The Apocrypha – Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Peyton Manor

The old man gazed out the window. His gaze was rewarded as the sun peaked through the afternoon sky. In the distance he saw a carriage break through the forest and begin its long ramble up to Peyton Manor. He let out a thankful breath, took a drink of his wine and closed his eyes. The clatter of the outdoors floated through the window and filled his ears, and his heart.

The sounds of the doves dancing in the brush, the clamor of the roosters by the main out-building with their feathers ruffed out as they crouched and feinted at each other in preparation for battle, for dominance, and the lowly pigs locked in their pens snorting and kicking the dirt in search of food. This was his music. He took another sip as Mary, his loyal housekeeper, entered the room from the back.

Knowing a visitor was coming Mary made sure to check on her lord. Mary was a respectable-looking elderly woman, broad at the hips and much less refined than James in both manner and appearance. She was, however, the epitome of politeness. Having bid her formal but warm greeting to the old man, who was part of the rising gentry, which meant he had considerable wealth but no title such as Duke or Earl, she returned through the dining-parlor and quickly made her way into the kitchen.

The sitting room was well proportioned and handsomely decorated, as was customary in the time and befitting of a castle as distinctive as Peyton Manor. The two largest walls were covered in ornate and well-oiled dark oak paneling that included four pilasters. The pilasters gave the appearance of great supporting columns but, in fact, were purely decorative. The other walls were covered in lush colored fabrics. The interior design was influenced by the architecture of the Italian Renaissance but was executed in a less gaudy but equally elegant Dutch manner. The ceiling was five meters high and covered in tooled white plaster, which was also typical of the day. The pale ceiling gave the room a feeling of unrestrained height.

Mary returned with tea and set it on the table next to his chair along with an extra cup. She bowed slightly, turned and left the room as quickly as her large frame would allow. But before scurrying away, she noticed her lord’s bottle of Claret was getting dangerously low. She snatched the bottle and was off to the cellar. She knew James, who was the only one allowed to serve his wine, would be coming for the refreshed bottle soon.

The old man ignored the tea and took a slow drink from his wineglass. He didn’t notice the missing bottle but heard the disturbance in the hallway. He set the glass down hard and in a raspy voice called out with all his might, “James! Mam’selle!”

———-

James held Nicolette’s arms tightly to prevent her from falling. He slowly walked her over to one of the several chairs hugging the hallway walls. He lowered her gently. Twenty feet away from the archway was the sitting room and the old man. Alma, who was on her way to the kitchen to help Mary when she saw Nicolette weaken, brought water from a nearby pitcher.

From the sitting room James heard his master’s voice again, “James! Mam’selle!”

“Coming, my lord!”

Nicolette took a few sips of water and rose to her feet again. “Thank you, James,” she said. “I must complete my business and return to the Vicarage.”

“Forgive me,” James started, “you must rest and traveling at night is too dangerous. And with your bundle…”

Nicolette cut him off. “I am well guarded. Thank you. May we go, sir?” Nicolette asked with a lined brow.

“Of course. You are welcome, madam. Are you feeling better?”

“Quite.”

“This way then.” James turned to enter the sitting room. Nicolette was in tow followed by Alma who was pulling up the rear and measuring Nicolette’s every step.

James walked into the immense sitting room. Nicolette stood erect in the archway. James took a position to the right of the mammoth fireplace and announced, “My lord, Mam’selle Nicolette Giffard.” James bowed in Nicolette’s direction.

Nicolette entered the great room and bustled up to the lord of Peyton Manor. The old man tried to stand but his first attempt failed. Nicolette boldly stepped forward and, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder, said, “If it suits my lord’s pleasure and convenience, may we conduct our business and then I shall take my leave.”

It did not please his lord but his lord acquiesced, nonetheless.

Nicolette was quit petite, less than five feet tall and thin. She wore a beautiful silver-blue bodice. The embroidered front was showing age but it covered her pale skin from view and that is what mattered. The only exposed skin was her small face and childlike hands. The bodice was snug around her upper torso with the exception of the shoulders, which were wide and padded. White linen adorned the cuffs and neckline of her blouse. A sash held together by a respectable silver brooch draped her shoulders. Her skirt matched her bodice in color and style. It was broad, ruffled and had like-colored embroidery around the bottom.

The old man noted that the woman-child’s attire was more Puritan than Elizabethan. Failing to engage in even the slightest bit of polite conversation, the old man decided it was indeed best to let Miss Nicolette Giffard pick up her package and be on her way. He thought her behavior quite rude but such was the disposition of young people. Proper manners were a thing of the past and would, he had long-ago concluded, die with his generation.

The old man didn’t like the way the young woman fidgeted either. She stood firm enough but kept folding and unfolding her hands like a thieve preparing to bolt out the door. He noticed her bright blues eyes as they darted from side-to-side and caught a glimpse of golden hair, which was mostly hidden by her dark blue travelling hat. He turned away: What sort of lady enters a gentleman’s home and behaves in such a manner?

