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Authors: Margaret Frazer

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BOOK: The Reeve's Tale
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‘Even so.“

 

Four women were approaching in haste and probably fear of having missed their chance at a good place in the church. Frevisse left Father Edmund to them, leaving the gateway’s shelter with Father Henry and Sister Thomasine to cross the churchyard through the warm rain to the church porch and into the church where, as she had expected, there was a full crowding of folk, even given that St. Chad’s was small, its nave hardly larger than a good-sized byre, its chancel even less. It was a plain space, unaisled, with a simple timber roof and everything open to the wooden shingles, but over the years its people and priests had done well by it. Father Clement in his day had paid for the chancel window to be glassed, and though the glass was unpainted, greened and slightly bubbled, it was the only glass in the village and so the light that fell through it onto the altar was strange, adding to the mysteries made there by the priest at Mass. It also meant that with the nave’s few, small windows kept closed except when there were services, there was no longer a constant fight with the sparrows to keep them from nesting in the rafters and atop the rood screen.

 

The rood screen itself, between nave and chancel, had been carved in an open fretwork of black walnut maybe fifty years ago and its red paint and yellow stars had been kept fresh, redone whenever need be by whoever in the village had the best hand for it at the time. The other paintings in the church went untouched because no one dared say they had the skill. So far back that no one had any notion of when, the nave walls had been painted with Bible scenes in strong reds, greens, and blue-greens, with here and there a touch of yellow to be the gold of a king’s crown or an angel’s halo. Flanking the chancel arch were St. Chad himself and St. Peter, their robes falling in rigid, beautiful folds about their lean, long, tall-beyond-mortal-men’s bodies as they stared solemnly with wide ovaled eyes into an eternity somewhere above and far beyond the worshipers’ heads, while beyond them in the chancel Christ sat enthroned in majesty, as oval-eyed and formal as his saints, one hand raised in benediction, the other resting on the book of God’s word that all men should heed, with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John arrayed around him in their aspects of Lion, Man, Ox, and Eagle borne on clouds to show they were in heaven with him.

 

Rushes covered the nave floor for cleanliness and, in the winter, for warmth and besides what the priest and altar needed, there were no furnishings except the baptismal font and a few benches for those who came early enough to services, with no need for a pew because no lord lived in the village to warrant one. Today, the shutters open to give what light there was from the overcast day, the benches had been shifted end-on to the rood screen to serve the court and everyone else was left to stand and the villagers, not much damp from the softly falling rain, were gathered in clumps and clusters of family and friends, busy in talk, though heads turned and the hum of voices fell as Frevisse, Sister Thomasine, and Father Henry entered, only to take up again, a little lower and maybe faster, to have all said before they had to stop when court began.

 

Sister Thomasine, wordless since leaving St. Frideswide’s, her eyes lowered, her hands tucked into her habit’s opposite sleeves, went silently across the little width of the church to the corner beyond the baptismal font, raised on its single stone step, where no one else was, withdrawing as much as might be from everything and everyone around her. Frevisse, with people shifting, bowing, curtsying out of her way, went to the front of the nave, Father Henry following more slowly, pausing to speak to various folk. Simon Perryn and six men Frevisse took to be the jurors were waiting beside the benches. They bowed to her as she joined them, no need to remove their hoods or hats that were already off in God’s house, and she bent her head to them in return, no one bothering with giving names because Father Edmund entered then and passed up the nave with smiles and words to various folk, to take a seat at a table set ready with paper, ink, pens, and several closed scrolls behind the jurors’ bench.

 

‘By your leave, we’ll begin then?“ Perryn asked her, and Frevisse agreed with a slight nod. To be to the fore of so many people, all of them looking at her, was not something she liked, but Perryn, seeming to have no mind of it at all, said easily to the jurors, ”We’ll start then,“ and bowed her to a place on the bench facing the jurors on theirs across the space between them left for the court’s business to be done but angled enough to the nave that she could watch the people watching her.

