The Clerk's Tale

Margaret Frazer

The Clerk's Tale

Book 11 in the Sister Frevisse series, 2002

Author’s Note

The Middle Ages Come to Life… To Bring Us Murder.

The Dame Frevisse Medieval Mystery Series

To Leslie, who said,

“You can’t die. Who else will make me laugh the way you do?”

And I didn’t die, so here’s another book.

[B]ut God yeve hym meschaunce,

That is so undiscreet of governaunce

That jangleth whan he shoulde holde his pees.

– G. Chaucer, The Nun’s Priest’s Tale

Chapter 1

All in all it was a warm January, as Januarys went, this year of God’s grace 1446, with never a freeze nor snow after Twelfth Night, even at St. Hilary’s that was supposed to be a year’s coldest day and now it was coming on to St. Paul’s. The nights nipped and there were ice-rims to puddles and watering troughs more dawns than not but the days were only damp and gray, the world all heavy with rain and thaw rather than stiff with cold. In some sheltered places there was even grass beginning to green, as here in St. Mary’s infirmary garden where the little square of turf with the ash tree in its midst, the herb beds, and careful gravel paths were kept from the winds of the Chiltern Hills and the Berkshire Downs by nunnery buildings on three sides and on the fourth by a low turf-wall topped by a withy-woven fence.

It was a quiet place, meant not only for the growing of the infirmarian’s healing herbs but for those nuns who had been ill enough they must needs stay in the infirmary but were at last able to come out to sit or walk quietly on warmer, drier days than presently there were.

That it was a place where no man should be, a place meant for the healing of bodies, not their harm, made it doubly wrong for the man to be sprawled there on the grass beneath the ash tree’s bare branches.

Dead.

Master John Gruesby, on the graveled path a bare yard away, near enough that a single step forward would have let him touch him, did not make the step, but stood staring, unable to believe that it was true. The set, empty eyes. The death-grayed face. They weren’t enough to make it true. Nor the bright spread of blood… It wasn’t true.

But slowly he stepped backward from it, his gaze fixed as if somehow, even yet, there might somehow be life where there was plainly none. A single step. Then another. Beginning to believe it. Finally turning, stumbling into what he meant to be a run, unsteady shuffle though it was, his legs stiff with his unbelief, back toward the gate he had left open behind him, toward the passage away from the garden, into the stableyard where people would be. Heard himself cry out, though the voice was too shrill to be his own, “Help!” At last truly running, wanting someone else to come, to see, to make it true. “Help! Murder! Master Montfort’s been murdered!”

Old wisdom held that

A January spring Is worth no-thing and over the years Dame Frevisse had found that was mostly true. A mild January too often meant a bitter February, a cruel March, a late-come spring; but just now it meant the three and more days of riding had been less of a travail than it would have been in usual January weather, at least so far as bodily comfort went. For ease of going and any haste they might have wanted to make, no, it had not been good. The roads that could have been firm with frost had been soft with mud instead, laboring the horses’ going, and so it was only now at midday that their small company of riders was coming by the Thames road from Wallingford down into Goring, bound not for the Thames ferry crossing that made the town prosperous but for St. Mary’s nunnery and journey’s end.

Message had come two weeks ago to St. Frideswide’s priory that Sister Ysobel, a nun here, was far along in the slow dying of lung sickness and had asked leave to see her cousin Domina Elisabeth, prioress of St. Frideswide’s, before the end. Domina Elisabeth had immediately sent off a messenger to ask permission to go to her. If she had been an abbess, she would have needed no permission but her own, but St. Frideswide’s was under the guidance, however lightly kept, Of the abbot of St. Bartholomew’s near Northampton, presently her own brother, who had sent back not only permission but a new gown, properly Benedictine-black but fur-lined “for warmer winter riding,” he had said. But in fact, the gown was presently a closely wrapped bundle in one of the pack-hampers, safe-kept for wearing once they were at Goring, that Domina Elisabeth not compare poorly with St. Mary’s prioress. For the journey both she and Frevisse had made do with heavy woolen cloaks over their usual heavy woolen gowns, with both cloaks and gowns now direly muddied around their hems despite Frevisse’s efforts every morning to brush them clean after each night’s drying.

Because no nun was supposed to leave her cloister unaccompanied by another nun, she was here as Domina Elisabeth’s companion, her prioress’s choice with no question of adding to the cost of travel by taking any woman-servant with them, so that all such duties were hers. Both for safety and dignity, however, Domina Elisabeth had been unwilling to travel with less than three men for escort despite the cost that would be to the nunnery in more than money. It would have been better to have the men at winter-work, at plowing and dunging if weather allowed and at the hedging and ditching and array of other tasks for which there was rarely time the rest of the year, so compromise had been made by way of the priory steward’s son Dickon, age sixteen and near to man-grown, who would not have been at fieldwork but helping his father with priory accounts and even now after three and a half days’ dull riding was still a-glow with his escape.

Rather to her regret, Frevisse had had to admit to having much the same sense of escape herself. She had not thought she would. In truth she had been displeased when Domina Elisabeth chose her for companion, both because she was content where she was and because she suspected why she had been chosen, their way south inevitably taking them close by Ewelme, where all too possibly Frevisse’s near relative, Lady Alice de la Pole, would be at home to be visited. A woman of both wealth and, by marriage, high place in the world, her favor could be of use to St. Frideswide’s and a visit from her cousin would serve as reminder of that. Since it was Alice’s friendship, not her favor, that Frevisse valued, she had not liked the thought of being used by Domina Elisabeth. It was only when she had realized that Domina Elisabeth for now-whatever she might do later-was set on reaching her own cousin as the first business to hand, that Frevisse had been able to turn her mind fully to their journey and found herself enjoying it. She had not known how nunnery life had palled for her until, while tucking her cloak more closely around her against a chill little wind as they slogged down a muddy hill the first morning out from the nunnery, she found herself humming happily. The daily round of worship-the eight Offices of prayer and psalms through every day-were still her heart’s delight and soul’s joy, but the rest of it-the same duties, the same faces, the same voices, the same walls without let or change, days into weeks into months into years…

Without she had known it, a gray weight had settled on her mind and spirit. Only when she found herself riding a singularly graceless horse along a mud-bogged road between winter-barren hedges and raw-earthed fields under a gray sky that constantly threatened and sometimes gave rain, with the likelihood of more such days to follow, and had found she was happy, as if an unsuspected cloud was dispersing from around her, letting her mind lift into pleasure for the first time in… how long?… did she see how far she had been sunk without knowing it into accidie-into the weariness of spirit so deep it was a sin.

That was accidie’s most subtle peril: it crept so slowly into mind and heart that the spirit sank down into the mire of despair without knowing it until too late to win free without terrible struggle. Frevisse had faced it before now in her life and knew she had not been far gone in it this time or she would not have slipped this easily out but that did not lessen her gratitude for her escape. Hand hidden under the enwrapping cloak, she had signed herself with the cross while making a silent prayer of thanks for mercy given.

But that she was almost the only one enjoying their journey was too plain. Domina Elisabeth was taken up with worry for her cousin and annoyance at the muddied travel. The two men, without ever saying so, made it clear they would have preferred to be at something else besides this slow going along strange roads, with strange food at meals, strange beds at night, strangers everywhere they looked, and a constant uncertainty of where they were and of how far there was to go. Only Dickon seemed to feel with Frevisse that the pleasure of constantly being somewhere else outweighed all other troubles. Even now, as they rode along Goring’s High Street with its well-made timbered houses, s ...

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