Don’t call me a cynic, a pessimist, or even a luckless bastard; only the luckless part of that last one applies. I’m the type of person who looks up more than down. I can rightly claim a cheerful disposition even on days when blizzard winds blow great pillows of snow through the fields, ice hangs from every eave, and one dare not step away from the fire grate for fear of catching one’s death. Good times and bad, I’ve found a wink and a smile suit me best. They just weren’t able to save me.
I come from hearty stock. Me mum was loving and generous with a sweet pudding, and papa beat Christian values into me no more than once or twice a week. Fairly, they were better parents than most. They kept me fed and clothed as best they could, and I know they went short themselves to buy me a pair of sturdy shoes before I was apprenticed out at age nine.
Papa told me himself how he looked high and low to find me a better life. He stayed nearly sober and spent the better part of an afternoon finding me an apprenticeship with a master who guaranteed at least one meal a day, and a hot meal and a pint of ale on Christmas and Easter. My new master also swore an oath to beat Christian values into me no more than once or twice a week, which sealed the deal proper. “A trade is what you need in this life, son,” papa told me. “Any fool can plow dirt, but a man with skills has a chance to earn cash money. Maybe even gold, son.”
So, my destiny was now to become a Master Mason. If I reached the top of my new profession… Oh, just to think of it! I would build for the ages! Master craftsmen, journeymen, apprentices and unskilled penny-a-day cart and shovel workers would all be under my direction. I would build great cathedrals, directing the work of other masons, carpenters, quarrymen and smiths until the task was done. At the very least, I would complete as much of a great cathedral as is possible in one man’s lifetime. The spires that reach toward heaven would rise at my direction. That’s a deliriously exciting challenge for a nine year-old!
I confess, I was shocked beyond description. I couldn’t believe that my loving and nearly sober papa had arranged this truly wonderful opportunity for me. Right then, I swore on the dusty bones of all the saints that I would never again refer to papa as ‘that mean old drunk bastard’ unless he gave me further cause in future, or he took to beating my mum with more than his hand. However, as it turned out, all opportunity is fleeting. I would never have the chance to build heaven’s spires. Nor would I see any more gold than papa himself did. That is, none.
Ten years on, I’m now most senior, a journeyman stone mason with little left to learn. However, my master has convinced me to wait until I’m twenty-one to face my rigorous examination at the Mason’s Lodge and earn my own mark as a Master Mason. Being twenty-one is far more respected than a mere ten years of constant study and backbreaking labor. Admittedly, nothing could be more reasonable; fair anyone can see that twenty-one is more than ten!
Meanwhile, my master pays me a modest wage suitable to my experience, and everyone knows me as a fine, strapping young lad worthy of being called friend. I’ve even had a girl or two smile and call me handsome, although the master has warned me to stay the course of my studies. “Get your trade first, boy,” my master says. “The fair sex will be linin’ up to marry you and you’ll have your pick. Do you hear me? Learn ye stone first, and be not witched and waylaid by a pretty face or ankle!”
Frankly, it’s not ankles that I dream about, which brings me to the source of my troubles.
Due to nature’s blessings and many years of carting stone high and low, I’m a well-built young man and strong as the proverbial ox. It’s not unusual for friends and neighbors to ask me for help, and my employers always manage to find a task requiring my attention, or more aptly, my sinew and sweat.
One fine spring day, I was working with my master on building a new, freestanding chapel on the estate of Lord S., a fine, jovial, old gent with more gray hair sprouting from his ears than his head. Far from the usual lofty peer, Lord S. was not one to begrudge money well-spent on quality labor. My Lord happily came down regular to look at the new chapel’s progress even though the hundred or so yards from the manor house was never an easy journey for him. He always required assistance to alight from his carriage, and he risked a fair bit of gout pain as he and his cane hobbled about the newly laid foundations, or examined the quality of the stone neatly fitted for a wall or a buttress. All the masons liked this old gent, and it were certainly no trouble to bow to a man who praised our work.
