The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 26
Slave and Cousin
Elswyth has quarreled with Thor, with Lief, with Drefan, and with her mother. There is no one left to talk to but Hilda. But talking to Hilda without a quarrel may be too much to hope for. Get caught up using the archive.
She did not see Leif all morning, except at breakfast, where they hardly spoke to each other. From the reserve with which Leif treated her, she guessed that Thor had had similar words with him. This set her wondering exactly what Thor might have said about her, what feelings Leif might have admitted to having towards her. For all that she had thought of kissing him, even thoughts of lying with him, she had not fully realized how much she had come to enjoy Leif’s company, how much it pleased her to see him approach, how much it ached to be apart from him, how natural it felt to slip her hand into his. Their friendship had not begun face to face, but side by side, in the shared pleasure of the books, and their fascination with the monk and his arts. She wanted to protest that it was nothing more than that, a friendship based on shared interest, but now that she sat by the hall diligently working away at her embroidery—sharing the bench with Hilda—the thoughts she had of him were not of things done side by side, but face to face.
“Are you still going to marry Drefan?” Hilda asked, after they had worked in silence for a while.
“Of course I am.”
“Then why are you so angry with him?”
“Who says I am?”
“I have eyes. I can see things.”
“You’re imagining things.”
“I still think you want to marry Leif.”
“Will you stop with that? Anyway, I was thinking, once I am married to Drefan, I can arrange for you to marry Drang or Earh.”
“No thank you.”
“Drang and Earh lie with trollops.”
“So did Drefan,” Elswyth said.
“With Willa,” Hilda said. “I see things. I’m not stupid.”
“All right, yes, with Willa.”
“Is that why you are angry with him?”
“He’s done with Willa,” Elswyth said. Of that much she was certain. Willa had been passed on.
“Does Leif lie with trollops?”
“How should I know?”
“Mother says sailors always lie with trollops.”
“How would she know?”
“She was a trollop,” Hilda said, with a vehemence that defied contradiction. “That’s how she got you. That’s how she ensnared Father. That’s why no one likes me—because my mother was a Welisc trollop.”
Elswyth was about to give several other reasons why no one liked Hilda, but she bit her tongue and said, “I hate it when you say things like that. Besides, she wasn’t a trollop when she had you. She was properly married to Father. I’m the one who got made under a haystack.”
“Have you been a trollop?”
“No,” Elswyth said, but she said it quietly, without the vehemence the word deserved, and she felt her cheeks grow hot.
“Do you want to be?”
“I still think you and Leif were kissing.”
“You want to, though.”
“I’m marrying Drefan. You’ve seen me kiss Drefan.”
“I saw. You didn’t like it.”
“Of course I liked it.”
Hilda turned and looked at her. “Mother says I’m not to call you a liar,” she said.
“I’m not…” Elswyth broke off. “What makes you think you know?”
“I’m not stupid. I may not be pretty, but I’m not stupid. You didn’t like it when Drefan kissed you.”
"Oh, leave it will you?"
“I would miss you if you went with Leif,” Hilda said, grudgingly, half whispering.
“I know you would. I would miss you too. But I’m not going with Leif. I don’t want to go with Leif. I am going to marry Drefan. I’ll see you all the time. If I arrange for you to marry Earh, you could live at Bamburgh and you’d see me every day—If you want to see me every day.”
“Of course I do.”
“You don’t act like it.”
“You’re so stupid sometimes,” Hilda said again.
“Well,” said Elswyth, exasperated, “At least I’m pretty.”
This created a gulf that neither of them cared to cross, so they lapsed into silence.
At about the third hour of the morning, Elswyth saw the monk walk through the village on the way to the beach, tripping and falling when Mayda surprised him by emerging from the corner of a hut just as he was passing. Elswyth laughed to herself, and found herself surprised to note that Mayda, despite having her hair cropped close around her ears, was also pretty enough to cause the monk to avert his eyes and fall over his feet. But then, of course, as her mother had just told her, two thegns had offered a concubine’s price for Mayda, a price that might have been accepted in another hall. It might well be accepted in this hall, were Fyren in possession. Or Fyren might take her for himself. But still, it did not matter, for she would buy Mayda, once she had her morning gift. She would buy her and set her free and then Mayda could grow out her hair and find herself a freeborn husband. If Drefan should return.
As Mayda passed where Elswyth was sitting, they looked up at each other, then at the figure of the monk disappearing over the dunes. They began to giggle, and the more they tried to stop the more the giggles came.
