(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)
While we worry about the advance of ISIL DAESH, we do well to remember that England used to be in the grip of religious people who killed in the name of their god.
It is a gripping portrait of England beset by war. It is also a moving portrait of a man on the brink of madness.
It is narrated by a brooding, intermittently violent young man named Jacob who does not know himself. In flight from a murder and a brief, disastrous marriage, he joins Cromwell’s New Model Army, from which he and his new friend, Ferris, eventually go AWOL. It isn’t until halfway through the novel that Jacob realizes, and we realize, that the tension between the two men is sexual, and they embark on a torrid affair. Yet in the 1640s, the mild, accepting term “gay” had yet to be coined; bookshops didn’t have whole sections cheerfully devoted to “gay literature.” Rather, homosexuality was a hanging offense. Jacob and Ferris’ passionate, fractious relationship courts calamity.
In the seventeenth century, the English Revolution is under way. The nation, seething with religious and political discontent, has erupted into violence and terror. Jacob Cullen and his fellow soldiers dream of rebuilding their lives when the fighting is over. But the shattering events of war will overtake them.
A darkly erotic tale of passion and obsession,
The world of this “gay” novel is far removed from the comfortable modern one in which such books command their own section in bookshops. In Cromwellian England, homosexuality was a hanging offence, and the lovers’ fierce, obsessive relations are whetted by risk. Aptly, each man struggles for dominance over the other, much as royalist and parliamentary forces struggle for England.
After reading Psalm 115, which had been cited by Cromwell in his address to the troops before the assault on Basing, Jacob reflects on its meaning, “We were to leave them like unto their idols, utterly unable to see, hear, smell, touch, walk,” and then thinks, “I knew what it was to send a soul down into silence.”
If Jacob is “The Bad Angel,” Ferris personifies the good one, moderate and thoughtful, respectful of the feelings of others. Ferris hopes to teach Jacob the finer points of self-control and temperance, although Jacob is single-mindedly incapable of subtlety. Yet Ferris is himself seduced by Jacob’s dark desire until they are engaged in a constant struggle for dominance. Part love story, part exploration of the darkness at the heart of a man’s soul, this novel tackles the most difficult aspects of human nature, exposing the many sides of love/obsession. Engaged in a battle between Heaven and Hell, consumed by their endless erotic adventures, Jacob and Ferris’ humanity is stripped to its bare bones and the author dares the reader to flinch.
Ferris, however, is an atheist. It’s interesting to note that this long ago there were people who used religious language to describe their secular hopes to build a new Jerusalem.
The title comes from a Jewish story: Many years ago in Poland, there lived a rabbi who had a wife and three daughters. One day, the rabbi asks his children a powerful question: “How much do you love me?” His older daughters profess their love in gold and diamonds, but his youngest daughter, Mireleh, declares she loves her father the way meat loves salt. For this remark, she is banished from her father’s home.
Apparently, McCann was a schoolteacher when she wrote this novel, and used to get up at 5 a.m. every weekday to write a few more pages. As one reviewer said: There were times when I could almost smell the putridness of the battlefield, the fragrance of splendidly cooked game in Ferris’ Cheapside home and the filth of the sweaty, unwashed colonists as they vainly toiled away for their New Jerusalem.
On the morning we dragged the pond for Patience White, I bent so far down trying to see beneath the surface that my own face peered up at me, twisted and frowning. The three of us had churned up the water until it was half mud and spattered with flecks of weed before I knocked my foot against something loose and heavy that lolled about as we splashed. I tried to push it away from us, but too late.
‘It is she.’ Izzy’s lips were drawn back from his teeth.
I shook my head. ‘That’s a log.’
‘No, Jacob – here, here-‘
He seized my hand and plunged it in the water near his right leg. My heart fairly battered my ribs. I touched first his ankle, then wet cloth wound tight around something which moved.
‘I think that’s an arm,’ Izzy said quietly.
‘I think it is, Brother.’ Feeling along it, I found cold slippery flesh, which I levered upwards to the air. It was certainly an arm, and at the end of it a small hand, wrinkled from the water. I heard My Lady, standing on the bank, cry out, ‘Poor girl, poor girl!’
Zebedee reached towards the freckled fingers. ‘That’s never – Jacob, do you not see?’
‘Quiet.’ I had no need of his nudging, for I knew what we had hold of. Ever since we had been ordered to drag the pond I had been schooling myself for this.
‘You forget the rope,’ called Godfrey from the warm safety of the bank.
I looked round and saw the end of it trailing in the water on the other side of the pond, while we floundered. ‘Fetch it, can’t you?’ I asked him.
He pursed his lips and did not move. A mere manservant like me must not speak thus peremptorily to a steward, though he were hanging by his fingernails from a cliff.
‘Be so kind as to fetch it, Godfrey,’ put in the Mistress.
Frowning, the steward took up the wet rope.
The pond at Beaurepair had a runway sloping down into it on one side, made in past times to let beasts down into the water. It was coated with cracked greenish mud, which stank more foully than the pond itself. We grappled, splashing and squelching, to drag the thing to the bottom of this slope, then Zeb and I crawled to the top, our shirts and breeches clinging heavily to us. Having forgotten to take off my shoes, I felt them all silted up. Izzy, who lacked our strength, stayed in the water to adjust the ties.
‘Pull,’ he called.
Zeb and I seized an end of rope each and leant backwards. Our weight moved the body along by perhaps two feet.
‘Come, Jacob, you can do better than that,’ called Sir John, as if we were practising some sport. I wondered how much wine he had got down his throat already.
‘Her clothes must be sodden,’ said Godfrey. He came over and joined Zeb on the line, taking care to stand well away from my brother’s dripping garments. ‘Or she’s caught on something-‘
There was a swirl in the water and a sucking noise. Izzy leapt back.
The body sat up, breaking the surface. I saw a scalp smeared with stiffened hair. Then it plunged forwards as if drunk, sprawling full length in the shallower waters at the base of the runway. I descended again and took it under the arms, wrestling it up the slope until it lay face to the sky. The mouth was full of mud.
‘You see?’ whispered Zeb, wiping his brow.
The corpse was not that of Patience Hannah White. Our catch was a different fish entirely: Christopher Walshe, late of this parish, who up to now had not even been missed.
‘He is the servant of Mr Biggin, Madam.’ Godfrey tried yet again, his beard wagging up and down. ‘One of the stableboys at Champains.’
The Mistress pressed her veiny hands together. ‘But why? Where is Patience?’
‘Not in the pond. Not in the pond, which is as good news as the death of this young man is sad,’ fluttered Godfrey. ‘Might I suggest, Madam, that it were good for you to lie down? Let me take the matter entirely in hand. I will send the youngest Cullen to Champains and Jacob shall lay out the body.’
My Lady nodded her permission and went to shut herself up in her chamber. Sir John, ever our help in time of trouble, made for the study where he had doubtless some canary wine ready broached.
My brothers walking on either side, I cradled the dead boy in my arms as far as the laundry, and there laid him on a table.
‘Directly I saw the hand, I knew,’ said Zeb, staring at him. He pushed back the slimy hair from Walshe’s face, and shuddered. ‘It must have been after the reading. Two nights, pickling in there!’
‘A senseless thing,’ said Izzy. ‘He went out the other way, we all of us waved him farewell.’
Zeb nodded. ‘And not in drink. Was he?’
