The Stone-Worker's Tale (Sister Frevisse Medieval Mysteries)

BOOK: The Stone-Worker's Tale (Sister Frevisse Medieval Mysteries)
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The Stone-Worker's Tale
A Short Story by Margaret Frazer

When Domina Frevisse had last been in St. Mary's church at Ewelme, it had been a quiet place, its brief nave divided from its side aisles by graceful stone pillars, the chancel and high altar remote beyond a richly painted wooden screen topped by a gilded crucifix and saintly statutes.

Now its quiet and all its ordered peace were gone.  Near the high altar the south aisle was given over to scaffolding, stone dust, and workmen; the summer morning's heavy sunlight pouring unobstructed through the gaping hole in the wall that would someday be a stone-mullioned window of richly stained glass; and the crane with its ropes and pulleys still straddled Lady Alice's stone tomb chest from yesterday's lowering into place of the stone slab that was its top, complete with a full-length carving of Lady Alice lying in prayerful repose, gazing serenely up to heaven.

Presently, though, Lady Alice was anything but prayerful, serene, or reposed as she demanded at her master mason, "He's gone?  Just gone?  He was here yesterday and now, like that, he's gone?"

Around them the workmen were drawn back, idle instead of busy at their varied tasks, wary and watching while Master Wyndford said in open distress, "Yes, my lady," agreeing to what he had already admitted.  "In the night sometime it must have been," he added, as if that might help.

It did not. 
When
young Simon Maye had gone was not the point.  Even
why
he had gone was not Lady Alice's concern just now, and she said angrily, "What of my angels, then?  If he's gone, who's going to finish my angels?"

Her tomb was splendid with angels.  They were carved in a guardian array along both sides of the tall tomb chest, and more would go along the stone canopy that would someday rise above the tomb, and more would stand on the pinnacles that would rise above even that.  Already four of the panels that would edge the canopy were done, were sitting on the floor along the aisle well away from the work still going on, leaned at an angle against the wall so that their angels – three to each panel – gazed upward rather than downward as they someday would when in place above the tomb.  Domina Frevisse had admired those angels the other times she had come with Alice to the church to see how the work came on.  They were half-length, rising from their waists out of the stone, framed by the curve of their wings behind their shoulders, every fold of cloth, every feather delicately detailed.  Some of the angels were crowned and some were not; some had their hands folded on their breast, others had them raised in praise, others held them palm to palm in prayer; and their faces differed, too, so that each was more than simply the same again, and all in all they were as masterful a piece of work as Frevisse had ever found herself smiling at for the plain pleasure they gave.

But there were only four panels when six were intended, and only twelve angels of the eighteen there were meant to be; and Master Wyndford looked aside from Alice's anger to a heavy-shouldered youth standing nearby and said, "My son, Nicol.  He's as skilled a carver of stone as Simon Maye.  He'll finish the angels, my lady."

Lady Alice turned her critical look on Nicol Wyndford as he bowed to her.  He was dressed like the other workmen in a plain tunic and hosen, had pale, flat hair and a pale, flat face that just now was heavy with sullenness.   "Are you?" she demanded.  "Are you as good as Simon Maye?"

Nicol Wyndford looked from her to his father and back again, hunched his shoulders in not quite a shrug, and said toward the floor, "Nearly, my lady."

"Nearly."  Lady Alice said with raw displeasure; and to his father, "Master Wyndford, I am not paying for
nearly
."

She assuredly was not.  Frevisse was come from her cloistered nunnery of St. Frideswide's on a bishop-granted week's visit to her cousin.  These middle years of the 1400s were troubled with quarrels among the nobles around the king.  Favors sought and given were a way of binding alliances: The bishop had granted this favor for Alice and some day she would do something in return; or maybe this was the bishop's return for some favor Alice had already done him.  Frevisse had not asked, only regretted being summoned from her ordered life while at the same time glad of chance to see her cousin; but she had hardly brushed off the dust of travel before Alice had taken her to the church to show off the tomb and tell her at length how it would be when it was finished – all in the latest of fashions, Alice assured her.  Besides the stone-carved canopy with its praying angels above the alabaster image of herself atop the tomb chest where her body would eventually lie, the chest itself was raised on a stone-carved screen behind which, directly under the chest, was another full-length carving, this one of a shrouded corpse in the latter stages of decay, meant to remind those that lived of the fate that came to all, no matter what their earthly glory.

