She wasn’t disturbed by these small frustrations today, however. She was more anxious to see if Sir Melvin would attend. She had noticed him at mass before and hoped to see him this morning, too. His cousin, she had likewise noted, had never been to the chapel.
Unfortunately, since her aunt always insisted on being close to the altar, she couldn’t see the entire chapel and hesitated to turn around, lest her action cause gossip or wonder.
Until there was a long prayer. Then she risked a quick survey of the building and was rewarded by the sight of Sir Melvin, his dark head bowed, his eyes closed, his hands clasped in devotion.
Indeed, he seemed so intent on the prayer, she felt rather ashamed of herself and resolved to pay more heed to the mass as it progressed.
Once it was over, her aunt led the exit from the chapel in her customary fashion, with her head lowered, her steps slow, as if deeply moved by the ceremony. This was, Viola knew, only a performance, as her aunt proved the moment they were outside and before the rest of those assembled followed her.
“Viola, I can’t tell you how pleased I was last night to see you dancing with Lord Barengar!” Lady Anne whispered, her eyes gleaming with excitement. “I must commend you on your display of modesty by only dancing with him once. That’s just the way to keep a fellow like him paying attention! Too many young women are too eager and only serve to make a man think the less of them. Your admirable gravity as you danced was perfect, too. Simply perfect!
“Oh, good day to you, Lady Fishly!” her aunt said more loudly as the older guest joined them. “It appears to be another fine day, does it not?”
Viola was not sorry to have Lady Fishly interrupt her aunt’s enthusiastic praise. Aunt Anne would have been much less enthused or happy if she’d known Viola had only danced with Lord Barengar because she feared there would be more gossip if she didn’t. She also she feared the man would continue to pester her until she did. She was sure he was the sort of vain fellow so certain of his own attractiveness that he would never believe a woman would truly not want to dance with him.
So she had danced with him, and spent the rest of the evening avoiding him before retiring. If Lord Barengar interpreted her avoidance and silence as maidenly modesty, so be it – although she sincerely hoped he didn’t.
Then, among the people leaving the chapel and making their way to the hall to break the morning fast, she spotted Sir Melvin. She immediately left her aunt’s side and threaded her way through the others in the courtyard until she was near enough to say, “Good day, Sir Melvin.”
Blushing and bashful, Melvin smiled and didn’t meet Lady Viola’s gaze, something she found charming and respectful and all too rare. “Oh, good day to you, Lady Viola. Fine weather, eh? Looks to be a sunny day. Hopefully not too hot, though. I’m not partial to a hot day. Makes me sweat too much.”
He cringed as if he was embarrassed by that admission, and she found that charming, too. “I, too, dislike a very hot day,” she said, boldly taking his arm and leading him away from the chapel, the hall and her aunt. “The chapel is certainly cool enough. I’ve noticed you there before.”
“You have?” he cried with unabashed delight. He quickly grew serious. “It does a fellow good to ponder something important at the start of the day, before he gets bogged down in things like what the fishmonger wants to be paid for a basket of eels or what the wine merchant thinks his latest offering is worth, or if a farmer’s late with his tithe.”
“You find such things tiresome?”
“God save me, I do! And difficult. I mean, maybe the farmer’s had a bad crop, or his wife’s ill, or his child died. Unfortunately, all the pence add up so I have do have to deal with such things.”
“If you had a wife to run your household, that would save you a great deal of trouble, wouldn’t it?”
She’d never seen a man’s face go so red with a blush as Sir Melvin’s did. “Oh, well, someday, I hope to marry, you know, provided I can find a woman willing to take me. I haven’t got a lot to offer.”
“Perhaps you should let a woman decide that.”
He cleared his throat and looked down at his toes. “I suppose so.”
She would have liked to ask if Sir Melvin had any particular young woman in mind for a wife, but that was too bold even for her, and might even make the bashful young man avoid her. “Have you any brothers or sisters?”
“Alas, no longer,” he said sorrowfully. “I had two older brothers – fine fellows, too, they were. Either of them would have made an excellent master of the estate when my father died last year. Nobody ever thought that would fall to me. I was supposed to enter the church. I spent the past few years in a monastery studying.
“Not that I was a brilliant scholar,” he added with typical self-effacement. “Had a devil of a time with Latin verbs. Sum esse fui is about all I remember now, and that’s a small triumph, I assure you. Mind you, I did enjoy the histories, myths and legends, such as they let us read. Funny, I didn’t have nearly as hard a time translating the as the Biblical texts.”
“Probably because the histories and other stories were more interesting. I, too, enjoy stories from the past,” she replied. “The history of Rome and Greece, tales of Ulysses and Troy -- although I have no good opinion of Helen. Or Paris, either.”
“Nor I!” Melvin cried, his eyes lighting with pleasure. “That Paris fellow always seemed to miss the battles, whisked off by some helpful feminine deity or another, although the war was all his fault. And Helen – she may not have been happily wed, but she should have tried to make the best of it. I expect any woman who marries me....”
He fell silent as Lord Barengar came staggering around the corner of the nearby stables. His cousin’s hair was disheveled, his tunic askew and he had a wineskin in his hand.
