The Corner That Held Them - Excerpt

Prioress Alicia
(August 1351–October 1357)

In his lifetime the Black Death, a sorcerer travelling from China, had shifted the balance of Christendom and killed half the folk in England. But to Ursula’s Jackie it seemed that nothing new ever happened or ever would. The bell rang and the nuns went into quire. The bell rang and the serfs in the great field paused in their labour and crossed themselves, and then scratched themselves, and then went on working. The little bell rang and Christ was made flesh. One day the thought had risen up in him: Suppose I don’t ring my bell – what then? This thought had come on a summer afternoon when the noise of the grasshoppers was everywhere. For an instant the sun had seemed to smite him with a tenfold heat, he felt himself dissolving like wax, and the butts of the mown grass where he lay pricked him like a thousand daggers. What then? The end of the world, perhaps. The bell silent, Christ not made, the world snapped like a bubble. Perhaps. But also a beating. Sitting up he shook the hair out of his eyes and saw a grasshopper and tore it apart and felt better. The sun was no stronger than before and all round him it was a summer afternoon and the grasshoppers were chirping and the dun horse feeding and everything was as usual.

The willows and alders cast their leaves, the clouds gathered, the earth darkened, the autumn rains began. One morning there would be a great bellowing of beasts. It was Martinmas, when the pigs and cattle were driven to the shed and slaughtered for winter meat. After that it seemed to grow dark very quickly, as though darkness steamed out of the great cauldrons where they made the black-puddings. A frosty day coming in December scratched one’s eyes, the sunlight was so suddenly brilliant. Through Christmas and Epiphany there were sweet dishes, pastes of eggs and figs and ground-almonds that encrusted the spoon and the mixing-bowls. A pittance of unmixed wine made the nuns a little tipsy, they walked more swimmingly and were unwontedly polite, and when they spoke their voices were pitched as though they were just about to sing. This amiability made it difficult to tell them apart. But each face resumed its particular expression, and through February and March he was glad to stay in the kitchen, watching the wind ruffle the pool of rainwater that spread from under the woodhouse door, and eating the chips of dried cod that flew from under the mallet. Round and round went the days like a mill-wheel, and because it was Lent when penances are remembered, on Fridays his mother went barefooted to the cloisters to repeat the penitential psalms and be scourged by the prioress. No one much pitied her, neither did he; and hearing Mabel say that the bishop’s sentence had ordained that the scourgings should continue throughout the year and that only the prioress’s laziness restricted them to Lent he felt defrauded, as though his significance as a nun’s child were belittled.

Being a nun’s child distinguished him from the other children about the place, and even when they taunted him he knew he was more interesting than they, and that whatever future awaited him he would not, like them, live tethered to the sour soil of the manor. In spring, when all young animals play together, he played with them and was their ringleader, but when the days grew hot he left them and went to lie among the rushes, hidden, as he liked to lie. And so it would be full summer again, and he would be a year older, and this summer, surely, he would be old enough to go to Waxelby Fair.

But no summer is so long, so wide, as the summer before it. Time, a river, hollows out its bed and every year the river flows in a narrower channel and flows faster. Jackie was old enough to work now, and Jesse Figg the bailiff set him to weave hurdles or spread dung or keep the cows from straying into the young crops, and Mabel added that a cowherd has time on his hands, time enough to gather the tufts of wool that the sheep leave on brambles. Now, too, there was this new woman, this Pernelle. Sometimes she was a pleasure, for her clothes were coloured, and she could tell stories, and with a fine comb she would scratch the lice out of his head when they became troublesome. But at other times she was hateful, bustling after him and saying: ‘Jackie, do this! Jackie, do that! Jackie, Jackie! Where’s my little page?’ Then he would have to help her set up her loom or pound ginger or pick over feathers for pillows, or she would send him out to collect dew for a facewash; for being a townswoman she was full of such notions. And her stories, after all, were not worth much. Though they were of different places they were all about herself; and wherever she had gone she had always been the same Pernelle, cleverer and more meritorious than anyone else. If she spoke of anyone else, it was always her three nephews, who were such fine brisk boys, no bookworms. You would never see them with their eyes reddened by crying over grammar.

‘Grammar, grammar! Who’s the better for grammar? The Apostles had none.’

‘Saint Paul was a scholar,’ said Ursula.

‘So they say. But he was never Pope. That was for Saint Peter who was only a fisherman. Saint Paul’s grammar never hoisted him so far.’

She plunged her smooth hand into the belly of a goose.

‘If you had seen as much of the world as I have you wouldn’t care to have the priest stuffing your boy with grammar. All this hickorum-hackorum never filled a belly yet. Look at my brother-in-law the armourer. He can neither read nor write but he can afford to pay two clerks to keep his accounts for him, and in his house there are three beds, one of green serge, one of russet, and one of a most beautiful blue. The abbess of Shaftesbury hasn’t finer beds. But plenty of poor honest souls lie on rotten straw while these abbots and abbesses loll on goosedown, thinking over their Latin. Let them work, I say! Let them earn a living as other people do! Many’s the day my brother-in-law has worked twelve hours at a stretch, forging link after link till the eyes stood out of his head. Quite right, too! We are put into the world to labour. Let them labour like the blessed Apostles, that’s what I say. And if your Jackie were my Jackie I’d take him from those books and send him off with the masons.’

Jackie’s heart assented to these last words. As learning went on it became less agreeable. There were fewer discoveries in it, it lengthened out like a midday road. Sir Ralph had ceased to teach him what he could repeat to the astonishment of others. There were no more anecdotes of the basilisk, the swallow curing her blindness, the virtues of precious stones. Instead, it was all proportions and properties, things impossible to remember. And there sat Sir Ralph, plucking at his lower lip, brooding some thought of his own, or endlessly, scornfully patient.

‘The Proportion of Diapente, I said. What is the Proportion of Diapente? Pooh, you will never learn! And why should you?’



The Corner That Held Them Cover Image
By Sylvia Townsend Warner, Claire Harman (Introduction by)
ISBN: 9781681373874
Availability: available for order
Published: NYRB Classics - September 10th, 2019