Thomasine sat in the far corner of the window bench in Domina Edith’s parlor, her hands folded in her lap, her gaze on the sunlit, empty yard below. Sir Walter and Master Montfort and all their men were gone. Sir Walter had taken Lady Ermentrude’s household with him. There had been a great clatter, with shouting and creaking of wheels and clanking of harness, but now there was only the mid-morning silence with, distantly, the calling of workers in the fields. Everything in the past few days might not have happened, except for Martha Hayward’s coffin waiting in the church for someone to come and take it to her people.
But here, in the first deep quiet since yesterday, Domina Edith had asked Thomasine to come to the parlor, and told her to sit while she and Dame Frevisse and Master Chaucer talked together. Thomasine heard their voices as a wordless mutter – a background to the quiet – glad to have her Benedictine peace wrapped round her again.
Lady Ermentrude’s mortal remains had gone with her son and with her murderers. Sir John, bound to his horse and his hands tied behind him, Lady Isobel at his side and guarded, had ridden out behind the coffin on its cart this morning, with Master Montfort’s men on all sides of them, taking them to Oxford and the royal justices.
Thomasine, at her request, knowing by then what had happened, had spoken to Isobel before they left. The other nuns had been told as much as they needed to know at recreation time before Compline yesterday, but she had been taken to Domina Edith and told all of it. So she had known as she stood there, looking at her sister and Sir John, that Isobel had killed two people, had tried to kill her, and only barely been stopped from killing Master Chaucer; that she had done all that while she fretted over her husband’s toothache, and talked of being grieved, and that Sir John, weak and insecure, had helped her.
But the soul-deep quietness and surety that had come with Thomasine out of the golden-hazed, half-remembered wonder in the church had still been in her then and was in her now, keeping her from horror and even anger. She had felt compassion and sorrow as she stood in Sir John’s and Isobel’s room with the guards at the door and told them she would pray for them, and asked if there was anything else she might do.
Isobel had been dry-eyed then, but the marks of tears were on her, and she had clung to Sir John’s hand as tightly as he was holding to hers as she said, her voice uneven with grief, “My children. This was done for them. All of it for them. Tell her, John. Tell her how it was all for the children.”
Sir John had lifted his head. His gaze had wandered, never quite finding Thomasine before he vaguely answered, “Yes,” his look turned toward the barred and shuttered window.
Isobel’s hand tightened on his, but her gaze held, burning, on Thomasine. “People will try to make them suffer, but they’re innocent. And their inheritance is in doubt. You’re meaning to be a nun. Go on with it, and make no claim on their inheritance. Don’t rob them. Promise me that.”
The promise came easily, sincerely, but Isobel leaned forward, a harshness of anger in her voice, saying, “It’s a promise you must keep. We’ll have our marriage legalized before this… ends. They’ll be legitimate then, and nothing, nothing will come to you or your clever nuns that brought us to this. John, tell her that.” Her knuckles had showed white around his hand, and he looked at her, but then away. “John,” she insisted.
And he had said, “Yes,” but whether in agreement or only answering her tightened hold on him, Thomasine could not tell.
“And keep away from them. They are not to come to you, or you to them, so you can tell them lies about us. I’ll see to that before–” She had held back the words that had to come after that and turned her face away, with maybe tears in her eyes again, but certainly grief as she said, “Go away.” No apology for anything that she had done. No regretting anything but failure.
Thomasine had gone. Except for what his wife had told him to say, Sir John had not spoken at all, and at Thomasine’s last sight of him, he had been staring downward, slowly moving his head from side to side as if disbelieving what had happened.
Now, in Domina Edith’s parlor, while the prioress spoke in her soothing murmur to Dame Frevisse and Master Chaucer, St. Frideswide’s peace seemed a more fragile thing to Thomasine than it had been before, a less sure protection than she had thought it was. But it was real, and so was the golden quiet in herself that she knew Isobel had never known. Nor ever would, too bound as she was to her worldly desires to learn that the only way to securely hold anything was to let go of wanting.
