Authors: Margaret Frazer
But then it
God’s blessing, Frevisse thought. All of life was God’s blessing, forget it though mankind might and ill-use it as mankind surely did. Sister Thomasine’s skill—or gift—was that she did not forget but lived her life in certainty of the blessing.
It made her very hard to endure sometimes.
‘Sister Thomasine, sit, please,“ Domina Elisabeth said. Already seated herself in the tall-backed chair that had served all of St. Frideswide’s prioresses through the hundred years since the priory was founded, she did not wait to be obeyed but leaned forward to say something to Dame Claire, the priory’s infirmarian, about an ache she had in her back. Sister Thomasine, with the same quietness she had given to the sunlight, sat down on the remaining stool, clasped her hands on her lap, and bowed her head to pray through the wait for Father Henry to put off his vestments and join them. Around her, the other nuns went on in steady talk. The rule of silence—that there be only necessary words within the cloister save for each evening’s recreation—had slackened in the years since Frevisse had entered St. Frideswide’s. She missed the quiet it had enforced but saw no sign that anyone else did. Dame Emma was explaining to Sister Margrett the value of cutting the kitchen garden’s green onions fine when for a salad while Sister Amicia tried to convince Dame Juliana there was no need to weed any herb bed today and Dame Perpetua and Sister Johane discussed some copying work they meant to begin.
Content to keep her own silence, Frevisse followed Sister Thomasine into prayer for the little while until Father Henry hurried in, rumpled and flushed with heat and hurry, his fair hair in unruly curls around his tonsure. In his time as the priory’s priest he had grown from young manhood into middle age and a certain stoutness of girth that came with the aging of a burly body rather than from sloth or self-indulgence. He never slacked his priestly duties to the souls in his keeping but he was not a deep-minded man; Frevisse had never found any spiritual challenge in him, only the challenge of putting up with the unfailingly simple goodness he brought to everything he did, until finally experience had taught her how deeply difficult “simple” goodness could be.
She rose to her feet with the other nuns and bowed her head willingly to receive his blessing for the day and found herself smiling to remember how she had struggled against that lesson. Humility, she too well knew, was a virtue to which she was coming only very slowly. Her smile, kept to herself by bowed head and the fall of her veil to either side of her face, went wry as she considered how much easier everything would have been if she could have started out wise and been done with it, instead of having to learn by effort and errors how far she still had to grow.
He finished the blessing.
Domina Elisabeth said,
The Lord be with you.
“Et cum spiritu tuo.”
And with your spirit.
They sat again, the opening prayer was made, and Father Henry read the day’s chapter from St. Benedict’s Rule, first in Latin, then in English, followed it with a short homily easily listened to—or not, in Frevisse’s case, despite her best intent. Then he blessed them and left and from there the chapter meeting went its usual way, with such complaints as any nun deemed necessary and the officers’ reports and confession of faults and giving of warnings or penance as Domina Elisabeth saw fit. Sister Amicia, presently Cellarer and therefore bound to worry over food, said
had eaten so carelessly at dinner yesterday that they had wastefully left bread crumbs on the refectory floor. Domina Elisabeth gave warning that
should eat so carelessly again. Sister Thomasine as Sacrist murmured that the silver polish was running low; Domina Elisabeth gave leave for Dame Claire to make more. Sister Margrett confessed to nodding to sleep during Lauds last night; Domina Elisabeth bade her say twenty-five
on her knees in front of the altar as soon as chapter was done.
When there seemed no other business to report or deal with, Domina Elisabeth looked around at them all and asked, “What of Lady Anneys and Ursula then? They’ve been with us a week and, so far as I know, have given no trouble. Is that so?”
Everyone looked at everyone else and there was a general shaking of heads that, no, neither Ursula nor her mother had been any trouble. “In truth,” Dame Perpetua said, “Lady Anneys has eased my work. She gives Ursula some of her lessons and has helped with the mending.” She frowned a little. “Although Ursula’s sewing has not improved.”
