[Apologies to my Medievalist friends for the liberties I have taken here with history…]
A passer-by might have taken the pair, one with his broad-brimmed hat and sober garments, the other stiff and weathered as a signpost, for some allegorical gatekeeper setting a footsore pilgrim on his road.
‘Aye, master, we’ve our heretics in country parts same as in the city. Take Father Whiting now: as wicked an old sinner as you’d wish to meet in a summer’s day. Not a sentence he lets fall but begins and ends in the foulest heresy. Go you to Father Whiting, master, and you’ll count your pains well bestowed.’
The man in black stared at the peasant with hatred. In these days when heresy was punishable by burning such levity was intolerable. Briefly he wondered whether to sound out the man’s opinions on scripture, knowing that his own long experience could twist the cripple’s answers as vilely as his frame; but there was little to be gained from netting such small fry. Besides, he owed the man a debt of gratitude. This account of Father Whiting tallied in every detail with the intelligence gathered by the church authorities, and the peasant might come in useful at the trial. He dropped a groat into the cripple’s pouch and turned down the lane that had been indicated by the man’s knotty finger. The stranger walked swiftly, despite his limp.
It was a lane whose toils were as devious as an equivocator’s reasoning, he told himself, leading to a garden of paradisal fertility. The presbytery sprouted from the centre like a forbidden tree, concealing no doubt (all gardens held the same association in his mind) its serpent. Such a garden! Bored by botany as he was, the man in black saw in it every variety of flower, tree, herb or shrub he knew and more, flourishing in regulated profusion on either hand. Treading the pebbled path from gate to porch, he heard a burst of high-pitched laughter from an upper window. A patter of feet on a flight of steps, a babble in the hall, and a cascade of children spilled out of the open front door. They converged about his knees as if he were a long-expected visitor and drew him towards the threshold where a tiny woman stood beaming, her arms extended in welcome. Her face was narrow and pointed as that of a mouse; wrinkles radiated from the corners of her mouth like whiskers, and she let out a series of shrill squeaks as she ushered him into the house. In a moment he found himself seated in the kitchen by a blazing summer fire, looking about him in bewilderment (a sensation unfamiliar to the man in black).
The kitchen was dark and spacious, its ceiling criss-crossed by heavy beams, from which hung herbs, onions, pheasants, rabbits, kitchen implements and a large stuffed crow, spreading its tattered wings in simulated flight. A haunch of venison drooped from a metal spike an inch or two from the visitor’s nose. In one corner, a cask lay on its side in a wooden cradle, its vent stopped with a twist of cloth. Dark viscous liquid dripped from the cloth and splashed among the jugs and pots that crowded round the cradle’s feet. Against the wall stood a dresser crammed with pewter, glass and earthenware of every shape and size. A massive cauldron gurgled on the fire; steam gushed from it in gobbets. This was a place congenial to the visitor’s heart, for he loved hot rooms where meat was suspended from hooks.
A tabby cat curled its tail round the woman’s legs as she bustled to fill a jug with ale from the cask. Her hair, a grey mist, betrayed her age, but to the man in black she seemed oddly attractive in the fragrant twilight. ‘And where do you hail from, master?’ she sang out over the bobbing heads of the children. ‘A friend of Father Bernard’s, are you? Or a pilgrim on the road to the Holy Martyr’s tomb? There’s many and many a pilgrim passes through the village once the summer storms are past. Frogspawn and crowsfoot, children, we can’t hear ourselves breathe! Run along into the garden and catch me a dragonfly, won’t you? They haven’t a net,’ she explained as the children trooped out of the kitchen, ‘so that’ll keep them occupied till owl-light.’
When the room was still, the man in black accepted the ale and sipped noisily, shooting his eyes over the household treasures displayed on the dresser. The woman picked up the cat – which looked half as big as herself – and stroked it, her own gaze fixed upon the stranger. When the ale was finished he set the jug on the floor by his chair and stretched his boots across the hearthstone with a satisfied grunt. His cloak was bunched up like wings about his shoulders by the back of his chair. His restless eyes kept wandering to his hostess and darting away again.
‘The children,’ he observed to a fine pewter plate. ‘They belong to Father Whiting?’
‘Gracious, no,’ exclaimed the woman with a needle-sharp laugh. ‘They belong to the Lord. God forbid we should lay claim to the ownership of His children!’
The stranger stared at her a moment, then transferred his stare to a string of onions. ‘That is not what I meant,’ he said. ‘Who gave birth to them? And who is the father?’
