The Chatter of the Maidens (9 page)

BOOK: The Chatter of the Maidens
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For a tiny instant, Helewise caught a flash of sympathy in Brother Saul’s eyes as he looked at her, as if to say, see what we have to put up with?
She made quite sure her expression was bland as she turned to Brother Firmin. ‘It is shocking and dreadful, Brother Firmin, I agree. Particularly for you who tend this precious place. However, it is not the first time that we have had violent death here, and I do not suppose it will be the last. For the sake of the dead man and, indeed, for all of us, our duty now is to find out what happened, and, with God’s help and if it is within our power, see that the perpetrator is brought to justice.’
‘Amen,’ Brother Saul murmured.
Brother Firmin crossed himself. Then he said, ‘You have Sir Josse d’Acquin in the infirmary, Abbess?’ She nodded. The same thought had occurred to her. ‘Might I suggest that you talk this over with him?’
Her faint irritation with the old monk vanished as she stared into his earnest, anxious eyes. ‘I shall indeed, provided he is strong enough.’ She rose to her feet and, courteously, the two brothers did the same. ‘Thank you both for your help,’ – she nodded to them – ‘and I will keep you informed.’
Brother Saul walked with her back up the path from the shrine to the Abbey. Neither of them spoke until he left her at the gate. Then he said quietly, ‘It’s a nasty business, Abbess Helewise. I shall pray for your success in resolving it quickly.’
It was, she thought as she went into the Abbey, a heartening thing to know that Brother Saul was praying for you.
Josse had reached the stage of convalescence when he was well enough no longer to sleep all day but not sufficiently strong to get out of bed. Not that he hadn’t tried to; contravening Sister Euphemia’s strict orders, he had made an attempt to walk to the latrine. And, just as she had predicted, had fainted and suffered the ignominy of being carried back to his bed.
He had made it clear that he needed someone to talk to, and, to his delight, the cheerful, bubbly Berthe had become his most frequent visitor. Not only did she keep him informed about the small – and not so small – happenings in the community; she also got him playing the most absurd, childish games. It did him good to hear her laugh, and even more good to laugh with her.
A couple of days ago, she had brought her sister Meriel with her. Studying the elder girl’s sad, pale face, Josse had felt a great sympathy for her. He tried to draw her into the conversation, asking her about her work – she was helping Sister Emanuel in the home where elderly nuns and monks were cared for – but the girl was monosyllabic in her answers.
Was
this
sister in accord with Alba’s order that they all be nuns? Josse wondered. Was her misery a reaction to what was in store for her? Poor lass, it cut deep, he thought, whatever sorrow she bore.
The girls had left his bedside together, Berthe leaning down to give him a kiss on the cheek – she smelt of fresh air – and Meriel giving him a little bow. But, as they left, Meriel turned and smiled at him. And suddenly he had seen what a beautiful young woman she was.
This morning, he had received no visitors. And there had been some sort of a commotion the previous night – someone had been brought into the infirmary very late, and he had heard snatches of whispered conversation.
Nobody had come to inform
him
what was going on. Nobody seemed to have time for so much as a ‘Good morning, Sir Josse, how are you feeling today and what would you like for breakfast?’ One of the least communicative of the nursing nuns had brought him a wooden tray of bread and one of the infirmarer’s hot, herbal concoctions. It was the one for healing wounds, and it tasted absolutely foul.
All in all, by noon, Josse was feeling thoroughly disgruntled.
When, a little later, Sister Beata came along to usher in a visitor, he was surprised and delighted to see that it was the Abbess.
‘Abbess Helewise, you must have detected my discontent, and been angel enough to respond,’ he began, smiling up at her.
But she neither smiled back nor replied in a similar vein; instead, coming to stand close beside him, she said in a low voice, ‘Sir Josse, trouble has come to us.’ And, briefly and succinctly, she proceeded to tell him all that had happened in the Abbey and the Vale over the past day and night.
His first question, when at last she stopped to draw breath, was, ‘Do you think that the two events – the death and the girl’s disappearance – are connected?’
‘That is what is vexing me most,’ the Abbess admitted. ‘But all that in truth links the two things is their timing. I fear that to treat them as connected may mislead us.’
