The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 20
The Price of Virginity
Edith has told Elswyth about her own first kiss with Attor, and about how Attor saved her from being raped by a plowboy. Then she sent Elswyth to do her embroidery on the clifftop, to avoid another display of jealousy rivalry from Drefan. But the memory of her own first kiss from Drefan, so fierce and so public, is sill roiling Elswyth’s heart. Get caught up using the index page.
After lunch, Elswyth did as her mother suggested, carrying her embroidery basket up the cliff. She had not made much progress on her embroidery, however, before her mother came laboring up the cliff path.
“Drefan wants to take you riding,” she said.
“Mother! Why did you climb all the way up here yourself? You could have sent Moira.”
“I’m not an invalid. And I wanted to talk to you.”
“Drefan. I don’t know what’s in his head.”
“He’s taken me riding lots of times.”
“But he’s never kissed you like that before.”
“You mean you think…”
“I don’t know what to think. He won’t hurt you. I know that. But I know what you think about me and your father, and I want to tell you—” Here Edith paused to swallow before continuing. “My darling, you don’t want to end up with a child that hates you the way Hilda hates me.”
“She doesn’t hate you. She was just crying in your arms about the plowboy.”
“I am the only mother she’s got. When she needs to weep, she comes to me. But she hates who I am. She hates what I did.”
Elswyth snapped the head off a buttercup and set it floating on the breeze. “She wouldn’t be a thegn’s daughter, if you hadn’t done it. She’d be a slave and never have had a needle in those precious hands of hers.”
“I think she imagines she would have been the daughter of your Father and Elene of Hadston.”
“How horrid of her!”
“Have you never imagined having someone else for a mother?”
“How could I? We look just the same.”
“But Hilda doesn’t. She’d be pure Anglish if it wasn’t for me. And your daughters won’t all look like you. I’m just saying, you have no cause to give yourself the same grief I suffer.”
Elswyth stopped to consider this. It had not occurred to her that Drefan, whose treatment of her until today had been so chaste, might suddenly desire to lie with her. But nor had it occurred to her that he would kiss her with such hunger as he had done. And now that her mother had put the thought into her head, she could not laugh it off. She had for so long wanted him to show signs of wanting her. She had craved proof of ardor. They were to marry because of a promise that their fathers had made long ago. But she longed for what her mother had had—a marriage born of passion and affection. A passion irresistible, enacted beneath stars behind a haystack. It might be sinful in Brother Alun’s eyes, but to her it seemed to have a purity to it—a dignity not to be found in two old men shaking hands over the fate of a little boy and a baby girl. But today? And if today, would that be proof of ardor or an act of jealous possession?
She plucked another buttercup and set it free on the wind. And then another thought came over her, part dread and part exculpation.
“I can’t lose him either,” she said.
Now it was Edith’s turn to fall silent.
“Why should you lose him?” she replied after a moment, but there was doubt in her voice.
“But what if? What if he expects? What if I refuse?”
Edith was silent again for a moment. She came and lowered herself gingerly down to sit beside Elswyth. She looked at her daughter, and then turned and looked out to sea. After a moment’s anxious contemplation, she said, “You must be careful not to lose him. Would you mind so terribly if—”
Elswyth felt her heart stop. Could her mother really be asking this? And yet, was this not exactly what she had longed for?
“It’s not that I would mind, Mother….” But some part of her did mind, though what or why it minded she could not quite express to herself. “But I wouldn’t want my daughters to hate me.”
“Oh,” said Edith, embracing her daughter, “I’m sure they wouldn’t. I’m sure they wouldn’t. Forgive me. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“But if he did, Mother, what would we do then?”
“If he refused you? If he refused you, and then your father died, and the estate went to Fyren? I suppose I would go to a nunnery. They would take me in and help me find husbands for your sisters. And they would take care of Whitney when I died. Or I could marry again, though I don’t know if I could bear to lie with another man, or if I could find a widower willing to take us all in, especially Whitney. It would be no trouble to find a husband for you. But, my darling—" Here Edith paused and looked at the ground. “My darling, there is something you don’t understand.”
“I have never said this to anyone,” Edith said, husky voiced, as if she were a child, ashamed and yet defiant. “It could lose us the marriage if I said it too soon. But when you are married to Drefan, you will get your morning gift. Land, money, horses, cattle, slaves, all your own, to do with as you please. Far more than your father’s estate. I have been planning for so long to come to you and beg you to buy your grandmother, and Mayda, and all the rest of my kin from your father. Then you could give them their manumission and land to settle on.”
Elswyth’s eyes grew wide at this. “Oh, but of course, Mother! Of course I will. But will they want to leave? They all seem happy here.”
“Because I make sure that they do not go hungry, that they are not worked to death, that the women are left alone. Why do you think your father does not go hawking? Why do you think we have not given you a horse fit for a lady? Because the money goes to keep them from misery. But if Fyren were thegn, it would be different. Hilda loves to tell me that virginity is a pearl without price. But I know the price of virginity. Twice I have had thegns try to buy Mayda from us. And I know the difference between the price they will offer for a kitchen maid, and the price they will offer for a concubine. I know the price of virginity in Northumbria today. I know it to the shilling. I can’t tell Hilda this, not yet. But I could never have kept my virginity. All I could do is choose the thegn who took it.”
“Oh, Mother, I never knew.”
