Perhaps she should have known better than to talk to a nun. But two days on a horse, even a gentle ambler like Mandrake, could lull a widow into conversations she might otherwise have avoided.
“Such a tragic maid, your Cecilia in your story,” said the Wife of Bath, finding herself beside the sister’s side saddle.
“Cecilia was full of joy,” Sister Maud corrected her. “Her joy was greater than any found here on earth. In death she was rewarded. Thereto all converted by her also. Praise be our Lord.”
“Amen,” the Wife of Bath said, bobbing her head. “Though for myself, I hope I can enjoy rewards on earth as well.”
“Rewards bought cheaply on earth are paid for dearly after death,” said Sister Maud, her eye falling on a certain pearl ring on Alisoun’s finger. It was a present from a young admirer that the Prioress had complimented the day before. Apparently the second nun had overheard and did not approve.
Alisoun turned the ring so it flashed even brighter in the sun and might have spoken sharply had not Harry Bailey, their host, rode by at that moment with a cheerful smile. Harry was thick around the middle, his black hair was lank and the bulbous nose drooping off his face seemed more at home under a cow than above a chin. But Alisoun knew men too well to judge by beauty alone. It was not the color of Harry Bailey’s eyes that drew Alisoun’s attention, even if the shade did remind her of summer skies at twilight, but the spark of good humor there.
“God clepeth folk to him in sondry ways,” she said, shifting her eyes back to Sister Maud as Bailey’s horse passed them by. “And so rewards them sondry also. God--in his generosity—gave me love. I thank him for it. Just as you sisters thank him for…” She looked the good nun up and down, from hoofs to wimple, and smiled blandly. “…for lauds and nones and vespers.”
Sister Maud stiffened in her saddle.
“There’s no earthly love that can compare to God’s,” Maud said. “Your man—any man—must leave you in time. Man is not eternal. Man’s love fades. Passion fades. Beauty…fades.” She paused before the last word as if to show Alisoun it was only politeness, on her part, to suggest the Wife of Bath’s beauty had not completely faded yet.
Wretched virgin… the Wife of Bath thought before she stopped and crossed herself and asked God’s forgiveness for her choleric humor. “Hot enough to fry eggs,” Jankyn used to say of Alisoun’s quick temper. “But I do love eggs.”
Jankyn would have known just what to say to Sister Maud.
“It matters not what she says,” Alisoun said to herself. In truth it did matter, though she could not say why.
The morning sun rolled lazily across the sky. The pilgrims shared one story, then another. But Alisoun’s gaze was never far from the judgmental figure of Sister Maud. Once or twice she found herself hoping the sister’s horse might shy and dump her in a puddle. She made a note to ask forgiveness for these thoughts at Canterbury.
Sister Maud, on her part, hovered most often near the Pardoner and his gelding. Or perhaps it was the Summoner that drew the nun’s attention. The two wretched men were always side by side, the one’s long, stringy yellow hair hanging like dead vines as he bent his head towards the oozing face of the other. Now and then the Pardoner trotted ahead to attempt some talk with the callow Clerk. But the young gentleman, it seemed, had few words to offer in return. Smart fellow, thought Alisoun.
The horses’ and the pilgrims’ shadows had begun to stretch out long beside them on the road when Alisoun found herself beside Madame Eglantine.
“What did you make of those two gentlemen we met earlier?” she asked, all out of breath. “The so-called alchemist and his yeoman companion? I was sure they meant to murder us all.”
“With so many of us, and at least one knight, and in broad daylight too, surely we had a chance to fight them off,” Alisoun said.
“You can’t be sure,” the Prioress said. “Such a crime took place not two miles from my convent. A dozen young boys were abducted by a woodsman who’d slept under the full moon and gone mad. They say he cut off every other toe and hung them on a chain about his neck.”
“Lord help us,” Alisoun said. “That’s a hideous bit of finery. Did they catch the fiend?”
“They say his spirit haunts the woods to this day,” said the Prioress. “I make sure all our novices know the story in detail. I painted a picture of it myself to hang in the dining hall—until the bishop bade me take it down. There’d been complaints.”
“That’s a pity.”
“You’ve heard of the Beast of Buckinghamshire of course?”
“I have not.”
Madam Eglantine was pleased to tell her. “Well, he was known to leave his victims in the market square and in the churchyard. Both at once, you see, because he tore them limb from limb. A young maiden who was…but no, I must start before that. The first bloody corpse was found stuffed in a barrel…”
Madam Eglantine cheerfully narrated an impressive number of crimes, each more gruesome than the last, beginning with the unfortunate lad of Ipswich (whose ears were missing to this day) and ending with an old miser in Paris drowned in his own wine.
“I’ve never been to Paris,” Alisoun said. “That seems like a wise choice now.”
“Evil dwells in all man’s hearts, not any city,” said Eglantine. “What of the crime in Southwark the very day before we left? A duke and duchess robbed of everything. Even their rosary beads!”
“No one was beheaded, though, at least,” said Alisoun, who was beginning to enjoy herself.