‘Hmmm.’ Josse scratched his head with his left hand. ‘The dead man had an odd accent, did somebody say?’ The Abbess nodded. ‘And the sisters, Alba, Meriel and Berthe, come from some distance away?’
‘Indeed. Sister Alba mentioned having been in a community at Ely.’
‘Ely,’ Josse repeated. ‘In the Fenlands of East Anglia.’
‘Do men there speak with an odd accent?’ the Abbess asked.
Josse shrugged. ‘I have no idea. But it seems always true that people speak differently in different areas of a country – I know they do in France – so it is fair to say that yes, probably they do in East Anglia.’
‘But it is too little evidence from which to conclude that the dead man and Meriel were known to one another!’ the Abbess exclaimed.
‘I agree,’ Josse said. ‘Let us merely keep it in mind.’
The Abbess seemed to be engaged in her own thoughts; for some moments she did not share them with him. He kept his peace, knowing how irritating it could be when somebody interrupted a line of reasoning that was reluctant to resolve itself.
After a time, she raised her head and met his eyes. But what she said took him completely by surprise; in as normal a tone as if she were announcing that it was time for dinner, she said, ‘I shall have to go to Ely.’
‘What on earth for?’ His response was automatic; with a very little amount of thought, he could have answered his own question.
‘Because that is where they came from. Where Sister Alba came from, anyway. She was in a convent there.’
‘And you know which one?’ Josse had no idea how many religious establishments there were in the vicinity of Ely, but he seemed to remember having been told there were several; apparently the geographic setting of the Fens suited those in search of solitude and the contemplative life.
‘I shall find out,’ the Abbess said with dignity. ‘Then I shall be able to ask Sister Alba’s former superior all the many questions I have been puzzling over.’
‘And that will help you to find Meriel?’
‘Not necessarily,’ she admitted. ‘However, I sorely need to penetrate this screen of secrecy that exists around the girls.
They
won’t tell me the truth; Sister Alba because she has made up her mind not to, and Meriel and Berthe because they are very afraid of something or someone. Of Alba, for all I know.’ She gave an exasperated sigh. ‘I see only one way out of the dilemma, Sir Josse.’
‘Could someone not go for you?’ he asked gently. ‘It is a very long way and, on your own admission, the Abbey is in a time of trouble. Would you not do more good staying here?’
‘Perhaps. But, Sir Josse, I
cannot
send anybody else on such a delicate matter. Goodness, I should not really be speaking to
you
of this!’ She looked faintly shocked at her lapse in convent etiquette.
‘I understand,’ Josse whispered. ‘You are, in effect, doubting the word of a professed nun and, because your mind and your conscience cannot rest until you know the truth, you are going to have to go and check up on the tale you have been told. Yes?’
Dumbly she nodded.
What a problem, he thought, relaxing back on to his pillows. And she was right, he could see that – she could hardly despatch even one of her senior nuns to the superior of another convent to ask, did you have a nun called Alba here, and was she any good? I need to know what she told
you
of her background, because I’m quite sure she told me nothing but a pack of lies.
No. There were some tasks that only the commanding officer could do, and this looked like one of them.
He said, knowing what she would say, ‘Will you not wait for a week or so, and allow me to escort you?’
She gave him a smile of great sweetness. ‘No, Josse, I won’t. For one thing, if I were to agree to that, you would get up and set out before you were ready, and we might well end up back where we started. For another, I don’t believe I should wait at all. Meriel is missing, we know her to be in a very depressed state, and – well, the sooner I discover what lies behind this sorry affair, the sooner we may be able to help her. If, that is, we manage to find her,’ she added under her breath.
‘Now, then, no defeatist talk!’ he muttered back. He felt the bonds imposed by his sickness acutely just then, though, and it was hard to put any levity into his voice.
‘I shall ask at Alba’s convent if they know the whereabouts of the former family home,’ the Abbess was saying. ‘They ought at least to be able to supply the father’s name. I cannot imagine a convent in which a woman arrives with no background and no past.’
‘She did not give you her family name when she came here?’ Josse asked.