Across the parlor Master Chaucer said, “Most of the lady’s anger seems to be at William Vaughan for not having died when he was supposed to. She seems to feel the fault is his. His living after he wrote he was dying forced her to the murders.”
Dame Frevisse shook her head, not in denial but in regretful agreement, and said, “She and Vaughan thought they were in love and made promises to one another. But their ‘love’ failed to last beyond their parting. He hardly wrote to her after he left, she said. The message that he was dying was his last. Knowing men – and I beg your pardon, Uncle – I would guess William Vaughan had been as busy forgetting her as she anxious to forget him, until he was ill and sure he would die. He sent the message because he wanted to let her know, if she hadn’t done anything about it in the meantime, that she would shortly be free of her vow to him – and possibly to make her feel at least a little sorry for him, dying of flux in a foreign land. When he recovered, perhaps he felt too ashamed to write and say he was still alive, still out of love with her, that she was still bound by the hasty words they had spoken to one another so long ago.”
“And then he went on to father a child on another woman,” Domina Edith murmured. “As careless in his affections, seemingly, as in his promises.”
“As careless as Lady Isobel,” Master Chaucer replied. “She had no right to be making such a betrothal with no one’s knowledge. And less right to agree to marrying Sir John without being certain she was free.”
Softly from her corner Thomasine said, “She was in love with Sir John. She’s still in love with him.”
“She’s destroyed him,” Dame Frevisse answered quietly.
Master Chaucer nodded. “The pity is that if she hadn’t told John of her other betrothal before they were married, it would be held he married her in full good faith and that their children were, at least, legitimate. But because she told him and he knew of the other betrothal as well as she did, their marriage was invalid from its start since William Vaughan was alive when it was made. They didn’t know that, though, and would never have known it if Lady Ermentrude hadn’t taken it upon herself to bludgeon them about it after she heard that Vaughan died three years later than they had thought.”
Thomasine dared to ask, “So it’s certain my lady aunt knew about the betrothal?”
Master Chaucer nodded. “She had it out of Isobel, when Isobel’s reasons for not marrying Sir John grew ever more feeble. You know at least as well as the rest of us how she would demand an answer to her questions.”
Thomasine nodded, and was a little surprised to find no trace of resentment in herself. Poor Lady Ermentrude, was all she thought.
Master Chaucer continued, “All this touched her on her pride. It was she who came to me about the marriage, she who was all puffed up about how smoothly the arranging went, and she who felt most abused by this sudden impediment to her plans – an impediment that came about while Isobel and William were in her care, to her greater discredit. Then, just as she must needs tell me about it, Isobel received the letter from William and shared its contents with her.”
“She ought not to have told Sir John what the problem was,” remarked Dame Frevisse.
“But Lady Isobel wanted him to know she was not refusing him because she wanted to,” said Master Chaucer. “So she told him her secret, and what they would have made of it, I don’t know, but word came of Vaughan’s ‘dying’ and the matter was suddenly all easy for them.”
“It was only our chance talking here that afternoon that gave the truth about William Vaughan’s dying to Lady Ermentrude,” said Dame Frevisse, “and set the matter on its way to her death.”
“I only spoke of it to keep her mind from planning to bother you,” said Master Chaucer with real regret. “She was a great meddler and a proud woman. She wasn’t thinking of Lady Isobel or Sir John when she rode off to tell them. She was thinking of herself and of what blame might come to her at the undoing of their marriage. She never gave them time to think of a quiet way to fix matters, just let her temper take high hand. And Isobel’s came back to answer it.”
Domina Edith’s tone was regretful but firm. “Sin will out, and its price is terrible.”
“But they hadn’t knowingly sinned,” Thomasine said earnestly. “Even Lady Ermentrude was in the right in going to warn them their souls were in danger.”
Domina Edith looked at her, her eyes deep with age and knowing, so that suddenly but very surely Thomasine realized how much of the prioress’s quietness came not from the weariness of age but from years of watching other people’s lives, and her own as well, and thinking on them while she did.
