Right as oure firste lettre is now an A,
In beaute first so stood she, makeles.
Hire goodly loking gladed al the prees.
Nas nevere yet seyn thyng to ben preysed derre,
Nor under cloude blak so bright a sterre
-GEOFFREY CHAUCER, Troilus and Criseyde, I, 171-175
When had I a choice to be other than I was? Should I have been more selfish, more stubborn, more rebellious? Have I been too compliant, too quick to give the men in my life what they thought they wanted? Am I a fallen woman, or am I an obedient handmaiden? As a female I was acceptable only as a virginal daughter, a wife, or a widow - unless, of course, I took vows. I have been all three - daughter, wife, widow-and one other, mistress.
My lover is now long dead, and I sense death drawing near for me. I write this for my children, praying that they might understand.
I began my life in a quite acceptable fashion, but the royal family laid such snares in my path that those who would throw the first stone are certain that I can never right myself even now. Yet when had I a choice to be other than I was? This is the argument of my life.
During the week our parish church of St. Antonin on Watling Street, east of St. Paul's in London, hummed with chantry masses. Ourshad long been a parish of wealthy merchants in London who worshipped under thestricture of Christ's teaching that it was easier for a camel to go through theeye of a needle than for a rich man to gain the kingdom of God, and so they bequeathed great sums for masses to be said for their souls after death. The chantry priests were kept busy with almost continuous prayers, for it was an old parish and had buried many wealthy men and their wives, anxious forredemption.
I loved to spend time in St. Antonin's on ordinary days. It was the only place I had permission to go without a companion, a guardian, and I felt safe there. The priests' murmured prayers embraced me, and the familiar paintings and statues of our Savior, His Blessed Mother, and the saints reminded me that as long as I said my prayers and obeyed my elders I need never fear the devil. I was happily naïve, an innocent in the ways of the world.
On Sundays and important feasts the atmosphere of the little church lacked this womb like comfort, for on those days all parishioners except the bedridden attended Mass. The wealthy merchants flaunted their success by parading with their elegantly dressed families, while the gossips made note of any changes in the attendance or indeed in the attendees - a swollenlip, a swollen belly hiding beneath an uncharacteristically voluminous skirt, an outrageously expensive new headdress - so that all observations might bedebated and settled after the service and for days to come. I basked in the light of my handsome family on these busier days.
I must have long been aware that on Sundays St. Antonin's was also a marriage market, but with that gift we have as children for ignoring what does not affect or fascinate us I had paid no attention to that aspect of the day. Until it was my turn.
I begin my story with my first appearance as a vendiblein that place that was my sanctuary during the week. It was the autumn after my thirteenth birthday.
It had come as no surprise to me that I was expected to wed at a suitable age. I have no memory of a time when I had not understoodt hat as a girl my worth to the family was my marriageability, either to a mortal man or to Christ, and my parents had never spoken of the possibility of my entering a nunnery. Father was a respected member of his guild, a trader in fine cloth and jewels, and a partner in a shipping concern. My marriage should bring him even greater prosperity, or status, or, preferably, both.
I suited my parents' plans. I was pretty, well formed, well behaved, quick witted but not openly opinionated. As presentable as Father's luxury wares. I was willing and eager to be betrothed, believing that my life would only then begin; and the outcome of the Sunday I am about to recount certainly shaped the rest of my life, for good or ill.
That my moon cycle had recently begun had been fairwarning to me that my parents would begin to discuss my betrothal to someone of use to the family. But I had not expected them to take action quite so soon. Mother explained to me in her usual chilly wise that I was now of an age to assume my role in the family, to link it with another successful merchant family, and therefore she saw no reason to delay.
"The money we have spent for the grammar school you attend is better spent elsewhere. You shall not return to it."
She did not willingly waste anything, particularly affection, on me, saving that for my brother John, the eldest. Indeed, she had declared her milk used up by nursing him, and before my birth engaged a wetnurse. My two younger siblings had in their turn been handed over to wetnurses, and when weaned we were all cared for by Nan, a servant who saw to our every need with affection and devotion-but she could not entirely make up forMother's indifference.
Father was my champion. He had insisted on my time at the grammar school, and, unbeknownst to Mother, had also taught me much about thequalities and grades of cloth, as well as how to negotiate a good price and keep accounts. With his encouragement I often hid behind the curtained doorway in our home's undercroft, where he stored and displayed his merchandise, and listened to his negotiations with customers; afterward he would explain histactics. He seemed to enjoy my precocious suggestions. I enjoyed sharing thissecret endeavor with Father and told no one about it, not even my best friend Geoffrey Chaucer.
On that fateful Sunday, I sensed that the household woke holding its collective breath. Father nervously whistled and twice asked Nan the whereabouts of his boots as he paced in the hall. John was ready early and restless as well.
My gown and surcoat had been made for me from Mother's latest castoffs, an azure gown-of escarlatte, the finest wool-and a green surcoat. Unlike her usual instructions to make my gown shapeless, she'd had hermaid fit this one to my blooming breasts and slender waist. Nan's hands trembled as she dressed me with the help of another maid, who was also subdued. No doubt they were anxious that Mother should judge my attire satisfactory and notfind occasion for an angry outburst.
Although I sat quite still while Nan combed my hair I was aquiver with anxiety. I distracted myself by trying to divine what prosperous merchant Father would favor for me. I knew he would not content himself with the most handsome man with the sweetest temperament, for the goal of my marriage was an alliance of our successful house with another, preferably even grander, one. Nor could I hope for someone my own age.