 

While Perryn, the jurors, and Father Edmund took their places, she noticed Father Henry had shifted away to the nave’s north wall, from where he could come readily into the midst of things if there was need, though thus far there was no sign there would be, only the expected shift and shuffle of people making themselves comfortable on their feet. She glimpsed Anne well back and near the door, Dickon Naylor and her sons beside her. Of little Lucy there was no sign but there were other children in plenty, including a baby carried on its mother’s hip, fretfully rubbing its eyes and trying to burrow its head into the side of its mother’s neck while she talked with the women around her. Frevisse thought the woman with a face like a wizened apple might be Ada Bychurch, Prior Byfield’s midwife, but it had been years since Frevisse had seen her and she was not certain and none of the others were familiar at all, save Elena, Gilbey’s wife, standing to the side and fore of the crowd not far from the jurors, her hands folded quietly into each other at the waist of her rose-colored gown, her fair loveliness encircled by soft wimple and starched veil shiningly white in the nave’s gray shadows. Graceful even in her quietness, she looked what she was, a wealthy villein’s wife who had servants to see to such things as having her veil starched and smooth-pressed when she went out. Standing squarely beside her, his thumbs hooked into his wide, finely wrought leather belt, Gilbey was no balder than when Frevisse had seen him last—how many years ago was that?—with only a little more flesh on his stocky frame and nothing softened in his blunt face. To Frevisse’s eye he looked like what he was, too—someone bound to the world by the gold and silver circles of coins and—unless he was greatly changed from when Frevisse had last encountered him—by the lusts of the flesh.

 

The rest of the upwards of two score other folk crowded into the nave were only faces to her. Young faces fresh-fleshed and little touched by living yet. Older faces marked, less and more, by their years and their lives’ happenings and, especially for the men, by weather lived in day in, day out, no matter what it was. Old faces seamed and etched by all their years of living. Worried faces, wondering how much trouble there would be. Dull faces here to stare at whatever happened because they’d stare at anything. Faces eager with wanting trouble, a few faces angry, meaning to make it. They all lived through their days a scant half-mile, if that much, from where she lived her own, year in, year out, and she knew no more of them than they did of her and she was come here to help make decisions that would shape some of their lives and, that done, would go back to her own and leave them to theirs as utterly as she had left them to it until now.

 

Heart-felt and unbidden, the prayer that began so many of the daily Offices came to her.
Deus, in adjutorium meum intende.
God, come to my aid. And then the antiphon that was part of today’s Terce.
Excita, Domine, potentiam tuam, ut salvos facias nos.
Rouse, Lord, your power, that you make us safe.

 

And suddenly she was sure which of the men standing to the fore of the crowd was Tom Hulcote. His uneasiness, different from the men’s around him, gave him away as, restless-footed in the rushes, with both smothered anger and deep unease shadowing his face, he kept shifting his look toward and away from Gilbey who never bothered with so much as a glance his way.

 

Or it was maybe Elena, Gilbey’s wife, he was looking at? From where she sat, Frevisse could not tell.

 

He was younger than Frevisse had thought he would be. Not beyond his twenties. Why had she thought he would be older? Because Simon Perryn was of middle years and therefore likely his sister was, too, and so would be the man she was sinning with? But he was not, nor was he the surly, heavy-built bully with a rough face and rougher ways that had somehow been in her mind. Except for the in-held anger and open unease, he was simply a young man with nothing particular about him, plainly dressed in what was surely his best—though they were none too good—tunic and hosen and hood, with his brown hair trimmed and clean.

 

And now Frevisse noted the woman standing close behind him, her hand laid on his forearm as she rose on her toes to whisper in his ear. Mary Woderove, surely. A small-boned, child-pretty woman whose head came hardly to her lover’s shoulder, though he was not over-tall, until she tiptoed. She looked all the younger for the black veil she wore in token of her widowhood instead of the married woman’s usual white one, but the veil seemed to be all she gave to her widowhood, Frevisse thought uncharitably, watching as Mary leaned nearer, pressing her breasts against Tom Hulcote’s back while she went on whispering to him, smiling up at him until as Simon Perryn gave word to the jurors for the court to start, Tom Hulcote frowned, shook his head, and urged her away with a small twitch of his arm. Mary whispered something else, still smiling, and drew back, leaving her lover with a dark flush reddening his face.