“Not that I heard,” said Eglantine, not troubling to hide her disappointment. “But the culprit was Sweet William and his gang for sure. So I told the petty constable and he agreed. You’ve heard of Sweet William, of course?”
“Even in Bath we have heard of that famous ruffian.”
“They say he leaves the ladies unharmed,” said Eglantine, “but then returns to carry them off to his lair where he weds them.”
“What, all of them?”
“Indeed,” the prioress affirmed in a hoarse whisper. “Blasphemous, indeed. Like Satan himself.”
“I would never stand for it,” the Wife of Bath declared, “sharing a man with more than one wife. The women ought to band together, cut off his…well, change their circumstances.”
Both women bowed their heads and crossed themselves. “They say he’s quite handsome, you see,” the prioress continued. “Gold curls like sunlight, eyes like an angel, a figure graceful and powerful as an ash tree. The fragile women’s minds are no match for his bedevilment.”
“Hmmph,” the Wife of Bath replied. Her gaze flicked back to Sister Maud on her grey horse. The Pardoner was again speaking to the Clerk and the nun…now, this was interesting. From her position Alisoun could not read Maud’s expression, but her posture was one of impatience, disappointment, perhaps even…longing? “No wonder the silly woman speaks so harshly against romance. She’s in love with the Pardoner and that love is unrequited!”
The idea greatly improved her mood. Imagine a nun being in love with a Pardoner. Imagine anyone. Alisoun found the man repulsive, along with his Summoner friend. Settling herself higher in Mandrake’s saddle, she moved ahead of the elegant prioress and cast her gaze around the party, considering what men she did like. The Clerk was too delicate. The Cook was too drunk. The Miller too arrogant. Harry Bailey was even now calming a fight between him and the Reeve. Alisoun laughed to see it. Harry Bailey was indeed an unfortunate-looking man with his pot belly and drooping nose. Even so, he was vain enough to try to dye the white in his hair black, though he’d done a poor job of it, to her practiced eye. This is why he needs a wife, she thought. Alisoun often colored her second husband’s grey hair and never left a streak, even if the process left her hands stinking of galangal root.
“Jankyn, now, his hair was chestnut brown with a hint of red. No root or berry could match its beauty,” she murmured.
Alisoun shook her head, lest mournful thoughts overwhelm her mood. She turned her eyes back to the portly host. She would never meet one such as Jankyn again, she thought. But perhaps a merry, homely soul like Harry Bailey would be a fine choice. Though I don’t know if I’d like to run an inn, she thought. Then again, perhaps Bailey himself did not love his profession overmuch. He was quick enough to leave his house to follow the pilgrims, after all.
Perhaps the man could feel her gaze on him, because he slowed his horse until the two walked side by side. “I hope you’re having a good journey, Madam Alisoun,” he said, tipping his hat and revealing more streaks in his hair where the dye had not taken.
Alisoun hid a smile. “Quite well, thank you.”
“I did so enjoy your story about the knight.”
“Did you?” said Alisoun. “Have you ever been married, Mr. Bailey?”
“Never met the right woman,” he said.
His merry eyes flashed and Alisoun shifted happily in her saddle. “Well, I, sir, have been married several times and I know what a woman needs in a husband. Do you think you’d be able to please a wife such as me?”
“I do,” said Harry Bailey. “If such a woman existed.”
“And what kind of life would such a woman have with you?”
“Oh, she must be ready for adventure, I think,” he said. “I might carry her off to London, Rome or Constantinople. What say you to that, Madame?”
Alisoun laughed. “I say you are a dreamer, sir,” she said. “Who will watch over your inn during your travels?”
Now it was Bailey who laughed. “Why oh why did I choose to be an innkeeper?” he said.
Up ahead, Sister Maud looked back over her shoulder with disapproval and Alisoun laughed twice as loudly.
When evening came the party stopped at Rochester. Bailey was the first at the inn door; when he got off his horse he found the Pardoner waiting.
“Sir,” the man said softly. “I have been thinking of my angry words last evening. I would speak to you again in private to make amends.”
“I would have thought two kisses would settle any disagreement,” said Bailey, “but as you please sir, I would be glad to speak with you.” He winked at Alisoun and went inside.
The talk over dinner was mostly about the stories the pilgrims had heard that day. The Clerk offered some interesting theological interpretations for the mirror of truth in the Squire’s tale. The Cook appeared confused by the Summoner’s narrative, specifically the many friars under the devil’s tail. Could they come and go when they pleased? Had they been swallowed, or shoved in from the back? His questions grew more and more complicated—and disgusting—until Harry Bailey put a stop to it and changed the subject.
Unfortunately, it was the Prioress who chose the new subject, which meant the subject was murder. She began with a detailed a series of crimes at inns in Bristol, moved on to a story of a nun who flung herself off a belltower and then returned to the subject of Sweet William, who seemed to have gotten more handsome and more wicked since her conversation with Alisoun that afternoon.
