Authors: Ellis Peters
Tags: #Herbalists, #Cadfael; Brother (Fictitious Character), #Stephen; 1135-1154, #Mystery & Detective, #Monks, #General, #Shrewsbury (England), #Great Britain, #Historical, #Traditional British, #Large type books, #Fiction, #History
He was not sure himself what had moved him to make the suggestion. It may have been that the evening’s wine, rewarmed in him now by the abbot’s wine, rekindled with it the memory of the close and happy family he had left up in the town, where the marital warmth as sacred in its way as any monastic vows gave witness to heaven of a beneficent purpose for mankind. Whatever it was that had moved him to speak, surely they were here dealing with a confrontation of special significance between man and woman, as Eluric had all too clearly shown, and the champion sent into the lists might as well be a mature man who already knew about women, and about love, marriage and loss.
“It’s a good thought,” said Anselm, having considered it dispassionately. “If it’s to be a layman, who better than the tenant? He also benefits from the gift, the premises suit him very well, his former quarters were too distant from the town and too cramped.”
“And you think he would be willing?” asked the abbot.
“We can but ask. He’s already done work for the lady,” said Cadfael, “they’re acquainted. And the better his contacts with the townsfolk, the better for trade. I think he’d have no objection.”
“Then tomorrow,” decided the abbot with satisfaction, “I will send Vitalis to put the matter to him. And our problem, small though it is, will be happily solved.”
BROTHER VITALIS HAD lived so long with documents and accounts and legal points that nothing surprised him, and about nothing that was not written down on vellum did he retain any curiosity. The errands that fell to his lot he discharged punctiliously but without personal interest. He delivered the abbot’s message to Niall the bronzesmith word for word, expecting and receiving instant agreement, carried the satisfactory answer back, and promptly forgot the tenant’s face. Not one word of one parchment that ever passed through his hands did he forget, those were immutable, even years would only slightly fade them, but the faces of laymen whom he might well never see again, and whom he could not recall ever noticing before, these vanished from his mind far more completely than words erased deliberately from a leaf of vellum to make way for a new text.
“The smith is quite willing,” he reported to Abbot Radulfus on his return, “and promises faithful delivery.” He had not even wondered why the duty should have been transferred from a brother to a secular agent. It was in any case more seemly, since the donor was a woman.
“That’s well,” said the abbot, content, and as promptly dismissed the matter from his mind as finished.
Niall, when he was left alone, stood for some minutes gazing after his departed visitor, leaving the all but completed dish with its incised border neglected on his workbench, the punch and mallet idle beside it. A small sector of the rim left to do, and then he could turn his hand to the supple leather girdle rolled up on a shelf and waiting for his attention. There would be a small mould to make, the body of the buckle to cast, and then the hammering out of the fine pattern and the mixing of the bright enamels to fill the incisions. Three times since she had brought it in he had unrolled it and run it caressingly through his fingers, dwelling on the delicate precision of the bronze rosettes. For her he would make a thing of beauty, however small and insignificant, and even if she never noticed it but as an article of apparel, a thing of use, at least she would wear it, it would encircle that body of hers that was so slender, too slender, and the buckle would rest close against the womb that had conceived but once and miscarried, leaving her so lasting and bitter a grief.
Not this night, but the night following, when the light began to fade and made fine work impossible, he would close the house and set out on the walk down through Brace Meole to the hamlet of Pulley, a minor manor of the Mortimers, where his sister’s husband John Stury farmed the demesne as steward, and Cecily’s boisterous children kept his own little girl company, made much of her, and ran wild with her among the chickens and the piglets. He was not utterly bereft, like Judith Perle. There was great consolation in a little daughter. He pitied those who had no children, and most of all such as had carried a child half the long, hard way into this world, only to lose it at last, and too late to conceive again. Judith’s child had gone in haste after its father. The wife was left to make her way slowly, and alone.
He had no illusions about her. She knew little of him, desired no more, and thought of him not at all. Her composed courtesy was for every man, her closer regard for none. That he acknowledged without complaint or question. But fate and the lord abbot, and certain monastic scruples about encountering women, no doubt, had so decreed that on one day in the year, at least, he was to see her, to go to her house, to stand in her presence and pay her what was due, exchange a few civil words with her, see her face clearly, even be seen clearly by her, if only for a moment.
