Read an Excerpt
Introduction Jim Campbell
Henry VII of England (1485–1509) was an economical and prudent man. He was frugal in his expenses and when he died had amassed a personal fortune of 1.5 million pounds. Today the amount left to Henry VIII in 1509 would amount to the equivalent of about 1.5 billion dollars. Henry VIII quickly found many ways to spend the money that his father so carefully saved. He embarked on war with France. Between 1509 and 1515 Henry spent some 1,344,030 pounds on his European wars. His Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, spent another 400,000 pounds from 1522 to 1523. Soon Henry’s personal fortune was drained away.
For the rest of his reign, Henry VIII had money problems. The sources of his income were fairly static, so he needed another source of ready cash. He found it in the eight hundred monasteries and priories of England.
The precedent of closing monasteries to cash in on them was begun by Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey closed twenty-eight smaller monasteries and used the funds to build colleges. Over the centuries, these religious establishments had also gathered a great deal of wealth in the form of religious artifacts. Wolsey confiscated these artifacts for his personal use. After his fall from grace in 1529, all of Wolsey’s possessions became the property of the King. In The Man on the Donkey, H. F. M. Prescott shows us Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn as they search Wolsey’s palace to examine the inventory of his wealth.
But the King grew impatient and let the pages go with a run.
“Where is the plate of gold and silver?”
He found the page.
A gold cup of assay . . . a crystal glass garnished with gold . . . a gold salt garnished with pearls and stones and a white daisy on the knop.
He shut the book, and, turning, shouted for one of the royal officers who had charge of the stuff. The man’s voice answered him hollowly in the great empty house.
“The keys! The keys!” the King cried, and when the keys were brought they went away with them to the chamber where all this most precious stuff had been stored.
There it was, set upon benches and cupboards, and overflowing to the floor, the dim light gleaming on the bellies of gold cups, gold salts, silver cups, silver salts, and catching the facets of jewels.
“Jesu!” cried Mrs. Anne, and the King said, “Passion of Christ!” at the sight of that sumptuous spectacle. Then they moved about, touching and lifting, here a gilt charger, there a gold cup with a cover and the top-castle of a ship on the knop.
“Ah! the pretty thing,” cried Mrs. Anne, and pointed her finger at a bowl of gold with a cover, garnished with rubies, diamonds, pearls, and a sapphire set in a collet upon it.
The King stooped to look at it. Just near, upon the bench end, stood a tall gold salt with twined green branches enameled upon the gold, and scrolled letters enlaced together; the letters were K. and H. He gave the salt a shove with the back of his hand and it fell from the bench and clattered to the ground.
Mrs. Anne tittered, because she knew that K. stood for Katherine, but the King’s face had reddened with anger. He caught her by the wrist and kissed her roughly and went on kissing. As his mouth lifted from her throat or from her lips he was muttering—
“Laugh? You may laugh. And she. And the pope. But none will laugh when it is seen what I shall do.”
As we have seen in Part 1, King Henry VIII took control of the English Church in 1534. He saw that the riches tied up in the lands of the monasteries and their centuries-old collections of artifacts were the answer to his financial difficulties.
The Religious Establishment
In 1530 there were over eight hundred religious monasteries and priories in England, housing a population of over eight thousand religious men and women. They were the inheritors of a tradition of religious practice going back to 940, when the first Benedictine monasteries were established in England, the earlier monasteries in the Celtic tradition having been destroyed by Viking invaders. Over the centuries, the religious establishment of nuns, monks, friars, and order priests received donations of land, artifacts, and money to such an extent that by 1530 they controlled from one-fifth to one-third of the land in England. These religious communities had flourished and suffered along with the general population of England during this time. Many religious establishments were underpopulated, having not recovered from the devastation of the Black Plague in the middle of the fourteenth century. This underpopulation was the reason Cardinal Wolsey gave in petitioning to close the twenty-eight monasteries that he did.
In 1535, Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey’s former secretary who had helped Wolsey dissolve the monasteries in the late 1520s, was appointed by Henry as vicar-general with authority to investigate the monasteries. After a year of investigation, Henry appeared before parliament and demanded the closure of the monasteries and priories which had income of less than two hundred pounds a year. Parliament agreed, and the King’s representatives began the closures. There were 291 houses eligible for closure and dissolution involving some 1500 religious men and women. Of these, 244 were actually suppressed. Collectively the lands of these monasteries and priories produced a yearly revenue of 32,000 pounds and yielded 100,000 pounds in religious artifacts Eastern and Northern England were hit very hard by the closures. Two-thirds of the existing monastic institutions disappeared, 87 out of 130 houses. Lands were confiscated, communities were broken up, buildings were torn down, and anything that could be moved was sold off. The people living in these areas of the country saw permanent elements of their social life disappear.
Pilgrimage of Grace
Northern England was primarily rural. The main population was farmers and sheepherders who were conservative and not open to revolutionary ideas. They had a deep devotion for Katherine of Aragon and were upset with the new policies being introduced by the King. When Henry began to execute monks and bishops for failing to take the oath declaring Henry head of the Church in England they were appalled. They blamed Thomas Cromwell for influencing the King.
The changing economic climate also upset the people. Prices were rising and new taxes were being introduced across the board.
“For now there be things devised against the commons too grievous to be borne, as that every man shall be sworn what goods he hath, and if he have more than so much all his goods shall be taken away. Likewise there is a statute made that none shall eat white bread, goose, nor capon, but if he pay pennies to the King. Likewise another that none shall be christened, wedded, nor buried but at the price of a noble. For these days there is a sort of Lollards and traitors that rule about the King, and have brought him to such a covetous mind that if the Thames flowed with gold and silver it would not quench his thirst.”
The county of Lincolnshire was hardest hit in Northern England. Thirty-four religious houses were suppressed, decreasing the Church’s revenue by 31 percent. In October 1536, the common people (commons) of Lincolnshire began an uprising. Thousands of people gathered and threatened the King’s commissioners. While there was much excitement, the people had no leader and the revolt was swiftly put down. It was during this rising that Robert Aske of Yorkshire emerged as a potential leader.
Later in October 1536, Robert Aske led a new rebellion. The commons accepted his leadership, and thousands gathered to follow him, first to York, then to capture Lord Darcy’s castle at Pontefract. Lord Darcy had no arms with which to defend the castle and while loyal to the King, he detested Cromwell and his ilk. Darcy surrendered the castle to Robert Aske and later cooperated with him in the rebellion. Robert Aske then issued an Oath of Honorable Men to state the principles of the rebellion.
The Oath of Honorable Men Ye shall not enter into this our Pilgrimage of Grace for the Commonwealth, but only for the love that ye do bear unto Almighty God, his faith, and to holy church militant and the maintenance thereof, to the preservation of the King’s person and issue, to the purifying of the nobility, and to expulse all villain blood and evil councilors against the Commonwealth from His Grace and his Privy Council of the same. And that ye shall not enter into our said Pilgrimage for no particular profit to yourself, nor to do displeasure to any private person, but by counsel of the Commonwealth, nor slay nor murder for no envy, but in your hearts put away all fear and dread, and take afore you the cross of Christ, and in your hearts his faith.
By the end of October, Aske commanded 35,000 men. Henry had no standing army, and his forces were in disarray. Aske hesitated. His aim was not to overthrow the king but to rid him of Cromwell and the other ministers whom Aske saw as responsible for the new religious policies.
Henry was naturally infuriated with the rebellion, but he played for time. He offered a free pardon, which Robert Aske accepted. On December 8, 1536, Aske laid down his pilgrim badge. With the loss of his leadership, the Pilgrimage of Grace was over.
