The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 30
Better Than Me
Leif has rejected Elswyth’s attempt at seduction, but she are Leif are not the only ones wakeful on this night. Get caught up using the archive.
Edith could not fall asleep. She had never spent a more painful, awkward evening in the hall, never any evening in which neither her powers as peaceweaver nor Elswyth’s (which she reckoned to be greater than her own) had sufficed to make any kind of peace. The poor bard had tried valiantly as well, and had surely earned his money. But she would not have been surprised if he left the hall that night fearing his own powers as a bringer of conviviality were waning.
The first object of her sympathy was Leif, who she held almost as a son in her affections, yet to whom she could not, before Drefan, show all the solicitation of motherhood. Had Drefan (who was soon to be her son) treated any natural born son of hers as he treated Leif that night, she would have taken him aside and twisted his ears. And yet, that Drefan had sat down and eaten and drunk and passed the cup with Norsk at all was something of a miracle. It was perhaps too much to ask that it should be done with ease and grace. And Drefan, however much an oaf he could be, was a man of honor. Having eaten and drunk with Leif, and shaken his hand, he would not quarrel with him. And perhaps that had been the trouble with the evening—that the quarrel that Drefan and Leif were heir to as representatives of their respective races had been bottled up and corked—this, it seemed, by Elswyth’s doing more than any other. But quarrel it still was, and therefore no conviviality was possible between them, and every hour spent together in the hall must be filled with sullenness and resentment.
But as she lay awake fretting about it, she began to worry more about Elswyth. She knew that Elswyth had left the sleeping house again, and at first she resolved to let her be, hoping she had decided to go back to the hall and return to Drefan’s side. Her daughter had been a picture of gaiety and affection all evening. She had doted on the man she was to marry—sung for him, laughed with him, drunk from his cup, eaten from his hand, rested within the compass of his arm. There had been something false in the performance, for her gaiety had been out of proportion to the tense mood of the room. That in itself was to be expected. That was the role of the peaceweaver, to make men merry by being merrier than they, to make them cordial by being more cordial than they, to shun discord as an unwelcome guest, and invite harmony though it must come from the ends of the earth. And this Elswyth had attempted, with all the art that was native to her, and such additional art as Edith had managed to teach her. It had been to little avail. Might the mood have been worse if not for her efforts? Perhaps. But no one would claim that either of them had succeeded in weaving peace in the hall that night.
But it began to seem to Edith, as she reflected upon it, that Elswyth’s shows of affection and attention towards Drefan had seemed false even apart from the practice of the peaceweaver’s art. More and more she came to suspect that Elswyth had not merely been trying to sooth the rancor between Drefan and Leif, but to conceal her own rancor towards Drefan as well.
To see that rancor continue for a second day was particularly troubling. Elswyth had such a gift for friendship that Edith had never known rancor to be sustained from one day to the next between Elswyth and anyone—excepting perhaps Hilda, but that was Hilda’s doing. But here was that same rancor toward Drefan that had been there yesterday, not mended but grown worse. And if it continued, could Drefan, however much an oaf he might be, remain unaware of it forever?
The more this sleepless wondering dragged on, the more she became convinced that Elswyth had done what Drefan had asked of her, against her own desire, of necessity, and in doing so had come to despise Drefan, and her mother as well. And with that thought in her head it became impossible for her to go on without knowing.
She rose therefore, and went in search of Elswyth. From the door of the sleeping house, she saw the form of her daughter crossing the compound before the hall. Elswyth saw her standing waiting in the doorway and stopped a few paces away. The message could not have been clearer, but Edith was seized by a heartache too strong to allow her to respect Elswyth’s wish to be alone. She went to her, and Elswyth waited where she was, looking at the ground rather than at her mother.
“I thought you went to bed,” Edith said.
“Couldn’t sleep,” Elswyth replied, her voice low and surly, her eyes still on the ground.
“Neither could I,” her mother replied.
“I want to go to bed now.”
“Where did you go?” The anguish Edith saw in Elswyth now was not two days old. It was of the very hour.
“I’m tired, Mother.”
“You are not happy.”
“I don’t have to be happy all the time.”
“But you have spent the evening with the man you are to marry, drinking wine, singing songs, telling tales. How can that not have made you happy?”
“Can’t I just go to bed?”
“Where did you go?”
“Mother, I’m tired…”
“Did you go to him?”
Elswyth stiffened, as if with alarm, then turned away from her mother towards the sea.
There seemed only one answer. Only one thing to ask. “Has Drefan asked you to lie with him? Are you wandering about here waiting for him?”
Elswyth turned back to her again. “Why shouldn’t I, if I want to?”
“Do you want to? Or is it because...”
“You didn’t wait.”
“I had nothing to wait for.”
“Father couldn’t have courted you without…”
“Hilda already thinks I am a trollop,” Edith said. “Darling, please not you too.”
“Weren’t you a trollop?”
“One man. In all my life I have lain with one man. Your father.”
“Well, if I was waiting here for Drefan, and I did lie with him tonight, I would only ever lie with one man as well.”
“Is that all you want? To be no better than me?”
“Isn’t that what you wanted of me? I don’t need to be better than you, Mother. I’m not. That’s Hilda, not me.”
Edith went to her and grabbed her by the arm. “Oh, my darling. Please be better than me. I beg you, be better than me.”
“Really, Mother? At what cost? What should I give up to be better than you? Whose safety? Whose freedom? So that I can be better than you?”
Edith could not keep tears from her eyes. “Darling. You don’t know. You’ve never felt your belly pinch. You’ve never gleaned a field or lived on roots and dandelions. You’ve never been prey to plowboys or any young thegn that visits the hall. I need you to be a lady. Not half a lady like me, not pretending half the time and hoping no one notices, not Lady Cyneburg looking down her nose and pretending you didn’t make a fool of yourself. I need you to be a proper lady, who knows the right things and says the right things and does the right things. I need you to embroider like your fingers were born to it, not like mine that were born to the broom and the quern and never did learn to make an even stitch. I need you to wear shoes on your feet, cover your head, and keep your dress clean.”
“And what else, Mother? What else must I keep to be a lady?”
“Don’t darling. Be kind to me. Hilda is right. I am a trollop. I think like a trollop. You don’t know the difference. You will. A year in Bamburgh hall, and you will see what your grandmother saw, what Lady Cyneburg sees. Cyneburg forgives, because she is a lady. But she knows. She forgives it in me. But she cannot forgive it in you. You are to be Lady of Bamburgh after her, and you must be all she is and more. You must be better than me.”
“Mother, why are you saying this now?”
“Because of what I see in you. What I saw tonight. You don’t want to marry Drefan. You don’t want to marry Drefan, and I don’t know why. And I am afraid that it is because… I’m afraid I have made you hate me too.”
“Oh, Mother, I’m so tired. I just want to go to bed.”
Elswyth broke from her mother and began to walk toward the sleeping house. Edith turned and called after her, “You don’t have to.”
Elswyth turned back to her.
“You don’t have to marry Drefan if you don’t want to. Perhaps we can find another way.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Mother,” Elswyth snapped in return. “There is no other way.” And then she turned and entered the sleeping house, leaving her mother standing alone under the harsh gaze of the summer stars.
Next Chapter: 31 The People Rule Themselves (coming next week)
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