Authors: Priscilla Royal
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Historical
Instinctively, she took care not to follow him too closely.
Prioress Eleanor and Brother Thomas knelt before the Shrine of the Virgin’s Lock. The sharp mist had been transformed into a light snow and dusted the town as if the changing season had turned its face back to winter, withdrawing the hand stretched out to a warmer time. Even the pious were disheartened by the weather. No other pilgrims had crept into the chapel, either for prayer or shelter.
Since her last encounter with Mistress Emelyne, Eleanor had felt uneasy, and the chill air in the chapel added to her discomfort. Concentrating on her prayers distracted her but had failed to quiet her spirit. As she rose from her knees, the prioress glanced at her companion and was surprised to see that he seemed distressed as well. There was an unusual scowl on his face.
“What troubles you, Brother?”
He looked up with the guilty expression of a boy caught with his hand in a neighbor’s apple tree. “On occasion we have all knelt to God with anger burning inside us,” he said as he stood, “but prayer should quench those flames. May God forgive me, but my orisons just now felt as heavy as stones. I could not set aside my fury, and any words I tried to utter sounded like blasphemy even to my flawed soul.”
She motioned for him to follow her into the quiet of nearby shadows, and then asked him to explain.
“I find no kindness at Ryehill Priory.” His eyes glittered in the gray light.
“We have already agreed that we found little of it there.” She waited for him to continue, but he said nothing more. “What has happened since we last spoke?”
“I have had another conversation with Father Vincent.”
Although she had seen him driven by anger, she had rarely seen him so furious. One of the reasons she both admired and loved this man was his uncommon gentleness to others, a quality many others had praised.
He struck his hand on the stone wall. “I do not know whether to weep over this man’s cruelty or ask God how an imp had so easily taken on the form of a priest.”
“Strong words.” Eleanor spoke softly and struggled not to touch him with a comforting gesture as she longed to do.
He took a deep breath. “Only a thing without a heart could so stubbornly refuse food and shelter to a child.”
“I agree and also fail to understand how he cannot see that we must first feed a child’s hungry body and then seek ways to give succor to her soul.”
“With your permission, I continue to bring food to this girl while remaining silent in the face of Father Vincent’s rebukes.” His face flushed as his indignation rekindled.
What more could this priest have done to anger Brother Thomas so? Eleanor wondered. She urged him to say more.
“When I last asked the cook in the priory kitchen for a soaked trencher and bits of cheese, she refused to give me as much as an eggshell. I was shocked, and then saw tears flowing down her cheeks. When I asked her the reason, she said that Prioress Ursell had forbidden any in the kitchen to give me food, no matter why I claimed to need it. Clearly the cook would have chosen otherwise, but she was bound to obey her superior. I did not argue.”
“What a strange command for the prioress to give. We knew Father Vincent had condemned the child, but I wonder what cause Prioress Ursell has to sentence Gracia to death?”
“The tale grows darker. Next I went to the innkeeper for scraps. He also refused me and explained that Father Vincent had threatened him with hellfire if he gave me the food I asked. Unlike the nun from the Ryehill kitchen, he was more perplexed than grieved. I was tempted to explain that the priest was stricken with a hellish obsession, one he should have rejected, but I silenced myself in time. Dare I cast blame on anyone who bends to the command of one who claims to speak for God?”
Eleanor felt a moment’s discomfort. Had she not gone against a priest’s wishes, an act by a woman most would condemn? She straightened her back, reminding herself that she was a prioress in the Order of Fontevraud. As such, she was the earthly representative of the Queen of Heaven. Surely she had that right to oppose Father Vincent. And the Virgin was a mother, Eleanor decided, and must smile on her longing to save this child.
“Finally I said that Father Vincent must have his reasons for this warning, and I would require nothing that might put the innkeeper’s soul in danger.”
“Despite those words, I know you have not surrendered, Brother.” Eleanor looked around but saw no lurking shadows. “I believe you have found a way around this prohibition. Confess it. I shall most likely praise, not rebuke, you.”
