The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 17
The Monk’s letter has at last been written and sent, raising hopes that Leif may be able to raise his father’s ransom. But he must wait at least a week on the beach before he can hope for a reply. Who may arrive at the village in the meantime? Get caught up using the index page.
Attor’s messenger, Heorot, was dispatched for Monkwearmouth at first light the next morning. At about noon, Drefan of Bamburgh, Elswyth’s intended husband rode into the compound before the hall with two companions.
At nineteen, all trace of youthful gangliness was gone from Drefan’s form. There was nothing in his face or figure that suggested work not yet completed. His shoulders were broad, his beard was full and rich, his dark hair fell heavy to his shoulders. He wore red trousers of fine lambswool and a green tunic over a linen undertunic with embroidered cuffs.
Drefan was everything Edith thought that a nobleman should be. Attor, her husband, certainly was not. But then, if he had been, though he would probably still have laid her down beneath a haystack, he might not have married her. He would have acted honorably. There would have been silver for her trouble, and when she cropped, a marriage would have been arranged with a freeman, and she would have become a freewoman, and Elswyth would have been a freewoman also, for no man of honor would wish to see his child a slave. But there would have been no marriage. There would have been no Hilda, no Moira, no Whitney, no Daisy, no whoever it was she now carried before her wherever she went. Not them, but another man’s children, and, of course, she would have known those children as she knew her own, and loved them as she loved her own, for they would have been her own. Yet it was impossible to imagine that her own could ever have been any but who they were. And certainly none of those freeman’s children, nor yet Attor’s unacknowledged bastard, could ever have contemplated a marriage to Drefan, heir to the ealdorman’s seat in Bamburgh—heir, indeed, to the kings of Bernicia of old.
A truly noble character must be infinite in grace and honor, and yet there must also be a certain hauteur to a truly noble spirit, for without hauteur, there could be no true condescension. How could those above behave with grace and honor to those below without hauteur? What was noble condescension, after all, but this—that height comes down to lowliness and does not abhor what it finds? The very hauteur of the noble spirit honors the lowly, for it says, you are low and I am high, and yet, in your lowliness, you are deserving of grace. The eagle may converse with the wren, and so honor the wren. But if the eagle cowers in the thicket when he sees the shadow of the falcon, he ceases to be an eagle. And if he is not an eagle, he does no honor to the wren.
Attor had raised up Edith. But he had lowered himself in doing it. He had lost his hauteur, become too easy, too familiar, too soft with those he ruled. He had stepped down even as he had raised her up, thinking it would make it easier for her, never imagining that it would rob her of half her victory. Perhaps she loved him better as a man for doing so. Perhaps it had indeed made it easier for her, for the step from slave to lady of the hall is steep indeed. But she felt always that in her climb she had missed the top step.
Drefan would make no such stoop for Elswyth. He would not lower himself to her. He would reach down and lift her up. And Elswyth, in her turn, would make that step with ease, for she had, when she chose to show it, all the grace and competence of a great lady, the hauteur of a great lady also, even if it was shown before it was earned. She would be Lady of Bamburgh, wife to an ealdorman of Northumbria, peaceweaver to a hundred estates, and she would dine with kings.
The embroidery on Drefan’s tunic was Hilda’s work, and this pleased Edith greatly. Hilda’s work was as fine as that of most grown women, so there was nothing to fault in it at all. Still, Drefan knew it was a child’s work, and wore it anyway—proof of his willingness to condescend. He had always been gracious to her children.
The young men who rode with him, his cousins, Drang and Earh were similarly handsome and well dressed. All three were armed with silver-hilted swords in decorated leather scabbards hanging from similarly decorated belts.
They came in at a walk, for they had met with Attor on the road as he was returning from the fields for lunch. Drefan and Attor were chatting, Attor walking beside Drefan’s horse. Edith could not help but smile at her husband, much as the contrast grieved her. He was dressed in old brown trousers and a simple peasant smock and his face was red from the sun. His boots were clarty and stained, and he had a battered old hat on his head that would have shamed a freeman. It was Attor’s way to lead by example rather than by fiat, and at haying and harvest he worked as hard as any freeman or slave. How else, then, would he have dressed for the fields? She herself was dressed not much better, for she led the work of the hall the way he led the work of the fields. It was not in her to be more haughty than her husband. With her daughters, it was another matter. They must dress to be the consorts of eagles, and both Elswyth and Hilda did so with pleasure, though only Hilda could be relied upon to keep her dress as clean at the end of the day as it had been at the beginning.
