Authors: Priscilla Royal
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Historical
“They must leave Walsingham.” Prioress Ursell glowered like an avenging angel aiming a spear at a snaggletoothed demon.
Father Vincent rubbed his dripping nose. “Prioress Eleanor said she was disinclined to rush the cleansing of her soul and insisted that only Brother Thomas may decide when her penance is done.”
“That means little. Her mind can be changed.”
“My lady, he is a willful man and yet his prioress did select him to guide her. Perhaps a bishop or other cleric would have chosen more wisely for her, but the Order of Fontevraud is unique in the authority it gives women.”
She waved this aside. “Speak firmly with him. As I have heard, he owns no rank in his own priory. As a common monk, he should seek guidance and direction from a priest owning higher merit in God’s eyes.” She waited, her expression suggesting that the response should be obvious.
He blinked repeatedly.
The silence grew tedious.
“You!” She thumped her hand on the arm of her chair. “Were you not found worthy by a penitent to take possession of a holy relic? Men do not give such precious gifts without asking for a boon in return. Since the man who gave you the sacred hairs from the Virgin’s head did not even mention his name, you, with great humility, wondered if it was an angel who blessed you with the gift.” She looked up at her staff of office, shut her eyes, and mumbled a prayer.
Father Vincent flushed and bowed his head. “Brother Thomas troubles me.” The priest’s eyes narrowed with disapproval. “We are all obliged to grieve over our many sins, but I have seen little evidence that he does. The monk does not behave as a penitent ought. When I ask him to join me in prayer, he walks away. For a tonsured man, I have observed little piety and far too much inclination to wander in the streets.”
“Stroll amongst the wicked sons of Adam? This is the man that Prioress Eleanor relies upon for guidance?” Ursell’s eyes bulged in horror. “Her reputation would suggest better judgment, and her religious rank more prudence. I have heard only high praise when her name is spoken.” She hesitated, then thumped her staff on the floor for emphasis. “Yet the high praise of mortal men often polishes the truth so well that deep flaws are hidden.” She smiled, tilted her head as if listening to the echo of her words, and then nodded, quite pleased with her phrasing.
“As for Prioress Eleanor, I do not question her piety in coming to Walsingham. To leave her priory for any pilgrimage, she had to seek permission from her abbess and convince her that the journey met a great spiritual need. Once here, she has proved her sincerity. None of her rank has ever walked a mile down the pilgrim road in bare feet as she did.” He coughed, and his cheeks became red. “Other than you, my lady! I remember well when you walked along that same path before assuming the rule of this priory. Does that not prove my point that few are so pious?” To judge her reaction, he glanced at her, and then quickly turned his gaze, replete with reverence, heavenward.
She lowered her head with suitable modesty. Neither of them mentioned that she had walked on well-shod feet and only the distance between the Walsingham Priory gate and that of Ryehill.
“As I also learned, she rode a simple donkey, not a good horse, the entire way from Tyndal Priory. All these things point to a penitential humility far exceeding that possessed by the usual pilgrim, let alone one of her noble birth.” He cleared his throat and murmured, “Of course there can be no comparison to your own exceptional piety.”
“The walk was another ill-considered decision. I have seen her hobble about in pain.” The prioress grimaced. “There is such a thing as virtue befouled by the sin of pride.”
“I, too, have witnessed that failing in her, yet I must convey a rumor I heard from a pilgrim who resides just west of Norwich. As he told the story, some in the village near her priory claim she was granted a vision of the Virgin last summer. Prioress Eleanor has replied that she is too unworthy for such a gift. Since only Walsingham has been blessed by a visit from Our Lord’s mother in our realm, this prioress seems to have come here to humbly beg forgiveness—”
“She doubts visions?”
“It is not lack of faith in visions but rather the location and recipient in this instance. Our site was uniquely favored when the Virgin not only told Richelde of Fervaques that she should build an exact copy of the house where the Annunciation occurred, but even moved the building when it was not put in the proper place. I share Prioress Eleanor’s doubt the Queen of Heaven would appear to her as well and that the Virgin would do so in such a remote place as Tyndal village. That worry suggests humility resides in her soul.”
