The Magister Udal sat in the room of his inn in Paris, where customarily the King of France lodged such envoys as came at his expense. He had been sent there to Latinise the letters that passed between Sir Thomas Wyatt and the King's Ministers of France, for he was esteemed the most learned man in these islands. He had groaned much at being sent there, for he must leave in England so many loves—the great, blonde Margot Poins, that was maid to Katharine Howard; the tall, swaying Katharine Howard herself; Judge Cantre's wife that had fed him well; and two other women, with all of whom he had succeeded easily or succeeded in no wise at all. But the mission was so well paid—with as many crowns the day as he had had groats for teaching the Lady Mary of England—that fain he had been to go. Moreover, it was by way of being a favour of Privy Seal's. The magister had written for him a play in English; the rich post was the reward—and it was an ill thing, a thing the magister dreaded, to refuse the favours of Privy Seal. He consoled himself with the thought that the writing of letters in Latin might wash from his mouth the savour of the play he had written in the vulgar tongue.
But his work in Paris was ended—for with the flight of Cardinal Pole, who had left Paris precipitately upon news that the King of England had sent a drunken roisterer to assassinate him, it was imagined that soon now more concord between Francis and England might ensue, and the magister sat in his room planning his voyage back to Dover. The room was great in size, panelled mostly in wood, lit with lampwicks that floated in oil dishes and heated with a sea-coal fire, for though it was April the magister was of a cold disposition of the hands and shins. The inn—of the Golden Astrolabe—was kept by an Englishwoman, a masterful widow with a broad face and a great mouth that smiled. She stood beside him there. Forty-seven she might have been, and she called herself the Widow Annot.
The magister sat over his fire with his gown parted from his legs to warm his shins, but his hands waved angrily and his face was crestfallen.
'Oh, keeper of a tavern,' he said. 'It is set down in holy writ that it is not good for a man to be alone.'
'That a hostess shall keep her tavern clean is writ in the books of the provost of Paris town,' the Widow Annot answered, and the shadow of her great white hood, which she wore in the older English fashion, danced over the brown wooden beams of the ceiling.
'Nay, nay,' he answered, 'it is written there that it is the enjoined devoir of every hotelier to provide things fitting for the sojourners' ease, pleasure and recreation.'
'The maid is locked in another house,' the hostess answered, 'and should have been this three week.' She swung her keys on a black riband and gazed at him masterfully. 'Will your magistership eat capon or young goat?'
'Capon will have a savour like sawdust, and young goat like the dust of the road,' the magister moaned. 'Give me the girl to wait upon me again.'
'No maid will wait upon thee,' she answered.
'Even thou thyself?' he asked. He glanced across his shoulder and his eyes measured her, hers him. She had large shoulders, a high, full stomacher, and her cheeks were an apple-red. 'The maiden was a fair piece,' he tittered.
'Therefore you must spoil the ring of the coin,' she answered.
He sighed: 'Then eat you with me. "Soli cantare periti Arcades." But it is cold here alone of nights.'
They ate goat and green leeks sweetened with honey, and wood thrushes pickled in wine, and salt fish from the mouth of the Beauce. And because this gave the magister a great thirst he drank much of a warmed wine from Burgundy that the hostess brought herself. They sat, byside, on cushions on a couch before the warm fire.
'Filia pulchra mater pulchrior!' the magister muttered, and he cast his arms about her soft and plump waist. 'The maid was a fair skewer, the hostess is a plumper roasting bit.' She took his kisses on her fire-warmed cheeks, but in the end she thrust him mightily from her with a large elbow.
He gasped with the strength of her thrust, and she said:
'Greedy dogs getten them hard cuffs,' and rearranged her neckercher. When he tried to come nearer her she laughed and thrust him aback.
'You have tried and tasted,' she said. 'A fuller meal you must pay for.'
He stood before her, lean and lank, his gown flapping about his calves, his eyes smiling humorously, his lips twitching.
