Margaret Frazer, Mary Monica Pulver
The Bishop's Tale
The fourth book in the Sister Frevisse series, 1994
The room was in darkness except for thecandles burning at the head of the bed and a gray line of thindaylight along the edge of the closely shuttered windows. Thecoals in the brazier in the corner had burned too low even to glow,though the room was still thickly warm with their heat and thecrowding of people who had been there.
Now there were only two men, and one of themwas dying.
Thomas Chaucer lay motionless in the widebed, raised a little on his pillows. It was a rich bed, withthe glint of gold threads in the embroidered coverlet and hung withpattern-woven curtains. And what could be seen of the room inthe small reach of the candlelight was equally rich, thefurnishings deeply carved, the ceiling beams painted in twinedvines and singing birds. Now, for this occasion, one of thechests along the wall was covered with a white cloth and set outfor priestly matters. Between two stately burning beeswaxcandles were a small vessel of sacred oil, another of holy water,and a golden box for the consecrated wafers. Cardinal BishopBeaufort of Winchester, tall beyond the ordinary and seeming moreso in his furred, scarlet gown and in the low light, moved from thechest to stand beside the bed again. His voice moved richly,surely, through the Latin words.
With great care and gentleness, the bishoplaid the fragment of Christ’s body on Chaucer’s tongue. Weakly, he swallowed it, then whispered, “My last food. Andthe best.”
“To nourish your soul rather than your body,”Beaufort agreed. He moved away, his back to the bed and dyingman.
“Hal,” Chaucer said.
Not turning around, Beaufort said huskily,“Yes?”
“Stay with me this while. It won’t be muchlonger.”
Still with his back to the bed, Beaufort benthis head, wiped his eyes, then straightened and turned. “Youare probably the last person who will ever call me Hal,” he said,his lightness strained over grief. “The last who rememberswhen we were young.”
“Bedford is in France and sick with what’sbeen done to him. I doubt he’ll ever see England again.”
Chaucer took that in silence awhile. “Then consider the benefits of there being no one left to rememberyour disreputable youth and tell stories on you.”
Beaufort gave him the smile he wanted andlaid a hand over his cold, thin arm. “I’ve learned to livewith your exaggerated memories of my disreputable youth. Butyou’d best guard your tongue and thoughts lest I have to absolveyou all over again.” Belatedly, he removed the purple stolefrom around his neck, kissed it, folded it, and set it aside.
Beaufort and Chaucer were cousins. Their mothers had been sisters, the daughters of a Flemish knightin the queen’s retinue five kings ago. Chaucer’s mother hadsuitably married an officer of the royal duke of Lancaster’shousehold named Geoffrey Chaucer. From their solid andrespectable marriage, by his father’s connections and his ownconsiderable talents, Thomas has built a fortune and his life.
Beaufort’s mother had been lessconventional. She had borne the royal duke of Lancaster fourchildren without benefit of marriage. But years later, toeveryone’s surprise and for no reason except love, the duke hadactually married her. their children had been legitimizedunder the name of Beaufort, and Henry – sometimes Hal – theirsecond son, had risen high in both the Church and England’sgovernment. And built a fortune so great he was chief lenderto the Crown in its necessity.
Despite the differences between them, theyhad been and were good friends, with deep respect for the men theyeach had become. The silence between them now wascompanionable under its weight of grief.
A candle hissed over a flaw in its wick, andBeaufort said, “You don’t want Matilda to come in again? OrAlice?”
Chaucer’s wife and daughter had left the roomduring the last rites, taking the servants and attendants andMatilda’s contained but continuous weeping with them. If anyreturned, all returned, and the room would be crowded and intensewith them again. Eyes closed, Chaucer said with the barestmovement of his lips, “No.” And then, after another silence,he said, “There’s something I want you to do for me.”
“Anything in my power.” Which wasconsiderable.
