Wednesday, 3 September 2014

FGC#8 The Best Match

Lettys nudged the child through the bakehouse door and watched her run between the flour-dusted bodies towards the man wearing green hose and yellow stockings. She pressed herself back against the outside of the building, clutching her basket of foodstuffs to her navy skirts with one hand and straightening her coif with the other, smiling when she heard the man growl and the girl squeal.
"Good morning Meg," his cheery voice carried through the din of the bakers and the boys. "Now how did you come to be here all by yourself?" Meg giggled. "I think your aunt is hiding somewhere." His voice was getting closer, and her smile was growing bigger. "Where could she be?" He inched around the door frame, a heart-warming grin on his face and the child in his arms. "Found you."
Her smile matched his as his cheeky brown eyes sparkled in the late morning sun. The beginnings of a beard on his strong chin suited him. He smelt of wood smoke and yeast. She wanted to reach out and hold him but such behaviour would be improper. "Good morrow Will."
He dusted his hands on his apron. "And to you Mistress Crane." He lifted her hand to his lips but she snatched it away, glaring.
"Call me that again and I shan't recommend you to my brother." She winked as she took the girl child from him, brushing a spot of soot from the coif on his head.
"But a man of my low birth cannot possibly call a woman of class by her christian name."
The laugh made Lettys turn to the door of the dairy in the shade opposite the bakehouse, where a young woman stood watching them.
"My brother worrying about manners?" The smiling woman rubbed butter off her hands with a rag and dropped it into a bucket by the door. Her kirtle was the same colour as Will's hose, the front tucked into her belt displaying her woad blue petticoat beneath her apron. "And since when has Lettys Crane ever purported to be a woman of class? She is as scummy as the rest of us."
Lettys embraced the woman whose skin held the smell of sour milk from her work, and kissed her on the cheek. "As delightful as ever Annott. I shan't keep either of you, we just wanted to say good day. How goes the preparation for the banquet?"
"Well enough." Will glanced over her outfit, she felt colour rising in her cheeks and his grin became a smirk. "Is the banquet the reason for the new gown and skirt?"
Lettys rolled her eyes and tugged at the navy wool at her throat. "It was my mother's. Thomas made me wear it. We have to look presentable he said, but it is far too warm!"
A group of small boys ran by, waving sticks and shouting for the glory of England and Good Queen Bess. Annott grabbed the tallest one by the collar, and Lettys laughed at his wail of indignation.
"This one is barely presentable though." Annott wrapped her arms around the wriggling boy and tugged on the hem of his skirt. "Your kirtle is far too short young fellow." She tickled him and the boy shrieked, pulling free and hiding behind his aunt, a gap toothed grin on his freckled face.
"There is little point lengthening it now, he will be breeched and wearing hose in a fortnight." Her nephew pressed his face into the front of her gown, wrapping his arms around her and she squeezed him tight in return.
"Not long left in skirts then Master Nedkin?" Will nudged the boy with his foot. "Come hither with me, I have something for you." The pair of them disappeared into the bakehouse.
Lettys joined Annott in the warmth of the wall, even though she was warm enough already. Meg teased a lock of dark curls from under her aunt's coif, twisting it around her fingers and laying her head on her shoulder to doze.
"How fares your new husband?" Lettys grinned at her friend.
"Peter is quite well." Annott returned the grin with a wink. "The master has asked him to take on the duties of under-steward while Lord Robert is visiting."
"That is wonderful Annott. Mayhap Sir Walter will allow him to keep the position afterwards?"
Nedkin came running out of the bakehouse with Will. "Look Aunt Lettys!" In the boys hands were 3 balls of white bread.
"Will, you really should not indulge him with manchettes."
"We can spare three, heaven knows we have made plenty this morn." He grinned and shucked the boys brown felt cap.
The sound of hurried feet on the gravel path drew Lettys attention. "There you are little sister!" The bailiff of the master's farm trotted into sight, red in the face and breathing heavily, his black doublet hanging open.
"Thomas, what is it?" Her stomach began to flutter. Her brother should have been in town buying pigs this day, not searching the manor for her.
"We must make haste, the housekeeper is waiting for you."

