Read The Reeve's Tale Online

Authors: Margaret Frazer

The Reeve's Tale (5 page)

BOOK: The Reeve's Tale


That was clever of him, Frevisse granted. From everything Frevisse knew of Master Naylor, he was most unlikely ever to leave his family behind while seeing to his own safety. Domina Elisabeth looked to him and asked, “Would you trust your boy to this reeve?”


‘To Simon Perryn? Yes.“


Domina Elisabeth looked back to Master Spencer. “Then we accept your request.”


Master Spencer opened his mouth, probably to protest that it had been a demand, not a request, but seemingly thought better of it.


Domina Elisabeth smiled on him. “Is there aught else we need to deal with just now?”


‘I think not, madam,“ he answered stiffly.


‘We can speak more about it on the morrow if we find it necessary,“ she said and turned to Master Naylor. ”Perhaps you’d best go and see to your son being taken to Simon Perryn and settling who’ll be your guards this while.“


Master Naylor bowed his acceptance, his long, lined face unreadable, but Master Spencer, very readable with indignation and disbelief, burst out, “Madam, he can’t be allowed to choose his own guards!”


Domina Elisabeth’s smile at him was hard edged with waning patience. “This is hardly a time of year, with so much to be done, both before and for the harvest, that we can afford to waste men standing about doing nothing. Who but Master Naylor knows best which men can be spared and when and for how long from their work?”


‘But madam!“


Domina Elisabeth continued her smile at him. “You, of course, may arrange the matter of your own guards to your own satisfaction.”


‘But, madam!“


‘Yes?“ Her graciousness did not falter but, ever so slightly, her smile hardened, and Master Spencer pulled back from whatever else he had wanted to say. ”Then we’re finished for now, I think,“ Domina Elisabeth said pleasantly. ”I trust you’ll accept our hospitality for tonight?“ ”


Looking as if he would rather chew raw nettles but the day too far along to leave him other choice unless he and his men were going to sleep on the roadside, Master Spencer said, managing to somewhat match her graciousness, “Yes. Thank you, madam.”


‘And Master Naylor,“ she said, turning to him again.


‘My lady?“


‘Be assured we’ll pursue this matter to the end.“


Master Naylor bowed. “My lady.”


She dismissed them both with, “You may go,” and they went, Master Spencer making a final bow and “Madam” to her.


Frevisse, undismissed, went on standing where she had stood all this while, not far into the room, her head bowed again while she listened to their feet going down the stairs, the brief silence, and then the hinge-squeal and thudding shut of the door that told they had left the cloister.


Across the room, looking out the window and down at them as they crossed the courtyard toward the gateway, Domina Elisabeth said, annoyed and mocking, ‘


‘Madam.’ “ The graciousness she had wielded against Master Spencer was abruptly gone. She turned away from the window. ”Dame Frevisse, what do you make of this?“


One of the few things that made Frevisse uneasy with Domina Elisabeth was that the prioress was given to asking her opinion too often on things not strictly Frevisse’s concern. It came, Frevisse feared, from Domina Elisabeth knowing, by way of Abbot Gilberd, too much about her, but there was no way to refuse being drawn into her prioress’s confidence, and now she said cautiously, “I’ve never known Master Naylor to tell a lie or been given cause to think he’s other than he seems.”


‘What do you know of him besides his duties here?“


‘Nothing,“ Frevisse said in surprise. There had never been reason to know more of Master Naylor than that he did his work well.


‘Nor do I.“


‘I’d have him write down all there is to know of where he was born,“ Frevisse said slowly, considering the matter. ”Where and when and who are his family and who he thinks can confirm what he says.“


Domina Elisabeth nodded agreement and said, carrying the thought exactly where Frevisse had been taking it, “And send that to my brother so he can send someone to prove Master Naylor’s claims and bring us evidence enough to satisfy Lord Lovell so that maybe this won’t have to go to any court.” Which would be expensive. “That’s the most we can do there. The other part of this trouble will be yours, I’m afraid.”


