CHAPTER THREE

 

Several days later, the outskirts of Somerset, England

 

In all of England that night, it could be argued that there was no woman in a worse mood than Rosemary.

At least, that was what she had taken to calling herself these past eight days. Her real name was “Rochel”, pronounced in the Sephardic way, “Rah- QEIL”. But this was England, not fifty years after her grandparents had been summarily exiled from Spain with the rest of the Jews, and where a scant few of those Jews had recently come to England’s shores, they did so with trepidation. Since the reign of Edward I, Jews had hardly been welcome to “that green and pleasant land”, but at present, it seemed King Henry was too busy trying to beget a male heir to yet worry about the handful of Jews who had emigrated to his kingdom. Still, Rochel knew that although fluctuations occurred between the Protestant rule and the Catholic rule depending on whose royal hindquarters warmed the throne, neither faction was kind to the “villainous usurers” in their midst. As a result, she did not feel quite safe heralding her heritage to all and sundry… particularly seeing as she was traveling alone, with no protective male to accompany her.

              And indeed it was that solitary state that found “Rosemary” – as she now was - slumped at the corner table of a tippling house attached to a mostly-reputable inn, sleepy with the ale she had drunk and looking a great deal less presentable than her usual, ladylike self. Her thick black hair, though ordinarily pinned neatly back from her face, now hung loose like a serving girl’s; the humidity within the over-warm room causing it to frizz unbecomingly about her cheeks. Her beautiful cobalt-blue chemise, which on most days complemented the flawless white of her cheek, now seemed to accentuate the ruddiness that stuffy air and several cups of ale had lent to her face, and her skirts beneath her black velvet bodice were wrinkled and twisted slightly about her hips.

               Rosemary looked down at her near-empty mug and gave a small snort of disgust. She had been raised to believe that self-respect and sobriety were among the more noble traits to which one could aspire, and she was flirting dangerously with losing both. With her elbows propped upon the table, she rubbed at her eyes with the heels of her hands, feeling the dull pain of tears too oft repressed to now be shed: scalding, bottled-up tears that caused the bridge of her nose to swell and her temples to ache. She stayed that way for some moments, her palms pressed to her eye sockets and her dark curls spilling onto the sticky, worn tabletop. Behind the veil of her hair, she angrily willed the tears to fight their way past the lump in her throat and wash the ale-sweat and strain from her pale cheeks…but she had blinked them back so often in the past few days that they did not seem to feel obliging towards her now.

The tightness in her forehead and the squeezing pain in her chest were shocking to her in their intensity. She sighed for herself, weary with the weight of her grief and wondering quite how she had come this far down such a path.

                She had not always been thus, not nearly: Rosemary’s father had once remarked that her smile outshone their bright Sabbath candles, and that a thousand of those candles seemed to burn from within her, their merry light bursting forth in brilliance through her dancing, golden-green eyes. As a child, Rosemary had been almost unnaturally happy, possessed of a lightning-quick wit and a love of practical jokes. Like her father, she was a natural entertainer, and her greatest reward had been her father’s approving laugh at some of her more spectacular antics. Despite having lost her mother to influenza shortly after her second birthday, Rosemary remembered her home as brightly lit, with the sound of her father’s genuine, ready laughter and his exquisite compositions on the violin flooding her senses and filling her days. Hers had been a home of warmth, of music, of great joy and closeness. Yet now that seemed so very, very long ago.

                 And was it truly but eight days ago that Father Thomas had deposited her here? Rosemary cringed as she re-lived their parting.

 

“Truly, I am sorry for thy woe, but it cannot be any other way,” Father Thomas had said, steeling himself against the fear in his ward’s eyes. “Thou art of age! In many households, well nigh past it, indeed! It is indecent that you should stay in my house any longer!”

“But -” Rosemary had begun, and Father Thomas had taken the valise from her hand, set it by the inn’s door, and guided her to a bench by the stables. Helplessly, Rosemary had sat upon it, and turned her eyes to the man who, since her father’s death, had been her only family.

