Ten Years Ago, Will’s Story.
It has been a bloody tortuous ride from London to Linhill. The frosts which have covered most of the area for the past three days have turned the ground iron hard; and it is necessary to travel slowly in order to avoid slipping on the rutted tracks. One careless step from one of the horses could result in a shattered fetlock, a thrown rider and disaster.
So we guide our mounts carefully, attempting to navigate around the worst of the ruts and puddles, the heads of men and horses enveloped in clouds of vapour as warm breath mingles with the ice cold air of late November.
But if I am finding the going hard, then God alone knows how it is for Ned, so sick he can barely sit his horse. But he is stoically hanging on, for this is perhaps his last taste of comparative freedom for some time.
My poor Ned. He is the reason we are making this journey, and my only real care is to see him safely home where he can be better tended.
Three days ago, when we had received word that Ned was to be released from the Tower to house arrest, I had been so damned relieved for his sake, because God knows he had suffered. Frequent fevers, chills and deliriums had plagued him for the eight months of his incarceration, and to be as sick as he had been whilst in the Tower had been an intolerable situation. Care of him had been minimal and perfunctory at best, and though I had done what I could for him, it was clearly not enough. And it had not been an easy task trying to care for one as intractable and as bloody stubborn as Ned.
He had few serious faults, but his stubborn streak I had learned to tolerate, and it was this refusal to bend which had taken him to the Tower in the first place. For, when the Council had, once again sent orders that the Lady Mary must cease hearing Mass at her home, Ned, who was attached to her household had refused to enforce the ruling. How, he had argued, could he possibly tell her Grace such a thing when he had every intention of continuing with the practice himself.
So he was immediately dispatched to the Tower to reconsider his stiff necked attitude and ponder his situation.
He did neither of course, and after eight months of much physical suffering, it was considered to be in his best interests if he were allowed to go home to Linhill; under strict supervision and still as a close prisoner.
This morning, just before we set out on the fifty mile journey from London to Essex, we had been told that Ned and I would be accompanied by an escort of six guards which also included John Finch, the young captain of the attachment. When he heard this, Ned’s reaction was typical, ‘So careful for my safety’, he said with a snort of derision.
And because he was so feverish and ill, I had ventured to ask him if he felt able to ride all the way to Linhill. Would he not, I had asked, rather travel by litter. His reply was sarcastic and cutting, ‘Perhaps you would like to carry me out on your shoulders, Master Audley, or even better we could have the Tower carpenter make a coffin for me so I can leave feet first, hmm?’ This was delivered with a curled lip and a dangerous darkening of his eyes. ‘Please mind your damn business, William’. I held my tongue after that. And I was hurt, of course I was, but I knew that illness and the conditions of his ‘release’ from that ungodly place had shortened his temper. But before we had ridden through the Byward gate, he had apologised.
‘Forgive me, Will’, he said, ‘I did not mean to attack you like that. I know you meant well and I am grateful.’ And then, as we waited for the signal to ride on, he had leaned across from the saddle, touched my hand where it gripped the reigns; and smiled at me. A smile which for seconds transformed his face from pale and tired to sunlit, and I felt the warmth of it across the space between is. And I smiled back, and for that moment, I was content.
And then the captain had given the signal to move. And we trotted across the bailey and out through the gate onto Tower Hill, to begin the fifty five mile journey to Linhill, and I wondered if Ned would be able to hang on for the duration. Wrapped in his woollen cloak against the ice cold wind blowing off the Thames, his hat pulled down almost to eye level, it had been pitiful to behold.
Freezing fog had Linhill in its grip and the pale winter sun had long since set when we at last approached the hall. It was bitterly cold, and tendrils of mist swirled and shifted about us as we rode through the courtyard entrance and round to the rear of the house and the stable yard.
I quickly dismounted, and catching hold of its bridle I lead Ned’s horse over to the mounting block.
But God knows he must have been half put of his mind with with the fever as, kicking his feet free of the stirrups he slid to the ground, almost falling of the stone block and onto the cobbles beneath.
‘Well done, Ned, I said, as he slumped against me, ‘break your damn fool neck after all, and why not; it’ll mean less to do for me and those bloody guards of yours.
‘Will, please, stop your nagging and get me into the house for Christ’s sake’.
Now, five hours have passed since our arrival back at Linhill. It must, I think be well passed midnight because it is so quiet and so peaceful now. Even the low hum of conversation from the guards has ceased and only one now remains outside the door of Ned’s bedchamber.
