It was impossible not to hear from the servants, however. The whole castle was glowing with pleasure and excitement, and chipper banter could be heard under every stair and in each wardrobe and cupboard. After the initial shock of the young heir’s surprise appearance, every cook and cotter seemed to live for nothing but to talk of Jevan Auvray. He was good-looking, clever, civil even to the lowest servants, and most of all had an air of nobility that suited him far better than his uncle and aunt. He was not a perfect saint—as Gunnora was eager to point out, he had a nasty habit of leaving his clothes lying about his bedchamber, and he had spoken crossly to a page boy once or twice when especially peeved—but it was only the sour old women and disgruntled young ones who had any real trouble with him.
Mallkyn’s personal waiting maids, Sybll, Peronell, and Amelia, made their intentions known very early. Cecily often noticed them lingering about the doorway of whatever room Master Auvray happened to be in; all of them dawdled in their tasks whenever they came within hearing distance of him. After several encounters, however, it seems that he showed them no more attention than they deserved, and Sybll was soon making biting comments about his being “too high and mighty even to speak to some people.” When Old Rivens mentioned that he had taken quite a fancy to the young man, he was expressing the nearly unanimous opinion of Granton and Whitcrowe. One can never truly know a person by secondhand, however, and Cecily’s dress was still spattered with shameful mud. She was not one to forgive in haste.
|The Sow, a photo by plindberg on Flickr.|
Early on a morning when the sky was thick with gray clouds and a chill wind whipped their skirts into whitecap billows, Cecily and Alis walked out to the river forest, dragging a reluctant hog behind them, to gather truffles for Lady Mallkyn’s sharp palate. They always enjoyed truffle hunting together, chiefly because the sow did most of the work and they were left plenty of time to talk and laugh together. They spoke of everything under the sun, from fond memories, to cabbages, to the doings of their friends.
“Can you believe that Hana refuses to go live with her uncle and go to school?”
“Not everyone is as interested in such things as you are, dearie.”
“I can’t imagine how someone could reject the opportunity to do something with themselves, just to marry a man who can barely afford his own milch cow.”
“Oho, now, what do you say? Bartholomew is a good boy, if you could only look past his being a bit—rustic.”
“Rustic? I swear, he never says two words together if they don’t have something to do with farming, eating, or—farming. And what has farming ever done for him? He doesn’t have two pips to cover his eyes and won’t ever be able to afford more than a dirty little hovel. And I know he’ll insist on having at least five or six children just to ensure that he and Hana are poverty stricken for their entire lives.”
Alis stepped around the busy hog to put her arm on Cecily’s shoulder. “Really, Cessy, one of these days you will learn to love somebody for their own sake rather than for what they can give you. Bartholomew is kind and sober, and he loves Hana.Women like us can’t ask for much more.”
There wasn’t anything to say to that, as Cecily well knew, so she did what anyone else would have. She changed the subject. “Rivens is finally giving me my own section of the garden. He’s letting me develop the western corner all by myself. I’m to choose the flowers, the layout, everything.”
“Well that’s wonderful! It shows he trusts you as real gardener now; ‘bout time—you’ve been waiting long enough.” She picked up the sow’s leash. “Have you made any plans yet?”
|Wooden bridge over Stravopotamos, a photo by dkilim on Flickr.|
Cecily was in the middle of expounding upon the proper distribution of pinks and reds in the layout when both women heard the hollow sound of hooves on a wooden bridge. The hog had led them away from the forest’s edge and near the river, where Alis and Cecily had stopped for a drink. Both of them looked downstream to where a narrow footbridge passed over the waters, which were coursing high now after the winter storms. A horse and rider had just clopped onto the bridge. Though still far off, it was easy to tell that it was Master Auvray. Both of them straightened up, Alis straightening her cap while Cecily bit her lip in an attempt to keep down a blush. There seemed to be something wrong about meeting a nobleman out here outside the castle, outside the village even. Cecily didn’t know of any protocol for encountering an earl’s heir while standing in the forest, in charge of a fat truffle hog which was now rolling in the soft mud along the river.
She was hoping that his morning ride would take him further into the woods, but in vain; the road leading from the bridge stuck like a faithful dog to the riverbank. As Master Auvray approached and it became clear that discovery was inevitable, Alis and Cecily swept the mud with graceful curtsies, and the rider noticed them, stopping his horse just shy of the wallowing sow.