“Though I have been thy sometime father,” Thomas began, his brown eyes looking upon Rosemary with pity, “You are yet not of my blood. For you to continue to live in my house is immoral. It would call into question the legitimacy of my cloth, and would sully thine own reputation, deserved or no!”

Rosemary opened her mouth to argue again, but Father Thomas held up a restraining hand. For a moment he seemed to search for his next words, and when he spoke again, his voice was cautious, suppressed.

“It was a strange friendship I had with your father. I did never think to have loved a Jew as my own brother, yet in all my dealings with him I came to respect him. He was… not as you and your kind have been painted. He was smart but not cunning, kind, generous, and there was no mark of the Devil’s horns upon him. I did never think to have questioned the doctrines of my own faith, but in friendly argument with him he made me believe that… mayhaps our Holy Lord does not turn His face away from all those who call Him by another name?”

As if suddenly frightened to have spoken those words aloud, Father Thomas had looked frantically over his shoulder, and dropped his voice to a whisper. “When he upon his deathbed did entreat me to care for you, for you were of but eleven tender years at the time and there was no one else to whom he might turn, ‘twas only out of respect for him that I agreed. I did have many a concern for the bargain when he asked it of me, yet I could not deny my friend his dying wish. But now you are a grown woman, well past marriageable age! In staying you tempt not only the wagging tongues of those amongst us, but…..O cursed flesh, you do tempt me as well!”

When Rosemary recoiled in shock, Father Thomas stood abruptly, putting several feet’s distance between them, and thrust his hands into his sleeves, as if to keep them from shaking.

“Alas, I am not of strong enough mettle for this cloth! I have known it for years, and prayed to our Savior not to test me so, but I am cursed, I am cursed! I am… too much a man. I fear I am not meant for the Holy Order.” He had begun to tremble slightly, and three times within this speech had crossed himself, as if to ward off the Devil. But now he turned his eyes back to Rosemary, and whispered,

“Do you not see? You must go, for the sake of your reputation and for my eternal soul! I can no longer continue to care for you. By my troth, I am sorry, but there is no other way.”

He had hustled past her, picked up her valise, and had taken it inside the inn. Rosemary had remained on the bench, watching in stunned silence as two young men emerged from the inn to unload her trunk and her walnut-wood harp from Father Thomas’ wagon. Several moments later, Father Thomas had appeared again, and walked until he was standing in front of her, looking down at her with his hands again enveloped in his sleeves.

       Rosemary found she could not bear to look at him, and dropped her eyes to the hands knotted tensely in her lap.

She heard Father Thomas take a deep breath, then let it out in a sigh.

“Ah, child. I meant not to frighten thee. You are not at fault and I am not angry with thee. I only meant for you to see why you must away. It is for thine own protection, as well as mine.”

When she still would not look at him, he shifted his weight from side to side and cleared his throat, his tone becoming businesslike. “I have paid the ostler for exactly one week’s lodgings. In that time, you must find either husband or profession. I have left you with enough gold to get by until such time as you find one or the other, but it shall not last long. There is the cloth your father left you in your trunk and also your dowry, a goodly sum. Let it not rot in its pouch, but yet use it to find a suitable match. I… I shall not be seeing you again.”

They remained in silence for several minutes, and Rosemary sighed as slow, quiet tears began to drip down her cheeks. She heard Father Thomas cough softly, and once again clear his throat.

Rochel.”

Rosemary had looked up at Father Thomas as he said her real name. Not wanting others to know he had taken in the daughter of a Jew to raise, he had called her ‘Rosamund’ since the time she had come to live with him. Indeed, it was that which had given her the idea to permanently rename herself ‘Rosemary’. But his whispered use of her father’s name for her caused her to raise her eyes to his.

 “I pray you, do not hate me for what I have said. You do understand, do you not?”

After a moment, Rosemary nodded her head.

“Fare ye well, my sometime daughter. May the Lord visit His light upon your head always.”

Without another word, Father Thomas had turned his back to her, walked quickly to his wagon, and given the reins a hard crack, never once turning his head to her as the wagon rolled past and finally drifted out of sight.

