When Goodman Field came home the next day, he found his future daughter-in-law waking by his son, and his apprentice huddled in a corner. Dick was sleeping peacefully, his skin tone approaching normal and the new rag around his arm pristinely white.
“So he’s home to conclude the bargain, eh?” Field grunted as he doffed his hat and cloak. “Well, I’m glad we can get that whole engagement business over with. I suppose you’re already at it like Sir Lucy’s rabbits, eh?”
Agnes’s eyes widened, but Field had already turned his back – perhaps for the best, Will realised, because Agnes’s shocked headshake was more fervent than persuasive.
They’ve done it! his mind screamed.
No, don’t be stupid. She wouldn’t do such a reckless thing. Not when Dick has several years left of his apprenticeship. She wouldn’t give herself to a man who can’t marry her yet.
“More business for your old man, then,” Goodman Field grinned and clapped a hand on Will’s shoulder. “We’ll be needing an engagement gift.”
“Oh… Yes, I suppose you do.”
“Although the wool and the money-lending pays better, no?” Field chuckled. “Well, I’ll not pry into other men’s affairs. We all have our flaws, and if we were to punish every petty crime, we’d have a country peopled exclusively with lawyers, and that’s a bleak prospect, wouldn’t you say?” He winked. “Now, go home to your father and tell him we have an urgent order: a pair of lady’s gloves, with a pretty poem to go with them.”
Will glanced at Agnes, but her eyes were blank, empty. As if their nocturnal conversation had never taken place. As if she hadn’t remembered his poetic stumblings from the graveyard, as if he hadn’t told her about little Annie.
Despair coursing like a chill through his veins, he grabbed his damp cloak and left.
When he came home, the house was in an uproar. Little Ned had hidden in the shed the whole night and made everyone panic.
“William! What are you doing home?” mother asked irritably, face red from crying.
“There’s an order for a pair of gloves,” Will muttered, instantly needled by the atmosphere. “For a lady.”
“Gloves? Huh, that’s all we need.” Mother glared at her husband, who rose from the table and strode off towards the hall.
“Fine, I’ll be in the workshop then, shall I?” Opening the door, he called over his shoulder, “What are her measurements?”
Will looked up. “Measurements?”
Father turned. “You didn’t ask for them?”
Will opened his mouth to reply, but where his thoughts usually were, there was only a dense fog. Measurements? Such a banal, everyday detail, and father wanted him to apply it to the woman who had recited his own nascent poem back at him? He wanted Will to sum up her essence in a series of numbers? To calculate the shining darkness of her hair, to put a yardstick to the depth of her eyes? He, who couldn’t even capture it in words?
“I’ll… uh, make the gloves myself.”
Father scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous. You compose the poem, I’ll handle the work.”
“No, I’ll do it.”
“Listen.” Father sighed. “We can’t afford to waste skins right now. Our products must be perfect at first try. If you use up a skin for a pair of botched gloves that I have to remake–”
“I’ll make them, damn it! I know her measurements… in here.” Will meant to gesture at his head, but his hand rebelled and settled over his heart instead.
Father groaned and went into the workshop.
“I’ll make them,” Will repeated, going after him. “Please.”
But father was already collecting his tools, eyebrows dipped in displeasure. “Who is this woman anyway?”
“Ag…” Will stopped. Swallowed. “She’s the daughter of Richard Gardner-Hathaway. Of Shottery. She’s marrying young Goodman Field. Richard.”
Father gave him a sceptic look. “And you want to make the gloves.”
Will hesitated. Father was too attentive, too… perceptive? Clearing his throat, Will strove to keep his voice light. “I need to develop more skills than tanning. One day I’ll take over your business, not Goodman Field’s. I need to know both tanning and glove-making. What better time to start learning for real?”
“What better time? You mean the best time for that is when this Shottery woman is getting married? William, is there anything I should know about?”
Father’s lips tightened. He wasn’t convinced.
“I want to make them because they’re for… for my friend.” The word tasted like iron in Will’s mouth. “You know I went to school with Dick.”
Father pursed his lips. “Everyone seems to be mad today,” he muttered, but when Will walked over to the box of templates, he didn’t stop him. Acutely aware of being watched, Will rummaged among the soulless representations of hands large and small, wondering how any one of them could possibly match the reality of Agnes’s living form. But he had to remember, had to snare in logic the magic that was Dick’s future wife.
What had her hands been like? Small and girly or large and womanly? He closed his eyes and summoned her from the darkness of the tanner’s midnight dining room. Her brave smile, her understanding eyes, her hands working the pestle… Heat spread in his face, his scalp. Their basic structure had been… slim but plump. And her fingers were quite short. In another flash of memory, he saw her curl them against her mouth for warmth.
It really had been cold for a September day.
Opening his eyes, he stared down into the box in front of him. The templates were all wrong. None of them could hold a candle to the real thing. He would have to improvise.
But father was still watching, and Will chose a template that roughly corresponded with his mental image. When it became apparent that he would not ask for help of any kind, father turned on his heel and left. Breathing out, Will allowed himself a look out of the window. The afternoon was dull and dark, no sunlight to ease his way. So apt. He should write a poem about it.
Snorting at his own silliness, he leafed through a box of skins, but soon stopped. There was something… a memory, trying to surface. His eyes lost focus as he stared at the layers of brown and beige, none of them good enough. But there was one skin that might fit: the discarded one, from the very beginning of Will’s apprenticeship. Goodman Field had scolded him, even mother had scolded him for it. Too small, they had said. Worthless. Good for nothing. He had meant it to become a present for Annie, but he had never got around to it, and now she would never need gloves again.
