Belladonna At Belstone Part 28
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At the signal the monks opened their mouths and began the first service.
Elias huddled miserably. He tried to keep up with the singing, but found it hard to concentrate. It was impossible with his workload and lack of sleep. There were no nuns here, so he was saved from temptation, but for all that his thoughts were constantly with Constance. He remembered her brow, her wide-spaced eyes, her lips, her breasts, her flanks, her belly.
When Stapledon had ordered that Elias be sent here to the wastes of Yorkshire, the bishop had thought he was setting Elias somewhere he could forget Constance and could live as a penitent, his faith saving him from depression.
Instead Stapledon had managed to ensure that Elias could never forget her.
Lady Elizabeth stood alone for a few moments as the others filed away. Head bowed, she offered another short prayer.
It seemed only right that she should do so. The only thoughts anyone had held about the woman had been sour, vindictive and bitter: she had shown her disloyalty by running away - and yet she was innocent of that.
The grave was a black, peaty scar in the grass. No stone was erected, only a little leaden cross.
"I thank you for having her buried."
Lady Elizabeth turned and smiled at Margherita. "It was the least we could do after suspecting her of apostasy for so many years."
"She died without confessing."
"So do many, but God will know her."
Margherita nodded, but was silent, her head bowed. As the prioress watched her, Margherita's gaze went again to the three other graves. To Lady Elizabeth's knowledge Margherita had visited Agnes's every day since the girl's death. She had never known that she had a sister - even if only a half-sister. Dark patches appeared on Margherita's veil where tears marked the thin cloth.
Silently Lady Elizabeth moved away and walked back to the precinct.
There was much to do. Sir Rodney had agreed the final sums to be paid: workmen were already congregating ready to enlarge the church, expand the cloisters and, with Walter Stapledon's assistance, destroy the dorter and frater and build new ones half as large again. As she approached the site, the prioress's face lit up. The scaffolding was lashed in place, stones from the quarry were arriving and being cut and dressed, and there was a wholesome bustle. Then her eye fell upon a familiar figure.
She hurried to the novice and interposed herself between the workman fingering his purse and the girl. "Begone!" she roared at the man, who grinned sheepishly and walked off.
"Remember your place," she hissed sternly. "You're here to dedicate yourself to God!"
"Yes, Mother," said Rose meekly, hitching up her veil to a more becoming level. "I'll try to remember."
Constance stood in her little garden, a frown of pain creasing her brow as she straightened. No matter how few hours she spent tending her plants, her back always ached: always had, ever since she'd been a novice.
Standing, she looked over at the view. Dartmoor was a hulking mass southwards, blue and grey with the distance in this dim light. Looking back from here, she could almost dream she could see the priory's sheep on the hills.
At least now, with summer fast approaching, the weather was improving. Today the sun had shone weakly almost from dawn, without even a drizzle of rain.
A movement in her belly made her smile with self-satisfaction, thinking that their child was as delighted as she herself. But her child would never know how lucky it was. For he would be born outside the cloister, and far from Belstone. He may never have a father, but her son would not feel the lack. And when he was old enough to learn, Lady Elizabeth had promised a place within the priory for the lad.
Constance pulled up a weed and considered her patch. There were most of the medicinal herbs here and she was sure that by the end of the summer she would be able to produce almost all the draughts she would be likely to need. There was a sense of comfortable fulfilment about her. Constance was happier than she had ever thought possible.
It had surprised her how the prioress had pointed out that Constance had not made her vows legally; it wasn't something that had occurred to her before, but it was true. Constance had made her vows when she was only two-and-twenty: too young for her consecration, although she had a niggling doubt at the back of her mind that refused to go away. All novices made their profession from the age of sixteen, as she had. The consecration was surely merely an affirmation of their oaths - but Lady Elizabeth had made her comfortable and insisted that she need not consider herself bound. If she were to leave, Lady Elizabeth would not try to have her recaptured.
The Lady had suggested that the priory's village at Iddesleigh would be grateful for a woman trained in leechcraft. She had even provided Constance with a carter to take her so she wouldn't get lost, and Rose as a chaperone. And a purse for the child.
At the time Constance had felt that the woman was trying to remove an embarrassing reminder of the horrible events when so many had died, but now she thought Lady Elizabeth had a different motive.
It was something the Lady had let slip while they spoke quietly one morning. "I was always so grateful God had given me a daughter. It meant I could see her grow and spend much time with her. If He had given me a boya*
She had leaned across and patted Constance's hand, and in that moment Constance understood. It was then that she decided she must leave the convent. She would never be able to leave her child with some unknown wetnurse outside the cloister.
And she was sure it would be a boy. Shyly she looked down at her belly. She knew who she would name him after.
There was a cracking, ripping, rustling roar from behind her, and she turned to see the elm toppling. It shuddered, then gradually accelerated towards the ground.
He was behind it, face still fixed in its morose glower, leaning on his axe. When he saw her, his features eased slightly.
"Hugh, do want some ale?"
And her son's namesake dropped his tool and joined her.
Belladonna At Belstone Part 28
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Belladonna At Belstone Part 28 summary
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