He left his work and went out by the house door into the garden. Within the high wall there were fruit trees bedded in grass, and a patch of vegetables, and to one side a narrow, tangled bed of flowers, overcrowded but spangled with bright colour. The white rosebush grew against the north wall, tall as a man, and clutching the stonework with a dozen long, spiny arms. He had cut it back only seven weeks before, but it made rapid and lengthy growth every year. It was old; dead wood had been cut away from its stem several times, so that it had a thick, knotty bole at the base, and a sinewy stalk that was almost worthy of being called a trunk. A snow of white, half-open buds sprinkled it richly. The blooms were never very large, but of the purest white and very fragrant. There would be no lack of them at their best to choose from, when the day of Saint Winifred’s translation came.
She should have the finest to be found on the tree. And even before that day he would see her again, when she came to fetch her girdle. Niall went back to his work with goodwill, shaping the new buckle in his mind while he completed the decoration of the dish for the provost’s kitchen.
The burgage of the Vestier family occupied a prominent place at the head of the street called Maerdol, which led downhill to the western bridge. A right-angled house, with wide shop-front on the street, and the long stem of the hall and chambers running well back behind, with a spacious yard and stables. There was room enough in all that elongated building, besides the living rooms of the family, to house ample stores in a good dry undercroft, and provide space for all the girls who carded and combed the newly dyed wool, besides three horizontal looms set up in their own outbuilding, and plenty of room in the long hall for half a dozen spinsters at once. Others worked in their own homes, and so did five other weavers about the town. The Vestiers were the biggest and best-known clothiers in Shrewsbury.
Only the dyeing of the fleeces and fulling of the cloth were put out into the experienced hands of Godfrey Fuller, who had his dye-house and fulling-works and tenterground just down-river, under the wall of the castle.
At this time of year the first fleeces of the clip had already been purchased and sorted, and sent to be dyed, and on this same day had been duly delivered in person by Godfrey. Nor did he seem to be in any hurry to be off about his business, though he was known for a man to whom time was money, and money very dear. So was power. He enjoyed being one of the wealthiest of the town’s guildsmen, and was always on the look-out for an extension to his realm and influence. He had his eye, so the common gossip said, on the almost comparable wealth of the Widow Perle, and never neglected an opportunity of urging the benefits of bringing the two together by a match.
Judith had sighed at his staying, but dutifully offered refreshment, and listened patiently to his dogged persuasions, which at least had the decency to avoid any semblance of loving courtship. He spoke solid sense, not dalliance, and all he said was true. His business and hers, put together, and run as well as they were being run now, would become a power in the shire, let alone the town. She would be the gainer, in terms of wealth at least, as well as he. Nor would he make too repulsive a husband, for if he was turned fifty he was still a presentable figure of a man, tall, vigorous, with a long stride on him, and a thick crop of steel-grey hair capping sharp features, and if he valued money, he also valued appearances and refinements, and would see to it, if only for his own prestige, that his wife went decked out as handsomely as any in the county.
“Well, well!” he said, recognising his dismissal and accepting it without resentment, “I know how to bide my time, mistress, and I’m not one to give up short of the victory, nor one to change my mind, neither. You’ll come to see the rights of what I’ve said, and I’m not afraid to stand my ground against any of these young fly-by-nights that have nothing to offer you but their pretty faces. Mine has seen long service, but I’ll back it against theirs any day. You have too much good sense, girl, to choose a lad for his dainty seat on a horse, or his pink and yellow beauty. And think well on all we could do between us, if we had the whole of the trade brought together in our hands, from the ewe’s back to the cloth on the counter and the gown on the customer’s back.”
“I have thought of it,” she said simply, “but the truth is, Master Fuller, I do not purpose to marry again.”
“Purposes can change,” said Godfrey firmly, and rose to take his leave. The hand she gave him resignedly he raised to his lips.
“Yours, too?” she said with a faint smile.
“My mind won’t change. If yours does, here am I waiting.” And with that he did leave her, as briskly as he had come. Certainly there seemed to be no end to his persistence and patience, but fifty can ill afford to wait too long. Very soon she might have to do something decisive about Godfrey Fuller, and against that massive assurance it was hard to see what she could do but what she had been doing all along, fend him off and be as constant in denial as he was in demanding. She had been brought up to take good care of her business and her labourers, no less than he, she could ill afford to take her dyeing and fulling to another master.
Aunt Agatha Coliar, who had sat a little apart, sewing, bit off her thread, and said in the sweet, indulgent voice she affected sometimes towards the niece who kept her in comfort: “You’ll never rid yourself of him by being too civil. He takes it for encouragement.”
