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Bawdy Tales Pt. 03 — The Widow's Story

Tucksford, The Laxton Arms, May 27th. We had no need to cast lots yester-eve to choose who should entertain after supper tonight. Almost as soon as the Cook had finished his tale of the Devil and the Lady, the widow Dame Elizabeth called out above the hubbub and general hilarity.

“Dear friends,” she said, “for that is what I must perforce call you now, there being none of my family left alive. The cook has regaled us with a merry tale this e’en, which was as hot a fare as a man might wish for to send him happy to his bed. It is my contention that I might enjoy your approbation with a tale of my own. One about another lady, lately of my acquaintance, not as grand as the virtuous Lady of his tale, but a lady nonetheless, as I can attest.”

In truth, it must be said that all were much amazed. The dame had barely said a word in our company, preferring to remain aloof, and we had assumed that her haughty mien showed that she thought herself of a higher station than such humble folk as the rest. Indeed I had pondered how she could ever be persuaded if the lot fell to her one evening, expecting her to demur.

So it was decided, and as we travelled the twenty miles along the high road from Bawtry, apart from the general banter, for we were becoming quite a jolly party, there had been much questioning of one another how such a respectable dame could come up with a saucy tale for our pleasure. None expected anything more than women’s gossip, for what could she know other than commonplace things.

Our party has grown in number this morning. As we were about to set out, three men approached and asked if they might join us. One I recognised as the minstrel who had sung for his supper the night before. He had a pretty voice and everyone had been happy to drop a few coins in his hat. His companion was a pale faced youth with long hair, which was lank and matted and in need of a good wash. He told us that he was a scholar who had fled the pestilence from his university in Paris, only to find his whole family dead on his return to his father's house. The third was obviously a man of arms from his mien and the long scar from brow to chin that disfigured his otherwise handsome features. I had hardly noticed him the night before, for he had been sitting in the shadows with his cloak hiding most of his face, and had spoken only a few words to the serving wench.

We arrived in Tucksford on a fine summers evening, such a change from the rain and gloom of the past weeks. The tree tops were all aglow in the light of the setting sun, and the dust of the road stirred up by our passing danced in the air like flecks of gold. It seemed that God in his infinite mercy had turned from his wrath, and had once more turned his beneficent gaze on mankind. After judgement those who are saved will feast on the heavenly banquet, the priests assured us, and who can say they are wrong.

The miller grew very excited when he spied the sails of the old mill on the edge of the town still turning lazily in the balmy air. He was all for rushing over to see if there was one of his craft still alive, and we had to dissuade him of such an unwise course of action. He then became very sentimental as he regaled anyone who would listen, with a discourse on the beauty of a mill’s machinery. I suppose I feel the same way about wood.

We were treated to a fine supper of cold mutton and bread. The tapster had a particularly fine ale, golden brown in colour, and I'm afraid I succumbed and had a second and then a third tankard. So when the time came for the widow to tell her tale I was already feeling more contented than I could remember for many a long month, sitting with a fourth foaming tankard in my hand, and sweet Alice by my side.

ooOoo

The Widow’s Story

Though you may find it hard to believe now, I was once a pretty girl when the bloom of youth still gilded my cheeks. I used to receive many admiring glances and love notes from the young bucks of the town when I was sitting in church on a Sunday, especially if they thought my father wasn't looking. Now I am as you see me, with white hair and wrinkled skin, although my teeth have survived the ravages of time, thank God or good fortune. And my waistline betrays my fondness for too many honey and almond pastries, although there was a time when a man could girdle my waist with his two hands, O so long ago it seems now, but inside that young woman is still there.

I was born in the great port of Kings-town, on the banks of the River Hull where it runs into the great estuary of the Humber a days sail from the sea. My father was a merchant with a fleet of three fine cogs, and a great warehouse on the waterfront. His trade was mainly in cloth, and he was well thought of by the monks of the Abbey at Meaux, for offering them a good price for export of their wool. In those days there was a great demand for rich silks by the great nobles, and he would send a ship to Italy once in a while. Sadly that has all ended with the Great Pestilence, and many in Kings-town now live in penury, those that were spared that is. Besides there are too few sailors to man all the great vessels of the town, and they now sit idle and rotting along the banks of the river.

My father's success meant that we became very wealthy, and could afford to eat meat every day of the week, except Friday of course. My mother was taken in childbirth not long after my eighteenth birthday, and my father decided to go to Genoa for a year to establish a presence in that fine city, in order to increase the volume of his business there, being as it was considerably more lucrative than the trade in woollen cloth. Rather than leave me at home in the care of my elderly aunts, probably because he didn't trust the young men of the town — I guess he had been aware of their approaches in church when they thought he was lost in prayer.

