Following the advice of father’s one-time colleagues, the family made a renewed effort to attend Protestant mass. The state was growing more paranoid by the minute, Archbishop Whitgift was on the warpath again, and it behoved everyone to make a good show or they could end up on some stupid death list.
But that wasn’t the only reason why Will’s life became a series of Sundays. Father joked about his new-found devoutness like a man who had never been young. He didn’t know that Will’s attention wasn’t on the priest. Since the Shakspers no longer occupied a pew at the front, Will could hide among the middle-pew nobodies and quietly observe. Same ritual every time: arrival, slinking into his seat, and then tune out and watch.
Because between the heads of his neighbours, he could see her: smiling at someone, eyes glittering with some jest. She had laughed that way with him, and he had thought it special, but she looked at everyone that way – as if she really saw them, as if she really listened. Served him right for being an idiot. She was out of reach, and he had manufactured her shackles himself.
Next Sunday, same thing. In a matter of weeks, he wasn’t so much attending mass as replaying an identical event over and over, like a child asking for the same old fairy-tale every night, enthralled with the perfection of words learnt by heart. The service droned on as he recorded her movements from a distance, a vast expanse of damp linen and bad breath to protect him while he preyed on her profile. After the service, he hurried out to escape having to exchange polite nonsense, and the space she had inhabited was bright and cold with winter sunshine.
Next Sunday, same procedure. An hour of Protestant prattling he didn’t really hear, and then the flapping of her skirt as she disappeared down the road with her family. Each Sunday was torture, but he wouldn’t miss it. At least they were in the same room. She was there. He counted the seconds, he noted every minute. It was a balance sheet, and he needed more, more, more. Monday to Saturday was a wasteland of fading memories, and only his Sundays stopped the fading. Only Sundays dyed the colours vibrant again.
From time to time he dared to hope that she missed him. He wanted her to notice when he wasn’t there, even though he always was. He wanted to stay at home one Sunday, he wanted her to look up from smiling and laughing with others and notice that he wasn’t there.
But he never stayed home, and if she ever noticed his presence she didn’t give a sign.
It seemed the routine would never change, when one day after the service he ran into her. When he lifted his eyes, his heart seemed to explode in his chest. She shimmered in front of him, like a fairy from one of Aunt Joan’s bedtime stories, like a creature from some other dimension. His memory didn’t lie to him in the dark solitude of his bed: she was the lily, the rose, every damned flower there was.
Moments passed without either of them greeting the other. “How… how are you?” she asked finally, voice low, shudderingly low.
Swallowing down thorns, Will mumbled an answering nicety. Then he motioned towards her hands. “You’re wearing my gloves.”
She averted her eyes. “They’re not yours.”
“I made them.”
“And Dick gave them.”
Will breathed through a throat that was too narrow. The air hurt all the way down and all the way back up again. His fingers twitched a little, fumbling for something more to say, something to keep her chained to him, to never let her leave. But over her shoulder he saw a man by the gate, pale and hawk-eyed, fidgeting and fumbling with his hat as he waited. Her brother?
Agnes made to walk away, and Will blurted, “I thought you’d be in London by now.”
She stopped and shook her head, then frowned. “No.” Then, after a slight hesitation – as if debating the wisdom of what she was about to do – she put her right hand over her left one, pinched the leather and pulled the glove off. Will didn’t understand at first, but then his gaze was drawn to the finger where her ring should be sitting. It was empty. Naked like a defenceless fledgling, cuticles worn and red.
When he met her eyes again they were filled with unspeakable sadness. “He’s… well, he’s there. In London.”
“Yes?” Will held her gaze, half afraid to breathe but desperate to know. “And… when will he be home next?”
Agnes’s lip twitched. “He won’t.”
“But aren’t you…?”
Agnes shook her head. “Too messy.” Her voice was even huskier than usual, shot through with unshed tears. “He said.”
Will resisted an urge to lay a hand on her arm. “And you’re not going there?” he ventured softly, yearning for an explanation but afraid of hurting her worse than she already was.
Agnes cleared her throat and took refuge in quiet anger. “He finds it too messy to marry a country girl now that he’s so firmly established in London. And to be quite honest, I think he…” She swallowed. “But I shouldn’t speculate. It’s just… the worst part is…” She broke off and fumbled in her sleeve for a handkerchief. “Never mind.”
Will breathed shallowly, inhaling the faint perfume from her gloves, from the handkerchief she was pressing to her eyes. “But you were willing to move to London, weren’t you?”
