The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 34
Football on the Beach
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Elswyth’s attempt to make conversation with Leif and the Monk ended in a quarrel, but Elswyth had grown wise enough to let the two men settle it themselves. Get caught up using the archive.
That afternoon, Attor found a bladder and organized a team of Anglish to play football against the Norsk crew. Leif was certain that it would end in bloodshed. His fear deepened when Attor pulled off his shirt and made it plain that he intended to play for the Anglish team, and that he expected Leif to play for the Norsk. But as guests who had now overstayed by twice the customary three days for a visit, the Norsk had little choice but to agree to their host’s request. The goals were marked out. The two sides took up their positions. The ball was thrown in, and the game was on.
Elswyth did not go down to the beach to watch. Edith knew where her daughter would be. She sighed as she looked at the steepness of the path—an easy walk when she was not carrying a child, but a trial in the latter days of a pregnancy—and started up towards the cliff top.
She had no clear plan of what she intended to say to Elswyth once she found her. She wanted reconciliation before any more concrete objective. She knew that every child must eventually suffer pains that no parent can soothe or take upon themselves, and she knew that this moment had come for Elswyth, that she might never fully understand what had so roiled her daughter’s heart these last few days, however keenly she was aware of her own part in it. It was the peril of urging your child to be an adult that with that came an adult’s reserve, an adult’s privacy, an adult’s right to suffer their own pain in their own way. She had sought Elswyth hoping that the sight of her daughter would let her know how to begin, but when she found her and looked at her back as Elswyth lay looking down at the beach, at the wimple that covered her hair, which should be flowing down her back in waves, teased by the wind, she had no inspiration, and stood still, watching her, hoping that something would come to her.
“I know you’re there, Mother,” Elswyth called, after Edith had stood silent for a minute or two.
“Can I come and watch with you?” Edith called back.
“Of course you can,” Elswyth replied, not turning to look at her.
Edith came forward, dropped to her knees, and then awkwardly worked herself into a lying position beside Elswyth. She could not lie flat because of her extended belly, so she lay on one side, facing her daughter, but then turned her head to look down on the beach where the game was going on. They lay beside each other in silence for some time.
Play went back and forth, with much shouting and pushing, but little scoring. Then Califace collided with Hogni and went down in a heap and struggled to get back to his feet, stumbling and dizzy.
“That must have hurt,” Edith said.
“They seem to be enjoying themselves,” Elswyth replied.
“They always enjoy bruising each other,” Edith said. “I suppose I can understand that. But they seem to enjoy being bruised just as much, and to come away better friends the worse they hurt each other. That is the mystery of it.”
“Leif says no man want’s a coward for a friend,” Elswyth said.
“Ah, I suppose that must be it.”
“I know I am supposed to be doing my needlework…” Elswyth began.
“Your father declared a holiday for the men,” Edith replied, “so we should have a holiday too.”
Elswyth turned and smiled at her. Edith felt a wave of relief come over her at that smile. She wanted to reach out and pull Elswyth into an embrace and weep with her. But she knew better and only smiled a little in reply.
“Of course,” she added, “we only get a half holiday, for we shall have work to bandage them and feed them when this is over.”
They laughed, and then they both said “Ow!” together as Lars’ elbow met Attor’s eye. Attor sat blinking on the sand while the game went on, then staggered to his feet and charged after the ball like a bull.
There was a crack as Oxa’s boot met Leif’s shin. Elswyth winced, and Leif hopped painfully on one leg until Garberend, running blindly for the ball, barreled into him and knocked him sprawling. Leif lay still for a moment. Elswyth tensed and did not breathe until she saw him stir groggily on the sand and get to his feet to run off the injury.
Edith’s heart had also skipped a beat when she saw Leif lying there, so it took a moment before the meaning of Elswyth’s reaction sunk in for her. She looked at her wonderingly, remembering Elswyth’s definitive “Yuck!” when she had first spoken well of Leif’s appearance. She reached out a hand and stroked Elswyth’s hair.
“Drefan’s upset,” she said. “He was all shame and bad temper when he left yesterday.”
“I don’t care,” Elswyth said belligerently.
“What has happened?” Edith asked gently, her heart in her mouth.
“He wants me to prove I can give him children.”
“Do you mean he threatened to refuse the marriage if you weren’t with child?”
“No. It wasn’t like that. It was…”
“You don’t have to tell me.” But then Edith paused and said, “But if you want to…”
“It was just…” Elswyth was awkward, fidgety. It was painful to see her so unlike herself. “He ignored me for so long, and then he kisses me and an hour later he tries to lay me down in Foxton wood…”
“Did he hurt you?”
“No. Of course not. You know he wouldn’t.”
“But you refused him?”
“Yes.” The word was so full of shame and hesitation that it near broke Edith’s heart.
