Read by Will EverettGod’s blood, Johnny!
Dionis Baynbrigge is a magnificent man with a strong arm and a fine doublet, as unthrifty as you would want for a man in possession of a vineyard. And when my mother loosened her ruff for him to gaze adoringly on her whitened neck, he was not yet her husband. Well may she chastise me now!
Dionis Baynbrigge was clear in his expectation and Johnny my friend, I blushed to hear him say it in front of my two sisters, but the bargain was well struck. My mother took my sisters to the market in York and got them up in the giddiest of farthingales with eight inches of lace each for their cuffs, and stood on the path to the Stonegate. Dionis Baynbrigge was not the only man to approach them, and to speak true, his eye was first drawn to my sister Anne; as well it might be, the way she simpers. But I told him, with Anne being only sixteen years of age, he must make do with my mother.
I am to have full rein of both his vineyard and his cellar, and God’s blood would boil to see the quantity of communion wine drunk in the hole with the priests. I am down there with them and their Hail Marys. It is a wonder they ever come out and say mass! I see them stagger in the darkness to give communion in the vine-fields and pray for a Catholic King and country, fearful left and right of the Justice and the noose, but it seems most of Scotton, where I do now you write this letter, exists in the old religion, including Squire Pulleyn and his daughter Maria.
Oh, Johnny! Maria!
Milk white skin, a full mouth of teeth and an ankle to make a man tremble. Maria, beautiful, coquettish Maria! She has set her cap at me, lifting her hem to the upper reaches of her thigh whilst the priest gives his communion. I swear I fell in a faint with the sight of her bare flesh glinting against flaccid grapes in the moonlight, so overcome was I with passion. She is a full three-year older than me, Johnny, and there are plenty of lads and grown men in Scotton with an eye for her, but it is I who woo her, in the vine-field where as much time is spent in gossip as it is in worship. And I, a communicant of the Church of King James, mumbling at my beads to gain a glance at the slender descent of her leg.
‘Son,’ says my mother when she catches me watching Maria loosening her stays, ‘you being the best part of eighteen years can poke whom you like, but why did you have to choose the apple of that recusant’s eye?’
God’s blood Johnny, if Dionis Baynbrigge wants I pray with him and the other Catholics in the vine-field, I will if it gets me Maria. I will embrace every popish custom for a wondrous sniff of her earthy perfume. I lie in wait for Maria at the vine-field gate and I tell her I will take communion with her if she will allow me to cradle her foot in my tender hands. Beg her on my knees to let me lay my cheek upon her stockinged ankle – I would even recant my oath of conformity! She gives me a wry smile and my heart does tremble at it.
I have much competition, Johnny. Every lad and man in the village is hot for her and the land that comes with her. I have grown a moustache longer than any man’s in Scotton to show Maria how much a Catholic I have become. It is a very fine moustache, ginger and sweeping either side of my chin into twisted knots. Maria casts her eyes up to it and in those blue orbs I see her desire for me. She is a paragon! Such is her regard for me, she passes me by without a word to ensure the esteem of our elders.
Behind the hedge I watch her go up to the vine-field at midnight, crossing her chest in holy water to kneel in the pew of stunted grape-trees, Dionis Baynbrigge holding her right hand and Squire Pulleyn her left; Justice Stayingwell lurking behind the oaks to catch a glimpse of her, ticking us off his churchwarden’s list. My moustache gets me a place behind her and I kneel on stony ground in the moonlight. Her hand before me drops to her side, inching the line of her petticoat above her shoe and do I gaze adoringly on that ankle; I slaver at such fine flesh! At the vine-gate I press for more and she is keen, Johnny, she is keen, for sure. She whispers to me in the darkness that no good Catholic has a shorn head. When my hair is as long and as ringleted as her own, she says, my progress up her shin is assured.
Therefore I am on my knees, praying for long locks of ginger hair to curl, but it grows so slow. I pray with the priests in the cellars. My piss goes upstairs in a bucket twice a day and it is as red as the wine I drink at night. Down comes fried pigeon on hot tin plates and Douay Bibles full of popish trickery. And while I am about growing my hair, my sister Anne tells me every man in Scotton is on his knees with his sister’s curlpapers in his fringe, cultivating flowing Catholic locks for Maria, beautiful Maria, including Dionis Baynbrigge and Justice Stayinwell. I tell these priests they are very flexible in their beliefs, and when they see Dionis Baynbrigge and Justice Stayinwell’s combed ringlets at the communion rail they sell me their hair and beards for a penny an ounce and work on me their Latin magic. My sister Anne colours it with the residue of conkers and weaves it into a wig of loose rust-coloured curls. I am also wearing lace in three round collars on my neck, and a popish hat, and the next bright-moon night I am up skulking with the priests in the vine-field.
