Read Virgin Earth Online

Authors: Philippa Gregory

Virgin Earth (9 page)

BOOK: Virgin Earth
9.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“I’ll take a horse to Theobalds,” he said. “And get these planted up at once.”

“And then go back to your wife,” Cecil called up to the quayside as he went down the steps to his waiting boat. “Take a few days to spend with her, Tradescant. You must dig your own garden too, you know.”

At Meopham, Elizabeth was waiting for John again.

“Married only a day and left already,” her mother said sharply. “I hope you did not do something to give him a distaste for you, Elizabeth?”

Elizabeth smoothed a loose strand of hair under her cap. “Of course not,” she said levelly. “He was summoned by the earl himself; he could hardly send a message back and say he would not go!”

“And was the bedding properly done?” Gertrude asked in an undertone. “You will not hold him to the marriage if he can argue that the work was not undertaken or carried through.”

“Of course. And he does not wish to withdraw from the marriage. He was summoned away to his lord. He sent me a message from London. I expect him back every day.”

“The sheets were hardly marked at all,” Gertrude pointed out.

Elizabeth flushed. She had resorted to strawberry jam on the bed linen. It was the tradition that the newlyweds’ sheets be put to air over their windowsill so that the neighbors and the community might be assured that a marriage had been made and consummated and was now indissoluble. Not even people of the class of Elizabeth and John could escape public scrutiny.

“They were marked enough,” Elizabeth said.

“Oh, well!” Gertrude sat back in the hard chair and looked around the little parlor. “He has left you comfortably, at least. As long as he provides for you I daresay you will not miss him, having been a spinster so long.”

“He will provide for me, and he will return to me,” Elizabeth replied calmly. “He had to go to Theobalds with some new plants for the earl. But I expect his return any day.”

“You’d have done better to marry a farmer!” Gertrude gave a malicious little laugh. “Better a little mud on your parlor floor than a husband who leaves you the very morning after you are wed.”

“Better to be married to a man high in the favor of the Earl Cecil himself than to be a woman who knows nothing beyond the hills of her home!” Elizabeth flared up.

“Do you mean me, you saucy miss!” Gertrude exclaimed, leaping to her feet. “For I shall not be insulted by you. Your stepfather shall hear of it! And he will make you sorry for your impertinence! I shall send him down here after he’s had his dinner and he will tell you what we think of impertinent spinsters, married a night and abandoned the next day! You’ll be lucky if your husband ever comes home at all! I shall see you at my back door wanting your own bed back, I don’t doubt it!”

Elizabeth strode to the door and flung it open. “I am not a miss, saucy or otherwise,” she declared. “And my stepfather has no rights over me anymore and neither do you. I do not have to listen to you, and I certainly don’t have to obey him. My father would not have used me so!”

“Easy to say!” Gertrude retorted. “Since he is not here to contradict you!”

“He would not contradict me,” Elizabeth rejoined. “He was like me. The faithful kind: we love and stay loyal. We don’t flit from one to another like a drunk bee.”

The reference to her mother’s four marriages could not be borne. Gertrude flounced to the door. “Well, I thank you, Mrs. Tradescant!” she spat. “I shall go home to my husband at my fireside, and enjoy company and good cheer. We will drink and be merry. And I shall sleep in a warm bed with the man who loves me! And I daresay you wish you could say the same!”

Elizabeth waited until Gertrude was on her way and then she flung the door shut with a crack which sounded down the length of the street to mark her defiance. But when she was quite sure that Gertrude was gone, and not returning for a final retort, she dropped to her knees on the hearthrug, put her face on the empty seat of the master chair and cried for John.

August 1607

He did not come until late in the summer, nor did he send for her to go to Theobalds. He did not send her so much as a note to tell her that he was delayed — absorbed in the work of replanting and maintaining the most beautiful garden in England. First it was the newly designed knot gardens which took his attention. The continuous twist of hedging was much harder to keep cut than the old straight lines, and inside the box hedges the lavender had flourished too strongly. Now it needed cutting back so that it did not thrust wands of navy blue out of their place; but at least Cecil agreed that the softness of their shape and the spiky azure flowers had added beauty to the geometric precision of the garden and that Tradescant should plant other shrubs inside the hedging.

