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The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 33
Elswyth has confessed to Leif that she let it slip to Drefan about his cargo of Christian holy books. Get caught up using the archive.
The weather cleared the next day but the fields were too wet to work, and, every form of sharpening and mending having been completed the day before, Attor declared a holiday from the fields. He hoped, in part, that this would create the occasion for his people to go down to the beach and meet and talk with the visitors, whose presence they had, for the most part, sulkily ignored since the day they had arrived.
In all the days that Leif and his crew had lain on the beach, one thing above all others had marked the strain on their welcome—the absence of children. At any normal port of call, they expected to be overrun with curious boys and cheeky little girls, to be plagued with constant demands for stories and treats. They expected young men to come down to the ship to boast and to barter local wines and ales for silks and combs and trinkets to please their sweethearts. They expected young women to come, to flirt, and to be courted, and to disdain their courtship, and to win promises of gifts while promising nothing in return. But here there had been no children underfoot, no young women, no young men. They had been kept away, or stayed away of their own volition, held off by their parent’s fear or by their own. It was not within the thegn’s right to order other people’s children down to the beach, but, determined to set an example, he ordered his own to go.
Hilda came and sat down on the sands near the ship without saying a word to any of them. She was carrying her work basket and she took out her embroidery and started on it, ignoring the questions and the admiration of her work that came from the curious Norsk sailors who gathered round to look. This expedition to the beach was an interruption of Hilda’s private plans for the day, and, having fulfilled the letter of her obligation, she went on about her business as if she had never been interrupted.
Moira came, carrying Daisy on her narrow hip, and wishing to find someone else to care of her. Thor’s eyes lit up at the sight of the bairn in her sister’s arms. The old man took Daisy from Moira. Daisy looked studiously at him, considered whether to cry or laugh, as if she were a young woman considering which dress to put on to please her lover, decided for laughter, and began to tug happily on the ends of Thor’s mustache. Moira, relieved of her charge, began talking, going from man to man and telling everything she knew, or supposed, or hoped, without seeming to care that few of them had many words of her language.
Whitney came too, following Moira. Whitney ran. Poor, mad, blissful Whitney ran up and down the stretch of firm damp sand at the tide’s edge, until she was exhausted, then lay down and fell instantly asleep with her head cradled on Thor’s boots.
Seeing the thegn’s daughters around the ship, the two boys who had made their peace with Leif came down also and were received enthusiastically by Leif and by the rest of the crew, who, lacking any other occupation, competed with each other to show the boys the workings of the ship and tell them sea stories.
Elswyth came too, a little while after her sisters, with shoes on her feet and a wimple covering her head and neck. Over this she was wearing a deeply hooded travelling cloak that enveloped her figure, and drooped over her face almost to the end of her nose.
Thor looked up and frowned at Elswyth’s approach.
“Father told us all to come,” she told him. “He wants to show that he trusts you with his children, so the rest of the village will come down to the ship like they used to. Am I supposed to disobey him and stay away?”
“Aren’t you warm in that thing?” Eric asked. He too had observed her approach with a frown.
“Since I have to be here, I want to look at the books. This is so that Brother Alun does not have to look at me.”
Brother Alun was indeed on the ship. Kendra still breathed and a careful hand could still find a pulse in her, but she did not wake, and looked sure to die without waking again. The monk had engaged a boy to sit by her bedside and watch her, for it was known that people sometimes woke from such sleeps when death was close upon them, and might speak lucidly before their final end came. He did not expect such an event. He expected that her breath and her pulse would soon fade away and the body grow cold. But the boy was instructed to run and find him if there should be any sign of waking, and meanwhile he went to the ship to read the books that, once they were in the possession of the Monkwearmouth scriptorium, would be claimed by monks of greater seniority, while he would be sent back to copying.
Leif, who had been sitting in the ship listening to the monk reading, stood up when he heard Elswyth’s voice. He looked at her and, feeling his eyes on her, she looked back at him under the drooping hood of her cloak. The understanding between them was complete now, though it had never been stated. Each knew exactly what the other felt, what the other wanted, and exactly what stood between them. Looking at each other was thus at once painful and comforting, for each had only the other to console them in their estrangement from the one they loved.
The monk’s incomprehensible Latin—Elswyth had made no progress in understanding it, having no points of reference for anything he read—had a kind of hypnotic quality to it. There was a certain comfort in him, too, as a figure apart from her world. She felt set apart from that world herself, separated from it by the secret she kept. The monk seemed an apt companion in alienation. That he refused to look at her was an obvious obstacle to any kind of intimacy or fellow feeling in their mutual exiles, and yet his refusal to look at her, to participate in the world’s desire for her, was so much a part of what set him apart that if he had looked at her as other men looked at her, he would have been part of the world, and therefore not a sharer in her current exile. And so she sat, out of his direct line of sight, sweating in her over-warm travelling cloak, separated from his words by the barrier of language, and yet warmly comforted to be in the presence of one who like herself could not express or indulge or even acknowledge the ordinary desires of life. And in this way she felt an intense friendship for him, one which she fancied he shared, a fellowship in exile, even if they were as exiled from each other as they were from the rest of the world. If it were possible for him to live so, surely it was possible for her to live so as well. Of course, he lived with others who lived as he did. He had companions in his chosen exile, companions with whom, she supposed, he could discuss all the trials and fears and hopes and joys of their exile. And this led her to an extraordinary thought, for one whose thoughts turned so often to muscled arms and calloused hands: if Thor could wish to be a monk, why not she a nun? And what, oh what, would her mother say to that?
