England, Which Was Tinder

Thank Heaven! At last the trumpets peal
Before our strength gives way.
For King or for the Commonweal -
No matter which they say,
The first dry rattle of new-drawn steel
Changes the world today!

from Edgehill Fight, Rudyard Kipling

This is for Abigail and Anna and Rachel and Megan and all ye other peeps. It fell into my head the other night like chess-pieces falling out of a chess-box when I was pretending to not be awake. Whether or not it belies my fragile state of mind during those hours only you can tell.

* * * * *

Despite that it was summer the wind was up and chill-sounding in the eaves, and the accustomed place before the fire was as comfortable as ever with the old, familiar mahogany shadows gathered round and the old, familiar black kettle humming a tom-cat’s tune on its hook. There was a peep through the east window of the night sky: a blurred, watered image of brindled grey and peacock-blue, which was all the night sky would be at the height of summer. The blot-whir of a bat flashed across the pane and was gone in an instant; the kettle hiccupped and continued humming on the fire.

Never before had she thought of these things as old and familiar. They were so old and so familiar that she never gave them any thought at all. But all day long something uncanny, like the darting of the bat, like purple thunder, had hung over her. She had sought her familiar pallet before the fire as a child seeks a familiar toy and had waited with formless but painful anxiety until Mew had come in—Mew, who was the life-form of all old, familiar things. But even he had not quite dispelled the feeling of thunder which had hung over her. He had not asked, though he must have seen it in her eyes. With clockwork precision he had carried on, washed, eaten supper, read, and now sat with her by the fire with his pipe in his hand, the flame of it matching the colour of his hair, the brooding of his eyes.

She stirred and whined softly under the hum of the kettle. Without looking round Mew’s hand moved off the arm of the chair and brushed her head in an absentminded gesture of comfort. So—he did feel the thunder in the air. She searched his face, but he was too far gone away inside his own thoughts for her to read his mind. She only knew that he was troubled and that she could not take the trouble from him.

The summer wind gusted strong against the house, and in the lull that followed the back of it there came the soft triple splutter of hooves. The tension was so great that she started—though it could have been only a post-rider, and nothing more, for the old High Road ran close by Mew’s place—but Mew put out his hand more strongly on her head and said,

Sa, sa, Simple. Swef, my heart.”

He pushed back his great dark bog-oak chair and rose, hesitating a moment as the wind cast the sounds of horses wildly about, hesitating until the sounds became sensible amid the wing-beat of noise while the firelight cast its warm mantle about his shoulders. He seemed to catch the direction of the noises at last for, with a little shake of his shoulders—to get the mantle just right, Simple thought—he went away out of the room. The sounds of his boots echoed back to her dully on the hardwoods, out of the room, down the hall, toward the front door.

With a pathetic whine she gathered her legs under her and rose, crouched a little, listening, then stole after him, too unwilling to leave him and his firelight mantle alone with the sense of danger that was lingering overhead. The wood cool underfoot, her fingers groping half-consciously for objects in the dark, she followed the scent of the pipesmoke and the scent that was, inexplicably and indescribably, Mew’s smell alone.

When she reached the hallway there was a confusion of suppressed noises coming toward her from the door. Horses, men on foot, someone calling—and underneath the pipesmoke she could smell the mustiness of thyme. Still whining low, half to comfort herself, half as a sort of confused warning, she inched closer until she could make out Mew’s shoulders dark against the muted grey of the night sky. Then a light flared in the dark beyond, jagged and painful in Simple’s eyes, lashing with it the squeals and turnings of the horses.

“Bartholomew!” a voice cried.

“Richard.” Even with the uncanny light in his hair, making him look like a candle, and the deep night on whose threshold he stood, Mew sounded as level and disinterested as if chancing upon acquaintances in the middle of the night were a common—an everyday sort of thing. “ ‘Tis late, man. What do you out at this ungodly hour?”

There was a splutter of outraged laughter in the yard. Simple, stealing closer, caught a sidewise view of Dick Tumbrel’s face with its finely pointed beard, a little worse for wear and tense with news.

“Have you not heard?” the man asked, taking an abbreviated step forward. “The King has raised his Standard at Nottingham! We’re to him. Do you come also?”

