Itwas not difficult to contrive several chance meetings with her in the few weeks that followed, and I slowly won her friendship. I told her that I had decided to take her advice but my soul was still tormented. All the sermons in the world could not reconcile me to the established church. I had learned that her father had been an extremist of the worst sort, so busy advocating the murder of property owners and the establishment of a republic that he had no time for Christ. Accordingly, I had to modify my approach.
“When I think of the hopes that existed in the world only a few years ago,” I said, “it makes me grieve. What were common aspirations are now cast out and despised, and the world is given over to greed and selfishness.”
She stared at me solemnly as though I had uttered a profound truth and nodded. We were walking down St. Giles, I having managed to meet her as she was coming back from a cookshop with the Woods’ dinner that evening. It smelled delicious, hot and tasty, and the odors made the juices turn in my stomach. I could see that she also was hungry.
“What do you do after you have delivered this?”
“Then I am finished for the day,” she said. It was already dark, and cold in the air.
“Come with me. Let us eat together. I can see you are as hungry as I am, and you would do me a favor to keep me company.”
She shook her head. “That is kind, Jack. But you should not be seen with me. Neither of our reputations will be improved by it.”
“What is your reputation? I know nothing of it. I see only a pretty woman with an empty stomach. But if it concerns you, we can go to a place I know where the clientele make both of us seem like saints.”
“And how do you know such places?”
“I told you I was a sinner.”
She smiled. “I cannot afford it.”
I waved my hand. “We can discuss that at a later stage, once your stomach is filled.”
Still she hesitated. I leaned over the bowl of food she was carrying and sniffed deeply. “Ah, the smell of that gravy, running over the lumps of meat,” I said longingly. “Can’t you just imagine a plate of it before you, with a fresh, crusty loaf and a tankard? A plate piled high, the steam rising into the air, the juices…”
“Stop!” she cried, laughing out loud. “All right. I’ll come, if only you’ll stop talking about food.”
“Good,” I said. “So deliver your meal, and come with me.”
We went to a small place on the very outskirts of the town, past Magdalen College and over the river. No one from the university, not even students, ever ate there, it being too far away in distance, and too low in reputation. The food was execrable as well; Mother Roberts was as bad a cook as she was disgusting a person, and the food was like the woman—larded with fat and giving off a foul smell. Sarah looked uneasy in the little room where she served up the gruel, but ate with the appetite of one who rarely gets enough. The main virtue of Mother Roberts was that the ale she served was strong and cheap, and I regret the passing of those days. Now that men of business make beer and are trying to stop women selling the ale they brew, I believe the great days of this country are over.
The best quality of the brew was that by the time Sarah had drunk a quart of it, she’d become talkative, and susceptible to my questions. As much as I remember it, I set the conversation down here. On my prompting, she told me that she not only worked for the Wood family, but had also found work with Dr. Grove. She did little for him, except clean his room, prepare his fire and a bath once every quarter—for he was fastidiously clean about his person—and he paid generously. The only trouble, she said, was his desire to bring her within the Established Church.
I said that this Grove must be something of a hypocrite to speak so, as he had a reputation for being a hidden papist. If I thought this would draw her out, I was wrong, for she frowned and shook her head fervently. If he was such, she said, she had never seen the slightest sign of it, neither in his room nor in his manner.
“And he works you hard?”
On the contrary, she insisted. He had treated her with the utmost kindness at all times, even though she had seen him be extremely unpleasant with others. Her main concern was that he would get a living out in the country soon. He had told her only a few days before it was a near certainty.
This upset me mightily; I already knew Grove to be blameless in his adherence—in fact he was probably more in conformity with the church than Thomas himself—and it seemed unlikely that my friend’s suspicions about his morals had any substance. Nor could the girl be persuaded to denounce him falsely for money. She had an honest air to her.
“He surely can’t have much skill at running a parish,” I said. “No doubt because he has been in the university for so long. Otherwise he would be wary of having a pretty young woman to clean his rooms. There is bound to be talk.”
“There is nothing to talk about, so why should anyone trouble?”
“I do not know, but lack of substance has never dissuaded a gossip yet, I think. Tell me about this reputation of yours that I should be so wary of,” I said, thinking that if I could prove Grove was willingly taking a sectary to his bosom, this might do just as well. So she told me a little about her father’s career in the wars, and described what to my ears seemed as black a monster as ever lived, a mutineer, atheist and rabble-rouser. Even through her description I perceived that the only thing to be said in his favor was his evident courage. She did not even know where he was buried, as he was too foul even to be allowed a consecrated grave. We shared that misfortune, at least.
