The Bridled Tongue
Life and death is in the power of the tongue.
Alyce Bradley climbed down from the wagon and turned slowly, gazing past the impressive market cross and over the bright awnings of the stalls to the tall houses and shops surrounding the square. The church of St Peter Mancroft dominated one end, the Guildhall with its chequered stone the other. Behind the houses to the side of the market square stood the solid bulk of Norwich Castle. She had glimpsed the walls of the keep, stark in the bright sunlight, as they had made their way through St Benedict’s Gate and on towards the square.
The air was alive with the buzz and rumble of a busy town and the smell of many things combined: bodies living close, cooking, animals, the tang of the river Wensum. And over it all, the endless pealing of church bells.
Welcome or not, Alyce was home.
‘Mistress Bradley?’ A sturdy lad of sixteen or so pulled off his cap. ‘I’m Wat Simpson, one of Master Bradley’s apprentices. He sent me to carry your things home.’
‘Thank you.’ Alyce had to raise her voice against the clamour of the bells. ‘I hope it’s not too heavy for you.’ She glanced towards the pannier on the ground beside her.
‘Nay.’ He grinned, pulling his cap back on. ‘It cannot be heavier than half a dozen of the Master’s bolts of damask.’
‘Wat, why are the bells ringing?’
‘Have you not heard, Mistress? A group of Catholic traitors have been captured in London. They were plotting to kill the Queen and set the Scottish queen in her place.’
Alyce shivered and silently prayed those taken were truly guilty.
She touched Wat’s arm as he bent to lift the basket. ‘Wait one moment.’
Alyce walked over to where Jack Middleton stood directing his apprentices as they unloaded the wagon she had travelled on to Norwich. His wife, Maude, supervised from the doorway to their shop.
‘Thank you for your company Mistress, Master Middleton.’
‘We were happy to have you with us.’ Maude smiled. ‘It is not easy for a woman travelling alone.’
Alyce dropped a shallow curtsy. ‘Good day to you both.’
Maude opened her mouth but her husband spoke over her. ‘Good day to you, Mistress Bradley.’ Amusement gleamed in his eyes.
Alyce grinned back at him.
Maude’s shrill voice followed her. ‘I thought she said her name was Banbury. You knew I had it wrong, and you said nothing.’
‘Wanted to spare the woman your interrogation.’
Jack Middleton’s voice faded as Alyce moved away, Wat Simpson behind her, the pannier high on his shoulder.
They wound through the market-goers, around St Peter Mancroft and along the street to her father’s shop. Alyce paused at the entrance, settled her shoulders and stepped inside.
Light from the large window glowed on the wooden presses at the back where damasks, chamlets, velvets, silks, satins and taffetas were stored. Baskets of varying sizes were arranged around the room. Lined with soft linen, they held laces, French garters and knitted hose and gloves, brass and thread buttons. A journeyman stood sorting through the boxes kept in the compartments of the tall wall cupboard in the far corner. Alyce knew exactly what was stored there and in what order—glass buttons from Murano, gold thread, silk lace, silver points, fine silk thread from Bologna and other expensive wares.
At one of the tables, another journeyman was berating a young man she assumed was near the end of his apprenticeship as if he were a green lad. The journeyman turned, taking Alyce to be a customer.
Robert Chapman. He had been an apprentice when she left Norwich twelve years ago.
As Chapman approached her, recognition lit in his dark eyes.
Without acknowledging him, Alyce hurried towards the back of the shop to the stairs leading to the floor above.
‘Alyce.’ Her father’s voice boomed out as she entered the hall. He sprang up from the settle beside the window and clasped Alyce into a bear-like embrace.
Alyce stood still, her arms at her sides, blinking away tears.
He stepped back, his hands resting on her shoulders. ‘Look at you, Alyce. You have grown to be a fine woman.’
She smiled at him, startled by the compliment. Her father was the same effusive man despite the grey now in his once dark hair and clipped beard, the pouches beneath his smiling eyes.
‘It is good to have you home at last.’
‘Ay, it is.’ Her sewing set aside, Alyce’s mother had risen from the seat.
Alyce stepped forward and kissed her, a dry brush of lips upon her cheek.
‘I have waited long for this day.’ Her mother caught her hand and squeezed it.
Surprised by her mother’s glistening eyes, Alyce could think of no reply.
‘I trust you had an easy journey?’
‘For certain, it was slow.’ Alyce forced a smile. ‘The wagon was heavy-laden.’
‘By wagon!’ Her mother’s eyes widened. ‘Could Lady Faulconer not have lent you a horse and ordered one of her men to escort you?’
‘Lady Faulconer died over a month ago. I was no longer of any use.’ She looked towards the window, away from her mother, her jaw tight. ‘I was told to consider myself fortunate I was permitted to travel with her notary as far as Lincoln.’
