Authors: A Personal Devil
The woman was screaming again. Sabina
cocked her head to listen better, but even her keen hearing could not make out words through
the thick walls and floor. After a moment she shuddered, stood, and reached for her staff. Moving it gently from left to right, she ascertained that the little girl who served and led her had not accidentally pushed any furniture into her path. The child forgot sometimes that even small displacements of a stool or a little table could trip up a blind woman. However the path to the door was clear, and Sabina moved to it swiftly and surely.
Her lips, full and normally curved into a gentle smile, thinned as she made out the shrieks of rage more clearly. Then her teeth set into a grimace of determination, and she lifted the latch and pulled the door open. This time she would be ready. If the woman came up to her chamber again to abuse and strike her as she had done during the past week, she would defend herself.
Sabina’s breath came quicker. She would do more than defend herself, she thought, changing her grip on the staff she held. She would put her staff into the woman’s neck. With any luck, she would crush the Adam’s apple and kill the foul bitch. If she missed her aim, at least she could push her attacker right off the small landing of the stair so she would fall into the workshop below. Even at the worst, that should injure her enough to keep her away for weeks. At best, she would break her neck and die.
No one would blame her—a blind woman feeling with her staff and accidentally striking a person she did not expect to be on her landing. And even if someone remembered that she might hold a grudge against the woman, who had made trouble for her, accused her of whoring so that she was almost arrested and punished, Sabina could hope that the good character given her by the journeyman and apprentices as well as by the master of the shop would save her from being accused of murder.
There was a crash, the journeyman cried out as did the voice of a girl child. Sabina gritted her teeth and held the staff steady to strike. The woman deserved to die! Sabina did not even care if she were accused of murder, not even if she were hanged for it. She would at least have freed her lover from the terrible succubus that was sucking out his life, reviling him, blaming him, threatening him—giving him no peace.
The shrieking stopped. Sabina heard footsteps, heard the woman shout one last threat. She gripped her staff more firmly.
“Whore!” Sir Bellamy of Itchen bellowed, his fair skin crimson with rage.
Magdalene la Bâtarde, whoremistress of the Old Priory Guesthouse looked up at him, completely unmoved, then uttered a small exasperated sigh.
“Yes,” she agreed. “I am a whore. I have been telling you so since the day we met.”
“You swore to me you had retired from that work.”
Magdalene sighed again. “I did not swear. I said I took no pleasure in making the beast with two backs, and that is true, but I was and am a whore. You know quite well my reasons for taking the man’s five pence. We are a woman short since Sabina took Master Mainard’s offer and became his leman. I cannot turn away the men accustomed to her service. I run a business and I must pay an exorbitant rent. I need the money.”
For a moment Bell could not speak. He stared down into her exquisitely beautiful face. He could not ever remember seeing a woman so beautiful. The skin was flawless, a translucent, creamy white; the large almond-shaped eyes, framed in golden-brown lashes long enough to touch the fine brown brows above them, were the faintly grayed blue of a misty morning. The nose was straight and fine, the lips full, perfectly shaped, a dark rose. He ground his teeth. Every word she said was true. And he could not bear it.
“Why did you let Sabina go, you fool,” Bell snarled.
Magdalene’s lips thinned. “First, because Sabina was not a slave. She had long since repaid what I gave her previous whoremistress to let her come to me. Second, and far more important, an unhappy and unwilling whore does not provide the kind of attention to the pleasure of a client for which the Old Priory Guesthouse charges the highest fees in Southwark—”
“So you are not an unhappy and unwilling whore,” Bell snapped.
The small sign of temper that Magdalene had displayed a few moments earlier disappeared. She shook her head and laughed. “No, indeed I am not. I feel a sense of virtue and righteousness over the two clients I entertained last week. The one—who really only likes strong and brutal men—can boast in public that the whoremistress herself satisfied him; and the other, who not long ago lost a well-beloved wife and has no chick at home, talked himself out of his loneliness and sorrow and perhaps, at last, is considering taking an indigent sister into his household. These men need my ‘services,’ such as they are, and I need their five pennies. That is the end of it. The matter is no longer open for discussion. Now, if you wish to dine with us, you will be welcome, but if you only wish to quarrel with me, I have better things to do.”
“So you intend to receive clients again?” Bell’s voice had dropped to normal, but it was flat and expressionless.
“Until I can find a replacement for Sabina, yes, I do.”
Magdalene’s voice was equally flat; it was also hard. Bell turned
on his heel and went out, slamming the front door behind him. Magdalene sighed. She was very fond of Bell. She would have liked to invite
into her bed for far more active entertainment than she had provided for either the young man who desired men or the old widower who needed company, but she did not dare. Bell, she feared, actually cared for her, and in her past experience that bred disaster.
Her husband had been so jealous that he threatened to mutilate her. Her first lover had been slain by the man who wished to keep her in his stead. Her second…. Magdalene shivered and pushed the memories away. An opening door drew her attention, and she smiled at the adorable face peering timidly around the edge.
“You can come out now, Ella. Bell’s gone and he did no harm. There
was no need for you to hide, love. Bell would not be angry at you, and you know his shouting mostly means nothing.”
Truly golden curls framed Ella’s face and hung below her narrow waist, shining against her dark bedrobe. She emerged cautiously into the corridor that ran from the large front room of the house to the back door. On either side of the corridor three doors broke the wall. Ella looked both ways; her eyes were blue as a clear sky—and just as empty; her nose was short and slightly tip-tilted, her full lips truly the red of ripe wild strawberries. She was still uneasy because things that did not worry Magdalene at all frightened her, and she peered for reassurance at a slightly older woman standing in the doorway across from hers.