Come this certain day, I thought nothing of a request for my assistance at My Lord’s manor house. It was midday, and I wasn’t particularly happy about putting off my appetite for someone else’s worry. Still, when My Lord requests and requires… I washed up as best I could and hied it for the manor house’s workman entrance, imagining all manner of mishap and mischief that might require a strong back and clever hands.
When I arrived, I found nothing but a minor annoyance. It seems that the flue in the chimney of Lady S.’s bedchamber fireplace was stuck firm. The house servants had been unable to budge the ornery iron. Fair enough. With such an easy repair, I’d be back eating my midday meal before one could say something trite and meaningless to complete this sentence.
For fear of fire belching its way up the good lady’s chimney, I dare not use any goose grease, so I gave the rust a knock with a hammer and yanked the lever this way and that until it moved freely. Barely any sweat at all and the flue was working almost new. I’d not even soiled my hands much, nothing a quick wipe on my shirt didn’t fix. However, a stubborn flue was not to be the full extent of today’s mischief, as immediately became apparent when I stood and turned around.
The servants had all disappeared. There before me stood the young and beautiful Lady S. She had yet to near twenty-five, and her hair was neatly dressed, raven dark, and bedecked with a jeweled pin. She had that creamy, highborn complexion that the tavern bawds compare to angels and cherubs (and themselves after a few pints). Lady S. stared at me with an appraising eye, one usually seen only at horse or cattle auctions. After a moment, she added a smile as wicked as Eve peddling apples.
Now, I hold a true and certain remembrance of saying some words, begging modestly to excuse myself from the room and this thoroughly awkward situation. I’m damned if I can remember exactly what those words be, but I know on my mum’s blessed head that I indeed said something hopeful of escape. I was not about to get in no twist with the beautiful young wife of one of the most powerful lords in the country. No soon-to-be Master Mason wanting to ever find work again is so stupid as to cross or cuckold a giant who holds a fat purse, a mighty pen, and sway with all the other giants in the land. I staunchly kept my resolve to escape right up until Lady S. raised her dress and her frillies and showed me a plump pair of thighs sportin’ the cleanest white stockings I’d ever seen in my life. And bless my soul, I swear this also be true, at the top of those stockings there weren’t no frilly coverin’ nothing.
I already mentioned that it wasn’t ankles that any young man dreamt about, and I’m ashamed to say that any scruples I had evidenced but moments ago vanished faster than mice chowder afore a cat clowder. I forgot about Lord S. and near everything else. I think I had one or two fleeting thoughts about lust and sin and whatnot, but anyone with a brain knows that the priest always forgives as long as you pray and pay your penny, so that’s never a vexing issue. Any other concerns of the moment bent toward the carnal, and over the next hour or so, the beautiful Lady S. thanked me quite nicely for fixin’ her flue. Although, thinking fair, that’s not entirely an upright recounting of events. While the magnificent, high-born Lady S. was quite vocal and quite specific in her instructions, to be honest, I don’t rightly remember her mentioning flue repair, not once.
Afterwards, I believe I was the one mentioned it. I had to swear to Lady S. that I would rather die than divulge the nature or details of my flue fixin’.
On the short walk back to the chapel, I wrestled with my conscience. Not any part worried about committing what was clearly a sin of the flesh, I was glad as a frog eatin’ flies of that part, but the part that told me I shouldn’t be busting seams to tell everyone. After all, I had given Lady S. my word, and a gentleman was supposed to honor his word and always be discreet. Then again, according to them that matter, I was not and never could be a gentleman. So, could I perhaps forget my bond and tell my tale to a few close friends, those who would have a sincere interest in and appreciation of any adventure with beautiful thighs and frillies?
But, who would believe me?
As it turns out, the answer to that question is: no one. And that’s official according to several legal notices, the town crier, and every gossip within earshot of common folk none too ashamed to listen to wanton rumors. Rumors brought to a boil over liars’ coals to give them the devil’s own heat.
My unpainted truth is quite dull by comparison. While at that manor house, I lost a perfectly normal young man’s unwanted virtue. However, I also lost my trade. I never laid a single ‘nother stone for the chapel of Lord S. or any other building.