“I fear I have acquired the sin of gluttony during this season of Lent, my lady. After the last meal, I worried that I would grow hungry before the next and slipped my small trencher into my sleeve to nibble upon later. I confess I also added bits of fish from the table.”
Eleanor put a hand to her cheek in mock horror, but her cheeks grew rosy with the effort not to laugh at her monk’s cleverness.
“But I did win the war against Satan. Soon after I left the refectory, I saw little Gracia. My conscience surrendered to virtue, and I gave her all that I had stolen.”
“And by that act of charity you have been cleansed of the vice of gluttony, Brother. I am sure Brother John will agree when you tell him of this after our return to Tyndal.” But her smile quickly faded as the sadness of the child’s life overwhelmed her. “Well done!” she whispered. “Unlike others in this priory, you have followed Our Lord’s commandments.”
“I wish my thievery had resulted in a happy ending to the tale.”
“I pray no one took the food from her.”
“Father Vincent saw to whom I gave the scraps, screamed at me to snatch the offering back from her hands, and rushed at us. I stood between him and the child so she might flee with her small meal. In a rage, he clutched my sleeve and pulled me toward the chapel. Since I did not want him to hurt the child, I did not resist, concluding that it was better to suffer his rebukes than allow him to harm Gracia by word or deed.”
“That was both compassionate and wise.”
“Once we were in private, he accused me of consorting with wicked daughters of Eve, disobeying prohibitions meant to preserve my vow of chastity, and being so filled with evil pride that I would not listen to the wise counsel he gave me in God’s name.”
Eleanor started to protest but fell silent. Her face grew hot with anger over both the treatment of the child and the unjust accusations suffered by her monk.
“Once again, he demanded that I obey him in this matter of Gracia and remain in the chapel to pray, as he would expect any penitent pilgrim to do. If I longed to visit other shrines, I should do so only in his company. Were I to continue to disregard his instruction, he vowed to report my wickedness to Rome, saying that I was unchaste, disobedient, and showed signs of being the minion of Satan instead of any servant of God.”
Eleanor stiffened. “Circumventing my authority in this matter is disdainful enough. To ignore the right of our Abbess Isabeau d’Avoir to render judgment in any complaint is arrogant beyond comprehension.”
He bowed his head. “I told him that, my lady.” Thomas was not fooled by her calm tone. He noted the whiteness of her knuckles as she gripped her hands together.
“And his reply?”
“That you must be blinded by the Devil since you had not put a stop to my wicked deeds.” Thomas wondered if he was imagining the growing warmth of the air surrounding them. If not, the cause must be the fire of Prioress Eleanor’s now evident rage. “As for our abbess at the mother house in Anjou, he was sure she would understand a priest’s right to go directly to Rome with such a grave matter.” He had rephrased the priest’s actual remark which suggested more strongly that men would always have authority over women in crucial spiritual issues.
“Being descendants of Adam and Eve, we all require guidance to avoid mortal sin,” she said after a palpable moment of silence. “That includes Father Vincent.” Her eyes narrowed.
Thomas prayed he would never commit a crime worthy of suffering the effects of her profound outrage. A little voice hidden deep within him expressed delight that this priest had.
She glanced heavenward and sighed. “But in order for me to conclude whether or not he has any merit in his accusations…”
“Fear not, Brother. I find no fault in anything you have done.” A brief smile appeared as she overcame her anger. “Indeed, this ignorant man is unaware that our founder, Robert of Arbrissel, brought many magdalenes to a chaste life by walking boldly into brothels where he preached most gently to the women there. His great virtue was his armor, and he had no cause to be afraid of temptation. If Father Vincent fears someone he denounces as a whore, either his faith is weak or his body suffers from temptations he hopes will never be known.”
The rumor that he might have been a nun’s lover remained unspoken in the silence of the chapel.
She looked toward the door of the shrine. “I must meet this child, Gracia, who is surrounded by such controversy before she has even reached womanhood. Do you know where to find her so that I may pose questions and determine why she has been so condemned? Like you, I doubt her part in the coupling was willful. Even if it were, God is always merciful if the heart longs for it, but if the sin was forced upon her, we must offer great comfort.”
