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As good as a historical novel can be—fresh, imaginative, sensitively written.”
—The New York Post
The Man on a Donkey is an enthralling, panoramic historical novel that brings to life one of the most tumultuous times in British history—the reign of King Henry VIII.
In Part 1, readers are introduced to the world of the Tudors through the lives of five individuals. When King Henry VIII takes ...
As good as a historical novel can be—fresh, imaginative, sensitively written.”
—The New York Post
The Man on a Donkey is an enthralling, panoramic historical novel that brings to life one of the most tumultuous times in British history—the reign of King Henry VIII.
In Part 1, readers are introduced to the world of the Tudors through the lives of five individuals. When King Henry VIII takes his mistress as his new wife, seizes Church property, and declares himself the only supreme head of the Church of England, the lives and fortunes of these five people are shaken—setting the stage for the momentous events in Part 2 of The Man on a Donkey.
Introduction Jim Campbell
We have an ongoing fascination with the story of the Tudor dynasty (1485–1603). The reign of Henry VIII (1509–1547) is filled with spectacle, intrigue, and tensions that led to the separation of the Church of England from Rome. Elizabeth I (1558–1603) faced down her enemies internally and externally, most spectacularly the Spanish Armada in 1588. During the reign of the Tudors, England began to move onto the world stage, setting the foundations that would lead to English dominance at sea for over two hundred years.
In the twentieth century, there were some fifty-five movie and television productions dealing with the coming to power of the Tudor dynasty and their colorful careers. Most productions dealt with the reigns of Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I. The larger-than-life character of King Henry VIII has been played by actors of the caliber of Charles Laughton, Richard Burton, Keith Michell, and Robert Shaw. As we moved into the twenty-first century, the fascination continued with a ten-part cable production of the history of the escapades of Henry VIII and a major movie about his relationship with Anne Boleyn. The colorful life of Henry VIII—his six wives, his spectacular divorces, his break with the Catholic Church—naturally attracts attention. Henry VIII’s reign includes the confrontations with Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, who in conscience could not follow Henry’s plans for the future of the Church and lost their heads as a result.
Who Were the Tudors?
The Tudor dynasty came into power at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. This was the culmination of the Wars of the Roses, the fratricidal conflict between the noble Houses of York (the white rose) and Lancaster (the red rose). Richard III, the last York king, was killed on the battlefield, leaving Henry Tudor, the last living man representing the Lancaster claim to the throne, the “last man standing.” Henry was crowned as Henry VII. To heal the breach between the Lancaster family and that of York, Henry married Richard III’s niece, Elizabeth of York. She was the daughter of King Edward IV of York (1461–1470, 1471–1483). As far as we can tell, the marriage was a happy one. Henry and Elizabeth had seven children, four of whom survived childhood. Their oldest son, Arthur, the unhealthy heir apparent, was married to Katherine of Aragon, the young daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, in 1501. About six months later, in April 1502, Arthur died, possibly of tuberculosis or “sweating sickness.”
Not wanting to lose the enormous dowry that came with Katherine, Henry VII proposed that Katherine marry his second son, Henry. Before the marriage could take place, an impediment in the Church’s canon law had to be dealt with. This impediment was based on two verses in the Book of Leviticus. (“You shall not have intercourse with your brother’s wife, for that would be a disgrace to your brother.” [18:16] “If a man marries his brother’s wife and thus disgraces his brother, they shall be childless because of this incest.” [20:21]) Based on these verses, canon law at the time declared that Henry was forbidden to marry his brother’s widow. Katherine maintained that since Arthur was so ill their marriage was never consummated. A dispensation was petitioned for and received from Rome allowing the marriage to go forward. After the death of Henry VII, the seventeen-year-old Henry VIII married Katherine, who was five years older than he, in 1509.
At first the marriage between Henry and Katherine seemed to go well. Their first child, a daughter, was stillborn. The second child, a boy named Henry, was born in 1511 and died two months after birth. In the following years, Katherine suffered at least two more failed pregnancies. Only Mary, a daughter born in 1516, survived. Though Henry’s personal hold on the throne was strong, he knew that without a strong male heir to follow him the country could plunge back into civil war. By 1526, Katherine was in her forties, and it was apparent that she would not produce a male heir. Henry petitioned Rome for an annulment of his marriage to Katherine so he could marry a younger woman who could give him a son.
Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York and Henry’s Lord Chancellor, negotiated with Rome in seeking an annulment. When Pope Clement VII ultimately refused Henry’s request, Henry had Cardinal Wolsey arrested for treason in October 1529. Wolsey was stripped of his wealth. Henry noticed that much of Wolsey’s wealth came from twenty-eight small monasteries Wolsey had shut down. Wolsey had used some of the profits to establish schools, but he had also kept a great deal of the wealth for his personal use.
By 1533, Anne Boleyn, Henry’s mistress at that time, had become pregnant. This forced Henry to act. He secretly married Anne Boleyn in January 1533 without the annulment that he now believed he did not need. In May 1533, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer declared Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon invalid. In June 1533, the English Parliament declared papal authority in England no longer existed. Anne of Boleyn, much to her chagrin, gave birth to a daughter who would eventually become Queen Elizabeth I. She did not bear the son that Henry so desperately wanted.
