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Wife to Mr. Milton, Page 2

Robert Graves

  Zara was dressed as a Spanish lady of quality, in fine clothes lent her for the occasion by my Godmother Moulton. Her bodice was of yellow satin richly embroidered; her petticoat, of striped gold tissue; her robe, of crimson velvet with a raised pile and lined with white muslin that was spotted over with stars. My godmother had brought these clothes with her for me to wear, but I had outgrown their measure; whereby Zara had the profit of her kindness.

  As for myself, I dared that night to assume man’s clothing: I affected to be a modern goddame blade, wearing a tall ribboned hat, with a narrow brim and a great plume caught at the ends with silver ribbon, and carrying a frosty-blue cloak over my arm, lined with white. I had fine Greek lace at my wrists and neck, and a tight doublet of willow-coloured satin, very short in the skirt, with breeches of the same colour, shaped like organ pipes, and ornamented at the knee with many dozen of points. The feet of my boots were two inches too long and their lace-fringed tops were terrible large, being turned down as low as my gilt spurs, that jingled like bells of a morrice-dancer. I carried a cane in my right hand, with which I toyed as I straddled down the hall; keeping my two feet wide apart, like a child at his first steps, lest the rowels of my spurs should catch in the lace and overset me. I also wore a little sharp artificial beard at which I plucked carefully, lest it came away in my hand, and fine fringed gloves scented with musk; and I made legs and bows instead of curtseys. My cousin Marmaduke Archdale, who was afterwards slain in the King’s service, during the siege of Gloucester, had procured these masquerade clothes for me from a young courtier of his acquaintance; my cousin being always very attentive to my petitions.

  That I could so indulge my fancy, though now a marriageable girl, and that I ranged myself in the dances with the gentlemen, and that, when I was at last accused and unmasked, my parents were not vexed with me, nor nobody scandalized, but that all was taken in good part as a Twelfth Night prank—all this, I think, fairly shows both my particular bold spirit and the general kindness of the times. None who was admitted to our house was ever allowed to feel ill at ease in it, unless he were some felonious prisoner that the town-constable hauled in to be tried by my father, who was a Justice of the Peace; or else some snuffling Puritan tradesman, come on an errand, who often by the freedom of our speech must have thought himself in Babylon or Bantam. Only my Aunt Jones of Sandford, my father’s elder sister, who was a backward-looking gentlewoman and came to our masquerade wearing her ancient open-breasted grey gown, with her usual starched ruff, and her ancient velvet hat like a wind-blown balloon—only she spoke some few slighting words against me to my father. She asked, pointing rudely at me with her finger, how he hoped that any discreet gentleman with an eye to marriage would choose such stale goods as those?

  My father answered that this was Twelfth Night, and that if she uttered more scurrility he would accuse her as a spoilsport, and then the Lord of Misrule would put her to the ordeal of squibs and firecrackers; whereupon she begged his pardon and said no more. My Aunt Jones has ever had an extraordinary sneaking countenance and way with her.

  In an interval of dancing, as was my privilege, I cut the great Twelfth-cake, which was rich with raisins, plums, ginger, honey and pepper, and frosted over with Barbary sugar; in the middle of it stood a coloured sugar-work of a wood-monger’s wain, heaped with cut timber. There were also various fruits set here and there upon it, as apples, lemons, oranges, citrons, pears, plums, all of sugar and in their colours scarce to be discerned from the natural. Being grateful to my Godmother for my gift, I saw to it that the slice of cake came to her in which the fortunate bean was hidden; for I had been in the pastry-room while the cake was being prepared for baking and had marked the very spot. She drew out the bean with a cry of joy, like a child; and when she was acclaimed and crowned Twelfth Night Queen she chose my brother James as her King and myself as her Page. The Lord of Misrule was her Grand Chamberlain.

  As Queen, my godmother laid divers witty obligations on her courtiers. In particular, she instructed Sir Robert Pye to stand before her and preach in celebration of the Divine Right of Bishops. My father protested that she was shearing this sheep a thought too close; for, as we all knew, Sir Robert was of the same Presbyterial way of thinking as his father, Sir Robert Pye the Elder, Member of Parliament for Woodstock; which Parliament was determined upon removing the Bishops, root and branch, from their places of power about the King. My father would not, for the world, see any of the Pyes offended, to whom he lay under an obligation of gratitude for a timely loan of money.