“They did not knowingly sin in their marrying,” Domina Edith agreed quietly. “Nor did Lady Ermentrude in going to tell them of William Vaughan. It was Lady Ermentrude’s prideful arrogance toward them and her wrath when they would not bend to her will that were her sins. And they did sin knowingly when they chose to kill her instead of bending to the necessity of facing their wrong.” She looked at Thomasine. “That’s what all her resolve was to have you out of here. She was in a fury with them and their foolish insistence that they would not undo their marriage. She determined to punish them by taking you out of here and seeing you married, so your legitimate children would inherit the family lands and deny them to John and Isobel’s children.”
“And since her eyes had been uncovered to what she judged their greed and wickedness,” added Master Chaucer, “she decided they must have forced you to come here, and bribed St. Frideswide’s to keep you against your will.”
“But I told her over and over I wanted to come,” protested Thomasine.
“And Isobel told her William Vaughan was dead.”
Domina Edith said to Dame Frevisse, “I see how you came to know that she was poisoned before she left their manor. Master Chaucer was so certain it was Maryon. Why did you keep looking for another answer?”
Dame Frevisse’s face was marked by weariness. The confrontation of first Sir John and Lady Isobel, and then of Sir Walter and Master Montfort, had been mainly hers to bear. What came afterward had gone on well into the night, in a welter of angers and questionings until everything had been understood enough to satisfy both Master Montfort and Sir Walter. Then she had had to spend this early morning seeing to their guests leaving. Small wonder her smile was faint as she answered, “It was Sir John’s toothache. Once Dame Claire was certain Lady Ermentrude’s first illness was from henbane, there was the question of why that poison. If Maryon was the poisoner, why had she chosen so uncertain a poison? Surely she would not have dared poison Lady Ermentrude without firm instructions from the queen. So she would have had a sure poison to hand. Henbane is more likely to derange a person than outright kill them so it’s not as useful as some others. But Sir John had talked of his toothache being treated by a passing peddler whose cure was a smoking sham. Henbane is the base for that deception. The peddler would warn them not to attempt to repeat the cure, as henbane is poisonous. That’s what put it into Lady Isobel’s head. Henbane is a common weed, underfoot in any yard. That was Lady Isobel’s problem the morning Lady Ermentrude sent for the wine. No time to brew a deadly simple, or slip away to the woods, where the more deadly nightshade grows; she needed something quickly. So she used the henbane, hoping it would be enough to kill, but followed after, when she had the nightshade, on the chance she would have to try again.”
“But how did you come to think of Isobel in the matter?”‘ asked Master Chaucer.
“Because so far as we knew there was no reason for Lady Ermentrude suddenly deciding to go on to the Wykehams that afternoon. She simply did, and fell to raging at them as soon as she was there, then rode back here, still furious, for no real reason so far as we could tell from what anyone could tell us. It was easy to accept she was in some sort of brain fever all that while, unreasoned and half-mad. And that someone took advantage of it to kill her after she returned here. Only when Dame Claire realized Lady Ermentrude returned here already poisoned did it suddenly matter very much why she had gone to the Wykehams in the first place. I could only guess that something we’d said here that afternoon had set her off. When Thomasine told me her sister’s secret, I finally knew what had happened.”
“And Sir John knew what his lady was about?” Domina Edith asked.
“Not the first time. But afterwards, with the nightshade, he knew. I think he would have stopped her if he could, but she’s the stronger of the two of them.”
Domina Edith sadly shook her head. “All to save their children from disgrace.”
“No,” Master Chaucer said. “It’s only a small legal matter for the Church and Crown to make a marriage like theirs lawful and legitimize their children. There would be some bother and maybe laughter but no long-held disgrace and afterwards everything would be righted. It was the price Lady Isobel objected to. Such legalities are expensive.”
“But they could have afforded that,” objected Thomasine. “There must have been a way they could have managed it no matter how expensive.”
“Yes, but Lady Isobel had another purpose for the money. Since your father’s title of Lord was entailed through the male line only, it died with him, unable to pass through your sister’s blood to her sons.”