In 1534, the English Parliament passed a number of acts including the Act of Supremacy, declaring that the king was “the only supreme head of the Church of England,” and the Treasons Act, which made it high treason, punishable by death, to refuse to acknowledge the king as such. Because of their refusal to acknowledge Henry VIII as supreme head of the Church of England and recognize Anne Boleyn as rightful Queen of England, Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher lost their heads in 1535. In 1536, Katherine of Aragon, exiled by Henry from any contact with the court, died.
The Man on a Donkey: Part 1
The lives and fortunes under Henry’s rule are the subjects of H. F. M. Prescott’s The Man on a Donkey. Prescott covers the years between 1495–1537, not only telling the story of Henry and his personal and social ambitions but also providing a well-rounded picture of the society he changed. She tells the story of the uprising in Northern England known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. The Pilgrimage of Grace was in response to Henry’s decision to close the monasteries and religious houses in England and loot them of their accumulated wealth.
As in the original edition of the novel, the story of The Man on a Donkey is told in two volumes in this Loyola Classics edition. In the first volume, Prescott slowly introduces us to this world of the Tudors. She does so by means of a chronicle centering on the lives of five people who are shaken by the events of the time.
Christabel Cowper is prioress of Marrick Priory, a small Benedictine nunnery. We are introduced to Christabel at the beginning of the book as she is leaving the priory. Henry VIII has dissolved the priory and pensioned off the nuns. Christabel is bitter, believing she has been betrayed by God in losing her priory. Much of the first volume tells her story from novice to prioress and her efficient management of the priory.
Note: Marrick Priory was an actual nunnery where Christabel Cowper was prioress. Upon closure of the priory, she received a pension of 100 shillings a year which was paid until 1562, the year she probably died.
Thomas, Lord Darcy, is an elderly Lord who has a high position in Henry’s court. From his perspective, we see the changes taking place in Henry’s attitude towards Katherine of Aragon and the movement toward annulment. Lord Darcy is uncomfortable with these changes. The centralization of power in the person of the king especially makes him nervous. In a conversation with his son George, Darcy is upset because his son seems to be living in a different world than the one he grew up in.
“Now by God’s Death, George,” Darcy interrupted him, “I wonder sometimes that you are son of mine. My father taught me as I have taught you, that a man that is a lord stands by his friends and his men through flood and fire.”
“And not by his Prince?”
Darcy turned and looked at him, and answered after a while in a different voice, thoughtfully.
“You and some others have a new idea of a Prince. You think he must have his way, whatsoever it be, with the law or maugre [in spite of] the law. That was not the way of it in England when I was a lad.”
“And a right merry England you made of it with wars and bickerings, and making and unmaking of kings.” George got up and went over to the door and wrenched it open.
“Give you good night, Sir,” said he, and went out.
Julian Savage, gentlewoman, is the plain sister of a beautiful woman. She and her sister Margaret are the illegitimate daughters of the Duke of Buckingham. After the death of the duke, they are shuffled about by his family. Margaret, with her beauty and captivating ways, moves more easily in the world of men. Julian tags along having no other place to go. She is a pious girl whose life is improved when by chance she is found by Robert Aske, a young lawyer, who is the first person to treat her decently. As a result of his kindness, Julian falls deeply in love with Robert. Robert does not return her affection but continues to treat her with sympathetic kindness. Julian is finally sent to Marrick Priory as a novice. Julian has difficulty with the spirituality of the age, especially in the graphic descriptions of Jesus’ suffering for us. How could a God who is merciful let his own Son suffer so?
Robert Aske, squire, is a young lawyer who is making his way in London. He befriends Julian Savage with an act of kindness, and supports her as she tries to find her way. Robert is busy learning the law, but is troubled by the direction the king is taking the Church and Christian life. In 1534, adult men are required to take the oath to uphold the king’s daughter Elizabeth as his lawful heir, born of a lawful marriage. This means that Henry’s first marriage was no marriage at all, and the pope’s dispensation for marriage was nothing. Robert Aske takes the oath as required, but is troubled. After a long discussion of the issue with a friend, Robert Aske brings the discussion to an end.
He was silent for a minute and then said, as if he were in a hurry to have it spoken before they stepped into the wherry [rowboat], “Sir Thomas More and the Bishop of Rochester lie this day in the Tower. Yet is their conscience clean.”
Robert Aske’s troubled conscience will lead him to fateful decisions in response to Henry’s move to shutter the monasteries and priories, as will be seen in Part 2.
Gilbert Dawe is a seriously troubled priest who is assigned to be chaplain at Marrick Priory. He has broken his vow of celibacy in a long-term relationship with a local woman. This relationship has resulted in the birth of four children. The first three died, as did their mother. The affair troubles Gilbert because of his inability to keep his vow of chastity. Gilbert is attracted to the new ideas bubbling up during this time of Reformation. Reading the Bible in English and questioning the mores of the Church and the validity of the sacraments makes him even more uncomfortable in his duties.
When Gilbert learns that his son is not living in good circumstances, he brings the boy to Marrick to live with him. His actions bring him little joy, as the boy, who is mute, is a daily reminder of Gilbert’s failings.
The boy, Wat, becomes the only real friend to Malle, a woman who was brought to Marrick and survives by doing menial tasks for the Priory. Malle is a visionary sharing what she sees with Wat. In her visions we see the inner meaning of the historical events beginning to emerge.