‘Not that I saw,’ I said. ‘Unless you gave him it.’
Izzy and Zeb exchanged glances.
‘Well, did you?’ I challenged.
‘You know he did not,’ said Izzy. ‘Come lads, no quarrels.’
‘I have yet to say a harsh word,’ Zeb protested.
In silence we took off our filthy garments in the laundry and washed away the mud from our flesh. Izzy gasped in lifting the wet shirt over his head and I guessed that his back was paining him.
‘Thank God Patience was not in there.’ Zeb, drying himself on a linen cloth, shivered. ‘But this lad! Poor Chris, poor boy. Suppose we had not looked?’
‘You were wise to leave off your shoes. I fear mine are ruined,’ I said.
‘Dear brother, that is scarce a catastrophe here,’ Izzy replied. He found a basket of clean shirts and tossed one in my direction. ‘That’ll keep you decent until we can get back to our own chamber.’
‘Godfrey could have bidden Caro bring clothes down for us,’ said Zeb. ‘What are stewards for, if not to make others work?’
‘I would not have Caro see this,’ I said.
‘What, the three of us in our shirts?’ asked Zeb.
‘You tempt God by jesting,’ said Izzy. He limped over to the boy and stood a while looking at him. ‘Suppose it had been Patience? I would not be you in that case.’
Zeb started. ‘The Mistress doesn’t know, does she?’
‘No, but it is the first thing thought on if a lass be found drowned,’ Izzy replied.
Zeb considered. ‘But there were no signs – if I remarked nothing – if any man had the chance, that man was I-‘ He broke off, his cheeks colouring.
Izzy crossed the room and took him by the shoulders. ‘They can cut them open and look inside.’
‘Are we in a madhouse? Cut what? Look at what?’ I cried.
The two of them turned exasperated faces upon me.
‘Ever the last to know,’ said Zeb. ‘So Caro has told you nothing?’
‘Our brother has been hard at work, Jacob,’ said Izzy. ‘Patience is with child.’
So that was the key to their mysterious talk: Patience with child by Zeb. The great secret, taken at its worth, was hardly astonishing – I had been watching Zeb and Patience dance the old dance for some time – yet I was riled at not having been told.
‘Two days and not in the pond. She is run away for sure,’ said Zeb. ‘But why, why now?’
‘Shame?’ I ventured – though to be sure, shame and Patience White were words scarce ever heard together, except when folk shook their heads and said she had none.
‘She would not have been shamed. Zeb agreed to marry her,’ said Izzy.
‘What!’ I cried. ‘Zeb, you’re the biggest fool living.’
‘I like her, Jacob,’ protested my brother.
‘Oh? And would you like her for a sister?’
Zeb was silenced. What he liked, I thought, was the place between her legs, for what else was there? We would be all of us better off without Patience. It was impossible any should miss her braying laugh; for myself, I had always found her an affliction. She was Caro’s fellow maidservant and a mare long since broken in, most likely by Peter, who worked alongside us and was roughly of an age with Zeb. Patience and Peter, now there was a match: loud, foolish, neither of them able to read, neither caring to do so. I had a strong dislike to Peter’s countenance, which was both freckled and pimply and seemed to me unclean, yet I was obliged to admit that in many ways he showed himself not a bad-hearted lad, for he worked hard and was ready to lend and to share. I much preferred him to Patience, whose constant aim was to draw men in.
She had tried it once with me, when I was not yet twenty. Coming through the wicket gate with a basket of windfalls from the orchard, I found her in my way.
‘That’s a heavy load you’ve got,’ she said.
‘Move then,’ I told her. ‘Let me lay it down,’ for my shoulders were aching.
‘An excellent notion,’ Patience said, ‘to lay a thing down on the grass.’
She had never before fastened on me, and though I knew her even then for a whore I was slow to take her meaning. My coat was off for the heat, and Patience put her fingers on my arm.
‘You could give a lass a good squeeze, eh?’ She pressed my shoulder so that I felt her warm palm through my shirt. ‘I’m one that squeezes back. I wager you’ll like it.’
‘I wager I won’t,’ I said. ‘I’ve no call for the pox. Now let me through or you’ll feel my arm another way.’
For some time after that we did not speak, but servants must rub along somehow – they have enough to do coddling the whims of their masters – and besides, I think Izzy said something to soften her. Since then we had behaved together civilly, as our work required. Peter was come next, I was pretty sure, and had consoled her for Jacob; but she could never have engaged Zeb’s interest had there been a comelier woman in the house. There was Caro, of course; but Caro was mine.
Caro. Against Patience’s slovenly dress and coarse speech, my darling girl shone like virgin snow. Naturally, there were huffs and quarrels between the two.
‘She’s lewd as a midwife,’ Caro complained to me once. ‘Forever snuffling after us: does he do this, does he do that.’
But I was no Zeb. I treated Caro always with the respect which is due from a lover and never assumed the privileges of a husband. Thus I again thwarted Patience by my self-command.
Self-command was the unknown word to my brother, and could have put no brake on his doings. Foolish indulgence had ruined Zebedee. He was only four when Father died, and missed a guiding hand all the more in that his beauty tempted our mother to spoil him.
‘Zeb must go on with his lute,’ she announced, when it was clear we had scarce a hat between us. To be just, he played well, and looked well even when he played out of tune. We Cullen men are all like Sir Thomas Fairfax, dark-skinned to a fault, but the fault shows comely in Zeb because of his graceful make and his very brilliant eyes. I have seen women, even women of quality, look at him as if they lacked only the bread to make a meal of him there and then – and Zeb, not one whit abashed, return the look.
I lack his charm. Though I am like him in skin and hair, my face is altogether rougher and my eyes are grey. I am, however, the tallest man I know, and the strongest – stronger than Isaiah and Zeb put together. Not that Izzy has much strength to add to Zeb’s, for my elder brother came into the world twisted and never grew right afterwards. ‘Izzy gave me such a long, hard bringing to bed,’ my mother said more than once, ‘you may thank God that you were let to be born at all.’
Now Zeb was to go to Champains, as being the best rider and also the most personable of the menservants. I did not begrudge him the job, for I rode very ill and was generally sore all the next day. My own task was humbler, but not without its interest: to clean the boy’s body for his master to see it, and for the surgeon. This cleaning should rather be a woman’s work, but I was glad to do it for otherwise, Patience being gone, it would fall entirely upon Caro. In the chamber we dressed according to our allotted duty, Zeb taking a well-brushed cassock and some thick new breeches for riding, myself pulling on an old pair over a worn shirt.
‘Just wait, we will be suspected for this,’ Zeb said to me, combing out his hair. ‘You especially.’
‘You quarrelled with him that night.’
‘I wouldn’t call it a quarrel,’ I protested. ‘We disagreed over his pamphlets, what of that?’
‘Jacob is right,’ said Izzy. ‘Hardly a drowning matter.’
Zeb ignored him. ‘It will put off your betrothal, Jacob.’
Izzy turned to me. ‘Take no notice. He wants only to tease, when he should be examining his accounts before God.’
‘What!’ Zeb was stung in his turn. ‘Patience isn’t dead, nor did I send her away. I heard her news kindly, sour though it was.’
‘So why would she leave?’ I pressed him.
He shrugged. ‘Another sweetheart?’
Izzy and I exchanged sceptical looks. Like all beautiful and fickle persons, Zeb aroused a desperate loyalty in others.
