The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 2
The Unsuitable Child
In Chapter 1, Elswyth spotted a Norsk ship, but was it traders and old friends or raiders such as those who had recently sacked the monastery at Lindisfarne? Missed something? Get caught up using the index page.
Edith, Lady of Twyford, had never lost a child. She knew no other woman over thirty who could say the same thing. She had five daughters living and a sixth child making her awkward and clumsy. But there are other ways to lose a child besides death.
In her fifth year, Elswyth, her eldest daughter, had disappeared and had not been found for a week. Then a Norsk trader who had called to pick up a shipment of wool, returned to the beach with Elswyth perched on the prow, full of the glow of adventure, and oblivious to the agony her absence had caused to her parents, her family, and the whole village. They had suspected that she had stowed away on this ship, for her disappearance had been noted shortly after it departed. Some had even whispered that she had been kidnapped. The Norsk were known to trade in slaves, and Edith, who had herself been born a slave, had feared that Elswyth would end up a novelty in the markets of Cordoba.
And though she had never gone so far again—Edith had never again let any ship, pack train, or farmer’s wagon depart the village unless her hand was on Elswyth’s shoulder—Elswyth, now fifteen and on the cusp of marriage, was still lost to her much of the time. Today she was up on the clifftop somewhere, having persuaded her father that he could free a man for the fields if he let her keep the watch. She had taken her work basket with her, promising Edith that she could work on her embroidery and keep lookout at the same time. “It would be so boring just staring at the sea all day,” she had protested. “I’d fall asleep if I didn’t take something to do. I’ll work on my embroidery and just glance up now and then.” But this was nonsense. Edith knew well that Elswyth could stare at the sea day and night and never grow tired of it.
None of Edith’s other daughters seemed so anxious to be away from her. Daisy, the youngest, was in her arms, spitting out the milk porridge that Edith was shoveling into her mouth in hopes of completing her weaning. Daisy was growing sharp little teeth and Edith was desperate for a respite before the child within her arrived. Daisy would not even leave her mother’s breast, let alone her hall and her heart.
Poor mad Whitney, the next youngest, a child of blissful love and eternally restless feet but neither speech nor understanding, was running in circles around the hall and would soon collapse exhausted into Edith’s arms and then fall asleep in the dust at her feet. Whitney would run long, but never far.
Moira, chatty Moira, was with her grandmother, learning to spin and gossiping endlessly as she did so. What need had Moira of distant lands when she found so much gossip—and so many to share it with—all within sight of the hall?
Diligent Hilda would be on her favorite bench beside the hall, where the light was best, her needle busy in her hand, a growing strip of impeccable embroidery declining from her hands as she worked, oblivious to Whitney’s endless circling, to the dogs and chickens that wandered about, to the coming and going of the slaves, to all the din and bustle of the village. What need had Hilda of wandering, who never raised her eyes to the horizon?
But Elswyth, her eldest, her favorite, her image, her source of greatest joy and heartache, the child of whom she prayed in secret, whenever sickness came to the village, “God, if you must take any, don’t take her.” That child had her eyes, her thoughts, her heart ever over the horizon and away.
Elswyth had a beauty that any young woman might envy (and that poor plain Hilda did most grievously envy), a ready wit, a positive glut of charm, the ability to draw attention to herself and to excite affection in the coldest heart (even Hilda loved her). She was to be married after the harvest to Drefan of Bamburgh, the son of an ealdorman, who had doted on her like a big brother and had shown her great care and affection all through their childhoods. And yet Elswyth had a wistful heart, always consumed with longing, a longing that could never be assuaged, for it had no one true object. Give Elswyth wings and she would long for gills. Give her silver and she would long for pearls; sunshine and she would long for rain; autumn and she would long for spring; spring and she would long for winter. Elswyth would live a life of wealth and honor in Bamburgh Hall. She would have a noble husband and bear him fair and healthy children. She would lack nothing that any woman of sense could desire. And yet her heart would ever break with wistful longing, and sometimes it almost made Edith weep to think of it.
Her reverie was disturbed when Attor, her husband, thegn of Twyford, appeared, hurrying awkwardly down the path that led to the cliff top. Attor had grown too old to run for pleasure.
“Not again!” she called out to him as he shuffled by.