Anyway, he decided to take me with him, with one of his widowed sisters to act as my chaperone. So on a fine spring day we set sail down the River Hull and out into the Humber. I had been taken on the ships many times in my childhood, though never beyond the place where we dropped the pilot, where we would disembark and take a lift with a carrier back to Kings-town. So I had long since lost my fear of the water, and I had never suffered from the sickness brought in by the movement of the ship upon the waves, unlike my mother whose face would turn green as soon as she set foot on the deck.

It was wonderful to stand on the forecastle and watch the billowing canvas white against the blue of the sky, serenaded it seemed by the calls of the busy sailors trimming the sails to take best advantage of the wind, and the piercing cries of the gulls. My poor aunt suffered the same as my mother and rapidly disappeared below decks to the safety of her berth. I was so excited at this great adventure, free from the cloying familiarity of my home town.

It took the whole of the day to reach the sea, and rather than set out on those treacherous waters at night, we anchored in the lee of the spit of land that juts out over three miles from the land, and which makes the safe haven for ships when the autumn storms blow from the north — no sensible man will venture out in winter.

The voyage took two months, and we rarely ventured far from the sight of land. But at last, we anchored in the straights outside Genoa, waiting for a berth to become free in the harbour. The sight of the city even from the sea was wondrous fair, so different from our home port. The buildings seemed to go on for miles, and in the rays of the evening sun, they would glow with a rainbow of colours from pale green to flaming red.

My father has sent an agent ahead of us many months before to find us a suitable house in a fashionable quarter of the city — in business, he said, appearances are so important. When I first saw the house I had to clap my hands with joy. This was the first stone built house that I had ever seen, not at all like the timber and brick houses of England. Above the main entrance, there was a balcony with a carved balustrade, and there were statues of Greek heroes either side of the main door, which was approached by a grand staircase. Inside the rooms were cool, and at the end of the wide passageway, doors opened onto an enclosed courtyard with a raised pool in the centre with a tinkling fountain. Up to that point, I had thought that our house in Kings-town was grand, but it was no better than a hovel compared to the splendour of the palace — which is how I thought of it — that was to be my home for the next year.

The next few weeks passed uneventfully. My father was away most of the day meeting with other merchants and agents from far away in the east. At night we would dine off silver in the great dining room, and my father would often ask me to be the hostess when he entertained influential men of the city and beyond. During the day my aunt and I would venture out into the city to see the sights, either in the cool of the morning, or more often late afternoon. The heat of the noonday was such that few ventured out of doors, and we followed their example, preferring to spend the hottest hours in the cool of our rooms, with their thick stone walls, or sitting by the fountain in the courtyard.

My story really begins, however, in early September, when my aunt fell ill and took to her bed. I was under instructions not to venture out alone, but I was a headstrong girl, and I reckoned that taking one of the servants with me was not strictly breaking the rules. So it was that one glorious Tuesday morning I found myself sitting on the low wall surrounding an ornamental fountain in one of the city’s many squares, with my servant at a respectable distance — he was of a lower class after all. I was doing nothing, in particular, just enjoying the feeling of freedom, and possibly enjoying it all the more because it was slightly naughty.

I was sitting idly running my fingers across the surface of the water and daydreaming when I heard a strange man’s voice, apparently addressing me. “And what, pray, is a beautiful young lady doing here all on her own? Do you not know that is is not entirely safe for someone as fresh and lovely to go around unattended.”

I turned to see from whence the voice came and gasped, putting my hand up to my mouth in my confusion. There just an arm's length way stood the most beautiful creature I had ever seen, so beautiful he could not be human. He was obviously a prince, dressed as he was in a gown of finest silk shot through with threads of silver and gold. His striped stockings of white and red — hose is too crude a word — fitted his shapely legs so perfectly that you could see every detail of his muscles, and on his feet were shoes so dainty they were more like ladies slippers. But best of all was his hat, set lightly on his dark curls and surmounted by a long feather at a jaunty angle.

Once I had gathered my wits, I answered him in the firmest tone I could manage, “But I am not alone kind sir, see there is my servant over there,” and I gestured across the square to where a group of youths was playing dice, my servant among them.

“That may be so, my lady, but it will soon be getting uncomfortably warm. Why don't you come with me to my house?” And he gestured in the other direction to what truly looked to me like a palace, “And then, over a glass of chilled wine, we can get to know each other better.”

I should have done the sensible thing I know, but I was absolutely smitten by this figure of a god, and all I could do was meekly nod my head. Within what seemed like seconds, I was in such a dream; I found myself sitting across from this dark, and unbelievably handsome stranger, with a glass of wine such as I had never tasted in my life, telling him my life story.

He listened very politely to my long speech, only interrupting me to say things such as “how interesting” or “how pleasant for you,” but at last my prattle petered out, and after a comfortable silence, he started to tell me a little about himself.

He was not a prince or a god, as he had seemed to me, but a member of the ruling aristocracy and younger brother to the doge, their name for the elected ruler of the city. He was about 15 years older than me, with a young wife who had just been delivered of a baby, and was now in their house in the country, a much healthier place for a child to be brought up, he said.