“I suspect the man—any man—is at most half as handsome and half as accomplished in life as he is in rumor,” said Bailey.
“You’re very generous,” the Pardoner said, his long blond hair swinging over his bowl of soup. “The bandit’s a drunk and syphilitic as well,” he said.
“Have you met him, sir?” asked Bailey.
“Met one of his gang,” said the Pardoner proudly. “A fellow with flaming red hair, a scar across his cheek and a great weight on his conscience. Naturally he was in great need of my services. He told me quite a bit about the real William.” The Pardoner slurped up a spoonful of broth with great satisfaction and glanced over at the Clerk as if hoping he had impressed the young man with his experience, but the Clerk merely looked uncomfortable at the attention. Bailey, for his part, simply looked annoyed at how the older man took his soup.
The Host again suggested a change of subject on the grounds that there were ladies present.
It was a lady who started this subject, Alisoun thought, only Bailey is clearly too chivalrous to remember it.
“Perhaps we might share stories from our youth,” he said. “I spent my early days in a small village by the River Wye….”
The Clerk quietly excused himself from the table. The Pardoner followed minutes later. Maud watched them go. Alisoun watched her watch them.
“It seems many of us want to go to bed early,” she said.
Sister Maud glared at her and got up herself. No matter how rude this nun had been to me, thought Alisoun, I’ve given her a sinless excuse to follow the Pardoner and for that she ought to thank me. She turned instinctively to her host, as if he might share the joke, but poor Harry Bailey had gotten into an argument with the innkeeper over the amount of wine that was drunk. It seemed he’d ordered some rare vintage without realizing it. The innkeeper eventually agreed to accept an ornate comb in exchange for the bottle and Alisoun took herself off to bed.
Sister Maud was already in the chamber, curled up on the lumpy straw pallet, pretending to be asleep. Alisoun lay down beside her and looked forward to reaching their destination.
The Wife of Bath sat up in bed with a jolt. “Who cried out? What did they say?” She glanced down beside her. Sister Maud was gone.
“Murder!” The high-pitched voice screamed again.
“Sister Maud is that you?”
There were footsteps in the hall. Alisoun’s quickly joined them. A crowd of pilgrims were soon crammed into a small closet at the end of the hall. Inside it lay the Pardoner, dead, his dirty yellow hair soaking in a puddle of blood on the wood floor. Just above his eyes was a terrible gash, as one made by an axe. Standing over him and staring round like a doe surrounded by wolves, was Sister Maud!
“She’s killed him!” the Summoner screeched and Alisoun realized it was his high-pitched squeak that had awakened her. “I’ll see her hung!”
“No,” Sister Maud said. Her face had gone white as her wimple and she shook all over. “I found him here like this. I was praying for his soul!”
“Praying? She was not, by God’s nails!” the Summoner said. “She was rifling through his pockets. And her so high and mighty all this time. I will see her hung!”
“Enough, good sir,” said the voice of Harry Bailey as he came striding down the hall followed by the knight and his squire and the physician. “All of us were high and mighty to the man. We didn’t all kill him. If he’s dead, that is,” he added.
The physician dropped to his knees and quickly confirmed it to be true.
“Oh my!” said the prioress and crossed herself with great excitement.
“I want the nun locked up,” said the Summoner. “Before she kills again. She can stay under guard until the Constable arrives to take her away.”
“Now, really, sir,” the knight admonished him.
The Summoner turned to the Man of Law for support. “Fiat justitia!”
The Man of Law allowed that it would be wise to keep the lady under watch in case she was a killer. The host quickly arranged for her a comfortable room befitting a gentlewoman.
“Gentlewoman,” the Summoner muttered as the pilgrims were all sent back to bed. “She split his head in two as handy as any yeoman. Well, let her have her warm bed for tonight. She’ll be uncomfortable enough in hell after she’s hung.”
Sister Maud dropped heavily into a stool in the corner, her trembling knees no longer strong enough to hold her up. Alisoun found herself thinking again of a doe surrounded by wolves, facing a certain death.
The party was delayed in Rochester while they waited for the local Constable to return from a hunting excursion and the Man of Law made an investigation of the facts. Alisoun stopped by to see him early in the morning. He’d made a list of all the murder cases he knew for three hundred years or more, and the punishments the murderers had received. Things did not look merry for Maud.
The good sister had stayed shut in her room all morning and refused her breakfast. Alisoun offered to bring her something else to eat. “It’s best a woman go to her,” she told Harry Bailey. “Better me than Madam Eglantine, who would only regale her with more stories of executions, as she’s done to me the past hour.”
A figure of more abject misery Alisoun had never seen than Sister Maud. She crouched in the corner of a pallet on the floor, pressed against the wall with her feet tucked under her habit.
“Now, Maud, you must keep your strength up, you’ll need it,” she said.
The nun did not seem to hear. She kept her eyes fixed on the window, her lips moving fast in silent prayer.