He turned aside from his path and came to her. “She says it may be Norsk,”
“That’s what she said Wednesday. And last week. You nearly terrified those poor fishermen, meeting them on the beach with twenty spears. It will be months before we taste cod or lobster again.”
“She has better eyes than mine,” Attor replied.
“And greater fancy,” Edith said. Since the raid on Lindisfarne, every scrap of sail, every floating log, every breeching whale or dolphin, had been taken for vikingar.
“Still, better to be safe,” Attor said. “I will go call the men.”
Edith put two fingers in her mouth and whistled loudly. Three boys came scampering at the command.
“Run to the fields and tell the men that the thegn summons them,” she told them. She held out a hand to her husband so that he could help her rise. “You should not use that girl as a sentinel.”
“There’s not a better set of eyes in the village.”
“That may be, but she is to marry Drefan after that harvest, and I’ve much to do to make a lady of her yet. Can you imagine if, the day after she marries Drefan, Lady Cyneburg finds her in the mud behind Bamburgh hall, barefoot, playing pickup sticks with the slave children?”
“Cyneburg loves her.”
“Everyone loves her. That is her curse. But Cyneburg loving Elswyth and Cyneburg thinking Elswyth fit to succeed her as lady to the ealdorman of Bamburgh? That is a very different thing. For that she must be a lady—and not just when it pleases her. Cyneburg has not forgotten who she is. She has not forgotten that I was born a slave. There were days I washed her feet and served her meat, and she has not forgotten that, I promise you.”
“You’re a lady now,” Attor said. “And Elswyth always was.”
“But she looks more like those who serve in Bamburgh than those who rule. So in her dress, in her manner, she must be more a lady than any of them, than Cyneburg herself. But what is she today? A shoeless child and pining for sailor men. And it is you giving her leave to do it.”
“It frees a man for the haying.”
“And is the haying worth losing her marriage over?”
It was an old argument between them. Not a week went by without Edith asking her husband if some adventure or indulgence were worth losing Elswyth’s marriage over.
“She’ll not lose the marriage,” Attor said. “Drefan’s smitten.”
“Smitten?” Edith said. “Of course he’s smitten. But what has smitten to do with the marriages of nobility?”
“I was smitten,” he said, placing one arm around her and pulling her to him so he could kiss first her, and then Daisy, upon the head. “Still am.”
“And what advantage did you have by it? It cost you thirty hides that Elene of Hadston would have brought you, your brother’s friendship, your mother’s love.”
“My mother loved the children.”
“She loved Elswyth because everyone does. She loved Hilda because she looks like her. She never loved me or forgave you. Blood debt or not, Kenrick and Cyneburg won’t throw so much away if they don’t think Elswyth suitable.”
At that moment, the unsuitable child came tearing down the path from the clifftop, bare feet flying, hair streaming behind her.
“It is Norsk!” she cried as she ran towards them. “It is Norsk, but I think it is Uncle Harrald. It is a knarr for sure. But perhaps I should ride to Alnwick anyway, just in case.”
“Ride to Alnwick?” Edith said.
“Father said I could ride to Alnwick if it was vikingar. To give the alarm.”
“Well you can’t,” Edith said. She turned to her husband. “What were you thinking? We would not have seen her for a month if you had given her leave and a good horse.”
“Of course you would,” Elswyth said. “Of course, it would be rude to ride to Alnwick and then not call on the Uncle Leofwine and Uncle Osgar, and Eglingham is so close that I would have to go there too. But I would only be gone a week at most.”
“And four men taken from the fields to escort you.”
“No. Father said I could ride alone.”
“Just to give the alarm,” Attor protested. “Thegn Wigberht would have sent you right back with an escort.”
“If he could catch her,” Edith said. “You are not leaving this village, miss, till the ship comes to take you to Bamburg after the harvest. And by then you must have your wedding dress complete.”
“If the ship is Norsk,” Attor said, “then I must certainly meet them with spears, whether you think it is Harrald or not.” He who had never flinched in the battle line wanted no part of war between wife and daughter. He hurried off, with his awkward gait, to organize the men who were beginning to stream in from the fields.
“You don’t really think I would ride away for a month and miss Uncle Harrald and Uncle Thor, do you?” Elswyth asked her mother.