Careful to keep wariness out of her voice, Frevisse asked, “The other part, my lady?”


Domina Elisabeth crossed her parlor to sit down in her high-backed chair. “I wanted you here for more than merely listening. I gathered from Lord Lovell’s letter before ever Master Spencer spoke that we were in some manner of trouble concerning Master Naylor. We’ve protected him as best we can for now, but I doubt he’ll be cleared of this foolishness so soon as we would like. Not soon enough with harvest so near, that’s certain, and that isn’t good, considering how many field and village matters have to be seen to in these next few weeks if they’re going to be worth seeing to at all. I want you to take his place.”


Under her vow of obedience, flat refusal was impossible, and while Frevisse marshalled all the reasons there were she could not possibly do this thing, Domina Elisabeth went on, “You’re already cellarer. Taking Master Naylor’s place follows readily from what you already do.”


Hiding desperation, Frevisse said, “Any one of the men who work under him will know better what’s to be done than I possibly can.”


‘Assuredly, but they don’t have the authority.“


‘Give it to them.“


‘I’d rather deal with you than with someone I don’t know as well as I know Master Naylor, and it will serve as notice that we don’t expect to be long without Master Naylor’s services.“


‘I don’t know enough,“ Frevisse insisted.


‘You’ll talk with Master Naylor whenever and however much you need to. Besides, I know you’re able to make decisions on your own and give needed orders without waste of time when there’s no time to waste.“


‘One of the other nuns,“ Frevisse tried, knowing that was the last and weakest of her hopes.


‘None of the others is as able as you are to deal between men. None of us has been as much in the world as you’ve been.“


‘I won’t be able to carry out my duties as cellarer and kitchener as fully as I should.“


‘Sister Johane can help you with the cellarer’s less demanding matters. Sister Emma can take over as kitchener.“


‘Sister Emma in the kitchen…“ Frevisse broke off, unsure which of Sister Emma’s many kitchen failures was best to tell.


Domina Elisabeth, not experienced yet in what could happen in a kitchen if Sister Emma was not closely watched, said with unruffled certainty, “She’ll learn best by doing.”


She hasn’t yet, Frevisse held back from saying.


The cloister bell began to ring Vespers’ prayers, calling the nuns from whatever they were doing, from wherever they were, to the church. The priory’s days were woven around the eight Offices of prayer, beginning with Matins and Lauds at midnight. Vespers marked the afternoon’s end, with supper following it, and an hour’s recreation before Compline’s prayers, then bed.


‘Of course you’ll be excused the Offices whenever necessary while this lasts,“ Domina Elisabeth said, rising and coming toward the door in answer to the bell’s summons.


Frevisse stopped in the midst of stepping aside and curtsying to her to ask blankly, “What?”


Already past her, Domina Elisabeth said back over her shoulder, “When you’re in the village and out about the fields, you can’t be forever running back here whenever it’s time for prayers. You’re excused them for this while, whenever necessary.”


Frevisse found, following Domina Elisabeth down the stairs and into the cloister walk, that she was angry. Not even so much at being forced into Master Naylor’s place when she very much did not want to be but at the way Domina Elisabeth was so easily dismissing her from prayers that were supposed to be the heart of everything they did within St. Frideswide’s. But Domina Elisabeth was going on, “And there’s the question of who should go with you.” Because no nun was supposed to leave the nunnery unaccompanied by another nun. “I think Sister Thomasine would be best.”


Frevisse lost stride, literally stumbling over that. Of the few nuns there were in St. Frideswide’s, Sister Thomasine would have been, from simply a practical point of view, Frevisse’s last choice.