 

Along with word of where court would be and warning there might be trouble, Perryn had asked if another matter besides the Woderove holding could be seen to, too. Frevisse had sent back word it could and now settled to listen while Alson Bonde and Martin Fisher were called forward. There was a stirring through the crowd, with whispering between those who knew what it was about and those who did not, but it seemed that Perryn had dealt in the matter as he had purposed, because agreement on the lease between them was smoothly made and written into the court records, and a man who must be Alson’s son was waiting at the crowd’s fore-edge, to lay an arm around her shoulders when it was done and nod friendliwise to Martin Fisher, too, who nodded back the same, as Perryn said low in Frevisse’s ear, “The betrothal’s agreed on and everybody happy…”

 

He was interrupted by a bull-shouldered youth shoving out into the court’s open space, pulling an older man after him by a hard grip on his sleeve, and Perryn stood up and demanded, “Hamon? Walter? What is this?”

 

‘It’s him,“ the younger man said, jerking his head back at the other man. ”He won’t leave off bothering me. I want the court to tell him to leave off, he’s got no right.“

 

‘Walter?“ Perryn asked, not seeming greatly disturbed.

 

The older man twitched his sleeve from Hamon’s hold and answered, equally calm, “He’s on about how I’ve told him he’s to work for me, to pay back what he cost me on that surety.”

 

‘There was naught said about paying back!“ Hamon protested.

 

‘There was, while Father Edmund was writing out the agreement, and there were those heard you say it,“ Walter said.

 

‘But it weren’t in the agreement! I never signed naught that said I’d have to pay back!“

 

‘But you gave your word to it. Before witnesses,“ Walter said.

 

‘But I never swore…“ The younger man’s voice was rising.

 

‘Steady, Hamon,“ Perryn said.

 

Hamon tucked in his chin, like a bull baffled by baiting. “I never…” he stubbornly began again.

 

‘Hamon,“ Perryn said warningly.

 

Hamon dropped to sullen silence.

 

‘Now,“ Perryn said, ”we’ll tell Dame Frevisse what’s toward here, you both being priory villeins and in her rule.“

 

None so happy to hear that, Frevisse sat up straighter, to pay closer heed as Perryn detailed a loan made to Hamon by Jenet atte Forge—a broad woman in a yellow dress took a step forward from the women around Ada Bychurch to make curtsy to the court—with Walter Hopper here and Dick Blakeman—a narrow-framed man moved forward a step from the north wall, made a quick, awkward bow, and stepped hurriedly back beside a wide-hipped, sweet-faced woman holding a swaddled baby— as surety it be repaid, which it hadn’t been, and Walter had seen to Jenet atte Forge being satisfied with use of one of his cows in milk for the summer, in place of him and Dick paying outright money, which they did not have.

 

‘And now?“ Frevisse asked at Walter.

 

He bowed with more assurance than Dick Blakeman had and said to her, “Now I’ve been telling Hamon here that he owes me work until I’m paid back for paying off his debt.”

 

‘And I say I don’t! I never signed to any such thing and I’m off two days hence to work over Bloxham way where they’ll be paying me something and you say you won’t!“

 

‘I’m not going to pay you because you’re working to pay me back what you owe me,“ Walter said as if it were something he had already said more than a few times before.

 

‘I don’t owe you aught!“

 

‘Hamon,“ Perryn said, ”hush.“

 

Hamon hushed. Perryn looked to Frevisse who realized he was giving the problem over to her and gathered her wits to say to Walter, “You said there were witnesses heard him agree to pay you back.”

 

‘Aye.“

 

Perryn put up a hand, stopping Hamon from saying anything to that, and Frevisse asked of Walter, “Who?”

 

‘Father Edmund, for one.“

 

Frevisse looked to the priest.

 

He met her look. “It’s even as Walter says. He said to Hamon, ‘If I have to pay this in your place, you’ll work it out on my land for me, yes?’ And Hamon said, ‘Surely.’ ”

 

‘But I didn’t…“ Hamon started.

 

‘Hamon,“ Perryn said.

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