Read an Excerpt
In the tender green time of April, Katherine set forth at last upon her journey with the two nuns and the royal messenger.
The invisible sun had scarcely risen as they quitted the little convent of Sheppey, and guiding the horses westward towards the Kentish mainland, rode gingerly down the steep hill. Dripping dun clouds obscured the minster tower behind them and thick mists blew in from the North Sea.
The bell began tolling for Prime and Katherine heard through its familiar clangor, the bang of the priory’s gate and the faint voice of the little wicket nun calling again through the mist, “Adieu dear Katherine, adieu.”
“Farewell, Dame Barbara, God be with you,” Katherine answered, hoping that her tone was not too gay. She had tried to make herself feel the requisite doleful pang at parting from this convent where she had spent over five years, but her heart would not obey. It bubbled, instead, with excited anticipation.
She had been a puny child when the good Queen had sent her to Sheppey Priory as a boarder, and now she was a marriageable woman, for she would be sixteen next October sometime after Michaelmas. And she had had her fill of the cloisters and the hovering nuns, kindly as most of them were. She was sick of the inexorable bell that ruled their lives, tolling for Matins and Lauds and then every three hours throughout the day until Compline at eight o’clock and bed. She was sick of lessons and plain song, and the subdued admonishing murmurs of women.
No matter how dutiful one tried to feel, it was impossible to be sad at leaving this behind, not when the blood ran hot and rich in the veins, and when out in the world there were all the untried beckoning enchantments: dancing, sensuous music, merriment—and love.
Now at last it had come, the summons to court, when Katherine had almost given up hope, and it seemed that the Queen had totally forgotten her early interest in the little orphan. Perhaps the Queen had forgotten but at least Philippa had not. Katherine thought of the coming meeting with the sister whom she had not seen in all these years and gave a sudden bounce of joy, which the old white horse instantly resented. He stumbled in a muddy rut, recovered himself, then stood stock still, his long lips thrust out.
The Prioress Godeleva resented the bounce too, for Katherine was riding pillion behind the prioress.
“What possessed you to jump like that, Katherine!” snapped Godeleva over her shoulder, while she flapped the reins and tried to induce the horse to move. “Bayard hates double weight, and you’re not a child to play the fool. I thought we’d trained you better.” She flapped the reins again futilely.
“Forgive me, Reverend Mother,” said Katherine reddening.
Dame Cicily, the other nun, came fluttering up to them crying, “Oh dear, oh dear, Reverend Mother, what’s the matter?” She was riding a decrepit nag borrowed from the convent’s bailiff and had perforce dropped behind.
“As you see,” said the prioress coldly, digging her heels into the horse’s belly and slapping his neck with her small white hand, “Bayard is balking.”
Dame Cicily nodded mournfully. “I knew there’d be bad luck when Dame Joanna killed that spider this morning—Lord, Lord, whatever shall we do?” she stared owl-eyed at her superior. Dame Cicily was afraid of horses and moreover had been in such a quiver since the prioress’s choice of her as companion on this journey into the world that her wits were quite addled. “Maybe if we pray to Saint Botolph?” she wailed, clasping her hands. But the horse would not budge.
Long Will Finch, the Queen’s messenger, who had been riding on ahead and singing a bawdy song to himself, suddenly noticed the silence behind him. He turned his roan and peering through the mists came back to investigate. “God’s nails—” he muttered when he saw the trouble, “these holy old hens should stay in cloister. We’ll not reach Windsor till Whitsun at this rate.”
He dismounted, hit Bayard a powerful swat on the rump with the flat of his dagger while savagely jerking the bridle. The horse gave an indignant snort but he jumped forward and Katherine clung to the prioress’s plump waist.
“You need a switch, Reverend Mother,” said Long Will, breaking a branch from a hazel bush and handing it to Godeleva.
The prioress inclined her head in gracious thanks. She was the daughter of a Saxon knight, proud of her lineage, and most anxious that the royal messenger should not think them ill-bred for all that they came from such an insignificant convent.
Long Will was not thinking of the prioress, he was looking at Katherine. Sunlight, now glinting through the fog which hung above the Swale, gave him his first good view of her. A tasty wench, he thought, cocking a practiced eye at the face beneath the green hood.
He noted large gray eyes fringed by dark lashes; and two glossy burnished braids, near thick as his wrist, and so long that they swung against the horse’s croup, while the loose tendrils, dark red as an autumn oak leaf, clung to a broad white forehead. That one wouldn’t have to pluck back her hair to broaden her brow like the court ladies. Nor would she have to rub lead paste on her face. The girl’s skin was milky smooth with a rose flush on the cheekbones—and no blemishes. Her full mouth was wider than the pouting lips admired at court, yet it betokened a lustiness any man would find challenging, as did the flare of her nostrils and the cleft in her round chin.