She shrugged, but whether it meant Yes I was, but he won’t have it or I don’t know any longer, Will couldn’t tell. He stared at her, his mind empty like a dug-up tomb. Should he say he was sorry? If anything, he was happy she had escaped that serpent – but at the same time, who could remain unmoved by such distress? Heart torn by the conflict, he searched for something comforting to say, but it was impossible. How could a mere boy of eighteen console a grown woman? What kind of a deluded fool even toyed with the idea that he had anything to give?
Agnes put on her glove again. The soft kidskin slid over her hand, covering the absence of a ring. “It was a beautiful dream.” She smiled sourly, as if mocking herself.
Will only slowly surfaced to the full truth of what she was saying. Her and Dick’s understanding was off, but she was still wearing the gloves – to retain the illusion? Or because a part of her hoped for something else? The flame leapt up in Will’s mind, impossible to quench. He must take this chance, or regret it forever. She would say no, and they would both go back to their lives and never speak of it again, but at least he would have asked. Would have offered her everything.
Breathing in, he realised the enormity of what he was about to do. He would be destroying his chances of going to university forever. Of course he was already too old, but he knew exceptions could be made in certain circumstances. He could find someone to make his case, to help him, to pay his way. But if he did this, if he asked her this question, even that possibility would be lost. Only free young men were accepted at university. Apprenticeships could be annulled, but marriages couldn’t.
He let his voice loose on the air, heard it take shape between them. “Would you consider…. marrying me?”
The look she gave him was blank. “I’m… sorry?”
At that moment the gaunt man from the gate appeared at her shoulder. “Are you coming or not?”
Agnes’s eyes flitted from Will to him. “Just… uh, a minute,” she stuttered. “You go ahead, Bartholomew, I’ll catch up.”
Bartholomew scowled. “I’ll not have my sister walk through the country lanes by herself.”
“So wait for me around the bend.”
Grumbling, Bartholomew shuffled off towards the road.
“Come on.” Agnes took Will by the arm and his heart leapt up in his throat. Meek like a lamb, he let her guide him round the side of the church where no one could overhear or even see them. There was only green all around them. Green, and the storm-cloud blue she turned on him.
Breath hitching in his throat, Will realised she wasn’t happy.
“What are you implying?” she demanded. “That because I’m ready to plight myself to one man, I’m loose enough to settle for anyone?”
Anyone? Will’s heart sank. “Not at all,” he mumbled. “I understand if you’re mourning right now, but if you’re… free to… to choose who you want…” He fumbled among the different wordings available and hated them all. “I’d… like to be considered.” He sounded like a legal petitioner, or a would-be apprentice on the lookout for employment. Someone completely unversed in the art of rhetoric.
“Choose?” Agnes snorted. “What world are you living in?”
She made to leave, but Will shot out a hand and stopped her. “One where money can be the slave to love.” He blushed at his clumsiness. How could he bungle this so utterly?
Agnes sighed. “You don’t know what you’re saying. You don’t know anything about me. If I were to marry you…” Will made an involuntary movement and Agnes noted it. “I said if.” She hesitated, gaze caught in his. “It won’t happen, William.”
“But…” He snagged on something in his throat and cleared it to ask, pitifully, “Why?”
Agnes looked down at the ground. “You wouldn’t understand.”
He dared to put a hand on her arm. “Try me.”
She shrugged him off, but she didn’t leave. She was still watching the grass at her feet, and her eyelashes fluttered as if to conceal some terrible emotion. She seemed to be working up her courage to reveal something, something important. Will’s heart was thundering in his ears. Please let it be something in my favour. Maybe she’s just afraid of the age difference? Maybe she…
Agnes drew a deep breath and closed her eyes. “If we were to marry – which we can’t – you would be labouring to feed another man’s child.”
Will blinked. The world seemed to have lost focus, lost meaning. He didn’t understand. “… I’m sorry?”
Agnes’s face hardened. “There’s a…” She broke off, fumbled at her throat, tucked a stray hair inside her bonnet. “There’s a child, William.”
Frosty air snaked down Will’s back as he processed the words. Realisation coursed through him like poison. An image of Dick flashed through his mind. Those confident blue eyes, that snake-like smile – the smile that fooled everyone, that charmed and bound with spells too potent to lift. That man – that evil incarnate – had been… with her?
“Don’t tell anyone,” Agnes begged softly. “Not yet. It will be visible soon enough, but I don’t want…”
Her eyes, her pale face. Will shuddered. The world had turned suddenly cold. What was she saying? Don’t tell anyone. She entrusted him – him – with this awful, awful secret – because he was harmless? Because he was the kind of person a woman could follow into the night without fear? The kind of man – no, boy – that wouldn’t hurt a fly, much less a strong-bodied adult female who knew how to take care of herself. A boy who didn’t even know what to do with the opportunity he had been presented with, alone among the trees behind the church. He could kiss her, put his hand up her kirtle, anything. But he did nothing. He could tell himself he refrained out of respect for her chastity, but that was just laughable. What chastity? She had given herself to Dick Field, of all people. According to any law or religion, she was a whore.