Yet still it grieved her to see Attor, in his filth and sweat and plain garments walking at Drefan’s stirrup, though Drefan himself gave no sign that he noted the distinction.
Drefan swung down from his saddle when he saw her and hurried as he came to embrace her, to save her steps as she came to meet him. “Edith, you look well,” he said, taking a moment to admire her swollen belly. He had begun to call her “Edith” last year, after having called her ‘Lady’ all through his childhood. It had shocked her, the first time it had passed his lips, but she understood. He was a man now, and son of an ealdorman, and entitled to condescend.
“Attor tells me you have guests,” Drefan continued. “We heard rumors of a Norsk ship seen along the coast and my father sent me to see that all was well.”
“All is very well,” she said. “But I am glad you came all the same. Elswyth will be delighted to see you. There is but a quarter of a year to go and you two will be married. You must be excited.”
“I’ll not wish the summer any shorter,” Drefan replied. “But I look forward to autumn with special delight this year.”
“As does she, I know.”
“Where’s Hilda?” he asked. “This tunic she made, the bishop thought it very fine and asked who my needlewoman was. We had a laugh when I told him it was a girl of ten.”
“Twelve,” Edith said.
“Is she? But it’s a better story if I say she’s ten. If I tell it three more times, I’ll make her seven!”
“But you should tell her what the bishop said. She’ll be delighted.”
“I mean to. Is she near? Ah, here she is,” he finished, for Hilda, ever alert for the sound of praise, had come around the corner of the hall—not running, but walking as swiftly as dignity would allow.
Drefan bowed to her and she curtsied to him—he was formal with Hilda as he was with no one else, knowing it pleased her and put her at ease. “Did you hear me tell your mother,” he asked. “The bishop loves your embroidery. I think you may soon have a commission for a stole—though the poor man has other concerns these days.”
“A commission?” Hilda asked, her face whitening and her eyes darting as if she feared he was teasing her and she was about to be laughed at.
“Certainly, Lady. You don’t think I would wear second-class work do you?”
“Then I expect the commission will come in the week. Make him pay, and then make him wait. Patience is good for the soul, he tells me.”
“How much?” Hilda asked, immediately practical at the thought of earning money in her own right.
“Oh, Lord, I don’t know. But I know a woman in town who knows this trade. I’ll ask her and send someone to let you know.”
“Did you hear that, Mother?” Hilda said, turning to Edith. “I’m getting a commission.”
“Maybe,” Edith said. “Don’t count your chickens just yet. As Drefan says, the bishop has other things on his mind since Lindisfarne. Now, go and tell Mayda we have three more for lunch and then fetch your sisters. You can ask your grandmother too, though I know what she’ll say.”
“Mother!” Hilda protested, indignant at having her moment so abruptly curtailed.
“Just go,” Edith said. “Elswyth’s already gone to the beach to fetch Leif and Thor.” Hilda went, for obedience was part of her protest against the injustice that was her parent’s preference for Elswyth. She did not go happily, but she went.
“Here’s Elswyth now,” Edith said, having turned toward the beach in hope of seeing her.
Drefan turned and looked along the path that led to the beach, where Elswyth, Thor, and Leif were approaching, Elswyth hanging on Leif’s arm.
“Who’s that with her,” Drefan asked, an edge coming into his voice.
“Oh,” Edith said, “that’s Leif with Elswyth, and Thor behind.”
“She seems very familiar with him,” Drefan said.
“Oh, those two are like brother and sister,” Edith said, placing a hand on his arm. “They have been for as long as Leif has been coming here with his father. And when I say brother and sister, I mean they are either quarreling or conniving, but quarreling most of the time.”
Edith laughed. “What? Are you worried about Leif? Don’t be. The day they came, I said to Elswyth that Leif was starting to look handsome. The first word out of her mouth was ‘Yuck!’ I told you, brother and sister.”
And, as if to confirm Edith’s words, Elswyth raised her head and noticed them and at once disengaged from Leif’s arm and came running to meet Drefan, beaming.
“Drefan!” she said, coming up to him breathlessly. “How wonderful that you’ve come.” She reached out two hands before her. Drefan took her hands but then drew her to him, looked into her face for a moment and then bent down and fixed his mouth on hers.
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