  However, Sir Robert was no mean little wretch, but a knight of generous mind, and, speaking in the character which he represented, he swallowed (as the phrase is) bait, rod and angler too. For he extolled the Bishops in a highly ironical manner, likening them to busy country carriers, who, not content with the management of their horses and of the merchandize entrusted to their care, will make it their business to listen to all manner of piddling talk in the courtyards and ale-houses of their circuits, and will pump old gossiping women, their passengers, for scraps of parish history. He swore that these spiritual carriers, the Bishops, had become by this traffic in news so very-very knowing and enlightened as to be worthier Lords, or Esquires, of the places where they were but licenced visitants, than the uninstructed laymen who ruled there by mere hereditary right.

  This speech vexed two splenetic University Doctors, Dr. Browne and Prebendary Iles of Christ Church, who were hot Prelatists and rightly guessed that Sir Robert was drolling against the Bishop of Oxford, Dr. Bancroft, who had lately in a visitation of Woodstock pried somewhat too closely into the affairs of Sir Robert’s father. They pulled their gowns tightly about their shoulders, looked budge, and glowered, and Dr. Browne muttered that there were some Christmas Pyes that made his belly ache.

  At this my brother James, turning to his Queen with a frown, said aloud: “Madam Queen, there sit two sour-featured subjects of ours who must be reminded of their allegiance!” Which bold observation was well received by the company. James fixed their sconce, or fine, at half a gallon of Scotch ale to be drunk between them “to the health of the Blue Bonnets”; meaning the anti-prelatic Scottish Covenanters who had come out in arms against the prayer-book that our Archbishop Laud would have forced upon them. This sconce the Doctors dared not refuse; besides, they knew that our Scotch ale, the brewing of which I had myself overseen (tunning it in a sweet-wine barrel) was nappy and good beyond the ordinary.

  When I brought them the pot to drink, they muttered the required words, but with the saving addition of a prayer that these same Blue Bonnets might presently turn blue all over, from snout to rump, for the peace and security of both Kingdoms. This drew a general laugh, which restored them to better humour. They drank up, turn and turn about, and the ale worked on them so powerfully that they blinked like owls and soon forgot the cause of their punishment.

  At about half-past nine, very unseasonably, while we were at supper, came a knock at the door and when it was opened there stood the parish constable, a burly fellow, having a poor man fast by the collar.

  The constable asked: “Is his Worship the Justice at home? Has he leisure to commit this felon? I have the necessary witnesses here to swear a charge against him for attempting a robbery.”

  I had gone to the door, and spoke up, saying: “S’death, Mr. Constable, we have no time for any such ordered sublunary justice here to-night. Know you not that this is the season of perfect Misrule?”

  Yet the constable would not take the man away, and protested that the town-jail had no lock to it, from the negligence of our carpenter, and that the villain would doubtless escape away. He begged that the Justice would commit him to some secure place for the night. He continued stubborn in this, and the accused man, drawing courage from the word Justice, cried out too: “Ay, justice, give me immediate justice! I am no felon but an honest man from Noke parish who have lost my road and my horse in the snow, and must return in haste to my wife’s lying-in.”

sp; A servant acquainted my father with this plea, who replied: “Let the constable bring the prisoner and witnesses to me in the little parlour. Instruct the Clerk of the Peace to be present with a prepared mittimus and whatever else he may consider necessary.” Then he turned to Sir Robert and “Cousin,” said he, “come with me into the parlour and you shall see sport!”

  My father borrowed from another masker his long black visor-mask and pulled it over Sir Robert’s head. About the same time the Clerk of the Peace came running in from the kitchen, dressed in a suit of black serge with white bones painted on it, and a skull mask, very horrible, over his face. “Give me leave, your Worship,” he cries, “to go home and change this disguise for my formal dress.”

  “Never a bit of it, Mutton-bones!” replies my father. “We must carry this business through in proper style. Be as you are.”

  The constable led the supposed felon into the little parlour, and he was indeed an honest poor man, one John Ford from Noke parish (which lies a few miles from us along the Worcester road) and my father knew him. He had been thrown from his horse in the snow and was crawling to take shelter in a fowl-house near by, when he was observed by two men, one of whom caught and held him, crying “A robbery, a robbery!” while the other man ran to seek the constable.