"With our father dead it is up to me to find you a good husband!" Thomas stated again from his seat by the door, facing the wall.
Lettys was concealed behind a screen that stood as high as her shoulder, trying to straighten her under-skirt while the housemaid tugged at the laces on the side of her bodice. It was going to be an uncomfortable day. The oliphant grey kirtle with black sleeves had belonged to Thomas's late-wife when she had been a housemaid, and the woman had been more slender than Lettys.
"But surely if, and I emphasise if, a gentleman should take a fancy to me, he will take me away from the village. Then who will look after Meg and Nedkin?"
Thomas shrugged. "I shall take a second wife. I have been a widower for far too long, it's not proper."
Lettys sighed. She had tried every argument she could think of to sway her brother, but he was true to his course. She had but one argument left. Her brows knitted together and she tried to take a deep, bracing breath.
"But what if I had promised another that I would recommend him to you for husband?"
Thomas stood and turned. His face was still but anger was starting to burn in his eyes.
"Someone has been courting you without my consent?"
"No Thomas. I have known him for many years, his sister and I are friends."
"His name?"
She took as deep a breath as the bodice would allow. "Will. The baker's son."
He simply stared at her a moment. "A baker's son," he muttered, beginning to pace.
"He is a good man brother. He will finish his apprenticeship with his father in four months time, he wanted to wait until then to ask you for my hand, he wanted to show you he had the means to keep me."
Thomas bought his fist down hard on a table and she flinched. "God's wounds girl!" Storming around the screen, he pushed the housemaid aside and grabbed Lettys by the shoulders. She tried to make herself small under his gaze. "You are the cousin of the master of this manor. I would have you marry above your station not below it."
"Thomas please, you are hurting me." She was shaking. Never had she seen him in such a temper.
"Lady Catherine has done us great favour this day. She has but one daughter to marry off and Lord Robert has five sons, thus she has offered to make introduction for you too. So you will serve at table this night, and behave as befits your station, do you understand me."
Unable to look him in the eyes, Lettys nodded. He let her go and strode out of the room.

Up and down the passageway stood pages and housemaids of all shapes and size. Lettys and the maid that had helped her dress slipped into the formidable line of grey and black liveried bodies, bleach white coifs and black caps. Her heart was still pounding in her chest from her brother's treatment and tears threatened to spill down her face. The murmurs of conversation in the line ceased at the appearance of the steward, the housekeeper and the four under-stewards, making their way up the passage, inspecting the large staff required for the nights festivities.
Peter, Annott's husband, spotted her stood against the wall and walked towards her, frowning. He was a kind-hearted fellow but she did not want to talk to him for fear her tears would begin to fall.
"Lettys? Are you well?" He softly took her hand and leaned close, his eyes soft.
"I am quite well Peter, I assure you. Please. I know you are busy." Peter squeezed her hand and she released a shaking breath as he walked on.

A moment later the line stiffened when Sir Walter Applegate, the master of the house, proceeded along the passageway to the main hall, accompanied by Lord Robert Pentfort. Following them was a selection of family members and other gentlemen. Lettys was astonished by the finery of the mens outfits. Most were subtle in their choice of garments, wearing the richest reds and blacks, with the most delicate of embroidery and jewelling. Others, however, reminded Lettys of peacocks, displaying their many bright colours and the latest fashions from across Europe. She forced herself not to laugh at the fellow with the hose so large he may as well have been wearing a skirt. The young man behind him caught her eye. The manner in which he held himself marked him as a gentleman. He smiled at her, then glanced at the fellow with the skirt hose and rolled his eyes. She smiled back at him as he walked passed on his way to the great hall. Her smile disappeared when her eyes fell on Thomas at the back of the party. He was dressed in his best black wool doublet and hose with crimson satin slashing. He looked quite fine with his dark beard and hair carefully combed, but when he nodded to her it sent a cold wave from her throat to her toes.

A flurry of activity ensued when the last of the party had entered the great hall. The musicians began to play in the gallery, pages were sent to the hall to serve wine, maids to the garderobe to collect trenchers for the gentle-folk to eat from. Lettys found herself in the kitchen helping to put the finishing details to a variety of succulent dishes. Annott brushed past her in the melee, pressed into kitchen service for the Lord's visit. They had not a moment to even exchange a greeting as a dish was thrust into Lettys's hands and she scurried back into the passageway, joining the queue of maids and pages, each carrying a platter of some delicacy or another.
In procession, they walked into the great hall. The steward announced each dish, it was placed upon one of the tables and the carrier was sent back to the kitchen for the next dish. Salats, cheeses, breads, tortes, pottage, fish, poultry and game were distributed until Lettys felt sure the table should collapse.
The last dish she carried forth was a decorative quail, and the only space left was in front of the young gentleman who had smiled at her. He smiled again as she walked towards him and put down the platter.
"Thank you."? He held her gaze. She did not want to be rude and turn away, but he held it so long she felt awkward. She was saved by the arrival of the prize dish. Peter and his fellow under-stewards carried a board between them, atop which sat three roasted peacocks, each posed and redressed in it's skin and feathers, their tails arranged to display their many beautiful colours.
She gratefully took the opportunity to steal back to the kitchens. The cooks and their assistants were still busy, this time finishing the sweet dishes. She tucked herself in beside a fireplace to catch her breath and saw Will walk in with a basket of manchettes from the bakehouse. He winked at her across the crowded room and she felt herself calm a little. Barely seconds later she was swept back to the great hall to collect empty platters.