“It was wicked, what you did,” said Alisoun. “But I can’t judge you too harshly for it. I know how a man can be. You remember what I said of Jankyn, my fifth husband? How he drove me to such passion I knew not what I did? Well, had I had had an axe at hand that night…I can’t swear I would not have split a skull or two.”
“What’s this?” Sister Maud said sharply, her eyes no longer fixed on heaven. “You think I…? You think that I felt some sort of…earthly love for that vile man? I am a Bride of Christ and have no need of men or their love. Especially a blaspheming Pardoner with an ugly heart and…God rest his soul.”
Alisoun had watched the nun, she thought, gaze longingly on this blasphemer, and try capture his attention, and become jealous when he turned instead to the young Clerk. A day ago she had been sure that it was love that drove Sister Maud to him. But Alisoun knew passion well and she did not see it now in Sister Maud. No matter how angry she had been at Jankyn when she struck him, she could not speak of him as coldly as Sister Maud did just now about the Pardoner now that he was dead.
“God knows I am innocent,” said Sister Maud. “If I have nothing else, I have that.”
Alisoun could not help but wonder if any of her own five husbands would believe in her innocence so strongly had they found her crouched over a dead body in the night. But then, she reasoned, God saw all things, so he would not be believing her on faith. God would know the truth of it, whatever it was.
“But if you felt no earthly passion,” Alisoun asked carefully, “what brought you to his room last night?”
At this Sister Maud retreated back into her corner. “The Lord’s work brought me there,” she whispered, not meeting the other woman’s eye.
“She has little practice lying,” Alisoun said later when she and Harry Bailey were sitting in the tavern with some ale. “But she can keep a secret.”
“You think she’s innocent?”
“I do. Nothing in her manner speaks of murder. Besides, what of her clothes? They’re bloody, yes, but only round the bottom. The murderer would have been covered in blood.”
“What clever thinking, Madam Alisoun,” said Harry Bailey.
“It was the prioress and all her tales of blood-drenched monsters made me think of it,” she confessed. “The trouble is, if Sister Maud is innocent, who did kill the man? There’s almost too many choices.”
Bailey chuckled. “I know I would be one of the suspects myself.”
“Hmmm,” said Alisoun. She thought back on the last few days and what she’d seen the Pardoner doing. Besides his altercation with the Host he’d also earned the distaste of the knight and at least once insulted the little Parson. “Though perhaps we ought not only concentrate on those who fought the man,” she said, thinking out loud. “The Summoner is the person with whom he spent most of his time.”
“That fellow doesn’t seem above a murder or two,” Bailey agreed.
“Strange,” said Alisoun, “but yesterday it seemed the Pardoner showed great interest in our young Clerk. Did you notice it, sir?”
“I believe I did,” he said. “They made such an unlikely pair.”
“I wonder if…” she paused. There were many pilgrims on the journey, she knew, who would not approve of what she would say next, but Harry Bailey was an innkeeper and so must be familiar with all types of people. “The Clerk is a comely lad and that’s a fact,” she said. “Much more so than our friend the Summoner. Perhaps this was a crime of passion borne out of jealousy?”
“Or else perhaps the Pardoner tried to force himself on the boy and got something in return,” said Bailey grimly.
Alisoun glanced over at the Summoner, seated by the door to the hall in case Sister Maud tried to make an escape. Had he killed the Pardoner? Was he now hoping to lay the blame on the nun? Or draw attention from his own place in the story?
“There’s nought to do but ask,” said Alisoun. She finished her ale and went over.
“Good Summoner,” she said. “I hope you rested some last night.”
“Sleeping isn’t wise with a murderous nun in the house,” he said.
“I am sorry for your companion,” she said.
“Who’s my companion?” he snapped. “I only met the men in Southwark, same as you. It’s my duty to see the guilty brought to justice.”
“Yes, I supposed that’s true,” said Alisoun. “What a great responsibility! I could never do it.”
The Summoner gave a satisfied “hmmph” in reply. Alisoun well knew how much men enjoyed hearing how hard was their life’s work, how far beyond the abilities of any woman.
“I wonder how the poor Clerk is feeling,” she said. “Such a fine young man—so sensitive. He and the Pardoner seemed quite inseparable yesterday.”
“Ha!” laughed the Summoner, his eyebrows jerking suddenly up toward his balding head like two caterpillars leaping at each other in battle. “You call that a man? I wouldn’t. And neither would the Pardoner, at least when he still had his brains inside his head.”
“Certainly you would know better what makes a man than I,” said Alisoun, thinking it was never a sin to lie in the service of good. “I supposed his interest in the young man was merely scholarly.”
“Strictly professional,” the Summoner said. “He thought the boy was in need of a relic or two, or so he said. Don’t ask me why. What sin could a creature like that have committed? Failing to hit the high notes when he sang Te Deum on a Sunday? Feh.”