She’d be a fine wench for bed-sport, once she’d learned a bit, Long Will thought, as he walked along beside the white cob and stared at Katherine. Ay—she was exceeding fair, though as yet somewhat thin and small-bosomed. If only her teeth were good. Missing or rotted teeth spoiled many a beauty. He determined to make her smile.
“Have ye visited the fine new castle, damoiselle?” he asked pointing to the north where the crenelated towers of Queenborough loomed against the clearing sky.
“Certainly not,” cut in the prioress. “I’ve permitted none of my house to go near the castle, swarming as it has been with lecherous men—workmen and soldiers—and but three miles from the convent.”
“To be sure, Reverend Mother,” said Long Will grinning, “holy flocks must be guarded, but I thought the Damoiselle Roet being a secular, perhaps she’d wandered that way —” He winked at Katherine but the girl lowered her eyes as she had been taught. She was thinking that this Will Finch’s bold stare was a little like that of the young squire who had come to the convent to see her a year ago. It made one feel warm and embarrassed but not unpleasantly so. The only other men she had ever talked to, the old bailiff and an even older convent priest, had no such look in their eyes.
“Then ye didn’t see the great Duke of Lancaster when he came himself to inspect the building last year?” persisted the messenger. “A pity. He’s the most knightly and many think handsomest too of our King’s sons, except, to be sure Edward, Prince of Wales, God gi’ him grace.”
Katherine was not interested in the Duke of Lancaster, but there was a question she ached to ask. So she leaned forward whispering, “May I speak, Reverend Mother?” and peered around to see that the prioress’s round face was again bland beneath the fluted white wimple. Godeleva nodded, torn between the impropriety of gossiping with a servant, albeit a royal one, and her own curiosity about what would await them at Windsor.
Katherine turned to Long Will. “Do you perhaps know my sister, Philippa de Roet? She’s one of the Queen’s damoiselles.”
“By cock’s bones—of course I do,” said Long Will. “Since it was she gave me the Queen’s purse and sent me on this trip.”
“What’s she like, then now?” asked Katherine timidly.
“Small, dark and plump as a woodcock,” said Long Will. “They call her La Picarde. She’s a bustling little body who has charge of the pantry maids and rules them stoutly. She’s not light-minded as some of the Queen’s ladies, by God!”
“That sounds like Philippa,” said Katherine, smiling at last. “She ruled me stoutly enough when we were children.”
“In truth you aren’t much alike,” cried Long Will, having just discovered that when she smiled Katherine was the fairest maid he had ever seen. Her teeth were small and white as daisy petals, her smile had a radiant charm, and yet a wistfulness that would melt your heart. It was a sad pity she could hope for no great marriage. No doubt the Queen had some one of her yeomen in mind or a squire. Long Will knew little of the background for his mission to the little Kentish priory except that it was like a dozen others he had performed for Queen Philippa, whose heart and charities were large. She always concerned herself with orphaned children, particularly those, like the de Roet girls, whose fathers had been her own countrymen.
“Are many of the royal family now at Windsor?” asked Katherine presently. She thought of them as clothed in misty glitter, King Edward and Queen Philippa, and their princely sons and daughters; vague names seldom heard at Sheppey where the talk was all of the proper observance of saints’ days, the shiftlessness of the priory serfs or the recurrent fits, perhaps divinely inspired, which afflicted one of the novices.
“Most of ’em’ll be at Windsor for the Saint George Day’s feasting and jousting,” said Long Will, “but I don’t know just which ones. They all move so much from place to place, and now there’s this new talk o’ war.”
“War?” cried the prioress sharply. “But we’ve been at peace with France these six years.” Blessed Mary—not war again, she thought, knowing from bitter experience how war increased her administrative problems. Labor was scarce and grudging enough on the manor as it was. After the terrible Black Death in ’forty-eight there had been no strong serfs left at all to do the work. The nuns had labored in the fields themselves—those of them that survived the plague—and Sheppey had nearly gone under. Godeleva had been a novice then, and too young to realize the stark anxieties of her superiors. But they had struggled through. A new generation of serfs had grown up, though not the gentle biddable types of the old days, for these new ones flocked off to war by preference instead of waiting to be called. It had been so before the Peace of Bretigny, it would be so again if war came and no one left to labor except feeble old men and gloomy women.
“Not war with France, but with Castile, I hear,” answered Long Will. “The Prince o’ Wales, God gi’ him grace, interests himself in the matter at Bordeaux.” Suddenly bored with the women and his mission, Long Will spurred his horse and rode on ahead cursing the plodding priory nags. If war came he’d not be sent on silly errands like this—herding virgins through the countryside.