Henry brought Aske to London to keep an eye on him and to wait for an excuse to execute him. This came in January 1537. A general rebellion broke out in Yorkshire. Henry used this as an excuse to send forces in to carry out a terror campaign against the people.
They said then, Sir Rafe leading, that they were glad.
“And that you shall surely know you have done what shall please His Grace,” Norfolk said, “I shall read you a letter.” He took it out from his pouch, and spread it out upon the coping of the wall, and ran his finger along the lines to find his place.
“‘Our pleasure,’” he read, “‘is that before ye shall close up our Banner again, you shall in any wise cause such dreadful execution to be done upon a good number of the inhabitants of every town, village, and hamlet, that have offended in this rebellion, as well by hanging of them up in trees, as by quartering of them, and setting up their heads and quarters in every town great and small, and in all such other places as they may be a perfect spectacle.’”
He folded up the paper again, and then looked into their faces.
“So,” said he, “you see that both you and I have well served the King. Lawyers may say, ‘Fiat Justitia, ruat coelum.’ But it is better that these, whom blind Justice might have spared, should suffer, when by the example of such a dreadful severity, many more may be prevented from light doings.”
They said, the two Yorkshire gentlemen, that it was better, and that the King was a most gracious, godly, and wise Prince.
In July 1537, Robert Aske was executed for committing high treason.
It is at this point the events described in The Man on a Donkey, Part 2, end.
The Pilgrimage of Grace was intended to preserve the monastic institutions of England. There is no doubt that Henry used the rebellion as an excuse to dissolve the remaining religious institutions. By 1540, all the monasteries and priories were dissolved. Six hundred years of religious life in England disappeared.
Henry received some 171,312 pounds, a gross income more than three times that of all crown estates on the eve of the Dissolution. The value of the melting down of religious artifacts added another 100,000 pounds. All of this Henry frittered away. By the end of his monarchy, two-thirds of the monastic lands that Henry confiscated had been sold outright at bargain prices to cover his debts.
The Man on a Donkey
In The Man on a Donkey, Part 2, we see the events of the Dissolution and its effect on the people whose lives we are following.
Christabel Cowper as prioress of Marrick Priory does everything she can think of to stave off the closure. No matter how she works the numbers, Marrick Priory cannot produce the 200 pounds necessary to forestall closure. She does her best to pay off Cromwell and anyone else who might keep the priory open. She achieves a temporary reprieve, but the threat of
closure remains strong. As a last resort, she goes to London to meet with Cromwell personally and to bribe him with her most precious possession, a golden pyx used to bring Holy Communion to the sick. With her mind only on the survival of the priory by any means, Christabel ignores all who would see the closing of the monasteries as God’s will so the monks and nuns would cleave to God alone.
The prioress of Marrick let her lip curl. She had Moses and the Prophets; half an hour ago she had had mad Malle babbling of the insatiable tender love of God. Now she had the old prioress of St. Helen’s. She had not listened to any of these, nor would she have listened though one rose from the dead.
Thomas, Lord Darcy, is caught up in the rebellion. He works with Robert Aske and refuses to betray him. After the Pilgrimage of Grace, he is brought to London and to the tender mercies of Cromwell. Darcy cannot countenance Henry as head of the Church of England, and he accepts the consequences of his decisions.
Julian Savage is not permitted to become a professed nun at Marrick. Her sister marries her off to Laurence Machyn, a London merchant. Laurence proves to be a gentle man and loving husband. Julian becomes reacquainted with Robert Aske when he comes to London, however, and her love for him leads her to help while she can. Her love also leads her to deep sorrow and despair at his death. She cannot help but continue to believe that God made pain and chose it for himself.
Gilbert Dawe continues the downward spiral of self-loathing and rejection of the faith. He runs and runs from God, thinking in his final spiral that while God could save every other man, God could not save Gilbert. Gilbert sees himself as a leaky bucket from which God’s grace has drained away.
[Gilbert] did not know that though the bucket be leaky it matters not at all when it is deep in the deep sea, and the water both without it and within. He did not know, because he was too proud to know, that a man must endure to sink, and sink again, but always crying upon God, never for shame ceasing to cry, until the day when he shall find himself lifted by the bland swell of that power, inward, secret, as little to be known as to be doubted, the power of omnipotent grace in tranquil, irresistible operation.
Robert Aske, as we have seen, is forced by his conscience and his desire to be faithful to become the leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace. He finally places his trust in a duplicitous King, and suffers the consequences of that trust. Even before he makes the decision to lead the rebellion, he has an intuitive insight into the suffering to come.
“If I move,” he said in his mind, “I do wrong. If I move not, wrong is done.”
The other, which was a dumb thing, was fear—the fear lest he should stand alone, a man disowned by kin and friends; there in the dark he knew in a foretaste the weight and desolation of that loneliness.
In the midst of all these events Malle, the visionary scullery maid, and Wat, Gilbert Dawe’s mute son, have a vision of the Man riding through the fields surrounding Marrick Priory.
[Malle] plumped down on the ground, and caught Wat by his knees so that he tumbled against her. Then they sat together, rocking to and fro, and Malle kept on babbling, “We shall brast, Wat, we shall brast,” while Wat made shocking faces and groaned in his throat; it hurt them so, the joy that was far too big for them, and the dread. For God, that was too great to be holden even of everywhere and forever, had bound himself into the narrow room of here and now. He that was in all things had, for pity, prisoned himself in flesh and in simple bread. He that thought winds, waters, and stars, had made of himself a dying man. . . .
They crouched on the hillside, looking toward God, feeling God under their spread palms on the grass, and through the soles of their feet. Beyond, beyond, beyond, and beyond again, yet always that which went still beyond—God. And here, with only a low wooden gate between, that thing which man could never of himself have thought, and would never come to the depth of for all his thinking, here that thing impossible was true as daylight, here was God in man, here All in a point.
Jim 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 postgraduate 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 2
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.
Gilbert Dawe, Priest
At Kimbolton Castle the groom of the chamber and the candle maker heard the clock strike eleven as they finished the worst part of their work, and washed their hands, letting the water run over their forearms, till the basin looked as if it was full of raspberry juice. Then, having tidied up the mess, and set aside the earthen jar in which were enclosed the heart and entrails, they kicked the bloody cloths out of the way of their feet, and set to work to cere the body, wrapping it in fold after fold of waxed linen cloth, with handfuls of spices laid on, till the sickly smell of blood was overlaid by the sharp scents of cinnamon and myrrh. By the time they were done it was close on midnight, and all at Kimbolton asleep except those who waited to watch beside the bier till day. The groom of the chamber unlocked the door, and he and the other went out, leaving alone the body of Katherine who had been Queen. It lay now stiff as wood, and bulked out to unnatural rotundity by the folds of the cerecloth; only the face showed, wax white and sharp in the light of the candle flames which shivered when the wind whined through the shutters.
Outside on the dark stair the groom of the chamber let out a great sigh, and said that “By Cock! he had a sore thirst.” As the chandler had the same they went off together to shake up one of the buttery lads. When he had found ale and bread for them, they blew up the cinders of the fire in the almoner’s room, and sat down to warm their feet and drink their ale. A big tabby cat, dislodged from the cushion of the settle, stretched and yawned, showing teeth curved and sharp as thorns, but milk white; then it leapt, light as a leaf, on the lap of the chandler and at once fell asleep again.
Not till their cans were half empty did either of the two men speak, and even then the groom of the chamber was sparing of words. But the chandler became garrulous. He said it was a pity to see the good Queen lie dead, and no harm now to call her Queen for that Queen she had been and now was no more, nor was anything anymore, God have mercy on her soul. “And,” said he, “all her ladies saying that since the Emperor’s ambassador came to see her on New Year’s Day, that she fared the better for it, and would recover. Aye and surely it must have given the poor soul comfort to speak to one of the Emperor’s people once more.”
