The Feast of St. Agnes
The orphan girls had special reason to pray on St. Agnes’ day. The feast day dawned cold and clear and the children, in their warmest woolen clothing and thicket-soled shoes, had tramped across the still-dark paths to the church to hear Prime.
St. Agnes was the patron saint of girls. Iggy noticed the girls and the nuns praying with an earnestness today. Because nuns wouldn't be praying earnestly any other time? Huh?
There were no lessons on feast days and regular mass was full, for the female population of Scour village in particular showed up in droves to pray and ask Agnes to interceded* on their behalf. *Intercede. Yes, I know.
One of those girls, accompanied by her mother and younger siblings, was Agnes Johnson. Sister Benedicta gave Agnes a nod in passing, for Agnes was her niece. The girl had grown up in the village, her father the village silversmith and a one-time alderman of the hamlet.
Sister Benedicta knew all of the villagers, not merely because of her work, which involved the villagers’ spiritual needs, but because she was Scour-born and Scour-reared. The reverse of it was that the villagers all knew her—and knew who the little brown-haired orphan boy named Ignatius belonged to.
Benedicta turned to see her niece Agnes, who was about sixteen years old.
“I was wondering about joining the order.”
Benedicta turned more fully to face Agnes, who was a slight girl, thin and very pale. She had freckles on her nose and cheeks and fine blond hair that was escaping away from her hood.
“Do your parents agree, my child?” Benedicta breathed. She let her eyes wander to her sister, Cecily, Agnes’ mother. Cecily was leaning down, probably scolding one of her brood.
“Does it matter?” Agnes replied. “God is calling me.”
Benedicta pursed her lips. “Come see me after mass. Bring your mother. We shall talk then.”
Agnes bowed her head. “Thank you, Sister.”
Benedicta stood in the church porch, under the eaves that the builders had cleverly designed, knowing how rainy Yorkshire was, and watched the exiting parishoners. The orphans girls went off to their housing, in pairs, while the girls who belonged to the village visited with their families.
The boys went off to run, burning their boisterousness. Burning off, I think. No lessons meant that the children were at liberty for the day. The nun smiled when she saw her son among the boys racing to return to the priory walls, probably to beg the cook for a crust of bread. Iggy’s particular friend, Tom, who had longer legs, led the race.
“Sister,” a female voice said. Focusing on the face, Benedicta saw a well-dressed woman with a hood and veil, both black, and a fur-lined cloak. The woman ushered a girl in front of her, the girl small and bony.
“Hello Mary,” Benedicta said, for the woman was her cousin Mary and the child Mary’s daughter Margaret.
“We’re lately returned from Berwick,” Mary informed her. “Anne is well settled.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Benedicta replied.
“Richard intends to bring the younger Routh girls here to be educated,” Mary said. Then with a slight curtsy, she said, “Good day to you.”
“God bless thee and thine,” Benedicta replied. She watched Mary and Margaret carefully step down the hill to the village. Margaret was a year older than Ignatius. A few months before the child’s birth, Mary had married Robert Collins.
It was a decision that was necessary, for Mary was disgraced by her pregnancy. She’d also been a novice at the priory. The difference between the cousins was that Mary had been taken out of the order and married. Alice, as she was known then, had not been, though she’d written to her elder brother, her guardian after her parents’ deaths, and asked for a husband to be considered. Robert denied her wishes, over and over.
“Sister,” a quiet voice said. Benedicta steeled herself to look at her sister Cecily. Cecily was eight years older than Benedicta, but looked much older. She’d had two husbands and six children and years of rule under the thumb of her silversmith husband. He was an acknowledged wizard at his craft, for he’d made the small silver crosses that were often the orphan girls’ only adornment, but he was a drunkard and a cruel man. There has to be one alcoholic in a historical fiction, right?
“Cecily,” Benedicta replied. Her vision widened to include Cecily’s brood, from the determined Agnes, the only child of Cecily’s first husband, a sailor, to the other five, who lent a bright spot to the dreary day.
The children’s hair were varying shades of blond, from yellow to white-blond to
“Follow me,” Benedicta said, leading them away from the church porch. She led them to the nuns’ parlor, saying to her sister, “Perhaps the children would like to play with the other children?” She indictated indicated the boys, including Iggy and Tom, watching the monks and stablehands exercise the horses.
“Oh, aye,” Cecily replied, voice now strong with no hint of timidity. “Off you go, then. You girls, too. Only Agnes stays.”
The younger five walked and toddled off to the ring.