In The Man on a Donkey, Part 1, the stage is set for the great happenings in Part 2. Henry has his wish: by 1536 he is permanently relieved of Katherine. Anne Boleyn discovers the cost of her ambition. Now the head of the Church of England, Henry will bring to bear the power of the state to squeeze the Church for all that it is worth.
James Campbell is a veteran religious educator and author. He is the coauthor of the Finding God religious education program, published by Loyola Press, and the general editor of the Harper’s New American Bible Study Program. He has three post-graduate degrees, including master’s degrees in theology and history, and a doctorate in Ministry in Christian Education from the Aquinas Institute of Theology, St. Louis. He is the staff theologian at Loyola Press.
The Man on a Donkey, Part 1
To Dorothy Mack because it is her book
The book is cast in the form of a chronicle. This form, which requires space to develop itself, has been used in an attempt to introduce the reader into a world, rather than at first to present him with a narrative. In that world he must for a while move like a stranger, as in real life picking up, from seemingly trifling episodes, understanding of those about him, and learning to know them without knowing that he learns. Only later, when the characters should by this means have become familiar, does the theme of the whole book emerge, as the different stories which it contains run together and are swallowed up in the tragic history of the Pilgrimage of Grace. And throughout, over against the world of sixteenth-century England, is set that other world, whose light is focused, as through a burning glass, in the half-crazy mind of Malle, the serving woman, and in the three cycles of her visions is brought to bear successively upon the stories of the chief characters of the chronicle.
The Beginning and the End
Sir John Uvedale had business at Coverham Abbey in Wensleydale, lately suppressed, so he sent his people on before him to Marrick, to make ready for him, and to take over possession of the Priory of St. Andrew from the nuns, who should all be gone by noon or thereabouts. Sir John’s steward had been there for a week already, making sure that the ladies carried away nothing but what was their own, and having the best of the silver and gold ornaments of the church packed up in canvas, then in barrels, ready to be sent to the King. The lesser stuff was pushed, all anyhow, into big wicker baskets; since it would be melted down, scratches and dints did not matter.
Sir John’s people left Coverham before it was daylight, because the November days were short. They had reached the top and were going down toward Marrick when the sun looked over the edge of the fells in a flare of wintry white gold. It was about ten o’clock in the morning that they came down into Swaledale and through the meadows toward Marrick stepping-stones; the priory stood opposite them across the river, at the top of a pleasant sloping meadow whose lower edge thrust away the quick running Swale in a great sickle-shaped curve. The cluster of buildings and the tall tower of the church took the sunshine of a morning mild and sweet as spring. Behind the priory, with hardly more than the width of a cart way between, the dale side went up steeply, covered for the most part with ash, beech, and oak; the mossed trunks of the trees showed sharply green in the open sunlit woods. There was one piece of hillside just behind the priory where there were no trees, but only turf nibbled close by the nuns’ neat black-stockinged Swaledale sheep; in the summertime the ladies had used sometimes to sit here with their spinning and embroidery, and here in spring the priory washing was always spread out; now, on this winter morning, the slope was empty.
They crossed the stream, climbed the meadow by the cart track, and turned the corner of the long priory wall. Sir John’s steward stood in the sunshine that struck through the gatehouse arch; he swung a big key from his finger—the key of the priory gate, which the prioress herself had a moment ago put into his hand.
And now he watched the prioress and the last two of the ladies who went with her, and a couple of servants, as they rode alongside the churchyard on their way to Richmond and into the world. Of the three middle-aged women, one, plump and plain, was crying helplessly and without concealment; she kept her face turned to look back on the priory, for all that her tears drowned the sight of it. Another, a handsome woman yet, who had flashed her dark eyes at the steward, glanced once over her shoulder; her mouth shook, but she tossed her head and rode on.
The prioress herself did not look back, nor was her face in any way discomposed. Down at the core of her heart she was angry, though not with the King for turning away all the monks and nuns in England and taking the abbeys into his hand—surely he had a right to them if any had. She was not indeed angry with any man at all, but with God, who had tricked her into thirty years of a nun’s life, had suffered her to be prioress, and to rule, and now had struck power out of her hand.
But that anger lay beneath, so that she did not even know it was there. Her mind was set on the future as she considered and tried to estimate what her position would be in the house of her married sister. She would have her pension—but suppose it were not paid regularly—? On what foothold could she stand so as to make her will felt? Her thoughts were so closely engaged that she did not notice when they crossed the muddy lane which was the boundary of the priory lands, and so left Marrick quite behind.
The steward stood where he was until the ladies were out of sight. Now, for the first time for close on four hundred years, there were no nuns at Marrick. But he was not thinking of that as he turned back into the gate. Before Sir John arrived there was much to be done; he gave his orders curtly, and even before dinner was ready the servants were all about the place, sweeping up stale rushes, scrubbing, unpacking trussing beds and coffers that they had brought on the baggage animals, shaking out hangings, lighting fires.
Most of Sir John’s men were of the new persuasion, and glad to see the houses of religion pulled down. One or two of them opened the aumbry in the cloister, and there came upon a few books which the ladies had left behind. They found great cause for satisfaction, as for laughter, in tearing out the pages of these books and scattering them in the cloister garth; one of the books was very old and beautiful, gay with colors and sumptuous with plumped-up burnished gold; another had initial letters of a dusky red like drying blood; when the pages were strewn about the garth it looked as if flowers were blooming in November.
