The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 14
The Making of Marriages
Shared loved of the books has drawn Elswyth and Leif closer together, despite, or perhaps because of, a quarrel over her spoilt embroidery. But the question of the value of the books and the hope of raising Harrald’s ransom still hang in the balance. Get caught up using the index page.
Attor had succeeded in persuading the monk to help them sell the books, arguing that Leif’s only other option was to pry out the gold and jewels in the covers and scrape down the pages to sell them for scrap, a prospect that so horrified the monk that he had no choice but to assist in their sale into Christian hands. However, there was considerable debate about how the sale was to be conducted, for it was not safe for Leif to go to any monastery in Northumbria, and he was unwilling to send the books with a demand for payment, fearing that other holy men would feel, as Brother Alun did, that Leif had no right to them, and therefore would not send gold in return. Finally it was decided that Brother Alun would write a letter to his own abbot in Monkwearmouth describing the books and naming a price for them. Attor would then send Heorot to take the letter and return with the gold, a journey that was likely to take a week, especially if the abbot required time to raise the money.
This plan required the making of ink, since there was none of it in the village. Elswyth’s request to help with the making of it was rejected on the sensible grounds that if the monk refused to look at her, her presence was not likely to speed the work. Leif, it was decided, would render any aid the monk required, and Elswyth would return to her embroidery.
She sat down next to Hilda on Hilda’s usual bench by the hall, where the light was good. Elswyth could not help noting, with frustration, that Hilda’s work proceeded much more quickly than her own. It was simply a matter of practice, she told herself. Hilda had picked up a needle when she was four years old and had not put it down since. She was a graceless child, she had few friends, and there was a plainness about her that suggested that she would have to content herself with few suitors in the years to come. And yet, her skill with the needle could not be denied. Hilda would never enchant a room with a song. She would never set a table that doubled the pleasure of the meal. But her needle would execute wonders. How could she begrudge her sister this one gift? Wishing to appease her conscience, she said, “After the letter is written, you should ask Leif to show you the books.”
“He doesn’t want to,” Hilda replied sulkily.
“He said he would. He won’t go back on it. There are some wonderful patterns in them. You could copy them in embroidery.”
“You don’t want me to.”
“I didn’t. I’m sorry. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I’m not going to be alone with Leif in the play hall. I don’t want to kiss him.”
“Neither do I. But your could go to the ship. He keeps them in the ship.”
“I don’t like the ship.”
This scandalized Elswyth. How could Hilda care so much for beauty and yet not see the beauty of the ship? “You don’t like the ship? The ship is wonderful!”
“Someone would have to lift me into it. I don’t like that.”
“Not even Uncle Thor?”
“After he was so wonderful to you yesterday? You were weeping in his arms.”
“I was tired, that’s all.”
“You should have gone to bed then.”
“Shut up! I don’t want to talk, I’m busy.”
“You’re not afraid of them, are you?”
“Everyone is afraid of them, except you and Father.”
“And Mother, and Whitney and Moira and Daisy.”
“Whitney is mad, and Moira and Daisy are babies. No one else likes them.”
“You just hate everybody.”
Hilda did not refute this claim. Silence reigned for some minutes before she spoke again.
“Do you want to marry Leif?”
“Because I was looking at a book with him?”
“I still think you were kissing.”
“I’m going to marry Drefan. You know that.”
“I think you want to marry Leif,” Hilda said, eyes fixed on her stitches.
“You want me to sail away to live in Norway? That would suit you, I suppose.”
“No!” Hilda said, vehemently. “You’re so stupid sometimes.”
“Maybe you want to marry Drefan.”
“No I don’t!” For the first time, Hilda paused in her work and looked at Elswyth, so great was her indignation.
“What’s wrong with Drefan?”
“He likes you. They all like you. It’s not fair. I want someone who likes me.”
“Someone will. Just wait till you grow up. They’ll all like you too.”
“Not as much as they like you. It’s not fair. I’m the one who looks Anglish.”
“It’s not as much fun as you think, having men staring at you the whole time. You’ll see.”
“If you don’t like it, you should cover your hair,” Hilda said, tugging on a corner of her wimple.
“If you want them to look at you, you should uncover yours,” Elswyth replied, tugging Hilda’s wimple askew so that a lock of her mouse-brown hair escaped and glowed dully in the sunlight.
“No.” Hilda tucked her hair back into place. “They won’t stare at me like they stare at you. They’ll say, how neat your stitches are! How straight your seams are!”
“I’m sure they’ll stare at you plenty.”
“I don’t want them to.”
