The Servant's Tale

Margaret Frazer, Mary Monica Pulver

The Servant's Tale

The second book in the Sister Frevisse series, 1993

For, be we never so vicious withinne,

We wol been holden wise and clene of synne.

“The Wife of Bath’s Tale”

Geoffrey Chaucer

1

THE HOUSE SAT on the muddy track beyond the village church, drawn back with its two neighbors from Prior Byfield’s single broad street. Like the other village houses, it was framed in heavy, square-cut timbers, roofed with thatch, walled with wattle and daub thinly plastered. The doorsill of its single door sat nearly flush to the ground, with a single slab of stone in front of it against the wear of feet and coming dirt.

Meg’s first task every morning since she had come as Barnaby’s bride had been to scrub or broom the sill and stone; it hurt now to see them scabbed with mud and realize she was simply too tired to bother. Instead, she stood in the doorway, staring into the inner shadows, waiting for her eyes to grow used to it, glad for just this small respite from doing.

It was Christmastide and cold with a damp, spoiled blackness that sank into the bones. In a few days it would be New Year’s, 1434, though some said the year did not begin until March, and some few others that it began with the winter solstice just past. At any rate, it was the tenth year of King Henry VI, not that it really mattered to her. One year and then another, and each worse than the one before, no matter what she did or how hard she tried, so what was the use of trying?

But despair was a sin, Father Henry had said at the harvest sermon. There had been reason enough to talk of despair then, considering how bitterly bad the harvest had been, and the prospect of a hungry winter before them.

Now she stood in her cottage doorway and despite Father Henry, yielded just a little to despair, notwithstanding the gleaming penny hidden in one fist.

She worked at the priory whenever she could, and these past two days while Domina Edith had been ill in bed, Meg had simply stayed, sleeping with the regular servants on a straw pallet on the kitchen floor. It had helped that Barnaby had been gone three days; she had felt safe in trusting Sym and Hewe to see to things at home. They were, after all, sixteen and thirteen and forever telling her how near they were to being men.

But not near enough, it seemed.

Her nose had told her that, even before she could see in the cottage’s gloom.

Two days-the longest she had ever spent away at one time since she had been married. Coming past the church she had seen her home with new eyes; seen how its thatch had gone dark with age and rot, and sagged swaybacked on its ridgepole. And the plaster, meant to keep the walls from decaying in the weather, was crumbled away in ragged patches, leaving the daub bare to the rain. The cowshed-not that there were any cattle to keep in it anymore-slumped drunkenly against the far end of the cottage.

Losing the cattle had been the greatest disaster. Barnaby had sold the cow a year ago, and last autumn the ox. He’d been half-drunk each time and gotten the worst of both bargains. Without the ox, he was no longer a member of the village plow team, which meant he could not keep up the daywork he owed the lord in return for the field strips and cottage.

Meg had gone to Father Clement once, after the third of her babies died, grieving over it and Barnaby’s drinking. He had told her to pray, for every trial that came to her was by God’s will; and if she endured her earthly troubles patiently, she would sooner come through Purgatory’s pains to eternal joy in Heaven.

But Father Clement was dead this year past, doubtless enduring his own pains in Purgatory, while things had gone slowly, steadily worse; and just now, under the gray, heavy sky, faced with her unkept house and shiftless sons, Heaven seemed very far off and despair very near.

But that made it no less a sin and, signing herself in half-felt penitence, Meg went inside.

The cottage’s single door led into the cottage’s single room. To Meg’s right were the animals-the milch goat and the dozen chickens-kept in the cottage for warmth and safety. To her left was the house’s larger part, with the stone-circled hearth in the middle of the floor and what she had for furnishings-the bench and two stools, the table, chest, and bed, the few pots and bowls. There should have been some warmth to the hearth, a faint glow of well-banked coals; but it was as dark as all the rest. Meg went and stooped beside it, but not to build a fire. She lifted a rock from the circle, one not marked in any way different from its brothers, and probed in the soft earth beneath it, found a tiny clay pot stopped with a wad of rag, lifted it out, pulled out the rag, and put the penny in. It fell with a chink that showed it was not alone in there, though there were not many to greet it. She replaced the rag, and then the pot and then the rock, pressing the earth around it with her fingers.

Only then did Meg go to the window and slide down the shutter. Daylight made only more clear how much her sons had left undone. Grimly, for anger at the failure of one’s children was allowed and good if it led to correcting them, Meg set to what needed doing.

The animals-Nankin and the chickens-first. They needed feeding, and their stinking waste removed. Nankin was dry at present, but spring would come again, and there would be yet another kid for the pot and milk for the summer. Nankin had been faithful at that for a good many years; but she was old and Meg doubted there were going to be many more summers for her. This spring, if the kid were female, it would be time for Nankin to go into the pot.

But what if they had waited too long? What if there were no kid? Meg worried about that as she went from nest to nest, looking for an egg and finding none. The hens laid less often in the winter, and even less when they were not properly fed or kept warm. There had been times when they gave an egg or two a week in the winter, but all this December there had been only three. But what better could be expected?

She should not go to the priory, or else should not stay overnight even when she had the chance. But she must have the money her work brought, little though it was. With one thing and another-Barnaby’s quarrelsomeness and his drinking and his selling the ox, scanting what work he was given in its place, letting his holding and his strips in the fields decay-he was out of favor with Lord Lovel’s steward. It was almost a surprise that he had been entrusted with the task of finding a cart and horse and getting himself to Oxford to pick up a wine tun and deliver it to Lord Lovel’s manor for the Christmas feasting. It would hardly put a patch on how much he owed, but done well and timely it was a start.

Meg would be satisfied if he did the task as ordered and brought back the cart and horse unscathed. They had had to borrow them from Gilbey Dunn, and ungracious he had been about it, though he was their near neighbor and as bound to the lord’s service as they were. He was the sort who would be quick to make claim for damages if the horse came home lame or the cart even slightly hurt. Worry over that and worry over whether Barnaby might have found a way to get drunk while he was gone were mixed with her wondering when he would be back.

Had he been gone too long? She knew less than he did about the world beyond the fields and pastures that were Prior Byfield’s boundaries, and had no way to judge how long he should be gone or when he should return.

But fretting over Barnaby didn’t set the house to rights. By some oversight there was enough water in one of the buckets by the door to give Nankin and the chickens a drink. And deep in the ashes on the hearth she found a tiny spark of live coal to be teased to life with careful blowing and a bit of dried grass, then nursed into a proper fire to set the cold back a little while she went to the village well for water, her two buckets hanging from her neck yoke.

When she came back, she set a pot to boil while she scrubbed at the dried oatmeal on the table. The table was the one good piece of furniture she had. Its thick, smooth boards sat on sturdy trestle legs that had a finely-detailed pattern of vines and leaves carved into their flat sides. When Sym and then Hewe had been small, she had used to sit on the dirt floor with them, tracing their fingers along the patterns and telling them stories of what a fine house the table must have come from. She had never been in a fine house, but there had been the chair and chalice and embroidered cope in the village church, and the Lovels had once ridden down the village street with hawks on their hands and their clothing gay with gems and embroidery, and Meg’s aunt’s husband had once spent an evening telling her tales full of crowns and peacocks and bright woven tapestries when she was a little girl. From all of that she had made stories for Sym and Hewe. The other babies, the little girls and the other boy, had not lived long enough for her to tell them stories.

But the table, like the house and herself, had suffered with the years. Despite all she did and however much she nagged, its top was scarred with all the places Bar ...

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