Then the bathing pools in the marble temple turned green in the hot weather, and he had them drained and scrubbed with salt and rinsed clean and refilled. Then the kitchen gardens started fruiting, first strawberries, then raspberries, gooseberries, peaches and apricots. It was not until the currants came into season that John took time from his work to borrow a horse and ride down the dusty lanes to his home in Kent.

He took two of the new chestnuts in his pocket, still shining from the polishing he continually gave them. Of the six in the merchant’s box he had planted two in large pots and left them in a shady place in the garden, watering them gently every day from the dish placed underneath the pot to encourage their roots to grow down. Two he had kept in a net hung high out of the way of rats in his shed, planning that they should feel the heat of the summer on their glossy backs before he planted them in autumn, when the weeds died back and before the first frosts came, hoping to mimic the trees’ natural time for growth. Two he carried in the safe darkness of his pocket, planning to plant them in spring in case they needed to be hidden from frost and to feel the warmth of a new season and the damp richness of the spring earth to make them flourish. He thought he should have left them in a stone box in the darkness and coldness of the floor of the marble bath house but he could not resist their smooth round shapes, tucked in his waistcoat. A dozen times a day his fingers found their way into the little pocket to caress them like a broody hen turning over two precious eggs.

He buttoned down the flaps with care when he mounted his horse.

“I shall stay some weeks with my wife,” he said to the gardener’s lad who held the horse. “You can send for me, if I am needed. Otherwise I shall come home at the end of September.” He did not notice he had called Theobalds “home.” “And have a care that you keep the gates shut,” he reminded the boy, “and weed the grass every day. But do not touch the roses; I shall be back in time to see to them myself. You may take the heads off when they are finished flowering, and take the petals to the still room, but that is all.”

It was a two-day journey to Meopham. John enjoyed traveling through the Surrey countryside where the hayfields were showing green again after the rain, and where the wheat stooks stood high in the field. Horsemen cantered past him, covering him in blinding clouds of dust; he sometimes rode alongside great wagons and could hitch his horse behind, taking a seat with the driver for a rest from the saddle and a sup of the driver’s ale. There were many people walking the roads: artisans on the tramp looking for work, harvesting gangs at the end of their season, apple-pickers making their way to Kent like John, gypsies, a traveling fair, a wandering preacher ready to set up at any crossroads and preach a gospel which needed neither church nor bishops, peddlers waddling beneath the weight of their packs, goose girls driving their flocks to the London markets, beggars, paupers and sturdy vagrants forced away from parish to parish, bullocks being driven to Smithfield by swearing, anxious cattle drovers.

In the inn at night John ate at an “ordinary,” the daily dinner with a set price which humble traveling men preferred, but he paid extra to sleep alone. He did not want to appear before Elizabeth scratching with another man’s fleas.

At the long dining table in the inn’s front room the talk was of the new king, who could not agree with Parliament although he had been in the kingdom only four years. The men dining at table were mostly on the side of the king. He had the charm of novelty and the glamour of royalty. So what if Parliament complained of the Scots nobles who hung around the court, and so what if the king was extravagant? The king of England could afford a little luxury, surely to God! And besides, the man had a family to support, a brace of princes and princesses; how else should he live but well? One man at the table had suffered at the hands of the Court of Wards and claimed that no man’s fortune was safe from a king who would take orphans into his keeping and farm out their fortunes among his friends, but he gained little sympathy. The complaint was an old one, and the king was new and novelty was a pleasure.

John kept his head down over his mutton and kept his own counsel. When someone shouted for a toast to His Majesty, John rose to his feet as swiftly as any man. He was not disposed to gossip about the painted women and painted boys of court, and besides, no man who had worked for Robert Cecil would ever voice a dangerous political opinion in a public place.

“I care nothing if we have no parliament!” a man exclaimed. “What have they ever done for me? If King James, God bless him, can do without a parliament — why! then so can I!”

