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A Whitsun Morris-dance

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...we heard that England were busied with a Whitsun morris-dance

Henry V, Act II, Scene iv

 

Halfway through the service, Montjoy's mind should have been on God's grace, but with an instance of that grace standing not so very far from him, who could blame him for his inattention? Even the Whitsun hymn was less helpful than it should have been. His mind provided, unbidden, the translation of the Latin; Bring light to our five senses, pour love into our hearts, making firm our feeble bodies with perpetual strength.

With a lingering sense of what was seemly, he resolutely turned his eyes to the interior of God's house to find distraction. Here was an array of musician angels, well and good; there, a flare of colour from the windows, brighter yet than the paintings on the walls; and looking straight at him, from the capital of a pillar, was a face sprouting green leaves in wild profusion.

The mouth stretched in a leafy grin; the merry eyes seemed to wink at him in complicity; carven birds hopped among his foliate hair. Two of them even had a nest. And the birdsong from outside the church gave counterpoint to the singing inside, for this was the middle of May, and the very crown of the year.

Montjoy knew even without another sidelong glance that Henry, just a few feet away, had that same spring exultation running in his veins. It had been just a month since that he'd cornered Montjoy in a walled orchard, behind the beehives of all places, and charmed Montjoy into his arms with very little trouble. Since then they'd both been hard put to it not to smile at inappropriate moments, and if their eyes met now they might as well proclaim their joy to all the world.

Montjoy firmly removed his thoughts from that direction, took his eye from the greenwood spirit (who nevertheless maintained his knowing and merry regard) and directed his mind to the service.

-x-

Later, in the porch, they paused to allow a shower of rain to pass. The horses were waiting, with their grooms, in a damp row along the outside of the south aisle. Yew-trees loomed among the grave-markers, but beyond their painful memento mori were other trees, springing into new life to rival that of the face in the church. Montjoy mentioned the tête feuillée he'd seen to Henry, who had somehow, in the shifting of the members of his court, fetched up at Montjoy's side.

'The Jack-in-the-Green, yes,' said Henry. 'We see him in a few unexpected places, especially at this time of year.' His mouth stretched into a wider smile, in an approximation of the Jack's wicked grin.

There was a burst of music from the tavern across the high street, and a rustic procession poured from its door. 'There, for instance!' Among a crowd of young people dressed in white was Jack once more, in a suit of leaves that reached from the top of his head to his ankles, with just his feet visible beneath.

'He's very like the Wild Men we had sometimes at court in France.' Montjoy stopped short; there had been one such appearance that sent a frisson of horror through every true Frenchman. King Charles, dancing in a procession of Wild Men at the wedding of one of his courtiers, had almost been killed by his own brother bringing a torch too close to the shaggy figures in their resin-soaked garments, with who knew what intent? Only the quick thinking of the Duchess de Berri had saved him. The spirits of the forest brought their own peril with them.

But Henry, with a further glint of a smile, said, 'Wild indeed!' and his brothers and a courtier or two suddenly announced their intention of going to collect their horses. So much for his resolve of concealment; abashed, Montjoy turned his face back to the prancing figures in the roadway, and the conversation went no further for a while.

-x-

They rode back into the centre of the town, to the Cross Keys on the London Road. Here, once the morning meal had been taken and the details of the morrow's travel had been arranged, he and Henry were, surprisingly, alone in Henry's chamber.

Henry smiled again at Montjoy and said, 'We're free for the rest of the day; the others have plans enough to amuse themselves, I don't doubt. Would you come with me to see how we make holiday in England?'

'Holiday? Yes, I'd like to see that.'

'Best put on your less-good clothes; you're a little too much the courtier as you are, much though I like that cote on you!'

Montjoy raised an eyebrow; 'Your revels are so exuberant, then?'

'The ale can flow, yes. I've a hunting-jacket here will do for me.' He delved into the chest at the foot of his bed; which bed had been enthusiastically shared by them the night before. Montjoy, wondering how much ale he'd be required to drink, went through the door into a small anteroom and beyond into the room that was nominally his. Here he opened his own chest and sorted through it; on top were his white cloak and silk tabard, and carefully packed beneath them, his herald's staff and crown, the latter worn only on the most formal occasions, such as at the Easter court at Windsor. Below the heavy circlet were his travelling clothes, and he selected the most worn of them, in unremarkable blue.