'Oh soft and warm woman,' he cried, 'payment shall be yours'; and whilst he fumbled furiously in his clothes-press, he quoted from Tully: 'Haec civitas mulieri redimiculum praebuit.' He pulled out one small bag: 'Haec in collum.' She took another. 'Haec in crines!' and he added a third, saying: 'Here is all I have,' and cast the three into her lap. Whilst she counted the coins composedly on the table before her he added: 'Leave me nevertheless the price to come to England with.'
'Sir Magister,' she said, turning her large face to him. 'This is not one-tenth enough. You have tasted an ensample. Will you have the whole meal?'
'Oh, unconscionable,' he cried. 'More I have not!' He began to wave his hands. 'Consider what you do do,' he uttered. 'Think of what a pest is love. How many have died of it. Pyramus, Thisbe, Dido, Medea, Croesus, Callirhoe, Theagines the philosopher … Consider what writes Gordonius: "Prognosticatio est talis: si non succuratur iis aut in maniam cadunt: aut moriuntur." Unless lovers be succoured either they fall into a madness, either they die or grow mad. And Fabian Montaltus: "If this passion be not assuaged, the inflammation cometh to the brain. It drieth up the blood. Then followeth madness or men make themselves away." I would have you ponder of what saith Parthenium and what Plutarch in his tales of lovers.'
Her face appeared comely and smooth in his eyes, but she shook her head at him.
'These be woeful and pretty stories,' she said. 'I would have you to tell me many of them.'
'All through the night,' he said eagerly, and made to clasp her in his arms. But she pushed him back again with her hand on his chest.
'All through the night an you will,' she said. 'But first you shall tell a prettier tale before a man in a frock.'
He sprang full four feet back at one spring.
'I have wedded no woman, yet,' he said.
'Then it is time you wed one now,' she answered.
'Oh widow, bethink you,' he pleaded. 'Would you spoil so pretty a tale? Would you humble so goodly a man's pride?'
'Why, it were a pity,' she said. 'But I am minded to take a husband.'
'You have done well this ten years without one,' he cried out.
Her face seemed to set like adamant as she turned her cheek to him.
'Call it a woman's mad freak,' she said.
'Six and twenty pupils in the fair game of love I have had,' he said. 'You shall be the seven and twentieth. Twenty and seven are seven and two. Seven and two are nine. Now nine is the luckiest of numbers. Be you that one.'
'Nay,' she answered. 'It is time you learned husbandry who have taught so many and earned so little.'
He slipped himself softly into the cushions beside her.
'Would you spoil so fair a tale?' he said. 'Would you have me to break so many vows? I have promised a mort of women marriage, and so long as I be not wed I may keep faith with any one of them.'
She held her face away from him and laughed.
'That is as it may be,' she said. 'But when you wed with me to-night you will keep faith with one woman.'
'Woman,' he pleaded. 'I am a great scholar.'
'Ay,' she answered, 'and great scholars have climbed to great estates.'
She continued to count the coins that came from his little money-bags; the shadow of her hood upon the great beams grew more portentous.
'It is thought that your magistership may rise to be Chancellor of the Realm of England,' she added.
He clutched his forehead.
'Eheu!' he said. 'If you have heard men say that, you know that wedded to thee I could never climb.'
'Then I shall very comfortably keep my inn here in Paris town,' she answered. 'You have here fourteen pounds and eleven shillings.'
He stretched forth his lean hands:
'Why, I will marry thee in the morning,' he said, and he moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue. Outside the door there was a shuffling of several feet.
'I knew not other guests were in the house,' he uttered, and fell again to kissing her.
'Knew you not an envoy was come from Cleves?' she whispered.
Her head fell back and he supported it with one trembling hand. He shook like a leaf when her voice rang out:
'Au secours! Au secours!'