The groom of the chamber grunted. He was a lean, sharp, worried man, never talkative, and now he would not raise his eyes from the fire. The chandler went on:
“That fat man of the imperial ambassador, the one that spoke English, told me the poor lady took heart so from his master coming, that he heard her, when they were talking, laugh, and more than once.”
“Did she laugh?” the groom muttered, but it was less a question than a sort of sour comment.
“Aye—that she did. And asked for the fat man—you know what a merry talker he was—to make her sport that evening.”
After a silence the chandler shifted a little on the seat to look at the groom of the chamber.
“Even last night the women were saying that she was so much better that she called for a comb and dressed and tied her hair for herself.”
The groom of the chamber twitched his thin nose, frowned, squinted into the can that he held on his knee, and said nothing.
“And tonight,” said the chandler, fondling the cat with one hand, but keeping his eyes on the groom, “tonight—there she lies, dead.” As he lifted his chin toward the painted beams of the ceiling they both thought of the little close room above, of the reek of the blood, and of the dismal work they had accomplished on the shrunken body of the gray-haired woman that had come to England nearly thirty years before, a young girl, plump and merry, afraid a little, yet hoping more than fearing, because of the ignorance and potency of youth.
“Why,” the chandler leaned along the settle and spoke softly, “why did you cut through the heart when it was forth of the body?”
The groom’s eyes came quickly to his in a sharp look. But all he said was, “Because so it should be done.”
“Perdy, I never saw it so done before.”
The groom of the chamber got up. He said he was for bed, and went away. But before he went to bed he found the dead woman’s chaplain, the bishop of Llandaff, who, with others, was watching about the body, and told him, very secretly, a dreadful thing—how that the heart of Dame Katherine, Princess Dowager, was black and hideous all through, and to the surface of it clung a small black globule. The groom of the chamber knew just so much of surgery as to be very positive. He told the bishop, who was a Spaniard, that from the state of the heart he knew that the Princess Dowager had been poisoned. The bishop wrote a letter that night to Master Chapuys, telling him what the groom had said. “And if it is poison,” he wrote, “surely none other but the Concubine hath devised it.”
Not only the Queen Anne but the King himself joined in the dancing this night, and both showed very good cheer. Many remarked it, and thought, if they did not whisper, of the messenger who had come that morning from Kimbolton, announcing the Princess Dowager’s death. At last, quite late, the King clapped his hands to quiet the musicians and bring the galliard to an end. Then he called for wine and candles, and for his gentlemen to put him to bed. The Queen and her ladies, having curtseyed to the King, withdrew to her apartments.
In the King’s bedchamber the gentlemen on duty took off the King’s rings, and chain, the dagger in a crimson velvet sheath the hilt of which was frosty with small diamonds. One of them laid by his yellow satin cap with a white feather, and a sapphire brooch to hold the feather. Two others helped him to take off the yellow satin doublet. The King whistled softly a tune that they had danced to just now; he yawned, whistled again, and smiled privately to himself.
They had put on him by now his nightshirt, and the gold embroidered nightcap; when he had slipped his arms into a green and white velvet nightgown he spread them out in a great luxurious stretch, yawning again, wide as a cat, so that all his fine teeth showed, and his pink tongue.
He kept Norris behind when the others had gone, talking with him of the buck hounds, and of a new goldsmith out of Germany, a very skillful craftsman; but at last he got into bed and lay there with his eyes shut, and his face, with the fine sharp beaked nose, turned up to the celure of the bed, while Norris drew the curtains softly, and thought, with a sort of start in his mind, how the King would one day—one day—lie just so, with face composed and eyes shut; but on that day the eyes would not open again.
They opened now and met Norris’s, and Norris felt his heart quicken, as though the King could read his thought.
“How,” the King asked, “goes this business of your marriage?”
“But lamely,” said Norris, and asked himself, “Can one have told him that I wait to stand in his shoes?”
“You should make haste,” said the King, closing his eyes again, yet smiling with his mouth. “And how think you,” he asked, “should a man choose a wife? For wit, or for beauty, or for what other quality in her?”
Norris, because he had been for a moment afraid, now became pert. He said that himself he favored a plump dower.
But the King, frowning a little, went on, as if he had not spoken. “Of all things,” said he, “let her be meek,” adding hastily, “given virtue, of course, given virtue.”
Norris agreed, “Of course.” And then, since Katherine, Queen or Princess Dowager, was tonight, though unnamed, in the minds of all, he began to say that though Her Highness had been virtuous, meek she had not been. But he stopped short, having remembered the awkward fact that it was not for him to consider her as the King’s wife at all.
Yet the King only smiled at Norris’s stumbling. “No matter—no matter. She is dead.” He crossed his breast under the sheet and murmured, “Deus misereatur . . .”
“God be praised,” he said aloud. “Now am I free from any threat of war with the Emperor. Now I shall have peace.”
After Norris had left him the King humped himself more comfortably into the warmth of the bed, drowsily watching where a dimly luminous glow in the curtains showed that the great candle burned outside. “Peace with the Emperor,” he thought, “peace at home.”
“My little fair sweetheart,” he murmured, and thought—“Meek as a dove, and as a lamb innocent.”
It was Dame Margery Conyers who was the first to see the King’s visitors. She was up in the Vine Chamber in the dorter which she shared with Dame Joan Barningham and Dame Eleanor Maxwell; it was called the Vine Chamber because a long time ago the beams of the ceiling had been painted with a pattern of vine leaves and grape bunches; the paint was faded now and dark, but on a sunshiny morning you could now and then catch a gleam of gold among the leaves.
The gleam was there today, because of the brightness outside, where a white frost lay on the ground and on the roofs, and the sun shone over all, yellow and clear. The servants had lit the fire and redded up the room while the ladies had been in church, and now the flames were climbing merrily up the chimney; beside the hearth, between the settle and a stool, a table was laid for mixtum with a white fresh cloth.
The day was so fair that for mere pleasure of the sunlight Dame Margery went over to the window, which fronted the sun across the dale. The little panes were all patterned by the frost with pictures of marvelous things. Crusted upon the glass there were woods, sharp hills, lakes still and frozen, fountaining shapes of unknown leaves, all frost-white, yet lit through by the yellow sun with a warm glow of rose.
Dame Margery opened the window, and met the sunshine that came swimming into the room on a faint lit mist and with the clean smell of rime. Across the frozen grass the trees laid lavender blue shadows. Just as she drew a deep breath of the sparkling morning she caught sight of the dozen or so riders who were crossing the ford; they were almost in the sun’s eye for her, but she could see one, tall and thin, who wore a big red felt riding hat; another bulky man rode a little askew in his saddle, and as she looked he raised a hand and pointed as if he had seen her at the window.
And as if he had seen her she slammed the casement to. She knew who these were. The nuns’ miller had heard from one of the Stainton hinds, who had it from a lead miner, who was told by the Leyburn shepherd, that the King’s visitors were come to Coverham Abbey; the shepherd had heard the monks’ carter say so at the ale house in Leyburn.
Dame Margery made haste to go down, but it was as if the stone stairs had turned soft as feather pillows under her feet, and the flags of the cloister like quaking marsh land. These visitors, sent about to every monastery in the country, were here to pry, to pick on faults, to question. And at the end of it their meaning was to turn out the ladies from Marrick. She was sure of it. Houses in the South Country had been served so; now it would be their turn.
The prioress was busy counting tallies in the little office halfway along the passage between the cloister and the great court when Dame Margery found her. “Well?” she asked, without looking round, and the light slivers of wood clicked as she counted, “Four boon days; five; six,” and then again, “Well?”