Dressed again, and wearing boots suitable for walking rather than riding, he rejoined Henry, who was now clad in hunting-clothes that made him look very much the forester. Each cast an appreciative eye over the other; the green suited Henry's hair and eyes very well, and Montjoy had been informed by Henry that blue was his colour in more than the heraldic sense. For a moment it seemed that the holiday expedition would be forgotten, but then Henry said decisively, 'Come on,' and they went out onto the landing of the inn, Henry nodding at the door-ward as they went. He opened a small doorway in the corner of the landing that Montjoy had not noticed before, and plunged down a dark, narrow stair; and they came out into daylight in seemingly an entirely different corner of the inn-yard.

Unnoticed in a bustle of the Cross Keys' servants, they left by the main archway, and were out into the market-place immediately and into the holiday crowd. So effective was their disguise that many of the local gentry and merchants were more finely dressed than they. Henry, at Montjoy's elbow, fetched a sigh of satisfaction at his freedom, but was already looking about him for a particular something or someone.

There were booths in the centre of the main street, and under the market cross; there was a small flock of sheep and a string of milch-goats, and fowls in pens adding to the clamour. Stalls and trestle tables were everywhere, and the stall-holders, crying their goods, added to the confusion.

Henry had spotted his goal, or so it seemed; he dodged around a stack of barrels, greeting the ale-wife: 'Good day to you, mistress!' and Montjoy, towed along in his wake, recognised the guisers they'd seen as they came out of the Abbey. There were the maidens, dressed in white; there was the man in his leafy suit and his companions, fantastically beribboned, and a mighty garland of flowers and greenery raised high on a stout pole. Henry exchanged a nod with the man in charge of this garland, who had seemed to be waiting for them, for a moment later the guisers burst into song and movement, clapping their hands and beginning a circling dance.

'You know these people!' accused Montjoy, under cover of the surge of dancers.

'Yes, there are more kings than one in England today,' laughed Henry. 'Or even more than in your College of Heralds, King of Arms!'

The guisers were readying to move off, with a drum-roll and a squawking of bagpipes. A new song began; something about the merry month of May. A young girl dashed up to them and reached up to crown them both with wreaths of flowers, like the ones everyone else was already wearing.

Now they got under way. A turn of the road, and the Cross Keys was out of sight. The street wound ahead between smaller houses towards the gate, which stood wide open. They jostled briefly under the arch, mingling for a moment with a party of country folk coming in from round about. Then they were into farmland, with a straggle of cottages and orchards, then sheep and cattle pastured on the river-flats, and a wooded half-circle of hills rising up a few miles to the north.

The more energetic dancing came to a stop here, and the Queen of the procession cried, 'Best foot forward, everyone, we're calling at a lot of places today!'

'What's the first ale-house?' came a voice from the back of the party.

'The George and Dragon, you know that well enough, Rob Franklin!'

'Someone ought to build one closer in!' grouched Rob.

'That someone won't be you, unless you stop drinking all your money!' she riposted, to laughter and general agreement, and they were on their way again.

At the ale-house, George and the dragon were waiting for them, and the arrival of the guisers was greeted with cheers and the waving of tankards. The newcomers sat on benches outside the door while the mummers ran through their play; terrible roarings from the dragon as it pawed the ground, and a charge by St. George on his hobby-horse. The dragon was duly transfixed, keeled over, and stuck all four legs in the air.

Henry, on the next bench, let loose a cheer that startled Montjoy, who looked round to see him raise his tankard in a toast to St. George. The saint was now taking a bow. Henry's cote was undone, his throat bare; he took a long pull at his drink and Montjoy hastily turned away and buried his face in his own tankard. A few minutes later, with much back-slapping and cheerful rumpus, the king of the guisers raised the garland again, and they were on their way to the next village.