‘Who told you that?’ her mother snapped.
‘Lady Faulconer ’s nephew, the gracious Sir Christopher.’
‘We would have arranged something more suitable had you sent your message sooner. It arrived only last night. When we heard that a train of riders and wagons were heading towards the town, your father sent Wat to the square.’
‘I travelled in good company—Master Middleton and his wife. They were in Lincoln settling his brother’s estate.’
Alyce’s father raised an eyebrow. ‘I’ll wager Maude Middleton questioned you close for the whole journey.’
‘She did not recognise me.’
‘And you did not tell her.’ He gave a barking laugh. ‘That’s the spirit.’
‘She knows who I am now, sure enough. Master Middleton recognised me but did not let on until we arrived.’
‘Jack Middleton learnt early to keep his own counsel. News of your return will be spread across the town by nightfall. Maude Middleton will only have to tell her friend, that common scold Agnes Hall—she is better than any town crier.’ He glanced at the gilded timepiece on the cabinet at the end of the hall. ‘I have a shipment of cloth unloading. We will speak this evening, Alyce.’ He embraced her again and walked towards the stairs.
Alyce followed her mother to the upper floor of the house to her old bedchamber.
The afternoon light streamed through the open window, giving the small chamber an airiness at odds with Alyce’s memories.
Her mother went to a press opposite the window and opened it. ‘Eliza, my maid, sleeps in here too. She has made room for your things.’ She glanced at the pannier Wat had set down beside the curtained bed at the end of the room. ‘When will the rest of your belongings arrive?’
‘This is all I have.’
‘But…’ Her mother jerked her head, clearly displeased. She took a deep breath, putting the matter aside. ‘I will send Eliza to help you unpack.’
‘There is no need, Mother. I would like a little time alone—the journey was tiring.’
‘Of course. You will want to change and rest.’ She stood at the doorway, her hand on the latch. ‘Eliza will bring a jug of warm water for you.’
‘Thank you.’ Alyce gazed at her mother. She was as elegant as Alyce remembered. Her golden hair was not as bright, her face was lined and her clear blue eyes not quite as vivid, yet she was still a beautiful woman. It was a beauty she had bequeathed to Alyce’s sister, Isabel, but, Alyce knew too well, not to her.
As the door closed behind her mother, Alyce walked to the window. This was the view she had remembered through the long years away. Light still played across the rooftops, and the road… She knew where it led now—to a life as difficult as it had been here.
The noise of the town, of the lives of the thousands who dwelt in Norwich, carried on the air, and hope, that unruly weed, thrust aside the worries that had beset her on her journey home.
Alyce pushed open the door to the parlour where, under her mother’s direction, Wat was arranging bolts of cloth in a display of bright colour across the parlour table.
Her mother smiled. ‘Alyce, you are up at last.’
‘I am sorry, Mother. I will ask Eliza to wake me when she rises tomorrow.’
‘Do not apologise, you were tired after your journey. And there is no need to rise when Eliza does. You are not a servant here.’ She waved Alyce forward. ‘Now choose two or three of these and we will make them into gowns for you.’
‘But I have enough.’ Alyce spoke without thinking. Other than what she had worn yesterday, all she had were two unadorned gowns of a sombre frieze.
Her mother nodded to Wat. ‘This will do, Wat.’ She winced as he slammed the door behind him and thumped down the stairs. ‘That boy needs to learn to move more quietly.’ She turned to Alyce. ‘If all you possess was in that pannier, you have two or three gowns at most, and you were wearing the one gown of any quality you own yesterday. And it looks to be one that you took with you when you left here. As for what you are wearing—’
‘What is wrong with what I am wearing?’ Alyce interrupted, glancing down at her modest gown of brown wool frieze covered with a clean apron.
‘You are dressed as a serving maid! Even your hair is hidden away beneath that coif.’ Colour flared in her mother’s cheeks. ‘You were to have a new gown every year.’
‘And I did.’ It was not Alyce’s fault she did not have clothing in bright colours or rich fabrics. She had not chosen the life she had lived these past twelve years.
‘What of the cloth we sent each New Year? We knew Lady Faulconer would only provide one gown. You should have brought home more than this.’
‘My lady considered the fabric unfitting for one of my station as I am not of gentle birth.’
‘Not of gentle birth,’ her mother sniffed. ‘You are the daughter of a mercer of high standing in this town and you must dress accordingly. Your attire reflects your father’s business.’ Her brow furrowed. ‘Surely you want new gowns?’
‘But …’ Alyce stared at the colours and textures of the cloth laid out on the table, ‘I suppose.’