After a while, Nicolo, for that was his name, looked across at the sundial in the corner of the courtyard where we were sitting and said, “It is about time we got you home; otherwise your family will be getting worried. I will send my footman to escort you and your servant safely through the streets. We can't have you coming to any harm, especially before I have got to know you properly. But perhaps you would care to join me on Friday for a light meal of fish, and we can continue this extremely pleasant discourse,” and he lifted my fingers to his mouth and kissed them delicately.

It was not until our third or fourth meeting that events took a turn for the better, or worse; it depends upon your point of view. But a dramatic turn it most certainly was. “Mia cara signorita,” he said in that gorgeous musical voice, “you are exceedingly beautiful, and I am a connoisseur of beautiful things and women, but such beauty should not be hidden behind muslin or even silk. Let me take you inside to the seclusion of my boudoir, and there let me remove those ugly wrappings that conceal your perfection.”

I should have said no, and asked to be escorted back to my home, but in truth, I was totally under his spell, and I meekly let him lift me up as easily as if I were a feather, and carry me to his room. What followed was an afternoon of such heavenly delight that it still makes my body grow warm with the memory of it, for that afternoon I ceased to be a maiden and became a woman.

Nicolo was very gentle with me that afternoon. He was in no hurry to complete his seduction — he was not only a gentleman but also a consummate lover and his first thought was for my pleasure and not the satisfaction of his own need and desire. If he was to take me, it had to be because it was also my ardent desire, and must only be because I wished to surrender willingly and gladly. And I did want to surrender, more than anything else in the world.

You might be shocked to hear this, my friends, for I was a respectably brought up young woman who should not have such wanton desires. But for the first time in my life I felt truly wanted and desired, and yes, even loved. This, this was what I had been created for, and at last I was going to become truly myself, this was my destiny.

That was the first of many afternoons when we made love in the darkness of his room, lit only by the golden shafts of sunlight through the slats of the shutters on the window. He taught me many things, the pleasure of which I have never forgotten, and also ways to please a man which he promised would keep a husband from casting his eyes elsewhere.

Sadly, my aunt eventually recovered from her malady, and I was devastated to think that I must never see him again. But Nicolo found the solution — he was not a man who would let anything stand in the way of his desires, and as the second most powerful man in Genoa, few would dare to deny him. So it was that one afternoon two men carrying a curtained litter stopped at our door, and one handed a small card to the footman to be given to my father.

Duke Nicolo d’Ardono cordially requests the company of Signorita Elizabeth Strenger to attend on his sister the Signora Rosina.

When he read the card my father gave me a questioning look, but he gave his assent, thinking perhaps that association with the Ardinis would be of great advantage to his business.

So my afternoons of delight continued until the inevitable happened, and I discovered that I had missed two of my monthly bleeds. I concealed the fact of my condition for as long as possible, but eventually I had to confess to my father. He was extremely angry and threatened to have me put away in a nunnery. Nicolo demanded a meeting with him, however, and it was agreed that I should not be punished so harshly — I suppose that pressure was brought to bear on my father; Nicolo did control all the licences for the export of goods from the port of Genoa after all. It was also agreed that Nicolo would accept his responsibility, and our child would be brought up with his other children, and if it was a girl found a suitable husband when the time came.

I cried when my daughter was taken from my arms a few minutes after her birth, but I knew she would be far better provided for than if I had taken her back to England, where she would for ever be tainted with the curse of bastardy. My father found a husband for me from among the other English merchants in Genoa, a widow in his forties. Everything was explained to him, and no doubt money changed hands, but a few days after I had recovered from my confinement I was married in a small chapel in Genoa by the Ardino family’s own priest.

I had to make my confession a few days before the ceremony, and in penance for my grave sins, my long hair was shorn — it grew back eventually of course, but it was never as lustrous as it had been, and it tuned white when I was only in my late thirties. Nicolo came to the wedding, and I thought that I could detect a tear in his eye when he saw what had been done to me.

My husband John was a kind man, and he was always good to me, and I discovered the truth of Nicolo’s assertion, because as far as I know, he never strayed with the whores of the town where we lived, even during my confinements. We had three sons, two of whom were sent as agents by my husband in Brabant and Piedmont when they were of age. The third and youngest continued to live with us until his marriage when he went to live somewhere in the south, Norwich I think. Whether any have survived the pestilence I know not, I can only say my Rosary and pray for their souls.

Although I never heard from Nicolo, I was sent word when my daughter would have been sixteen that she had been betrothed to the son of a family in the minor nobility, but that is the last I know of her. I pray for her daily too.

That is my story, my friends. I ask you not to judge me too harshly, for I have no regrets, and still remember my days in Genoa with fondness, though it seems to me now it must have been in a different life.

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Copyright © 2020 by Keith Paver

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