“I don’t know,” Elswyth said. “Perhaps I did not want my daughters to hate me.”
“Was he angry?”
“No. He was upset. But he apologized afterward. He said he had been unkind and he was sorry.”
“So it’s all right then?”
“You think I should have?” Elswyth asked. “You and Father…”
“He asked no proof of me.”
“Whatever happened to Elene of Hadston?”
“She married Halwende of Prendwick. She died last year.”
“Childbirth. She’d lost four before. Two at birth, the other two before they reached five. But I hear the one that killed her thrives.”
“You never lost a child.” Elswyth asked.
“No. You are all living, bless me. I think the one after this will be a boy.”
“After this?” said Elswyth, turning to her mother with an incredulous look on her face.
Edith rolled over onto her back. “I’m barely thirty-three, dearest. Not quite a crone. I’ve a few bairns in me yet. This one feels like another girl, though.”
Elswyth made no reply, but turned her attention again to the battle on the sands.
“Leif has grown to be a handsome lad,” her mother said.
“His beard looks ridiculous.”
“It will grow in soon enough.”
There was a shout of triumph from below. The two sides parted. The ball was thrown in and they rushed together again, resuming the slaughter.
“Do you lie here to watch the game or to watch the man?” Edith asked, rolling back onto her side and lying close beside Elswyth.
“You can speak plainly, Mother.” Elswyth said, watching as a long kick sent the ball bouncing towards the waves.
“You like Leif?”
“Leif is an idiot.”
“Does Drefan know that you think so?”
“Drefan is an idiot.”
“Drefan will soon be your husband. And Leif will soon sail away.”
“I know, Mother.”
Edith put an arm around Elswyth’s shoulder, gave her a peck on the cheek, and laid her head against Elswyth’s neck. They lay there for a few minutes, Elswyth unresisting. Was this a trouble that would pass? Was it Elswyth’s wistfulness that had made Leif into a rival for Drefan, or her heart?
Oh, pray it is her wistfulness, her terrible fickle wistfulness. Please, God, don’t let it be her heart!
Then Edith realized that Elswyth had tears in her eyes, and, in another moment, she was weeping and shaking in Edith’s arms. And Edith had her answer, for the product of wistfulness is sighs, and the product of the heart is tears.
“Were you scared?” Elswyth asked, when she was cried out.
“When you and Father…”
“When he laid me down under a haystack? I’d been working all summer to have him do that.”
“But were you scared?”
“I was terrified. But I felt safe at the same time. Safe and terrified.”
“I didn't feel like that.”
“When? I thought…”
“When Drefan tried to lay me down in Foxton wood.”
“What did you not feel, safe or terrified?
“Either one. Annoyed. He’s had half the girls in the village out to that wood.”
“Oh. The silly cow. Her father’s got money. She could win a thegn’s son standing up.”
“But if she’d cropped? Do you think he would have…”
“God, no. He was just scratching the itch. He was waiting for you to come of age.”
“He wasn’t waiting, though, was he? And then all of a sudden he takes me out there like any kitchen slave?”
“I know. Sorry. But I’m not. All of a sudden he can’t wait?”
“He saw you with Leif.”
“I was fetching him for lunch.”
“Hanging on his arm, laughing…”
“I’m not supposed to laugh?”
“But he was right, wasn’t he? About you and Leif.”
“You’re in love with Leif—or something very close to love.”
Elswyth did not answer.
“You were with him yesterday? I could not find either one of you in the hall.”
“We went for a walk.”
“In the rain?”
“I like rain, and he’s used to it.”
“So you and he haven’t…”
“He will sail away when Heorot comes back with the abbot’s gold. Tomorrow with the tide, I hope.”
“I don't care.”
There was silence between them for a few minutes, and then Elswyth said, “Leif is the son of a chief, just like Drefan.”
“Hardly. Drefan will be ealdorman of half the country north of the Tyne. Leif will be jarl over what, a small valley, a village, a couple of ships? Not much more than your father, really. Less, now that they have been raided and their treasures taken.”
“But both are sons of noblemen.”
“I suppose. Has Leif asked you…”
“He has his rules of trade.”
“They are good rules. Men’s rules. But among men, I think they are wise.”
“I don’t care.”
“Leif scares you?”
“Leif would never hurt me.”
“Things will be easier with Drefan once Leif sails away.”
“A Norsk ship on our beach is upsetting enough, these days, without all this.”
Elswyth looked skyward. “I suppose.”
“He has learned that he wants you. There won’t be any more Willas now.”
Elswyth looked into her face again. “Were you…”
“I was. I told you, only one man.”
“I never asked. He seemed so.”
Elswyth paused here a while and then asked, "Is Father a fool?”
“A fool? No, love, he’s not a fool.”
“It was him who told me to go to Leif, yesterday. He said Leif needed a sister to cheer him up.”