John thought of his master, who believed that a monarch could only rule by a combination of bluff and seduction to gain the consent of the people, and whose watchword was practice not principle, kept silent, touched the chestnuts in his waistcoat pocket for luck, took up his hat and went from the room to his solitary bed.

He arrived at Meopham at noon and nearly turned into the courtyard of the Days’ family farmhouse, before he recalled that he should find Elizabeth in her new cottage — in their new cottage. He rode back down the mud track of the village street and then skirted around to the back of the little house where there was a lean-to shed and a patch of ground for his horse. He took off its saddle and bridle and turned the animal into the field. It raised its head and whinnied at the strangeness of the place and he saw Elizabeth’s face at an upstairs window, looking out at the noise.

As he walked toward the little cottage’s back gate he heard her running down the wooden stairs and then the back door burst open and she was racing toward him. As she suddenly recollected her dignity, she skidded to an abrupt halt. “Oh! Mr. Tradescant!” she said. “I should have killed a chicken if I had known you were coming today.”

John stepped forward and took her hands and kissed her, formal as ever, on her forehead. “I did not know what time I should arrive,” he said. “The roads were better than I thought they would be.”

“Have you come from Theobalds?”

“I left the day before yesterday.”

“And is everything well?”

“It is.” He glanced down at her and saw that her usually pale face was rosy and smiling. “You look very well… wife.”

She peeped up at him from under her severe white cap. “I am well,” she said. “And very happy to see you. The days are rather long here.”

“Why?” John asked. “I should have thought you would have much to do in a house of your own at last?”

“Because I am used to running a farmhouse,” she said. “With care for the still room, and the laundry, and the mending, and the feeding of the family and all the farm workers, and the health of the staff, the herb garden and the kitchen garden too! Here all I have to look after is two bedrooms and a kitchen and parlor. I have not enough to do.”

“Oh.” John was genuinely surprised. “I had not thought.”

“But I have started on a garden,” she said shyly. “I thought you might like it.”

She pointed to a level area of ground outside the back door. The ground was marked out with pegs and twines into a square shape containing the serpentine twists of a maze. “I was going to make it with chalk stones and flints in patterns of black and white,” she said. “I don’t think anything tender will thrive because of the chickens.”

“You can’t have chickens in a knot garden,” John said decidedly.

She chuckled and John looked down and saw with surprise that rosy happy face again. “Well, we have to have chickens for their eggs and for your dinner,” she said. “So you must think of a way that chickens can be kept out.”

John laughed. “At Theobalds I am plagued with deer!” he said. “It seems very hard that in my own garden I shall still have pests to come and spoil my plants.”

“Perhaps we could get another plot of land for the chickens,” she suggested. “And fence this off so that you might grow whatever you wish.”

John glanced down at the overworked light brown soil and the nearby midden. “It is hardly the ideal place,” he said.

At once he saw the color and the happiness drain from her face. She looked weary. “Not after Theobalds Palace, I suppose.”

“Elizabeth!” he exclaimed. “I did not mean…”

She turned away from him and was leading the way into the cottage.

He stepped after her and was about to take her hand but some stupid shyness checked the movement. “Elizabeth!” he said more gently.

She hesitated, but she did not turn. “I was afraid you were never coming back,” she whispered. “I was afraid that you had married me to fulfil the agreement, and to get my dowry, and that you would never come back to me at all.”

“Of course! Of course I would come back!” He was astounded at her. “I married you in good faith! Of course I would come back!”

She dipped her head down and then pulled up her apron to rub at her eyes. Still she did not turn around to him. “You did not write,” she said softly. “And it has been two months.”

Now it was he who turned away. He looked away from the house, over the little plot where his horse grazed, and toward the hill where the square-towered church pointed up at the sky. “I know,” he said shortly. “I meant to…”

She raised her head but still she did not turn around. He thought they must look a pair of fools, back to back in their own yard instead of in each other’s arms.

BOOK: Virgin Earth
9.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Bittersweet Blood by Nina Croft
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
Dragonseye by Anne McCaffrey
The Prize by Dale Russakoff
Faithful by S. A. Wolfe
Death In Helltown by John Legg
Secret Seduction by Aminta Reily
Geist by Philippa Ballantine