“In the aumbry, there…” Chaucer movedhis head slightly to show which cupboard along the wall hemeant. “There’s a book. Wrapped in cloth. It’snot in my will, but give it to my niece. The nun. DameFrevisse.” A smile turned the corners of his mouth. “But don’t you look at it. Leave it wrapped.”
“Secret books to young women, Thomas?”Beaufort teased mildly. “Am I supposed to approve?”
“You’d have to officially disapprove if youknew what it was, but I believe I imperil neither her soul nor myown with it.” He added irrelevantly, “Nor is she so younganymore.”
“I suppose she isn’t, is she? She’sbeen in her nunnery quite a while.” Beaufort looked in theaumbry for the book and found it. It was small, hardly aslong as his hand, but bulky, even allowing for its wrappings. He ran his fingers along the edges he could feel through thecloth. “Not something I’d want for my own library, Itrust?”
Chaucer smiled a little more. “All thebest of my books are already safely named to you in my will. No, this is a plain thing that Frevisse valued in the while she washere. I like to think of her having it.”
“Then she will.” Beaufort laid the bookon the white-clothed chest and returned to Chaucer’s side. “By the way, won’t your son-in-law protest the gutting of yourlibrary on my behalf?”
“My son-in-law judges a book by how manyjewels are set in its cover and how bright with gold the picturesare. I’ve left the gaudiest for him. He’ll becontent.”
“He’d best be,” Beaufort said. “I doubthe’d care to deal with me over the matter.” Chaucer’sdaughter had married William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, for herthird husband. He had a great inherited fortune, a handsomeface, a remarkable degree of charm, influence in the government,and – in Chaucer’s and Beaufort’s opinions – not much in the way ofbrains, and even less in the way of common sense. There wasno doubt that Suffolk would come off the worse if it came to adispute, for Beaufort was a match for anyone in the kingdom.
No, it had not been lack of ability that hadkept Beaufort from rising to the highest place in the royalgovernment – Protector to the young King Henry VI – but aregrettable clash of character between himself and his ownhalf-nephew on his father’s side. If plain hatred – Godforgive him for it – could have killed, Humphrey, duke ofGloucester, would have long since been quite dead. As it was,they had succeeded in crabbing each other’s ambitions; though eachhad high power and place, neither of them had as much as theywanted, and neither had gained control of the young King’sgovernment. Nor were they likely to, now that he was nearingan age to take more responsibility to himself. Unless onecould keep near enough to him to win his favor and support…
Beaufort realized he had lost himself in histhoughts. And that Chaucer was watching him with familiarmockery, or the faint shadow of it that was all he had strengthfor.
“All right,” Beaufort said. “I was‘indulging in my ambitions’, as you have been wont to say. Will it be a comfort to you if I admit I’ve begun to think you wereright to refuse so steadily to be drawn into the morass I’vewillingly braved all these years?”
Chaucer moved his head in weak denial. “No. I’ve always known I was right to avoid Westminster likethe plague. Though, like the plague, it cannot always beavoided.” With a smile, he added, “But I’ve also known youwere where you belonged, Hal, given your very different ambitionsfrom mine. I’d be sorry to hear you’ve wearied of it?”
Tentatively – and Chaucer probably the onlyman in England to whom he would show that side of himself -Beaufort said, “The King is growing older. Things arechanging.”
“To your advantage perhaps.”
“Perhaps,” Beaufort assented. IfBedford died in France – the man who had both supported him andcurbed him, keeping a balance among the court factions no matterhow they resented it – then there would be new possibilities.
Chaucer’s eyes closed, not in sleep, Beaufortthought, but simply because he lacked strength to hold themopen. The pulse in his throat fluttered and lost beat. Beaufort leaned forward, a sick feeling in his own heart. Butthe pulse steadied, weakly, into a slow rhythm again and wenton. Chaucer had been dying for three months now, had knownfor certain he was dying, though the wasting disease itself hadbegun to come on him a while before that. Nothing he ate gavehim any strength; despite everything done for him – and h ...