I had once thought that my best friend Geoffrey might be the one, but his parents had recently sent him off to serve as a page in anoble household. Seeing my disappointment, Father had reminded me that though the Chaucers were sufficiently wealthy and respectable, their son was but thirteen years old. Before he might wed, a young man must have a position or inheritance that could support a household, and Geoffrey had neither.
I was distracted from my brooding when Nan motioned forme to turn around so she might check that all was buttoned and tucked. She clapped her hands as I spun about, but when I turned to face her again I sawthat she was crying.
"Nan, what is wrong?"
"You will have a dozen marriage proposals by evening and be wed by Christmas," she cried. "And then I'll not see you again. You'll forget your old Nan."
I hugged her so tightly she squealed and pushed away."I love you too much to forget you," I said, and meant it with all my heart.
"You will undo all my work," she protested, but I could see that she was well pleased. As I stepped into the hall my brother John broke off his pacing to stare, then dropped his gaze, swinging his head slightly as if looking for something on the floor.
"What is it?" I asked.
He looked up again, his eyes drawn to my now-flushed face, then my long neck, which was quite bare.
"I hardly know you, dressed so," he mumbled, turning toward Father, who had joined us.
"For pity's sake, Alice, do not bite your lip." Father drew me aside. "You have nothing to fret about. This is your day to revel in your youth and beauty, eh?" He took one of my hands and bowed toit, kissed it, then stepped back to have a good look at me.
"God's blood," he swore under his breath. He did not smile, but neither did he frown.
"Do I look beautiful, Father?" I asked, confused by his expression.
"You do indeed. Your mother will be proud of you today. We all will be."
"Now will you tell me who will be watching me mostclosely as I pray today, Father? I know you have spoken to someone."
He took off his hat and dabbed his forehead, sweatingdespite the chill in the hall. "You will see him soon enough, Alice, soon enough. Walk meekly and smile sweetly to those who greet you. It will be all the better if there are suitors in reserve, eh?"
He raised his hand to pat my shoulder, as was his wont, but suddenly corrected himself and dropped it. I realized that, like John, hefound me changed and somehow untouchable. I felt hot and sick and wanted to flee.
But Mother had just entered the hall from the solar above. She paused at the door with such an air of grace and command that I felt as if I were my five-year-old sister Mary, grimy and underfoot.
"Walk toward me," Mother commanded.
I did so, shivering under her hard scrutiny.
Again I obeyed as if I were a doll she manipulated from afar.
She sighed. "We have no time to fuss. There is no remedy."
"Margery, what are you saying? Alice looks lovely," Father protested.
"You would think so," Mother said with a withering look at him. "I can only hope that your chosen prey thinks likewise."
Was it possible she was as much in the dark as I regarding Father's choice?
"Come, John, Will." She sighed at my little brother's mussed hair. "Where is Nan? Has she not finished dressing Mary?"
Mother did not look my way again. I stood in the hall, embarrassed and feeling discarded. It was Nan, dear Nan, who saved the day for me.
Placing Mary's dimpled hand in mine, she said, "Tell your sister what you told me, Mary."
As I looked into my little sister's wide eyes, I realized that I was seeing love, admiration, all that I had hoped to see in the eyes of my parents and John.
"You are so beautiful," Mary declared. "I want to look just like you when I grow up."
Tempted to reach down and press the dear child to my heart, I forced myself to be satisfied with a peck on her momentarily clean cheek and a press of her hand.
"Will you walk with me to church, my lady Mary?" I asked, and my heart melted at the delight in her eyes.
"You are beautiful as a spring dawn," Nan whispered."Your mother does not like to be outshone, while your father has realized his daughter is about to leave his household. Do not judge them for their simple feelings, Alice."
And so I relaxed, once more noticing how soft the escarlatte felt against my skin, how it draped with such a liquid weight and movement that I felt graceful.
I bent to Mary. "Hold your head high, little sister. The Salisbury girls will turn all other heads this morning. You look so pretty in your gown."
Once the family was assembled in the hall I took my cloak from the peg on the wall, but Mother shook her head and handed me one of herown, gray, lined in gris, a fine fur made from the winter hides of squirrels-only the lovely backs. On her it was more of a short cape, but itreached below my knees and felt wonderfully soft and caressing.
"Take it off as you enter the nave," she instructed. "I do not want to have wasted the fine cloth of your robe byhiding it beneath a cloak. I purposed to show that your body is ready forbearing children."
Her words embarrassed me, as if I were about to parade naked through the city. I must have had tears in my eyes, because Father patted me on the shoulder-now sufficiently covered-and whispered that Mother had a headache and did not mean to be curt.
I nodded to Mary and grasped the hand that she offered me. "Let us be gone!" I said with forced cheer.
It fooled Mary, and she giggled and hopped along beside me as I headed toward the door. Will suddenly charged ahead and opened it with a sweeping bow. Now I, too, giggled and was grateful for my younger siblings.
The autumn morning was damp with a river mist that would rise by midday but for the moment made me glad of the gris lining in the cloak. Such a damp, chilly morning usually inspired complaints on my part, but today it was comforting, as if I could be private a little longer. I tried to remind myself that I was merely on display to potential suitors. It might be a year or more before I walked to the church porch to be wed. But I could not shake the sense of stepping off the edge of the world known to me and into a void without boundary, without bottom. I shivered and pulled the cloak tighter round me withmy free hand.
Mary still skipped along beside me. I pressed her hand, wondering how often I would see her once I was a wife, how much of her life I would know.
From the Hardcover edition.