‘She keeps to herself,“ Dame Emma said. ”Lady Anneys, I mean. She comes to the Offices, of course—all but Matins and Lauds and Compline, of course, and that’s understandable—and she brings Ursula with her, which is good, it spares one of the servants the task. But she doesn’t talk. I’ve tried with her more than once but she ’saves her breath to cool her fingers,‘ as the saying goes. I don’t think I’ve had more than ten words with her at a time…“
And if anyone could get away from Dame Emma with less than ten words, they had accomplished something indeed, Frevisse thought.
Domina Elisabeth raised a hand, stopping Dame Emma’s present outpouring, and smiled on them all. “I shall take it, then, that all is well there. There’s nothing else? Then it’s time to tell you that because today is St. Swithin’s holy day and because we well deserve it, too, we will have holiday this afternoon. Not merely holiday from duties either. I’ve provided for something altogether different for us.”
Sister Margrett forgot herself so far as to clap her hands and exclaim, “Oh! What, my lady?” with such delight that rather than rebuke her excess, Domina Elisabeth smiled and said, “You’ll see when the time comes,” but that was all she would say.
Morning tasks were not so well attended to as they might have been and at each Office of prayer—Tierce, Sext, Nones—only Domina Elisabeth’s sternest looks stopped the whispers running among Dame Emma, Sister Amicia, and Sister Margrett before the Office could begin, and when finally at their midday dinner’s end Domina Elisabeth bade them gather in the cloister walk, there was an unseemly hurry of scraping benches and fluster of skirts. Dame Emma’s stiffening joints kept her behind the younger nuns’ rush out the refectory door, but even among the older nuns who chose to put on a front of more dignity, no one lingered. Most days in the nunnery were much like other days. The most constant change was in the Offices themselves as their prayers circled through the seasons of the Church—Whitsuntide just past, then the summer and autumn holy days, on to Advent and Christmastide, Lent and Lady Day and Easter, and around to Whitsun again. The promise of something other than the ordinary was welcomed by nearly everyone, save maybe Sister Thomasine, who had to be almost shooed ahead by Sister Johane to have her out the door quickly enough.
They found Lady Anneys and Ursula waiting in the cloister walk, Ursula bouncing a little on her toes with impatient delight. Frevisse had expected a solemn little girl to return from her father’s funeral but she had not; nor had Lady Anneys shown any signs of deep grief, only a grave willingness to keep to her own and Ursula’s company. Today, though, they plainly both knew something of what Domina Elisabeth purposed because they were dressed for some kind of work, their gowns plain, Lady Anneys with simply a veil pinned over her hair, and Ursula’s long hair fastened up around her head instead of hanging down her back. But whatever Domina Elisabeth had in mind for them she did not
merely nodded to Lady Anneys to walk beside her and, taking Ursula’s hand, led the rest of them along the cloister walk and through the slype, the narrow passage leading out of the cloister toward the nuns’ high-walled garden. Coming out at its far end, she turned not toward the garden’s gate but leftward along the garden wall to the usually locked back-gate into the orchard. Enclosed by a steep earthen bank, the orchard was nearly as shut away from the world as the cloister, and sometimes the nuns were allowed to have their recreation among the apple, pear, and cherry trees and the peaceful unmarked graves of former nuns under the long grass; but today Domina Elisabeth led them through the fruit-burdened trees to the always-locked gate in the short length of board-made fence closing the gap between the church’s north wall and the orchard’s earthen bank. There, as Domina Elisabeth brought out a key, even Dame Emma’s chatter stopped. Whatever else of nunnery life had eased under Domina Elisabeth’s rule, she still held her nuns to strict enclosure. To go outside the cloister walls was a rare adventure for most of them, and in silence they watched her unlock the gate. Only when she started to open it did Dame Perpetua say, faint-voiced, “We’re going out, my lady?”
‘We’re going out,“ Domina Elisabeth said and set the gate wide open.
Sister Thomasine started to drift backward and away. The times Sister Thomasine had been outside the nunnery since she had taken her vows could probably be counted on less than one hand, and given her own choice, she would never go at all; but Domina Elisabeth pointed at her and said firmly, “This includes you, Sister Thomasine.”