“He did… that, and then left you?”
“Yes.” A mere whisper. “But don’t–”
“You’re not preparing to defend him, are you? I mean… you must name him! You are going to name him, aren’t you? When you deliver… you must name him as the father.” Make him marry you, Will’s mind added, and the pain was a lance through his soul.
But unbelievably, Agnes shook her head. “I can’t do that.”
Will grew desperate. It was one thing to lose her to Dick, and quite another to lose her completely. “If you don’t name the father, the midwives won’t assist you. You’ll be cast out. You could even die in childbirth.”
“I know that,” Agnes snapped, angry shield in place again. Her face was hard, but her eyes gave her away. There was fear in them. Fear, grief, and resignation. She had chosen. She would save Dick and lose herself.
Will just stared at her. It was too much to take in. “Does he know?”
Agnes shook her head. “And don’t tell him, William. Please. Don’t tell a soul.”
The sound of her. The anguish. Will knew he had no choice but to obey. On impulse, he reached out and took her hand. She started, but he held it fast. A moment of agony, of panicked hesitation. But even knowing, he would renew his offer. It was all he could do for her, for himself.
Holding on to her hand, he crushed it in his until he didn’t know if he would be able to let it go. “I won’t let you suffer such ill-treatment,” he began, voice steady, even cold. Let her hear the truth of it in the rock-hard finality of it. “I’ll still marry you if you’ll have me.”
At first nothing happened. She just frowned at him in utter bewilderment, her mouth half open as if trying to form words, her eyes wide and riveted on him. Then, just when he was about to repeat his words, she gasped. “I have to go.”
Stabbed by the sight of her walking away from him, he flung his heart after her. “Agnes, I’m asking you to marry me!”
She turned abruptly. “Do you even know what you’re saying?” She sounded aghast.
Will forced it out past the trembling in his throat: “I’ve never been more certain in my life.”
She shook her head. “But it’ll be his…”
“Nobody needs to know that.”
Tears welled up in her eyes. “You’re mad.”
“I know.” A boisterous, crazy laugh that had nothing to do with mirth bubbled out of him. “But if that’s the only way I can save you from the shame of… of…”
“Of giving birth to a bastard?” she filled in, mouth twisted in self-loathing. “Yes, it doesn’t sound very nice, does it?”
Unable to move towards her, Will remained where he was. “You may have given up your treasure to an unworthy man, but that doesn’t make you unworthy.”
“If it’s a sin, you make it look like virtue,” he said. “It may be a blot, but beauty without a foil doesn’t exist.” He was delirious now, speaking words he didn’t know where they came from, in a tone so pitiful he felt all his pretence at masculinity melt away. Well, she could have it. Without her, he had no use for it. “Don’t throw away a constant heart.”
Agnes looked as if she was about to laugh at him. Averting his eyes to protect himself from the sight, Will just waited. After an eternity, she made the tiniest motion. He looked up, and caught what almost looked like a nod.
He stopped breathing. “What…? Are you saying…?”
She nodded again, more clearly now, but her face was pained, bloodless. “I can’t wait for him forever,” she said. Then she looked suddenly terrified. “If your offer is genuine?”
“Of course it is.”
“Then I’ll accept your proposal. But William… I won’t…” She closed her eyes briefly. “It will not be a marriage of the… the kind you’re thinking of.”
Will didn’t know what she was talking about, but he didn’t much care. How many kinds of marriages could there be? She would be his, wouldn’t she? She was saying yes?
“I won’t… I won’t give myself to you,” Agnes forced out. “Do you understand? The condition for this match is that you won’t make any physical demands on me. At all. It’s a theoretical agreement. An entry in the church ledger, a shared house, shared finances, nothing more. Can you handle that?”
Will was lightheaded with confusion. She thought they could live together as man and wife without living together as man and wife? It was a contradiction in terms, and yet he found himself bowing his head in acceptance. There was nothing else he could do.
Agnes attempted a wan smile. “Then… I will go with you to church and patch together this sorry affair.”
She turned to leave, and Will took a step towards her. “But…” He broke off, unsure of how to broach such a delicate subject. “Shouldn’t we…?”
“Kiss?” She smiled. “No.”
Will swayed on his feet.
“I told you. Don’t expect any physical favours. That’s not what this is about. Because I don’t…” She made a face, a touch of sympathy in her eyes.