“What are you laughing at?” Hilda demanded, supposing that she must be the butt of whatever joke it was.
They both turned to her. Elswyth tried to form an explanation, but the giggles came all the harder. Hilda turned scarlet.
“No, no, we’re not laughing at you,” Elswyth said.
Hilda put her head down and pulled her needle with furious tugs, her cheeks still the color of sunrise.
Mayda bobbed and carried on with her errand, but as she was leaving, Elswyth suddenly threw her embroidery down into her basket, jumped to her feet and embraced Mayda.
“Lady!” Mayda exclaimed, startled.
“Call me Elsy, cousin.”
“I won’t tell.”
Mayda’s eyes went to Hilda, who was looking at them, wide eyed.
“She won’t tell either,” Elswyth said, furiously.
“I will if I want to,” Hilda said.
“She’s your cousin too.”
“I’m Anglish! And if she doesn’t call you Lady, I will tell. You can twist my ears all you like, but I’ll still tell.”
“May I go, Lady,” Mayda begged.
Elswyth ran her hand over Mayda’s close cropped hair, black like her own, and likely as full and lovely, were she permitted to grow it out. Elswyth whispered, so that Hilda would not hear. “One day you will call me, Cousin, or Elsy, or whatever you like.”
She released her, and Mayda bobbed a curtsey to her, and then to Hilda, before running off, red cheeked.
“I’m telling,” Hilda declared.
“Telling who? Mother who was a slave? Father who married a slave? Tell on me if you like, but if you try to tell anything on Mayda, I’ll pour the monk’s ink all over your precious embroidery.”
Hilda responded to this by picking up her basket and stalking off to a different bench at the other end of the hall. Elswyth resumed her own place and looked wistfully out toward the beach where the monk had gone. The monk, of course, was going to the ship to read the books. Elswyth smarted a bit at the thought of the books being open while she was not there to look at them. Of course, the monk valued the books for the words, whereas she loved them for the pictures. If she wanted to see more pictures—and there were five more volumes that she and Leif had yet to explore—that really had nothing to do with the monk. It would be between her and Leif, and, for today at least, her conscience was bound to Thor’s plea to leave Leif alone. Yes, other sailor men could tell her tales and show her the ship. But only Leif had custody of the books. And it was only Leif’s company she craved. To look at the books without him would be to rob the experience of half its joy for only he seemed to love them as she did. And so she stayed where she was, and kept her needle moving until her neck grew stiff and her fingers started to cramp.
Close to noon a small boy passed by, running helter-skelter toward the beach, and presently returned with the monk hurrying behind him. Presumably Kendra was awake and speaking and the monk’s duty called him to her bedside. Or perhaps she was dying at last and he was summoned to hear her last breath. The desire came over her to rise and cross his path, to see if she could make him stumble. But her conscience rebuked her and she stayed where she was. As he approached, the monk evidently caught sight of her out of the corner of his eye, for he pulled his cowl up over his head as he hurried on, but he did not pause or stumble.
Mayda reappeared shortly afterwards to set the outdoor table for lunch. They almost never ate in the hall in the summer, unless it rained or there was occasion for a feast. It was a grim lunch. Everyone seemed to be out of sorts. Hilda was still furious at Elswyth and spent much of the meal staring daggers at her. Elswyth tried to engage Leif in conversation on ordinary matters—nothing suggesting spending time together, just general civil chit-chat—but he would not engage. His efforts to avoid even catching her eye seemed to rival those of the monk, so that she began to wonder if Leif would start to insist on taking all his meals alone, as the monk did. Elswyth treated her mother’s attempts at conversation in the same way. When the joyless meal was over, she picked up her embroidery basket, meaning to resume her seat of the morning. But then she spotted Leif, who had left the table early, sitting on a log on the height of the dunes, alone, looking out to sea.
Suddenly she was angry. If anyone had asked her what or who she was angry at, she could not have given a sensible answer. She would have snapped at them, angry for being asked. But whatever the transgression and whoever the transgressor, it was the sight of Leif sitting there alone that brought it welling up in her, and she stalked off towards him, fuming.
“Did Thor tell you not to talk to me?” she asked, as she came up to him.
“Yes,” he said, turning to look at her and then turning away.
“Who is jarl, you or Thor?”
“I am jarl. He is my councilor. I listen to him.”
“What did he say?”
“He reminded me of the rules of trade.”
“The rules of trade say you cannot talk to me?”
He paused. She expected his pauses now. She knew she could wait him out.