“Come up, come up, my reverend dames,” he called back impatiently turning in his saddle. “I see the ferry waiting.”
Long Will’s patience was further tried by the crossing of the Swale. Bayard balked again, refusing for half an hour either to swim or board the ferry. Dame Cicily, who was even more afraid of water than she was of horses, managed to slip off the foot plank and was hauled out weeping, her black robes soaked and clinging to her skinny legs. And the ferryman, seeing the royal badge on Long Will’s tunic, naturally tried to extort double fares. The Queen was thrifty like all Flemings and the purse she had provided for the journey would barely cover expenses so that the messenger had to subdue the ferryman with a rough and practiced tongue.
Katherine sat on a mossy stone on the farther bank of the Swale and listened dreamily to a spate of oaths she had not known existed while waiting for their guide to finish with Bayard and the ferryman. She was happy to be on the mainland at last, and a little frightened too. The April sun shone warm on her back, blackbirds sang in a wild cherry tree, and from over the hill on the road to London she heard the confused baa-ing of sheep and the tinkle of the bell-wether.
She gazed across the Swale at the Isle of Sheppey where she had spent most of her conscious years. She could see the battlements of the unfinished castle but not the priory’s squat little minster, nor hear the bell which must now be calling the nuns to Tierce, and she thought of the first day she had heard that bell over five years ago when she had been delivered at the convent from a cart, along with a side of beef and a half a ton of wine sent as gifts to Sheppey by the Queen. The Queen sent three gold nobles as well for Katherine’s keep and Prioress Godeleva had been jubilant.
True, Katherine was neither a royal ward nor a well-dowered novice, nor even nobly born; she was simply a child, like many others, for whom the motherly Queen felt responsibility; but the prioress had been elated by this unexpected mark of royal interest, for Sheppey had never before been so honored. Usually it was large aristocratic foundations like Barking or Amesbury that were chosen.
It was because of Queenborough Castle, to be rebuilt on an old Saxon stronghold to guard the Thames, that the Queen had thought of the near-by priory—thought of it, and then apparently forgotten all about it again.
Katherine grew tall and strong, she had soon eaten up the gold nobles, and become an expense to the convent, but nothing more came from the Queen or from Philippa, Katherine’s sister, except the young squire’s message last year.
Royal personages, however kind, may be forgetful, Katherine had learned early, yet the Queen had said that she would never fail in remembrance of her compatriots and especially one who died in battle, as Katherine’s father had.
Payn de Roet came from Hainault, the Queen’s wealthy little Netherlands country, but he had married a French girl from Picardy who had died in childbed. After her death Payn had left his two little daughters with their grandparents when he followed the Queen to England. Payn had been a dashing, handsome man inclined to dress above his station and thus well fitting his nickname of Paon, the peacock.
He found favor with King Edward, who appointed him one of the royal heralds—King-of-Arms to represent the province of Guienne—then finally so distinguished himself fighting in France just before the peace in 1360 that King Edward had knighted him on the field, along with many other deserving soldiers.
Sir Payn did not live long enough to enjoy either his knighthood or the truce, for a Norman arrow pierced his lungs during a skirmish outside the walls of Paris, and he expired with an anguished prayer for the future of his two little daughters in Picardy.
Queen Philippa heard of this later when the King returned to England, and was saddened. Soon she had occasion to send a messenger across the Channel with letters to Bruges and she entrusted him with various other commissions along the way.
So the messenger stopped off at the farm in Picardy and found that Sir Payn’s family was indeed desperate for help. The plague, as it returned that winter for its second great smiting, had recently struck the household. The grandparents had died of it and all the servants. No one was left but Payn’s two small daughters, and one, the younger, had been stricken too but miraculously recovered, though she continued to ail. They were being reluctantly tended by a neighbor.
These little girls were aged thirteen and ten. The elder was named Philippa, for the queen who had been her father’s patroness, and the younger was Katherine. Finding them thus completely orphaned, and knowing the Queen’s good heart, the messenger carried the children back to England with him on his return trip.
Of this voyage across the Channel and her arrival in a foreign country, or of the jolting ride through pouring rain to the royal palace at Eltham, and eventual reception by the Queen, Katherine remembered almost nothing. For she had been ill the whole time with a wasting fever and bloody flux.
Katherine had dim memory of a kind fat face topped by a gold circlet, and of a thick comfortable voice speaking to her first in Flemish then French, but though her sister Philippa admonished her sharply to answer the Queen, Katherine could not, and she remembered nothing else.
The Queen had had her carried to a forester’s cottage where the goodwife, skilled with herbs, had managed to nurse the child back to health. By that time the Queen had moved to her favorite palace of Woodstock and taken little Philippa with her in her household, and when reminded that Katherine had most surprisingly recovered, she sent letters arranging for the child’s admission at Sheppey.
