One day, not long before Easter, he trudges in weary from sheep shearing on Edgecumbe’s estate. Of his wife, the is no sign. A broth has boiled dry on its hook, the charred crust at its bottom stinks out the whole croft. The days’ marketing waits, in her basket, abandoned upon the table: limp herbs, three small filmy-eyed mackerel.
He finds her sat like a hen among the vines, near enough the spot where her old quince tree used to drop its wormy, wasp-blown fruit. Just sat there, legs stretched out under the collapsed sails of her skirts, fists dug into the earth to either side, like tent pegs securing her fast to the ground. Her cap clutched, grimy with earth, in the fingers of her right hand. He cannot remember the last time he laid eyes upon her hair. Some Christmastide, perhaps, a lifetime ago.
She looks up at his approach, then turns her face away. Deliberately. Stubbornly, he thinks.
‘Agathe,’ he says. ‘Wife. What in the name of heaven –’
‘Do not speak to me of heaven, you, John Thumb,’ she growls. Still not looking at him.
He wonders if his miracle plants, his Sweet Spanish potatoes, could be a conduit, somehow, could suck her sister’s madness from the ground, imbue his wife, through too-close contact, with whatever foul spirits had possessed the lost girl in her final days and hours. Such a thing is not unheard of, in alchemical studies. Sympathetic magic, or something of that ilk, John has nit the book learning to know outright.
‘You took my heaven, you took it, and you’ve buried it alongside your wretched Spanish potatoes!’
He inches closer. The light is dwindling at his back, and his eyes aren’t so sharp these late years. But.
He stretches a finger towards her, towards her face. Brushes a tear clear, leaving a smudge of damp on her pocked, overheated cheek.
She slaps his hand away with her cap. Looks at it, in her hand, then shoves it down on her head again. A glance down, at her skirts in the leaves and runners and gritty soil. Looking for a way to right herself, set herself on her feet again.
He holds out a hand. Is as shocked when her fingers grip his own, as he is by his own unthinking gesture. She is not a small woman, Agathe. Nor helpless, neither. Hauling her up is like dragging a sack of grain up to the top of the mill-house, without the aid of winch and rope.
She stands a moment. Making some decision. A mystery to him.
‘Master Thumb,’ quoth she. ‘These wretched potatoes of yourn had best come good. And when they do, you mark me, John Thumb, when they do, you had best see that you raise us up, just so far as you have buried us the now.’
She stalks past him then, back down the gentle slope, stoops under the low overhang of thatch, and into the lightless croft. If she were a cat, John thinks, her tail would twitch.
Blight strikes the week following. The glossy leaves in one quadrant are spackled with black spot, succulent stems withering. It does not escape his notice that this be the very patch of ground from which he ousted a certain cankered quince tree. A curse? Should he suspect his witch of a wife, or is it the ground itself that is ill-omened?
In a panic, he borrows an old nag from the stableyard of the Old Ferry, canters it all the winding way to Edgecumbe’s estate to consult with the gardener there, a man more accustomed to coaxing and cosseting these strange foreign specimens. Advised to spread kelp about the plants, apply milk, if he can spare it, he hurries home, and thence to the shore. Gathers what he can and lugs it home, digs it in about the vines and runners, careful of the precious roots below.
May Day, the maypole up on the common, and maids with flowers in their hair. As John bends over his plants, the sun pummels his back, raises a sweat. Apart from a stunted, blackened patch, wizened, spotted leaves littering the soil, directly over the grave of the phantom quince, the crop has been saved, salvaged.
The growth of the vines has slowed, to his eye. What lies beneath, whether Spanish gold, fit for a king’s spiced pie, Satan’s apples, or the stealthy spread of contagion’s fingers, clawing in and desiccating his prize, is yet to be seen.
He will give them a week more. He is half afraid to discover, goes to bed wide-eyed and worrying. Afraid he has failed, for all the outward signs that the crop thrives.
They sit in the back of the rearmost cart in Edgecumbe’s train, their feet dangling out over the rutted road. A lumpen hessian sack lists between them, steadied by John’s jealous hand.
They have spent these past two nights at Cothele. Sir Richard, bless him and keep him, had procured spices, no doubt in a similar insidious manner to that by which he acquired the potatoes themselves. Lanterns flickering across the rocky coast in the dead of night, leading Spanish galleons to wreck themselves, to perch fast upon knife-edge rocks, long enough for a creak of oars to waylay them, and slink away again with a portion of precious cargo.
Agathe and Edgecumbe’s pastry-cook devised a recipe according to Edgecumbe’s memory of the king’s Sweet Potato Pie, served it to the two men, and Edgecumbe’s family with some pomp. On the very first mouthful, John’s eyes fell closed. Bliss, in some way akin to a spiced set custard and yet with a mellowness of flavour that brought to John the peaceable delight of frozen extremities thawing before a well stoked blaze.