Thomasine nodded. She knew that. Master Chaucer continued, “Your sister was hoping to buy the title back into the family. For Sir John in her right, or for their eldest son. Titles can be had from the Crown for a price but, like all legalities, they’re expensive. She and Sir John could afford either the title or having their marriage made legal, but if they had to pay for one, they’d not have been able to pay for the other, not for a long while yet, perhaps not ever. Your sister is a proud woman, not willing to face even casual slurs on her marriage. But above all, an impatient woman, who wants what she wants now, not later.”
“The way she wanted William Vaughan,” Domina Edith said softly. “And then Sir John. And wanted Lady Ermentrude dead. A very dangerous thing is impatience. Even when it is for something good. Like the taking of one’s vows.”
Thomasine looked at her, startled. But the familiar fear did not come with it, so that she actually saw the laughter quirking at the corners of the prioress’s mouth, and Dame Frevisse’s. A little uncertainly, she smiled back, then bowed her head and said, “It’s almost too late to be impatient now.”
They laughed at her then, but gently with the kindness of understanding, and to her surprise, Thomasine found that the laughter did not hurt.
A while later she stood beside Dame Frevisse in the yard as the last of Master Chaucer’s men disappeared beyond the gateway after him. At her back St. Frideswide’s silence was waiting for her, a promise of prayers and peace, but for just now she was more aware of the doves coming back to the well on their rustling wings, unafraid of two nuns at the cloister door. Over the fading sound of the horses’ cantering hoofs she could hear the creak of carts on the track from the fields. The rain had been too slight to hurt the harvest and the fields had already dried. Someone beyond the wall called to mind the rut or they’d have the load over, and Dame Frevisse asked mildly, “Did you talk to Robert Fenner before he left with Sir Walter?”
Slightly disconcerted by the unexpected question, Thomasine answered, “Yes. When I came from speaking to Isobel this morning he stopped me and we spoke.”
“What did he have to say?”
“That he was sorry about my sister, and that he hoped I would be happy when my vows were taken.”
“And anything more?”
Puzzled, aware that Dame Frevisse was watching her face as if in search of something, Thomasine answered simply, “No. Should there have been?”
Dame Frevisse watched her a moment more before looking away. “No,” she said. “There should not have been.”
THE END OF BOOK ONE
THE STORY CONTINUES IN…
THE PLAY’S THE THING, TO CATCH THE CONSCIENCE OF A KILLER…
The Christmas season brings strange guests to the medieval nunnery of St. Frideswide’s when a troupe of penniless players comes knocking at the gate. They bear with them the badly mangled body of a villager, swearing they found the drunken fool lying in a ditch. But Meg, the victim’s wife and a scullery maid of the cloister, thinks there are far fouler deeds afoot.
As the players rehearse for the nativity, ancient scandals lick at their heels and dark desperation haunts Meg’s steps as she finds cruel feudal laws threatening to strip away the lands that would support both her and her sons in the wake of her husband’s death.
Dame Frevisse must thrust herself between these violent feuds, awakening dreams of her youth that she had believed long buried. Her very faith may be threatened, but Frevisse knows she must unravel a path to true salvation… before false raptures of lust bring ruination upon them all.
PRAISE FOR THE SERVANT’S TALE
“Period detail, adroit characterizations, and lively dialogue add to the pleasure of this labyrinthine tale.” – Publishers Weekly
“This mystery is so rich with place and time that they become characters in the story. Dame Frevisse is a stalwart, appealing sleuth and the cold, dark priory and the squalor of Medieval England are fascinating backdrops.” – New Orleans Times-Picayune
“The writing is seamless… The atmosphere of the book is cold and blustery, danger afield. A well-steeped sense of history prevails… They make this novel more than a mystery, but a wonderful historical dark tapestry. We are transported back to the 14th century. One of the 10 best mystery novels of 1993.” – Minneapolis Star Tribune
“I look forward to more murders at St. Frideswide.” – The Mystery Review
“Frazer never falters in this magnificent historical… This is a perfect mystery: It’s flawless.” – Drood Review of Mystery
NOMINATED FOR THE 1994 EDGAR AWARD