There was a great jangle, light fell into the dusky room through the doorhole, and he found himself beneath the eyes of many scullions with spits, cooks with carving forks, and kitchenmaids with sharpened distaffs of steel.
'Now I will be wed this night,' she laughed.
He moved to the end of the couch and blinked at her in the strong light.
'I will be wed this night,' she said again, and rearranged her head-dress, revealing, as her sleeves fell open, her white, plump arms.
'Why, no!' he answered irresolutely.
She said in French to her aids:
'Come near him with the spits!'
They moved towards him, a white-clad body with their pointed things glittering in the light of torches. He sprang behind the great table against the window and seized the heavy-leaden sandarach. The French scullions knew, tho' he had no French, that he would cleave one of their skulls, and they stood, a knot of seven—four men and three maids—in blue hoods, in the centre of the room.
'By Mars and by Apollo!' he said, 'I was minded to wed with thee if I could no other way. But now, like Phaeton, I will cast myself from the window and die, or like the wretches thrown from the rock, called Tarpeian. I was minded to a folly: now I am minded rather for death.'
'How nobly thy tongue doth wag, husband,' she said, and cried in French for the rogues to be gone. When the door closed upon the lights she said in the comfortable gloom: 'I dote upon thy words. My first was tongue-tied.' She beckoned him to her and folded her arms. 'Let us discourse upon this matter,' she said comfortably. 'Thus I will put it: you wed with me or spring from the window.'
'I am even trapped?' he asked.
'So it comes to all foxes that too long seek for capons,' she answered.
'But consider,' he said. He sat himself by the fireside upon a stool, being minded to avoid temptation.
'I would have your magistership forget the rogues that be without,' she said.
'They were a nightmare's tale,' he said.
'Yet forget them not too utterly,' she answered. 'For I am of some birth. My father had seven horses and never followed the plough.'
'Oh buxom one!' he answered. 'Of a comfortable birth and girth thou art. Yet with thee around my neck I might not easily climb.'
'Magister,' she said, 'whilst thou climbest in London town thy wife will bide in Paris.'
'Consider!' he said. 'There is in London town a fair, large maid called Margot Poins.'
'Is she more fair than I?' she asked. 'I will swear she is.'
He tilted his stool forward.
'No; no, I swear it,' he said eagerly.
'Then I will swear she is more large.'
'No; not one half so bounteous is her form,' he answered, and moved across to the couch.
'Then if you can bear her weight up you can bear mine,' she said, and moved away from him.
'Nay,' he answered. 'She would help me on,' and he fumbled in the shadows for her hand. She drew herself together into a small space.
'You affect her more than me,' she said, with a swift motion simulating jealousy.
'By the breasts of Venus, no!' he answered.
'Oh, once more use such words,' she murmured, and surrendered to him her soft hand. He rubbed it between both of his cold ones and uttered:
'By the Paphian Queen: by her teams of doves and sparrows! By the bower of Phyllis and the girdle of Egypt's self! I love thee!'
She gurgled 'oh's' of pleasure.
'But this Margot Poins is tirewoman to the Lady Katharine Howard.'
'I am tirewoman to mine own self alone,' she said. 'Therefore you love her better.'
'Nay, oh nay,' he said gently. 'But this Lady Katharine Howard is mistress to the King's self.'
'And I have been mistress to no married man save my husbands,' she answered. 'Therefore you love this Margot Poins better.'
He fingered her soft palm and rubbed it across his own neck.
'Nay, nay,' he said. 'But I must wed with Margot Poins.'
'Why with her more than with me or any other of your score and seven?' she said softly.
'Since the Lady Katharine will be Queen,' he answered, and once again he was close against her side. She sighed softly.
'Thus if you wed with me you will never be Chancellor,' she said.
'I would not anger the Queen,' he answered. She nestled bountifully and warmly against him.
'Swear even again that you like me more than the fair, large wench in London town,' she whispered against his ear.