It was late before the household and their guests had finished eating, but despite the immense amount of food they had consumed they were still full of energy and determined to dance. Lettys watched from the corner of the room as the pages cleared away the low board tables and Lord Robert stood, holding his hand out to Lady Catherine. She accepted the invitation and allowed him to escort her to the centre of the hall. Her gown was beautiful; deep red and cream, with the tiniest of pearls stitched along the lines of the bodice.
The musicians began to play a galliard, and one-by-one, more couples joined the floor. Lettys was content to watch. She knew the dances certainly, but had had little opportunity to practice of late. Besides, she felt drained. If it had not been for Thomas watching her like a hawk from the other side of the room she would have snuck off to the kitchen, or even home. Sedately, the dancers moved about the hall. After more wine she knew the dances would get more lively, rowdier. The dance ended, and the couples bowed to each other. Some remained on the floor as the next dance started, others found seats around the room.
Lady Catherine spotted Lettys hiding in the corner and walked over with her arms outstretched.
"Dear girl, why do you secret yourself away so?" She embraced Lettys.
"Forgive me my lady, but I am wearied from service." Lettys curtsied to the lady of the house. As a child she had run freely through these rooms, playing with Lady Catherine's daughter Isabel and her two sons, John and Stephen. But as she grew older she was made aware there was a proper way to behave around gentle-folk and now she always felt awkward and ungainly in the family's presence.
"Well my dear, you did a fine job. If you wished I would be more than happy to take you onto our household staff?"
"With the greatest of respect my lady, I must decline such a generous offer. Until my brother finds himself a second wife he needs someone to care for his house and childer."
"You are a good girl to care for your brother so." Lady Catherine grinned and embraced Lettys again. "However, I suspect you may find yourself a husband before your brother finds another wife."
Lettys's heart began to beat faster and her gut twisted.
Lady Catherine leaned in close and whispered, "Young master Myles fancies you my dear." She stood aside and nodded across the room to the young gentleman who had smiled at Lettys. He was watching them as he spoke with the man in the skirt hose. "He is a fine and gentle fellow, sweet in spirit, something of a poet I gather. If that I could marry my Isabel off to him instead of his braggart brother Francis I would, but needs must. Francis is the better match for her." She sighed. "Now you must understand that as the youngest son of Lord Robert he has no entitlement to the family fortune or estates, but he is well provisioned for. All of Lord Robert's sons are well known at court. It rather excites me to think that my Isabel, and mayhap yourself, could soon be in the company of good Queen Bess. So what do you think my dear? Shall I make introduction?" Lady Catherine veritably bounced with excitement at the notion.
Lettys felt the colour drain from her face and her hands begin to shake. She was going to be introduced to the young gentleman, Myles Pentfort, as a prospect for marriage. All she could do was nod. Lady Catherine clapped with delight and took Lettys's hand, guiding her around the dancing couples.
Myles excused himself from his conversational companion as they approached.
Lady Catherine nodded to the young man. "Sir, allow me to introduce Lettys Crane, a cousin of our family."
He bowed to the women and kissed Lettys's hand. "The pleasure is all mine Lady Catherine. I have been admiring your cousin from a distance all night."
Lettys felt rooted to the spot, unable to speak or move. With great effort she managed to bob a curtsey.
Lady Catherine chuckled. "You must forgive Lettys sir, serving at table this evening has taxed her so. Shall I leave you to get better acquainted?" She did not wait for an answer, Lady Catherine just glided off into the crowd around the hall. Lettys desperately wanted to run after her and hide behind her skirts. Instead, she turned a timorous smile to Myles Pentfort as the dance ended.
He grinned offering her his arm. "May I have the next dance, my lady?"
Her feet felt unbelievably heavy but she followed him onto the floor and they stood face to face, waiting for the next piece of music. To her dismay, it was a Volta, one of the more intimate of the court dances. He moved to stand beside her, placing his arm across her body and she did the same. The sensation of his hand on her waist made her breath catch and she fixed her gaze on the pearl hanging from his ear. The velvet of his deep blue doublet was pleasantly soft and warm beneath her palm.
"I am curious, why do you perform the duties of a housemaid this night if you are a cousin of the family?"
Lettys's tongue cleaved to the roof of her mouth. She tried to concentrate on the steps of the dance but stumbled as she tried to speak. "I am little more than a peasant my lord, service is a good station for one such as myself."
His eye's narrowed. "But you are a cousin of the Applegates?"
"My late father was Sir Walter's cousin, yes. He was the bailiff of his farm, my brother holds the position now."
He placed both his strong hands on her waist, and lifted her for the three quarter turn. "Hardly a peasant then." Myles cocked his head at her, still smiling.
"Maybe not a peasant, but a farmers daughter none-the-less, far below the station of one such as yourself my lord. I am better suited to care for animals and childer than run a household."
He laughed, the pleasant resonant sound ringing out above the chatter. "Allow me to be the judge of that will you?" He lifted her again.
"As you wish my lord."