Two only, out of those who had come this morning from Coverham, took no part at all in this business of setting the house to rights for its new owner. One of these was Sir John’s old priest, the other was the woman Malle, who was the priest’s servant now, and had therefore, with him, so strangely come back to Marrick.
The old man sat down on the horse-block for some time in the sun, then wandered out and down to the river, to pace the level bank there just below the stepping-stones, telling his beads, and letting the unceasing hushing of the water fill his mind with peace. There was nothing for him to do but wait. His stuff was among the rest that had been unloaded in the great court of the priory, but he knew that the steward would have no time to think of sending it to the parsonage till all was ready for Sir John’s coming.
Even before he came down to the river, Malle left him, to drift about looking here and there, more as if she were searching for something or someone than merely revisiting places that had once been familiar. After going to the edge of the woods and staring up over the little wooden gate at the foot of the nuns’ steps, she came back into the kitchen, then into the great court and climbed the outside stair that led up to the door of what had been the prioress’s chamber. It was quite empty now; all the goods of Christabel Cowper, last prioress of Marrick, had been taken away; there were no rushes on the floor nor wainscot on the walls; only cobwebs, and the marks where the wainscot had been. Over the hearth the old painted letters, which had been hidden by a small but specially fine piece of arras, showed once more—I.H.S. Malle could not read but she knew that the symbols meant, somehow, God, so she curtseyed and crossed herself.
From the prioress’s chamber she wandered over to the guesthouse and stood inside the door of the upper chamber, just where she had stood when my Lord Darcy had sat on the bed, with his hands on the cross of his walking staff, questioning about her visions. She did not remember him nor his questions because something in her that had been a restlessness was strengthening into belief; she began to know that if now she sought, she would find.
So she went quickly once more across the great court and into the cloister. The crumpled pages of the books were sidling about the grass, the flower beds, and the cloister walks as a light fresh wind shifted them. She stooped to pick up some that moved just before her, because they were pretty to look at; from between two of the red-lettered pages a pressed flower fell, the bell of a wild foxglove, pale purple, frail, and half transparent; she did not know that Julian Savage had put it there one day, because Robert Aske had worn it on his finger, like the fingertip of a glove, while he talked to her. She had put it there for a charm to shield him from hurt.
Two men coming down the day-stairs shouted at Malle; they knew that she was at least three parts fool, and they laughed loudly as she bolted out of the cloister and into the great court again. She had meant to go into the church, but, since she did not dare until the two men had gone away again, she began peeping into the stables on the opposite side of the great court. In them some of the beasts stood, patient and idle, only their mouths working; there were empty stalls too, for some had been led out to the fields; this morning the priory servants had each done as seemed best to himself now the bailiff was gone already, and the prioress to go by noon.
After the stables she looked into the dove house; the sleepy crooning there had a summer sound, which made it seem that time had turned back. She went next into the guesthouse stable. Leaning in one corner among some pea-sticks was the fishing rod that Master Aske had put there on the afternoon when Malle had sat here peeling rushes for lights, while the rain poured down outside. She did not now think of Master Aske, nor of that day, nor of any time since, because all the sorrows of the world were clean washed from her mind by the shining certainty that was growing in it.
So she would wait no longer for the men, but went back, hurrying, into the cloister, and so into the nuns’ church.
But he was not in the nuns’ church. The door in the wall that separated the nuns from the parish church was open today; so she went through. Here Gilbert Dawe had told her that he was dead, and now lived, and was alive forevermore. But he was not in the parish church either.
She did not know where else to look, and it was without thought or intention that she came to the frater and opened the door; there was no supposing that he would have come to that room. No one ever used it except at great feasts like Christmas, since for a long time the nuns had eaten by messes, each mess in its own chamber.
Yet today the frater had been used. Today, instead of eating in their chambers, all stripped of furnishing, the ladies had breakfasted together, according to the ancient Rule of their order, but hastily and in confusion of mind. The disarray of that hurried meal lay upon the table, and the sun, shining through the painted glass of the windows in the south wall, spilled faint flakes of color, rose, green, gold, upon the white board-cloth.
There were eleven wooden trenchers set on the table, with crumbled bread and bits of eggshell on them. There were eleven horn drinking pots too, and several big platters, all empty, except that there was upon one a piece of broiled fish, and on the other half a honeycomb.
The chronicle is mainly of five: of Christabel Cowper, prioress; Thomas, Lord Darcy; Julian Savage, gentlewoman; Robert Aske, squire; Gilbert Dawe, priest.
There are besides, the King and three who were his Queens, and many others, men and women, gentle and simple, good and bad, false and true, who served God or their own ends, who made prosperous voyage or came to shipwreck.
There is also Malle, the serving woman.
Elevaverunt Flumina Fluctos Suos: A Vocibus Aquarum Multarum. Mirabiles Elationes Maris: Mirabilis in Altis Dominus.
The floods arise, O Lord: The floods lift up their noise,
The floods lift up their waves.
The waves of the sea are mighty and rage horribly: but yet The Lord that dwelleth on high is mightier.