“Madame,” cried Dame Margery, and tears of excitement rushed to her eyes. “They are coming—from Coverham. They are at the ford.” She listened, for by now they must be past the ford. Her right hand, clenched among the folds of her gown, was lacking, though she herself did not know it, the hilt of the sword that her father, and his fathers before him, had carried. “Can we bar the gate and keep them out?” she asked breathlessly.
“By the rood! that we cannot,” the prioress said. She laid down the tallies on the convent chest. For a moment she considered; then she told the chambress what to do, precisely and in detail; cut her short with, “Silence! On your obedience!” and turned again to her counting.
Dame Margery, crimson and smudging tears hastily from her face, went back into the cloister, and found that the news had come there already. All the ladies stood close, gabbling together like so many ducks, but much shriller. They cried out to her, and she to them, and the noise grew; most of them were sure as she was of the worst; a few were doubtful; only old Dame Joan Barningham was confident that our Blessed Lady would protect her daughters.
Dame Margery pushed through them, answering questions as she went. “Have you seen them?” “Yea.” “Where are you going?” “To the kitchen.” “What for? Does the Lady know? What does she say?” There was a silence when that was asked.
Dame Margery had her hand on the door of the buttery passage. She gave them the answer loudly.
“She says, ‘Make ready a breakfast for them.’ She says, ‘Have herbs strewn in the guesthouse. Have the maids light a fire, and see they well blow it up before they leave it. Get out the silver spoons.’ She says, ‘Set before them the wild boar pasty.’”
She had opened the kitchen door, and now slammed it behind her. The ladies were left to make what they could of the prioress’s orders. They found many interpretations of them; Dame Bess Dalton even suggested tentatively that the prioress intended to put poison in the pasty. Dame Anne Ladyman came nearest to the truth when she said, rolling her great black eyes, that, Mother of God! all men were alike. Feed them well and they’d be kind.
That would not have ended the debate, but the sound of voices, and of knocking at the gate, cut it short. The ladies, hushing each other loudly and urgently, made with one accord for the buttery which had a window on the great court.
July and Dame Eleanor Maxwell were left alone in the cloister. Dame Eleanor sat still on her bench; she had at first hoped to learn what it was that had so excited the other ladies. She had plucked at a sleeve here, a gown there, but if any had tried by shouting in her ear to make her understand, the hubbub had been too great for their words to penetrate her deafness.
So the old woman had given up her attempts, slipping back into the prison of her body, which had windows, but in which no sound, except the most muffled and indistinct, was ever heard. She sighed and trembled a little, frightened by a turmoil which had for her no meaning except that it must mean ill. Uncomprehending almost as a baby, but far more patient, she sat very still, her hands crossed upon her big belly, her lips moving in prayers that were just audible.
Behind her, and keeping out of her sight, July stood stiff as a clothes peg, looking down at the grass in the cloister garth, where frost had laid such jewelry upon every blade, dead leaf, and common stone, as none of the King’s goldsmiths could by any means have equaled. Her eyes saw, but her mind did not perceive, that exquisite transient craftsmanship, being filled with a dismay too deep yet for any feeling. They would all be put forth from Marrick; she was far more sure of that than the most despairing of the ladies, because she had known always that disaster was the order of the world.
As the ladies sat down to their mixtum, very late, and most of them with the doors set a little ajar, they could hear now and then men’s voices, and footsteps heavy and strange. Listening, they knew by the sounds just how the King’s visitors were going about their business; the door that clapped to so noisily was the door of the frater; a board in the floor of the warming house creaked; the loose handle on the parlor door rattled, and they thought of their embroidery turned over, perhaps trampled upon by these terrible persons. When the chapter bell rang they came down circumspectly, as if wolves waited below, and sure enough in the chapter house there were two men, one standing by the lectern, the other sitting in the prioress’s chair. This one was heavy and bulky, with a broad face that had purple veins like tiny worms upon his cheeks. The other, who flipped over the pages of the Rule as if he disdained it, was much longer and thinner; he was younger too, and dressed in fine red cloth and crimson velvet; he had a haughty look, and his jaw thrust out dangerously like the jaw of a pike.
When the bulky man, who was Dr. Layton, had read the Commission of the Visitation, the prioress knelt and kissed the seal that dangled from it. It was only a little seal, being Master Cromwell’s and not the Great Seal of England; for it was not the King but the chief secretary who had sent out these men. Then Dr. Layton told them that the King had heard of the corruptions and wickednesses which had defiled the small houses of religion. They looked at each other and were silent; last year the bishop had visited them, but, though severe, he had not seemed to think their faults very black, so perhaps all might yet be well.
“Therefore,” Dr. Layton concluded, “we shall speak with each of you severally, to learn in what state this house stands. We shall begin, as is the custom, with the youngest of you.”
That was July, because the youngest novice had gone home for a christening. So they left her, standing in her place looking down at her clenched hands. She did not see Dr. Layton crook his finger to her, but when he ordered her to “Come—come near,” she gave a start, and went and stood before him, but would look no higher than his boots, which were of light brown leather, rubbed dark and shiny where the stirrup irons had worn them.
The other man, who was Dr. Legh, came near, and the two of them spoke together, but not to her. “Too young to know much . . .”
“But ex ore parvulorum . . .” “Well, well, ask her. Little pitchers have long ears.”
In the end it was Dr. Legh who began by asking her whether the divine service was fully and meetly kept.
“Oh yes,” said July, and they both laughed, Dr. Legh with a thin high whinnying laugh that she much disliked.
“Too fully and meetly,” he tittered. “You’re not very devout, mistress. And now as to fasting . . . ?”
Dr. Layton interrupted after a little. He said it was no use “putting such questions as you put to this child. She cannot know how the officers of the house lay out the revenues.”
Dr. Legh asked, “Why not? Put them all through it. Truth comes out by little and little, like whey from the press.”
But Dr. Layton overrode him, and July thought for a moment that he was the more bearable of the two, while he asked her how old she was, and when she was to be professed.
She told him fifteen first, then sixteen. Then she said “Yea, sixteen, and I shall take the vows at Easter.”
“God’s Blood! sixteen!” cried Dr. Layton. “That’s how scandals grow. My young gentlewoman, in another ten years we’ll have you kicking against the vows, and maybe committing fornication with some pretty wanton priest.”
He laughed, low and richly, and July thought him worse than Dr. Legh.
“Or if not with Master Priest,” he ran on, “then with some fine gentleman who comes and goes, in and out of the house. For I hear from certain of the servants—” he spoke over his shoulder to Legh—“you heard it too—that your prioress will let men speak with the nuns in the cloister and the parlor. Now can you say who entertained these men, and whether any sent or received love letters or tokens, pretty trifles such as ribbon knots, or rings with posies? Or did any man haunt the church alone after dusk? Jesu! things can be done in the church after dusk that you wouldn’t think for.” He laughed again, and asked Dr. Legh didn’t they know it by now, both of monks and nuns? Legh smiled, but sourly and as it were with disdain.
“Now,” Layton said, and laid his warm fingers on July’s hands, clasped in front of her. “Now can you remember of any gentlemen who came into the cloister—yea, even though you saw nothing amiss done?”
July unclasped her hands and put them behind her back.
“No,” she said, “None.”
“None? You’re sure?”
“None,” she told him again, and he caught her look and in it read hate. He could not know what she hated him for, nor that when he spoke of men it meant for her nothing but one man, and when he spoke of wantonness it was as if his soft pawing hands were feeling toward the name of Master Aske, to soil it with their touch.
They asked her more questions after that, but she shut her lips and only shook her head or nodded for answer, so they rated her for an obstinate forward stubborn wench, and after a little, since they got no more out of her, sent her away to bring to them the eldest of the novices.
