Fool Chapter 3
OUR DARKER PURPOSE
“Well this is a downy lot of goose toss if I’ve ever read it,” said I. I sat on the bastard’s back, cross-legged, reading the letter he’d written to his father. “‘And my lord must understand how unjust it is that I, the issue of true passion, is shorn of respect and position while deference is given my half brother, who is the product of a bed made of duty and drudgery.'”
“It’s true,” said the bastard. “Am I not as true of shape, as sharp of mind, a – “
“You’re a whiny little wanker, is what you are,” said I, my brashness perhaps spurred by the weight of Drool, who was sitting on the bastard’s legs. “What did you think you would possibly gain by giving this letter to your father?”
“That he might relent and give me half my brother’s title and inheritance.”
“Because your mother was a better boff than Edgar’s? You’re a bastard and an idiot.”
“You could not know, little man.”
It was tempting then, to clout the knave across the head with Jones, or better, slit his throat with his own sword, but as much as the king might favor me, he favors the order of his power more. The murder of Gloucester’s son, no matter how deserved, would not go unpunished. But I was fast on my way to fool’s funeral anyway if I let the bastard up before his anger cooled. I’d sent Shanker Mary away in hope that any wrath that fell might pass her by. I needed a threat to stay Edmund’s hand, but I had none. I am the least powerful of all about the court. My only influence is raising others’ ire.
“I do know what it is to be deprived by the accident of birth, Edmund.”
“We are not the same. You are as common as field dirt. I am not.”
“I could not know then, Edmund, what it is to have my title cast as an insult? If I call you bastard, and you call me fool, can we answer as men?”
“No riddles, fool. I can’t feel my feet.”
“Why would you want to feel your feet? Is that more of the debauchery of the ruling class I hear so much about? So blessed are you with access to the flesh’s pleasures that you have to devise ingenious perversions to get your withered, inbred plumbing to come to attention – need to feel your feet and whip the stable boy with a dead rabbit to scratch your scurvy, libidinous itch, is it?”
“What are you on about, fool? I can’t feel my feet because there’s a great oaf sitting on my legs.”
“Oh. Quite right, sorry. Drool, lift off a bit, but don’t let him up.” I climbed from the bastard’s back and walked to the laundry doorway where he could see me. “What you want is property and title. Do you imagine that you will get it by begging?”
“The letter’s not begging.”
“You want your brother’s fortune. How much better would a letter from him convince your father of your worth?”
“He would never write such a letter, and besides, he does not play for favor, it is his already.”
“Then perhaps the problem is moving favor from Edgar to you. The right letter from him would do it. A letter wherein he confesses his impatience with waiting for his inheritance, and asks for your help in usurping your father.”
“You’re mad, fool. Edgar would never write such a letter.”
“I didn’t say he would. Do you have anything written in his hand?”
“I do, a letter of credit he was to grant to a wool merchant in Barking Upminster.”
“Do you, sweet bastard, know what a scriptorium is?”
“Aye, it’s a place in the monastery where they copy documents – bibles and such.”
“And so my accident of birth is the remedy of yours, for because I hadn’t even one parent to lay claim to me, I was brought up in a nunnery that had just such a scriptorium, where, yes, they taught a boy to copy documents, but for our darker purpose, they taught him to copy it in exactly the hand that he found on the page, and the one before that, and the one before that. Letter to letter, stroke for stroke, the same hand as a man long gone to the grave.”
“So you are a skilled forger? If you were raised in a nunnery how is it you are a fool and not a monk or a priest?”
“How is it that you, the son of an earl, must plead mercy from under the arse of an enormous nitwit? We’re all Fate’s bastards. Shall we compose a letter, Edmund?”
I’m sure I would have become a monk, but for the anchoress. The closest to court I would have come would have been praying for the forgiveness of some noble’s war crimes. Was I not reared for the monastic life from the moment Mother Basil found me squirming on the steps of the abbey at Dog Snogging on the Ouze?
I never knew my parents, but Mother Basil told me once that she thought my mother might have been a madwoman from the local village who had drowned in the river Ouze shortly after I appeared on the doorstep. If that were so, the abbess told me, then my mother had been touched by God (like the Natural) and so I was given to the abbey as God’s special child.
The nuns, most of whom were of noble birth, second and third daughters who could not find a noble husband, doted on me like a new puppy. So tiny was I that the abbess would carry me with her in her apron pocket, and thus I was given the name of Pocket. Little Pocket of Dog Snogging Abbey. I was much the novelty, the only male in that all-female world, and the nuns competed to see who might carry me in their apron pocket, although I do not remember it. Later, after I learned to walk, they would stand me on the table at mealtime and have me parade up and down waving my winky at them, a unique appendage in those feminine environs. I was seven before I realized that you could eat breakfast with your pants on. Still, I always felt separate from the rest of them, a different creature, isolated.
I was allowed to sleep on the floor in the abbess’s chambers, as she had a woven rug given her by the bishop. On cold nights I was permitted to sleep under her covers to keep her feet warm, unless one of the other nuns had joined her for that purpose.