‘Are you not afraid for her, with a boy found drowned?’ Izzy demanded.
Zeb cried, ‘Yes! Yes! But what can fear do?’ He buttoned up the sides of his cassock. ‘Best not think on it.’
‘Think on your duty to her,’ said Izzy.
Zeb grinned. ‘Let us turn our thoughts rather to Jacob’s betrothal. Now there everything is proper. A little bird tells me, Jacob, that Caro has been asking the other maids about the wedding night.’
‘Away, Lechery,’ said Izzy, ‘and mend your thoughts, lest God strike you down on the road.’
Swaggering in boots, Zeb departed for the stables.
‘Talking of my wedding night and his friend dead downstairs! He’s as shameless as his whore,’ I fumed.
‘He is always thus when he is unhappy.’ Izzy spoke softly. ‘His weeping will be done on the road to Champains.’
As a child I was afraid of the laundry with its hollow-sounding tubs. When later I courted Caro I did it mostly in the stillroom amid the perfume of herbs and wines, or – in fine weather – in the rosemary maze. The room where Walshe lay had a smell of mould and greasy linen, and as a rule I avoided it, not a difficult thing to do for men’s work rarely brought them there.
I dragged off the boy’s wet clothing and arranged him naked on the table. The silt in his mouth looked as if, stifled in mud, he had tried to gorge on it. I let his head droop from the table-end into a bucket of water and swabbed out his mouth with my fingers before squeezing more water through his hair.
When I bent down to check the ears for mud, I saw the nape of his neck strangely blackened, so rolled him onto his side. What I found gave me pause. Great bruises darkened the back of his neck, his thighs and the base of his spine, as if blood was come up to the skin. Perhaps all drowned men were thus marked. Pulling him face upwards again, I then worked down the body to his feet, which were wrinkled and colourless, hateful to the touch. As I went, I dried him on linen sheets found in one of the presses. Caro would be angry with me for that but she must bear it patiently unless she wanted to lay out the corpse herself. That I would not permit, for the thought of her tears unnerved me.
My thoughts being troubled, I was glad to work alone. The turning and lifting came easy to a man of my strength, for he might be sixteen and was as small and light as I was big and heavy. Little warrior. He lay utterly helpless beneath my hands.
‘Where is your knife?’ I asked.
The skin of his breast shone pale as cream where the flesh was unhurt. I stroked it and ran my hand down one of the thighs. So slender, so unformed. No glory in dispatching such. And no defence to say the Voice had urged me on.
Going to the stillroom for bandages, I found some ready torn. First I packed the boy’s fundament, stuffing him tight. Next I bound up his jaw, and weighted down the eyelids with coins. He might as well be laid out for immediate burial, as there would be precious little for the surgeon to discover. Even a natural, I thought, could see what had done for this young man.
Christopher Walshe had been slit from above the navel to where his pale hair thickened for manhood at the base of the belly. The belly itself showed faintly green. The wound was deep, and, now I had rinsed it free of brownish water, a very clean and open one, for the blood had drained off into the pond like wine into a soup, leaving no scab or cleaving together of the flesh. Walshe had a boy’s waist and hips, without any padding of fat to take off the ferocity of the blade, which had pulled right through his guts. His ribs and shoulders were dappled, in places, with blue.
There would be more bruising around his feet and ankles. I examined them, and found long bluish marks which might give the surgeon a hint, unless it were concluded that he had scuffled foot to foot with someone.
I put my finger into the wound. The edges curved a little outwards like the petals of a rose, and after an initial tension my finger slid in full length. He was cold and slippery inside. I withdrew the finger and wiped it on my breeches.
In the scullery every servant, even my gentle Izzy, was grown surly. That was a sign I recognised and had interpreted before I was given the news.
‘Sir Bastard is come home,’ said Peter, who had not been present at the pond-dragging and now stared sulkily at the table.
I groaned. Sir Bastard, or to give him his proper name, Mervyn Roche, was the son and heir and so disliked as to make Sir John popular in comparison.
‘Will he stay long?’ I asked. Much as I hated Mervyn, this once I was glad enough to talk of him, for I dreaded giving a report of the boy’s wounds and seeing the horrified faces of my fellows.
‘Who knows?’ Izzy scratched with his fingernail at a crust of candlewax on Sir Bastard’s coat. ‘Look at this – stained all over and he throws it at me, expects it spotless tomorrow.’
‘Why doesn’t he buy new? He has money enough,’ I said, lifting down the tray of sand.
‘Drinks it away, like father like son,’ said Peter. ‘He is awash already.’
‘Even his father doesn’t go whoring.’ I laid the first plate in the sand and began rubbing at it with my palm until there came a bright patch in the grey, then moved on so that the brightness spread. Usually I liked scouring pewter, but it would take more than a pleasant task to lift my mood with the weight that lay on me. And now Mervyn was in the house.
‘As the pamphlet said, scum rises to the top,’ I went on. It galled me to be a servant to such as he, lecherous, intemperate, devoid of wit or kindness, forever asking the impossible and, the impossible being done, finding fault with the work.
‘Sshh! No word of pamphlets,’ said Izzy.
At that instant Godfrey came into the room. ‘I have talked with both Master and Mistress,’ he announced.
‘And?’ asked Izzy.
‘They have promised to speak to him. Peter, it were better you did not serve at table. Jacob and I will be there.’
‘What’s this?’ I did not understand what was meant.
‘O, you don’t know,’ said Izzy. ‘Sir – ah – our young Master hit Peter in the face this morning.’
Peter turned the other side of his head to me. The eye was swollen.
‘I will not ask what for, since to ask supposes some reason,’ I said, and went on scouring.
‘Humility is a jewel in a servant,’ said Godfrey. ‘It is not for us to cavil at our betters.’
‘Or our beaters,’ the lad muttered.
‘To hear you talk,’ I said to Godfrey, ‘a perfect man were a carpet, soiled by others and then beaten for it.’
‘And hearing you,’ he returned, ‘it is clear you have had some unwholesome reading lately. Take care the Master does not catch you at it.’
‘How should that happen unless I left it lying in a wine jug?’
‘Jacob,’ said Izzy. ‘Get on with your work.’
Such impudent abuses as these Roches put on us, grew out of that slavery known as The Norman Yoke. That is to say, the forefathers of these worthless men, being murderers, ravishers, pirates and suchlike, were rewarded by William the Bastard for helping him mount and ride the English people, and they have stayed in the saddle ever after. The life of the English was at first liberty, until these pillaging Barons brought in My Lord This and My Lady That, shackling the native people and setting them to work the fields which were their own sweet birthright. Now, not content with their castles and parks, the oppressors were lately begun to enclose the open land, snatching even that away from the rest of us. Roche, this family were called, and is that not a Frenchy name?
Though Caro thought our Mistress not bad, I had noted how little My Lady, as well as her menfolk, had trusted us since the war began. When they thought we were listening their talk was all of wickedness and its punishment. The King has Divine Right on his side, one would say, and another, New Model, forsooth. New noddle, more like, and there would be loud laughter. Then Sir Bastard might put in his groatsworth, how the rebels were half fed (for they thought it no shame to rejoice in such hunger), half drilled, half witted, so that the victory could go only one way.