Next morning, early, because they would leave Marrick at once after breakfast, the two visitors sat in the guesthouse chamber, drawing up their report on the priory. There was a fire, but, in spite of much work with the bellows, a gusty wind was puffing smoke and more smoke down the chimney and into the room. Dr. Legh flapped it from his face with a long, impatient hand. “The devil’s in the fire,” he said and coughed, and bade the clerk open the window, “for it’s better to freeze than stifle.”
The clerk, who sat much nearer the window than he, thought otherwise, but did what he was bid in silence.
“Are you ready?” Layton asked. He sat the other side of the hearth from Legh; the prioress’s red buckram bag lay on his knee, and from it he was pulling out bundles of old charters with cracked or crumbling seals dangling—seals of red wax, or heather-honey brown, or oily green.
The clerk, having sat down again and tucked his left hand under his thigh to warm it, said that yea, he was ready. Layton began to dictate; this was all of the revenues of the priory from meadows and closes, sheep walks and messuages that had been given in old time to the house—at Marske, and Downholm, Richmond and Newton-le-Willows. He stopped once to flourish a small, very old charter.
“Here’s a pretty thing! ‘Henry le Scrope 14th year of King Edward son of King Edward’—that’ll be Edward II—‘holds ten acres of Margaret, Prioress of Marrick, at a rent of a red rose in the time of roses for all services.’ Was she then his minion? Were nuns, think you, as loose then as now?”
Legh said scornfully that such a rent was nothing uncommon, but Layton would not be deprived of his ancient scandal. “For look you,” said he, “that same payment was after commuted to sixpence.”
When all the spiritual ties and temporalities of the house were written down, they came to the nuns themselves, beginning with Christabel Cowper, prioress and treasurer.
Dr. Legh said at once that there was little against her, except that it was said of her—that fat Nun Elizabeth Dalton said it—that she wore petticoats of brocade and gilt pins on her veil. “But I make little of that,” said he, waving his hand against the smoke, and then holding it before him to look at a gold ring on his finger with one sapphire stone in it.
He thought that Dr. Layton did not know that the prioress had given him the ring.
“What,” asked Layton, “of those mistakes in the account roll?”
Legh chuckled. “Jesus!” said he, “No mistakes. They’re all on her side, and I think I know where the money went that was so subtly hidden in them. You’ve seen the prioress’s chamber? Yea. Very fair. Very neat. Good wainscot work and made to last many a year. Indeed,” he looked very superciliously at the clerk, and a little less so at Layton, “indeed, for my part, I think it a pity that this house should not continue, so I gave the Lady the best counsel that I might.” He half closed his eyes to look again at the sapphire on his finger, and added, “Of course, she said the house was too poor to offer so great sum to the chief secretary for its continuance.” He smiled to himself, making the same mistake with regard to Dr. Layton that the prioress had made. But he had far less excuse than she, for by this time he should have known that Layton, for all that he was a man of one idea, was no fool.
For a moment Layton said nothing, but scratched his thigh and savored his keen dislike of his fellow visitor. Then—
“What of that that was said of her as to being found with a boy in her bed one night?”
“Tcha! And how many years ago? Even that black-eyed scandal monger that told it could not say but that it was a matter of two children. And such as she—” he looked at Layton with a look that said, “and such as you,”—“would find matter to traduce a saint.”
“Well, well,” Layton let it go.
“Dame Margery Conyers.”
“That bag of bones!”
“Confederate with the prioress, I think,” Layton put in, but Legh disregarded this, which might have been a warning to him. So they went on through the nuns. Nothing much could be objected against the house except that the nuns were accustomed to go out from the cloister to funerals and christenings, staying away an unconscionable time, and that it had been known for gentlemen to be entertained in the cloister and the parlor. One nun, professed two years ago, at the age of twenty-three, must go forth; they both agreed to that, though their commission only gave them power to send away any under twenty-two years of age who had taken the vows.
“As for that novice,” said Legh, meaning July, “she shall not take the vows this Easter.”
“And it would be well,” Layton added sourly, “if she took them not at all.”
At last Legh stood up and stretched himself till his joints cracked. He said, well, that was an end, and now for the mulled ale the prioress had ordered for them, and to saddle.
The clerk began to shuffle his papers together, and then Layton spoke.
“Have you forgot,” said he, “this matter of the wench who sees visions?”
“Visions?” Legh was taken between wind and water.
“Or have you not heard?” Layton purred, knowing well Legh had heard. “I thought it,” he said, “a grave matter.”
Legh sat down again. In his mind he abandoned the cause of the prioress, and with less compunction because the ring, though pretty, was of no great value, and he suspected that it was not her best. “Tell me,” he said, as if this talk of visions was news to him.
So Layton told him of the serving woman, Malle, who, certain of the servants averred, saw visions of our Savior, of our Lady, of saints and angels and devils too.
“And doth she prophecy treasonably?” Legh inquired with the due amount of apprehension that a loyal subject should show.
But Layton was satisfied; he had given the young man a lesson. He said that there were no prophecies that he could hear of, nor naught treasonable in the visions, but that it seemed the wench was but a poor, crazed, harmless creature. “Nevertheless,” he concluded, “it were well that I should admonish the prioress that such things are dangerous. Write it down so,” he bade the clerk.
Legh understood precisely why he said that “I” and not “we should admonish the prioress.” Nor when they rode from Marrick, warmed by the mulled ale, did he need to inquire how Dr. Layton had come by a handsome brooch that he wore; it was a thing of a good deal more value than the sapphire ring on his own finger.
Sunshine was blown across the empty countryside like straw before the wind; in the great church of the Abbey of Peterborough the colored windows glowed and gloomed as the light filled them and was wiped away. As well as the changeable brightness of the day the strong tide of air found its way into the church in little trickles and eddies and swayed the flames of many torches and tapers lit for the burial of Katherine, once Queen of England. Sometimes a stronger breath moved the drooping banners, upon which candlelight and sunlight chased each other, showing the arms of England, of the Emperor, of Spain, Aragon, and Sicily; there were also little pennons bearing devices such as the bundle of arrows, the pomegranate, the lion and the greyhound, which commemorated old alliances as far back as John of Gaunt, who had married a Spanish Princess. Besides all these banners there were four great golden standards on which were painted the Trinity, Our Lady, St. Katherine, and St. George, while round about the walls hung cloths painted with the dead woman’s chosen motto, “Humble et loyale,” in tall gold letters. All that was left in England of Katherine, Queen or Princess Dowager, lay in the midst of the lights and the banners in its leaden coffin, under a cloth of gold frieze with a great cross of crimson velvet.
The mourners, of whom the King had chosen for chief his niece, Eleanor, daughter of the Dowager French Queen and the Duke of Suffolk, sat in black rows upon the benches, while Bishop Hilsey of Rochester preached to them against the power of the pope, and against the incestuous marriage of Katherine, widow of Prince Arthur, to Henry, then Prince of Wales. Lady Eleanor sat, hearing, yet not hearing, with every appearance of decorous attention; her mind was running upon the delinquencies and impertinences of one of her waiting women, and on the piercing phrases of her next rebuke. But the ladies and gentlemen who had been of the dead woman’s household heard and attended well enough to what he was saying. Many of the gentlemen scowled; those of the ladies who were not crying shuffled their feet upon the hassocks of rushes. The imperial ambassador, M. Eustace Chapuys, who was placed among the great mourners, neither scowled nor shuffled, but sat very stiff with a face empty of expression. Only when the bishop, warming to his work, declared that the Princess in the hour of death had confessed that she had never rightly and lawfully been Queen of England, the ambassador’s sanguine complexion deepened to crimson; he lifted his head and stared at the bishop, in a look giving him the lie. But the bishop would not catch his glance, keeping his eyes all the time on the words of his dissertation.