Mother Basil and I were constant companions, even after I grew out of her marsupial affection. I attended the masses and prayers with her every day from as long as I could remember. How I loved watching her shave every morning after sunup, stropping her razor on a leather strap and carefully scraping the blue-black whiskers from her face. She would show me how to shave the little spot under your nose, and how she pulled aside the skin on her neck, so as not to nick her Adam’s apple. But she was a stern mistress, and I had to pray every three hours like all the other nuns, as well as carry water for her bath, chop wood, scrub floors, work in the garden, as well as take lessons in maths, catechism, Latin and Greek, and calligraphy. By the time I was nine I could read and write three languages and recite The Lives of the Saints from memory. I lived to serve God and the nuns of Dog Snogging, hoping that one day I might be ordained as a priest myself.
And I might have, but then one day workmen came to the abbey, stonecutters and masons, and in a matter of days they had built a cell off of one of the abandoned passages in the rectory. We were going to have our very own anchorite, or in our case, anchoress. An acolyte so devoted to God that she would be walled up in a cell with only a small opening through which she would be passed food and water, and there she would spend the rest of her life, literally part of the church, praying and dispensing wisdom to the people of the village through her window until she was taken into the bosom of the Lord. Next to being martyred, it was the most holy act of devotion a person could perform.
Daily I crept out of Mother Basil’s quarters to check on the progress of the cell, hoping to somehow bask in the glory that would be bestowed upon the anchoress. But as the walls rose, I saw there was no window left to the outside, no place for the villagers to receive blessings, as was the custom.
“Our anchoress will be very special,” Mother Basil explained in her steady baritone voice. “So devout is she that she will only lay eyes on those who bring her food. She will not be distracted from her prayers for the king’s salvation.”
“She is the charge of the king?”
“No other,” said Mother Basil. The rest of us were bound by payment to pray for the forgiveness of the Earl of Sussex, who had slaughtered thousands of innocents in the last war with the Belgians and was bound to toast on the coals of Hell unless we could fulfill his penance, which had been pronounced by the Pope himself to be seven million Hail Marys per peasant. (Even with a dispensation and a half-price coupon purchased at Lourdes, the earl was getting no more than a thousand Hail Marys to the penny, so Dog Snogging was becoming a very rich monastery on his sins.) But our anchoress would answer for the sins of the king himself. He was said to have perpetrated some jolly-good wickedness, so her prayers must be very potent indeed.
“Please, Mother, please let me take food to the anchoress.”
“No one is to see or speak to her.”
“But someone has to take her food. Let me do it. I promise not to look.”
“I shall consult the Lord.”
I never saw the anchoress arrive. The rumor simply passed that she was in the abbey and the workmen had set the stones around her. Week’s went by with me begging the abbess to allow me the holy duty of feeding the anchoress, but it was not until one evening when Mother Basil needed to spend the night alone with young sister Mandy, praying in private for the forgiveness of what the abbess called a “Smashing Horny Weekender,” that I was allowed to attend to the anchoress.
“In fact,” said the Reverend Mother, “you stay there, outside her cell until morning, and see if you can learn some piety. Don’t come back until morning. Late morning. And bring tea and a couple of scones with you when you come back. And some jam.”
I thought I would burst, I was so excited when I first made my way down that long, dark hallway – carrying a plate of cheese and bread, and a flagon of ale. I half expected to see the glory of God shining through the window, but when I got there, it wasn’t a window at all, but an arrow loop, like in a castle wall, cut in the shape of a cross, the edges tapered so that the broad stone came to a point at the opening. It was as if the masons only knew one window they could put in a thick wall. (Funny that arrow loops and sword hilts, mechanisms of death, form the sign of the cross – a symbol of mercy – but on second thought, I guess it was a mechanism of death in itself.) The opening was barely wide enough to pass the flagon through; the plate would just fit through at the cross. I waited. No light came from inside the cell. A single candle on the wall across from the opening was the only illumination.
I was terrified. I listened, to see if I could hear the anchoress reciting novenas. There wasn’t even the sound of breathing. Was she sleeping? What kind of sin was it to interrupt the prayers of someone so holy? I put the plate and ale on the floor and tried to peer into the darkness of the cell, perhaps see her glow.
Then I saw it. The dim sparkle of the candle reflecting in an eye. She was sitting there, not two feet from the opening. I jumped back against the far wall, knocking over the ale on the way.
“Did I frighten you?” came a woman’s voice.
“No. No, I was just, I am – forgive me. I am awed by your piety.”
Then she laughed. It was sad laughter, as if it had been held a long time and then let out in almost a sob, but she was laughing and I was confused.
“I’m sorry, mistress – “
“No, no, no, don’t be sorry. Don’t you dare be sorry, boy.”
“I’m not. I won’t be.”
“What is your name?”
“Pocket,” she repeated, and she laughed some more. “You’ve spilled my ale, Pocket.”
“Aye, mum. Shall I fetch you some more?”
“If you don’t want the glory of my bloody godliness burning us both down, you better had, hadn’t you, friend Pocket? And when you come back, I want you to tell me a story that will make me laugh.”
And that was the day that my world changed.