Behind her, hidden in the shadows, but oddly sweet and silver in this atmosphere of tension and torchsmoke and firelight, the old clock chimed the hour.

Mew turned his head as though taking in a greater scene which Simple could not see. “At eleven o’clock in the night?”

“At any hour of the night!” cried Tumbrel.

The flame-haired young man seemed to consider this for a moment very gravely. “Nay, I think not,” he said at last. “The King has not invited me. I should feel awkward going without an invitation.”

This was met with a profound dumbness. Mew’s words seemed to have struck the other men a blow disproportional to their pensive, idle tone. It was several moments before anyone could find his tongue again, and at last someone blurted out,

“Good God, man, you don’t—you can’t—of course you jest!” Then, in a lower, more surly tone, added, “But it is a jest in bad taste.”

But it was Dick Tumbrel, in a voice as surly but by far more dangerous, who answered. “Nay, Bartholomew Grant is not a man to jest. He knows not humour in his grey-clad bones.”

And Mew, as if to spite him, but to spite him gently, said, “God seems fit to have clad the summer night with such a grey. Who am I to scorn such a colour for my own dust?”

“Do you come,” pressed Tumbrel with the voice of a bear at bay, “or do you not?”

And Mew, ever more gently, replied, “I do not.”

Again the profound silence, again the darkness and torchlight lifting the hairs on the back of Simple’s neck. As if from far away across that silence she was hearing Mew’s voice, deep and tuneful as he read aloud.

Judas then, having received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons. Jesus therefore, knowing all things that should come upon him, went forth, and said unto them, ‘Whom seek ye?’

At last Dick Tumbrel gave a rattling sigh, as if he had just made up his mind and it had not been easy. “So, you will not come with us. Is it, then, that you do not think of the King as we do?”

Mew looked down at Tumbrel—Mew looked down on everyone from his height. “I am free to think of the King as I choose in my own mind and my own house. The King, not having asked my opinion, will not be otherwise troubled.”

“I think he must needs have leisure to ask you your opinion, Neighbour Grant,” growled Tumbrel. “Best you come with us all the same.”

If Mew said anything more to let the conversation tumble as it were so many pebbles out of his hand, Simple never heard his words. To the left of him, clear in the torchlight, she saw the movement of two men toward Mew, ready with the obvious intent of catching him and taking him away. She never heard Mew, nor Dick Tumbrel, for in a flash she was across the hall, ducking low and springing up under Mew’s left elbow, full into the chest of the foremost stranger. She got half a mouthful of sweaty white collar and half a mouthful of soft, stubbly flesh and to both she clung while the world upended and came crashing down with a jarring impact on the gravel yard. There was a splurge of yelling overhead, a storm of torchlight, and out of the storm blows began raining down on Simple’s head and sides. For some time she hung on, worrying at the stranger with a caterwaul shriek in her throat, until she heard Mew again and realised it was he who was walloping her as a man would whip a dog off another.

So howe! so howe! Get back! Hark you—back into the house! So hoo arere!”

And with one last mighty blow he struck her hard enough to dislodge her grasp and send her pitching wide, shoulder to the gravel, while the torchlight made a riot of the sky and faces above her. Light mazed her vision; her tongue tasted blood on her lip.

“Nay, get back!” It was Mew again, but not, this time, to her.

“What—what is this? She would have had Addison’s throat open in a minute! Addison?”

There was a bleary spluttering of oaths from Addison as he was helped off the ground. Simple’s vision cleared a little and she saw with faint surprise that she was outside the house now and that, whatever great things loomed on the horizon under the colour of twilight grey and purple, a very real war had broken out on Mew’s doorstep. He stood by her, brow weighted down by darkness and fury, and Dick Tumbrel stood across from him, a hand on his mate Addison’s shoulder.

“I’ll put a bullet from my horse-pistol into your malkin’s brain, Grant,” said Tumbrel thickly, “only you come away now quietly and no more harm done.”

And Mew said, as clearly and calmly as Tumbrel was thick with wroth, “The chit is addle-witted and knows not what she does. Friend Addison, jump not a dog’s master if you want not to feel the dog’s teeth.”

“Dog’s teeth—!” choked Addison, and staggered forward with his arms outstretched.