But we heard things from time to time, for all that the Roches kept mum or even spoke in French before our faces – indeed, so stupid was Mervyn that he had been known to do so before Mounseer Daskin, the cook, who could speak better French than any Roche had spoken since 1066 – and we took heart. Servants came to visit along with their masters, and whatever their sympathies they brought news from other parts of the country. We were on our guard, however, in speaking with these, for there were those who made report of their fellows.
‘It is said Tom Cornish is an intelligencer,’ Izzy told me one day. This Cornish had once been a servingman, and was now risen in the world – too high for any honest means. He farmed land on the far side of Champains, and his name was a byword throughout the country for a dedication to the Royalist cause bordering on that religious madness called enthusiasm, and commonly supposed only to afflict those on the Parliamentary side.
‘You recall the servants who were whipped?’ Izzy went on.
I nodded. Not a year before, two men from Champains had been tried for being in possession of pamphlets against the King.
‘Well,’ Izzy went on, ‘it was Cornish brought them to the pillory.’
‘Impossible,’ I answered. ‘Say rather Mister Biggin.’
Biggin was the master of the accused men, and had made no move to defend them.
‘Him also. But the one they cried out against was Cornish,’ Izzy insisted. ‘Gentle Christians both. More shame to Biggin, that he let them suffer.’
‘You forget they had a serious fault,’ said I.
‘Choosing their own reading. But Izzy, Cornish does not live at Champains. How would he know of it?’
‘Tis said, he fees servants. Most likely, some who come here.’
It was not like Izzy to suspect a man without cause. I noted his words carefully, and I guess he spoke to the rest, for we were all of us exceedingly discreet.
Our masters were less so. Sir John, when in his cups, left his private letters lying about, and his son was alike careless. Mercurius Aulicus, the Royalist newsletter, appeared in the house from time to time; lately, we had noted with growing excitement, it was finding less and less cause to exult. Naseby-Fight, in June, had been followed by Langport, not a month later, and the half drilled half fed had triumphed in both. ‘The Divine Right,’ jeered Zeb, ‘seems sadly lacking in Divine Might.’
Izzy pointed out that the soldiers on both sides were much of a muchness, for though the Cavaliers prided themselves on their fighting spirit and high mettle, they had the same peasants and masterless men to drill as their opposites.
‘Besides, Sir Thomas Fairfax is a gentleman,’ he added, ‘and this Cromwell a coming fellow.’
Not that we were reduced solely to Mercurius Aulicus. Godfrey was right, I had found me some reading and was very much taken therewith, considering it not at all unwholesome.
It was begun a few months before, by chance. Peter went to visit his aunt who worked at Champains, and there met Mister Pratt, one of the servants, and had some talk with him.
‘Eight o’clock behind the stables,’ Peter whispered to me that night. I went there after the evening meal, along with my brothers.
Peter held out a sheaf of papers. ‘Here, lads, can you read these?’
Izzy took them and bent his head to the first one. ‘Of Kingly Power and Its Putting Down. Where had you these?’
I snatched at another. ‘Of True Brotherhood – printed in London, look.’
‘Will it do?’ asked Peter. ‘And will you read it me?’
‘We shall all of us read it,’ Izzy promised.
These writings became, in time, our principal diversion. After the first lot, they were brought after dark by ‘Pratt’s boy’, that same Christopher Walshe who later lay in the laundry, naked under a sheet.
It was our pleasure on warm evenings sometimes to take our work outside, behind the stables where Godfrey never went, Zeb and Peter drinking off a pipe of tobacco as part of the treat. There we would read the pamphlets. Printed mostly in London, they spoke of the Rising of Christ and the establishment of the New Jerusalem whereby England would become a beacon to all nations.
‘A prophecy, listen.’ Zeb’s eyes shone. ‘The war is to end with the utter annihilation of Charles the Great Tyrant and the Papist serpent – that’s Henrietta Maria.’
‘I know without your telling,’ I said.
‘Measures are to be taken afterwards. In the day of triumph, er, O yes here ’tis – The rich to be cast down and the poor exalted. Every man that has borne a sword for freedom to have a cottage and four acres, and to live free-‘
We all sighed.
‘There shall be no landless younger brothers, forced by the laws to turn to war for their fortunes, and no younger brothers in another sense neither, that is, no class of persons obliged to serve others merely to live.’
‘A noble project,’ said Peter.
At that time these writings were the closest any of us came to the great doings elsewhere, for at Beaurepair things went on much as they always had, save that the Master and Mistress were by turns triumphant and cast down. We had escaped the curse of pillage and its more respectable but scarce less dreaded brother, free quarter: no soldiers were as yet come near us. Sir John was too fond of his comfort to equip and lead a force as some of the neighbours had done, so he neglected to apply for a commission and his men were kept at home, to pour his drink.
In the reading of our pamphlets we servants were, for an hour or so, a little commonwealth. Though Peter and Patience could not read, the rest of us took turns aloud so that all might hear and understand the same matter at the same moment, and then fall to discussing it. Izzy had taught Caro her letters and she did her part very prettily, her low voice breathing a tenderness into every word she spoke. I would sit with my arm round her, warming to that voice and to the serious expression of her dark eyes as she, perhaps the least convinced of us all, denounced the Worship of Mammon.
‘So, Caro, the Golden Calf must be melted?’ Zeb teased her one time.
‘So the writer says,’ my love answered.
‘And the Roches levelled with the rest of us?’ he pressed. ‘What say you to that?’
Caro returned stubbornly, ‘I say they are different one from another. The Mistress-‘
‘The Mistress favours you, that’s certain,’ put in Patience, whose coarse skin was flushed from too much beer at supper.
‘And not unjustly,’ I said. ‘But what is favour,’ I asked Caro, ‘that you should take it from her hand? Why are not you rich, and doing favours to her? Surely God did not make you to pomade her hair.’
‘She deals kindly with me nonetheless,’ Caro retorted. ‘God will weigh us one by one at judgement, and she is clean different to Sir Bastard.’
‘That may be,’ I allowed, ‘but she trusts us no more than he does. Besides, we cannot put away one and not the other.’
‘If Mammon be pulled down,’ Izzy warned, ‘we must take care the true God be put in his place and not our own wanton desires – the God of simpleness, of truth in our speech and in our doings, the God of a brotherly bearing-‘
He paused, and I saw his difficulty. We Cullens were the only brothers present, and Zeb and myself were constantly at one another’s throats.
The night before Patience ran off, we spoke long on a pamphlet circulated by some persons who farmed land together. Young Walshe had but just brought it, and having some time free he stopped on for the talk – ‘Mister Pratt knows where I am,’ said he – and sat himself down between Zeb and Peter to get a share of their pipe. I thought him overfamiliar, even unseemly, passing his arm around Zeb’s waist, but Zeb liked him well and on that night he sat with his arm round Walshe’s shoulders, and laughed when the lad’s attempts to smoke ended in coughing, though it was he that paid for the tobacco. Patience lolled against Zeb on the other side, and a man would be hard put to it to say which fawned on my brother more, herself or the boy.
Our debate was not strictly out of the pamphlet, but grew out of something beside. The writers freely said of themselves that they shared goods and chattels, but it was rumoured of them that they had also their women in common and considered Christian marriage no better than slavery.
‘Does “women in common” mean that the woman can refuse no man?’ asked Patience, looking round at the men present. Except when she gazed on Zeb, her dismay was so evident that for a moment the talk was lost in laughter, not least at her sudden assumption of chastity. I laughed along with the rest, thinking meanwhile that she had nothing to fear from me. I took none of Zeb’s delight in women who fell over backwards if you so much as blew on them. In Caro I had settled on a virgin, and one whom I would not take to my bed until we had been betrothed.