Christabel Cowper, Prioress
She was born in 1495 at Richmond in Yorkshire. Her father’s house stood looking up at the barbican, and at the proud head of the great keep above the barbican, across the wide and steep square. Her father’s father had built the house of stone, very solid: very small as his son came to think it. But the warehouse behind where the wool was kept, was large; for that, to Christabel’s grandfather’s mind, was far more important than the place where he ate and slept.
Christabel’s father, Andrew Cowper, was not so good a man of business as old Andrew; but then, he had a better start, for when the old man died there was gold money, mostly in coin of Flanders and Spain, in leather bags, hidden in the recess behind the red and white curtains of the great bed. Only Christabel’s father, as well as old Andrew, knew the secret of that hiding place, and he was not told of it till he was a grown man of twenty-five, married, and with four children of his own.
As well as the hidden gold there were silver gilt cups on the livery cupboard in the great chamber downstairs, and in the chest at the foot of the old man’s bed there were six bags of silver, and a standing cup made of a polished coker-nut enclosed in roped bands of silver gilt, which he drank out of during all the Christmas feast, and at Easter, Whitsun, and upon St. Andrew’s Day. The name of the great cup was Edward.
When old Andrew knew that he was dying he sent for one of the Grey Friars, an old man too. They had birds’-nested and played at marbles together in the old days, and snowballed in the square below the window that very day that the snowy field of Towton was dabbled red with blood.
Andrew Cowper told Brother William that he wanted him to make a will, so the other old man sat down by the fire, and taking on his knee one of the square scrubbed chopping boards from the kitchen, spread his parchment on it and wrote down what he was told.
It took long to do, for it was a stormy day in November and the wind brought the smoke swirling out from the chimney till it filled the room and the air was blue; the smoke caught old Andrew’s chest, and sent him off into long fits of coughing that left him panting and speechless.
The beginning of the will was all in Latin, for it was about the money that was to be spent on the old man’s obit, and on a mass every year on St. Andrew’s Day, and on wax candles for the rood-loft in the friars’ church, and on a cow to give milk to the poor of Richmond; and besides the money for these pious purposes old Cowper’s best velvet gown was to be given to the friars to make a cope.
After these things they came to the rest of the old man’s clothes, and the beds, and kitchen pots and pans, the hangings, a golden chain, silver spoons, and all the household stuff that was to go to son Andrew and his two brothers and sisters, and to son Andrew’s sons and daughters. Here Brother William gave up the Latin, fetched a deep sigh, relaxed his toes which had been crimped upward with the effort—for his Latin was rusty—and wrote the rest in English.
Andrew got most, which was natural, for he was to be a merchant and freeman of Richmond as his father had been. But the other two sons had money, or a bit of land here and there which old Cowper had bought, and the daughters had money too, though much less than the men, and enough to buy themselves a mourning gown each. Andrew’s sons came off almost as well as their uncles, but his daughters, grown women now except for Christabel, had no more than a silver spoon of the apostles each. Except, again, for Christabel; to her the old man left his great cup Edward—the cup made out of a nut.
There was a great quarrel over that when the old man was dead and buried. But Christabel got the cup and held it, while the quarrel raged, and her two married sisters, and the one not yet married, and her brothers all said what they thought of a bequest so outrageous. They had known, they said, that Christabel was the favorite of their grandfather, but their father, or their mother, or the old friar should not have permitted him to do anything so foolish and unfair. The eldest married sister, who was of an excitable disposition, was even heard to murmur something about sorcery, though when pressed she only mumbled, “Well, how could he have done it else? No, I don’t say it was—but—” They all agreed however that it was as absurd as it was wrong of the old man, knowing quite well that Christabel was to be a nun, to leave her the cup. What did nuns want with a coker-nut cup which had come from Flanders, and was a rarity, and very costly, and his favorite cup into the bargain?
Christabel was twelve at the time, a square-built, solemn girl. She sat clutching the cup, pressing it into her lap, really afraid sometimes that they would try to wrench it out of her hands. If they had she would have struggled with them, but they kept to words, and with words she met them. It was hers by will, she told them, and why should not a nun have a cup, and the old man had always promised it to her (which was not true, for the gift had surprised her very much), and she could not see that being the youngest made her any worse than the rest of them, and—going back again to the beginning—it was hers by her grandfather’s will.
She was only a child, but while they lost their tempers she kept hers and in the long run she kept the cup. What was more, being puffed up by her success, she asked to have it to drink out of the very next Sunday, being the Feast of St. Andrew, as her grandfather had done. Her mother refused, and was so put out by the request that she beat Christabel handsomely, and recommended her to learn to be of a meek stomach or she’d come to ill someday.
Her father, however, only laughed when he heard of it, and said she’d be prioress at Marrick before she’d done. He was a very easygoing man, little like his father except in his size and big bones. He dressed always like a gentleman, everything not only very trim and good but also gay. Quite a lot of the gold from behind the tester bed was spent on a gold belt buckle, and a brooch for his cap which had a naked woman in a circle of leaves, holding a pearl in her hand. Perhaps it was right that he should dress so much more fine than his father, seeing that his wife’s mother was a second cousin of my Lord of Westmorland. Certainly Christabel thought it was right; she liked to watch him amongst the other merchants of Richmond; he looked well, he made a good show, though she knew inwardly even at this early age that he was not the man his father had been, and worried herself sometimes lest he should make some disastrous mistake that would lose money, and besides that make them all look fools before the more provident merchants of Richmond. She tried once to tell her mother of her anxiety, but only got her ears boxed for speaking so undutifully of her father.