“It just causes trouble. Father will find me a nice husband. Mother says he will.”
“Well of course he will. Mother will make him. Mother probably won’t be happy until Father finds you an ealdorman to marry.”
“Father found Drefan for you the year you were born,” Hilda said, mournfully. “He hasn’t found anyone for me yet, and I’ll be of age soon.”
“You should be glad he is taking the time to find the right boy.”
“I heard him telling Mother that he was going to talk to Edris about Baldwinn for Moira.”
“Baldwinn is too young for you.”
“He should find someone for me first, before doing Moira!”
“Well, finding someone for Moira is easy. All she needs is a man with ears. He’s taking more time to find someone just right for you.”
“Because there isn’t anybody right for me?”
Elswyth sighed. Hilda’s self-pity was impenetrable. She returned to her former ploy. “You should go and ask Leif to show you the books.”
“I don’t want to! And I don’t believe you care about the books either. I think you just want to kiss Leif!”
Elswyth, didn’t answer this. The truth was, Hilda had put the thought of kissing Leif into her head. It hadn’t been there before. Now it was. Despite this ridiculous scrap of beard and near barren upper lip, his mouth was in her thoughts. That brought thoughts of Drefan. Drefan was, after all, the man she was supposed to think of kissing. He was a man she had thought of kissing, more and more over the last year. Drefan had kissed her, of course. She had kissed him. But never on the mouth. Never as she had found herself—at Hilda’s prompting—thinking of kissing Leif. And so, a little remorseful, she set herself to imagining Drefan’s mouth on hers. And while she thought of this, she worked on the embroidery that would adorn the dress in which she would soon marry Drefan, and suddenly the work seemed pleasing to her, and she wanted to make it well enough that it would be pleasing to him also. She began to think that if he were to ride into the village now he would draw her aside, to some spot behind the hall, and touch his mouth to hers.
Of course, it would be a bad thing if he came now. It would be hard to explain to him about Norsk trading holy books so soon after Lindisfarne. The raid would have been an afront to Drefan and his father, the monastery being under their protection, almost within sight of their walls, and a place which they visited often and where they had many friends. No, it was better that Leif’s business should be concluded and Leif away to ransom his father before Drefan came again to Twyford. And so she thought of Drefan’s mouth and wished for his absence, but wished also for his coming later, after Leif’s ship had sailed, and looking at her at last as Eric has looked at her, as Leif too had looked at her, in his more shy and courteous way.
She had no notion that Leif felt anything for her. He desired her of course, though his reluctance to touch her, to even let their hands brush against each other, contradicted the desire in his eyes. She knew the meaning of an eye that lingered. But lingering eyes had become such a familiar part of her experience that she had come to regard it as an ordinary feature of young men, without any individual significance. It was the men whose eyes did not linger that were the oddity: the monk, who admitted desire and was at pains to avoid it, and Drefan, her intended husband, who was entitled to desire her and yet could look at her and never show it, who seemed not to have noticed her transformation into womanhood, and continued to treat her as a child at every visit.
Drefan was four years her senior—quite enough to prevent any friendship developing between them in childhood. Drefan was always friendly, mockingly gallant, and slightly condescending, in a big-brotherly sort of way. He would often tell her stories of Bamburgh and its estates, and would talk easily of the time when they would be married. But he never seemed to look at her with desire. He never tried to be alone with her, never arranged to sit close to her, never brushed against her or let his hands stray. He seemed to regard their impending marriage as a natural and happy event, but without any urgency or desire for the wedding night or any of the things that pertained to it.
But while this had increasingly offended her pride, as the attributes of her womanhood had crept upon her, it had not caused her any anxiety about the appropriateness or eventual happiness of the marriage. She was confident enough in herself to assume that he did want her, and would show his desire, when it pleased him to condescend to do so. Every young man she knew confirmed, with longing stares and furtive glances, that she was desirable. Drefan was simply a man of greater rank, greater honor, and greater discipline than they, who would not idly betray his desire with dishonorable glances or errant hands. Besides, she too maintained the same reserve. To Drefan she presented the face of friendship and the face of fealty due to his rank, not the face of desire. Her eyes, her hand, made no more trespass than his. Her situation was not at all what her mother’s situation had been. Her marriage to Drefan was promised. She had no more need of seduction than he did.
And if Drefan did not desire her, why visit as often as he did, why talk of their marriage and the lands of which she would become lady with such affection and ease? Whatever the promises their fathers had made to each other, nothing in the law required either one of them to marry against their will. If Drefan did not want her, he did not have to take her. If she did not want Drefan, she did not have to accept him. But for all the wistfulness of her heart, it had never occurred to her that she might refuse him.