At the John Barleycorn, there were morris-dancers already waiting on the green. Stacked under an oak-tree were half a dozen archery targets, with the church as an incongruous back-drop. But the men who would shoot at them were at play today; no-one paid them any heed as the dancers skipped and turned to the tune of a hurdy-gurdy, the bagpipes having been silenced with threats of violence. The dancers had flowers in their hats and bells on their legs, and the click and smack of their staves served for a drum-beat. Village girls were watching them speculatively, whispering behind their hands in giggling groups, one or two of them dancing on the spot to the beat of the tune.

Montjoy strolled over to Henry and observed in an undertone, 'There'll be a few babes born at Candlemas, I think!'

'Yes, and some fun had in the getting of them!' with the private sidelong smile that had Montjoy's blood quickening as it always did. He returned the smile, let his fingers just stray across Henry's hip, and was off through the press before anything more revealing could happen.

The town and its abbey, God's great ship, were visible on the skyline behind them all that May morning, but were now diminished by distance. Streams and bridges, meadows and lanes passed in flowery procession, and as they went deeper into the countryside, so town and country folk alike began to cast aside propriety. In the woodlands Montjoy caught flickering glimpses of figures, ivy crowned, hand-in-hand, and fleet-footed. Laughter upon laughter, sometimes quickly stifled, spilled from brakes of denser growth.

Spring-wine, and it was running freely in Montjoy's blood now. The troop following the garland had utterly abandoned formality, and decorum was going the same way; a daisy-chain of revellers, out on a frolic, laughing and singing snatches: Sumer is icumen in. Lhude sing cuccu.

Someone grabbed Montjoy's hand, and he looked round to see Henry in his green forester's garb, an imp of mischief dancing in those so-blue eyes and his hair an echo of the sun. Lust sprang up in Montjoy, barely to be denied. They were passing a green woodland, floored with flowers, and he tugged at Henry's hand; Let's go there! We'll be safe there – and if not, who cares?

But Henry shook his head. 'Not yet. Just a little way!' he murmured, and on the last word formed a kiss.

Montjoy growled, but let himself be towed along in the wake of the garland. They stopped briefly at yet another inn, the Wheatsheaf, where there seemed to be a wedding celebration in progress; bride and groom dressed in their best, everyone laughing and merry except for a yelling youngster, and the marriage-service long pre-empted, by the look of the bride.

The procession went on. Now they were entering deeper woodland, and they gathered pace again as the lane dipped towards a plank-bridge over a little stream. Beyond was a waist-high stone wall with a stile, and a little path climbing away into a higher dell, while the lane struck straight up the other side of the valley.

And here at last Henry stopped to lean against the wall, panting, his face tilted to the canopy of new green above from which sweet raindrops fell in a sudden shower. The Queen of the procession glanced back briefly; she and Henry exchanged a grin. The Jack-in-the-Green in his leafy suit revolved once, then continued on his way, with the guisers puffing in his wake as they toiled up the further slope.

'Here. This way,' said Henry quietly, and crossed the stile.

Montjoy climbed over in his turn, and at once the footfalls and voices of the procession were eclipsed by birdsong, and the falling music of the stream added a counterpoint. The smell of damp earth, of moss and wild garlic rose to greet Montjoy as he set foot on the woodland floor. There was no-one in the wood but themselves.

'What - '

'Shh. Follow me.' And Henry went hastily up that narrow path, that for all its small wanderings ran straight towards its destination, a little coomb at the head of the valley. Montjoy, hard on Henry's heels, saw that the path was flagged with stone under the leaf-mould and the trailing plants, with steps now and then at the steeper points.

They came over the lip of the dell. Henry paused for a moment; 'Yes, it's here.'

There were traces of a building there, cupped among young trees and old; walls a course or two high, and a low curving revetment from which issued the new-born stream. Fallen tiles showed brick-red here and there. Slanting gleams of sunlight between young trees of holly and oak picked out colours laid on the ground, in a pattern made by men.

