As Lord Snordwich watches Roger and Matilda together, he thinks how ungainly his son looks next to his graceful wife. The boy has at least set aside that awful doublet he used to wear, but he looks so stiff and crooked.
Attending the young couple is Richard, Philip Clerinell’s only son.
Last week the boy’s parents both passed away, leaving him in Lord Snordwich’s care. He is gloomy and withdrawn, forgetful of his courtesies, though it is no surprise, with his grief so fresh.
But in the classroom, he excels, easily mastering the basics of grammar, theology, mathematics, and chess. Chaplain Darcy is impressed.
Lord Snordwich has sent his adviser John Postel to manage the Clerinell lands until Richard is of age. They have agreed that he will ride back from Walstock Hall once a week to report how things are going.
The baron wonders whether John will marry one of Richard’s sisters. Two of them are yet unspoken for, and it would be a favourable match for either girl. The Postels are a noble family, and John’s brother is lord of all of Burdley.
The newly titled Baron Burdley is an excellent huntsman, good-humoured, generous, and attentive to all the little details of noble bearing. His late father, Lord Snordwich’s dear friend and mentor, must have felt proud to leave his legacy to such a son.
Snordwich’s own daughter Aldiytha is serving in the baron’s household, as the companion to his wife, the baroness. Her ladyship is of excellent family—a de Vesci, sister to the young Earl of Tredony. Still, Lord Snordwich remembers how headstrong she was in her youth, and hopes she is not teaching his eldest daughter disobedience.
Letters come weekly from Burdley to reassure him that all is well, from both Lord Burdley and from Aldiytha herself. The girl’s penmanship is lax, but she writes with wit and enthusiasm. The little anecdotes she has to tell never fail to make her father smile.
Lord Snordwich’s other children are away too, all save Roger and his baby girl. Fabyan is still at university, with a position waiting for him in the newly appointed Bishop of Crafthole’s household. And he has sent his other daughters to a convent until it is time for them to be wed: Linyeve to Sir Thomas Ros’ son John; Geva, to William Postel, Lord Burdley’s son.
William is currently in Tredony serving his uncle the earl. John Ros, though, has been with the Cecils at Plumbob Hall for some time now, training to become a knight. Lord Snordwich has grown immensely fond of him. Though only a middling shot, the young squire is gracious, open-hearted, and unquestioningly loyal.
Lady Snordwich admires him too. His calm, guileless manor puts her at ease, and she delights to hear him sing.
This makes Lord Snordwich like John even more. He adores his wife, and is always glad to see her happy. He was not looking for a new baroness when he first met her in Advorton, least of all one so solemn and so shy of strangers. But Lovia has a beautiful soul, full of art and music and poetry, and he loves her for that.
As her wedding gift to him, Lovia embroidered a dazzling bedspread, such as he had never seen, shining white with dainty birds and flowers picked out in the colours of his house.
Now they have a little girl together, Basilie—his sixth child, and Lovia’s second.
With the other little ones away, his baby girl and his grandson Edmund are the chief joys of his life. He and John spend hours of each day playing with them.
He will soon have to start thinking about a bride for Edmund, he reflects. Though he is now just taking his first steps, the boy will one day be the 5th Baron Snordwich, and he does not want to leave the arrangements to Roger.
While his lordship makes his plans, Ralf is the the kitchen garden checking on his mint and cabbages. The spring was not kind to them, too cold, and much too dry. But he has tended his plants all carefully, and the situation is not looking so bad as he feared.
And the weather has turned now, bringing bright, dewy mornings and warm summer evenings.
On Exhortation Day, word comes down from the upper household that Mistress Matilda is with child.
She is sick all through her term. Eda and Tephna are called up to care for her.
Ralf has loved Tephna since he was a boy. He dreams of marrying her one day, though he has no inheritance, no living but his work at the manor house, nowhere for them to call home, except perhaps a small corner of his brother’s brewery.
When he asked his master if they might keep a wife there in the kitchen, the cook laughed in his face, answering that if his lordship let every serving-man do that the place would soon be overrun with women, and no work would ever get done. Exceptions might be made for a kennel-master or an accomplished baker, but not for a simple kitchen hand, no matter how well kept his cabbages.
Ralf could leave the kitchens, of course, maybe after another year or so, with enough of his wages saved to contribute at least something to his brother’s household. He does not think that Richard would say no to anything he asked, not even with the house already so full. But he does not want to ask Tephna to wait for him, when he has so little to offer at the end. He does not even know if she would.
He thinks about it every day, as he chops vegetables and pulls weeds. At night, his fantasies are all of her. He dreams he has her undressed beneath him, feels her opening to him, imagines kissing every part of her. But he can never quite catch hold of her. At the touch of his lips, her body somehow shifts and shimmers out of reach.
When Tephna herself comes to the kitchen to fetch some herbs for Eda, Ralf is embarrassed, just as he always is at first.
He feels guilty, like she might somehow look at him and know exactly what he thinks of when he lies in bed alone. But his urge to talk to her wins out over his shame, and soon they are chatting like old times, gossiping about their friends in the village and exchanging gardening notes, as he looks out the things she needs.
Tephna returns every few hours after that, in search of fresh ingredients for draughts and ointments. As time passes, though, she seems more and more distracted. When Ralf asks how things are going, she snaps at him.
On her next visit, she takes him by the hand and says she is sorry. She is just on edge. Although she loves her work, sickness anywhere near the childbed still terrifies her.
Ralf understands. He wonders too whether she is worried about her mother, whose health he knows has been in decline for the last year. The unseasonably cold, dry spring could not have helped. It was too much for his own dear parents, who passed away between the Feast of the Candles and Absolution Day.
From the other end of the kitchen, Egidius shouts at Ralf to get back to work.
Tephna and Eda care for the young mistress all the way through to the birth of her child, sleeping in shifts upon her chamber floor.
The child is a second boy. He is named Jeffry and blessed in the chapel on Friday morning.
Master Roger stands alone at the alter, his wife still too weak to move about.
By Saturday evening, though, Eda is confident that all danger has passed. On their way home, the women pass by the buttery for a well-earned drink. Ralf opens a bottle for them, and brings them bread and honey.
Soon Eda is dozing in the rocking chair, exhausted from her work.
It is already night outside. Ralf asks if Tephna would like to have a nap too, but she answers that her head is all a-whir. What she needs, she says, is some fresh air. Birthing rooms are always so stifling, with the shutters drawn and the fire blazing.
Ralf leads her out into the darkened courtyard. She rests her head against the wall and closes her eyes. He watches her, unsure of what to do. He wonders if this it is what it is like for husbands and wives, to share quietly with one another all the little undefined moments between prayer and feast and work.
Suddenly, a smile breaks across Tephna’s face. It has been a strange few days, she laughs, opening her eyes to look at him. She seems even more lovely then than ever before. And he knows he has to tell her how he feels.
But Tephna speaks first. There are tears in Ralf’s eyes as she tells him she loves him, that she cannot remember a time before she did.
It all comes out then—his worries, and hers too, and a shared commitment to find a way to make a life together.
To Ralf it all still feels like a dream, as though he is standing outside of himself, watching himself clasp Tephna in his arms and tell her he loves her over and over. But then they kiss, and nothing in the world seems more real.
He is at last pulled back by the sound through the window of Eda stirring. He gives Tephna one last kiss and squeezes her hand.
Moments later, the old wife has found them, and is saying that they must find an usher and ask permission to make there beds for the night in the great hall. It is far too late to walk back to the village now.
Ralf watches them leave, more determined than ever to find a way to make things work.