"Not that that's kept me from giving myself a glorious tomb," Alice had said, laughing at herself for it as they walked back to the manor house afterward.  "Given what it will cost when done, I thought I'd have it to enjoy while I was alive, rather than leave money for it in my will and never see it.  Besides, on the chance I may live for a long while yet, I thought it best to have my image done now, before I go any older."

"Ah, vanity even unto death," Frevisse had teased her.

"Well, it's not much use after death, is it?" Alice had answered back, and they had laughed together, their friendship firm despite how differently they had gone about their lives – Frevisse gladly into a nunnery and a life of prayer, Alice into worldly wealth and power by way of three marriages.  Now in her third widowhood, she was using that worldly wealth and power to have made for her a tomb fine enough to comfort her against the time when death would make worldly wealth and power of no more use to her.

Frevisse, as a Benedictine nun vowed to poverty as well as chastity and obedience, knew her own grave would lie nameless under a stretch of grass-grown turf in the nunnery orchard.  She found that a quiet, pleasing thought; but Alice's choice was Alice's choice, and this morning Alice was neither quiet nor pleased with either the young journeyman stone-carver Simon Maye who was so suddenly gone without word or warning, nor with Master Wyndford and the offer of his own son in Simon Maye's place.

Standing a little aside and behind her cousin, Frevisse was sorrier for Master Wyndford's discomfiture than for Alice's disappointment.  Sorry, too, that he could not offer himself for the work, as master of the lesser workmen here. But even if, in his day, he had been a master carver of stone figures as well as a master mason – and the two often went together – he had no hope of being one now.  Not with both his hands misshapen as they were by arthritics, the fingers swollen and crooked and bent sideways at the knuckles, past hope of ever doing fine work again.  They pained him, too, or at least ached.  The other times she had come with Alice to see how the work went, Frevisse had noted him gently rubbing one hand's thumb in slow circles on the palm of the other hand, first one, then the other, easing what must be a constant aching there, probably unconscious he was doing it.  Today the ache had shifted; he was holding one hand against his chest, gently rubbing and rubbing at the back of it with the fingertips of the other while he talked to Alice, still not seeming to know he did it.  Frevisse suspected that the ache of them and the bitterness of his lost skill accounted, even more than his years did, for the deep lines down his face and the sour look he seemed always to wear

His voice was quiet with respect and certainty, though, as he said now, "I promise you, my lady, the work will not suffer if you charge Nicol with it."

"Nicol doesn't think so," Alice pointed out sharply.

Master Wyndford sent his son a hard look.  "Simon Maye is his friend.  He speaks from that rather than honestly about his own skill."

And his father would take him to task for it later, Frevisse thought.

Alice, unsatisfied, looked from father to son to father again, and said impatiently, "I'll think on it and tell you later."

She swung away from him in a swirl of long skirts and fine veiling.  It was to her back that he bowed, saying, "My lady," Nicol and all the workmen bowing, too, as she swept away across the church toward the outer door in even worse humour than she had come.

Outside the church, her ladies were waiting for her, already under her disapproval, come to it long before Master Wyndford, when one too few of them had come to her bedchamber at dawn to ready her for the day.  She had looked around and asked, concerned, "Where's Elyn?"

Lady Sybille, senior among her ladies-in-waiting, in her service for years, had looked at Beth and Cathryn, youngest among Alice's ladies – girls whose noble families had set them to serve and learn in Lady Alice's household until they were old enough for the marriages made for them.  "Tell my lady," Lady Sybille had said sternly.