“… love me,” he filled in, his voice a whisper.
“Not in that way.”
The words entered like barbs, but he let them sink into the softest part of his soul, made himself feel it to the full. Any other man would make the preposterous promise and expect to break it, but if he made it, he knew he must keep it. His word was all he had.
“But…” He swallowed. “Is this it? I mean, is this… binding now? I’ve never… Have you… promised?”
For a moment, her cheeks twitched as if in smothered amusement. Then she stepped up to him, took his hand, and gently squeezed it. “I take thee, William, for husband.”
Will’s throat closed with the immensity of that phrase, those time-honoured, well-worn words that were now personal and intimate. He could hardly get them out himself, so unyielding was the tightness in his chest. But if it was the last thing he did, he must say them to her. “And I… take thee, Agnes… for wife.”
She smiled sadly. “Please call me Anne.”
Her Protestant name. The name Dick preferred to call her. Will felt his cheeks flood with blood and vowed never to take the word in his mouth.
Then his wife-to-be let go of his hand and walked away, hurrying to catch up with her brother. Dizzy, Will was left standing in the leafy graveyard, two very different feelings contending for supremacy in his chest. She was to be his, and yet not his. She loved him of sorts, but she loved Dick more. His dearest wish was fulfilled, and left hanging.
And his time in the tannery was at an end. Years before his time, he was about to enter adulthood.
When they entered the house in Bridge Street, Dick was stretched out on the dining room bed, panting and sweating, his skin abnormally red.
Agnes stopped short and moaned. “Richard…” The name in her mouth was a world of pain. If Will had imagined the courtship to be one of convenience, that illusion died now.
“He’ll be fine,” his lips formed the words, as meaningless as his graveyard speech, and she gave him the look he deserved: he was in no position to judge such a thing.
Kneeling by the bed, she stroked Dick’s forehead and whispered his name in a futile attempt to wake him up. Will looked away, but he could feel her touch on that fevered face. The jealousy was a hollowing-out of his chest, his head, his whole being. A heart-sucking, brain-fucking annihilation of everything he knew. It was an ache so vague and all-encompassing it practically replaced his sense of self. It was everywhere, in all his veins and all his bones, a dose of poison just below lethal, smudging every tissue with ice.
You have no business caring, he told himself. You don’t even know this woman. In fact, if she cared about Dick, there was probably something deeply wrong with her.
But when she stood up with a forbidding look on her face and strode past Will to the table, he breathed in the wake of her passing to catch the scent of her, and the trace of cow and smoke and bread was a caress of bruises. Helpless to resist, he watched her open a satchel and empty a jumble of bottles and pouches on the scarred wood. Common enough garden herbs, he knew. Aunt Joan had just such a collection. But the way they shivered in the candlelight… it was witchcraft.
Agnes put the herbs in a bowl and mashed them up with some water. Her slender, soft-looking hands worked the pestle, their pallor a dizzying flash in the low light. Lost in the rhythmic motion, Will was blindsided by a memory from Barton: the first time his fingers had found their way down his own hose.
Cheeks burning, he looked up at her face again, at the evidence of a rough life already digging its trenches in her skin. Was this the only choice she had – to bind herself to Dick? Didn’t she realise the danger?
The feeling of rope against his throat made him pull at his collar. Breathing in deeply, he shrugged off the memory of towering elms, of devils in the dusk. That night in the woods… it was a long time ago, but now that he saw Dick sweat and groan in the grips of his fever, Will remembered how close he himself had come to death. Only the timely intervention of leeches had saved him.
At the thought, he blurted, “Maybe we should bleed him?”
Agnes looked up from her bowl. “You have the money for a doctor?”
“No.” Will paused a beat. “But I have a knife.”
Agnes’s hand made a jerk, knocking the bowl to the floor. “Oh no…” She fell to her knees and gathered the shards of crockery in her hands, a sob rising in her throat. “That was my last peppermint!”
Will’s heart made a squeeze. Good. Let the bastard suffer.
But something better in him won out. “I believe you’ll find some in the garden.”
Agnes looked up, anger blooming in her cheeks. “And leave you alone with him?”
Will hesitated. Her gaze dropped to his hand, and it duly cramped, as if to underscore the folly of letting him handle a blade. He balled it into a fist and hid it behind his back. Jerking his head at the door, he said, “I’ll help you look for the peppermint.”
Agnes glared at him for a moment, but then she acquiesced. A resigned lowering of her shoulders, a pained glance at Dick, and then she donned her cloak again.