  The witnesses, bewildered by the many lights and all the hubbub, followed behind and when they entered the parlour, Lord, what a sight was there! The Devil himself, his face smeared with yellow—there is very good yellow ochre dug from a mine on Tyrrell land at the edge of Shotover Forest—the Devil, I say, sat there before them on a chair of state hung with primrose-yellow silk. Beside him glowered a tall grim fellow with a black visor, holding a drawn sword in his hand. At the table a skeleton played with pen and ink, and three little apes squatted on a chest behind, scratching themselves. The candles were shaded with red paper, which cast a hellish glow on the scene.

  Of the sequel I cannot speak certainly, for I was not present in the parlour, and my father never omitted to embellish a good tale; but it happened something after this manner.

  The constable, who knew of what a fanciful spirit my father was sometimes possessed, held his ground, though a little astonished, I dare say; but the poor man from Noke turned pale and cried out: “O Gentle Satan, your Worship, I have a clean conscience, I swear I fear you not, I defy you! I am no felon, I am John Ford, a poor goose-herder, who never in his life willingly injured any man, and comes of honest parentage.”

  “Ha, ha, John Ford,” quoth the Devil, neighing like a horse, “you speak me fair. But beware lest I catch you, for I know a thing or two standing against your account which, if you do not make amends, will lead you direct into the hottest part of my bonfire.”

  “That I promise to do, good your Worship,” said the poor man, blubbering—for the chance shot had struck home—“to-morrow at the very latest, though I have to sell my wife’s gold ring to raise the money necessary.”

  “Now, for this other matter, tell me, where are your accusers?” the Devil asked, suddenly very stern. “Come forward, Sirrahs!”

  The two witnesses, who were a fell-monger and his son, coming from Watlington (which lies beyond Wheatley) had stood in a sort of horror during this act. But now, when they were instructed to come forward, the son uttered a screech and ran from the room, his father pelting after him; whereat everyone, except John Ford, broke into immoderate laughter. Then my father cried, gasping, to the three little apes, my brothers, “Hilloo, hilloo, my brave rogues! Seek ’em out, Pyewacket, seek ’em out, Vinegar Tom! At ’em Little Mungo, my beauty! Hilloo, hilloo, and after ’em, all!”

  The apes caught up a parcel of fire-squibs, whereof they lighted several at the candles and flung them down the corridor after the fugitive fell-mongers, who, when they found their way barred by the guests, doubled back and up the stairs, to cast themselves together from a window. They had like to have been slain, but that they lighted upon an old thatched shed, which was broken and fell down under them. They rose up again unhurt, and ran off through the snow.

  “Constable,” says my father, with as mild and grave countenance as he could command, “since this honest man’s accusers have both fled, Esquire Beelzebub and I cannot properly concede you the mittimus which you demand, for there is no evidence against him. Let him go in peace; but first see that he has a good warm peppermint caudle prepared for him in the kitchen. And, stay, he shall have a nag from the stable, to take him home to his wife.”

  When supper was done, the whole company together played a drunken game of blind-man buffet, and then danced again. The merry-making continued after this manner until midnight, when Christmas certainly ended. Then the Lord of Misrule rapped on the floor with his rod and commanded us to pull down the holly and ivy from the walls; which we did, and threw it to crackle on the fire, and drank hot sack-posset. We sang a song of “Farewell Christmas”—or all of us who remained, for the elder folk were by now to bed or calling for their coaches. A party of five young gentlemen, having gone out together into the snow to untruss, came back presently to the fire; and being there suddenly overcome with drunkenness, in the change from extreme cold to heat, staggered and fell headlong, three out of the five, and could not rise again. We laid blankets over them, and the servants packed them together on a couch, like pickled herrings, head to foot and foot to head, where they snored horribly until morning.

  The musicians declared that they would play no more that night; however, we prevailed on the worst of the three fiddlers to stay, agreeing with him for sixpence, which he required to be doubled each half-hour. We continued thus with our jigs, brawls and galliards for a long time, I having for my greater ease put on woman’s dress again, my second-best green satin.