When the music ended, Myles Pentfort bowed deeply to her, her heart sinking when he once again kissed her hand. She had not been rude to him as they danced, simply reserved, but evidently that and the discussion of her social standing had not been enough to deter his interest.
She stopped herself sighing with relief when she saw Peter making his way towards them through the crowd.
He bowed reverently to Myles. "Begging your pardon my lord, but Lettys's presence has been requested in the kitchen."
"Of course, I shall detain the fair creature no longer." Once more he kissed Lettys's hand. "I must go speak with my father. I hope we shall see one another again soon Mistress Crane."
Lettys curtsied to the floor, again unable to speak. When Myles turned away Peter gently took her arm and led her from the hall.

They hastened down the passage, Peter leading her to the stewards quarters off the kitchen, shutting the door firmly behind them. Annott was pacing about the room, chewing her fingernails. Will stood from the settle when they entered. Lettys gulped down the first easy breath she had taken in hours and felt a few tears escape her eyelids. She could stop acting in the proper manner, if only for a few moments. Will gathered her up in his arms and held her tight.
"Peter told us about Lord Robert's son. How do you fare?"
"I am well enough. I am just so tired."
Annott shoved her brother away and took Lettys's hands in her own, squeezing them tightly. "Does he favour you?" Her brown eyes, so like her brothers, searched Lettys's own green ones.
"I believe so. Yes." She watched Annott's face crease as tears welled up in her eyes. "In very truth, it was never my intention to garner the attention of a gentleman. I'm sorry. Thomas received the favour from Lady Catherine." Her heart broke as Annott turned away from her.
Will placed his arm about her trembling shoulders. "So what do we do now?"
Peter pulled the hat from his head and rubbed his eyes. "There is nothing we can do. If Myle's asks Thomas for Lettys's hand he will undoubtedly consent and they will be married by the end of the year."
"You cannot marry him Lettys, you cannot." Annott threw her arms about Lettys's neck and kissed her upon the lips. Lettys tasted the tears of the woman she loved as she greedily indulged the physical connection between them. They had been unable to do this since before Anott and Peter's wedding two months before. The need to maintain a proper appearance had been torture. She held the woman tightly, Annott burying her face in her neck, sobbing.
Lettys watched Peter wrap his arms around Will's middle, the bakers son leaning back into the embrace. "We should have known it was too good to last."
"If only we could all just disappear," Will sighed. The thought hovered tentatively in the air between the four of them.
Peter stood up straighter. "Why can we not? We could just disappear."
"You are talking nonsense husband." Annott raised her tear stained face from Lettys's shoulder.
"I swear I am not. We could leave. The four of us we could leave, tonight, start afresh somewhere else, mayhap London. Lettys and Will could marry as per our plan, no-one will pay any attention to two newly-wed couples. We could be together as we please." Peter's face was aglow with excitement at the prospect. Lettys felt a glimmer of hope starting to grow inside her.
"It is not an unreasonable plan." Will squeezed Peter's hand, a timorous smile beginning to tug at his lips.
However, one thought extinguished the hope in Lettys like a cold wind. "But what of my family?" Lettys stepped away from Annott. "I cannot abandon Nedkin and Meg. Thomas knows nothing of caring for childer."
Annott grasped at her. Lettys could feel her love's desperation and wanted nothing more than to give her what she wanted. "Lettys there are many in the village to help him. Or if you are so concerned we can take them with us, raise them as our own."
"As our own?" Thoughts were tumbling around Lettys's head like acrobats. She loved Annott, that she did not doubt. But was it enough to leave behind her life, her brother, to take his childer from him?
A knock at the door made her jump and broke them all from their dreaming. Peter and Will stepped away from each other and Annott dried her face with her apron.
Thomas opened the door. "What are you doing in here little sister? I have been looking for you everywhere." He held out his hand to her, grinning. "Come. Lord Robert wishes to speak with us."

This short story was written in response to the Form and Genre Challenge 2012 #8: The Historical Challenge and received and honourable mention in the Readers Poll.
Final word count: 3955
To see the other submissions go to the Write Anything website here.
As always, much love and thanks to my favourite beta reader Alex.
Disclaimer for Kentwellies: All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real Kentwellies, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This is a work of fiction.