Alisoun found all this very interesting. Did the Summoner speak the truth about the man he claimed was not a friend? She thought she ought to speak to the Clerk himself about those conversations. She’d seen him earlier sitting by the fire, reading, but the spot was now occupied by three other pilgrims. The Squire appeared to be beating the Cook, the Shipman and the Miller at knucklebones. “Have you gentlemen seen our young Clerk?” Alisoun asked, walking up behind the Shipman as he tried and failed a frogs-in-the-well throw.
This question was greeted with a burst of laughter from the three older men. “We chased him off,” the Shipman said.
“Not on purpose,” said the Miller. “The Cook, here, tried to cheer him up with a joke and he took offense.”
“Can’t see why,” muttered the Cook, already drunk. Or still drunk from the night before.
“Me either, Cookie,” said the Miller. “None of us found it offensive. See here, let’s ask the lady what she thinks. “It seems there was a young woman in Ireland…”
“Italy!” the Cook corrected him with a quiet belch.
“Yes, Italy. Bit of a simpleton, she was and she’d got herself with child. Well, the midwife came to her to see if the child was coming. And she looked her over…”
Here the Miller helpfully spread both legs so that the Shipman would stick his head between them like the midwife. The Squire’s cheeks had gone quite red by this time. The Cook just looked confused.
“So the Midwife examines her secret parts, you know, to look for the baby’s head. And the Simpleton, she says…”
“The Simpleton says look also at the back,” Alisoun cut in, having heard the joke before. “For my husband has sometimes taken that road.”
The table roared with laughter—even the Squire. Alisoun shook her head and walked away, wondering what it was she saw in any man.
She found the Clerk outside the inn, sitting with the Parson under a tree. She watched them for a little while, their heads bent together as if in prayer. When the Parson took his leave, Alisoun stepped in. “You look troubled,” she said bluntly, gathering her skirts around her on the grass.
“Murder is troubling,” the young man said.
Any murder? Alisoun thought. Or was the victim dear to him? Perhaps he had committed murder himself?
“The Pardoner had many enemies,” she said, coming directly to the point. “It’s not surprising he came to a bad end.”
The Clerk frowned. “Whatever his sins, they do not justify a murder.”
“True,” said Alisoun. “Which of us are without sin, after all? You seem to have shown him kindness. More than many of our party.”
The Clerk dropped his eyes. There was something about the gesture that struck the Wife of Bath as odd, but she could not have said what it was. “I did not,” he said. “Show him kindness. Not as I should have. The Pardoner took an interest in me and I tried only to discourage it. I deserve no compliments for my behavior.”
“I think you do deserve it,” laughed Alisoun. “Compared to most of us on this journey you have the patience of a saint. Even our jolly host Harry Bailey threatened to castrate the man!”
The Clerk continued to stare at his own white hands. It was hard to imagine them holding an axe. They were so delicate even a quill would look to brutal between them.
“I don’t compare myself to any man but Christ,” the young man said. Then, as if he did not like the sound of his words, added, “That is, I know how difficult it was for me to be patient, and how easy to refrain from violence.” He gazed in the direction of Canterbury, lost in thought. “I do hope we reach the place eventually.”
Alisoun considered. There was nothing in the young man’s demeanor that suggested he had loved the Pardoner. Or hated him enough to murder. On the contrary, the Clerk was just warm enough to offer sympathy, but cool enough to not defend or criticize the man’s character. Though any man can be cold, Alisoun reflected, thinking of Jankyn. How many times had she told him she loved him, only to have him leave her alone and unsure of his heart? He could be cold as ice, could Jankyn. But warm as sunshine too. Especially in the mornings when…
But it was no good thinking about that.
“Are you all right, Miss?” the Clerk asked gently.
Alisoun’s sight had gone blurred and she realized, with some embarrassment, she was almost crying. “Oh, yes. I’m fine. Just being silly. Murder, you know. Just like a woman.” She batted her eyelashes both to clear her eyes and distract the young man, but he was not to be distracted. He slipped his fingers into hers. His touch was soft and cool. His fingers steady without gripping tightly.
“You’re not silly at all,” the Clerk said. It was the first time any man had ever said so. Once again Alisoun felt something was not right.
“Thank you,” she said, lifting herself off the grass. The Clerk followed her. He brushed stray bits of grass off of his breeches, spreading his hands, almost as if he were wearing…
“Goddess Corpus!” Alisoun exclaimed. “You’re a woman!”
The Clerk froze, went pale, went red, then went pale again. It seemed the moment would never end. Finally the Clerk bowed her head in defeat.
“But…but why would you want to be a man?” Alisoun sputtered. “That is, of course one can see the advantages but…”
“All my life I’ve loved to study,” she said, taking Alisoun’s hands in hers and looking at her with pleading eyes. “My father allowed me to read what I pleased, but only until it was time to marry. It was my brother, Robert, who was meant to go to university. When the plague carried off my father and Robert with him I simply…well, I thought…surely God…one might almost think He wanted…” She dropped her eyes again, and with it Alisoun’s hands. “Forgive me. I have lied. There’s no defense. No matter how many pilgrimages I make.”