 

 

 

               A dog sitting by the fireplace barked, and Rosemary’s reverie was broken.

Her head began to throb, and she reached for the last sip of ale that had long since grown warm in her cup. But the lateness of the hour and her less-than-stalwart tolerance for alcohol conspired to impair the movement of her delicate hand – with the result that she knocked the cup squarely into her lap, splashing her blue overskirt and the floor below with the last of the lukewarm brew.

Bollocks! Rosemary thought -a word she had never spoken out loud - and plopped her head down upon her folded arms, thinking, What a perfectly awful ending to a perfectly miserable day.

               At that moment, the heavy wooden door of the inn swung open, the icy blast causing the few still-sentient guests to look up with bleary interest. Their interest increased, however, when a silhouette of blonde waves and a flash of silver could be seen in the dim light of the doorway.

               Ariana, having tied the horse securely to the post outside, placed her hand reassuringly on the ivory-handled dagger in her belt and kept her back ramrod straight as she entered the inn. Despite her youth and the dusty evidence of her weary days of travel about her, there was something in her carriage that brooked no disrespect. She was aware of a few men who straightened in their seats and cast hungry eyes at her as she passed, but she purposefully ignored them, and glanced about for some out-of-the-way table where she might rest from her ride and eat the meager supper she carried in her pouch in peace.

               There did not appear to be much space for privacy. Ariana took in the fire blazing in the corner, next to which a small black dog lazily scratched at his ear before turning thrice in a circle and settling in for a nap. Just past the dog, a man with a wilting feather in his cap and a battered lute balanced on his broad stomach lay slumped against the wall, his chin brushing his chest and the occasional snore rustling through his fire-red beard. A small knot of men just past the door were playing at tables, and two other men who looked to be Scots were testing their luck at a game of draughts.

The ostler was dusting off a sideboard and an array of half-empty wine bottles, flagons, and eating trenchers. He glanced up at Ariana, giving a curt nod of acknowledgement as she passed, but declined to speak.

At first, Ariana could see not a single woman about the place, until her eyes fell on a corner table, where a sleeve of vibrant blue supported a dark, feminine head, and her heart twisted unexpectedly. Something about the slumped woman’s long dark curls and defeated posture put Ariana in mind of her mother, and a thousand questions popped unbidden into her head. Why would a woman who was obviously - if judging by the quality of her raiment - of the merchant class, be traveling without an escort? And furthermore, why would a woman of such delicate breeding be found in a posture more befitting a drunken tavern wench?

Ariana’s first thought was not to involve herself in affairs that could prove more complicated than they were worth…. but a second look at the midnight ringlets so like her mother’s put such misgivings out of her head.

               She slipped the guitar from her back, and carefully set it against the wall nearby the woman’s table. Soundlessly, she moved towards the table and slipped onto a bench opposite the semi-supine woman.

“My friend, what ails thee?” she asked quietly, and Rosemary’s head snapped up at the unexpected voice. Rosemary peered in silence at the apparition before her, wondering bemusedly if the girl was real or simply a product of her earlier consumption. The apparition opened its mouth again and beseeched,

“What be the matter, good mistress?”

Satisfied that the speaking figure was in fact real, Rosemary’s interest in the young woman suddenly waned as the pounding in her head returned with a vengeance. Holding her breath in the hopes that it might make the throbbing in her temples desist, Rosemary eyed the girl’s amulets, the brightly embroidered garb, and the blue and turquoise beaded carconet which encircled her throat.

The pain in her head was causing Rosemary a great deal of difficulty formulating a coherent sentence, but the girl was still staring at her, clearly willing to wait for an answer. Rosemary was really in no mood for conversation, yet the girl seemed pleasant enough, and to ignore her entirely would have been unforgivably rude. Rosemary tried to swallow past the scratchy dryness in her throat, and fought to get the words over her swollen tongue. Even as she spoke she heard the terseness in her voice, but found she had not the strength to be more kind.