Outside it was still pitch black. Thrown for just a moment, Will stayed on the threshold, in the honey-warm pool of candlelight that oozed into the night from inside. Big fat drops of rain battered his head and snaked inside his collar while he balanced on the edge.
“Let’s just rip everything out of the flower beds and bring it inside,” Agnes said.
He turned to look at her, convinced she was making a feeble joke, but her face was serious. Panic had stolen her wits, apparently. Panic at the sight of her beloved in the clutches of death.
Will shook his head. “No need.” Venturing into the storm, he felt his way to where he knew the peppermint grew. He squatted and fumbled through the plants, the rain a wet lash against his face. Catching a leaf between thumb and forefinger, he rubbed and smelled it. Nothing. Just a regular plant smell. He pinched the next one and rubbed it. Too pungent.
Agnes kneeled beside him, a hint of warmth shielding him from the wind. “What are you doing?”
“The smell of peppermint is unmistakable. We don’t need to see it to find it.”
“Oh… of course.”
He felt her reach out to help. Their hands collided among the soaked leaves – a momentary spark of fire in the chill – and Will clenched his teeth. He had no business reacting to her presence. She belonged to Dick, and Will would be damned if he let himself want anything of his again.
But who was he kidding? The reason he was out here searching for peppermint at all was because of her. Seeking a cure for fevers not for Dick, but because of her.
A sudden thorn tore a gash in his finger, and he put it in his mouth. Such a tiny wound, but the pain shot through all his defences. When he went back to feeling his way through the herbs, his fingertip stung and ached as if his whole being had gathered in that minor digit.
Within minutes, he lighted on the right plant and tore a few stalks. Agnes found some elder leaves, and they went back inside to find Dick mumbling in his sleep, face dappled with a sickly dew. Seeing him suffer, Agnes stifled a moan, and Will turned to her.
“We need to do it.”
“Look at him. He has an excess of blood, and there’s no one else who can do it. If I had gone to Barton before… But there’s no time.”
Agnes’s gaze slid to the storm-wracked man on the bed. Her eyes were wide, with too much white. Her mouth was no longer the soft summer pink of the graveyard, it was pale and strained like a gag.
“Maybe you want to do it?” Will said.
“Maybe I do.”
Her whisper was strangely audible through the howling of the wind, but she didn’t move. Will reached for a knife, and she tensed. She didn’t stop him, but she followed his every move, her eyes black in the flickering light, her nostrils stretched in whitening fear. Will picked up a candle and put it by the bed, where it cast ghostly shadows on Dick’s face. There was a warming of the air as Agnes approached behind him, and the metal glinted in his fist, asking: should he really do this? Or should he give the knife to her?
Moving slowly, he rolled up Dick’s sleeve to expose the inside of his arm. He could hear Agnes breathing and paused, unsure of how to proceed. “A… bowl, perhaps?”
Without a word, she went to fetch one, and Will put it under Dick’s elbow.
“Maybe a rag, too. For…”
Excess blood, he didn’t say, but Agnes stifled a sniffle as she obeyed. He didn’t have to name the horror to make it real.
Feeling dizzy, he looked down at the knife. It was a perfectly ordinary knife, a simple household utensil used for cutting meat and bread. Now to be used on a man’s skin. For a moment his mind filled with the image of the scraping knives in Goodman Field’s tannery, the careful removal of flesh from leather-to-be.
His hand cramped again, clutched the knife tighter. The man at his mercy had once been the boy who had harassed Will throughout their school years. His curse lay on the riverside elm where he had bound Will and where Annie had fallen. When he left for London, Will had been shackled to the tannery in his stead, and now he was aiming to bind Agnes in a golden hoop.
And yet what power did he have now, asleep, unconscious, lost to the world?
It would be so easy.
A sudden chill had Will shivering. Breathing in, he laid the knife against the blue shadow in the crook of Dick’s arm. The world seemed to hold its breath… and then he made the incision. The blade was sharp: only a small nick was needed. Dick groaned softly as blood pooled in the hollow, flowed over and ran in twin streams on either side of his arm into the bowl beneath. Will watched it run – trickling, trickling – hypnotised by the dark red colour. Fluid and fast, it left the body so easily, through such a small hole. Life brimming over, leaving forever.
Staring, dazed, he tried to think: how much blood was enough to alleviate the fever, but not enough to kill? When should he stop the flow?
A hand reached past him and clamped down on the wound, thumb pressing hard. Will swayed where he sat, brushing her arm. She leaned into him, winding a rag around Dick’s arm, movements quick and sure, experience winning over fear. Will breathed her sweat, and her elbow knocked into his ribs as she tied a tight knot.