The look on her face, the old man decided, was not fear, or wonder, or even alarm, no. But he’d seen the look before, on his own son. Years ago he’d joined Walter in London to see a playing company that Walter had assured him was the best in London if not the entire world. When the play was over Walter had arranged for them to meet the famous lead actor Richard Burbage and another actor, who played a lesser role but had written the play. His name was William Shakespeare. The Bard of Avon, indeed.

Walter looked relaxed when he met the great actor but, for some reason, had the same look as young Nicolette when he met Mr. Shakespeare. The look was one of anticipation. It’s the look one has when something important is about to happen, something life changing perhaps. It wasn’t until later that night, when the old man refused to help Walter finance the troubadours’ folly, that he finally understood his son’s expression. Was this young girl’s life about to change? It likely was. Was my lord’s, for that matter.

The old man let his thoughts go and took his eyes off Nicolette lest she become more anxious and, thereby, bothersome to him. He motioned with his hand and offered Nicolette some wine or tea and when she refused he raised his chalice and, with nothing left to say, emptied it down his throat with an air of derision. James took notice but the active Nicolette cared not. Picking his way over the expensive Turkish carpet, James took charge lest the old man become brooding and quarrelsome. James left the room quickly and returned just as fast.

James exchanged the old man’s satchel for Nicolette’s. James thought he saw Nicolette’s knees buckle ever so slightly but resisted comment. As requested and with their business concluded, James set the gold Miss Nicolet Giffard had just handed him next to the old man and escorted her to the door without another word or by your leave.

Alone and tired from the events of the day and the wine, the old man watched from his window as Nicolette climbed into her coach. The driver turned the horses toward the dirt path down to the valley floor and, with a flick of his wrists, urged them into the approaching nightfall. Two lanterns mounted on the front of the coach, one on either side, guided their way. The driver, Miss Giffard and the armed men, the old man knew only by their silhouettes inside the carriage, crossed the bridge and headed back up the hill from whence they came.

Scraps from the day’s events came and went in the old man’s mind as blackness fell. He sat quietly. He knew his peasant workers were preparing for sleep. They would dream of banquets, as the hungry usually do, and of rest, as he knew from experience those who toil for others and the yoked animal do.

Tomorrow, he hoped, he would awake to the carol of the birds, loud and high, on the beaten sill in his bedchamber. The tiny ones would sit on the sill and sing with all their might, hoping to attract a mate and fulfill their own illusions of immortality. He had no such illusions. He knew his time was soon, perhaps this very night.

He rose slowly and was off to bedlam. After many painful steps he finally reached the top of the stairs. He heard the crackling from the fire James had prepared in his bedroom. James was always a step ahead of his lord, anticipating his every need and detail. The flickering glow lit up the room and provided ample heat for his aching bones. He sat in his bedroom chair, which was identical to his downstairs’ chair, and motioned for James to attend to his Claret. James poured the dark purplish-red liquid into a goblet and placed it lovingly in his master’s unsure hands. The old man thanked James for the wine with a nod.

Time passed and the wine disappeared until finally gone. Minutes later and from a distance James thought the old man was sleeping, his business for the day completed, but he was not. His head was bowed down, to be sure, but it was also moving, almost indiscernible, from side to side as he slowly read his last and only book, The holi bible, which is exactly the way it was printed on the book’s cover.

In the glow of the fire the old man’s features were more visible than they were in the din of the sitting room. His face was smooth and shiny, waxen, and he had a large purplish spot on his left temple, a mark from his time on Earth. His eyes, once bright, had an opaque sheen to them now. His nightly reading had become difficult. His hands were large but badly gnarled from his labors on the farm and poor diet as a child. He bought The holi bible from a sweaty Italian merchant. It cost him thirty Florentine gold florins, nearly three years wages for an average clerk.

He closed his precious book and tried to place it gently down on the table but his hands were weak and it fell with a thud. His grimaced when he gripped the arms of the oak chair and leaned forward. He pushed down hard and, after two tries, lifted his brittle body up and out of the chair. He stood motionless for a moment, using the time to steady himself. He brushed his hand through his bristled white hair but it refused to lie down.

When fully erect he was almost five feet five inches tall, which was the average height of men in his time. The average man lived to be thirty-five years old but he had beaten the odds and was now almost double that age, or so he guessed. He had servants but no family in the manor. His three wives were all buried on his land.
Walter had left him more than a decade prior, succumbing to the lights of London, a growing city of 200,000 odd people known as much for its garbage, smell and disease, as its vibrancy.

His drunken steps were stiff and tottering as he scuffed across the floor, leaned over and poked the fire, causing it to crackle anew. He tossed a small log, his last of the night, onto the fire. He preferred solace at this moment so did not summon James to do the work. He returned to his chair and plopped down releasing a large puff of air. He opened his mouth and took several heavy breaths. Only one task left.

He reached over and picked up his personal ledger. He dipped his pen into the ink well and dabbed the excess off the tip. His hand shook when he performed tedious tasks such as this so he waited a moment until it had quieted down. The gold coins Nicolette Giffard had delivered were his private business and would not be entered into the ledger. He would however, record the merchandise side of the transaction.

As was custom in his time the old man wrote in all uppercase letters:

SOLD THE APOCRYPHA. JUNE 2, 1602.

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