The woman laughed again: her laugh was beginning to get on the stranger’s nerves. ‘Bless us, master, I quite mistook! You must think me very dizzy! Let me see now, the father. There’s Molly Wither’s children, the eldest not eight; I wouldn’t care to guess who the father might be. There’s Matty Moon’s daughters I mind when he’s away, and Billy Badger’s three boys; the fourth drowned in the beck. Bless us, Father Bernard has only seven of his own. Only seven, that’s it, with another on the way. Due in the fall, so Fanny Fireside tells me; and she ought to know, for she’s had nine already, and this’ll be the tenth if it lives!’
The man in black drew in his breath with a hiss and raised his eyes to the haunch of venison. ‘Seven, woman?’ he said between clenched teeth. ‘Did you say seven? Father Whiting is a priest of the Church of Rome!’
‘That he is, master, that he is,’ said the woman. ‘And he dearly loves the little children at his knees, just like our good Lord Jesus.’ She never ceased to stroke the tabby cat.
‘And you?’ inquired the stranger, his eyes now sliding down the poker. ‘What is your position in this household?’
‘The dear preserve us, master,’ cried the woman, her little black pupils drilling into him. ‘What position does any woman stand in to her husband?’
Here the man in black removed his hat, which he had refused to take off in the porch, and mopped his brow with a black silk handkerchief. ‘A husband,’ he repeated. ‘Do you know nothing of priestly vows? Does he?’
The woman smiled. ‘Father Bernard knows only his vows to God, master,’ she said.
The man in black revolved the hat in his hands as if inspecting the brim for dust. The priest, he thought, was clearly some sort of fanatic, one of those lollards who denied the authority of Mother Church. His eyes flicked to the woman and at once flicked back to a nail sticking out of the wall above the fireplace.
‘Tell me about the garden, will you?’ he said, with what he hoped was a friendly grin. ‘Where do the plants come from? They must have cost a pretty penny!’
‘How would a simple wench like me know where the plants come from, master?’ asked the woman, her fingers running through the cat’s fur from tail to neck. ‘I always tell the children that the seeds form wherever the sun weeps, but I don’t know the truth of the matter.’
‘Who tends the garden? Father Whiting? Where is he now?’
‘Baptising Sally Moleskin’s daughter, born out of wedlock Wednesday was a week.’
‘Baptising an illegitimate child without a dispensation? The bishop has expressly forbidden it.’ In his mounting excitement the stranger’s eyes darted from tongs to wood-basket, from wood-basket to kettle then back again to tongs. Here, truly, was a catch to weigh in with the heaviest! Before the judgement throne this priestly lunatic would condemn himself ten times over out of his own blasphemous mouth. The prize-money would be prodigious, the conflagration spectacular! Already he was formulating the indictment in his head, listening to the sentence as the Grand Inquisitor pronounced it, basking in the frightened glances of women and children as he approached the quaking heretic to minister the last rites by the light of the torches…
And the woman! Just a passing mention of her relationship with Father Whiting (the bishop wanted all such scandals smothered), an inventory of the contents of this kitchen, a thumbnail sketch of her appearance… trials for witchcraft always drew the crowds. Two such birds with one stone! Preferment beckoned surely this time. This was his lucky day!
And yet, and yet… she was certainly attractive. Although no youngster himself, he too knew the pangs of the flesh, and he was not ill-looking, he thought, in a gaunt kind of way. His eyes stroked the tabby’s fur along with her fingers. What a crowning achievement it would be if he could share her sheets while plotting her destruction! Finger by finger he pulled off his gloves, then rubbed his palms together.
‘My poor dear woman,’ he mumbled to the butter-churn. ‘You are in a sorry pickle, indeed you are.’
Her puzzled gaze made him squirm somewhat. ‘I, master?’ she said. ‘I’m the one as does the pickling hereabouts!’
He gave a nervous bark of laughter. ‘My poor dear woman, in yourself you are as innocent as the sucking babe. But you are fast becoming corrupted. You have no notion of Father Whiting’s wickedness. I must explain.’
‘Explain, master? I’m sure there’s no need to explain. There’s some things need no explaining.’