When the solemn Mass was over they buried her before the lowest step of the high altar, laying over the stone a simple black cloth.
That same day at Westminster, as rain began to slash at the palace windows in an early twilight, a man in a sober black gown came to a door in the palace, knocked, and with a backward glance to see that none watched him, slipped in.
A young man, with a long, pale, disdainful face, was writing at a table. He let his eyebrows run up toward his fair hair at the intrusion. But the other said, “My master is one of the doctors to the Queen’s Grace.”
“Ah.” Sir Edward Seymour stood up. Under his dignity he was eager. “Well?” he asked.
“She hath miscarried.”
“Of a boy or girl?”
“Of a male child.”
“Not that that matters,” Sir Edward corrected himself coldly, and the doctor’s servant let the corners of his lips drop in a sour smile. It mattered much for the Queen’s Grace.
“Tell me—” Seymour was easing a pearl ring from his forefinger, and the other, keeping his eyes away from it, began to talk, doctor’s stuff at first, which was mere words to the uninstructed, but afterward things more understandable.
“As soon as she could speak,” said he, “she asked her woman, ‘Knave or girl?’ and when they said, ‘Knave,’ she let out a cry, and on that same moment swore that the fault was her uncle’s the Duke of Norfolk, because he had told her that the King had fallen in the tilt-yard. ‘And he looked so white and wizen,’ says she, ‘I thought His Grace was dead, the which pierced my heart like a dagger, and I shrieked, and the pains came.’”
“His Grace hath been told?”
The doctor’s servant nodded as he took the ring from Seymour’s fingers, and now he let his eyes take a look at it, before he put it by in his pouch, and tightened and knotted the strings. It was a ring of price, and according to his lights he was a man who liked to be honest, and give value for money. He came close and whispered.
“I spoke with him who brought the news to His Grace. He heard the King say that now he was sure that black sorcery had been the means by which he was brought to this present unhappy marriage.”
Sir Edward put by the fellow’s hand from his arm, and said stiffly that news, so it were true, should always find its reward. When the doctor’s servant had gone off, circumspectly, he also came out from the room, and went up through the palace toward the chambers of the Queen’s maids, to find his sister, Mistress Jane Seymour. He thought it well she should be told all that he had just heard.
Dinner at Marrick Manor began with veal chawetts, and for a while the prioress and Dame Nan talked of how these should be cooked. The priory made its chawetts with wine, a little verjuice, and dates, raisins, currants, and mace. These chawetts of the Bulmers had green cheese in them, and no wine nor dried fruits. The prioress professed herself eager for the receipt, and Dame Nan said over her shoulder, “See to it, John,” and one of the men waiting answered her, “Aye, mistress.”
But after that more and more the prioress directed her conversation toward Sir Rafe, so that by the time the cloths were drawn, the servants gone away, and the three of them private (which was what the prioress had asked for) Dame Nan’s face was set hard as a stone, and she sat beside the prioress on the settle, remote and pale, looking down at her hands idle in her lap, while the prioress leaned toward Sir Rafe in his chair, and told him of all that the visitors had done and said, of Dr. Layton’s warnings, and Dr. Legh’s counsel, and thus came to the point of her errand, and the dire need of the house.
“Well,” said Sir Rafe at the end of it all, “if you will sell me those closes up at Owlands—”
“No. But I will lease you the west side of Owlands Bargh.”
“Sell it, and you shall have that which will content Cromwell.”
They haggled about that for some time, while Dame Nan sat mute, only her chin lifted a little higher.
When they had agreed at last, the prioress got up to go, so they all stood, but Dame Nan moved a pace aside to separate herself from them, and looked out of the window at the garden deep in snow and shining in the sun. The prioress was telling Sir Rafe how his brother Sir John would not pay the dower of Julian Savage this Easter, seeing that the visitors had forbidden that she should be professed. “So how,” the prioress asked, throwing her hands wide, “how can I keep a growing young wench without dower till she be twenty-four, and the house squeezing out money to buy our continuance, if it may be? Nay, marry, I cannot do it. I cannot. She must away again to Sir John.”
Sir Rafe began to hum! and ha! He made it clear without exactly saying so, that he thought his brother in the right, since to pay a dower when the priory might not stand, was only to put money out of his own into the King’s pocket. If the money were July’s own, left by her uncle, that made no difference.
It was then that Dame Nan spoke, surprising both of the others.
“I will have the young gentlewoman here at Marrick, if Sir John and—” she paused, “and his lady allow.”
“Why Nan—” Sir Rafe cried.
“I need another gentlewoman,” she said, never turning her face from the window.
“Well, well,” the prioress murmured. She was indifferent what became of Julian Savage, so long as she did not eat up so much as a groat of the priory revenue. She asked Sir Rafe when she might have the money in her hand for the leasehold, and they went out together, leaving Dame Nan just rising from a needlessly deep and stately curtsey.
After a few minutes Sir Rafe came in again, and sat down. He looked at his wife’s back, regretted, as he often did, that things were come to be so often at cross-purposes between them, and, not being wise enough to let ill alone, said, “I cannot see for why you should need another gentlewoman, nor, if you do, why you should take that young wench who’s a bastard.”
“And sister to your brother’s wife,” Nan caught him up. “At last his wife,” she added smoothly, and saw him scowl. He was not glad to be reminded that since Dame Anne Bulmer had died last autumn Meg Cheyne had become Meg Bulmer. And when Dame Nan added that she thought it not well that a young wench, who was to have been a nun, should go to such a sister as Meg, he was too much in agreement with her to find any retort.
“And I hope,” Nan concluded, with jagged ice in her tone, “I hope I may at least choose my own gentlewomen.”
He cried then, “Death of God! It’s that, is it, that you grudge at? That I deal for you in a matter of land and leases, though before your face, mark you? Shall not a husband do so?”
“You have tried to buy that which my ancestors gave to the nuns.”
Sir Rafe threw his hands wide, caught his knuckle smartly on the settle, and swore again.
“There was a time you wanted the closes at Owlands,” he told her, and she, remembering that time, and all those times when they had been one in mind and in heart, was pierced by the pain of remembering.
“My ancestor, Roger Aske,” she began stubbornly, but Sir Rafe cried a murrain on all Askes, and inquired whether she would not have the priory to continue.
“I would,” she said in the voice which she kept for their worst quarrels.
“But you would not have me help the prioress to one hundred marks?”
“One hundred marks to bribe Cromwell with.”
“Well—would you that, or that the house were suppressed?”
“I would not the King left his business in the hands of a rogue.”
“Fie on such words!”
“Fie on him for a rogue! Yea, fie on the King too! My fathers gave lands that God should be served down at Marrick. Will the King do well if he take those lands that were never his?”
Sir Rafe rebuked her. Then, because in this also they did not really differ, only that he thought it unseemly for a woman to speak so bluntly against the King, he said, to turn the subject, that it was well the priory had that manner woman for its prioress these days.
“God’s Bread!” he cried, “is it not? You know how well she has cherished the house.”
“I know how she cherishes that which is her own. I know what manner woman she is, and what it is she loves. Not God, nor poverty, nor charity. No. But her will, and her way, and her goods.”
“Tcha!” was all he could say to that.
“And she says that if that poor soul Malle speak more of heavenly things she’s to have a sore whipping. You heard her say it. That is how Christ is served at Marrick.”
“Mercy of God!” he asked her, did she think that the woman Malle was anything other than a poor crazed fool?
“Fool or saint,” she said, “it would be all one to my lady prioress.”