Leif sat opposite the monk, in a position where he could not look at Elswyth without turning his head. The monk read on, aloud, his Latin alien to them both, but his emotion in the reading—here excitement, here sorrow, here delight, here puzzlement—were plain to hear. At length he came to the end of the book he was reading and paused to ask Leif for another volume. Leif took the volume from him and was about to return it to the chest, when he paused, turned, and laid it in front of Elswyth.
“Do you want to look at the pictures?” he asked her.
She looked up at him. They both knew that they wanted to look at them together. They both knew that it would be natural and innocent enough for them to sit side by side on the deck and look at them, talk about them, delight in them as they both wished. Elswyth knew that to do so would be to obey her father’s explicit command. But both knew that such intimacy was perilous. Perilous, and painful also. If she were to look at pictures, she must look at them alone, and he must sit, idle in the sunshine, close, but out of communion, while she did so.
“Yes, please,” she said.
He laid the book in front of her and then went and pulled the next volume out of the chest for the monk.
“It is strange work for a man, the making and reading of books,” Leif said, as he placed the volume in the monk’s hands. “I wish I understood where the profit in it lies.”
“The profit is to know the mind of God,” Brother Alun replied seriously.
“You have strange gods,” Leif said. “Our gods are the gods of land and sea and air, the gods of forest and of harvest, gods of the hearth and gods of war. A god of words is a strange god.”
“Indeed,” said Brother Alun, as if struck by this for the first time. “Our God is a God of words, for the Gospel of John says, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.’ All the more profit in the study of words then, for to study words is to study God.”
“Is it a hard study?” Leif asked. “I have studied many years to learn the handling of a ship, the reading of the sky, and the finding of harbors. I have many years to study still to learn all the ways of trade. How long does it take to learn the craft of bookmaking?”
“It is reckoned the study of a lifetime.”
“Yet you can read the letters. You can make inks and pens, you can prepare skins for writing, and can form the letters. How long did this learning take?”
“I have studied ten years. Learning the letters comes easily, and the making of parchment, pens, and ink is a trade like any other. But it is learning Latin that is difficult. It is a language apart, wholly different from Anglish. And then there is the history to learn, and the scripture, for you cannot fully understand the meaning of a book until you know the history of the peoples who wrote it.”
“Still, I do not see the profit in words, unless they work magic.”
“We do not work magic,” the monk said. “Magic does not work. Only the foolish and uneducated believe in it.”
“What about miracles, then?” Elswyth asked. “Aren’t miracles magic?”
“Magic is man’s attempt to bend nature to his will,” the monk said. “A miracle is an act of God. We may ask God for a miracle, and some men have the ear of God, and their requests are often granted, but the miracle comes from God and God alone. The proud try to work magic; the humble are granted miracles.”
“No miracles for us then,” Elswyth said.
“You are saying I am too proud to hear the miracle of prophecy? That I am not worthy to hear prophecy even if Kendra had any to utter?”
“I’m teasing. But if prophecy only comes to the humble, you can count Kendra out, believe me.”
“Ah, but consider the Old Testament. The prophets spoke not to the humble but to the proud!”
“So maybe you are not proud enough for Kendra to speak to you. I think Kendra is too proud to speak prophecy and you are too humble to hear it.”
“So I have wasted my days here?”
“No. Leif needed you to write the letter for him, and to tell him the value the books. If you hadn’t been here, what would we have done? And what would have become of the books?”
“So you are suggesting that it was God’s purpose to send me here to ransom the books?”
“And to help Leif.”
“Why would God send me to help a heathen?”
“The good Samaritan, remember. It’s your story.”
“It’s still the other way round. The Samaritan was the pagan.”
“So it is right for Leif to help you, but not for you to help him?”
“The first help we must give the pagans is to tell them the good news. Not help them sell stolen goods. Goods stolen from Christians.”
“Not stolen,” Leif said. “My uncle bought them.”
“Bought them cheaply, knowing them to be stolen.”
“Bought them at the price the man who sold them agreed to.”
“Because he was a thief and could not sell them for their true value without being caught and punished.”
“That is not my uncle’s fault, nor mine.”
“Do stolen goods become rightful property simply because a thief sells them? If that were so, any thief would travel with a merchant in tow and sell him the goods as soon as he stole them, leaving their original owner without recourse. A merchant like you would sail an hour behind a vikingr and buy his booty as soon as he stole it. Would that be a just trade? Would the trader really be any different from the vikingr?”