“Now,” Agnes said, turning to the door of the nuns’ dorm. The parlor was empty. She sank onto a hard chair. Cecily and Agnes did the same. The mother and daughter shared features, the same bowed lips and the same blue eyes, but there, the similarities ended. Cecily’s eyes had once been bright and mischevious—Benedicta remembered an incident involving grease from the kitchen and one of the pigs behind the outer priory wall—but now they were surrounded by smudges under the eyes and heavy-lidded. Agnes’ eyes were bright, but her eyeslashes and eyebrows were so transparent that it gave her eyes a disturbing quality.
“You said you want to join the order, Agnes?”
“Yes, aunt,” Agnes said.
“Have you spoken to your mother and father?”
“I think it may be the best for her,” Cecily spoke. “Robert agrees. As her godfather, he is pleased to have a godchild who wants to join the Church.”
Benedicta estimated that her brother Robert had something like ten godchildren.
“You’ll have to speak to the prior about joining officially. Our last novices here came last year.”
“Of course she’ll speak to the prior,” Cecily said. “Who is in charge of the novices now?”
“It’s still Sister Catherine, though I help,” Benedicta said. “You must think of what this entails, Agnes. You would take novice vows and those vows last for two years. You may renew your vows for full vows or leave the priory.” She softened her voice. “Truly. It takes more than wanting to be a nun to be one.”
“I understand,” Agnes said stiffly. “I wish it above all else, aunt. God has called upon me. I feel that today is auspicious, as it is my name day.” She spoke in a certain voice. Benedicta did not remember being quite so certain about her vocation at that age.
“So it is. Very well. Should you like to speak to the prior now?”
Cecily worried her lip. “Yes. Yes, now, sister.”
Benedicta rose smoothly, her habit rustling with movement.
“Look at Equus go,” Tom remarked, hanging on the fence of the exercise circle outside of the stable. Though it was cold outside, the children watching the stablehands ride and lead the horses did not feel the chill. From solemn church, they emerged to watch the glossy creatures run freely in the contained circle.
Iggy gave a breathy laugh, his breath coming out in white puffs. Through the sharp cold, the smell of horse wafted toward him. It attracted the other lads, many of them hanging off of the fence as well. More children crowded toward the horses to watch.
“Ooh, look at that one, Bess!” One boy said to his younger sister. The two siblings squeezed in beside Iggy on the fence. The boy looked older than his sister, but they were undeniably related, for they shared the same blue eyes and the same composition of features: a short nose, thin upper lip, and round cheeks. They even had light brown hair, the same color.
“His name’s Equus,” Iggy told the boy. “He’s the prior’s horse.”
“He’s a beauty,” the boy chirped happily. “A gelding?”
“Aye,” Tom called over the top of Iggy’s head. “You live in the village?”
“Yes. Name’s Hugh. This is my sister Bess.”
“Ignatius,” Iggy introduced himself. “Iggy.”
Hugh nodded, then blurted out, “You’re my cousin.” Kids say the darndest things...
Iggy blinked. He held onto the fence to avoid falling off backward and embarrassing himself.
“Oh, aye. We’ve never met, formal-like, but you’re my cousin.” Hugh added, “My first cousin.”
“No...no…” Iggy said, shaking his head. “I’m an orphan. I live in the priory orphanage. Have since birth. I don’t know who my family is.” Perhaps this was a cruel joke. He’d been teased before for his odd first name, though Sister Benedicta always firmly told him that he was likely named for Ignatius of Antioch, and his strange surname, FitzClement, was a fine surname. A Norman name. ‘Fitz’ from the French fils, meaning son.
“Mam told me you were my cousin,” Hugh said with a lifting of the shoulder. “Said her sister is your mam.”
“Who is your mother’s sister?” Iggy said, insatiably curious.
“Oh, Mam has three sisters. Aunt Anne lives in Hull and Aunt Catherine lives in Lincolnshire and Sister Benedicta is our aunt, too.”
Sister Benedicta. His earliest memories were of her, the youngest nun in the priory, a woman of suppressed energy, who walked quickly in the cloisters and through the priory yards. She supervised the orphan children a great deal of the time, disciplining them, leading them in prayers, instilling manners.
“I-I didn’t know Sister Benedicta was from Scour,” Iggy said. His throat felt dry.
“Oh, aye,” Hugh said, disinterested. “There’s a load of us family about.”
“Do you know which of your aunts is my mother?” Iggy asked.
“Yes,” Hugh said. “Bess, find the others. Make sure the babbies are all right.” The sister ran off to do her brother’s bidding. Then the boy leaned in. Iggy smelled ale on his breath** as Hugh whispered, “Sister Benedicta.”
Iggy felt his eyes widen. “Are you certain? She’s a nun.”
“That’s what me Mam says,” Hugh said.
** I love how I managed to make this sound sinister. Water was undrinkable in Tudor England, so everybody drank ale.