“Thouart a gypsy,” she said wearily, propping her forehead on one hand and attempting to massage the pain from her eye socket. “You tell me what is the matter.”

Intuitively, Ariana touched a fingertip to the back of Rosemary’s other hand, which lay outstretched on the wooden table. Rosemary flicked startled eyes at the gypsy, and was surprised by the intensity of the young woman’s gaze. Blue eyes locked with green for what seemed like a hushed eternity before Ariana withdrew her fingertips and said softly,

“Today is the anniversary of your father’s death. You feel you have disappointed him, but I assure you, mistress, save mayhap for this latest bout of drinking, you have not.”

Rosemary sucked in her breath as she felt the blood drain from her face. For a moment her heart stopped entirely, and then at once began hammering in her chest like a bird beating its wings against an imprisoning cage.  For several seconds she simply gripped the table edge and struggled to breathe, time seeming frozen and the world slowly starting to spin….then she sucked in a tremendous gulp of air and in an instant her body was wracked with sobs – loud, hot, noisy, wet sobs that began in the pit of her stomach and burst through her body, turning her face crimson and squeezing her lungs till they ached.

Ariana spared only the briefest glance for the other inhabitants of the pub, barely noticing that all conversation had stopped rather abruptly at this unexpected outburst. The red-bearded man had woken with a start and sat gaping at them from his sprawled position by the fire, and the innkeeper was craning his neck to see ‘round the corner, but Ariana paid them no heed.

Quickly she grasped Rosemary’s still outstretched hand and pleaded,

“Pray! Oh, I beg of you, I meant not to make you grieve! Prithee forgive me, oh, I pray you! Prithee, friend, do not weep! Oh, dear me, oh, pray good mistress, I beg you!”

With flying fingers she untied the kerchief knotted upon her belt and extended it to the woman.

              Rosemary gratefully took the kerchief, but could not even manage a word of gratitude, for her breathing was yet coming in great heaves and tears still coursed down her cheeks. Her shoulders pitched and shook with the effort as she gulped great gasps of air. Ariana sat opposite, cringing at the sight of the poor woman’s anguish, and praying she was not wholly the cause.

             At long last, the tears had run their course and her sobbing began to subside. Rosemary pressed the handkerchief to her dripping face and fought to steady her breath, feeling for all the world as though she had just been dragged twenty miles behind a speeding racehorse.

              Slowly, the ostler resumed his dusting, and the red-bearded man coughed, spat into the fire, and ambled off towards the bedrooms, followed by the sleepy black dog. Conversations around the room haltingly resumed, and Rosemary breathed less raggedly behind the handkerchief pressed to her cheeks. Strangely, the tears had cleared Rosemary’s head, and despite the ale she had consumed, she felt reasonably lucid and coherent if not perfectly sober. Gratefully, she wiped the last of the tears from her face, and slid the sodden handkerchief back towards the gypsy. Ariana took it, and once again attempted an apology.

“My sweet mistress -” Ariana began, but Rosemary stopped her with a soft wave of her hand.

“Nay, forgive me,” she replied, staring at a small stain on the tabletop, embarrassed and unable to lift her eyes to the gypsy who saw too much.  “Alas, thine answer was more accurate than…. that for which I was prepared.” Discreetly she dabbed at her nose with the back of her hand, and continued, “My father always said that gypsies possessed… uncanny powers.”

Ariana held her breath, unsure whether the woman’s father had intended such a remark as praise of gypsies or condemnation. But then the woman lifted her eyes and gave Ariana a wobbly smile.

“How didst thou… do that?” Rosemary asked, gesturing betwixt herself and Ariana.

Ariana lifted her shoulders helplessly. “I know not. In sooth, something inside me told me that I ought touch thy hand. I have ne’er done the like before. In faith, mistress, I speak true. I simply…saw. When I – when I touched thee. I did not mean to invade thy privacy.”

Rosemary nodded, and it seemed to Ariana that the woman was content with her answer. They spent a few moments in pensive silence, before Ariana, working solely on instinct, ventured,

“Tell me… about thy father.” 