Scarlet guilt hissed in his chest as he stared at the bowl in his hand, at the trembling, dark liquid. Had he been prepared to let the blood run dry?
When he glanced up, Agnes looked back at him, their eyes a pair of frightened birds above the scene of the carnage. Stripped by that all-seeing gaze, Will got to his feet and put the bowl aside, legs strangely weak beneath him. Wiping his hands, he fought to keep his voice light as he said, “I’ll keep watch over him if you want to sleep.”
Paper, rough and crackly. It lay under his hands like a virgin, a white expanse of nothing for him to put his blot on. Waiting, demanding: where are all your words now?
Will leaned his head in his hands, and his hair swayed into the candle. A burnt smell wafted up at him and he started. A premonition of eternities to come, deep in the pits of hell? He pushed the candle away, and it spat a drop of tallow on his hand.
That hand… He glowered at it. But it wasn’t his hand’s fault that his brain wasn’t working. In the graveyard he had been replete with words, a thronging congregation of syllables. And now? Now he delved deep into nothingness, and his heart was a hole in time, a stretch of infinite zero. Outside a storm was raging, but in here the trapped heat was frying his brain, cooking it, boiling it like cabbage.
Maybe if he tried to describe the day, the weather, the woman? But he no longer remembered. He only felt the echo of excitement, of an opened channel in his mind. Now it was closed again, and he couldn’t even remember what she looked like. How could he write about a woman if he didn’t know what she looked like? In the graveyard his mind had filled with similes, but even they were gone, leaving a faint fragrance that had him clutching at air.
He had composed a line or two, but nothing had made it onto paper. He knew better than to make such subpar musings visible to prying eyes. It had to be perfect before he made it real, and the phrases he had managed so far were less than stellar. It was surface rubbish, the floating debris that littered a springtime Avon.
An orphaned piece of advice surfaced in his mind, a stray sentence from his one-time teacher: “It’s a bit like looking at the stars. Sometimes you have to shift your gaze a little and unfocus for the pinprick to appear.”
But how to unfocus, when he could not even focus? Sighing, he sat back and stared at the candle. It fluttered in the gust. He should snuff it out and go to bed instead of wasting good tallow on what wouldn’t amount to anything.
He sank deeper into the chair, remembering. She had been a jumping flame, a woodland sprite that had burned bright for a while and then died. Just like that. As if nothing she had done in life mattered.
It was strange how grief could sneak up on you after three years when the time for mourning should really be over, but the thought hit him sometimes – that she would never grow up, that he had hardly known her when she was alive and now he never would. They had lived for almost eight years under the same roof, and he had no idea who she was. An obstinate tomboy, yes, but everyone knew that. Such narrow words did nothing to capture her true soul.
He closed his eyes. Agnes’s hands had been narrow. They had talked about words, and about Annie. There had been… rain. Not lashing rain like now, but fine, almost non-existent rain, a mist that fell slowly, slowly like dust. It had settled in her hair, and her hair had been dark. Tiny droplets, like pearls on a noblewoman’s curls. And…
Blue. Her eyes had been blue.
A moment of suspension, of utter unreality… and then a loud noise jolted him out of his trance. The vision of porcelain skin shattered into a thousand shards as he tensed, heart hammering.
Someone was banging on the front door.
Jumping up, he ran to the window and opened the shutters, but the world was blacked out. Rain smattered at the panes, at his hands and face. What if it’s her? The thought was an arrow in his heart. Utterly impossible, of course. At this hour? Ridiculous. A woman wouldn’t be out after dark. But what if? his brain insisted. What if she found out where you live? What if the brilliance of your graveyard speech caught her in a golden net and she can’t fight free of it? What if…
Another bout of banging. Will’s fingers gripped the window frame. He shouldn’t. It wasn’t his place. It could be a cozener or something. He had no authority, no right to answer that summons. But the servants seemed not to hear a thing, and Goodman Field was in Warwick for the night. What if it was important? What if it was her?
Throwing on a gown, Will ran downstairs. The house shook with strain, battered from all sides by the storm, and his hand trembled when he tried to turn the front door key. The metal dug into his sweaty skin and groaned in the lock. A moment’s resistance… and then it clicked open. The door swung wide to reveal the huddled figure of a man swathed in a dark cloak, his face hidden, his stance… weird, somehow. Hunched, not only against the wind, but against some inner demon.
Will took a step back, already regretting his decision. His hand gripped the edge of the door, about to bang it shut again. But then the man lifted his head, and the light of Will’s candle fell on his face: the drawn but flushed features, the haggard hollows of his eyes. So different from the carefree youth who had bid farewell four years ago and set off for London.
