that can be used against you, always will be. I intend to send you to France, to a seminary college in Douai; to be among your own people. There you will learn what it is to be a Catholic in a Reformist world.”
He leant closer as the room shrunk a little more. This was not my world and there no longer seemed to be any space spare for me. My fate had been sealed by a promise, and I was to become a priest in a faith I did not remember.
“Your father was a most devout man, a man of firm morals, whose faith drove him. He was willing to sacrifice your fortune in the name of God, despite my council. Have you heard of the Rising the North, William?”
“No.” I feared I did not want to, but the choice was not mine to make.
“Well, that is an unhappy tale, of men wishing for the return of a Papist Queen, as England once had. I cannot blame your father for his beliefs. He honoured them, as I do mine. The Queen’s spies hunted every last conspirator, your father was one of the last to be cornered. Do you remember the box, William?”
I nodded without thinking. It was the one thing I wish I did not recall, and the thing closing in on me as he spoke.
“The idea of that particular container came from within this manor, delivered weeks before your actual escape, but intended to be used much sooner. Your time in there should have been much shorter. Are you aware what happened to your parents?”
I did not answer and closed my eyes for fear if I could see this man’s lips he would utter words untenable.
“Your parents were burned alive for their beliefs, William.”
“Burned alive in their own house.”
“The smoke from the fire must have been suffocating.”
My throat dried up as he spoke.
“I had suggested a hole for them to hide, or a passage to bypass the Queen’s guards. They refused to contemplate such ideas, but before they were martyred they did use the box.”
My chest felt as if it were filled with hot coals.
“They left the box in the cellar.”
“While they died somewhere up above.”
“Do not make me...”
“They left you in that box, alone, for a week.”