“Remind me, why is it we’re not just murdering my brother?” asked Edmund. From whimpering scribblings to conspiracy to murder in the course of an hour, Edmund was a quick study when it came to villainy.
I sat, quill in hand, at the table in my small apartment above the great gatehouse in the outer wall of the castle. I have my own fireplace, a table, two stools, a bed, a cupboard for my things, a hook for my coxcomb and clothes, and in the middle of my room a large cauldron for heating and pouring boiling oil upon a siege force through gutters in the floor. But for the clanking of the massive chains when the drawbridge is raised or lowered, it is a cozy den in which to pursue slumber or other horizontal sport. Best of all, it is private, with a thumping big bolt on the door. Even among the nobles, privacy is rare, as conspiracy thrives there.
“While that is an attractive course, unless Edgar is disgraced, disinherited, and his properties willfully given to you, the lands and title could pass to some legitimate cousin, or worse, your father might set about trying to sire a new legitimate heir.”
I shuddered a bit then – along with, I’m sure, a dozen maidens about the kingdom – at the mental vision of Gloucester’s withered flanks, bared and about the business of making an heir upon their nubile nobility. They would be clawing at the nunnery door to escape the honor.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Edmund.
“Really, you, not think? How shocking. Although a simple poisoning does seem cleaner, the letter is the sharper sword.” If I gave the scoundrel proper rope, perhaps he could hang for both our purposes. “I can craft such a letter, subtle, yet condemning. You’ll be the Earl of Gloucester before you can get dirt shoveled on your father’s still twitching body. But the letter may not do all.”
“Speak your mind, fool. As much as I’d love to silence your yammering, speak.”
“The king favors your father and your brother, which is why they were called here. If Edgar becomes betrothed to Cordelia, which could happen before the morrow – well, with the princess’s dowry in hand, there’ll be no cause for him to resort to the treachery we are about to craft around him. You’ll be left with your fangs showing, noble Edmund, and the legitimate son will be all the richer.”
“I’ll see he is not betrothed to Cordelia.”
“How? Will you tell him horrid things? I have it on good authority that her feet are like ferryboats. They strap them up under her gown to keep them from flapping when she walks.”
“I will see to it that there is no marriage, little man, don’t you worry. But you must see to this letter. Tomorrow Edgar goes on to Barking to deliver the letters of credit and I’ll return to Gloucester with my father. I’ll let the letter slip to him then, so his anger has time to fester in Edgar’s absence.”
“Quick, before I waste parchment, promise you’ll not let Edgar marry Cordelia.”
“Fine, fool, promise you’ll not tell anyone that you ever penned this letter, and I will.”
“I promise,” said I. “By the balls of Venus.”
“Then, so do I,” said the bastard.
“All right, then,” said I, dipping my quill in ink, “although murder would be a simpler plan.” I’ve never cared for the bastard’s brother Edgar, either. Earnest and open-faced is he. I don’t trust anyone who appears so trustworthy. They must be up to something. Of course, Edmund hanging black-tongued for his brother’s murder would make for a festive chandelier as well. A fool does enjoy a party.
In a half-hour I had crafted a letter so wily and peppered with treachery that any father might strangle his son at the sight of it and, if childless, bastinade his own bollocks with a war hammer to discourage conspirators yet to be born. It was a masterpiece of both forgery and manipulation. I blotted it well and held it up for Edmund to see.
“I’ll need your dagger, sir,” said I.
Edmund reached for the letter and I danced away from him. “First the knife, good bastard.”
Edmund laughed. “Take my dagger, fool. You’re no safer, I still have my sword.”
“Aye, which I handed you myself. I need your dagger to razor the seal off that letter of credit so I may affix it to this missive of ours. You’ll need to break it only in your father’s presence, as if you yourself are only then discovering your brother’s black nature.”
“Oh,” said Edmund.
He gave me the knife. I performed the deed with sealing wax and candle and handed the blade back with the letter. (Could I have used one of my own knives for the task? Of course, but it was not time for Edmund to know of them.)
The letter was barely in his pocket before Edmund had drawn his sword and had it leveled at my throat. “I think I can assure your silence better than a promise.”
I didn’t move. “So, you lament being born out of favor, what favor will you court by killing the king’s fool? A dozen guards saw you come in here.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
Just then the great chains that ran through my room began to shake, rattling as if a hundred suffering prisoners were shackled to them rather than a slab of oak and iron. Edmund looked around and I scampered to the far side of the room. Wind rushed through the arrow loops that served as my windows and extinguished the candle I had used for the sealing wax. The bastard spun to face the arrow loops and the room went dark, as if a cape had been thrown over the day. The golden form of a woman shimmered in the air at the dark wall.
The ghost said,
“A thousand years of torture rule,
The knave who dares to harm a fool.”
I could only see Edmund by the glow of the spirit, but he was moving crablike toward the door that led out onto the west wall, reaching frantically for the latch. Then he threw the bolt and was through the door in an instant. Light filled my little apartment and I could again view the Thames through the slits in the stone.
“Well rhymed, wisp,” said I to the empty air. “Well rhymed.”