Gisborne . . .
The abbey’s soaring barrel-vaulted roof and its handsome wooden pews should have sustained me but as I knelt for what seemed hours, my hands knotted together, no vestige of relief came. Only a biting cold that soon had me shivering. As well that I shiver, I thought. It approximated the incipient fear that was beginning to stir. How dangerous it would be to work in a house that would entertain the high-born of far and wide. Prudence, you place yourself in peril.
‘My child,’ a hand grasped my shoulder and I jumped. ‘You have been on your knees longer than it takes to ask God for assistance and I can feel you are as cold as ice. My abbey is a marvel of of construction but men forget that warmth is one of God’s blessings as well. Come with me.’
I turned to look at the woman who spoke and met steady grey eyes and a tranquil face of some age. By the white of her veil I knew her to be the Mother Superior, Beatrice of Locksley. ‘Thank you, Mother. I am a trifle chilled.
Later, in front of a pleasant fire and with bread, fine cheese and mulled wine in my belly, Mother Beatrice had inveigled my distress from me. My disgust of Sir Guy, my fear of incoming nobles, my desperate need for coin.
‘Prue, my child, we are not able to pay what Guy (I was surprised at the informal use of his name) has promised you, but you would be welcome to stay here and work in the gardens. The infirmarian needs help with the herbs, they have got away from her and she is so very busy here and in the village.’
I listened to the silence that is a crackling fire, the occasional swish as nuns entered the chamber and then left. There was order and calm and it sustained me like nothing else had for weeks.
But it was not part of my plan.
‘Reverend Mother, I thank you, but I must fulfill my obligations to Sir Guy. I have promised. When it is done, I shall leave. I will have enough coin to reach Wales. If I can travel with traders or pilgrims, I shall consider myself fortunate. My fear at the moment is my anger toward Gisborne. He never used . . .’
Fortunately my words were halted by the tolling of the Abbey bell.
‘Tis Matins and I must hasten.’ Mother Beatrice stood. ‘I can see you are exhausted and must not return to the manor this night. There is a spare cot in the dorter which you may use. One of the lay sisters will direct you and I would like it if you broke your fast with us in the morning. Perhaps you might attend Lauds and pray for guidance?’ Whilst Mother Superior couched this last as a question, I knew in fact it was a polite order and I thanked her as she glided away. Not long after, a lay sister called Matilda took me to the dorter. Although stone and severely plain, it had a glowing fire and was warm and even though no one else slept in the other cots, I cared not, wrapping myself in my cloak and the blankets provided and falling into a deep oblivion.
It was only moments later, I swear, and Matilda was shaking my shoulder. The room was dark, still and bitterly cold and her breath blew over me like a fog. ‘Lady, wake you. The bell for Lauds is ringing.’
I groaned and dragged on my kirtle, thrusting fingers through my hair and scrubbing at my scratchy eyes. As Matilda hurried me through the cloister, I spotted a fountain and crunched through the frost to rinse my face.
Nuns passed me in pairs, like shades, their feet soundless, their veils brushing my arms, their heads bent in presumed contemplation. Matilda led me into a small Lady Chapel and we sat with the other lay workers, all women, whilst the nuns seated themselves behind a carved screen and began the hymnal. Under any other circumstances, I would have been transported by the purity of the women’s voices but already I felt the familiar tug: Go, stay, go, stay.
I needed to be paid, that much was obvious. After that . . .
A ruckus had arisen at the Abbey doors and booted and spurred feet could be heard approaching the Lady Chapel. The portress jumped up from behind the screen and hastened to the Abbey proper and Mother Beatrice followed, pulling a further screen across the entrance to our chapel and sealing the nuns and lay sisters from view.
‘Where is she?’ I could not mistake the voice. ‘Is my housekeeper here? Answer me, Goddam it!’
‘Sir Guy!’ The Mother Superior’s voice lifted briefly and then lowered again. ‘How dare you raise your voice in God’s House and how dare you disturb the Sisters at Lauds. I must ask you to show respect and remove yourself.’
I could see his face in my mind, the effort of self-control. ‘Reverend Mother, at least tell me this. Is she here or must I drag the river or send searchers into the forest?’
‘She is here, sir. There is no need to be precipitate. She is safe within the Abbey confines and I expect she will return to the manor when she is ready.’
Oh Reverend Mother, thank you. I need that time.
Then tell her my guests arrive after mid-sun. If she wants to be paid in full, she must see their stay through to their departure on the morrow. If she does not return, she will receive nothing.’
‘That is not the act of a god-fearing man, Sir Guy. Has she not already ordered your house fit for princes?’
I heard a breath suck in and turned as Matilda whispered. ‘Mary, Mother of God, she’s a brave one.’ The Obedientary shushed us from her screen-concealed corner as Gisborne answered.
‘Half her pay then, Mother Beatrice.’
‘You may not be able to bargain with God so easily, my son. Now please depart the Abbey in the manner of the knight that you purport to be.’ Her tone slapped at his heels good and hard and I felt a smile blooming in the sunless cold of the Lady Chapel. ‘Go in peace, Sir Guy,’ she added.
He said nothing and she slid the screen open just enough to slip through. But nevertheless, his glance caught mine and for a moment, I felt the whole church stop breathing. But then he turned and as I dropped my head in relief, all I could hear were the jingling of his spurs and the sound of his boots on the Abbey paving as the Sisters’ voices sang the end of Lauds.