Her mother touched a bolt of damask the colour of marigolds. ‘This is a beautiful colour.’
‘It must be worth a fortune with a dye like that. And it is silk.’ As she gazed at it, the long-repressed yearning for gowns in bright colours threatened to overcome Alyce’s studied care not to draw attention to herself. ‘Father would never …’
‘Your father said we may have whatever we wish.’ She held out a length of grosgrain. ‘What about this?’
Alyce ran her fingers across the pink-tinged yellow cloth but shook her head.
Her mother exhaled and pointed to another bolt of cloth. ‘That chamlet is not so bright but it is changeable—take it to the light and see.’
Alyce picked it up and moved over to the window. The cloth shimmered reddish, blue in the clear light. ‘It is still too eye-catching.’ She blinked back unbidden tears. Fabric in its varied colours and textures had delighted Alyce as a girl, as had the skills she had learnt from her mother to transform flat cloth into shapely garments. These skills had been of use to Lady Faulconer, but the dull colours and sober styles had given Alyce no pleasure other than a task completed well.
‘Oh Alyce, I do not want my daughter wearing plain workaday colours.’
Nothing was to be gained by clinging to the dullness of the past. Alyce returned to the table and pointed to a russell wool in tawny. ‘I would wear this.’
Her mother watched her, thoughtful. ‘If you choose cloth for two gowns, plainer colours you are content with, I will decide on a third, something brighter you will like once you are used to pretty gowns again. But, and there will be no arguing, you are to have a red taffeta petticoat—a flash of colour to make up for the dullness of your gowns.’
Alyce almost laughed aloud. Her mother would have her way, and why should Alyce resist?
‘If you do not mind,’ Alyce said, ‘I will visit the de Jongs today.’
Her mother glanced up. ‘You and Marieke wrote to each other?’
Alyce gave a quick shake of her head. ‘Nay.’
‘I believe they still live where they did.’ She seemed no happier at the thought of Alyce’s friendship with Marieke de Jong than she had been when Alyce was a girl.
‘I do not have time to come with you, and I cannot spare Eliza.’
‘It is not far, Mother, and most will not know who I am so you need not worry about talk of me wandering the town unaccompanied.’
‘Very well.’ It was said grudgingly. ‘But wait until after dinner. Your father wants a word with you. He is in his office.’
‘And after, how would you have me help you? I cannot be idle.’
Her mother blinked, surprised. ‘This is your home, Alyce. You are not here to serve. You may spend your days as you please but I would welcome help with the sewing and preparations when we have guests to dine.’
‘I could tend the garden. It looks to be in need of some attention. And the still-room.’
Her mother frowned and Alyce glimpsed the woman she remembered from her childhood.
‘If you wish,’ her mother’s voice was harsh, ‘but any remedies are only for use in this household. I want no line of strangers at the gate with all sorts of outlandish requests.’
‘Of course not, Mother. My only skills are in the basic physic any housewife uses.’
Her mother stared at her as if she were trying to read her thoughts. ‘Make certain you always remember that.’
Alyce watched as she tidied the bolts of cloth away. Her mother may well be glad to see her, but if Alyce were to bring shame by her behaviour, she was certain the angry woman of her memory would reappear.
Her father looked up from the ledger on his desk when Alyce came to the door of his office.
He beckoned her in. ‘I’ll only be a moment more—a few items I should have entered yesterday,’ he said, carefully copying details from scraps of paper into the ledger. ‘I had forgotten your mother is reckoning the accounts this afternoon.’
Alyce walked to the window. Townsfolk made their way up and down the street to the haberdasher, the tailor, the mercer, the sun catching a bright feather on a hat or the satin lining of a cloak, glistening on a jewelled clasp or a brooch, flashes of colour among the workaday browns and blues.
‘Alyce, sit down.’ Her father indicated a chair at the other side of the desk.
The room had changed little since Alyce had last been here; the panelling, the ledgers, even the mementos of her father’s travels were as she remembered them. A small brass urn decorated with enamelled figures and a box inlaid with polished stones sat on the desk; a series of small beakers of coloured glass intricately painted with gold stood along the shelf—artefacts from a world Alyce could only imagine.
‘I have always loved this room.’
‘Not always, surely.’
‘Most of the time.’ She thought of the perfunctory beatings her father had given her here; his heart had never been in them. ‘When you were away, I would creep in here and shut the door. I could read, undisturbed, for hours.’
‘Was there much time for reading with Lady Faulconer?’
‘I read aloud to her daily but the books were of her choosing.’
‘No travellers’ tales then?’
Alyce shook her head. ‘None of those.’
‘We had such hopes when we sent you to Lady Faulconer. Not only that you would learn the seemly behaviour we were unable to teach you.’ Alyce leant forward to protest, but her father held up his hand. ‘We hoped you would find a husband there.’