               The dark-haired woman was silent for so long that Ariana was afraid she might not have heard, but at length, Rosemary brushed her hair away from her face with both hands and spoke.

“My father was a cloth merchant. He was a good man, and a more honest mercer thou couldst not hope to find. When I was six, I met a business acquaintance of his. The man had ventured to the house to deliver some papers, and my father asked him in to dine with us. ‘Ere he left, the man knelt down in front of me, took me by the shoulders, and spoke. Know this about thy father, he said to me. If the sun was bright as blazes in the sky, and thy father proclaimed it night, I would bolt my shutters and go to bed. Every merchant in England knows he can deal with your father at his word. Thou needs must know that about him. I was but a child and loved my father, but in that moment I learned to respect him, not for being my sire, but for the man he was.”

Rosemary paused, absorbed in thought, before adding, “He would always read to me at night.”

Since only one of the elders in her camp had known how to read, Ariana’s surprise led her to blurt incredulously, “Thy father could read?”

For a long moment, Rosemary looked at the gypsy, before answering, “He believed all Jews should read both Hebrew and English. E’en his daughter.”

             Ariana turned wide-eyed.

She had never e’en seen a Jew afore, much less touched the hand of one! Were they not meant all to have crooked beaks for noses, horns upon their heads and tails upon their nethers? Of course, such slanders were spoken of gypsies, too. Thieves, one and all, t’was said, with yellow eyes like a hawk’s and crooked fingers the better for to burrow into another man’s purse or snatch away naughty children in the night.

Ariana silently chided herself. Clearly the woman did not have horns any more than Ariana herself had yellow eyes or a desire to kidnap unruly children… and from the woman’s description of her father, it was more likely he, than the Devil, who had taught her to read. And in two languages!

Ariana felt a stab of jealousy, and a tiny bubble of shame at her own lack of formal education. What an unusual pair we are, she mused silently, a half-breed gypsy and a Jewess. But looking at the woman, whose face had begun to resume its usual pale glow, she saw no malice or judgment in the woman’s eyes. Instead the woman seemed to be gazing at Ariana apprehensively, as if worried that she might be judged for what she had revealed.

Ariana felt an understanding smile pulling at the corners of her mouth, and reassuringly replied, “Mayhaps thy father was right. I have always wanted to read.”

Rosemary relaxed visibly, her shoulders dropping, and she shifted in her seat, leaning partly against the wall and folding her hands gracefully in her lap. She pondered the gypsy’s words a moment and gently spoke.

 “Mayhaps someday I shall have the honor of teaching you.”

She realized that she was already beginning to feel stronger, and her voice became more animated as she continued.

“My father had one chair that was so large, it was big enough for two to sit in. After supper, he would hoist me onto his lap, and with one arm he would snuggle me, and in the other, there he would prop a book, then would he read to me until I fell asleep. His voice was so rich and deep… I used to love to listen to him speak. And oh! Thou shouldst have heard him when he played upon the violin. He was… extraordinary. And so elegant. In sooth, I always used to pretend in my mind that my father was secretly a king. When he lifted that violin to his chin, he seemed ten feet tall, and very regal. His hands were the only things un-kingly about him; he had a merchant’s work-worn hands. But when he would pet my hair and kiss me goodnight, I thought that no king on earth had e’er had gentler hands.”

               As Rosemary fell silent, Ariana felt a sharp tug at her heart. She sensed that the woman’s mother was gone as well. Ariana’s own mother still lived, (as did her father, she suspected), but for all intents and purposes, they were gone to her, further from her reach than the stars she consulted nightly in the sky. In all practicality, then, they were both orphans, this dark-haired Jewess and she. And suddenly she felt an intense kinship with the woman: the sort that, with no logic to commend it, nevertheless proves immediate and everlasting. Ariana looked into the almond-shaped eyes of the stranger, and had the unexpected feeling that their lives were now irreversibly entwined.

“I am called Ariana,” she offered, and the Jewess broke her reverie to stare pensively at the gypsy.

“Rosemary,” came the soft reply, and after the briefest of moments, both women smiled.