‘Does it mean that men are held in common too?’ jested Izzy. ‘It seems to me that if no woman is bound to no man there can be no duty of obedience, and so a woman may as well court a man as a man a woman. So may the man refuse?’
Peter considered. ‘Obliged to lie down with all the women!’
‘For the sake of the community,’ said Zeb with relish.
‘But whose would the children be?’ asked my darling.
Zeb answered her, ‘The mother’s who had them.’
‘Fie, fie!’ I said. ‘The rights of a father cast away! Whoredom, pure and simple.’
‘Look here,’ urged Walshe. ‘It is set down, To be bound one to the other, is savagery.’
There was a pause. Everyone, Walshe included, knew I was soon to be espoused to Caro.
‘Am I then a savage?’ I asked.
‘Jacob, it was not Chris that said it,’ replied Patience. ‘He put their case only.’
The rest looked at me.
‘There would be incest,’ put in Izzy, laying his hand on my shoulder. ‘Jacob is right. Brother and sister, all unknowing.’
‘That happens now,’ said Peter. ‘And not always unknowing.’ Zeb looked up at once, seeming to search Peter’s face, but Peter did not observe him and went on, ‘There’s bastardy too, and many a man raising another’s son.’
Zeb ceased staring. The boy, catching my eye upon him, shrank like a woman closer to my brother’s side. I became aware of Izzy’s fingers kneading the back of my neck.
‘Bastardy there may be, but ‘twould be worse where they are,’ Patience insisted. ‘And what of old and ugly persons? None would have ’em!’ She gave her horrible honking laugh.
‘Those do not marry as it is,’ I said through gritted teeth.
Izzy shook his head. ‘Some do, and they have rights invested in the spouse’s estate and on their body. But in such a commonwealth none would live with them. They would be the worse for it.’
‘They might burn, but they wouldn’t starve,’ Peter said. ‘Which they do frequently now.’
‘You cannot get round the incest,’ said Izzy.
Caro said, ‘I want my own children,’ and blushed.
Zeb, sitting opposite her, tapped her foot. ‘Don’t you mean you want your own man? Want him all to yourself?’
‘Stop it,’ she hissed.
‘I shall call you sister,’ said Zeb, ‘and you can call him,’ he assumed a doting expression and spoke in a mincing, squeaky voice, ‘husband. O Husband, I’ve such an itch under my smock-‘
Peter whooped. I gave Zeb a kick that would afflict him with more than an itch.
‘Behold, a tiger roused!’ he shouted, eyes watering. Caro’s cheeks were inflamed. I kicked Zeb again and this time shut him up.
Through it all the boy watched me and said nothing. He had still not begged my pardon, and from time to time I let him see that I was also watching him.
‘Our talk grows foolish,’ said Izzy. ‘An unprofitable choice of reading, but we will do better next time.’ He got up and walked off in the direction of the house.
We were not often so rowdy, for though Zeb’s spirits were usually too high, he loved Izzy and would be quiet for him if not for me. Peter was coarse-minded, but never quarrelsome. A deal of interesting matter and many ideas came first to me in those talks, for example the thought of settling in New England.
Now the date of my betrothal to Caro was fast approaching, and Sir Bastard back among us, the Norman Yoke incarnate. I was no more safe from his blows and pinches than was Peter, my size being no bar to a craven who relied upon my not striking back. Had he and I been servants both, he would have run a mile rather than encounter with me. I did not want to serve him at dinner, for he would be too drunk to care what he did and in this condition he was at his most hateful. That Godfrey would be there was some comfort, for the brute was aware that My Lady listened to her steward more than to any other servitor. But what was My Lady, in that house? Those who should show a manly dignity were sunk into beasts – no, not beasts, for beasts are seemly among themselves, and have even a kind of society, whereas such degenerates as these desire only a bottle.
I pressed hard with the sand, polishing out the knife scratches in the pewter, scouring as if to wipe the Roches from the face of the earth. The burnished plates I stacked in neat piles, for I hated a slovenly workman. When I did a job I did it well, and Caro was the same: I loved her deft grace as she moved about the house. Had we the wherewithal we could have run an inn or shop together, for she was skilled with all manner of things and clever with money.
Not that I was marrying her for that. She seemed to me simply the likeliest girl I ever saw, with a sweet child-like face which gave a stranger no hint of her quick wit. She was good-humoured too, able to charm me out of my melancholy and wrath. Zeb had tried over the years to win her, and failed; I looked on, defeated in advance, until Izzy spoke to me one day.
There is another brother she prefers.
What, Izzy, is she yours?
No, Jacob, nor Zeb’s nor mine. Who does that leave?
At first I would not believe him. It had never fallen out that anyone, man or woman, preferred me to Zebedee. Then at Christmas we played a kissing game and I saw that she managed things so as to get in with me.
‘Forfeit,’ Izzy cried. ‘You must give Jacob a kiss.’
Her mouth was so soft and red that I longed to put mine against it, but was afraid lest I spoil my chances with some clumsiness.
‘Turn,’ she whispered, and tugged at my sleeve so that my back was between us and the company. I bent down and we kissed with open eyes, Caro’s utterly wide awake and innocent even as, unseen by the rest, she put the point of her tongue between my lips.
Afterwards Zeb asked, ‘Did she suck your soul out?’ and laughed; he told me all the company had seen me shake while kissing, and thus roused me to a blushing fit that lasted half an hour.
But I began to keep company with Caro. We had that talk which all lovers have, Why me, and Since when. She said I was a man and Zeb a boy, and during the kiss which followed her hand brushed against my body as if by chance. Like a fool, I spent days wondering did she understand what she had done to me.
Next to Caro, Patience showed cumbersome as a cow. Impossible, I thought, that she should hold Zeb, who was constantly seeking new pleasures. Whereas Caro, delectable Caro, should hold me for ever. More than once of late I had been woken at night by Izzy laughing and punching me, and when I asked him what was ado he would not tell.
‘Haste and get married,’ was all the answer he would give. Peter and Zeb, who shared the other bed (only Godfrey had a chamber of his own) laughed along with him. In the dark I blushed worse than before, for I suffered hot, salt dreams and had some idea of what I might have done.
I was slow with her. After Kiss Day, as I afterwards thought of it, after she called me a man to Zeb’s boy, I was still unsure and sometimes thought that for all she said, she must like Zeb better than me, for all women did. At times I even fancied, God forgive me, that she had perhaps turned to me following an earlier adventure with him.
One day I looked out of the window and saw her talking most earnestly with Zeb some yards off. I rose and quietly opened the window a crack before ducking beneath the sill.
Caro’s voice came to me: ‘…and sees nothing of my difficulty.’
‘Jacob all over,’ Zeb said. ‘But to the purpose. He must be put out of hope, you know.’
‘I cannot do it!’ she cried. ‘Two brothers…(here I missed some words, for my ears were throbbing)…to do something so cruel.’
‘But the longer it goes on, the crueller,’ said Zebedee.
There followed a silence. I rose and peeped out of the window: they had joined hands.
‘Shall I undertake to tell him?’ asked Zeb.