At the sight of him, Dick frowned. Didn’t he remember? “Oh… yeah.” A tired sneer of recognition. Then he pushed Will aside and strode over the threshold – his threshold, his home and hearth. Compared to him, Will was just a visitor. This was Dick’s childhood castle, his lair. Where did he expect to sleep, if not in his old room? And where would that leave Will?
Following into the dining room, Will lit a few more candles as Dick collapsed on the display bed, his wet garments making dark splotches on the covers. His face was flushed and wet, and not only from the weather.
“Give me some beer,” he said in a voice that would have been stern if it hadn’t been so weak. Will’s limbs seemed to move of their own accord as he walked to the cupboard and poured a mug from the pitcher. The glug-glug of the auburn liquid battered against his ears worse than the rain against the panes. The hand that held the mug trembled, but if Dick saw it, he didn’t make a sign. He also didn’t say thank you.
Standing by his elbow like a servant, Will watched him gulp down the beer like something ravenous and bereft of dignity, like an animal on the brink of starvation. As if illness had reduced him to something less than human.
At the thought, a chilly draught crept up Will’s back. He’s dying, the thought appeared unbidden. Then: Of course he isn’t, don’t be absurd. But the way Dick looked… Will didn’t know much about London, but he did know it was a breeding ground for the plague. There was a pulse in his chest, a pulse of pure fear. The catastrophe had touched Stratford many times before. Would this surprise homecoming mark the start of yet another sweeping of the scythe?
Snippets of memories crowded into Will’s mind: the birdman who came to treat his childhood fever, the unseeing eyes, the prophet of doom. The night in the woods that had sent Will halfway to Hades. Had Dick come back to finish his work? Was he Will’s personal angel of death?
Glaring up at him, Dick muttered, “Where’s Henry?”
“He-Henry?” Will managed through a throat gone dry.
“Oh… He’s away on business. Can I ask, what… what’s wrong with you? Is it…?”
“And the servants?”
“Sleeping, I suppose.” Will tried to swallow, but there was nothing, just a mouthscape of dust. “Have you caught the… you know, the…?”
“I’m not well,” Dick snapped, and then winced as if some inner knife was twisted.
“I… see.” Will’s lips were numb, unwilling to bend themselves to the syllables. His brain told him to run, but his body was as unable to obey. “Is there anything can I do?” The words pushed out of his mouth like lines from a play, like the pointless offering of graveyard condolences. “Should I wake up the maid? Or I could go to Barton and get my aunt.”
Dick seemed on the verge of retorting something vicious, but restrained himself. Still convinced Aunt Joan was a witch? Well then, let him fester in his devout refusal to be treated. Will didn’t care. It was the last thing he wanted anyway, to have Joan catch an ague from this lowlife.
But then Dick looked up at him with serious eyes – eyes that offered a degree of surrender. Perhaps despite everything he realised he was at Will’s mercy. “Get my fiancée.”
Will recoiled from the word. “Fiancée?” Who in her right mind would pledge herself to such a man? And why was he engaged here in Stratford when he lived his life in London?
“Yes.” Dick gasped through clenched teeth. “Anne.”
“You know Shottery, right? The Gardner family.”
Gardner. It rang a bell.
“Richard Gardner Ha–”
“Richard Gardner,” Will whispered, the image of an ivy-entwined headstone, a woman in the rain. But there were countless Richard Gardners, surely? Nothing to say these two women should have the same father.
And yet… Will stared at nothing, his brain working to connect the dots. If Dick was betrothed to Agnes’s sister, and he wanted Will to go get her…
And then, like the front door lock clicking open: “Anne.” A flicker of understanding. Dick was a protestant, and Agnes was a catholic name. Chest hollowing out, Will recoiled from the thought. It couldn’t be. It would be too apt, too dramatic. Too like a story from Ovid.
“Well?” Dick gasped, clutching his shirt. “Are you going to stand there and dither until I cough my lungs up on this floor?”
Will didn’t know what it was that made him move. A thought, a feeling that couldn’t be unborn. A butterfly caught in the damp strands of dark hair, in the lines around blue eyes, in a misty alto. Anne or Agnes – by going there he would know.
Dick’s eyes followed him as he reached for his cloak and boots, as he threw them on without even bothering with a daytime shirt. “You can use my horse.”
Opening the door, Will stepped into a sea of ink. The world was steeped in ink like Dick’s fingertips. Black, his mind kept repeating as he saddled the horse. Black like the flow of words he didn’t have, like Agnes’s hair. No source of light in this bottomless tarn but the memory of raindrops.