“Well, now, I can’t see what you’ve done so much harm,” Alisoun could not help but say. “The Bible says everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil. It was Man who decided to snatch the best toil for men.”
The Clerk gave a watery little smile. “So you don’t think I’m going to hell?”
“Not for this,” said Alisoun, gesturing to the young woman’s breeches and hat.
“Isn’t it obvious?” the Wife of Bath said. “You had a secret. “And I think the Pardoner knew it. That, my dear, is a good reason to kill him.”
The Clerk was quite brave in the face of her possible imprisonment. She was innocent, she said, but encouraged Alisoun to follow her conscience about what to do about her secret. Not for the first time, Alisoun was not sure where her conscience was leading her. All too well she could see why the girl had lied, but was that also a reason for her to murder? She hated to ruin the girl’s life if she hadn’t killed anyone. She walked round and round the cathedral, thinking what to do. Eventually she ran into Harry Bailey coming the other way.
“How goes your questioning?” he asked. “Was the Clerk any help?”
Alisoun told Bailey what she’d learned from the Clerk, though she did not reveal her secret. That, she thought, would keep unless it was absolutely necessary to reveal it. Instead she said simply that she thought the Clerk may have committed certain sins in his past in Italy that had led him on this pilgrimage and which the Pardoner may have tried to use to force him into unwanted relations.
“That was well uncovered!” Bailey said. “Perhaps we should put a guard outside the Clerk’s room as we have for Sister Maud. Surely the young man had more reason to kill than the poor nun.”
“He might have. But as yet…” Alisoun paused. Over the Host’s shoulder she saw the figure of the Parson coming toward them with a look of Holy Purpose. Alisoun instinctively stepped behind Bailey, having had too much experience with holy men and their lectures, but it was no use. The Parson had seen them both.
“Madam Alisoun,” the Parson said, making a face of Great Significance. “I must speak to you about the Clerk, who has told me about your conversation.”
Bailey did not miss that there was something the Parson was not saying. “Do you have information that would help exonerate our young student, sir?” he asked. “Don’t be fooled by the Clerk’s philosophy. What a man says when he’s calm and sober may be quite different than what he does when threatened.”
“I would be remiss if I did not try to protect the Clerk’s good name,” the Parson said. “I don’t believe this person is capable of murder. Despite all I know about this person. All. I. Know.” The Parson all but elbowed Alisoun in the ribs and winked to indicate that he expected her to understand all that he was not saying aloud. His hints were so unsubtle Bailey understood them as thoroughly as he would have if he’d know the Clerk’s secret himself.
“Is there something we should know about this Clerk?” the Host asked. “Something we don’t know already?”
“Nothing I can tell,” the Parson said, unwittingly nodding his head. “Anything this Clerk may have said to me was said in the strictest confidence. If there were any confessions made to me, any deceit laid bare, I would have only recommended that we meditate upon it until we reach Canterbury. There, I would hope, God would prevail upon that person’s soul to live honestly.”
“Excellent advice, Parson,” said Harry Bailey, cutting a reproachful glance at Alisoun. “I’m sure the Wife of Bath would agree.”
“So you don’t think we’ve found our murderer, then, Parson?” Alisoun asked, ignoring Bailey.
“Even if this person had the strength and will and evil at heart to raise a weapon, I don’t believe there was a reason. That is, there was nothing the Pardoner could have threatened to expose that I did not already know myself.” The Parson nodded once more to Alisoun, his expression full of Great Significance, and took his leave.
“What was all that about?” Bailey demanded when the man had drifted off, taking his aura of good will with him. “What secret could our Clerk be hiding? Is he a thief? With a child? A wife? Two wives? The Parson has got my imagination working. You’d best put a stop to it, Madam, before it runs quite wild.”
“It’s nothing of that sort,” snapped Alisoun. She hadn’t planned on disclosing the Clerk’s secret, but if the girl was foolish enough to think the Parson’s good intentions toward her would keep him from revealing everything, that was on her own head. “Nothing but that she’s a maid in Clerk’s clothing.”
She allowed herself a moment to enjoy the look of complete confusion on her Host’s face as he tried to understand her words. “But…but…” he said, obviously thinking back on the few interactions he’d had with the fellow. “I should have known,” he said at last, “from the way he mounted his horse.”
Alisoun rolled her eyes imagining what difference the man could imagine between how a man or a woman mounted a horse. Perhaps he thought the man needed room to adjust his extra baggage in the saddle.
“Well, if nothing else,” Bailey said finally. “We know the Clerk did not kill the Pardoner.”
“How so?” asked Alisoun. “We know that Parson thinks her innocent, but he gave us no real proof. Can he say for certain that the Clerk never left his room? Come to think of it, I don’t remember seeing the Clerk at all that night after we left the table. She did not answer the call of murder as the rest of us did. Why? Did she fear her ability to hide her form without proper time to dress? Or was she covered in blood?”
“Now, now,” said Bailey, quite alarmed. “You can’t be suggesting the Clerk is guilty.”
“Why not? You yourself thought she was guilty not an hour ago.”