Caro cried, ‘Indeed, Zeb, you are too kind!’ and then, before my very eyes, they embraced, out there in the garden where any might see. I pulled the window to and sank to the floorboards, trembling.
The rest of that afternoon was passed in planning Zeb’s death, various ways, and devising punishments for Caro. During the evening meal I spoke not a word to either, even when directly addressed, and saw my fellow servants exchange puzzled or offended looks. Afterwards, when all was cleared away, I sat by myself at the kitchen fire polishing the Master’s boots. Zeb and Caro were most likely keeping out of my sight, and they were wise, for every time I thought of Zeb taking her in his arms, my jaw set and my own arms and shoulders became hard as iron.
The door opened and I glared upwards. It was Izzy.
‘I have made a discovery today,’ I said at once.
‘Have you?’ His voice was mild. ‘Will you tell me what?’
‘Acting the ambassador? Be straight. You are come to make their excuses.’ I bent forward and spat into the grate.
Izzy contemplated me. ‘Who are they? My business with you concerns no excuses.’ He pulled up a chair next to mine.
‘Well?’ I snapped.
‘Nay, I can’t talk to you in that style. Would you rather I went away?’
‘Zeb is courting Caro,’ I burst out before I could stop myself. ‘Don’t you know it?’
‘You amaze me. How did you make this – discovery?’
I told him what I had seen and heard. Izzy’s face quickened with some inner revelation before I was halfway through.
‘This is – none of it what you think,’ he began slowly.
‘What, not the embrace!’
He scratched his nose. ‘Jacob…there’s a thing I must break to you. Somewhat ticklish.’
I thought, You are in the right of it there.
‘Caro has sought Zeb’s counsel.’
‘Why not mine?’
‘It concerns you.’ Izzy glanced up at the ceiling as if wishing himself anywhere else in the world. ‘She has sought mine also, and her difficulty is-‘
‘How to break off with me!’
‘She wonders why you wait so long to declare yourself.’
I was silenced.
He took a great breath and went on, ‘If I may speak my mind – take note, this is none of her saying! – you make a fool of her, keeping company so long and the day not settled on. She has never wanted any but you. I thought you had a great mind to her also, and you can be sure the Mistress would be pleased. Where then lies the impediment?’
‘She is mighty familiar with Zeb,’ I answered slowly, and then, filling with stubborn anger, ‘I will not espouse her, or any, where I think my brother might have been before me.’
That was the only time in my entire life I saw Isaiah in a passion.
‘Do you ever raise your eyes and look about you?’ he hissed. ‘Everyone knows where Zeb’s delight lies, except the hulking idiot who is his brother.’
I gaped at him.
‘Besides, now is too late,’ Izzy went on, his eyes gleaming, ‘for such talk! You have kept company with her for months and given no hint. I repeat, you make a fool of her, and – I promise you! – if one word of your – madness – gets out, you’ll make such a fool of yourself as you’ll never live down.’
‘He embraces her.’
‘Because he sees her unhappy! And should they kiss, what is it to you? You are not espoused, and if you like it not the remedy lies in your own hands.’
I was stunned, partly at this view of the matter, but mostly at what he had said of Zeb. ‘Zeb in love? Who?’
‘O, a certain maid whose ear he has been nibbling, full in your view, these past months. She has two eyes and a mouth and her name begins with P.’
Things that I had taken for jests came back to me: Zeb arm-wrestling Patience, or begging a lock of her hair ‘for lying on a maiden’s hair brings a man sweet sleep’.
‘Caro does not wish to break off, then-?’ I faltered.
Izzy rolled his eyes.
I went on, ‘Yet they spoke of cruelty – said it was cruel.’
‘You. You’re cruel to Caro.’
‘To Caro…?’ They had talked of a he. I was about to explain his mistake when the truth came to me. The cruelty Zeb had spoken of was my own, and the sufferer Izzy. My elder brother had never ceased to love Caro, that was it; he had but loved her more tenderly as she turned away from the shared kindnesses of their early years towards something different with me. O Izzy, Izzy: he was the better man of us two, I own it freely, but he was not the sort of man a maid dreams of taking to her bed, and he had been forced to learn it over and over as he watched me win her. I could hardly bear to look at him as he sat there, smiling in defeat.
‘Cruel to Caro, yes.’ I must now conceal my pity.
‘I would see her happy,’ he returned simply. ‘I thought her happiness must lie with you.’
He it was, I remembered now, who had first told me of her preference.
‘But I begin to think I was mistaken.’ Izzy stared ahead of him. ‘Lord, what brothers I have. One eats women and the other starves them.’ His voice trembled as he rose to leave the room.
‘Don’t go, Izzy.’ I flung my arms round him from behind. ‘Wait and see – I will declare myself.’ Even as I said it I felt what a bittersweet promise this must be to him.
He turned to me and we pressed our faces together, the way we had always made up our quarrels as children. I had to bend down now, having so far outgrown my childhood protector. His face was damp around the eyes and for a moment I felt with horror that he was about to cry, but his gaze was bright and steady.
As he put me away from him, Izzy said quietly, ‘You are near as handsome as he, and bigger.’
‘Don’t make me more of a fool than I am,’ I answered.
‘There, I knew you would not hear it.’
‘You love me too well, Izzy.’
He sighed. ‘Very well, think yourself ugly. But Jacob,’ he went on, ‘be not so harsh with Zeb.’
I said I would not.
Going to seek out Caro, I found Zeb and Patience in the scullery, his arms about her as she scraped at a dirty dish, and I wondered at my blindness for so long. My own darling I discovered moping in the great hall. When she saw me she rose, and would have quitted the room, but I stepped up to her and begged her forgiveness. Before we parted that night, our betrothal was a settled thing.
The Mistress furnished Caro with a good dowry. All the money I could afford for her portion had been put by out of my own sweat, and was not bad considering the little that servants such as ourselves could scratch together. Neither of us could fairly hope for more if we meant to stay where we were.
My brothers and myself had been born to better fortunes than we enjoyed, but our father, though godly, was strangely improvident. I found my inheritance wasted and my estate encumbered, was his constant cry throughout my childhood. Yet all shall be paid off, and you, Isaiah, shall inherit-
Dust and debt. There was nothing else for Izzy to come into. The day after we buried Father, I found Mother weeping in her chamber, the steward standing over her and papers scattered all around.
‘Jacob,’ she screamed at me as if it were my doing, ‘O my boy, my boy,’ and fell to tearing her lace collar. I took it for the grief, and wept along with her, until the steward came forward saying, ‘Pray, young master, send your brother Isaiah to us.’
When Izzy came out from the chamber he told me that we were nine-tenths ruined. The house and lands were certain to be seized. The steward was at that instant writing a letter for Mother to sign, begging our neighbour Sir John that of his goodness he succour a distressed widow of gentle birth and her three helpless children.
Sir John Roche was not in those days the wineskin he is since become, and his wife (who inclined to a somewhat Papistical style of worship) was known for her rather short-sighted charity. Our mother was given a cottage in the village and the three helpless children were put to work in the fields on Sir John’s estate. This was perhaps not what Mother had in mind.
Margett, who was at that time the cook at Beaurepair, later enlightened me. We were in the kitchen together and her forehead shone greasily as she bent over a pig she had on the spit. I thought her grey hair very ugly, but her face was kind, if wrinkled, and from her I could find out things the others kept secret.