How unhappy I was, and how homesick, the last time I crossed this river, thought Katherine, looking clown at the muddy waters of the Swale.
“Viens, Katrine—depeches-toi!” called the prioress from the road, preparing to hoist herself onto the white horse. Katherine jumped up. The prioress used French only in moments of ceremony or admonition and she spoke it with a flat Kentish twang, so that Katherine had not understood one word when she first came to the convent, but now this uncouth French was as familiar to her as the English the nuns always spoke among themselves.
Long Will, having subdued both Bayard and the ferryman, was waiting for them to start again.
Katherine jumped up behind Godeleva, and the little procession jogged off. Dame Cicily at the rear was still sniffling and shivering, and at intervals she called on St. Sexburga, the patroness of their convent, to protect her from more such mishaps. But the sun grew warmer, the muddy road dried, the soft Kentish air was bright with fragrance and bird song, and when they met a flock of sheep coming towards them—a very good omen—Dame Cicily cheered up and began to look about her at the changing countryside.
Long Will was singing again—a rippling ballad of alewives and cuckoldry, the words fortunately not quite audible to his charges. Even the prioress expanded under the rare pleasure of going on a journey, and said to Katherine, “Oh, child, may Saint Mary and our Blessed Lord forgive me, and They know I would never leave my convent except for such very good reason, but it is pleasant to be out in the world.”
“Oh it is, it is, dear Mother!”
Katherine, startled by this human confession, looked affectionately down at the small black-covered head in front of her. The prioress had relaxed austerity for once and made some concessions to feminine vanity. Her wimple was glossily starched, she had directed that Dame Joanna, the chambress, refurbish the black cloak and rub cinnamon into the folds to stifle the inevitable odor of mildew and sweat. Her silver signet ring, badge of office, had been burnished with wood ash until it twinkled like a star on her plump white forefinger, and she had made the sacrist restring her finest coral rosary with gold thread.
Godeleva usually obeyed the Benedictine rule as well as anyone, but there are practical considerations too. On this trip to court, it should be possible to pick up a well-dowered novice for Sheppey, and those who live in the world are regrettably apt to be influenced by appearance. Parents did not like to confide their daughters to impoverished provincial houses, and the competition was strong, since there were in England some hundred and forty convents besides Sheppey, and all of them anxious for benefices.
The prioress twisted around to look at her charge, and thought that Katherine would do Sheppey credit. The girl had grown beautiful. That fact the convent perhaps could not lay claim to, except that they had obviously fed her well; but her gentle manners, her daintiness in eating—these would please the Queen as much as Katherine’s education might startle her. Katherine could spin, embroider and brew simples, of course; she could sing plain chant with the nuns, and indeed had a pure golden voice so natural and rich that the novice-mistress frequently had to remind her to intone low through her nose, as was seemly. But more than that, Katherine could read both French and English because “Sir” Osbert, the nuns’ priest, had taken the pains to teach her, averring that she was twice as quick to learn as any of the novices. He had also taught her a little astrology and the use of the abacus, somewhat to the prioress’s disapproval. Useless learning is a snare of the devil’s and last year, when Katherine’s beauty became obvious, Godeleva had had moments of worry about “Sir” Osbert’s zeal for teaching. She had repented of her shameful doubts, however; the priest was a man, to be sure, but a very old one, and the watchful prioress eventually decided that he found in the hours he spent teaching Katherine only intellectual interest, and the alleviation of boredom.
“Drop your chin and straighten your back, child, as we’ve taught you,” said the prioress, arranging the folds of her own habit, which had become tangled in the stirrups.
Katherine obeyed as well as she could on Bayard’s jiggling rump, then leaned forward eagerly. “Oh, look, Reverend Mother—a spire over there and a castle and houses. Oh, is it London?”
Long Will heard this and let out a roar of laughter. “No more London than a rush dip is the sun. Yon’s only Rochester.”
Katherine blushed and said nothing more, but Rochester seemed to her a very great city. Besides the high spire there were at least a hundred chimneys pricking the sky above the massive encircling wall.
“They’ve a passable ordinary here, madam,” said Long Will riding back to the prioress. “My gullet’s dry, my belly empty as a tabor, and yours, too, very like. We’ll dine at the Three Crowns?”
The prioress shook her head. “Not seemly,” she said, pursing her lips. “We will go to the abbey guest house. One of my nuns, Dame Alicia, is cousin-german to the abbot.”
Long Will and Katherine were much disappointed; Long Will because he liked the ale and the serving maid at the Three Crowns, Katherine because she had had quite enough of religious houses and longed to see what a tavern was like; but the little prioress was accustomed to rule. Will grumpily led the way through the city gates towards the abbey.