If such a dish should win the favour of the changeable young king, John would swear the man to be something apart from human. Also, his own self to be broken.
It is like a city, a city of scented, silken women supported by embroidered bucks, prancing, dancing, laughing down topiary alleys, across sweet knot gardens, voices woven with the babble of fountains, the lifted wings of music taking flight from flute and lute and the pure and soaring throats of boys. All for the birthday of the king.
Innumerable chimneys, twisted and sprigged with roses. The red walls embracing halls and gardens stretch to infinity upon the verdant bank of the Thames near the town of Richmond.
In their Sunday best, John and Agathe are not fit to serve at table; they are quartered in the kitchens, John training a keen eye on one hessian sack among mounds of others. The scent of meat, the sizzle of fat, is heady, the scorch of the cook-fires like the very belly of hell.
Edgecumbe has warned them that they may not know the fate of their potatoes until well into the night. ‘The king has such appetites…’
They wait. Courses of game birds, of swan and beef, suckling pig roasted whole, fruit and marchpain delicacies, breads and pies are bourne from the kitchen. An endless procession.
Agathe leans in. ‘They feeding an army then?’
The commotion, the crowds, the monstrous scale of the place and its every feature, have brought on a change in her. She adheres to John like a limpet to a rock.
A cook raps Agathe on the elbow with a twig whisk. ‘You two the potato folk then?’
They stare, agog. As if she had spoken some foreign tongue.
‘Well, come and taste, if you’ve a mind to. The table of the king don’t wait. Not whiles there’s harf a kingdom here to wait on it!’
Not long after the pies leave the kitchen, John watching the server recede down the long, torchlit passage, and vanish, there is a brief commotion, audible even among the rattle-clang clamour of scrubbing and scouring of the kitchen. Two serving men dash in, red cheeked and panting, a frantic, untucked look about them.
‘The queen! The queen hath… and the king, the king he…’
Whipped from the heavy drift of sleep, John does not catch it. What has happened? The king’s love for his second queen, the Boleyn wench (harlot) is tempestuous, this is widely known, spoken of behind muffling hands and sealed doors. What calamity now? What storm?
And what of his miracle potatoes, the pies? Should they be lost, disregarded in some new tumult or scandal, he will… he will…
He does not know what he will do. Agathe blinks, bleary, at his side. He grips her hand, feels her fingers tighten round his own. They do not leave hold until Edgecumbe seeks them out, later, o, how much later, when they are stale and sore with sitting, and the kitchen hearths and candles are burning low, wicks dipping, flickering, smoking in wax puddles.
Edgecumbe sits with them in the darkened kitchen, leaning in close over the last, solitary flame.
‘It was… You know these rumours that the Queen is with child. They will spread, true or no. There is no saying… Well, to the point. The King set to with vigour when your pie was brought forth; wielded his knife like the jousting man he is. Relished it, the great burden already introduced into his gut of no account. Encouraged all about him to share in his delight. Well, the Queen demured. Quite prettily, quite daintily, I should say. But the King would bear no refusal. Where before he roared with pleasure, with merriment, now came the dragon in him, and it would out. A very fiend, red-faced, he thrust back his chair and towered over the woman.
‘Indignant she may have been, but that woman. I swear on my life, where any other would shrink and quail, she showed no fear, not a scrap. Looked at him boldly, raised her chin. Well, we all thought he might strike her in that same instant. But no, of a sudden, the Queen hands fly to her belly, she emits the shrillest squeak or squeal, something like the last cry of a throat-cut piglet.
‘Then she fled from the hall altogether. Begged no permission, simply took to her heels. To the dismay of her ladies, I must say. Quite the kerfuffle.’
Edgecumbe pauses for breath.
To John’s ear, it has the ring of an old tale, of some play the Mummers might ape in the Christmas season. But this place… nothing about it is real. It is a dream, a cloud castle, somehow dropped to earth and made fast with mortar and brick.
Much like the dream of a fortune won from coaxing strange roots from Cornish soil to fill a king’s pie.
‘But the pie,’ he says, urgently. ‘The Spanish potatoes. What… Can we expect…’
Edgecumbe lifts a hand, belays him. ‘You can understand… it was not the time to ask.’
John slumps. Feels Agathe lay her hand atop his, where it rests like a clutch of dried kindling on his thigh.
‘When, then?’ she says. Straight as an arrow, and for sharpness, there’s no matching her.
It sucks a week from their lives, the waiting, the verifying and legitimising by inky fingered, cramp-limped men. It seems to John that while a king’s whim may strike with the sudden brightness of God’s own lightning, the wheels of state are prone to weevils, rust and potholes, all the damage and decay of distance and time.
Setting foot upon their new land for the very first time, John untwines a small pouch from its place on his belt. He digs into the tight drawstring mouth with finger and thumb, holds up the contents for Agathe to see. It is a shrivelled thing, after all this time.
‘Mistress Thumb,’ he says, ‘Where will you have your quince tree?’