‘Hide, hide!’ repeated Milly hysterically. ‘Nay, not under the bedclothes, thou cowardly knave! Ye gods, canst not understand the simplest fact? I tell thee ’tis my husband! Hide!’
As usual in times of imminent peril, my wits were razor-sharp. I recognized at once that, much as I should have liked to continue the wrestling bout with my buxom antagonist, it was no longer possible. ‘Where, thou stupid bitch?’ I demanded. ‘Where? ‘Zdeath, woman, why didst not warn me of this before? Aagh! Oh God, and I hear him too! Where to hide?’
‘The chest, the great chest!’
I gazed at her heaving frontage, puzzled. ‘Yonder wooden chest, thou lecherous idiot!’ she shrieked, jabbing a finger at the brassbound oak receptacle she kept in a corner of the sparsely-furnished room. ‘Tis the only place! Oh, heavens, I am undone!’
I scrambled out of bed and into the chest, where I concealed myself amidst the woollen blankets it contained, praying that the fluff would not provoke a sneeze. ‘Here, here!’ she shrieked in panic, handing me my robe. ‘Thy habit, bonehead! Thy disgusting habit!’
Within seconds I was installed in the chest, nursing my wounded pride and moreover having to endure the stench from my habit, which somehow had become far worse now I was no longer wearing it, especially in such a confined space. I tried at first to don the thing, but finding this impossible without either getting out of the chest or causing undue commotion, I abandoned the attempt and lay there gathering the stinking object to me as if it were something precious.
Not long had elapsed before I heard the unmistakable sound of someone entering the room, and a bluff male voice.
‘Wife! Wife! Oh, there thou art. Why wast thou not at the door to greet me?’
‘I am not well, my angel,’ came Milly’s feeble voice. ‘I have been sickening for the gripe these last few days.’
‘Is’t so? Methinks thou couldst do with some fresh air, anyway, for the place stinketh prodigiously. Hast had a dunghill in here?’
”Tis my infirmity,’ whimpered the lady feebly. ‘I have been troubled with the runs.’
‘ Nay, it smelleth more like horse-droppings, methinks.’
The reader may well appreciate my predicament, especially since, if a man, he has doubtless oft been in similar case, unless he has either been extremely lucky or is a complete nancy-boy. In the dim light the Master Barley had apparently not yet noticed anything amiss, but should he choose to make the least investigation there were numerous evidences of his wife’s infidelity, not least the fiery and battered state of her behind. And once she were discovered in her guilt, I doubted not but that she would beg his forgiveness and seek to place the entire blame on me. Such things had happened before.
A further difficulty now began to present itself. Whereas before coming out I had deliberately not had much to drink – for I have found it liable to affect my prowess – I had consumed a substantial meal, to compensate for my near starvation in the stocks. That, added to my recent exertions, and the nervous strain of the last few minutes, was having a disastrous effect on my digestive juices. A couple of minor rumbles had fortunately gone unnoticed by the loud-mouthed Master Barley, but now I could feel a more substantial convulsion coming on, which, should it come to fruition, it were impossible he should not overhear. The only solution to such a problem I have found to be the release of wind, very gradually of course so as not to attract attention.
Unless the reader be a complete numbskull, he will have foreseen the appalling event about to ensue. In short, under great physical and mental stress, I miscalculated. In the narrow confines of the chest the resulting explosion was well-nigh deafening, and the physical relief thereby obtained by no means compensated for the dreadful aftermath. To the accompaniment of a bellow of rage, the lid was flung open, to reveal me in all my shame, clutching the habit to me whilst trying not to breathe in the noxious vapour I had released.
‘Thou farting villain!’ foamed the Master Barley. ‘Come out! Out, dunghill! Out, I say!’
‘I can explain everything,’ I mumbled. I don’t know why I said that, except that I always do in such circumstances.
‘And so can I,’ said the varlet’s wife. ‘I was engaged in religious meditation with the good Friar Arthur here when thou arrived. Knowing of thine absurd jealousy I suggested he hide in the oak chest.’
I suppose this was the best excuse she could come up with, but I’m bound to say that in her position I might have thought of something a smidgeon more plausible. For myself, as I clambered out of the chest I essayed the sanctimonious, ‘God forgive you for your unworthy suspicions, my son, as I do myself.’
He ignored me. ‘Thou liest, strumpet,’ he said. ”Tis clear I have caught thee and thy paramour in flagrante. And I will give my reasons. First, ’tis after ten o’the evening, hardly the time a respectable woman invites any man, even a friar, indeed especially a friar, to visit her in th’absence of her husband. Second, the stinking varlet hath no clothes on. Thirdly, neither has thou, and thine arse is black and blue from the walloping the perverted wretch hath inflicted upon thee, doubtless with thy consent, O shameless baggage. And fourthly and lastly, I know the knave, who for all that he hath a disgusting habit, ha-ha!’ – for all his rage the half-witted oaf seemed to imagine he had coined this witticism – ‘is no more a friar than thou or I.’