Montjoy stopped short. 'A mosaic! This is why you brought me here, isn't it?' He went past Henry, dropped to his knees and brushed aside last year's leaves with a sweep of his hands. 'This is Roman work, is it not? That's a bull, and these are grape-vines, and a barn.'

'Yes, this is why we're here.' Henry was a few paces off; Montjoy, looking up, saw him grubbing about among the brushwood. 'I've never been here before, but I was told how to find the place. Ah, here it is!' He had cleared a small patch of ground, and now dragged aside a whole branch and flung it to one side. Montjoy scrambled to his feet, and helped to clear a larger section of the mosaic.

It showed scenes of the four seasons, and in its centre was a familiar face, with wild hair of green leaves, a foliate beard, and numinous eyes.

There was a sudden rustle beside him; Henry, getting to his feet. 'Quickly,' he said. 'I can't wait much longer.' He was undressing with urgency as he spoke. He dropped his forester's cote without ceremony onto the mosaic. Montjoy was disrobing a heartbeat later, and moments later still, they were both naked, standing proud, embracing in the centre of that cleared space.

Spring air like a silk cloak about his shoulders; Henry hot against him; Montjoy, in a sensual haze, let his reason depart unlamented. A growl to match that of George's dragon rose in his throat. Henry laughed in response, and dragged him to the ground. He tussled briefly with the forester's cote under them; his hand re-emerged from the pocket clutching something, and Montjoy saw it was a vial. Moments later: 'Ready?'

He'd been ready since that Easter morning in the bee-loud orchard; since before then. 'Yes,' he said.

-x-

Clouds and sunlight sported with each other up in the sky, high above the shelter of the trees; a shower of mild rain pattered briefly, and a few drops found their way down onto the woodland floor. A breeze flurried last year's leaves briefly, then went on its way.

Two naked bodies, now decorated here and there with leaves, stirred a little.

'Where's your cote? Oh, under us. No matter,' said Henry philosophically, and for warmth wrapped himself more closely around Montjoy; who responded with a kiss, before brushing at some of the damper leaves. Finding they would not be shifted so easily, he reached out and plucked a handful of wood-anemones and celandines from a clump growing close by Henry's shoulder, and scattered them up and down their bodies too.

'Spring and autumn,' mumbled Henry against Montjoy's shoulder. 'Summer would be fine, but winter's a time for log-fires. We'll have a grand Yule-fire, you and I.'

'But this is the quickening of the year. This is an old rite, is it not?'

'The oldest of all, maybe. But you've seen the carvings in the churches; the greenwood spirit is welcome there too.'

'How did you know of your part in all this?'

'Richard let fall a hint or two, and my father once. He came here soon after he took the throne. And thus, I believe, my half-brother.'

'Half-brother..?'

'Yes. Edmund. He's a cleric now. My father was a little ashamed of him, I think: poor lad. Bedford keeps an eye on him.'

'There'll be no child of this union,' said Montjoy, downcast.

'Not born of our blood, no. But I'm thinking there'll be a good harvest this year on both sides of the sea, Montjoy King of Arms.' Henry turned on his back, and his arms, muscled, silky with golden down, and a little goose-fleshed, slid closer around Montjoy. 'Years, I've held off from this duty, until it should be a true pleasure too,' he said. 'I've had my reward for patience, and who can say that we've danced the dance in vain?'

Montjoy snorted with laughter. 'The morris-dancers, with their staves. The garland on its pole.'

'I noticed you noticing them.' One of Henry's hands slid between their bodies, pausing here and there, causing shudders to course through Montjoy's whole body, before continuing on its way.

'See, I chose the right one,' he added a moment later, the words murmured right against Montjoy's ear. 'But mark you, for the land to give of its best, it must first be well-ploughed. And if I hadn't known you were the one for me very soon after meeting you, I would have been certain when I saw you in your herald's full regalia. That crown of yours...'

And Montjoy laughed again. 'With its embellishments potenty.'

'Potenty,' repeated Henry, with relish, and since both his hands were now busy about Montjoy's person, it was perforce Montjoy who reached out and scrabbled around on the mosaic of the seasons, and found the vial again: as easily as if the greenwood spirit had given it to him.