“Good morrow…er, ladies.” Cecily looked up at the man’s face and tried not to look surprised. He was quite obviously not out for an early morning ride, but was finishing up some late-night business. His eyes drooped red in his pale face, his hair—usually combed to a shine—hung limp, and his whole body sagged forward onto the pommel, as if he would like nothing better than to be in bed. “I trust all is well with you?”
Cecily’s tongue was tied in knots but Alis quipped, “Yes, master, thank you for your kind inquiry. Are you enjoying your ride?”
Though he clearly hadn’t slept all night and desperately wanted to, he straightened his shoulders and sat a little taller in the saddle. “Yes indeed, my morning has just been vastly improved.” Is it sheer wishful thinking, or is he looking straight at me? Cecily wished that she could think of something appropriate to say. Why should he look at me? She waited through four moments of silence that pinched like a too-tight bodice, then pointed at the hog. “We’re truffle hunting.” The explanation fell dead to the ground and her face got hotter than ever.
Master Auvray gave a deep nod in the sow’s direction and politely intoned, “Good morning, madam.” Cecily’s eyes widened and she fought to stifle something like a laugh, but Alis just raised her eyebrows and cleared her throat.
“Cecily, did he just greet the hog?”
“Er, I believe so.”
Alis shook her head with a grave motion that seemed to express decades of motherly wisdom and concern. “That young man had better watch himself. Been to Camberton, probably, and there are places in that town that no respectable man—cotter or noble—ought to be frequenting.”
Cecily felt out the subject with care. “You don’t think that he’s gone all the way to Camberton before breakfast, do you?”
“Of course not. He’s been out all night, plain to—” She stopped in mid-speech as if realizing where she was and what she was saying, then cleared her throat again. “I won’t say anything against the young master, of course. I’ve only heard a few bits of backstairs gossip that he might be going farther afield than hart hunting requires.”
Cecily followed the hog to the base of a gnarled beech tree and brushed aside some sodden leaves with the tip of her boot. “Why is it that all the good, honest men are rustics and the selfish asses are noblemen?” She felt a quick glance from her mother, but heard nothing for a moment.
“He’s probably not a scoundrel. I should know better than to spread gossip. He’ll be a fine catch for the woman who can afford him. I imagine that her ladyship will be inviting every duchess and countess she knows to stay here next summer, and will have quite a time pairing him up.”
For some reason, that made Cecily jerk hard on the leash, earning an offended snort from the sow. She felt Alis’s rough hand slip into her own, and was surprised to hear tears in her mother’s voice. “I wish I could tell you to dream great and wonderful things. I wish I could tell you to hope and strive for something better than a milch cow and a few fields of rye.” Her voice was low, tired, almost despairing. “But all I can say is trust in God, darling one. He didn’t make you the brightest and most beautiful girl in the country for nothing.” Cecily leaned her head on her mother’s shoulder and they stood there together in the forest as the bare twigs above them scraped together in the cold wind, and the only other sound was the rushing of the river. Cecily thought that if she had to wait for God to make her a countess, she would be waiting quite a long time indeed.
Alis coughed once, then again. Cecily lifted up her head and tried to tell how serious this was. Her mother smiled, then bent double and hacked as though she were trying to expel some creature from her throat.
“Mum, are you all right? Should I get Gracia?” Alis continued to cough, but shook off Cecily’s worried hand. “Mum!”
Alis stumbled back to the river, then knelt to scoop some water into her mouth. “I’m fine, dearie. Don’t worry.” Kneeling on the bank, eyes squeezed tight with pain, freezing water dripping off her chin, she looked anything but fine.
“I’m going to get Gracia. She always has something to help.”
“No, Cessy, you’ll not go!” Alis struggled to her feet and immediately grabbed onto the nearest tree for support.
Cecily was already walking in the direction of Whitcrowe. “You’ve been coughing for too long, it’s time we do something!”
“I’ve already gone to Gracia.”
She turned to look back at Alis, who was pressing her hand hard against her damp chest.
Alis’ words came short and shallow. “She has nothing that can help me.”
The cold worm of fear that had been gnawing at Cecily’s insides now wrapped itself around her lungs and it felt like she was choking. “Is it…that bad?”
“No, dearie, no. It’s just a little chill.”
“Why can’t she help you, then?”
“She’s no doctor; she only knows a few remedies. She says it’s nothing to worry our heads about.” Alis let go of the tree and straightened her back with only a little wince. “I told you. I’ll be all right.”