Prioress Ursell frowned as she considered this.
“I have seen her praying before the Shrine of the Virgin’s Lock more than most pilgrims. Her sorrow is profound, and she has not only donated a candle to our shrine, but coin.” He looked very pleased.
“Even if her motive for pilgrimage is worthy, and I do not doubt your conclusions, it is still best that she and Brother Thomas leave us.”
Father Vincent twitched with evident discomfort.
“Surely you do not disagree, Father! You know their reputation. If a suspicious death occurs near them, whether or not there is any true wrongdoing, they grow inquisitive. Like dogs, they eagerly sniff about.” She curled her hand and bounced it around to suggest a leaping hound. “And like those beasts, they show little concern over the consequences of their unwelcome interest. Sister Roysia’s fall from our bell tower is just such a death.”
The priest nodded in agreement.
“You do not want them jabbing sticks of idle curiosity into this matter anymore than I.” She clenched her fist, winced, and rubbed at a swollen knuckle with her finger. “It took me far too long to reclaim our reputation after the last prioress allowed a nun to flee Ryehill with a chapman.” She glared at him. “I have trusted your judgment in these matters, but you know as well as I that we cannot afford any more hint of scandal. Surely it must be simple enough to find a way to make them leave.”
Father Vincent licked his lips. “At least Sister Roysia is dead, my lady.”
“And yet we must still consider what to do with Master Larcher.” Ursell twisted her staff back and forth. The gray light in the room caused the curve of the silver crosier to flicker with dulled radiance.
Shivering, Father Vincent went to the window. Outside, a light rain was falling. The scent of dampened dust in the road, mixed with the smell of wet animals, drifted upward and into the chamber. He grimaced at the odor, closed the shutter, and walked back to face the prioress with his hands in his sleeves.
“Sister Roysia has been duly punished for her sins,” he said. “I agree that the craftsman has not, but we would be wise to set the problem of Master Larcher aside until after the departure of this troublesome pair.”
Her scowl might have frozen Hell. “Must we wait so long? They have no reason to link the craftsman with Sister Roysia.”
“If they should hear or see anything else untoward after Sister Roysia’s death, they will certainly remain to pursue their curiosity as you have so well described it.”
“Do you think Brother Thomas saw what she had in her hand?” She shifted in her chair, but her look of displeasure did not change.
“He should not have seen it. A tonsured man must never touch any woman, but especially not one who had given herself to God.” Father Vincent shook his head with disapproval.
“He must have touched her neck because he concluded it was broken.”
“But he did not mention the cloth. That was hidden in her hand which lay under her body. Although his examination may have been inappropriate, he seems not to have done more than he claimed when we questioned him.”
“You heard them talking in the chapel. What did they reveal?”
“I could not understand all they said.” His voice rose as if he had been accused unjustly of negligence.
“Surely you overheard something! Were they talking about the corpse?”
“I did not hear any allusion to it, but even if they had discussed the death, my lady, they have little cause to pry into our affairs for that alone. Assuming the worst and Brother Thomas did see the torn cloth but failed to mention it to us, he would not have known its origin. The cloth could have come from anything.”
“But did he see it? Did he say anything to his prioress?”
“They mumbled. Our chapel is small, and the columned walkway is short. I dared not slip closer lest I be seen.”
Ursell’s face was marred by fury. “If he did, and another overheard that detail, rumormongers will claim the cloth came from Master Larcher’s robe. It is troubling enough that some may believe our nun had a lover. We cannot afford speculation that Sister Roysia’s death was murder. I have grown impatient enough with the earlier, idle gossip, Father.”
Father Vincent looked down at his feet. “When the two from Tyndal stood in this chamber, I could not have been more persuasive than you that the only conclusion possible was that of a tragic accident.”
“If Prioress Eleanor has the distressed soul you claim, she may not shift her thoughts from penance to our sister’s death, but I worry about her monk. It shall be your duty to urge them home, but, for now, limit his ability to talk with anyone in Walsingham. Keep Brother Thomas in the chapel where he should have remained from the moment of his arrival. Accompany him to the shrines. Make sure his knees grow raw from prayer—”
The priest reached out with a pleading gesture. “I have tried and failed to keep him where he ought to be. His duty to accompany his prioress may be understandable, but he is drawn outside for other reasons, and although I have argued with him about this, he does not listen.”