She was already casting her spell over me, I think, for I found myself strangely drawn to her despite a freedom about her talk which should have been a warning. We had a strange amount in common; she worked for Grove, I had been in his charge. Both of our fathers had evil reputations, and although that of my own was unjustified, I knew what it was to be cursed in this fashion. And unlike many sectaries, she did not have the burning eyes and humorless demeanor of the fanatic. Nor was she ugly like most of them, their souls drawn to Jesus because no mortal man wants their bodies. She ate with surprising and natural delicacy, and when in drink she behaved well. I had talked little with women in my life, as they were either too protected or too low for proper conversation, and my experience with the whore outside Tunbridge Wells and the way she had laughed at me had begun to rankle.
I was beginning to want her as we left the table, and naturally thought that her willingness to dine alone with me in such a place, and her open conversation, meant she was equally inclined to me. I knew of people such as her, in any case, and had heard tales of their laxity. I was all the more keen because she was of no use—there was no truth in Thomas’s thoughts about Grove, and she would tell no tales. Fool that I was to think in such a fashion, for her trap was about to shut its jaws as it had done, no doubt, many times before. I thought I was being charming and seductive, favoring her with my condescension; instead she was exploiting my youth and trusting nature, leading me into that sin she fully intended to use for her own devilish ends.
It was well past eight when we left, and already dark, so I told her we had best travel back across Christ Church meadow to avoid the patrols. “I was caught a few weeks back by the curfew,” I said. “I cannot afford to be caught again. Come with me; you will be safer.”
She accepted without demur, and we cut past the botanical gardens and into the meadow, at which point I slipped my arm around her waist. She stiffened slightly, but did not protest. When we were in the middle of the field, and I was certain there was no one close by, I stopped, took her in my arms and tried to kiss her. Instantly she began struggling, so I squeezed her tightly to show that, while some resistance was to be expected, she should not overact her part. But she kept on struggling and averting her face, then started hitting me with the flat of her hands, pulling at my hair and making me lose patience. I tripped her up and pushed her to the ground. Still she struggled so, perfectly furious at her behavior, I was forced to slap her.
“How dare you?” I exclaimed indignantly once the struggling had momentarily stopped. “A meal isn’t a high enough price for you? You expect something for nothing? What do you think you are? Do you plan to pay me back some other way?”
She started struggling again, so I pinned her to the cold, damp ground, pulled up her thin skirt and prepared myself. I was hot in blood by now, as her refusal had both angered and excited me, and I gave no quarter. I may have hurt her, I do not know, but if I did it was her own fault. When I had finished I was content, and she was subdued. She rolled away from me and made no more protest, lying on the cold grass.
“There,” I told her. “So what was that noise about? It cannot have been a surprise to someone like you. Or did you think I wanted to feed you for your conversation? Come now, if I had wanted talk I would have gone out with one of my fellows, not a serving girl whose company has to be hidden.”
I shook her playfully, in good humor again. “Don’t make such a fuss. Here’s an extra tuppence. Don’t take it amiss. You’re not some virgin who has lost something of value.”
Then the harpy rolled over and slapped me, full in the face, then scrabbled at my face with her claws and pulled at my hair so hard some of it even came out in her hand. I have never been treated in such a fashion in my life, and the shock took my breath away. She had to be taught a lesson, of course, and I did so, although with little pleasure. I have never liked beating people, not even servants, however deserving. It is one of my greatest weaknesses, and I fear it leads them to hold me in less respect than they ought.
“There,’’ I said when she was crouching on the grass, her head in her hands. “Next time, I won’t want any of this nonsense.” I had to bend down and talk into her ear to make sure she would hear me. I noticed she was not crying. “You will treat me with proper respect in future. Now, to show there are no hard feelings, take this money, and let’s forget all about it.”
As she didn’t want to get up, I left her to show I wasn’t susceptible to such wheedling behavior. The evening had not been as useful as I had imagined, in that the problem of Dr. Grove was not yet solved, but it had had an agreeable ending. I even noticed, out of the corner of my eye, that she had a strange expression, almost a smile, I thought, on her face as I turned to go. That smile stuck in my mind for a long while afterward.