‘Your father owed Sir John a deal of money,’ Margett said. ‘Turn the handle there, it’s about to catch. Lost a fortune by him, the Master did.’
And so he wished us to work his fields. It was every inch my mother, not to have understood this. She understood nothing but weeping, coaxing and prayer.
When we were let fall into the furrow, I was ill prepared for my new life. For one thing, I was then accustomed to the attentions of servants (though unlike Mervyn Roche, I had been taught always to address them with respect). Now I found a great abatement of rest and of comfort, whether I were in the field or cooped up in the dark cramped place that was become our home.
Most unendurable was the utter loss of all means of raising myself from the earth. My books were left behind in our old house. Weary as I was, I would gladly have had them by me. I could read well and was skilled in reckoning, knew my rhetoric and Scripture, and had begun the ancient tongues some years before.
‘A forward lad for his age,’ our tutor, Doctor Barton, had told my father. ‘He might be trained up in the law perhaps, and become secretary to some great man.’
Now the forward lad found himself grubbing at roots, spreading dung, pulling thistles. When there was nothing else to do a boy could always be set to scare crows. Alone in the field where none could see me at it, I wept. Zeb, too young to grasp that we would be wasted in this valley of humiliation, was less wretched, though from time to time he would whine, ‘When are we going home?’
The other workers were at first somewhat in awe of us, but when they understood that for all our polish we were penniless, things altered. Very soon they made no difference between us and themselves.
‘Here, young Cullen, take this off-a me; don’t stand there gawking,’ said a man who could not read. I felt myself bitterly degraded. When I perceived that I was forgetting what I had been taught, that my only study now would be scythes and manures, terror seized me.
Izzy, finding me one day in a fit of despair, knelt by me in the field and crooked his arm about my neck. ‘A man’s value lies in his obedience to God’s will,’ he said. ‘We are as precious to Him now as ever we were.’
‘He does not show it.’
‘Indeed He does. We eat and drink; we have good health, and one another,’ he reproached me. But I lacked his greatness of heart.
Margett also told me that about this time, My Lady passing by in the carriage was struck by the sight of the three ‘black-boys’ labouring in her field. She made enquiries, and found that while she had thought us to be living on the charity of the Roches, her husband had reduced us to peasants.
‘That was an evil day for him. The sermons!’ Margett gloated. ‘Table lectures, fireside lectures, pillow lectures! – until he said she might bring you to the house. A fellow was sent for you directly, before the Master could change his mind.’
I remembered that. When the man came into the field and bade us follow him, for we were now to work indoors at Beaurepair, he must have thought we would never move off. Izzy stood motionless and speechless, while I dropped to my knees thanking God, for I knew what we had escaped. Servitude inside the house was still bondage in Egypt, but we were now shaded against the noonday heat.
Caro’s fortune was even humbler than my own. Margett told me that Caro’s mother, Lucy Bale, had been a maid at Beaurepair in time past, a woman about the Mistress’s own age and her entire favourite.
‘It ended sadly, though,’ the woman said. ‘In the same year that the Mistress married Sir John, Lucy found herself with child. That’s a fault easily wiped out, to be sure! – but her Mathias was killed. An unlucky fall.’
Later, Godfrey told me more. Lucy, it seemed, bore up under her shame with no little dignity. Sir John would have sent her away, but his wife argued that provided she showed herself repentant, she should stay, else she would surely sink to a most degraded condition. In the event she had no chance to sink, for she died in giving birth to her daughter.
The child, which was of a rare white-and-gold beauty (both Lucy and Mathias were, said Godfrey, bright as sovereigns), was christened Caroline and put under the care of the then steward’s wife, to be raised up a servant. I remembered her being shouted for, and once, when she might be six or seven, dragged by her hand through the great hall, trembling, for the steward’s wife was sharp of tongue and temper. Had Mathias lived, Caro should have been called Caroline Hawks, but none of his kin wished to claim her, so she kept the name of Bale. Izzy, finding her one day weeping in the garden, took her in his arms and dried her eyes and nose on his shirt. He called her Caro for short, and Caro she became.
‘Come along, Jacob.’ Godfrey stood before me, smoothing down his collar. ‘Leave that for later and wash your hands. The meat is ready to go out.’
I rinsed the sand off my fingers in a bowl of water before following him into the kitchen. The roast was set upon a wheeled table, and as fragrant as the stalled ox must have smelt to the Prodigal – a fine piece of mutton stuck with rosemary. Around it stood dishes of carrots and peas, a pigeon pie and sweet young lettuces dressed with eggs, mushrooms and oil.
‘Let us hope they leave plenty over,’ I said to Godfrey.
‘Amen to that.’ The steward poured wine from a decanter, held it up to the light and sipped it. ‘Very pleasing. I will help you with the dishes and then come back for the drink.’
We trundled in with the mutton, my mouth watering. Someone, most likely Caro, had set up the table with such precision that every cup and dish was in absolute line, not a hair’s breadth out. No pewter today; instead, the plate glittered. At one end of this perfection sat My Lady, her hair like string and face flaky with white lead; at the other, Sir John, bloated and purplish. To his mother’s right Mervyn sprawled like a schoolboy in a sulk, tipping the chair back and forth on two of its four legs. He was far gone in drink. I silently thanked Godfrey, grate on me as he might, for keeping Caro away. Only men and whores should serve Mervyn Roche.
When he saw us he shifted in the seat with annoyance and almost fell backwards.
‘Yes, my darling?’
‘Mother, why don’t you get a proper butler? Here’s the steward serving the wine – what does he know of it? – and none but that booby to help him. If there be any wine.’
‘It is decanted, Sir, and I am going back for it directly,’ Godfrey soothed.
‘I saw a man at Bridgwater carve in a new way entirely,’ Mervyn announced. ‘It was a wonder to see how he did it – here-‘
To my amazement he leapt from his seat and held out his hands for the carving knife and fork.
Godfrey kept his hands on the trolley but dared do no more; he looked helplessly at My Lady. Sir John, seemingly oblivious, stared at the ceiling.
‘Do you think you should, my sweet?’ Lady Roche implored. On receiving no reply she tried for help elsewhere. ‘Husband, if I may speak a word? Husband?’
‘Might a man eat in peace?’ the husband grunted.
Mervyn glared at his mother, then snapped his fingers to me. ‘You, Jacob. Give it over here. Christ’s arse, if I can’t carve a joint of meat-!’
The Mistress winced at her son’s foul tongue. I took the roast to him and laid the knife and fork ready. Godfrey disappeared through the door leading to the kitchen. I stood back, arms by my sides as I had been taught. He made a fearful butchery of it, hacking in chunks the sweet, crisp flesh which the cook had so lovingly tended. I saw his mother sigh. When the best part of the meat was ruined I brought forward the plates and shared out the tough lumps between the diners. Why, O God, I was thinking, do You not let slip his knife?
‘A butler, I say,’ he persisted, cutting into the pigeon pie with rather more finesse than he had displayed in carving the mutton.
‘Where is the need?’ asked his mother. ‘We live in a very small way here.’
‘Aye, I’ll say you do!’ He pushed off with his legs from the table, almost dropped backwards onto the floor, but retrieved the balance of the chair just in time. ‘Where is Patty?’ This was his name for Patience.
‘Patty is no longer with us,’ came the reply.
‘No.’ My Lady began crying.
‘Run away. Or-‘ She shook her head.