“You have not told me everything then. What is the true cause of his determined waywardness?”
“He brings scraps from the priory kitchen to feed the whore who tries to defile our Shrine of the Virgin’s Lock.”
“Whore? He seeks the company of whores?”
Father Vincent waved away her obvious fear. “I have no reason to think he has broken his vows, my lady. If I did, I would have banished him from my chamber and the sacred shrine.” The dark lines in his forehead deepened. “The whore is that street creature I caught swyving a local merchant. Although the merchant has contributed to our shrine as penance, she mocked his grief and claimed she was innocent of sin. I quickly recognized her as Satan’s minion and pray that God will deliver her soul to her true master soon.”
She shuddered. “You must rebuke Brother Thomas! He is blinded by evil if he believes he is providing charity when he gives succor to the Prince of Darkness. Should he continue to disobey you, threaten him!” She pressed her fingers against her eyelids as if that would clear her foggy vision. Her expression suggested weariness. “I shall instruct the nuns in our kitchen to deny him the scraps he takes for that vile creature’s maw.”
“And the landlord of the inn? Brother Thomas has gone there to seek bits of food as well.”
“Remind the innkeeper that we recommend his inn as a proper place for pilgrims to stay. Should that hint fail to gain his cooperation, you might whisper the possibility of excommunication in his ear.”
“That is a decision I would not make without advice from a higher authority.”
, I said. Even if you believe this instance may be outside your authority, we are obliged to alert the bishop about the wicked among us. All men know that.”
He nodded. “Although I did not hear the monk and his prioress discuss Sister Roysia’s death, Brother Thomas did tell her that I had rebuked him for aiding the imp. Not only did he object to my virtuous advice, but she failed to reproach him for doing so.” Father Vincent grew thoughtful. “And yet she did remind him that they are here for penance and that he ought not involve himself in matters that were none of their concern.”
“A statement that meant either Sister Roysia’s death or feeding the evil demon of which you spoke.” Ursell looked at the priest. “I am not reassured.”
He pointed to heaven. “If God is kind, He may grant Prioress Eleanor the gift of understanding while she prays at the Shrine of the Virgin’s Lock. She may see how benighted her monk is and cast his advice aside.” But his burst of confidence lasted only a moment before his expression turned doleful.
“As you have taught us, wickedness may overcome virtue when faith is sorely tested. It is irrelevant whether the matter is the whore or our nun’s death. I fear the monk’s influence over her while she is enfeebled by guilt and sin.” She uttered a soft groan of frustration. “You must take him by the hand and direct him firmly, Father. Remind him that God is merciful to the repentant but fearsome toward those who willfully disobey Him. As for her, take the opportunity to preach humility and obedience to those men in God’s service who are holier than her monk. She is, after all, a frail woman. You say she longs for forgiveness. She must let you guide her.”
“She has acted piously while here. I will try my best, but, unless I can humble him, I may not succeed with her.”
Prioress Ursell tilted her head, then flushed with the happy spark of sudden inspiration. “Mention to him that his abbess in Anjou would disapprove of his consorting with whores if word of this misconduct was spread. The Order of Fontevraud is under the authority of the Pope, and the abbess would not want Rome to believe she allowed a man of questionable morals to remain in her flock unpunished, especially one viewed with such favor by her prioress of Tyndal.”
He looked uncomfortable.
She ignored him. “This Angevin Order has always been favored by the family of our pious king, but both men and women within it are still ruled by a woman, a controversial practice and thus prone to error.” She watched him for a moment. “The abbess surely understands the precarious nature of her supreme authority and that any scandal could be fatal to its continuance. Our problem with Sister Roysia may be pardoned more quickly. We are an unimportant house, a poor one at that and filled only with women, but Fontevraud is an unnatural Order. Any impropriety may mean the end of all tolerance for it.”