“I see. No, your father is not a fool. But he is an innocent, perhaps, especially where you are concerned.”
“And where you are concerned?” Elswyth’s words landed on Edith like a blow.
“So when you…”
“Yes, I knew he was an innocent then. Yes, I played on that. Your grandmother was not wrong about me. But you must never, ever doubt that I loved him, right from the start. Because I did. Always. I still do.”
“So would you tell Mayda to find some innocent young thegn and take him out behind a haystack and get herself with child?”
There was a long pause then. Edith could feel the question coming, but even when Elswyth spoke it, it came like another blow. “Then why me?”
“Can you forgive me?”
The words of forgiveness did not come. But then Edith saw tears gathering in her daughter’s eyes again. And then Elswyth said, “Can you forgive me?”
“Forgive you? For what?”
“Two nights ago, when you found me out of bed. It wasn’t Drefan I was looking for.”
A terrible apprehension gripped Edith then. But she made herself stay calm, made herself speak gently.
“Tell me,” she said.
“I went to Leif.”
“I tried to get him to…”
“To lie with you?”
Elswyth nodded, bleakly.
“To lie with you, as I lay with your father, under summer stars?”
“I should never have told you about that.”
“That’s not why…”
“Did you lie with him?”
“He said no.” Here Elswyth was striving valiantly to hold back sobs. “He wouldn’t even kiss me. The rules of trade.”
“Thank God for that. If you had cropped…”
“Well, thank God for Leif’s discretion. I hope you are as grateful to him as I am, though I suppose it would be awkward to tell him so.”
Elswyth did not respond to this, but lay beside her mother with wretched sorrow in her eyes.
“It’s not just that he turned you down, is it. You love him.”
No motion of either confirmation or denial.
“You know he is promised to a jarl’s daughter. Sibbe, I think Thor said her name was.”
At this news Elswyth rolled over onto her back and stared at the sky. “I know,” she said. “And Leif could not save you, or my sisters, or Mayda and the rest of our kin, if Father died.”
There was nothing to say in answer to this. Edith reached out a hand and placed it on Elswyth’s belly, stroking her gently.
“You needn’t worry, Mother,” Elswyth said, still looking at the sky. “I’m going to marry Drefan.”
“You will forgive him then, for Willa?”
“The only difference between him and me is that Willa said yes and Leif said no.”
“Don’t, Mother. I’m not a child. Don’t excuse it. I hate it when you and Father do that. If Leif had said yes…”
“Your father knows nothing of this?”
“Are you going to tell him?” She asked this dully, expressing neither desire nor apprehension.
“I should, I suppose. But I don’t see how it would do any good.”
“Because he’s such an innocent?”
“Because there is nothing he can do. Unless I have to worry about you and Leif…”
“You don’t. I’m going to marry Drefan. It’s like you’ve always told me, Mother. He’s a good man. He loves me. He wants me, anyway. Until a week ago, I loved him, or I expected that I would. By harvest time, I may be in love with him. I will try, anyway. You and my sisters will be safe. Granny will be a free woman. And Mayda and the rest. And I will get to travel. Not to Spain, but all over the district, when the ealdorman does his rounds, and to York, to the king’s hall, when he visits there. And the king will come to Bamburgh, at least once a year. I will serve dinner to the king and give him his cup. My mother was born a slave, and I will host the king at my table.” Here she turned and looked at her mother with tears in her eyes. “And you will be there with me, Mother. I shall insist. When the king visits Bamburgh, you will visit too. I will present you to the king. And Hilda and Moira and Daisy. Even Whitney. Whitney will meet the king and smile at him.”
Edith leaned towards Elswyth, meaning to kiss her on the cheek. But Elswyth turned towards her suddenly, so that their faces were inches apart.
"Are you proud, Mother? Are you proud now?”
Edith pulled back in shock. “Must you be cruel to me? Do you hate me now?”
Elswyth’s face softened from anger into wistfulness. “No. It’s just… I know you now. All along you were my mother and I didn’t know you.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I ever…”
“Don’t be. If you hadn’t, I suppose I would be Mayda now, laying some innocent young thegn down behind a haystack and getting myself with child so I would not get sold off to some less innocent thegn for a concubine.”
“Because she knows you won’t sell her off.”
“Perhaps. I don’t know. I don’t want to find out.”
“But with me…”
“Now you are being cruel.”
Elswyth said nothing in reply. She turned and looked down at the sands, where the pace of play had notably slowed and most of the players were hanging their heads in exhaustion when the ball was not near them. “I think the game is nearly over,” she said. “We should go gather herbs and make bandages.”
Elswyth stood and offered her mother a hand to rise. “I don’t hate you, Mother. Everything will be all right now. Come on. We have work to do.”
Next Chapter: 35 Man to Man (coming next week)
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