Oh Maria! My Maria!
She tests me. She says she must be certain my conviction will hold.
I am fined twenty pounds by the churchwarden for not having come to Divine Service and another twenty pounds next month if I fail to conform. Dionis has bought mine and my sister’s horse and my mother’s mare so I can pay it. But readily would I pay twenty fines to glimpse the expanse of thigh I did when I first met Maria! She asks me to sell my land. A recusant’s assets might at any time be seized, for a pledge to Rome is a pledge against King James and that is treason, she tells me. Better to have my land hanging around my neck in gold than my neck in a noose. For Maria, I say, for a sight of her ankle, anything!
I shave my moustache and remove my rusty wig to look a Protestant again. Baynbrigge lends me his horse and I go to York, Johnny, and sell my house and my land and bring back a purse heavy with gold, even though it is winter and the road is hard-going. Maria meets me at the storehouse and eases her fingers between my purse’s rough-drawn string. Feels the weight of coin in her palm. How I delight at her brightening gaze upon my steady, adoring countenance. I tell her I love her and she permits me to take a sovereign and run it up her leg, past the delicate line of her ankle over her shin to encircle her rounded knee.
‘It is not enough,’ she murmurs into my bowed ear. Her hand is on my wig. I think I might be on my way to heaven. ‘I would I might be wooed by a Martino or a Calibresi, a Guido. Guy is such an English name. So Queen Elizabeth. So 1570.’ Her hem descends to her boot, she smoothes her skirts and my tongue is left lolling. She sighs and says, ‘I imagine something more romantic; something foreign; something Italian, something modern. I want to be wooed by a soldier, I want to hear tales of battle against heretics, of Protestants slain and Catholic kings on the English throne.’
Johnny, I stammered. ‘A s..s..soldier?’ I say. ‘F...f...fighting? F...f... for the Catholics in S...S...Spain?’ It takes me more than a moment to see myself in armour, not pressing grapes; to imagine returning victorious, sword sheathed in the head of the heathen Scot King James at the feet of my dearest, most magnificent Maria!
Perhaps she senses my hesitation. Her boots scuff between the vines and she is up and out of the field on Dionis Baynbrigge’s arm before I am on my heels again. Justice Stayinwell, too, watches her from behind the oaks, stroking his silken fringe.
‘Son,’ says my mother beside me. I do not like to be interrupted by her. She claps my head to her monstrous bosom. ‘Maria’s belly shows someone in Scotton has her father to fear.’
So consumed had I been, Johnny, by Maria’s ankle, that I had not raised my eyes higher than her sweet dimpled knee. Now I do, and I see a mountain as wondrous as Maria herself. It protrudes a Fawkes, Johnny, I am convinced. The Lord has joyfully intervened, for I see no other way it could have got in there without divine help. I am a Catholic indeed.
You must come to Scotton, Johnny, to see Maria’s ankle and to drink Baynbrigge’s wine. And we have your trunk. You must tell the carrier to come to Dionis Baynbrigge the wine-maker, for Maria now resides there with my mother and sisters. Your trunk is at the inn, for which you will have to pay the keeper two marks. I have taken from it your flint and your musket, your map of London and your compass. I know you will not mind, Johnny, for I have one last heroic deed to perform. Maria tells me the child will be mine if I can truly show my commitment to the one holy and apostolic faith. Even Justice Stayinwell is in agreement, and waives my fines. Only my mother is not pleased. She dislikes my new name, and wishes me to continue in the trade she bought in marriage to Dionis Baynbrigge. I tell her there is nothing to the wine trade but drinking, and I can do that in Spain fighting the Dutch Protestants. Dionis offers Maria his protection and I know she will be safe under his roof, and well occupied.
When you come to Scotton, Johnny, you will not find me here. I will be sober in battle with the image of the divine ankle before me, and the prospect of Maria’s entire leg in my heart. Maria asks that I return with the head of King James in my hand, and if I do not, Johnny, then you can curse my new name and light a fire under me!
Do not forget to give the innkeeper two marks. Maria will not pay it for you, and neither will my mother. Try to get it from Dionis. He owes me.
Your humble and obedient friend,
© Leonie Milliner, 2012
Leonie Milliner lives in London. Her work has been published by ‘The Casket’ on i-tunes as podcasts and featured for National Flash Fiction Day. Leonie is working on a novel, The Turncoat's Daughter, a light-hearted romp through eighteenth century Rome, loosely based on the life of the architect Robert Adam.
Will Everett is a journalist who occasionally finds himself on stage. He is very happy to be part of the Liars' League.