As time went on Christabel thought less of her father, who was kind and careless, with now and again a fit of temper when he had drunk too much. And at the same time she grew into a feeling of kinship with her mother. Christabel believed that though her mother had boxed her ears, yet she also watched Andrew Cowper with anxiety and irritation. Christabel’s eyes would go from one to another at table, reading or guessing by the signs in her mother’s hard, pale face, at the hidden but embittered disagreement between them when Andrew came in with a new jewel or talked large before friends of the arras he would buy for the ball. Christabel approved of her mother, though she got no tenderness, and indeed, barely kindness, from her. Only one thing she must disapprove of—“If I’d come of such a house,” she decided when she was not quite thirteen years old, “I’d not have married so low.” She felt, because she had her mother’s blood in her, that she could despise her father. And always a thought rankled—“He has no right to waste that which my grandfather had laid up, which is for us.”
Christabel had not been able to despise her grandfather, in spite of his plain merchant blood, even when she began to grow up and count these things as important. When very small she had been his pet, to be carried round Richmond, tossed up on his shoulder, and fed with cakes, wafers, or strawberries. When she was a little bigger than that she would trail after him, stumping along on sturdy fat legs, hanging on to the long metal-studded tongue of his belt, or tugging at his gown as she grew tired, to ask him for a pick-a-back.
But as she grew older Andrew had occasion more than once to box her ears for impudence, and once he took his stick to her and beat her. She never forgot that, and always would behave herself very meekly while he was in the house, but she never loved him after, nor went willingly near him; and when they told her that he had left her his great cup Edward, privately, deep down in her own mind, she thought the less of him, as if it had been a weakness in him not to know that she did not love him.
It was when she was eleven that her elders told her that she was to be a nun, and Christabel, having been taken a little while before by her mother to her eldest sister’s second lying-in, decided that it was on the whole better to be a nun than a married woman, even though the clothes nuns wore were not near so fine as her sister’s gray velvet nightgown with the white fur. However, she had noticed that the prioress of Nun-Appleton, who was the sister of Christabel’s sister’s husband, and who came to the christening, wore a silk, and not a linen, veil, and that her girdle was of silk too, and that the skirt of her habit opened up at the front over a damask petticoat which, though black, was very rich. As she rode home pillion behind her mother, with her cheek jolting against Elizabeth Cowper’s shoulder blades, she announced that when she was a nun she would wear a silk veil, and a silk girdle, and a gold pin; she threw that in as an extra flourish. Her mother, who had been too busy to notice what the lady prioress wore, and who was now running over in her mind all the things which she would send from Richmond for the new baby, only said: “That you will not. For nuns must not wear such things.”
“I shall. I shall. I shall,” Christabel whispered, and because she could not stamp her foot she thumped Gray Hodson’s flank with one heel. Her mother did not hear; Gray Hodson was old and too staid to show resentment; and reflecting afterward Christabel came to the conclusion that it was well her declaration had gone unnoticed. “I shall not tell them what I shall do,” she thought. “But when they have made me a nun I shall do it. And I shall drink from the coker-nut cup whenever I please.”
A year after old Andrew Cowper’s death Christabel’s father and mother took her to Marrick, where she was to be a nun. It was more than ten miles up the dale, and to reach it you had to leave Swaleside and go up and over the fells. That, since they would take a mule laden with all Christabel’s stuff, meant a whole day’s ride, and an early start.
The night before they set out Christabel was sent to bed specially early, and not to her own bed in the little attic but to her parents’ bed in the great chamber. Her mother came and fussed about the room a bit while Christabel undressed, and even when she had slipped into bed and lay, naked as a fish, between the sheets. It was as if Mistress Elizabeth Cowper felt that she had forgotten something, or left something undone—“and yet that,” thought Christabel, listening to her movements, “is not possible.” She knew that her mother was a most methodical person and that everything was sure to be completely ready for tomorrow.
Dame Elizabeth stood for a moment at the door, looking across the thin slit of light that came between the shutters, to the blank curtains of the bed in the dusky corner of the room. Not a sound nor stir of movement came from the child behind them.
“Go to sleep.”
“We shall start at sunrise.”
Mistress Elizabeth lifted the latch, and Christabel held her breath, waiting for the sound of the door closing which would tell her that she was alone. But her mother still lingered.
“You must be a good girl and heed what you’re told.”
She heard her mother sigh sharply, as if with exasperation.
“Well,” said Elizabeth Cowper rather loudly, but more to herself than to Christabel. “Well. It’s the best for you. I’ve done what I can for you all. Go to sleep.” The door shut sharply even before Christabel had time to reply “Yes, madame.”
So she waited a little, listening to her mother’s deliberate, heavy tread. A stair creaked, that was the sixth one down; another creaked with quite a different note, that was the last but one; then she heard the parlor door shut. She waited till she had counted over her fingers twice, then she pulled her feet from under the sheet and the green counterpane, and slid out of bed. But still she stood listening.
There was no sound in the house. From the yard outside came a steady burr, which she knew for the noise of Marget’s wheel. Old Marget always sat out in the yard spinning on warm evenings, following the sun from the edge of the wall to the mounting block, then to the hayloft steps, and last of all, when the sunshine was no more than a narrow wedge, to the corner by the pigsties.