Letice, as dark as Ella was fair, with hair hanging to her knees, black and straight as a sheet of silk, nodded at her sister whore and showed her two empty hands. Ella smiled and accepted that as assurance that there was nothing to fear, since Letice, being mute, could not speak any comfort. However, Ella knew that if Letice felt the shouting man to be a threat, she would have been holding a long, wickedly sharp, curved knife concealed along the side of her bedrobe.
Relieved of fear, Ella came into the common room with small bouncing steps. Her perfect lips pouted. There was a tiny frown between her fair brows. “But he might blame me,” she said to Magdalene. “In a way, it is my fault. I could take more clients, I am sure I could….”
“Not and give them all the time they want, love.”
“Well, I would not tell anyone to go. You are always scolding me for urging my friends to stay longer than they wish. This way, I would not do so.”
Magdalene restrained a sigh. Ella was sweet, good, and insatiable for coupling, but she had the mind of a five-year-old. She was not offering to take more clients, as another whore might, because she was greedy for more money. She was paid the same, no matter who or how many slept with her. She was offering out of her excessive eagerness to please everyone and her equally excessive urge for sex.
“Well, that is true, but what if one of your ‘friends,’ did not wish to leave you and another was already waiting and growing more and more impatient. You would not want to wound the one by thrusting him out, or to wound the other by seeming indifferent to his desire. No, loveling, it is better that each man knows his proper time and that there is as much time as he desires. Besides—” Magdalene grinned broadly “—you would not want Sir Bellamy to believe I was all his and demand that I leave the Old Priory Guesthouse.”
“Oh, you would not, would you?” Tears suddenly stood in Ella’s eyes, which were now round with fright, and the color faded from her cheeks.
“No, love, I would not,” Magdalene assured her, rising to her feet and hugging her. “I like my freedom and having my own money to spend far too well to yield it to any man ever again, even if I must take clients.”
At that point, Letice, who had followed Ella into the common room, touched Magdalene’s arm and pointed to the door beyond her own, which had been Sabina’s chamber; it was still closed. Letice sighed, shook her head, gestured at Ella, Magdalene, and herself, showed a closed fist, and then made a sharp slicing motion.
“We are tight together, and Hagar is not one of us?” Magdalene said, interpreting what Letice wished to say.
The dark beauty nodded, then shrugged and sighed again.
“Well, I agree with you, although I am grateful to you for finding her for us. Without her we would have had to turn many away, and some, like William’s men, were delighted to have a less gentle playfellow than Sabina. Still—”
She stopped as Letice began to gesture again, then stamped her foot and ran quickly back to her room. When she came out with a piece of slate and a stick of chalk, Magdalene nodded approval vigorously.
Several weeks before, a papal messenger had been murdered in the church of St. Mary Overy, just the other side of the wall behind the Old Priory Guesthouse. Magdalene and her women had been accused simply because they were whores and close by. To save them all, Magdalene had become involved in solving the crime, and Letice had had information they had almost failed to obtain because she could not speak. Both the agony of frustration Letice suffered and the danger of her being unable to tell a crucial fact decided Magdalene that Letice must learn to read and write. Magdalene herself had these skills, most uncommon for any woman and unheard of for a whore, because of a parsimonious archdeacon, who had taught her in lieu of payment for her services. Letice was a quick learner because of her desperate need to communicate and fingers nimble enough to move fragile wax seals from one document to another. In a few weeks’ time she had at least absorbed the rudiments.
On the slate was “no sta tu culd.”
Magdalene stared at Letice’s production, wondering for a moment whether interpreting what she wrote would be any easier than trying to make out her gestures, and then light dawned. “Hagar does not wish to stay because it is too cold.”
Letice beamed with joy, her huge dark eyes bright with satisfaction, with relief at having an outlet for the ideas locked within her. She embraced Magdalene with abandon. Magdalene returned the embrace heartily, but her throat was tight with sadness. Writing might help Letice, but reading the few words slowly inscribed on a slate could not really take the place of talking out a problem as she had done with Sabina. Sabina had been blind, but her ears and ability to feel emotion had been keen, and she was calm and sensible. Magdalene missed her more and more. And now she had probably driven Bell away, too. She bent her head to hide the misting of tears in her eyes and kissed Letice’s forehead.
Watching them, Ella smiled, pleased by the satisfaction Magdalene and Letice seemed to feel, even though she did not understand it. Then the little frown returned to mar the perfect smoothness of her brow. Slowly she walked to one of the stools grouped near the hearth, sat down, and reached into the basket beside it for a piece of embroidery.
“Hagar annoyed the man,” she said suddenly, then looked anxiously from Letice to Magdalene. “Is that telling tales?”
“Not about anything that annoys our clients,” Magdalene said firmly. “You know I do not want to hear about what you think Letice or Hagar do wrong about their dress or cleaning their chambers or that they handle knives or eat what you do not like, but anything that troubles a man she has lain with, you must tell me at once.”
“I do not mean to speak ill of Hagar, nor did she steal or be rude or unwelcoming,” Ella said, naming the greatest sins she knew. “It was only that he wanted her to do something I would gladly have done, and she did not.”
Since Hagar was accustomed to satisfying tastes far more exotic than any Magdalene permitted her clients, she doubted the refusal had been deliberate. She sighed. “Probably she did not understand him. She speaks barely ten words in French and no English at all and has not the smallest desire to learn.” She sighed again. “I will have to go out to comb the stews again and see if I can discover a girl who is pretty and not too hardened.”