‘No, she merely said she had come from another convent. In Ely, as I said. And, before you ask, she provided no details of her sisters’ former lives either, other than to say they were recently orphaned.’
‘If I can’t be of any other help to you,’ Josse said – which in itself was a painful admission – ‘then may I make some suggestions about your journey? I am a not inexperienced traveller, as you know, and perhaps I may be able to ensure a bit of comfort for you on the road.’
She gave him another smile. ‘I was hoping that you would. Please, proceed. I’m listening.’
For some time after that, he went through a list of the preparations he would make for a journey from Kent to Ely. It was, he told her, a good time of year for travelling; the days were lengthening perceptibly, the weather was warm, and a long dry spell meant that the roads would be in a good state. Furthermore, April usually saw the start of the pilgrimage season; although this meant that wayside inns might be busy, that was compensated for by the fact that there was safety in numbers. You were far more likely to reach your destination when the roads were well peopled than as a solitary traveller; then, you were prey to thieves.
But, in any case, she should not, of course, go alone; he was adamant about that. ‘Could Brother Saul be spared?’ he asked. ‘I have always held his sense and his capability in high regard.’
‘So have I,’ she agreed. ‘I shall ask Brother Firmin in such a way that he has no choice but to say yes.’
‘You should take one other,’ Josse said. ‘Another lay brother. It might be best to get Saul to propose someone.’ A thought struck him. ‘Has the Abbey mounts for three?’
She frowned. ‘We have the cob, the pony and the mule,’ she said. ‘Although the mule is very old and weary. Brother Saul can ride the cob – he often does – and I suppose I could ride the pony.’
‘He’s only a small pony,’ Josse said.
‘Yes, but very strong.’ She gave him a sidelong glance. ‘I hope, Sir Josse, that you are not implying I would be too heavy a burden.’
She was a tall woman, and well built, and that was exactly what he had been implying. ‘Er – I – well, of course not, Abbess, it’s just that you have a long road to travel, and—’
Her face alight, she interrupted him. ‘Oh, what a fool I am! I had forgotten, but we
do
have another horse. A pale chestnut mare, a most beautiful animal, given into our care by—’ Her hand flew to her mouth and she stopped.
But she hadn’t needed to say. Josse knew as well as she did who had ridden a pale chestnut mare. Someone whose new life must surely make caring for an elegant, well-bred mare almost impossible. . . .
‘You have Joanna’s mare,’ he said tonelessly.
‘Yes,’ the Abbess said quietly. ‘She left her with us. We promised to take care of her – she is called Honey, by the way – and we are allowed to ride her in exchange for her keep.’
‘I see,’ Josse murmured. But he was hardly listening. He was thinking of Joanna. With an effort, he made himself attend once more to the Abbess.
‘. . . can’t think of a lay brother small enough to ride the pony, which means we shall still be a mount short, unless we take the mule,’ she was saying.
‘Take Horace,’ he said. ‘He’s at New Winnowlands, but someone can be sent to fetch him.
I’m
not using him,’ he added bitterly.
‘Horace,’ the Abbess breathed. ‘Oh, Sir Josse, are you sure? Such a valuable horse, and so
big
!’
‘Get Saul to find a man who’s a good rider,’ Josse said. Suddenly he was weary of talking. Weary of being in pain, weary of being a prisoner in his bed when he wanted to be out in the fresh air, busy with myriad things that would take his mind off his memories.
The Abbess must have understood, for she leaned over him, put a gentle hand on his forehead and said softly, ‘We will speak again before I depart; I cannot go until I have sought and obtained permission from the Archbishop. But for now, dear Sir Josse, rest. Sleep, if you can.’ She hesitated as if not quite sure whether she should go on. Then, deciding, she whispered, ‘You
will
get better. That I know.’
Then she was gone, leaving him wondering sleepily whether she had referred to his wounded arm or his sore heart.
Probably both.
He woke later from a fretful dream. Something was worrying him, some connection he should have made and hadn’t . . . Something important, to do with the Abbess and her quest. . . .
No. It had gone. He went back to sleep, and this time slept so deeply that, when next he woke, whatever it was that had been troubling him had disappeared without trace.
BOOK: The Chatter of the Maidens
10.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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