Edith looked at her daughter. Elswyth’s appearance provoked a frown that expressed not simply annoyance, but a deep and vexing puzzle. Elswyth was a lovely young woman, plump in the bosom, round in the hips, with a mane of glossy black hair. Her face was the image of Edith’s own. It was the face that Edith had once seen staring back at her from a still pool, when she was a slave and her face had been the whole of her fortune. It was a wholly Welisc face with not a trace of Anglish in it. On Edith, who had been born to Welisc slaves on the manor where she was now lady, that face had been enough to catch the eye of an Anglish thegn’s son. On Elswyth, Edith believed, it was a face that might have caught the fancy of an Anglish king, if only the opportunity had presented itself.
Elswyth was clad in a summer dress of green linen with brooches befitting her rank, and a decorated belt with heavy copper terminals shaped like the heads of herons, which she wore high to emphasize her bosom. Yet she was barefoot like a child, and there were at least a dozen sticky burs clinging to her skirts and a posy of assorted and drooping wildflowers stuck behind one of her brooches.
“Where are your shoes?” Edith asked.
“Why would I wear shoes in the middle of summer?”
“Because you are no longer a child. A respectable noblewoman wears shoes on her feet, winter or summer. And a wimple on her head.”
“There’s a ship, Mother.”
“Where is your work basket?”
“It’s Norsk! I can tell by the shape, by the way it sails. I’m almost sure it’s Uncle Harrald.”
“I’d be glad if it was,” Edith said. “But he has not come in two years. Wrecked and drowned, like as not. Such is the fate of sailors.”
“Of course they are not wrecked or drowned,” Elswyth said. “Uncle Thor would never let them be wrecked or drowned.”
“Uncle Thor is just a man. I know you loved him, darling, but you are a woman now and you have seen quite enough of death to know that people die, no matter how much we love them.”
“I know,” Elswyth said, looking downcast for the moment of two that was all her nature was capable of. “But not Uncle Thor. Not Uncle Harrald either. You’ll see. It’s their ship. I know it is.”
“Well then go put your shoes on and make yourself presentable to receive guests.” Edith yanked out the posy of flowers that drooped behind Elswyth’s brooch, and threw it on the ground. She bundled Daisy into Elswyth’s arms while she pulled the sticky burrs out of Elswyth’s skirts. Then she took the baby back from her grown daughter and said, “And put on a wimple too. You should not be parading your hair in front of sailors at your age.”
“Not till I’m married, Mother. You promised!” Elswyth replied. But she said it over her shoulder as she ran off so that she was gone before Edith had a chance to respond.
“Well, you’ve wasted enough for one day,” Edith said to Daisy after Elswyth had disappeared from view. She wiped the child’s face and flicked the bigger lumps of porridge off the front of her smock, then surrendered the bowl to a small dog that had been nosing about hopefully.
In a year, Elswyth would likely have a baby of her own and Edith would be a grandmother. Would Elswyth find all her wistfulness assuaged, all her longing recompensed, in the urgent suck of her firstborn child upon her breast? Edith prayed so.
She walked around the side of the hall to where Hilda sat, exactly where Edith had known her to be, on a bench against the wall of the hall, bent over her needlework. Hilda did not look up as her mother approached.
“Your sister is seeing ships again,” Edith said.
“Okay,” said Hilda, not looking up, her fingers not pausing as they guided her needle in its swift and agile passage through the cloth.
“Take her, will you?” Edith asked, thrusting Daisy in Hilda’s direction.
Hilda finished her stitch and secured her needle in a fold of the cloth, then folded the cloth neatly and placed it on top of the neat rows of skeins in her work basket, the colors ranked according to the order prescribed by God and revealed to mortal women in the rainbow. Only when this was done did she look up, rise, and take Daisy from her mother, positioning her carefully so that the remnants of porridge should not transfer themselves from Daisy’s smock to her own dress. There were several splotches of porridge on her mother’s dress. Hilda flicked them onto the ground then wiped her finger clean on the last clean spot on Daisy’s smock.
“Sit down, Mother,” she said.
“I’ve been sitting. I’m sick of sitting. I hope it is a ship this time. It would be nice to have company.”
“Unless it’s vikingar,” Hilda said. “Vikingar are not good company.” Daisy was squirming in her arms and reaching out for her mother. Hilda turned so as to face Daisy the other way, but the child simply squirmed around in her arms and reached for her mother again.
“It’s not vikingar.” Edith said. “Why on earth would vikingar come here? We don’t have hoards of gold, like the monasteries, and what did we ever do to offend God?”
