In the tender green time of April, Katherine set forth at last upon her journey with the two nuns and the royal messenger.
The invisible sun had scarcely risen as they quitted the little convent of Sheppey, and guiding the horses westward towards the Kentish mainland, rode gingerly down the steep hill. Dripping dun clouds obscured the minster tower behind them and thick mists blew in from the North Sea.
The bell began tolling for Prime and Katherine heard through its familiar clangor, the bang of the priory’s gate and the faint voice of the little wicket nun calling again through the mist, “Adieu dear Katherine, adieu.”
“Farewell, Dame Barbara, God be with you,” Katherine answered, hoping that her tone was not too gay. She had tried to make herself feel the requisite doleful pang at parting from this convent where she had spent over five years, but her heart would not obey. It bubbled, instead, with excited anticipation.
She had been a puny child when the good Queen had sent her to Sheppey Priory as a boarder, and now she was a marriageable woman, for she would be sixteen next October sometime after Michaelmas. And she had had her fill of the cloisters and the hovering nuns, kindly as most of them were. She was sick of the inexorable bell that ruled their lives, tolling for Matins and Lauds and then every three hours throughout the day until Compline at eight o’clock and bed. She was sick of lessons and plain song, and the subdued admonishing murmurs of women.
No matter how dutiful one tried to feel, it was impossible to be sad at leaving this behind, not when the blood ran hot and rich in the veins, and when out in the world there were all the untried beckoning enchantments: dancing, sensuous music, merriment—and love.
Now at last it had come, the summons to court, when Katherine had almost given up hope, and it seemed that the Queen had totally forgotten her early interest in the little orphan. Perhaps the Queen had forgotten but at least Philippa had not. Katherine thought of the coming meeting with the sister whom she had not seen in all these years and gave a sudden bounce of joy, which the old white horse instantly resented. He stumbled in a muddy rut, recovered himself, then stood stock still, his long lips thrust out.
The Prioress Godeleva resented the bounce too, for Katherine was riding pillion behind the prioress.
“What possessed you to jump like that, Katherine!” snapped Godeleva over her shoulder, while she flapped the reins and tried to induce the horse to move. “Bayard hates double weight, and you’re not a child to play the fool. I thought we’d trained you better.” She flapped the reins again futilely.
“Forgive me, Reverend Mother,” said Katherine reddening.
Dame Cicily, the other nun, came fluttering up to them crying, “Oh dear, oh dear, Reverend Mother, what’s the matter?” She was riding a decrepit nag borrowed from the convent’s bailiff and had perforce dropped behind.
“As you see,” said the prioress coldly, digging her heels into the horse’s belly and slapping his neck with her small white hand, “Bayard is balking.”
Dame Cicily nodded mournfully. “I knew there’d be bad luck when Dame Joanna killed that spider this morning—Lord, Lord, whatever shall we do?” she stared owl-eyed at her superior. Dame Cicily was afraid of horses and moreover had been in such a quiver since the prioress’s choice of her as companion on this journey into the world that her wits were quite addled. “Maybe if we pray to Saint Botolph?” she wailed, clasping her hands. But the horse would not budge.
Long Will Finch, the Queen’s messenger, who had been riding on ahead and singing a bawdy song to himself, suddenly noticed the silence behind him. He turned his roan and peering through the mists came back to investigate. “God’s nails—” he muttered when he saw the trouble, “these holy old hens should stay in cloister. We’ll not reach Windsor till Whitsun at this rate.”
He dismounted, hit Bayard a powerful swat on the rump with the flat of his dagger while savagely jerking the bridle. The horse gave an indignant snort but he jumped forward and Katherine clung to the prioress’s plump waist.
“You need a switch, Reverend Mother,” said Long Will, breaking a branch from a hazel bush and handing it to Godeleva.
The prioress inclined her head in gracious thanks. She was the daughter of a Saxon knight, proud of her lineage, and most anxious that the royal messenger should not think them ill-bred for all that they came from such an insignificant convent.
Long Will was not thinking of the prioress, he was looking at Katherine. Sunlight, now glinting through the fog which hung above the Swale, gave him his first good view of her. A tasty wench, he thought, cocking a practiced eye at the face beneath the green hood.
He noted large gray eyes fringed by dark lashes; and two glossy burnished braids, near thick as his wrist, and so long that they swung against the horse’s croup, while the loose tendrils, dark red as an autumn oak leaf, clung to a broad white forehead. That one wouldn’t have to pluck back her hair to broaden her brow like the court ladies. Nor would she have to rub lead paste on her face. The girl’s skin was milky smooth with a rose flush on the cheekbones—and no blemishes. Her full mouth was wider than the pouting lips admired at court, yet it betokened a lustiness any man would find challenging, as did the flare of her nostrils and the cleft in her round chin.
She’d be a fine wench for bed-sport, once she’d learned a bit, Long Will thought, as he walked along beside the white cob and stared at Katherine. Ay—she was exceeding fair, though as yet somewhat thin and small-bosomed. If only her teeth were good. Missing or rotted teeth spoiled many a beauty. He determined to make her smile.
“Have ye visited the fine new castle, damoiselle?” he asked pointing to the north where the crenelated towers of Queenborough loomed against the clearing sky.
“Certainly not,” cut in the prioress. “I’ve permitted none of my house to go near the castle, swarming as it has been with lecherous men—workmen and soldiers—and but three miles from the convent.”
“To be sure, Reverend Mother,” said Long Will grinning, “holy flocks must be guarded, but I thought the Damoiselle Roet being a secular, perhaps she’d wandered that way —” He winked at Katherine but the girl lowered her eyes as she had been taught. She was thinking that this Will Finch’s bold stare was a little like that of the young squire who had come to the convent to see her a year ago. It made one feel warm and embarrassed but not unpleasantly so. The only other men she had ever talked to, the old bailiff and an even older convent priest, had no such look in their eyes.
“Then ye didn’t see the great Duke of Lancaster when he came himself to inspect the building last year?” persisted the messenger. “A pity. He’s the most knightly and many think handsomest too of our King’s sons, except, to be sure Edward, Prince of Wales, God gi’ him grace.”