Swallowing down stupid emotion, Will crossed the hall and ran upstairs to the room he used to share with Gilbert. Mother called to him about something he didn’t give a shit about, and he closed his ears to her grating voice as he rummaged through the linen cupboard. The skin was still there, at the very back, pushed away by more pressing daily concerns. There it was: soft, lightly coloured, and without a single blemish.
And very, very small. Will remembered the sneer on his Goodman Field’s face, and for a moment he almost understood him. Just one look told him the template would be too big for it.
In its present state. But this was kidskin. There was always a margin of possibility with kidskin.
Back in the workshop, he rolled it tightly and wound a damp piece of cloth around it. The stale old stench of urine oozed out, teased back to life by the moisture. The pungent odour would still cling to the finished product, but by then it would be glossed over with perfume, just like the sordid affair it was meant to celebrate.
A twinge in Will’s chest made him gasp for breath, and he caught himself on the workbench. What was he doing, making the gloves that would bind Agnes to Dick? His fingers cramped on the edge. He wasn’t aware of moving, of folding in on himself, until the unyielding wood pressed into his forehead. This can’t be my life. It’s too stupid. If I saw it on a stage I wouldn’t believe it.
And yet he couldn’t crumble. He had work to do.
As darkness fell, he lit a candle that would have father grumbling in the morning. Then he unrolled the piece of kidskin and proceeded to stretch it as hard as he had ever stretched a skin. He was on fire, glowing with a zeal that felt like a disease, and for every laboured breath he pulled at the skin to the point of ripping.
Time passed somewhere outside his fever. If he grew tired, he didn’t notice.
Clutching his aching back, he finally straightened up. Sweat ran down his face and he wiped his hands on his hose. The first and most physical part of the work was done, but he was far from finished. Putting the template on the skin, careful not to place it against the grain like he had often done when he still lived at home, he cut along the edge – unbearably slowly, afraid of making the tiniest mistake with his useless hand. He blinked away sweat from his eyes and held his breath to minimise the trembling. Where he knew her fingers were narrower or broader, he adjusted the knife, departed from the rules of the trade to accommodate her uniqueness.
As if he had the slightest inkling what he was doing.
We can’t afford to waste skins right now, he remembered father’s words. And Will couldn’t afford to make a subpar product for Agnes, no matter that it was a symbol for her joining with Dick. When the gloves were done, her fingers would rest against this softness he was cutting now. He would get to almost touch her through his handiwork.
Having cut the pieces, he sat in a corner and began the arduous work of stitching it together. Normally his mother and sister took care of the sewing, of course, but with these gloves he had to do everything himself. While he worked, the candle slowly burned down. The needle, illuminated golden, trembled in his cramping fingers. He squinted, eyes dry from his sleepless night, and struggled to attach the difficult thumb parts.
When the sun finally rose through pink and yellow skies, the gloves were finished. Far from perfect and stained with his sweat, but done.
With a groan, he rose from his chair and found mother’s box of embroidery things. All the colours of the rainbow nestled side by side, like Arachne’s threads, and he let them caress his fingers: pink, purple, white. Twines of silk to match the nameless shades in Agnes’s skin.
The lily and the rose: nor red, nor white.
How often had he heard men praise the indefinable colour of a woman’s cheeks but never understood it? Now his brain was hatching words that leapt and swirled, like the flowers that would snake and coil around the gauntlets of the finished gloves. The words longed to touch, to hold her essence in unworthy syllables.
Violet, thou sweetest thief of love.
He blushed at his own nerve. Did he already call her thou in his thoughts? And yet how had they introduced themselves? With first names. Only the strange mood of the misty graveyard could explain such a breach of custom.
Surfacing from the memory, he looked at the threads in his hands. This was something he had never done. Maybe it was the lack of sleep that made him stupid, maybe something else, but he did attempt to start embroidering the gloves even though his hands would no longer obey him. The threads frayed and broke and tangled, and the result was so woeful that he threw the gloves across the room and burst into angry tears, and that was how Joanie found him.
“Will? What are you doing here? What’s the matter?”
He covered his face, but there was no hiding from the evidence. “It’s the bloody gloves. I’ve ruined them!”
There was a surprised silence from Joanie. Then the sound of her steps, a rustle as she bent, and then he heard her stifle a giggle.
“Don’t you dare!” he growled, but he sounded pitiful rather than stern. He was just so exhausted.
“Why don’t you leave the women’s work to us?” Joanie sat beside him and leaned into his side just like Annie had used to do. “You’ve never embroidered in your life.”
Will wiped his eyes. He must be in a really bad way if he gave way to childish tears for a couple of stupid gloves.
“What did you want the pattern to be?”
“Oh, you can’t even tell? Great.”
Joanie perused the miserable stitching. “I’ll do it for you if you give me a hint.”
“It’s supposed to be bloody flowers and stuff!”
“I see. Well, the first rule of embroidery is not to cover too much of the leather with… well, with bloody flowers and stuff, as you call it.” Joanie caught his eyes as if to imprint on him the importance of this one lesson. “You need to leave some space between the decorations. Otherwise, when you look at them, you can’t see anything, because there’s just too much. You know? The pattern suffocates itself.”
Will nodded sullenly. It made sense. “So can you help me?”
“I said I would.”
“But aren’t they ruined already?”
Joanie smiled. “Not at all. I’ll have them ready for you by this afternoon.”
His sister was true to her word, and the gloves turned out very pretty. When Will saw the finished product, his chest seemed to shatter.
Father delivered the gift together with Will’s poem, pointedly written in the sonnet form, and according to the report it was very well received. Dick went back to the city and Agnes went back to Shottery, and though Will’s hands were still sore from his work on the gloves, there was nothing for it: he too went back to his duties. Back to the chains, back to the limbo of tanning.
Because dark-haired angels and London careers were not for him.