Christabel slunk across the room meaning to ease up the latch of the shutters and look down on Marget, but thought better of it, because Marget might look up. A knife blade of sunshine still slit through the dusk from the joint in the shutters. She turned about in it, like a joint on a spit, twitching her shoulders, and enjoying the delicate warmth on her naked back. Then, with a sudden skip, she made for the bundles that lay alongside the wall at the far side of the room. Her purpose in stealing out of bed had not been any thought of taking a last look at the yard, the wool-store, or Marget, but to feel and finger and prod the bundles.
The biggest of them was bulgy and soft, and swelled up between the cords that bound it; that was the feather bed and the fustian blankets, and the two pairs of sheets. The second was not so billowy, but it was heavier and had a hard core to it, for in between the bolster and pillow there was a little square chest of ashwood that held, wrapped up in a tester of painted cloth for the bed, a silver spoon and two candlesticks, two pewter plates, and a little brass pot. The two other bundles were quite small. In one was a pair of tongs, a frying pan, and a skillet. In the other, which was the smallest of all, were her three new shifts, two pairs of shoes, and the habit of a novice of the Order of St. Benedict—white woolen gown, white linen coif and veil, with enough woolen cloth to make hosen for the next two years, and the great cup Edward—all these things packed up in a coverlet of striped say, red, white, and green.
Christabel hung over the bundles, wriggling her fingers into the folds in the hope of touching what was inside, poking them, thumping them gently with her fist, feeling them softly all over. She did not envy her eldest sister, even though she had married a knight, and he was just now building a new house which would have glass in all the windows of the hall, and of the summer and winter parlors—and carved wainscot too. If Christabel could have had the house without the husband it would have been different. But as that couldn’t be, she thought, “This is better. He tore Meg’s best sheets tumbling into bed drunk with his boots on. No one can tear my sheets. They’re mine.”
She punched the big bundle again, possessively and defiantly, and then, hearing a door open downstairs, scuttled across the room and dived between the curtains of the bed.
Next morning the dale was still full of mist when they turned up the road which led to the fells, but here the sun was warm on their backs, the larks were up, and the sky blue without a cloud. Their shadows, jerking along the road before them, were absurd pointed shapes; the two big bundles corded on the mule’s packsaddle showed in the dust like shadows of another and huger pair of ears. Christabel, riding pillion behind her mother, kept looking back—not to see the shadows, nor to see the last of Richmond, where the smoke was going up as the mist cleared, thin and steady and blue as hyacinths, against the woods beyond the town; but to see her goods coming safely after her.
There were, as well as the mule laden with her gear, two others going light. On the way home all three would be almost hidden below the great sarplers of wool, for Christabel’s father would be buying wool up and down the dale—wool from the manor and priory at Marrick, wool from the little house of Cistercian nuns a mile down the river, and from the manor at Grinton and the manor at Marske. The two seven-pound leaden wool-weights, bearing the King’s leopards and lilies and joined by a strap like a stirrup leather, hung down on either side of his horse in front of the saddle.
They stopped about noon to dine, and sat down on a bank beside the road. The turf was short, crisp, and wiry, and meddled with bright pink thyme and yellow crow’s-foot. A shepherd came near as they sat eating, and crossed the road, his flock going before him. They were fresh from the shearing, very trim in their black and white, small black faces, neat black stockings, and some spotted with black; when the sun shone through their ears it made them rose-red. On the wool of every sheep the shear marks showed like ripple marks.
The shepherd knew Master Cowper quite well, and stopped to talk. The woolman gave him a pull of ale out of the leather bottle, and a bit of brawn between two tranches of white bread; when the shepherd saw the white bread the look came into his eyes that a dog has when it is begging, rapt and exalted. While he ate, with his crooked staff leaning on his shoulder, Master Cowper talked to him about wool, and the condition of the dale sheep, and the good weather they had had—praise the saints—for washing and shearing. And the shepherd, his mouth very full, nodded or shook his head in answer, and only when necessary tucked as much of the victuals as he could into his cheek, and spoke indistinctly through the crumbs.
Christabel watched first the shepherd and then her father, for once approving of him. Master Cowper looked well, with his long legs stuck out before him in leathern riding hosen, and his doublet of fine holly green Flanders cloth. He sat leaning back on his hands, very much at ease, and his beard jigged as he talked.
“The shepherd thinks my father to be some very great man,” Christabel decided to herself, forgetting that the shepherd knew every woolman who went up the dale.
He moved on at last over the fell top, into the great silence of blue air above green turf, and even the sound of his piping died—for he had laid his pipe to his lips when he parted. In the noon heat Andrew Cowper and his wife and the servant drowsed; Christabel sat looking along the road, where it dipped and rose again and vanished over the long lift of the fells, going toward Marrick.
They reached Marrick Manor in the early evening, and the bailiff came out, a great fat pleasant man who shouted for ale and cakes, and a dish of strawberries. So they all sat down on the benches inside the hall, and Andrew Cowper talked again of wool. When Christabel had drunk dry her cup of wine and water, and shaken the crumbs from her lap, and licked as much of the pink of the strawberries from her fingers as she could, she stole out and stood on the steps looking about her. Across the dale there were woods; below her were woods; looking back toward Richmond there were woods too, with crags of stone sometimes breaking through, steep as the walls of the castle at Richmond. Only behind the manor, in the direction from which they had come, there were the open fells, while farther up the dale a great crouching hill, spined like a beast, and dark with heather, split the wide dale into two narrow valleys; beyond that hill were fells and more fells, higher and higher, melting now into colorless disembodied shapes as the sun stood low over them.