“You know that I cannot give up the books.”
“I know. It is your father’s ransom. But if it were not your father’s ransom, if your father was safe in his hall, would you give up the books, knowing that they were stolen?”
“What of the price my uncle paid for them?”
“What if that were returned to you?”
“And what of the cost of transporting them?”
“What if a fair price were paid for that also? Would you give up the windfall and return them to those who paid for their creation?”
“Why should I?” Leif asked. “If a man cannot keep possession of his property, that is no affair of mine. I did not rob him. My uncle did not conspire with the bandit.”
“Still, obligation or no, would you do it?”
“Perhaps,” said Leif, after a moment’s consideration. “By doing so, I would make a rich man my friend, and thus I might win a share of his trade, and over a lifetime that might be more valuable than the books. But I do not have a lifetime to get my father’s ransom.”
“If the books belong to the Bishop of Utrecht” Elswyth asked, “will the Abbot of Monkwearmouth send the books to the Bishop of Utrecht after he has paid for them with his own gold?”
“I do not know,” the monk replied.
“And if he did,” she asked, “would the Bishop of Utrecht send back the gold that the Abbot of Monkwearmouth had paid for them?”
“He should, I suppose.”
“Then he will have paid twice for them,” Leif said.
“If he didn’t,” said Elswyth, “the Abbot of Monkwearmouth would have paid for them and had nothing.”
“So it is clear,” said the monk, “that it is unjust that a trader who neither made them nor paid for them should have the profit of them, no matter how dire his need.”
“Without the trader,” Leif said, “neither bishop nor abbot would have them. The trader earned his profit by recognizing the value, preserving them, and transporting them.”
“It’s like musical chairs,” said Elswyth with a laugh. “The books and the gold are the last two chairs and Leif, the bishop, and the abbot are the players. Someone will be left without a chair when the music stops, and it mustn’t be Leif.”
“But why should it be the bishop or the abbot?” the monk asked. “They are surely innocent of all this.”
“So is Leif,” Elswyth said. “It is the Frisian bandit who stole them that is the guilty one.”
“But how is it possible that we have three innocent men and only two treasures?”
“But there are not three innocent men,” Leif said. “The Bishop of Utrecht failed to guard his property. That is his fault. I am not responsible for it. Nor is the Abbot of Monkwearmouth. He should buy the books from me and I should keep the gold for my father’s ransom.”
“But if the bishop is guilty for not guarding is property,” the monk said, “is not your father guilty also, for not guarding his own property, for allowing his people to be killed and their goods looted?”
There was a nasty silence then. The monk blushed. He had spoken in the flow of argument, not thinking of the consequence. Now he hung his head.
“I don’t like these monkish games of words,” Leif said. He turned and vaulted over the rail onto the sand below.
Elswyth moved to follow him but caught herself. She turned back to look at the monk, a rebuke on her tongue. He raised his eyes and looked her full in the face, his face rueful. And then he realized where his eyes had fallen, and pulled his cowl down over his face. Elswyth wanted to hug him for sympathy as much as she wanted to scold him for his unkind words, but she realized at once that this would only add to his distress.
“I did not think before I spoke,” he said, ruefully, rising to his feet. “I must try to make amends.” He clambered awkwardly over the side of the ship and dropped clumsily to the sand below before hurrying after Leif who was walking northward along the margin of sand and sea.
Elswyth watched the monk follow Leif up the beach. Her first instinct was to vault over the side and go after him, obedient to her instinct to include herself in every conversation. But she restrained herself. She realized that she loved them both, in different ways, and wanted them to mend their old friendship, and that this was something that she must leave them to do for themselves. Besides, the day was growing hot and she was roasting in her heavy travelling cloak. Realizing that the two men from whose eyes she had wanted to shield herself were now walking away from her along the beach, she sloughed it off and sat with her chin on the rail, watching until the monk caught up with Leif, and the two walked on beside each other. She watched until she saw the tensions grow less in each of their frames, and then picked up the cloak, folded it over her arm, and made her way to the side of the ship and down to the sands. The wimple she kept on, however, despite finding it scratchy and hot in the sun.
“The bairn’s getting hungry,” Thor said, when he saw her. Daisy was trying to suck nourishment from her thumb.
“I’ll take her,” Elswyth said. She took Daisy from Thor’s arms.
“Come on, kitty cat,” Elswyth said, nudging Whitney with her toe. Whitney wakened, looked up at her sister adoringly, hugged her round her leg, and ran.
Elswyth started across the sands towards the village. Hilda took this as a signal that her own obligation was ended and packed up her embroidery and followed. Moira did not notice their exodus at once, but when she looked up from the story that she was telling Eric, she stopped mid-sentence and fled after her sisters.
Next Chapter: 34 Football on the Beach (coming next week)
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