Once again his eyes made a bound to hers and away. In his fancy the air between them swam like the atmosphere over a fire. He started to twine one of his gloves round the other till they were locked in an inextricable embrace. His lips peeled back from his gums in another effort at a friendly smile. ‘Poor foolish creature,’ he murmured. ‘It is my wretched duty to shatter your illusions. This Father Whiting you so admire – this hedge-priest, this heretic – is an irredeemable scoundrel.’ The space between them tightened as he leaned towards her. ‘A scoundrel, and more than a scoundrel. He is a devil. He has broken every edict human and divine. He has married and begotten children in violation of his holy profession. He has expended money, time and labour on the cultivation of luxuries, which should have been devoted to the pastoral care of his flock. He has flagrantly disregarded the bishop’s edicts. And it would not surprise me if he were a poacher’ – gesturing at the pheasants and the venison – ‘or a practitioner of the Black Arts’ – with a gesture at the crow. ‘In conclusion, woman, Father Whiting is damned to everlasting torment. But this is not the sum of his malignancy. Alas, woman, his most unpardonable crime is this: that he has drawn your hapless self into the trains of his infernal schemes. He has ensnared your soul with lascivious blandishments, glutted your tender flesh with sensuous drafts and the dishes of venery. Unless you change your ways at once, my child, you will find yourself impaled on a spit by his side in the blackest pit of Purgatory. Do you understand your danger?’
He rose several inches in his chair as he spoke, and finally fixed her with a terrible glare, pinning her down as if with red-hot pokers. ‘Oh heavens, master,’ she whispered. ‘Is that so? What shall I do, master? How shall I be saved?’
The stranger held her in his gaze a moment longer, then released her with a shuddering sigh. She was well netted. He reached into the folds of his cloak and drew forth a scroll tied up with red ribbon. ‘You are a good woman at heart,’ he announced as he plucked at the knot with his nails, ‘and you have already taken the first step towards salvation. The second is almost as simple.’ The ribbon dropped to the floor and the scroll flew open in his hands. ‘I have here a precious document entrusted to me by my superiors. It is a simple declaration, nothing to be alarmed at, attesting to my conviction of your innocence. You need only sign along the dotted – but I forget, you do not write. A mark will do, and then I can guarantee your safety.’
He reached the scroll towards her. As her hand closed round it a shudder ran down his spine. She studied the legal script for several minutes with some intensity before he realized she was holding it upside down. He smirked to himself and fumbled once again among his garments.
‘Here is pen and ink. When you have completed the form I must ask you to accompany me to my residence for a short interrogation – you are familiar with church bureaucracy…’ The laughter of children filtered through the leaves at the kitchen window. ‘When the inquisition is over you shall never be troubled again.’
The woman perched on her stool, the scroll in one hand, the pen in the other. The late afternoon sun was screened by a hedge of yew so that the room lay thick with shadows. The cauldron bubbled and belched. A log fell in the fire sending up a flock of sparks. Solitary flames twirled on the tips of twigs, red-hot caverns roared amidst the geology of crumbling wood. A heavy odour clung about the stranger’s nostrils; his forehead glistened with perspiration. Truly the woman had a presence; the air fairly crackled with the electric charges that shot between them.
‘Well, master,’ she said, rising and crossing to the dresser (how catlike every movement!). ‘What a blessing it is that you troubled yourself to visit me in my wickedness! I might never have known I was treading the path to perpetual pain. How can a simple wench repay such kindness?’ A thousand answers jostled at his lips, but before he could speak she had turned to him holding a bowl. ‘Would you care for a drop of stew, sir? Nothing special, but Father Bernard loves it dearly.’
The stranger smirked and smirked. A libation – a thank-offering! And how charming that she should put her life in his hands along with a mess of pottage! ‘With all my heart,’ he said, rising likewise and moving towards the cauldron. As he bent over it, the fire cast shadows like horns from his bushy eyebrows.
‘It is always pleasing to encounter gratitude in my line of work,’ he went on. ‘Too often the instrument is mistaken for the instigator, the slave blamed for the caprices of his master, the effect condemned instead of the cause. You and I and Father Whiting are all of us no more than tools in the hand of that inscrutable craftswoman, Dame Fortune. What a delectable aroma!’ His nostrils dilated. ‘Mine is an unpleasant vocation, certainly, but the job must be done and a strong spirit is needed to do it. Yet to tell the truth, there are moments when it palls on me. Moments when I find myself seized with an irresistible passion for one of those I must betray – be it a frail young monk unable to combat heretical thoughts or a handsome woman like yourself – seized with a passion beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals. A strange phenomenon, don’t you think?’ The bubbles bulged, swelled and popped like the turbulence in his stomach. ‘Tell me, woman, what is in the stew?’
At this point the woman, who was standing behind him, dropped the bowl so that it smashed to pieces on the floor. In the same movement she bent, seized the stranger by the heels and tipped him over the lip of the cauldron. Gravy slopped into the flames, hissing venomously. As he kicked, his boots flew off to reveal his cloven hooves, his tail disengaged itself from the sinking cloak. Fingers of steam groped up the chimney, fumbled the woman’s pointed features, poked among the fragments on the floor. She stirred the pottage twice before she replied.
‘Devilled kidneys,’ she said.