‘She prays so much of the time, I doubt it’s good for her,“ Domina Elisabeth continued, going along the cloister walk toward the church now, some nuns already waiting at the door there, others still coming from elsewhere around the cloister. ”She needs to be more in the world, I think, if only for a little while. Because how can she pray well for what she doesn’t understand?“


The sense in that was counterbalanced, Frevisse feared, by the reality of Sister Thomasine. She had desired nun-hood and the cloistered life since she was a child, had shunned men to the point of fear in her first years in St. Frideswide’s. Frevisse could not remember when last Sister Thomasine had been out of the cloister but didn’t think she had been past the priory’s gates to the outside world since coming in them eleven years or more ago, and behind her prioress’ back, Frevisse prayed soundlessly and from the heart,
“Ad Dominum, cum tribularer, clamavi et exaudivit me. Kyrie, eleison. Christe, eleison
…” To the Lord, when I was troubled, I cried out and he heard me. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy… On her as well as Sister Thomasine.


Chapter 3


Simon’s thought when word came from the priory was that it was bad news all the way around—first of what was toward with Master Naylor and then that a nun was taking his place. Simon’s grandam had always said—far more often than anyone wanted to hear it—that you could always judge someone by how they took news of another’s troubles, and the news of Master Naylor’s troubles had proved her right again, as she would have declared to any who’d listen if she hadn’t been dead these fifteen years.


Some had been simply glad to have something different to talk about. It hardly mattered who was in trouble so long as they could run off their tongues about it, shake their heads, and tut-tut over how the world went, you never knew, did you?


Then there were those—and not just those who might have had quarrel with Master Naylor one time or another but even some with reason to be grateful to him for justice or mercy given—who made glee he was come to grief and might come to worse before it was done. They were the sort who always felt that another man’s going down somehow meant they were going up, as if everything were a seesaw, when to Simon’s mind Fortune’s wheel was still showed best the way the world went, taking you around and up and around and down and around and up again, and the best you could hope was that the being down went faster, ended sooner, than the being up, but the only thing certain was that Fortune was always turning that wheel. As his grandam, God keep her soul, had likewise been wont to say, Fortune’s wheel and a fool’s tongue were the two things never still.


For himself, Simon was sorry to hear of Master Naylor’s trouble, whatever the rights or wrongs of it, and wished him well. It was when he found he had to deal with a nun in Master Naylor’s place that he had turned sorry for himself, too.


‘How’m I to deal with a nun?“ he’d complained to Anne. ”What’s she to know of aught? Likely she can’t even tell handle from prongs on a hayfork, let be what field should be grazed and which one plowed and what to do when Ralph Denton’s hell-bound cow has been impounded again.“


‘So long as she knows she doesn’t know and follows where you lead, it’ll be well enough,“ Anne had answered and thumped the bread dough over on its board and gone on kneading it. ”It’s if she thinks she knows and doesn’t that you’ll have trouble right enough.“


Simon had been wanting pity, not reason, and tried again. “With having to go back and forth to the nunnery whenever there’s need to talk to her, there’s good hours wasted every day.”


‘You can be to the nunnery by the field path in less time than it takes you to down a bowl of ale on a hot day,“ Anne had answered, ”and you’ll save the cost of the ale in the bargain.“


Simon had given up. She’d find out soon enough what he was trying to make her understand, that this dealing with a nun was going to be trouble and more trouble, nothing but trouble.


So he was surprised to be sitting here on the bench by his own front door in the pear tree’s shade, talking with this Dame Frevisse about what fieldwork needed to be done before Lammastide and starting to be at ease with her. Partly that was because she listened more than she talked, though he was finding there was a sharpness to the way she listened, as if she were hearing more than he said, that kept him careful of his words, but it boded well she’d come to the village, had sought him out instead of sending for him, and it boded better she’d brought a short, penned message from Master Naylor that she had his trust in taking his place this while. With that to start from, Simon had settled down to make the best of it, and they had agreed, right off, that neither of them was happy with Master Naylor’s trouble and never thought, either of them, that he was villein-born and had run from it and lied about it. “I think his tongue would turn to wood if ever he tried to lie, he’s that stiff-necked a man over truth,” Simon had said, and Dame Frevisse had laughed, agreeing. Then he had set to telling her what things she’d need to know in Master Naylor’s place: how far along the crops were, which fields were still in need of weeding before second haying came next week, who was caught up on their workdays, who was behind and why, and that he didn’t know yet if there’d be need to hire out of the village for the harvest or not.

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