  At this time a gricomed young gallant named Ropier, cousin to the Lord Ropier, imagined himself to be fallen deeply in love with me; Since there was now nobody present of greater age or better quality than his own, who might have restrained him, Mr. Ropier behaved very insolently, pestering me to kiss him and bestow even greater favours upon him; and fawning on me complimentally with: “Loveliest Lady, Magnetic Mistress, your denial is a dagger to my heart!” and “How shall your passionately devoted vassal be refused satisfaction, Empress of my soul, and yet live?” etc. All that I consented to answer him was “No, Sir!” and “No, No, Sir!” and “You may speak to me to-morrow, proud servant, when you are something sober, but not now!” I did not venture to deal him a whirret on the ear (as I would have served any other gentleman who used me so ungentlemanly), for I knew his bloody and treacherous temper; and presently he desisted and made his address to Zara instead, thinking I suppose to stir my jealousy, and she proved a deal kinder to him.

  At three o’clock in the morning the gentlemen found that their common purse would no longer bear up against the strain of the fiddler’s bargain—for by indifferent firking with his fiddle-bow, he had earned from us more than thirty shillings in a space of three hours; and so he proved by simple addition and multiplication. When he would not let us compound for a lesser sum that we named, four young gentlemen took him by legs and arms and flung him into a snow-drift and young Ropier spitefully broke his fiddle upon his head, which I thought was ill done; for a bargain is a bargain, and though he was but an indifferent fiddler, yet the fiddle was a good one.

  At last we said our good-nights and good-byes one to another, and I went upstairs and watched through the glass of my chamber-window how the lanterns and torches wavered across the court to the stables, where the cattle all whinnied together to hear their masters and mistresses approaching. Presently I saw the cavalcade ride out through the gate and turn into the road, some going this way, some that, as in the figure of a dance, taking their several ways homeward through the thick snow.

  I had carried a lighted candle with me and set it in the candle-stick in my chamber (which lay over the wash-house). Then finding Zara already fast asleep on the bed, in all her clothes, I threw the coverlet over her, and took pen and ink
and began to write in my book. I wrote first of the masquerade, covering half a page, enough to refresh my mind with slight particulars when I should read there again in aftertimes; yet with no least suspicion that before I had turned twenty-one this half-page would read as strange as a history of China or Abyssinia—the pleasant company scattered, the house no longer in our possession, even the Christmas feast abolished by order of Parliament!

  The house lay quiet enough, and the chamber was very cold. My spirits, that had been puffed up so high with the wine and the music, began to flag; and I wrote that merry-making continued beyond midnight, or at the furthest one o’clock of the morning, was no gain to any girl. I added that young Mr. Ropier had done ill to treat the poor fiddler so, and that I would not marry such a poxy beast as he, not though he were worth so much as £1,500 per annum; and that certainly I wrote this not without having been made an offer of his person and fortune. Lastly I confessed myself a fool not to have come to bed three hours earlier. The clock in the hall chimed four as I blew out my candle; and the next morning I kept my bed, with the headache, until past ten o’clock.


  An Alarm of the Plague

  Our stilling-room maid Trunco had at that time been engaged with us for four years, since the infancy of George, my youngest brother: for then, my mother suddenly finding no more milk for him, from a sickness that came upon her, my father was hard put to it to seek out a lusty young wet-nurse for the child. Having business that day at Banbury Hiring Fair, which is called The Mop, he rode thither very early in the morning, his old coach following behind. At The Mop those labourers who have a mind to change their masters stand in their several companies, as woodmen with their axes, carters with their whips, ditchers with their spades, serving-maids with their mops (from which the Fair has its name) and sell themselves to the best master they can, at the highest price. My father had that year taken over, from the Bishop of Oxford, the long lease of certain coppices in Stow Wood and the Royal Forest of Shotover, which has its name by corruption from the French Château Vert, or Green Castle, and lies between Forest Hill and Oxford. He stood in need of a handy woodmen or two that could clear away underwood, and saw up fallen trees for carting, and mend broken fences; for the coppices were spoiled by long neglect. Since this lease yielded my father no rights over the large standing timber, but only over fallen trees and the young growing wood, a woodman past the prime of life would suit his purpose and pocket better than a young sturdy one.