And thank God Ned has settled at last. He’s been so agitated and restless since I’d helped him prepare for bed. Dead on his feet, he’d stood compliant as a child as I had stripped his clothes from him and, despite his feeble protests that ‘he hated the damn things’ had slipped the linen nightgown over his head, smoothing it down over the length of his trembling body. Then, because it was known to be affective against fevers, I had wrapped him in red flannel sheets before piling the bed high with covers, banking the fire to it’s utmost and seeing to it that the hearth was stacked with extra logs.
There remained just one more thing to do before I could call my soul my own. Helping Ned upright, supporting him with my arm around his shoulders as he drank the herbal preparation, ‘Urgh!’ he’d grimaced as he’d tasted it, ‘Feverfew, Christ, Will, do you want to finish me off?’
‘Yes, Ned’, I’d countered, ‘Quite often. Now stop complaining and drink it, it’s good for you’.
Now, sitting by the blazing fire, the only light in the chamber apart from the solitary bedside candle, I could so easily imagine that no one else existed in the world except Ned and me. I had even forgotten or at least discounted, the one remaining guard outside the door.
My world, since we had arrived back here had shrunk to the confines of the four walls of this one room, and I, at four and twenty years of age had never felt so at peace with my self. But it made me pause and wonder why. Why was I feeling this sense of peace, this quiet joy almost when my dearest friend was lying sick and a prisoner and, because of my affinity I was as much a prisoner as he.
My mind though, shrank from knowing the answer, from acknowledging what it was that I was running away from. I must not think it, not now not ever. But Jesu, I am tired, and the heat of the fire is making me so sleepy, so very sleepy. I’ll close my eyes just for a moment, a little while, no more………
The sharp spitting of the fire as a log shifts and falls jerks me suddenly into wakefulness. God knows how long I’ve slept but all is still and quiet in the house, while outside in the distance the silence of the night is broken by the sharp, unearthly scream of a vixen.
Throwing another log onto the fire, I stretch my cramped limbs and rub the sleep from my eyes then cross the room to Ned.
Standing over him I can see by the light of the candle that the fever has broken at last. His forehead and hair are wet and rivulets of sweat trickle down his face and temples, soaking into the pillows.
Turning to the table by the bed, I soak a cloth in the pewter basin of cool, herb infused water, wring it out and begin to gently wipe the sweat from his face, neck and chest.
For most of the night I sit by him performing this task, and it pleases me to see how it soothes and quiets him. And when the water is used, rather than leave him, I begin to smooth the hair back from his face. Over and over, running my hand tenderly across his brow and through the thick dark hair. And when he stirs I speak softly to him, ‘Love, hush, be still. I’m here with you and all is well’.
And then I know. I know what it is I have been trying so hard to deny, trying to run away from for so long. With those words I have just spoken seemingly without volition, I have been forced to cease running, to turn and face the truth at last. That my feelings for Ned have gone beyond mere friendship.
And now I have admitted it to myself I know, without a doubt that I love him with every fibre of my being, and I want him so much that it hurts. Hurts because I know that he can never feel the same for me, and that my love will perforce, have to remain hidden and unspoken. Maybe then, that is my punishment for feeling such a love which is thought of as sinful and ranks only a little less than murder by most people.
Ah, Ned, I think now as I sit by him, smoothing the hair from his face as he sleeps, what would you think of me now if you knew of my feelings for you. Would he think me sinful? But I must put away such thoughts as he must never know. How could I destroy our friendship by confessing such a thing to him, and worse, perhaps never seeing him again.
That I could not bear, so my decision is made, and however painful it will surly be, I must never reveal my true feelings for him either in word or deed.
Looking at him now, I see him with eyes newly opened by love. Even now, haggard as it is by sickness, I can still see the beauty of his face. The fine boned masculine beauty which in repose and in illness is even more pronounced, the flesh tightly drawn over cheekbones, jaw and chin. His eyes, though closed now, are so clear in my mind; the dark grey, expressive eyes which show every emotion, thought and feeling, and can in turn be hard with anger, soft with compassion and bright with amusement.
And his smile, oh his smile, so warm engaging and inviting. It draws people to him like bees to clover.
Now, a cold grey November dawn is beginning to creep through the un shuttered windows, and the candle by the bed has long since guttered and gone out. Ned is peaceful for the moment and the fire needs tending as I cannot allow it to die. I should try to close my eyes for an hour or two as it has been a long night, but I am loath to leave him.
But seeing as he is quiet now, I will go sit by the fire for a little while. As I get up from my seat by the bed, I look down on him as he sleeps and am suddenly overwhelmed by my love for him. Leaning over, I gently place my lips against his, allowing them to linger there for seconds, my hand resting against his unshaven cheek.
Then reluctantly, I lift my mouth from his, turn and go to tend the fire and resume my seat and my thoughts there.
All images by Google Images.
Top, steps from the Bowyer Tower
Centre, The Byward Gate
Above, Moonlight in East Anglia