“I thought he was guilty,” Bailey corrected her. “Why, a maid could never commit such a crime. So much blood—she would have fainted dead away.”
“I didn’t faint,” Alisoun pointed out. “Neither did the Prioress. She was positively invigorated at the sight.” In fact, Alisoun suspected there might be a painting of the very incident hanging in the dining hall at the abbey after Madam Eglantine returned home.
“The Prioress was quite hysterical,” said Bailey, oblivious to the Wife of Bath’s growing annoyance. This, no doubt, was why he’d never believed Sister Maud was the killer. As much as Sister Maud needed friends, it was insulting to think the man didn’t believe a woman was capable of murder.
“If it isn’t the Clerk, perhaps it must be Sister Maud,” she said. “The Summoner is eager enough to send her to the gallows. If we have no one else to offer to the constable when he arrives, it will be Sister Maud who swings, make no mistake.”
Alisoun returned to the nun’s room with a nice meat pie for dinner. She’d expected to find her praying, but she was only sitting by the window, looking up at the sky. Alisoun had brought her own dinner with Sister Maud’s. “I prefer to not eat alone,” she said cheerfully, laying out the table. “I imagine at your convent the sisters always eat together.”
“We do,” said Sister Maud. “Though on holy days we observe a vow of silence.”
Alisoun did not eat in silence, but she waited until the meal was finished before bringing up the question she was there to ask. “Sister,” she said seriously, “you must tell me why you went to the Pardoner’s room that night. And no dissembling. If it was the Lord’s work that brought you there I’m sure he would not blame you for sharing it to save your own neck.”
“Would he not?” said Sister Maud. “I don’t know.”
Alisoun was quite alarmed at the listless answer. As little as she liked Sister Maud when the nun was looking down her nose, she found she liked her even less when she was simply looking down. “Of course the Lord would want you to be saved,” she said. “Was not King Solomon known for his wise and just decisions? Did not Jesus defend a poor adulteress before the crowd? Don’t tell me you think yourself beneath any adulteress, Sister Maud. Now, what brought you to the Pardoner’s room that night?”
Sister Maud tried to meet Alisoun’s eye, but dropped her gaze into her lap instead. She stared down at her fingers, twisting them until Alisoun thought she might just tie them all in knots. Then, with a deep breath, she reached into the folds of her habit, brought out a knuckle bone and laid it on the table.
“Pig’s bones?” Alisoun said. “One of the Pardoner’s false relics? But what…? Ahh…of course.” Alisoun could easily see Sister Maud, full of righteous fury, confronting the man for his cheap attempts to sell salvation. “You went there to condemn him?” she said, nodding to the knuckle on the table.
Sister Maud shook her head. She spoke so softly Alisoun could barely hear her. “I bought it.”
“You…?” Alisoun almost laughed out of pure confusion. “But why would you buy one of these? Don’t tell me you planned to set up your own business selling relics?”
“Of course not!” said Maud angrily. Alisoun was pleased to see a little of the old passion in her eyes when she lifted her head at last. “I would never…!”
She lapsed back into silence which lasted several moments. There was nothing to do but wait it out, with the question hanging in the air.
Finally Sister Maud picked up the little bone, pinching it between her fingers. “I know the bone is false,” she said. “I know it is only the remains of some old sow butchered in some village. But I could imagine it was real.”
Alisoun frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“You can not understand because it’s madness,” Sister Maud said sadly. “I can hardly explain myself. All I can say is that it gets quite lonely at the convent, despite the sisters there. I should feel God’s presence, yet oftentimes I don’t. Sometimes I look at the older sisters, I think about the day I will be old myself and I wonder if God will really be there for me.”
“But why would a relic that you know is false…?”
“It’s not the nature of the thing that makes it holy,” Sister Maud said. “It’s faith that makes it so. Jesus turned water into wine, wine into blood, bread into flesh—could not he turn a pig’s bone into something else?” She seemed to catch herself, bowed her head and made the sign of the cross. “I don’t ask for a miracle. Let the pig’s bone stay a bone. But perhaps with prayer and faith the thing would have God’s blessing. It would not be only a pig’s knuckle.”
Alisoun thought over the Nun’s words and found they made good sense. She’d known many a person in her life who were pig’s knuckles until faith and love turned them into something more. And for all her wisdom about love, she, too, often feared dying alone and wondered if she and Jankyn would truly be together again in heaven.
“The Prioress says that God loves us all,” Sister Maud continued, speaking almost to herself. “She says God’s love is greater than any man’s, but we’re all the same, we sisters…” She glanced down at Alisoun’s own shorter, redder fingers and the pearl ring that adorned one of them. “I don’t envy you your jewels or money, truly. But I did covet your ring as proof that you were…”
“Special,” Alisoun said softly. “I understand. Sister Maud, that isn’t mad at all. Nor sinful.”
“But it was!” she cried, burying her face in her hands so that she could no longer see the bone or the pearl. “So God punished me for it. When I went to the Pardoner’s room I found him dead. I took the bone—I barely remember taking it but there it is—and now I’m in prison and I will surely hang!”