“You and Father…” Hilda began.
“Not that again, darling.”
“Brother Alun says that virginity is a pearl without price.”
“Your father and I did get married, thank you very much.”
“Afterwards…” Hilda retorted. It was a point of endless contention for Hilda that while she had been conceived in wedlock, Elswyth had not.
At twelve, Hilda was already taller than both her mother and Elswyth. But where Elswyth was plump and round and buoyant from her restless feet to her mounds of glossy hair, Hilda was straight and narrow and anchored. If Elswyth was too slow to give up childish things, Hilda had packed them neatly in a basket and long since put them away among the rafters of the hall. Hilda had a wimple on her head and shoes on her feet.
“Did she get any work done at all, or did she spend all morning looking for ships?” she asked.
Edith closed her eyes, remembering. “She didn’t have her work basket when she came down,” she said.
“She threw it over the cliff, I bet,” Hilda said. Elswyth’s work basket seemed to have more misadventures than mere inadvertence could account for.
“Nonsense,” Edith said. “But remind me to tell her to fetch it later.”
Daisy began to squeak and struggle more ardently in Hilda’s arms.
“You stay with your sister for a minute,” Edith said, rolling her neck and stretching her arms and shoulders.
“I saw father called the men out of the fields again.” Hilda said.
“He’s afraid that the one time he doesn’t, it really will be vikingar.”
“If he does it every time, he won’t get the hay in before it rains,” Hilda said.
“Don’t tell him that unless you want to find yourself with a pitchfork in your hands,” Edith replied.
“If anyone should be made to pitch hay, it’s Elswyth,” Hilda said. “It’s her fault if they are late, calling them out of the fields every other day for a ship.”
Daisy, seeing that her mother was not going to take her, was squirming towards the ground, and Hilda obliged by placing her in the dust at her feet. The small dog, which had finished all the porridge in the bowl and followed the scent of what remained on Daisy, started licking Daisy’s face and smock, which delighted her, and the two of them were soon rolling on the ground squealing and yipping. Hilda started to rub her hands, as she always did when she was deprived of her needle or threatened with heavy work. They were delicate hands, with long slender elegant Anglish fingers, quick and intelligent with a needle, and the thought of ruining them with farm labour alarmed her. Any beauty that God had granted to Hilda was in her hands. But it was not the gift of possessing beauty that he had given her, but that of making it.
“If it’s company, we’ll need two score loaves at least,” Edith said, “and three casks of wine.”
“There’s only two left.”
“More mead, then. And the good beer. A pig or a sheep. Turnips, carrots…”
“Why are you telling me? We have slaves.”
“But first we’ll need the fires lit. Then the trestles and benches out of storage...”
“Let Elswyth help. I’m only halfway finished my dragon and I need to get it done today so I can start on the swans tomorrow.”
“Your dragon will keep. Go fetch Moira and catch Whitney her next time around. I want you all together in case Elswyth’s ship is actually landing.”
Hilda opened her mouth to protest but Edith cut her off. “Just go!”
Hilda stormed off to obey, shoulders hunched in indignation.
Oh, the coming and going of ships! Without it they would be so much the poorer, for much of the manor’s trade moved by ship. Without it they would lack for half the news that came their way. There would be fewer songs, fewer stories, fewer visits by the people she loved. And yet, that coming and going of ships could take away, just as it brought. It was the coming and going of ships that had taken Elswyth away from her once, and she could never look at a ship again without thinking that, as children came to her, so too must they leave. Elswyth would go soon. Only to Bamburgh. But go she would. Go she must. And Edith would weep at her going.
Edith looked down at Daisy, still blithely playing with the small dog, “You won’t run off and leave Mother alone, will you pet?” she said. But she would. They all would. It was the way of daughters. It was the way of ships.
“St. Cuthbert, pray for me,” she said.
But then, where had Cuthbert’s aid been when the vikingar had sacked Lindisfarne, his very shrine and holy place?
She bent to pick up the child, feeling the need to soothe her, though Daisy was wholly unperturbed.
“Don’t worry,” she said, stroking Daisy’s hair. “All will be well. All will be well.”
Next chapter: 3. Leif
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I will be publishing commentaries on each chapter of The Wistful and the Good, generally on the Monday following the publication of the chapter on Saturday. These will deal with the historical background and some of the literary questions raised by the book and its composition.