He gripped the reins and spurred the beast into the night, onto the sightless road. The mud sucked at her hooves, pled with him to just stay home, to go inside and warm himself, to sit and watch as Dick sweated his way into an early grave, but this was his narrative and it was pulling him along whether he could stand it or no.
A thinning line of Stratford houses rushed by behind a cloak of shiny darkness. His cramping fingers slipped on the reins, weak from the pounding water, from the unrelenting cold. His eyes hurt from squinting, and his chest hurt from holding his breath. He was riding like a madman in the pitch black night, seeking out a saviour not for himself, but for his ancient enemy. How was it possible?
And who was the woman he was going to meet? A Shottery Gardner, but was she two different people, or was she her own twin?
And why did he care?
Wild and thorny countryside gave way to sprawling farms. Slowing into a trot, Will threaded his way through the village, searching for the right house. When he found it he was long since soaked to the bone, but he slipped off Dick’s horse to pound a loud summons on the Gardner door, no matter his appearance. A bleary-eyed girl servant with a candle in her hand opened and peered out at him. He saw it in her face, how menacing a figure he cut after twenty minutes in the storm, and babbled his message quickly before she could slam the door in his face.
“Message from Richard Field, son of Goodman Field, tanner of Stratford.”
The girl frowned warily, but the name must carry some authority in this house, because it afforded him the benefit of the doubt. “Yes?”
“He has a fever and needs medicine.”
An older woman in a nightcap appeared behind the servant girl. “What on earth is the matter?”
“Young Goodman Field needs his fiancée,” Will explained, his heartbeat erratic as he searched the woman’s face for a glimmer of truth.
“What, you mean Agnes?” The woman scoffed. “She’s nothing of the sort.”
For a single heart-bursting moment, Will saw his imaginary woman split into two – one vibrant flame his graveyard rendezvous, and the other a sickly, repellent Anne, destined for Dick.
But it was not to be. Before he could paint the full picture, the woman said, “Unless that stripling scrapes together a decent living, my daughter is better off here, working for her daily bread. Fiancée, indeed…”
“I don’t know the particulars of their understanding,” Will gulped, hope and confusion battling it out in a heart that had no business prying into these strangers’ lives. “In any case, he needs his… Anne.”
Moment of truth. It seemed to stretch, to enjoy delaying the truth. Is she, isn’t she…?
Then the mother rolled her eyes. “I’m sure he does.”
Will’s heart sank into sickening heaviness. Her mother didn’t differentiate between the names. There was only one woman, one Agnes-Anne, born from the soil of Catholicism but transformed, Ovid-like, into a Protestant as she grew to maturity in Queen Elizabeth’s world.
“What seems to be the problem this time?” the mother asked.
Skin burning, Will forced out, “He has a fever.” His limbs felt weak, swollen. His arms hung limp and useless, his head swam. Why did he care, why? He didn’t know this woman, this Agnes, this Anne. He had only seen her once.
But her words had pried something open, had pushed a door that squealed on rusty hinges in his mind. She had sparkled like an anomaly in the rain.
“And Agnes is supposed to go with you, a complete stranger, in the middle of the night, across the countryside to put a cool hand on poor Richard Field’s brow? What do you take us for? We’re a respectable, Puritan family, for God’s sake.”
Puritan? “Oh…” He scrabbled for the right words, for something pious to say, a quote perhaps, when another face appeared in the half-hidden doorway behind the servant girl and the mother: a face he knew, a face he hadn’t known – one that had slipped away when he had tried to capture it on paper, but now he recognised it, recognised everything. Again that paleness, that darkness. Again the softness of her cheeks, of that naked mask – a collection of lines that made up a whole he couldn’t divide into parts. Because everything in her face was subject to her eyes. Every other feature was an afterthought. Her eyes were the exclamation mark to a sentence he had already forgotten.
She spoke, he thought she spoke, he couldn’t be sure because his head was filled with blue.
Her mother gave him a suspicious look. “Do you know this person?” she asked, and Agnes nodded.
“It’s Dick,” Will blurted, repeating his message a third time. “He’s really sick.”
Agnes smothered a noise behind her hand.
“Don’t you have any wise-women in Stratford?” the mother muttered.
“Of course, but…” Will wavered. Why had Dick sent for Agnes instead? The obvious answer was the least attractive one. “He wanted… you.”
“You can’t go scampering across the countryside with a stranger at this hour,” the mother protested.
“He’s not a stranger,” Agnes said. “He’s the former bailiff’s son. Old Shaksper.”
Will gaped. She knew who he was?
“Well,” the mother said, pursing her lips at Will’s bedraggled bedazzlement. “You’re not sharing horses with this one. You’re taking your father’s mare.”