Upon my arrival back at the chapel, still smiling as any young lad would be, my situation quickly turned from youthful and daring to serious and dire. The local sheriff and his men had everyone—master craftsman and common laborers alike—rounded up for questioning. It seems that while I was being taught the wiles and ways of an aristocratic lady’s bedchamber, someone had taken a hammer and brained my master. His body lay behind a pile of rough granite and free stone with his head stove in, his tongue hanging out, and sightless eyes staring up at a cloudless sky, a pitiable sight most certain. Likely, it was almost as pitiable as the look on my face when the sheriff asked me, “Your whereabouts this past hour?”
Now, one might ask if a rich, highborn lady would let a poor man face the hangman rather than bring her virtue into question.
Would the servants of a fine, fine manor house protect their employment and their children’s daily bread by repeating their mistress’ lie, denying that I ever entered the manor house?
Yes, again, but I can’t rightly blame poor servants for securing their children’s survival, now, can I? Not with good positions so dear, famine so common, and harsh winters sure to repeat.
I was left with no verifiable alibi to give the sheriff, a much more grievous sin than any I’d previously committed as man or boy. It seems also that whoever did take a hammer to the head of my poor master somehow arranged an entirely reasonable tale that the law was willing to believe. At day’s end, the bludgeoning murderer was a free man, and the hapless fornicator, me, was arrested and trussed like a fat hen ready for baking with carrots and parsnips.
The Fates literally screwed me twice in a single day. One has to admire such fine work!
Still, I had yet more questions.
Is not having a verifiable alibi enough reason for English law to send a man to the gallows?
Since the sheriff wanted to show the citizenry that he was worthy of being paid regular for performing his duties, he made quick work of his investigation and an even quicker arrest. Since the judge would rather hang himself than drag the wife of Lord S. into a sordid worldly drama, he placed a murdering hammer in my hand even though I never did so myself. Done and done.
No one involved in my fair and impartial trial dared cross swords with their most illustrious and awesomely powerful betters. In the end, I don’t rightly know if the proper intent of the law is fairness toward a poor man or not. I only know that those charged to duty by the King are firm set on prosecuting lawless behavior, but a little weak on minor details, such as truth and innocence, which might interfere with the discharge of their duties. The spirit of justice in English law is not likely to trouble those whose primary concern is keeping their employment.
Hence, my current fate. I can’t prove that I stood in a rich lady’s chambers indulging for the first time youthful curiosity about the mysteries of love and lust, so now, here I stand on a trap door with a noose round my neck.
How then should I view this short and rather odd life?
I guess I should be thankful to be a young man who at least once got to taste the pleasures of a woman. I should be thankful that I had good work and a good master. (May he rest in peace.) I should be thankful that I would have easily passed my guild examination and been declared a Master Mason, if only I were still a free man. I should be thankful for mum’s sweet pudding and papa’s efforts to save my soul from wickedness and damnation with a regular switching or a clout behind the ear.
Shouldn’t I be thankful for all my blessings in this life, both large and small?
As the hangman takes his lawful place, I kept waitin’ for my life to flash before my eyes. Everyone says it most certainly will happen, but all I see is a jeering crowd that throws rotting cabbage and turnips at my head and hopes to see me collapse with shakes and terrors. They fully expect that I’ll be confessing and repenting to the priest before I do the devil’s dance on the end of this rope. However, I won’t confess a lie. I don’t see any flash of my life. I can’t picture my dear mum. I can’t even picture a plump pair of lady’s thighs in clean, white stockings, although I tried more than once on that one. I’m stuck with altogether different thoughts.
As a senior journeyman mason, just a hairsbreadth away from Master Mason, I’ve worked with some of the finest carpenters in this and several other countries, yet they hang me on a gallows built by a brainless, talentless clod who can barely cut wood! Never have I seen such a cheap, makeshift embarrassment. Is this one final humiliation for the condemned man? Perhaps so, for all I can think is, “The trap’s hinge even squea…”