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.