Now understanding her intent, Thomas was relieved. “We can find her, my lady. She often begs near the inn close by and in quieter places when she must avoid those who wish her ill.”
“Then Father Vincent shall denounce us both for seeking the company of one he deems beyond salvation. Let him go to Rome, if he is so unwise. There he will be revealed as the heartless fool he is. I stand by our founder’s teaching and example. All manner of mortals must be offered God’s love, but most especially children.” She looked up at him and smiled. “As for my ability to recognize wise counsel, Brother, I am firm in choosing yours over that of this feckless priest. Have no doubt about it.”
Murmuring gratitude, he bowed.
Prioress Eleanor then walked toward a cluster of women who had braved the muddy road to pray here. They now rose and stood, hands clasped and eyes lowered, before the altar.
With affectionate pride, Thomas watched his prioress approach the women. Pride might be a sin, but he suspected this was one of the few times God would not condemn it.
When he had first arrived at Tyndal Priory, unmanned by abuse and mad with sorrow, he concluded that the decision to put him under a woman’s rule was meant to continue his humiliation. He might have found an older woman with knowledge of the world more acceptable, having been raised by such a person, but this tiny prioress was young and convent-reared.
Wretched though he was, but having no choice in the place of his exile, he had managed to retain enough wit to obey her as required. And so he had learned how wrong he had been to doubt her. Some men, both secular and religious, might often look askance at the hierarchy within the Order of Fontevraud, but Thomas had found the blessing of calm in the curse of women’s rule.
The prioress was speaking softly to one woman with a solemn expression and sobering years. Then the woman bowed, pleasure briefly sparkling in her eyes, and she accompanied Eleanor back to where Thomas stood.
Now that the Prioress of Tyndal had the attendance proper for both her vocation and rank, the three walked into the street and sought the girl accused of greater sin than any child ought to own.
Gracia, however, proved too elusive to find.
Master Durant was not pleased. His visit to a lay brother at Walsingham Priory had proven no more useful for his purpose than the discussion with Master Larcher. As he approached the inn, he was met with a sight that troubled him even more.
Prioress Eleanor and Brother Thomas were engaged in earnest conversations with several men and women, both townspeople and strangers on pilgrimage. How odd for a monk and prioress to be so occupied, he thought.
Although he knew he should discover their purpose, he concluded it would be unwise to openly sate his curiosity. Inquisitiveness was a failing common to all mortals, and satisfying his would not bring him undue attention, but he did not want to be questioned himself, lest their interests touch upon things he had no wish to discuss.
Circling the outside of the crowd, he entered the inn as quickly as possible to avoid notice. His decision proved wise, for he soon learned much from the innkeeper without endangering himself.
Most of the inn’s patrons had gone to the shrines. The remaining few stood in the doorway and watched the activity in the road. Durant sat on a bench some distance from the door and ordered wine. He was hungry, and the serving woman went to the innkeeper to ask if the Lenten meal was ready.
The innkeeper walked over to the wine merchant. “I can offer you a root vegetable stew now,” he said with an apologetic tone, “but the fish is not yet roasted. I don’t like to serve it cold or overcooked, and the midday meal is some time off for most, in particular those who are worshipping at the Holy House.”
Durant smiled and accepted the kind offer of stew, then expressed his appreciation of the man’s concern over the quality of the fare he offered. Gesturing at the wine, one of the innkeeper’s best, the merchant asked if he would join him in a cup.
The man agreed with enthusiasm. Finding a mazer, he slid onto the bench opposite, poured himself a generous amount, and asked, “Did you learn any news from those outside?” Sipping the vintage, he briefly closed his eyes with pleasure.
The steaming bowl arrived. With a sigh of satisfaction, Durant breathed in the warm scent of spices. “I was curious but confess I was too eager for some of your good fare to tarry long enough to find out.” Taking a bite of the fragrant root vegetable stew, he nodded with unfeigned delight. “Someone knows a good spice merchant,” he said with a grin, then asked, “What started this commotion in the street?”