Mervyn glanced at her, took a gobbet of flesh and chewed on it. ‘If she’s run away she’s a fool. You,’ he again snapped his fingers at me, so that I itched to twist them off, ‘tell that Frenchified capon I’ve had better mutton in taverns.’
I bowed and took my chance to escape him a while. Going out of the door I met Godfrey returning with the wine and I hoped it might find better favour than the meat. Best of all would be if it were poisoned. One thing was cheering: Sir Bastard might scorn me but I had beaten him to the woman he desired. Setting aside his sulks and his drink-stained eyes, Mervyn was handsome, especially round the mouth, with its fierce scarlet lips hemming in very white teeth. In him a man might see what his father had been when young, just as in Sir John his son’s fate was laid out plain – if the son were fortunate, for his whoring was proverbial and a lucky pox or clap might yet shorten his days. He had always had a thirst for Caro. If I could think at all on my wedding night, I should take a minute to exult over him.
In the kitchen the cook, used to madness in his masters, shrugged when I told him the insults heaped on the roast.
‘I have a syllabub for that lad,’ he told me. ‘A special one. Don’t you go tasting, Jacob. Barring Godfrey, everyone’s helped with it.’
‘Not me,’ I said. I took my turn and spat in the thing too, stirring in the spittle. A voice like Father’s somewhere in my head said, Sweetly done, my boy. I carried in the syllabubs, placed the defiled one before Mervyn and stood the picture of submission, watching him eat it.
The man who had joined with us servants in taking this small but choice revenge was called Mister, or Mounseer, Daskin. Between him and Mervyn was deadly hatred. We were out of the ordinary in having a foreign cook. Margett, who had told me of my father’s debt to Sir John, dropped dead one day while arranging a goose on the spit, and the Mistress, who clung still to some pretence of elegance, tormented Sir John for a French cook, such as were just then starting to be known in London.
‘I will have my meat done in the good old English way,’ said the husband, who had no hankerings after hautgousts, hachees or dishes dressed a-la-doode. ‘There will be no French cooks at Beaurepair while I am master.’
His next dinner taught him better: the meat was bloody, and the sauces full of grit. Sir John glared about him. ‘Is the wine spoilt?’ he asked.
‘Not at all,’ his wife replied.
‘Then why have we none on the table?’
‘The cellar key is lost.’
Sir John knew when he was beaten, and bade the Mistress do what she would.
His wife let him down gently. Letters of enquiry to her friends in Town brought forth a number of likely men, but she settled on Mister Daskin who was but half French, could speak our language and cook in the English way beside. He arrived in the coach one wet October afternoon, a small dapper man in London clothes, looking about him with pleasure. It was said that fashionable life had hurt his health.
‘Up all night, and then working again all day,’ he told me. ‘Never, Jacob, never go to London!’
‘You will find it very dull here,’ I answered.
‘Now that is exactly what I like.’
It seemed he found promise of saner living in our old stone house with its surrounding fields and trees. The first meal he cooked for the household was served to Mervyn, and I guess he was never so pleased with his bargain since.
Daskin was not bad for someone half French. He was a Protestant, and he gave good food to the servants as well as the masters. Peter sometimes assisted him in the kitchen, but more often it was either Caro or Patience, and Caro told me she had picked up a great deal of knowledge concerning preserves and puddings from Mounseer, who was not jealous of others seeing what he did. Most of what was cooked was done in the English style, for after a week or so during which her pride would not let her speak, the Mistress was forced to admit that she did not care for French feeding, and Sir John’s roasts were restored to him.
When Mervyn had given his final belch and strewn bread about the table, the Mistress joined her hands and offered up thanks. Her son rattled off the words through force of habit, so that by happy accident I was able to hear him thank God for what he had just received.
After they had got down from the board Peter came to help me clear away.
‘Look at that.’ I pointed out the roast, now stiffening as it cooled. ‘That’s how he carves.’
‘Still alive, was it? Kept running about?’
The room felt cleaner with Mervyn gone. Daskin came in and wheeled off the meat, muttering words in French that any man could translate only by studying his face. We returned the plate to the sideboard and carried the slipware to the scullery to be washed along with ours.
In the room where we had our own food there was a smell of onions and cider. Caro was laying out the dishes; Daskin bent over the mutton, trying to save what he could. I was suddenly very hungry. The syllabub could not be spoken of before Godfrey, who was there examining a fork which Mervyn had bent out of shape, but it hung in the air between us all, a secret pleasure to set against the gloom of that morning’s discovery.
‘There’s nothing wrong with this meat,’ said the cook. ‘If I myself carve what’s left you’ll find it as tender a roast as you’ve had.’
‘We never thought otherwise,’ Izzy assured him.
‘I have made onions in white sauce,’ added Caro, looking sweetly on me because she knew how I relished this dish. I sat on the end of the bench next to the place she would take when she left off serving.
The meal was set before us and Godfrey led us in asking God’s blessing. As soon as folk began spooning up onions and handing about the bread, the talk turned to Chris Walshe, and to Patience.
‘Is Zeb back from Champains yet?’ I asked.
‘No,’ said Peter. ‘I guess they’ll keep him there awhile.’
‘What for? All he did was drag the pond.’
‘This is fine mutton, Mounseer,’ said one of the dairymaids, who seemed to have got the sheep’s eyes into her own head to judge by her glances at him.
‘Did Chris – was Chris hurt, Jacob?’ asked Caro.
‘He was,’ I answered. ‘Has nobody been to look?’
‘I locked the laundry after you laid him out,’ said Godfrey. ‘It is neither seemly nor respectful for everyone to go goggling at the lad.’
‘There’s something in that,’ said Izzy. ‘But tell us, Godfrey, how was he wounded?’
The steward hesitated.
‘Jacob knows already,’ urged Peter.
Godfrey said, ‘Well. It was no accident.’ He looked at me.
‘Stabbed,’ I supplied.
A general gasp and then a buzz, not unlike pleasure, rose from the company.
‘There are bad men about,’ said Godfrey. ‘Be watchful. The Mistress has instructed me to look over all the locks and bolts, and I should be obliged if you would bring me to any weak ones.’
‘And still no sign of Patience,’ said Caro.
‘Did she quarrel with one of you? Had she any trouble?’ the steward asked.
‘None,’ Caro said. ‘No trouble.’
I turned to her and saw her face quite innocent. I pictured Zeb, how he would have answered, perhaps mopping up sauce on a bit of bread, and his eyelashes lying modest on his cheek like a girl’s.
The great hall by torchlight was now a gilded slaughterhouse, with pictures everywhere, filthy idolatries in paint and in stone. I glanced up in blinking the warm water from my eyes and saw wood carved fine as lace. Velvet and gold tissue ran with gore or were caught on pikes and torn from the walls: men were blown up and fell in gobbets through jewelled windows. I saw one soldier ram a sword down another’s throat, and heard the scream grow shrill and then choke off as the blade was driven home. Above them, high on the far wall, a marble Christ pale in death looked down from the cross upon His people.
“it is a curious thing to be reading such matter as this and have a woman serve us. The last time I read such things I was a servant myself, and now I have one.”
“There was once a man who heard his wife and her lover together. He heard the secret things the wife whispered to the lover, and said only, ‘yes, that is she.’But then the lover pleaded to be touched, and the husband clenched his fists; and when the man cried aloud then the husband’s nails cut deep into the palms of his hands.”
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