“Yes, Bess, of course I can. We’ve always kept each other’s secrets.”
“I know, but this is really important.”
On a frigid morning just before the Feast of Sages nearly all the women in Whitcrowe was gathered at the side of the river to scrub every bit of clothing in Granton that wasn’t firmly fixed to someone’s back (Mallkyn had been attacked by one of her convulsive fits of cleanliness and ordered the entire castle to be cleaned before the arrival of holiday guests). Cecily and Bess Walpole were working together a little apart from the other servants, as they usually did whenever they could. Bess was a shortish, plump girl with curly blond hair that had a personality of its own. Her round face was sweet and innocent, with eyes like cornflowers, but a smirk of the lips betrayed a plucky spirit that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. She and Cecily were about the same age, and Bess’ mother, Gracia, had long been friends with Alis; the girls had spent their short childhoods together. These days they worked side by side as much as possible, though Cecily was often in the gardens while Bess worked in the fields or kitchens.
Bess gave her friend a sidewise glance. “You can’t even tell your mum.”
“I shan’t breathe a word! Now tell me what on earth it is, I’m dying to hear.”
Bess breathed deep and burst into a whisper, “You know I’ve been paying a bit of attention to Robbie lately, jest to see if maybe he feels—something for me.”
Cecily’s face relaxed as she laid a waiting maid’s undergarment on a nearby bush to dry. Bess had a habit of falling for every young man she came across if he was even vaguely good-looking. How many times have I heard her start off just like this, telling me her heart with just that movement of the hands and that look on her face? “Yes, go on.”
“Well, it’s jest that he’s been talkin’ to me more than ever lately, and he even asked me if I wanted to go into town with him and his father to sell cheeses!”
Cecily blinked in wonder. “A chance to sell cheese, Bess! What could be more thrilling?”
“Oh, Cessy, you know what I mean!”
“Of course I do, love.You think he’s a likely lad, and he is sure to think that you are the most delightful girl he’s ever set his eyes on. I’ll bet he’s had a passion for you since we were all five years old.” Cecily turned aside and bit the inside of her lip as she thought about Robbie—good, solid, dependable Robbie—and wondered if he could possibly make dear Bess a happy woman. He’d probably be pleased to stay here for the rest of his life, raising pigs and reaping rye. And he’ll keep her here too.
Bess glanced up from her work. “Then you…approve?”
“What is there to approve? I only hope that he soon realizes what he’s got and snatches you up before a lesser man can get a hold of you. He’s a good-hearted boy and I wish you both all the happiness in the world.”
“Are you crying, Cessy?”
She wiped the incriminating eye and smiled brighter than ever. “Heavens no! I was just thinking, thinking how we’re getting older, and how all those dreams we once had about adventuring together in the Northern Wilds...how they were all just dreams.” Cecily slammed a tiny jacket against a rock and rubbed it savagely.
Bess didn’t speak for a few minutes. “You really need a sweetheart, Cessy. You’re the most beautiful girl anyone here has ever seen, but you’ve never had a steady sweetheart. Do you even want to get married?”
Cecily winced and swallowed hard. Her mother was always dropping subtle hints, “Only wondering if you’ve ever noticed that very attractive young man,” or “What do you think of little Madge’s wedding? Wasn’t it lovely?” Of course it would be wonderful to have a man in the house, someone to help with the money and make everything easier, but that is not how I am going to fall in love. She might flirt, or wish, or wonder, but if there was one thing Cecily Lockton would not be guilty of it would be a marriage of convenience to one of the Whitcrowe cotters. But the idea of her not having a heart at all, or of not wanting it to be claimed by someone worthy, that was a misinterpretation. “I’ve got plenty other things to take up my time and worry.”
“Ye can’t be that cold, Cessy. Not even ye. The only reason half the village isn’t knockin’ down yer door is because ye always look so hard at the boys. Never give ‘em the chance. I s’pose that there’s no one around here that’s good enough for ye.” She plunged a green kirtle into the icy river.
“I don’t hold it against ye, now, I just know it. Ye don’t even speak like most of us, really. Never have. I s’pose we don’t really care all that much, but you’ve always sounded like one of those old ballads that mother sings. All high in your royal tower—like a princess that’s lost her way.” Bess looked her friend full in the face. “But when the right man comes along, you’ll see. You won’t be able to help yerself, I’ll warrant it.”
“I do not need a sweetheart! It’s simply not worthwhile and would cause no end of fuss.”
“True that, but some things are worth a fuss.” She gave a dreamy little sigh.
With relief Cecily saw a familiar figure come leaping down the hill towards them as fast as his short legs would take him. “Perhaps that is my ardent admirer, Bess, come to snatch me away to his castle in the clouds.” Bess whirled around so quickly that the coils of hair slapped her face, then shouted, “Hoodman’s blind, Milo, can’t you leave us alone?”
Milo was Bess’s impish little brother, a lovable boy, when he wasn’t pestering people incessantly. He had already interrupted the washerwomens’ work three times with minor complaints and ill-timed jokes. Now he came running to demand that they “hear something.”
He came to a stop a few feet away from Bess, staring up from his small stature to her censorious one. Their eyes locked for a few seconds and then he said, “It’s really important, I ‘eard it from the chamberlain hiself.” A withered crone, Gunnora Surlaf, snorted and went back to beating a half-frozen dress while Gracia lifted her eyes to Heaven. Bess was turning away from Milo when he opened his eyes wide and insisted, “It’s important!”
Cecily ruffled his rats-nest of curls, “All right then, but this is the last thing you can tell us.”
“There’s a man coming to the castle, a young lord, and he’s going to have all this land after Old Geoffrey dies!” Every woman within hearing distance did a quick turnabout and stared at the boy as if they had never seen him before.
“What on earth can ye be talking about?” squeaked Bess. “Yer not makin’ any sense at all.”
“I am too!” Milo puffed out his chest a good five inches. “The lord’s name is Auvray and he’ll be arriving this spring.” While the other women tittered (and Gracia gave him a slack on the behind for his impertinent reference to his lordship the earl), Cecily stood stock still, mentally reviewing that garden scene of several months past, hearing again Lord and Lady Carrel’s heated discussion. Could it be that this was finally the resolution to that old puzzle? Milo was an annoyance, to be sure, but not a liar, she thought.
Ever since overhearing that discussion, Cecily had been mulling over the idea of someone new coming to the castle. She had pictured him to herself many times as a tall, elegant, charming, daring man straight out of the Old Tales, with fine clothes and good manners and a lively spirit. She spent hours of mindless work thinking of what it would be like if such a man should really come to stay at Granton. Perhaps they would meet in the gardens at dawn, just as she was starting work and looked her best. They would catch the first glimpse of each other in the rosy dew….
Milo went running back up the hill, no doubt to disturb the business of other hard working servants, and Cecily absentmindedly attended the rest of her washing, to the sound of Bess’ besotted conversation.