But Tumbrel hastily caught him by the shoulders and shoved him back among the others. “Never you mind!” he growled, and turned back on Mew. The point of his beard quivered like a little dark fighting cock. “Bide you here, Neighbour Grant,” he said warningly, “and mind before dawn that the kingdom hangs in the balance—and just you mind where your allegiance lies!”

“Well I mind it,” Mew replied, level and terrible. “Good night, Neighbour Tumbrel. Mind that you light a lantern so that your horse does not deposit you in a ditch on your way to Nottingham.”

With remarkable dignity Dick Tumbrel reasserted his position on horseback, gathered his fellows like a cloak about his shoulders, and was away back down the long, winding, hawthorn-hedged lane, down into the throat of summer’s night, with his face toward a place called Nottingham. Simple did not wait to see the last horse-tail flicker into the dark, but tried to slink behind Mew’s legs and into the safety of the house. But before she could get by him his hand dropped heavily on her shoulder, stopping her.

She glanced up into the shadow of his face. Where his eyes and mouth should be the night made only dark, featureless holes, but there was a relieving softness in the pressure of his hand and the way his voice sounded to her.

“Good pet… Good God, this wind blows harder and faster than I had reckoned.”

She whined and turned her blunt button nose into the flat of his palm.

The paleness of his face flashed down at her. “It was a fool—fool thing to do, Simple. They might have let us be, else.”

He was angry with her in a formless, exasperated, distracted way, more like now to splutter at her and ignore her than to cuff her and berate her. Just at that moment she was horribly afraid he would go, and found she preferred the cuffing and berating more than lonesomeness. She pushed in close against his side, arms around his middle, and whined singsongly, long and high, her teeth sunk harmlessly but determinedly into the mouse-grey of his doublet.

For a moment his arms rested heavily across her shoulders, one hand pulling the strands of her hair gently through the fingers as one might idly pull at a dog’s ears…then he stirred, saying with gentle gruffness, “Nay, lay off, chit. Lay off. Lay off and come by inside to your bed. The tinder of England will lie another night without going up in flames. We have a little time. But what are these things to you, eh, my mazy-headed chit...?”

Simple did not know. She only knew that she followed after Mew with her hand lost in his, stumbling with a sudden blind weariness after him in the dark toward the fire and her pallet. She knew it as she knew an old, familiar thing—but she knew with a painful, irrational clarity after he had bedded her down and given her one last tousling pat on the head before turning away to his own room, she knew she was going to lose the old, familiar things after this. She did not know how, or why, and it seemed unfair, but as she lay on her pallet watching Mew walking away with the dark slowly closing in about him she knew it—she knew it as surely as she tasted thunder in the air.

She lifted herself up on her pallet to call after him, but already he was gone. With a sigh she lay back down, a dry face nestled in her arms, and stared squint-eyed into the low hot smoulder of the fire.

Whatever this thing was that was England, which was tinder and would go up in flames soon, Simple vowed in the primitive law of her heart to keep Mew safe from the flames. Meanwhile—she shifted longwise and settled into the rough warmth of her blanket—she had one more night of the old, familiar things.

5 ripostes:

  1. It was beautiful, Jenny! Beautiful and cozy and lovely with a woodsmoke hush to it that gives it such flavor and a tinge of a dangerous color. I loved it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I feel that there is more to the story of these two, quite a lot more, and rather important, but this was all that came in the hour that I was pretending to be asleep. I'm glad you enjoyed it. It seemed very cosy to me too, in a way that was strangely not cosy... Ah, well, old, unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago, eh, Wordsworth?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Rachel's got it right, I think. This story goes rather beyond beautiful -- familiar and strange at the same time, and also intensely real. I know that feeling, the "formless yet painful anxiety" that haunts you when the balance in the air is upset, and I like Mew. I like him profoundly.

    I've got good shivers now. ^_^

    ReplyDelete
  4. I can but echo Megan and Rachel - gorgeous and wild, a sort of rich bareness that entrances...

    ReplyDelete
  5. I will forever and always think of firelight as a mantle--and a protective, warm one at that.

    Beautiful, Jenny. Beautiful with an underlying tempestuousness that sent thrills up and down my spine. Thank you. ^.^

    ReplyDelete