The Prioress' Tale

Margaret Frazer

The Prioress' Tale

The seventh book in the Sister Frevisse series, 1997

Chapter 1

The late-October days had mellowed back toward a memory of summer, warm and clear all of the week since Monday. Only the golden slant of the early-afternoon sunlight-too long and low for any summer’s early afternoon-betrayed how far this year of our Lord’s grace 1439 was gone.

But it had been a good year, Alys thought as she watched the last of her nuns hasten along the cloister walk ahead of her into the church for the office of None. It was a short office, thank God. As prioress of St. Frideswide’s, she had enough to do without her days being eaten up with time in church.

As Sister Emma’s skirt tail disappeared through the doorway, Alys paced forward, closing on her heels to hurry her. Alys’ dignity as prioress necessitated she come last to her place, all her nuns standing in their choir stalls waiting until she did. Then she would sit, and when she had, they could. It was a satisfying moment, a reminder to herself and them seven times in every day of who she was and how important, but Alys’ impatience moved her almost invariably to hurry dignity along. Sooner begun, sooner done-that was plain enough, but she seemed to be the only one able to see it. Some of them-and Sister Emma was only the worst-would probably dawdle leaving their graves when the Last Call to God’s Judgment came.

Behind Alys as she passed from the sunlit cloister walk into the church’s cooler shadows, Sister Johane, who had the duty during the days this week to ring the bell calling them to church, let go the bell rope, duty done, and the bell clappered to merciful quiet in the cloister garth. That bell was among the things Alys had in mind to change. One way or another, she meant to have as sweet a ringing bell there as there had been at home in her girlhood, a bell that was a pleasure to the ear instead of this thud-toned dullard someone had given the priory fifty years ago, probably as a penance for a sin that had been as dull as its tone.

She mounted the steps that set her choir stall a little above the others and took a short, sharp look along the lines of nuns facing each other in their lower, plainer stalls. Dressed alike in their black Benedictine gowns, black veils, and white wimples, their heads bowed so their faces were hidden, there was no way to tell them apart except in height to anyone who did not know them well, or else knew who stood where, each one to her same place, office after office, day after day, year into year. Alys knew-blessed St. Frideswide and God in heaven, she knew! After twenty-three years in this place she ought to know, and more especially now that they were all hers. She knew not only one from the other but what each one of them was like and how each one of them had to be dealt with. Most of them she had brought to heel since she had become prioress. Some of them had taken to it readily, grateful to have the Rule relaxed, the priory made more fit to live in. Others had had less wit, taken longer to be convinced. Others-well, they had learned to keep their mouths shut better than they had, but she was not done with them yet, she knew.

She sat down heavily in her stall. In a rustle of skirts and veils her nuns followed her. “Gloria patri,” she declared loudly, to set the office on its way, but she had more to deal with than prayers, and while her tongue turned to the words her mind kept on about the cursed nuns who still fought her on seemingly every little thing. Why couldn’t they see that things were better now than they had been the last years Domina Edith had been prioress? The priory had been dying then, right along with its prioress. Nine nuns and no novices, that was all St. Frideswide’s had been left with when Domina Edith died. That was all there had been for years. With Domina Edith dead and then Sister Lucy, who, God knows, had been more than old enough to die long before she finally did, the place would have been down to seven now, except the poor fools who were left had managed, by God’s grace, to have sense enough to elect her prioress instead of that soft-wit Dame Claire who had been Domina Edith’s choice. God and they had known she had more sense than anyone else in the place and relatives who were worth something more than an occasional petty gift when and if they felt like it, the way it was with everyone else. Within six months of her election to prioress, Alys had brought in a niece and a cousin’s daughter as novices. That had meant their dowries to the priory as well as new interest in it from their families.

So let those who opposed her remember that she, not they, had been elected-on the first vote, mind it-to be prioress; that she had been the priory’s choice, the saint’s choice, God’s choice; and that because of her, now that her niece and cousin’s girl had taken their vows last year, St. Frideswide’s was back up to nine nuns. Not nearly where it should be, but it was early years yet; she had hopes of talking a great-niece out of one of her nephews before next summer, and there was little Lady Adela, Lord Warenne’s daughter. The girl was a cripple, with a malformed hip and twisted leg, so what else could Lord Warenne expect to do with her except make her a nun? She was not his heir, and he had boarded her here for four years; he might as well pay her dowry over to the nunnery and be done with it. Blessed St. Frideswide knew they could use the money.

Overhead something heavy fell with a shuddering thud. Heads jerked up from prayer books and words faltered. Alys cast a dark look at her nuns and a darker look toward the northeast corner of the church. Easily audible through the boards fixed over the unfinished door hole there, a man’s voice cursed, the words unclear but the intent plain.

Sister Cecely smothered a giggle. Sister Amicia caught it from her, and the contagion would have spread except that Alys turned hard, warning eyes on all of them and rose to her feet. Silence, abrupt and utter, fell.

And well it might. They ought all to be used to that sort of thing by now, and if they were not, they had better learn to be. Heads bowed rapidly under Alys’ look, and although Sister Cecely’s shoulders twitched, it was soundlessly. Alys nodded at Dame Perpetua. As precentor, it was her duty to set right anything that went awry during a service. Obediently, promptly, she took up the service where it had been interrupted, and the rest fell in with her, keeping place despite the mutter of men’s voices that had started up beyond the someday doorway and went on in uneven counterpoint to the women’s chanting.

Alys had had it out with the masons’ master, Master Porter, when they first came that they were supposed to pause their work during services. He had complained as if they were paid by the hour instead of the job and she were taking the bread out of their mouths by her demand, despite they were fed at the nunnery’s expense day in and day out so long as they were here. She had not heeded him, had had her way. Still, more services than not, they managed one kind of a disturbance or another. And she would swear they made more noise the rest of the time than they had to, with their battering on stone, their heaving of ropes, and shouting.

But when they were done-and Master Porter had sworn they would be by Advent and he had better see to it they were-St. Frideswide’s would have a tower that would show the countryside they were there and worth the noticing.

Before she was done with it, Alys meant to have a steeple, too, and had told Master Porter to build the tower walls accordingly. That would take a time longer but she would have it, a place besides that cloister pentise to hang the priory bells-and she meant for there to be bells, not just the one. At least three. Five for preference. It would not be soon, she knew. Money came in with snail slowness and went out with discouraging ease, but she had plans-and the will to carry them through, God be thanked, which was more than most people had.

The smooth linen of her underdress slid comfortably across her shoulders as she shifted from one hipbone to the other. Someday she would wear silk under these black gowns of hers; and though for now she needs must settle for linen, at least it was better linen than the coarse stuff she had had to make do with in Domina Edith’s day. Let the others still wear that if they wanted to, or-more to the point-if their families would not afford them better, since Alys had no intention of raising the sum allowed for clothing yearly, there being too much else the money was needed for. For herself, it was different; she managed best if she was comfortable, thank you, and so it was as much her duty to be comfortable as it was her God-given duty to lead St. Frideswide’s out of the slumped heap Domina Edith had let it fall into.

Alys had long since admitted to herself, with some relief, that she was not made to be a saint. Some were and that was all very well for them-Sister Thomasine there was well on her way to sainthood, heaven bless her; anyone who knew how many hours she spent in prayer had to know how holy she was; and she was welcome to her hair shirt, too-but God had seen to Alys being made prioress and that was something different from sainthood by a long way and she knew what she meant to make of her ...

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