“I never wanted you to know. Not till you were grown. Not till you had the wealth to make a difference. But you understand, don’t you. Only Drefan’s morning gift will be enough. Your father can sell them, but by his oath to his mother he cannot free them, and to sell for less than they are worth would be the same thing. You must buy them all, at full price, so that your father can keep his honor and his oath. Only Drefan’s morning gift can provide such wealth.”
The weight of this settled on Elswyth’s heart.
“But you will still need people,” she said.
“And we will buy the people we need with the money that you pay for our kin. I know where I can find a family of Picts, so that I can keep them all together. I know we can’t run a manor without slaves, but my kin, your kin, will be free.”
“Then I really cannot lose him,” Elswyth said.
“You really cannot lose him,” Edith replied. And then she put her arms around her daughter and tried desperately to keep tears out of her eyes.
They remained in each other’s embrace for a moment, each with their thoughts a whirl of anxiety, hope, and desire. And then Edith, having fought back the tears that had been rising, said, “Well you better hurry along. I’m sure I’m worrying about nothing. I told Gwilym to saddle Spotty so he will be ready for you when you get there.”
Spotty was an elderly pony that Elswyth shared with her sisters. Elswyth had been complaining for two years that she had outgrown Spotty, but her mother had scoffed at the very notion of letting her have a swifter mount. Over the hills she would have been, she reckoned, and never seen again. Elswyth had complained bitterly at the injustice of this judgement. Only now did she understand the true reason, and it filled her with a renewed affection for Spotty. It was Elswyth herself who had given the pony his name, some time in her seventh summer, when the pony had been sprightly and hers alone, and its grey coat spotted white had seemed to demand no other name. But now, the coat, the pony’s age, and his low stature all made Spotty look vaguely ridiculous beside the tall horses of the young men. Drefan grinned at her when he saw her ride up on Spotty.
“Don’t forget that you promised me a proper horse for a wedding present,” she said, smarting at his grin.
“Oh, I intend to see you properly mounted,” he replied.
She blushed at this and stuck her tongue out at him.
“It should be today, if only your mother would consent,” he added.
This time it was she who was stuck for a riposte. Now she felt absurd on Spotty’s back beside Drefan on his tall stallion, Sherwyn. The horses of Drang and Earh were almost as tall as Sherwyn, and so they looked quite a comic party as they rode out of the village. Spotty, in natural deference to the superior animals, took up the rear of the party. Elswyth, anxious for his dignity as much as her own, tried to urge him forward so that she could ride beside Drefan, but Spotty knew his place in the order of creation and refused to budge from it.
A few minutes outside the village, two young women were waiting for them. One was Willa, the oven keeper’s daughter. She was a few years older than Elswyth and a classic Anglish beauty, flaxen haired and as plump as any man could wish for, for her father’s trade kept his family’s table well supplied in good years and bad. The other girl was Elwyna, who had not, to Elswyth’s eye, any reason to hope for a husband above her station, but who followed Willa’s lead in all things. It was well known that Caflice was in love with Elwyna, and Caflice had shown enough prowess as a hedger and a thatcher that his living was secure. Elwyna should have been very happy to have him. But there she was, waiting by the roadside for the young thegns to ride by.
A year ago, Elswyth had seen Willa hop up onto Drefan’s saddle, in this very spot, where no eye would have seen them, had that eye not been deliberately following and spying. Elswyth had burned with fury for days after witnessing this scene, until she had heard Drefan speak of Willa with such contempt that she had thought he could not possibly have desired her. Still, the thought of her mother’s tryst beneath the stars, and the subsequent disappointment of Elene of Hadston, was not far from her mind whenever she saw Willa. No, it was not impossible that she could lose Drefan.
The meeting was not one of chance, nor was it Willa’s initiative that had brought the two of them to this place, for Willa said, “What took you so long?” to Drang as he hauled her up ahead of him in the saddle. She made this ascent with practiced ease, while Elwyna struggled clumsily to get up in front of Earh.
Drefan turned in the saddle and looked back at Elswyth as if to ask if she wanted to come up and ride on Sherwyn, tucked into his belly in the same way that the other girls were mounted.
Well, it was clear now what was in Drefan’s mind. Willa and Elwyna were not the women they would have chosen to take for a picnic and conversation. Nor would they have arranged to meet them in secret if their intent were innocent. Not beneath stars behind a haystack would her moment come, then, but under a blue sky in the greenwood. But did that matter? Was one less romantic than the other? It did not feel so. But would her daughters hate her if she did?
She pretended not to have seen his invitation, and he turned forward in the saddle, and led the party forward again.
“Where are we going?” she called out to him.
Drefan turned in the saddle. “You choose,” he called back, a little sourly.
Was she to choose? Had he not chosen already? Or was that what he wanted of her, more even than her virginity, her choice?
“Then I choose Longhoughton,” she shouted. But why make her choose at all? Surely he did not plan that they should reach Longhoughton.
She had not read the situation wrongly in any particular. After they had only gone a mile or two, the young men brought their horses to a stop in a clearing full of high grass and wildflowers. Drang and Willa wandered off in one direction, Earh and Elwyna in another, and Elswyth and Drefan were left alone together.
He looked at her, as she had long waited for him to look at her, not with jealousy or possession as he had by the hall, but with affection and wonder, looked at her as her father must have looked at her mother once, behind a haystack, under the stars. Proof of ardor then, not jealous possession after all. Did this excuse her? Did it absolve her of her mercenary motive, her need to keep the marriage at all costs? If she lay with him in this mood, it would be for affection only, not for the ransom of her kin. She looked into his face again and saw there all the ardor she had longed for.
Next Chapter: 21. The Cusp of Womanhood
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