Ursula slipped away from her mother and around Dame Juliana to take hold of Sister Thomasine’s sleeve, looking up at her and saying with earnest assurance, “You can walk with me.”
One way and another, Frevisse had learned that Sister Thomasine did not lack courage to go out, merely inclination, but to Ursula it must have seemed like fear and her offer was a kindness that Sister Thomasine solemnly accepted by taking hold of her hand and following with the rest, the more eager nuns crowding to follow Domina Elisabeth and Lady Anneys through the gate into the board-fenced alley, the back way for the going and coming of carts and workers between the priory’s foreyard, with its byres and barns and all the business needed to sustain the nunnery’s life of prayer, and the nearer fields outside the nunnery’s walls. Domina Elisabeth went right, away from the foreyard and toward altogether outside, and the other nuns’ laughter and talk began to rise with excitation. Even Thomasine, drawn on by Ursula, was not last out the gate. Frevisse and Dame Claire were.
But they caught up to the others at the alley’s outer end where almost everyone’s eagerness faltered and they slowed and bunched together, some of them even stopping, discomfited after months of the closeness of cloister walls by the sudden distance of low-grown green fields of beans and peas stretching away to far-off hedgerows, with more sky all at once than could ever be seen above cloister roof or garden walls. But their uncertainty was only momentary. As Domina Elisabeth and Lady Anneys went on unbothered and Ursula pulled Sister Thomasine forward, everyone else’s pause turned to a rush to follow them along the cart-track running there, Sister Margrett asking delightedly where they were going, Dame Emma and Sister Amicia making guesses, and Domina Elisabeth smilingly refusing any answer.
It was Ursula who could not bear her own excitement. “Fishing!” she exclaimed. “We’re going fishing!”
‘Fishing?“ Sister Johane exclaimed with almost disbelief, and Domina Elisabeth said, laughing, ”Yes. Fishing.“
To meet the nunnery’s constant need for fish for fast days, feast days, and every day, two square ponds had been made beyond near fields, with a stream diverted to feed them and alder planted around their banks for shade. Because their upkeep and expenses were matters discussed and dealt with in chapter meetings, all the nuns knew of them in detail, whether they had ever seen them or not, and because fishponds were part of almost every manor and therefore part of most of the nuns’ lives before they entered St. Frideswide’s, they knew about fishing, too. More, perhaps, than Domina Elisabeth did, Frevisse thought, because early afternoon under a high summer sun was hardly the best time for catching fish.
But actually catching fish was hardly the point, she soon decided. Village boys were waiting with rods, lines, hooks, and bait in the shade among the alder trees along the first pond, and the first squealing and protests over worms on hooks from some of the nuns and laughter from most of the others led on to elbowing and nudging each other toward the water, until finally shoes and short hosen came off and skirts were hitched above ankles and soon thereafter the inevitable happened and Sister Amicia was standing in the water, grimacing at the mud between her toes and laughing at the water’s coolness. Ursula, Sister Johane, Sister Margrett, and finally Dame Emma followed her, while those determined to fish went farther along the bank where their chances were hardly bettered by their flailing rods and jerking lines.
Faced with all of that, the village boys’ first stiff respect crumbled, and when Sister Johane and Sister Margrett began a splashing battle against each other and anyone else in reach, Colyn, the reeve’s younger son, gave up to laughter, rolling on the grass and holding his sides. So they splashed him, too.
Then Lady Anneys drew her skirts up through her belt and waded in, too, only barely avoiding her daughter’s fate when Ursula, leaning to splash water at Sister Johane, overbalanced and sat down with a great splash. Lady Anneys, backing away from her, stumbled and grabbed hold of one of the boys to keep from falling, both of them laughing as Ursula rose dripping and muddied to the waist, laughing, too.
Not long after that, Sister Thomasine, finally persuaded to cast a line since she would not wade, somehow and against all likelihood hooked a fish and even—with help from the boys—landed it, a large carp. Domina Elisabeth, paying one of the boys a farthing to run it to the nunnery kitchen, said, “It‘ not our Lord’s miracle of the loaves and fishes but assuredly a miracle nonetheless.” Which brought on more laughter.