She was aware, too, that her marriage would complete the work that her mother had begun. She was grateful to her mother for that—grateful that she had been born noble rather than slave—and quite content to return the favor by a making a marriage that would secure the position of her mother and her sisters against any threat of a return to slavery.
It was an odd thing, she acknowledged, that when she thought about what would have happened had her mother not seduced her father, that she always saw herself, exactly as she was, born a slave, gotten on her mother by a different father. Why not see herself, exactly as she was, gotten by her father on Elene of Hadston, the woman he had been promised to before Edith seduced him? Well, because that girl would have looked like the tall, fair complected, rather plain-featured Elene of Hadston, more or less; certainly nothing like Edith the small, dark, beguiling kitchen slave. Hilda might have been born to Elene, exactly as she was. Would she, Elswyth, then have labored to bake Hilda’s bread, to fill her cup, to wash her feet and comb her hair? Oh, Mother, you saved me from that! How can I do less for you?
She looked forward to the marriage contentedly enough, therefore. Drefan was a good man—gallant, kindhearted, industrious, confident, brave. If she was not consumed with longing for him, neither did she have any dread of his marriage bed—the ordinary fears of maidenhood, of course—but no fear of cruelty or indifference. She would be the Lady of Bamburgh, and Bamburgh was a fine manor possessed of fair fields and woods. There were countless pleasures there. She would want for nothing. Her children would want for nothing.
And she would travel! As ealdorman, Drefan would make an annual progress around the district, which encompassed seacoasts, islands, rich valleys, and high moors. And they would go to York, when summoned by the king. And the king would visit them, in his annual progress, and she would set a table for the king, sing for the king, present her children to the king.
None of this was Spain. But it was more than any kitchen slave would ever have seen. It was more than all but a few of the luckiest women in Northumbria would ever see. (And perhaps—but do not let the thought dwell!—perhaps one day, as their years grew on and thoughts of the soul’s care became more pressing, perhaps, if Drefan should feel the weight of sin upon his conscience, perhaps she might whisper in his ear the thought of pilgrimage!)
And while her thoughts now played with the idea of Leif, with the thought of Leif leading her to a hidden place among the dunes, of Leif’s hands withdrawing the belt around her waist, unwrapping the linen that bound her bosom, of the rasp of those calloused hands upon the softness of her flesh, of the sting of salt and the cry of gulls and the surge and fall of a ship before the wind—sweet St. Agnes, where did that thought come from! —she knew this all for the fancy it was. She was to marry Drefan. The embroidery she worked was for the dress she would wear to marry Drefan. Leif was a friend. A friend about whom she entertained impure thoughts, perhaps. A friend who perhaps entertained impure thoughts about her. But was that so unusual? He was not her first impure thought—Oh! Eric!. She guessed she was not his. Nor was he the first to have such thoughts about her. Those were legion. One did not marry because one only ever had such thoughts about one man or one woman. One married to purify those thoughts for one man or one woman. And she would marry Drefan, and he would think pure thoughts about her, and she him, and they would enact those thoughts upon their marriage bed, and would live happily and have many children, all of whom would live, for she would birth them easily, as Granny and her mother had.
She kept her head down and persevered in her work and was making some steady progress with stitches that were not too badly botched, until out of the corner of her eye, she saw Leif leave the kitchen and go trotting down towards the ship. Her feet wanted to jump up and follow him, but she schooled them, though she could not school her eyes, and her needle paused as her gaze followed his long lanky form as he trotted down the path to the beach. It was not till he was out of sight that her eyes consented to turn again to her work and her fingers started moving again.
Presently she noticed him coming back up the path, not loping his time, but walking with his head down and one hand held to his temple. As he approached, she could see that there was blood between his fingers.
Next Chapter: 15. Blood and Vengeance
Thanks for reading The Wistful and the Good! Subscribe for free to receive new chapters and support my work.
If you know someone who might enjoy The Wistful and the Good, please share it with them.
I will be publishing occasional commentaries on The Wistful and the Good, or on the books I am reading, or on literature in general and historical fiction in particular. These will generally appear on the Monday following the publication of a chapter on Saturday.
Looking for the earlier chapters? Check the index page, and subscribe so you don’t miss anything.
Finally, please check out the Bookfunnel group promo I am participating in, called Lost Worlds. You might find a free book you like, including my short story, The Cattle. https://books.bookfunnel.com/lostworldsfree/8y0bd87hyy