“Sister Maud, you will not surely anything!” said Alisoun. “The Constable has not yet arrived in town. We still have time to discover the true villain and clear your name.”
“How will you do that?” asked Sister Maud. “Who else is suspected of the crime but me?”
Alisoun opened her mouth, but no wise words came out of it. How exactly did she think she was going to help Sister Maud? She had no idea what had happened to the Pardoner. A Constable was on his way. He might arrive at any moment. What would Alisoun do then?
“Don’t be troubled,” Sister Maud said, as if she’d seen all these thoughts run through Alisoun’s head. “The only one who knows what happened besides the killer is God and he has given us no sign of that he will tell us.”
Alisoun chuckled dismally. “Men so often are not there when you need them.” For a moment she worried she had offended the nun with her comment, but Sister Maud just nodded. “They can be warm and sweet when in pursuit of something,” Alisoun continued. “But once they’ve caught you become completely unreachable. They can’t be trusted.”
“As the Bible says about the servants of Satan,” Sister Maud said, “And no wonder, for Satan himself transfigurith him into an angel of light. Therefore it is not greet, if his ministers have been transfigured as the ministers of righteousness, whose end shall be after….”
“Oh my goodness!” Alisoun exclaimed, jumping out of her chair. “Sister Maud, that’s it! God has indeed given us a sign!”
“He has? What?”
“Satan himself transifgureth him into an angel of light,” said Alisoun. “But sometimes the transfiguration is not smoothly done!”
Alisoun left the nun’s room. She went to talk to Harry Bailey. She found him in a room at the far side of the inn, tucking some belongings into his sack.
“Are we leaving?” she asked, nodding to the bag.
“Not yet,” he said. “But I hope the Constable will arrive soon. Canterbury awaits.”
“Indeed,” said Alisoun. She glanced into the bag he was packing and sniffed. “Are you packing any gangrel root, Mr. Bailey?”
“What kind of root?”
“Gangrel root,” she said. “It’s what my second husband often used to dye his hair. Or perhaps you use a different mixture? My husband’s hair was grey. I thought yours was white but looking closely I believe it’s yellow. Gold. Like sunlight. Or so the Prioress says. She also says you have a graceful figure, powerful as an ash tree. So I can understand why no one would recognize you, Sweet William.”
Harry Bailey’s expression did not change. He was pleasant, slightly confused, and merry. “Sweet William?” he said. “I? Never. Madam, I’m an innkeeper.”
“An innkeeper who would carry a maid off to London?” she said. “An innkeeper who does not know the exact price of wine before he orders? Where did you get the comb you paid the landlord here with? It must have been quite expensive. Did it belong to the duchess you robbed in Southwark?”
“Madam Alisoun,” said Bailey. “Please don’t take offense, but I think you’ve listened too long to Madam Eglantine’s stories.”
“I don’t think so, Mr. Sweet. In fact, I think if I poked that prosperous belly of yours I might find all manner of stolen goods within it. Funny that when we spoke about the Pardoner that night both of us forgot to mention that you, too, had a meeting planned with him that evening. It wasn’t the Clerk he threatened, was it? It was you, sir! In fact, he threatened you right in front of us at the table. He said he’d met a member of your gang who told him everything!”
Harry Bailey’s cheerful face froze and finally fell. “I fear it would be rude to remind you, Madam, that it’s unwise to provoke a bandit.”
“I do not need reminding, sir,” said Alisoun, taking a step back toward the door. “It’s the reason why I asked the Constable to wait outside the door until I called him.”
“I should have known,” said Bailey, with a nervous glance at the door. He hesitated a moment, and then seemed to spring.
Alisoun was quicker. She flung open the door and screamed. “Constable!”
It took the man a moment to burst into the room, brandishing a sword. Alisoun pointed just fast enough to get a last glimpse of Harry Bailey’s face as he went out the window. His merry smile was back and he winked. “I will always regret not carrying you away to London, Madam Alisoun,” he said. “Perhaps one day…”
Harry Bailey’s face dropped out of sight. Before he went he tossed something on the floor—another comb stolen from the duchess, along with one of the Pardoner’s relics. Even the worst constable would have trouble believing Sister Maud was guilty with evidence like that.
“He was chivalrous,” she murmured. “In his on terrible way.”
The next day they arrived in Canterbury, just as the Parson finished his tale, a sermon about repentance. Alisoun didn’t much pay attention. She and Sister Maud were too busy making up stories about where Harry Bailey—Sweet William—was by then. The story of his escape had reached Canterbury before the pilgrims but the man himself was still on the run.
“Just ahead of the law. Do you think he prays?” asked Sister Maud.
“I think he prays more than most,” Alisoun said, after some thought. “And I think God listens. Men like that always command attention.”
“As do women like you,” Sister Maud said with a sigh.
“Oh, I’m just an ordinary widow,” said Alisoun. “One of many many Wives of Bath.”