Beth and Cathryn had traded guilty looks, with Cathryn shifting uneasily a little aside, leaving answering to Beth, who had said with sufficient boldness to show her innocence in the matter, "We don't know, my lady.  She went out last night and never came back to bed."

The three of them shared a bed in the chamber beyond Alice's bedchamber where her ladies-in-waiting and waiting women slept. Lady Sybille, who oversaw them all, had her bed there, too, but it was curtained, giving her such privacy as befitted her higher place in the household.  Alice looked at her, and she answered, not needing to hear the question, "We saw you and Domina Frevisse to bed.  Then they saw me to mine.  So far as I knew, Elyn then settled to bed with the rest of them.  I had no reason to think she did not, the other women were paying no heed, going to bed themselves, and these two did not see fit to say anything."

"She said she would be back!" Beth protested.  "Then we fell asleep and didn't know she didn't come!"

"Not until we woke up this morning," Cathryn added.

"Do you at least know where she meant to go?" Alice had asked.

Cathryn had looked at the floor.  Beth had whispered as if in the confessional, "To see Simon Maye.  We think.  She didn't say."

Lady Sybille drew in a sharp, impatient breath.  "At that hour?  Surely not," while Alice had said angrily, "Has it gone that far between them?"

Spurred by Alice's anger, Beth had said with sudden enterprise and some desperation, "She maybe did come back and we were asleep too heavily to know it, and she woke up before we did and is only gone out for an early walk."

"She'll be back for breakfast, surely," one of the other women had offered.

"That's somewhat too late," Alice had snapped.  Already in her undergown of cream-colored linen, she had pointed at her green outer gown and ordered, "Finish dressing me."  And to Lady Sybille beginning a protest over the tray waiting with bread and cold meats for her to break her fast,  "No, I'll eat when I come back."

"Come back?" Lady Sybille had faltered.

"From seeing what Simon Maye has to say about this," Lady Alice had said grimly.

Severe as Elyn's foolishness was, Frevisse supposed Alice would likely have left dealing with it to Lady Sybille and the household priest except Simon Maye was part of it and that meant that so was work on her tomb.  Frevisse had seen the young man each time she had gone with Alice to the church to see how the work went.  The first time, intent on his work, he had been unaware of anyone else was there until Master Wyndford had said behind him, "Simon, my lady has come to see your work again."  Then Simon had hurriedly laid down his tools and turned and bowed, a young man with stone-dust greying his brown hair but otherwise nothing about him different from uncounted other young men.  That had been Frevisse's first thought, before she had looked past him to the angel he was just finishing.  Then she had known he was something more than only another journeyman stone-carver.  There was a fineness to his work – an other-worldness to the angel's stone features, an aliveness to the very feathers of its wings – that went past ordinary skill to the something more that came to some craftsmen, but only some, as if God had touched them and let them see and do beyond what others saw and could do.

And Elyn?  Frevisse had seen her among Alice's women and other girls without particularly noting her, a girl neither especially lovely or especially plain.  With merry eyes, though, Frevisse seemed to remember.  Too merry, it now seemed.  And Alice's displeasure was only going to be the worse because her foolishness had brought the stone-carver Simon Maye into a disgrace which Alice could not ignore.

But whatever her anger, Alice had had to sit for her simple morning headdress of cauls and crimp-edged linen veiling to be put on her before going anywhere, and in the while she had to sit otherwise still she had let Lady Sybille prevail and a little broke her fast between sharp questions at Beth and Cathryn who unfortunately seemed to know no more than what they had already said.  Frevisse, needing no help to dress herself in her plain black Benedictine gown and the white wimple that surrounded her face and hid her throat, had kept aside from the bustle around her cousin; had pinned her black veil over the wimple by touch, not needing to see what she did, and ate a little of her own breakfast while watching and listening to Alice, her ladies, and the two girls, and only at the last, as Alice gathered herself to go out, had asked quietly, "Elyn has never done this before?"

BOOK: The Stone-Worker's Tale (Sister Frevisse Medieval Mysteries)
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