'Even as Jove prized Danaë above the Queen of Heaven, even as Narcissus prized his shadow above all the nymphs, even as Hercules placed Omphale above his strength, or even as David the King of the Jews Bathsheba above… .'
She murmured 'Oh, oh,' and placed her arms around his shoulders.
'How I love thy brave words!'
'And being Chancellor,' he swore, 'I will come back to thee, oh woman of the sweet smiles, honey of Hymettus, Cypriote wine… .'
She moved herself a little from him in the darkness.
'And if you do not wed with Margot Poins… .'
'I pray a plague may fall upon her, but I must wed with her,' he answered. 'Come now; come now!'
'Else the Lady Katharine shall be displeased with your magistership?'
He sought to draw her to him, but she stiffened herself a little.
'And this Lady Katharine is mistress to the King of England's realm?'
His hands moved tremblingly towards her in the darkness.
'And this Lady Katharine shall be Queen?'
A hiss of exasperation came upon his lips, for she had slipped from beneath his hands into the darkness.
'Why, then, I will not stay your climbing,' she said. 'Good-night,' and in the darkness he heard her sob.
The couch fell backwards as he swore and sprang towards her voice.
'Magister!' she said. 'Hands off! Unwed thou shalt not have me, for I have sworn it.'
'I have sworn to wed seven and twenty women,' he said, 'and have wedded with none.'
'Nay, nay,' she sobbed. 'Hands off. Henceforth I will make no vows—but no one but thee shall wed me.'
'Then wed me, in God's name!' he cried, and, screaming:
'Ho la! Apportez le prestre!' she softened herself in his arms.
The magister confronted the lights, the leering scullions and the grinning maids with their great mantles; his brown, woodpecker-like face was alike crestfallen and thirsty with desire. A lean Dominican, with his brown cowl back and spectacles of horn, gabbled over his missal and took a crown's fee—then asked another by way of penitence for the sin with the maid locked up in another house. When they brought the bride favours of pink to pin into her gorget she said:
'I long had loved thee for thy great words, husband. Therefore all these I had in readiness.'
With that knot fast upon him, the magister, clasping his gown upon his shins, looked askance at the floor. Whilst they made ready the bride, with great lights and laughter, she said:
'I was minded to have a comfortable husband. And a comfortable husband is a husband much absent. What more comfortable than me in Paris town and thee in London city? I keep my inn here, thou mindest thy book there. Thou shalt here find a goodly capon upon occasion, and when thou hast a better house in London I will come share it.'
'Trapped! Trapped!' the magister muttered to himself. 'Even as was Sir Launcelot!'
He considered of the fair and resentful Margot Poins whom it was incumbent indeed that he should wed: that Katharine Howard loved her well and was in these matters strait-laced. When his eyes measured his wife he licked his lips; when his eyes were on the floor his jaw fell. At best the new Mistress Udal would be in Paris. He looked at the rope tied round the thin middle of the brown priest, and suddenly he leered and cast off his cloak.
'Let me remember to keep an equal mind in these hard matters,' he quoted, and fell to laughing.
For he remembered that in England no marriage by a friar or monk held good in those years. Therefore he was the winner. And the long, square room, with the cave bed behind its shutter in the hollow of the wall, the light-coloured, square beams, and the foaming basin of bride-ale that a fat-armed girl in a blue kerseymere gown served out to scullion after scullion; the open windows from which a little knave was casting bride-pennies to some screaming beggars and women in the street; the blind hornman whose unseeing eyes glanced along the reed of his bassoon that he played before the open door; the two saucy maids striving to wrest the bride's stockings one from the other—all these things appeared friendly and jovial in his eyes. So that, when one of the maids, wresting the stocking, fell hard against him, he clasped her in his arms and kissed her till she struggled from him to drink a mug of bride-ale.
'Hodie mihi: mihi atque cras!' he said. For it was in his mind a goodly thing to pay a usuress with base coins.