“The prioress and monk from Tyndal Priory near the North Sea seek the child named Gracia who often begs outside the inn door.”
Durant widened his eyes in amazement, then summoned the serving woman to bring another small jug of the same wine. When she did, he poured more into the innkeeper’s cup. “Are they hoping to rescue her soul?” He asked the question with a pilgrim’s eagerness.
The man’s eyes were sparkling from the wine, and he took another long, appreciative swallow. “I can think of no other reason they would want to speak with her.” He shook his head sadly. “It is well if they do, for they seem like gentle folk. Our Father Vincent hurls curses at her as well as stones.”
“A child, you say? What evil has she done to warrant such harshness?”
The innkeeper shrugged. “The priest calls her a whore. There are rumors she has paid for food with her body, and perhaps that is true. I never saw her lure men but do not follow her when she leaves here. To my knowledge, all she does is sit quietly outside my inn with her hand outstretched. I pity her and let the girl be, most of the time.”
“Has she no kin or does she beg for them as well?” The wine merchant took another bite and savored it with a sip of wine.
“Her family was poor, but not beggars, and all but the girl died with last summer’s tragic fever. She has no one to take her in. The nuns of Ryehill struggle enough to feed themselves, and they hire no servants. The monks of Walsingham Priory are occupied with pilgrims and the tending of the sacred sites. They have no place for a girl.”
“No one cares for orphans in Walsingham? That is most unusual.”
“That fever killed many. The merchants have given shelter to their own so their charity is stretched thin. The religious have few scraps to offer compared to the number of mouths open for bread. Some poor boys with strong backs were taken in by Walsingham Priory to work, but most of the poor children became beggars and many of those died in the last winter.”
Durant sipped his wine. “Yet she lived. Does she do so well at begging?”
“She’s clever and must find places to stay warm.” He bent his head toward the stables. “I suspect the groom lets her sleep in the straw. He thinks I do not know, and I let him believe it. But she won’t live much longer even if she has gone as feral as a cat.” His expression darkened. “Most girls in her situation do sell themselves to men. I might have found some place for her here, but I have hired all I can of others whose families have died. Now that she has been accused of whoredom, I dare not or I would lose custom from pilgrims.” He bent his head toward Ryehill. “The nuns know I do not countenance the vice, and they send travelers here with that understanding.”
Durant lifted the jug and refilled the man’s cup. “Father Vincent must have cause to accuse her.”
“He claims he caught her lying with a merchant in that chapel where he houses his new relic.”
“A fine acquisition of which he is rightly proud. I can understand why he was angered over such a sin committed there.”
The innkeeper snorted. “There is a tale about that relic, but the priest would not be happy if he heard it.”
Durant sipped his wine and winked. “You might tell me before I leave Walsingham. I swear to take the story far from the ears of townsmen.” He grinned and then said, “I hope the merchant of whom you speak was not Master Larcher. I had some pleasant conversation with him.”
The innkeeper leaned forward and murmured, “I won’t mention the guilty man’s name, but he was not the badge craftsman. That one was too busy swyving a nun.”
Swallowing a gasp of shock, Durant let his spoon fall into the bowl of stew.
The innkeeper’s reddish face deepened in color, and he quickly changed the subject. “I take you for a kind man, Master. If you will, give the child a coin. She’s never caused trouble outside our door and is thin as Death. Even if the priest is right and she has gone down the Devil’s road, I would rather she find God’s forgiveness and live.”
Someone called to the innkeeper from across the room, begging his attention. He downed what was left in his mazer, promised to tell the tale about the relic to the merchant later, and went to speak with the man who had summoned him.
Durant slowly finished his meal alone, as he preferred it. Turning pensive, he considered what he had learned, drank a final cup of wine, and climbed the steps to his room.
There he opened his shutters, stood to one side where he might remain out of easy sight, and looked down on the activity below.