“Can you look at me while you think about it?” she said, moving to stand in front of him.
He raised his eyes and looked her in the face. For a long time he did not speak.
“Thor thinks I want more from you than talk.”
“What do you want from me?”
“I want to see the books.”
“You may do so.”
“I want to look at them with you.”
“Because I want to talk about them. I want to talk about them with someone who loves them as much as I do.”
“Thor fears that will lead to other things.”
Again a pause. But he did not take his eyes off her face. “Yes,” he said, at last. “Don’t you?”
“No,” she said. She had thought the word was true when it formed in her mind, but she knew it was false when it came out of her mouth. She looked away from him.
“Well I do,” he said.
“What is it you want, then? Do you want to take me to a low place among the dunes and lay me down and undo the broaches that hold my dress?”
He did not answer, but his eyes moved away from her and he looked out towards the bright sea.
“You’ve done it before, haven’t you? It’s what sailors do. It’s what Norsk do.”
“We do not take any woman against her will,” he said, still staring at the sea.
“There were many women raped in the village at Lindisfarne,” she said.
“It was not us who raided Lindisfarne,” he said, turning his face back to her, suddenly flushed.
“It was Norsk.”
“Some Norsk rape. Some Anglish rape. I bet some Welisc rape too. We do not rape. One of my father’s men raped a girl in Spain once. My father killed him and gave his body to the girl’s father to mutilate. We do not rape. It is bad for trade. And my father does not like the company of such men.”
“And do you? Do you like the company of such men?”
“No.” And then he looked at her quizzically and said, “Has any of my men insulted you? Put a hand on you? Name him and I will kill him.”
She thought of Eric, with his over-long embraces, his undressing of her with eyes and words, the canny calculation of opportunity and desire that she had seen in his face. Had he merely been teasing her? Or, if he had seen something different in her face, would he indeed have led her among the dunes and laid her down. And once he had laid her down, would he have let her up again, as Drefan had done?
She had been silent too long, and boast had turned to suspicion in Leif. He rose to his feet. “Name him and I will kill him.”
She laughed. “No one has said a word to me,” she said. “They’re just like you and the monk. They won’t even look at me.”
She turned and stalked away, still fuming.
Edith watched her go. She had seen her talking with Leif and knew a quarrel when she saw one. She had hoped to find Elswyth ready to talk about what had passed between her and Drefan the previous day, but she sensed that Elswyth was in no mood to be talked to. There are other ways to lose a child besides death. There are other ways to lose a child besides ships. You can lose a child even while she still sleeps under your roof and eats at your table. You can lose a child by showing them any part of yourself that is not a mother. By showing them any rival to your love for them. By asking them to sin for you, however great the cause.
What Edith ached in her heart to know was, had Drefan asked Elswyth to lie with him, and if she had done so, had it been of her own desire, or because Edith had asked her to. And yet, how infinitely would it compound the breach between them if she were to go to Elswyth and demand to know. Did you make yourself a whore, as I asked you to? It had not seemed what she was asking when she revealed her full design to Elswyth. She had thought only of her cause, of her mother, of her kin, of Mayda, of keeping Mayda from degradation. But as she had lain beside her husband, and heard him so innocently fret over Elswyth’s innocence, the full understanding of what she had asked of her daughter had come over her. There are more ways to lose a child than death or ships.
What made this estrangement worse was that it was clear that Elswyth’s discomfort was not with her mother alone. She had quarreled with Drefan, whether Drefan knew of the quarrel or not. And she had quarreled with Leif as well.
In some sense, it relieved her mind to see that Elswyth seemed as vexed with Leif as she seemed to be with Drefan. Did that suggest that she was angry with both of them for quarreling with each other? Did her mood of the evening mean that she had not been able to soften Drefan towards Leif? Did her mood of the morning mean that she had not been able to move Leif? Had she perhaps been scolding Leif for not being more submissive to Drefan, as Drefan’s rank demanded? Had she been jealously defending the right and honor of the man she was to marry? Had the last angry exchange that she had witnessed been Leif proudly refusing to bend, and Elswyth, exasperated, storming off in anger? Oh God, let it be that, she prayed. Let it be that Drefan never asked her to lie with him. Let it be that Elswyth never understood what I asked of her. Let it be that she has forgotten it. Let it just be a quarrel between two stiff necked young men. But if it were that, why did Elswyth, as she passed her mother on the way past the hall, glare at her as well?
Next Chapter: 27 Fear and Consolation (coming next week)
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