“Oh!” he cried, and got up. “Here is but spite and ill-will and a woman’s shrewishness,” and he left her there. She stood for a long time by the window looking out. The sun had gone down now, and the snow was bright no longer, but only a shroud over the frozen earth. She laid her face against the bubbled quarrels of the casement, and kept it so till it ached with the cold, smelling the thin, chill smell of the glass, and feeling her heart like the flesh of her cheek, both aching and cold.
A servant had been sent down from Marrick Manor with a mule, and a priory servant was to go up with Mistress Julian Savage to fetch back the baggage pony that carried her little trussing coffer and bed, which was all she had brought to Marrick. Two of the ladies, Dame Margaret Lovechild and Dame Bet Singleton, came to the gatehouse with her, and saw her lifted up on the mule, and cried to her to come and see them often, and that she was not far away, and must not forget them. They waved their hands to her, and then turned back into the great court, because they ought not to have been there at all, but in the cloister, and the bell in the tower was ringing for None. As they picked their way through the trampled snow, which the great frost kept crisp yet, Dame Margaret was wiping her eyes.
“Poor child,” said she, “poor little wench.”
“But when I asked her yesterday was she sad to be gone from us, she said, ‘It matters not. It is all one.’ And today she did not shed a tear.”
“Ah! But she was sad for all that. And perhaps she meant that it was all one, if the house did not continue.”
Dame Bet cried out, “Fie! we shall continue,” for the ladies were getting their courage again, and could not conceive that Marrick should be suppressed, and the priory void, and they all sent away to those homes that they had seen only now and again for many years.
Meanwhile July and the two servants went up by the longer way to Marrick Manor through the bright day, July riding a little in front of the men. She did not once look back, but neither did she look forward, only down at the mule’s shoulders where the muscles slid under the mouse-gray hide.
Just about the time that July sat down to her dinner at Marrick Manor the nuns’ bailiff came back to the priory; he had been on the road from London for the last three days, but he was brought at once to the prioress, delivered his message and handed her a letter.
She looked down at it in her hand, and asked again, though she had heard him well enough, “You say the chief secretary promised to be good lord to us, and bade us not to fear?”
“He said to me those very words.”
She broke the seal then, and opened the letter. The same was written by one of Master Secretary’s clerks, and signed with Thomas Cromwell’s own hand; the ladies of Marrick should not fear if in their house God’s service was well kept, “for it is not the King’s intent to suppress any but abbeys in which manifest sin, vicious, carnal, and abominable living is daily used.” So Master Cromwell accepted the gelding, and promised to accept one hundred marks next year.
Within the hour the news became known in the parlor where the ladies sat, and then all pretense of silence and meditation ceased.
Never, they told each other, had they believed that Marrick should fall, and that was true, but for the last few weeks they had not been easy, so that now, as their confidence returned, they grew very cheerful. Yet it did not take them long to grow accustomed to this security which was so natural to their thoughts. Before suppertime Dame Anne Ladyman was heard to lament that, it being a Friday, they would have to eat “those everlasting beans once more.” And Dame Bess Dalton, who was darning a tenterhook rent in the skirt of her habit, remarked that she supposed there’d be no new gowns for them now for many a year, aye, and long after the Lady had redeemed Owlands Bargh. “Surely,” said Dame Bess, “this same pretext will serve her bravely whenever she will stint us of this or that.”
The prioress looking from her window saw the bailiff talking to one of the hinds who was plowing. So she put on her pattens, and a big cloak, for the evening was setting in fine and frosty, under a clear sky, and hurried out to catch Master Bailiff before he went off to the ale house at Grinton.
She caught him, and kept him standing first on one leg, then on the other, at the edge of the field, while the hind trudged up and down the furrows. There was much to be spoken of, for barley sowing was on hand, and harrowing would follow. Then grafting must be finished in the orchard before the moon began to wane. And this year white peason should be sown in more plenty, for the prioress thought she should have enough for the pot, and to sell also.
At last she let him go, and herself came back toward the priory. Along the hedge the blackthorn blossom tufted on the dark boughs was like pearls, like stars; away on the edges of the wood it was like spilt foam. She turned into the orchard gate, and for a while walked among the trees, pausing specially long to look at the new graftings; on the big old Bittersweet apple tree she had had the bailiff set three grafts, of Pomewater, Ricardon, and Blandrelle. So in five years’ time, or seven, that tree would bear his four manner apples; a great subtlety it would be and much admired.
Before she left the orchard she took a look also at the three young walnut trees, clean, slim, and silver gray. They would be slower; perhaps in twenty years the nuns would have of them plenty of nuts. She looked at them kindly; she did not wish to hustle them. She doubted if even in twenty years’ time their neighbors, the ladies of St. Bernard, would have thought of planting walnut trees—that is if, in twenty years’ time there were any ladies in the little house a mile down the river. And then she reflected with some satisfaction on the elimination of the ladies of St. Bernard, who had not Thomas Cromwell to their friend.
So, as she latched the orchard gate carefully behind her, her mood was contented, and in tune with the quiet evening. And she smiled to see that big lad, Piers Conyers, bumping along from Grinton on a chestnut cob. He smiled too, and pulled up to walk the pony alongside her, his blue cap in his hand.
“Well,” said she, “and what mischief have you had in hand?”
He grinned, then laughed. There was down on his chin, but his cheeks were yet soft and round as a child’s cheeks; and so was the nape of his neck, where the brown hair fell in a soft curve. He said, demurely, “Madame, no mischief, but an errand for my lady.”
“Faith!” she told him, “I thought you had helped yourself to Mistress Doll’s little cob.”
“And so I did.”
They both laughed, and she said, “I’ll not tell. Get on. Get on with you. But rub him down well and water him, for I can see you’ve been riding races.”
So he went, shouting, and beating the little beast to a canter with his heels, and she came on slowly, smiling at him, and smiling in her mind at another boy, younger than he, and a long time ago. John was in her thoughts as he had not been for many a day, he and Piers together. She felt their kindness for her, and it was as if John and she were still as young and silly as they had been. Then she laughed outright, as she remembered Dame Anne coming in with the candle in her hand, and all her solemn horror, so palpably enjoyed. She had never laughed at that before, only, if she thought of it, had been able to smile bitterly. But now she thought, “Mother of God! How silly we all were!” and she laughed comfortably in her mind at all of them. Then she thought, “It is because I grow old that I can laugh.” It did not grieve her to think of growing old, but gave her a feeling of greater security and quietness.
As she turned under the gatehouse she heard Jankin’s fire crackling merrily, and saw the light of the flames sliding and shaking upon the opposite wall. It was a pleasant sound, and when she came into the great court it was pleasant and a great surprise to see the Lent Peddler and his tall white donkey. Jankin was unloading the donkey, but the Peddler stood near, and Dame Margery Conyers and Dame Anne Ladyman were with him. They saw her and they all stood stiff, as if they had been caught at some shocking deed. Jankin stood with one of the packs held against his stomach, Dame Margery’s hand went up to her mouth, Dame Anne and the Peddler stood still staring.
Then the two ladies cried, as if with one voice—“Madame! Madame! Have you heard?”
They told her, the Peddler, Jankin, and the two ladies chiming together like dogs, that Parliament had given into the King’s hands all the abbeys. “No,” said the Peddler louder than all, “only the little abbeys, such as this one,” to be suppressed and altogether brought to an end.
When they had finished telling her there was a silence so complete that she could hear again the crackle of the sticks in Jankin’s fire in the gatehouse. She said at last, to Jankin, and pointing to the Peddler, “Give him to eat, and his beast,” and then went up into her chamber. She had not told the ladies to follow her, but she was not surprised to find them in the room with her.