“He has a right to speak his mind,” said Judith indifferently, “and he’s in no doubt about mine. As often as he asks, I can refuse.”
“Oh, my dear soul, I trust you can. He’s not the man for you. Nor none of those youngsters he spoke of, neither. You well know there’s no second in the world for one who’s known joy with the first. Better by far go the leave of the way alone! I still grieve for my own man, after all these years. I could never look at any other, after him.” So she had said, sighing and shaking her head and wiping away a facile tear, a thousand times since she had kept the storehouse and the linen here, and brought her son to help manage the business. “If it had not been for my boy, who was young then to fend for himself, I would have taken the veil that same year that Will died. There’d be no fortune-hunting lads pestering a woman in the cloister. Peace of mind there’d be, there.” She was off upon her best theme, and sometimes seemed almost to forget that she was talking to anyone but herself.
She had been a pretty woman in youth, and still had a round, rosy, comfortable freshness, somewhat contradicted by the alert sharpness of her blue eyes, and the taut smile that visited her mouth very often when it should have been relaxed and easy in repose, as if shrewd thoughts within wore her soft outward seeming like a disguise. Judith could not remember her own mother, and often wondered if there had been much resemblance between the sisters. But these, mother and son, were the only kin she had, and she had taken them in without hesitation. Miles more than earned his keep, for he had shown himself an excellent manager during the long decline of Edred’s health, when Judith had had no thought to spare for anything but her husband and the child to come. She had not had the heart, when she returned to the shop, to take back the reins into her own hands. Though she did her share, and kept a dutiful eye upon everything, she let him continue as master-clothier. So influential a house fared better with a man in the forefront.
“But there,” sighed Agatha, folding her sewing on her spacious lap and dropping a tear on the hem, “I had my duty to do in the world, there was to be no such calm and quiet for me. But you have no chick nor child to cling to you, my poor dear, and nothing now to tie you to the world, if it should please you to leave it. You did speak of it once. Oh, take good thought, do nothing in haste. But should it come to that, there’s nothing to hold you back.”
No, nothing! And sometimes the world did seem to Judith a waste, a tedium, hardly worth keeping. And in a day or two, perhaps tomorrow, Sister Magdalen would be coming from Godric’s Ford, from the forest cell of the abbey of Polesworth, to fetch away Brother Edmund’s niece as a postulant. She could as well take back with her two aspiring novices as one.
Judith was in the spinning room with the women when Sister Magdalen arrived, early the following afternoon. As heiress to the clothier’s business for want of a brother, she had learned all the skills involved, from teasing and carding to the loom and the final cutting of garments, though she found herself much out of practice now at the distaff. The sheaf of carded wool before her was russet-red. Even the dye-stuffs came seasonally, and last summer’s crop of woad for the blues was generally used up by April or May, to be followed by these variations on reds and browns and yellows, which Godfrey Fuller produced from the lichens and madders. He knew his craft. The lengths of cloth he would finally get back for fulling had a clear, fast colour, and fetched good prices.
It was Miles who came looking for her. “You have a visitor,” he said, reaching over Judith’s shoulder to rub a strand of wool from the distaff between finger and thumb, with cautious approval. “There’s a nun from Godric’s Ford sitting in your small chamber, waiting for you. She says they told her at the abbey you’d be glad of a word with her. You’re not still playing with the notion of quitting the world, are you? I thought that nonsense was over.”
“I did tell Brother Cadfael I should like to see her,” said Judith, stilling her spindle. “No more than that. She’s here to fetch a new novice away—the infirmarer’s sister’s girl.”
“Then don’t you be fool enough to offer her a second. Though you do have your follies, as I know,” he said lightly, and clapped her affectionately on the shoulder. “Like giving away for a rose leaf the best property in the Foregate. Do you intend to cap that by giving away yourself?”
He was two years older than his cousin, and given to playing the elder, full of sage advice, though with a lightness that tempered the image. A young man very neatly and compactly made, strong and lissome, and as good at riding and wrestling and shooting at the butts by the riverside as he was at managing a clothier’s business. He had his mother’s blue, alert eyes and light-brown hair, but none of her blurred complacency. All that was, or seemed, vague and shallow in the mother became clear and decisive in the son. Judith had had good cause to be glad of him, and to rely on his solid good sense in all matters concerning commerce.