When her parents were ready they all left the manor; the bailiff kissed Christabel, and pinched her ear, which she resented silently, and called her his pretty little sweetheart, which pleased her. Perkin, with the laden mule, was to go down by the longer way, but the others by the steps. So, when they had gone through some little stone-walled closes, they came to a flagged walk of stone that ran down the steep slope, dived into the woods, became steeper, and turned into great slabbed steps of stone. Christabel went bouncing down them at a run, bunching up her skirts with both hands. Sometimes she would stop, and look back at her parents, but mostly she looked forward, peering through the trees for a sight of the church and the priory. The trees however were too close, and the slope too steep; only now and then she caught a glimpse of the spined, sleeping hill at the head of the dale, or far down on the left, the quick, shallow Swale, running clear brown, and flashing white sparkles of light from its ripples.
Then, quite suddenly, they were out of the woods, and upon a steep slope of clean turf, and there, just below, was the priory; you could have thrown a stone down into its court. The chief thing among the buildings was, of course, the church, with its tall bell tower, but all round that there were stone-slatted roofs, and lower and smaller roofs of thatch. Christabel, searching the buildings with her eyes, saw an orchard, and there were ladies in it, walking about in twos and threes under the trees. They were every one in black and white. One of them stopped and pointed upward and spoke, and they all stood looking toward Christabel; she heard an exclamation go up from them, and, though she could distinguish no words, she said to herself, “They were watching for me to come,” and she felt important. She did not know how little important a thing need be, and yet the ladies would be watching for it.
When the parents had sat talking a little while with the prioress they said good-bye to Christabel, refusing an invitation to supper but accepting one to dine tomorrow at the priory. They bade Christabel be a good girl, and serve God truly, and learn what she was taught, and do what she was told. She was to be sure and mind her manners, and not wipe her fingers, if they were greasy, on the tablecloth, and certainly not on the hangings—that from her father—and to keep her clothes neatly mended, “not cobbled, mind you”—this from her mother.
Then they both kissed her, and her father put her hand into that of the prioress. The prioress’s hand was hot and damp, as was natural with such a large fat woman on a warm evening, but Christabel did not like it, so she wriggled her hand free, and then waved it to her parents as though that was why she had wanted to get it away.
She stood beside the prioress on the top step of the outside stairway of stone that led up to the prioress’s chamber, where they had all been sitting. Her father and mother went along the court below, turned at the gateway and waved their hands to her; then they were gone.
“Oh!” cried Christabel sharply.
“There! There!” the prioress comforted her. “Thy mother will be here again tomorrow.”
Christabel said, “Yes, madame.” The dog which had certainly intended to make a convenience of one of her two bundles, dumped down by Perkin in the court, had changed its mind and preferred the leg of a wheelbarrow. But she hoped the bundles would not long be left where they were.
“I will show you the cloister,” said the prioress, and they went down, Christabel alongside the sweeping bulk of the lady, through the narrow great court, where hens followed hopefully, and an old gray pony looked out kindly at them from over a half-door. They turned under an arch just beyond the bell tower, and found themselves in the cloister, which, after the open court, seemed very dark. It was very small too, small and somehow countrified; mustard was laid out to dry upon a trestle table along one wall, and there was a bunch of teasels hanging from a nail beside the door into the church.
At the far end of the west walk, in which Christabel and the prioress stood, there were two children, a boy a couple of years or so younger than Christabel, in a brown coat and with brown curls, and a girl who looked to be about her age. The boy was whipping a top and took no notice of them; the girl jumped off the low wall, between the cloister arches crying—
“Look, John! She’s come.”
John said, “I care not,” and gave a great slash at his top, but so unskillfully that it scuttered across the stone flags on its side, bounced off the wall, and lay still.
“Come, John! Come, Margery!” the prioress called them, and they came, staring all the time at Christabel.
The prioress told Christabel that Margery Conyers was a novice; this Christabel could see for herself, since Margery wore a white woolen gown just like the one in Christabel’s own pack. “And John is her cousin.” Christabel would not have known that, for Margery was a thin child with a large nose and a little proud mouth, whereas John’s face was round, snub-nosed, and merry.
“Lout down, knave, lout down!” said the prioress, tapping him on the shoulder, so that he bowed to Christabel. He did it awkwardly and looked at her with a pouting face, but then smiled at her suddenly, a bright, sunshiny smile.
Behind and above them the bell in the tower began to ring, and several of the ladies came into the cloisters from one side and another, arranging their veils and pulling up their black hoods which had lain on their shoulders.
“After Compline,” the prioress said, moving toward the church door, “you shall have supper.”
It was a strange thing, but till that minute Christabel had never thought that, of course, nuns were nuns in order to go to church over and over during the day and night. She looked back over her shoulder and was sorry to see that John had returned to his top, though Margery was coming after them into the church.
“You shall lay off these tomorrow,” the prioress said, touching Christabel’s blue hood as they curtseyed before the rood.
“I have my habit in my packs, madame,” Christabel answered sedately, and she thought, “There is supper to look forward to.”