She sat down in her chair, and they side by side upon the bench. Dame Anne twiddled her fingers together, Dame Margery had her hands tight locked; the prioress saw them sit like that and then turned her eyes to the window; Calva lay there sharp edged and dark against the last of the dying light.
Margery Conyers suddenly wrenched one hand from the other and beat it on the bench beside her.
“Shall they do it? Will not men rise to forbid them? Oh! Shame! Then let’s bar the gate. Let them take us like a besieged city if they dare.”
She burst into tears then, and the prioress told her that such a thing could not be, to hold the house against the King’s will. But she did not speak sharply, and patted Dame Margery on the shoulder, bidding her take heart. Margery was a fool, but she loved the priory, and Dame Christabel felt kindly toward her.
“Jesu!” Dame Anne said, “if there are to be any of such doings let me forth first,” and she laughed. She had given up twisting her fingers together, and now she pinched her veil on this side and on that, and drew a little farther from under it a curl of dark hair which showed upon her forehead, where it should not, by the Rule, have showed at all.
“Well!” said she, giving herself a little shake like a bird that has just preened its feathers, “if they choose to put us forth what can we do but seek husbands. Fie on such a need! God’s Mother! I shall die of shame to feel a man’s hand on me.”
The prioress turned and looked at her, and under the look Dame Anne grew red and giggled. Then the prioress turned her eyes away. It seemed to her now that there had never been a time when she had not detested Dame Anne. “At her age!” she thought. “Her head’s like a brothel!” And she was filled with a fury of scorn and disgust.
But when the two had left her, and the warming fury had died, then the prioress knew the blank of final defeat. All the abbeys must go—all the little abbeys that is—and she had got out of Jake the Peddler that proof which should try and depart great from little. She bit at her knuckles, and at her nails. It was useless to unlock the chest and to go through the priory accounts. Never, she knew, could she make Marrick even appear to possess revenue of £200 a year. Yet she could not but try. Soon she sat at her desk with rolls and books spread out, reckoning up, and reckoning up again. It was as hopeless as she had known it would be. At last she allowed the rolls to slip away and rattle to the floor at her feet. She set her elbows on the desk, and her forehead fell into her hands.
They were winnowing in the big garner—the last of the wheat, which the prioress looked to sell at a good price at Grinton. Because of the dust it was very thirsty work, and long before noon the bailiff winked his eye to one of the men, and walked away toward the kitchen. The rest of them followed soon, keeping close to the wall and out of sight of the windows, in case the prioress was looking out. Malle trailed after them, last of all.
Cook already had his face behind a can of ale, and a man they did not know sat with him, black, shaggy haired, in patched leather hosen; a man of not much more than thirty by his look, but with lines bitten into his face by hunger, or sorrow, or by some stress beyond the common lot. Yet when those who came in from the winnowing grew merry over their ale, he was laughing with them, and more than once it was a shrewd saying of his, or a homely salty story that had set them laughing. Certainly, for all the raggedness and wretchedness of his look, he was one of those that have a way with them; even the bailiff listened when he spoke, and cook, a man of uneasy temper, treated him with unusual sweetness, so that the drinking time in the kitchen lasted longer than anyone had thought for. But at last they must go back to their work, so by ones and twos they drifted away.
Malle had not come into the kitchen. She had stood all the time at the door, gaping in. Now they had to shoulder past her, so stupid she was, and so taken up with staring goggle-eyed at the stranger. Only when all had gone except cook and him, and he got up, and came toward the door, she skipped back out of the way, standing aside in the shadowed passage till he had bidden “God be with you!” to the cook, and gone out. Then she followed him.
There was no one in the great court to bid mad Malle back to work, but the prioress herself saw her, for she stood at her window with Dame Anne Ladyman. First they saw the stranger come out. “There goes an ugly vagabond knave!” said the prioress. “Whence is he?” Dame Anne agreed that surely he was a rough one to look at. She supposed he might be Sir Rafe’s new shepherd’s man from over toward Lunesdale, where folk are very poor and wild.
When Malle went by following after him it was Dame Anne who said with a titter, “See the fool running after him!” The prioress “Tushed,” impatient of Dame Anne’s meaning, and for that reason would not open the window to send the woman back to the winnowing. Also her thought was more taken up by the man.
“Fie!” said she. “If Sir Rafe hath brought that one into the dale he hath brought a very stout rogue. See how he goes.” He passed just then under the lintel of the gatehouse, and something in the way he carried himself made it seem, though it was amply high, too low and mean for him to pass beneath.
“Fie!” she said again, feeling herself strangely and strongly moved against the fellow. “I warrant this is one of those whose humor it is to grudge at rich men, and would pull down all to be as wretched as they.”
When the man came out from the priory gate there was Wat, Gib Dawe’s brat, sitting by the nuns’ duck pond, hugging his knees. He got up at once, and came slinking down to the laneway, as the man went past the churchyard toward the nuns’ steps; he came alongside Malle, and gave her a quick glinting look, a strange look, but neither frightened, nor wary, nor wicked; his face was slobbered with tears, but that did not matter, for she was crying too. They smiled at each other, and when she held out her hand he took it. So they went both together after the man.
By now he had come nearly to the gate in the wall that divided the priory land just here from the Bulmers’s. He went slowly, with his head bent, as though he marked the young grass growing, for it was a very fair bright day, and for the first time the grass smelt of spring. After him, but some way behind, came Malle and Wat. The brown ducks that had been preening and scratching and shaking themselves with much fuss and flutter on the edge of the pond went now in line, following him toward the gate, and a few of the priory sheep, which the shepherd had brought down from Owlands, moved that way too, slowly, with little pauses and starts.
When the man had gone through the gate, letting the weight swing it to after him, he turned for a moment and looked at them all. They stood still, nor did any of those creatures move again until he went on, more quickly now, up the nuns’ steps and into the wood.
Only then they came to the gate, and Malle and Wat stood looking over it and watching him as he went. The ducks gathered about their feet, and the sheep too in a little crowd, and looked between the pales. The sun, not yet very high, struck right in among the bare trees, finding out the bright watery green of the trunks, and unlocking all the distances. The wind, moving strongly through the wood, filled it with sliding shadows, as if the air bore light upon its back as a running river bears ripples. So he went up and out of sight, under the great branches that bowed and swung, while the little twigs seemed to clap themselves together for joy.
A cloud covered the sun. He had gone, and Malle and Wat came back to the bare hillside among the boulders, where now the wind brought only chill. But for Malle it was golden harvest weather; the ears of corn were full, wrought four-square, firm as a rope, exact as goldsmiths’ work; like rope ends they struck her thighs as she moved through them, loaded with goodness.
She plumped down on the ground, and caught Wat by his knees so that he tumbled against her. Then they sat together, rocking to and fro, and Malle kept on babbling, “We shall brast, Wat, we shall brast,” while Wat made shocking faces and groaned in his throat; it hurt them so, the joy that was far too big for them, and the dread. For God, that was too great to be holden even of everywhere and forever, had bound himself into the narrow room of here and now. He that was in all things had, for pity, prisoned himself in flesh and in simple bread. He that thought winds, waters, and stars, had made of himself a dying man.
But at last, as if it were a great head of water that had poured itself with noise, and splashing, and white foam leaping into a pool, and now, rising higher, covered its own inflow, and so ran silent, though no less strong—now they were lifted up and borne lightly as a fisherman’s floats, and as stilly.
They crouched on the hillside, looking toward God, feeling God under their spread palms on the grass, and through the soles of their feet. Beyond, beyond, beyond, and beyond again, yet always that which went still beyond—God. And here, with only a low wooden gate between, that thing which man could never of himself have thought, and would never come to the depth of for all his thinking, here that thing impossible was true as daylight, here was God in man, here All in a point.