Alyce scoffed, ‘My lady was very old, as were most of her household, and visitors were rare. Besides, who of those rare fine visitors would have considered a plain serving maid?’
‘Serving maid?’ Her father sat back, surprised. ‘You were to be a waiting woman.’
‘I have been these last few years, but for the first five or so I was no better than a serving maid.’
‘We assumed you were content. You should have come home.’
Alyce raised her chin. ‘I thought I was not welcome. Can you imagine how I felt? They hanged Grandmother’s friend as a witch a month before Grandmother died.’ She closed her eyes tight at the memory of the old woman’s jerking dance, the excited flushed faces of the crowd. She had not wanted to watch the hanging but her grandmother, unable to go herself, had begged Alyce, saying it would comfort Bridget if she chanced to see one face in the crowd that she knew would be praying for her.
‘Bridget Mason was a good woman. She would not have killed a child to spite its parents.’ She sighed and opened her eyes. ‘Yet they hanged her. Then the talk began that Grandmother was a witch too. I was terrified for her.’ Alyce looked down to the floor, her mouth tight. ‘I should have been relieved that she died peacefully. Right or wrong, I loved Grandmother above all others. She never judged me and found me wanting. I know I behaved unacceptably after her funeral but I was beyond myself with grief. Then to have Mother beat me within an inch of my life, was that not punishment enough?’
‘Alyce.’ Her father’s shoulders fell. ‘I would not have … Your mother was so shamed…’
‘You sent me away.’ She took a deep breath. ‘I was certain you had chosen Dalstead as an especially fitting place of punishment.’
‘You said nothing in your letters.’
‘How could I? My lady read any letter sent by a servant. I could not have written—For the sin of pride I was locked in my room yesterday, on bread and water, instructed to remain on my knees praying to be granted the humility fitting to one of my age and station. Or perhaps—Last week I was beaten with a rod by my lady’s most senior woman for stealing food.’
‘You did not have enough to eat?’
‘I did, but …’ Alyce’s voice wavered as she pressed on, ‘I had hidden one of the barn kittens in the bedchamber I shared with the other maids and was keeping morsels from my plate to feed it. When her woman discovered it, my lady said I was only entitled to the food that went into my body, to take more than I needed was to steal.’
‘Oh Alyce,’ he groaned.
‘Had you visited me, I would have told you face to face what I dared not write. Could you not have visited me once in all the years I was away?’
‘I … I …’ He opened and shut his mouth.
‘But I am not a fool.’ Alyce stared straight ahead, afraid if she were to see pity in her father’s face, she would be lost in the misery of that lonely girl of sixteen. ‘I learnt quickly how to live there. How to be silent and obedient and not draw attention to myself.’
‘I am sorry,’ he said quietly. ‘What do you want to do now?’
‘To find a position in an agreeable household.’ She forced herself to smile. ‘Ay, a household where there is singing and dancing, where the seasons are celebrated with gaiety. And no more than half a day’s ride from a sizeable town. A household where I will be a waiting woman—an attendant and companion—not a maid.’
‘I will do better than that. I will find you a husband.’
‘Do not look surprised, Alyce. It is what every woman wants: husband, children, a household of her own.’
‘I think the time for that has passed.’
‘Do not be foolish, Alyce. How old are you? Twenty-eight? Many women marry at your age and older.’
‘So where will you find this husband? I see no line of suitors at the door.’
‘A sizeable dowry will bring them.’
‘I am surprised you did not think to offer such a price those years ago.’ Alyce wondered for a moment what manner of man her father would have chosen then. Life with Lady Faulconer, might not have been the worst that could have happened to her.
‘God’s teeth!’ Her father pushed his chair back from the desk. ‘What’s done is done. We tried our best; we failed. I have said sorry. You would not have contemplated a marriage at that stage.’
He inhaled loudly. ‘I will have a care to see any husband is worthy of you.’
‘And will I have any say in the matter?’
‘Master Reynes, the curate at St Peter Mancroft, would not countenance an unwilling bride. But it will not help if you are over-particular.’
‘You should advise me of what you consider reasonable grounds for refusing a suitor: hunchback, missing limbs, foul breath, drunkenness, papistry?’
Her father burst out laughing. ‘Alyce, you have not changed. Your tongue is as sharp as it ever was.’
He came around the desk and took Alyce’s hands in his. ‘We will take our time and make a wise choice. I’ll offer a dowry large enough to make it worth a man of high standing, but not so high to attract adventurers. And I promise you, you will have the final say, yea or nay.’
‘Well then, I had better fall in with your wishes,’ Alyce said, unsmiling. This time she would make sure she had a say.