“If you’ll pardon me, my lady,” Sir Melvin said quickly, gently lifting Lady Viola’s hand from his arm, “I believe my cousin requires my assistance.”
She watched as Melvin trotted across the yard to meet his cousin, who greeted him with “What ho, old man! Praying again, eh? Won’t help you a bit, Fatty!”
If she thought Melvin had been red-faced before, it was nothing compared to his scarlet cheeks now. It would have served his insulting cousin right if Melvin had left him to fall headlong into the horse trough. Instead, he put his shoulder beneath his cousin’s, just as he had his injured squire’s, and helped Lord Barengar toward the guest chambers.
Tempted though she was to offer her assistance, Viola decided against it. Melvin would probably be as embarrassed and ashamed as if he were the drunkard, and she didn’t want to cause him any more distress.
“Good ol’ Melvin,” Barengar muttered as Melvin helped him onto the bed in the chamber given over to his use while at the tournament.
Like Melvin’s, it wasn’t large, but big enough for a bed, a washstand with a basin, ewer, linen and a candle, as well as a wooden dummy holding his chainmail, helmet and shield. A chest at the foot of the bed contained his clothing. His squire, Theodore, noticeably absent, slept on a pallet rolled up by the door.
“Where’s Theodore?” Melvin asked as he tugged off Barengar’s boots none too gently and let them fall to the ground. Not only had Barengar disgraced himself by acting no better than the village sot and was likely leading Theodore down the same path, he’d called him “Fatty” in front of everyone in the courtyard.
Including Lady Viola.
“Theo’s in th’ tavern,” Barengar slurred. “Passed out a while ago. Young fool still can’t hold his drink.”
He shouldn’t have to, Melvin thought with disgust. Barengar hated to drink alone, and he’d no doubt insisted the lad accompany him if no one else had a mind to.
“Wha’s the matter?” Barengar asked, hoisting himself on his elbows, his brow wrinkled.
“Go to sleep,” Melvin replied. “I’ll find Theodore and bring him back.”
He’d also offer the lad a word or two of advice about making himself scarce at the end of the evening so he wouldn’t feel compelled --
“I can always count on you, can’t I, coz?” Barengar said, grinning drunkenly as he sat up again. “I’ve got a favor to ask you, old man.”
Melvin crossed his arms over his broad chest. “If it’s to help you pack your baggage so you can go, I will be only too glad to assist.”
Barengar frowned. “Wha’s got into you? Just had a harmless bit o’ fun last night.”
Melvin didn’t answer as he started for the door.
He hesitated, then turned back.
“I need your help, old fellow. Really.”
Melvin regarded him warily. “I’m not fetching you any wine.”
Barengar got up and lurched toward him, taking hold of Melvin’s arm and regarding him with a pleading expression that actually looked sincere. “No, I really need your help! I wanna get married. It’s about time, don’t you think?”
“Perhaps,” Melvin replied with a sick feeling in his stomach that increased when Barengar continued. “To Lady Viola.”
Melvin tried to remain calm, telling himself Barengar would abandon this plan when he woke up and realized the lady herself wasn’t interested, even if her aunt and uncle might be. “Go to sleep.”
Barengar threw his arm around Melvin’s shoulder. “You don’t believe me? I really mean it, Melvin. She’s rich and she’s clever.”
“Don’t you think she may be too clever?” Melvin asked. He’d always assumed Barengar would want a dim-witted bride who wouldn’t realize the unfaithful, feckless husband he would be.
“Not a bit!” Barengar cried, smacking Melvin on the chest. “I need a clever woman to manage things. Granted, she’s not very pretty, but the bedchamber’ll be dark.”
Melvin threw off his cousin’s arm. “I think you should discuss your marital plans with somebody else.”
“Her aunt and uncle, you mean. That’s true. Her aunt’s keen, though, and as for --” Barengar’s eyes widened with a look akin to dismay. “Oh, God!” he cried before he rushed to the bucket, where he lost a good deal of the wine he’d imbibed.
This was not the first time Melvin had seen his cousin in such a state, or the first time he’d helped his cousin back to bed, where Barengar flopped down and started to snore.
It was the first time Melvin felt not a jot of pity for him.
Tonight, though, he chose an out-of-the-way seat half-hidden by a pillar. Nobody of rank sat near him and he began to hope that morning’s events had been forgotten, until one of the maidservants set down a basket of bread. He thought he saw her smirk as he reached for a small loaf. He quickly withdrew his hand and decided to eat as little as possible, no matter how excellent the meal.
At least the chair beside Lady Viola remained empty. Perhaps, and for once, Barengar had realized he’d made a disgusting spectacle of himself.
Apparently not, however, for a short time later Barengar came strolling down the center of the hall as if he’d done absolutely nothing wrong. He was also smiling at Lady Viola as if she should be thrilled he had deigned to appear.
Melvin looked down at his trencher and stayed in that attitude until after the grace had been said and everyone had taken their seats. Only then did he risk another look at the high table -- to find the steadfast gaze of Lady Viola trained upon him. Even more astonishing, she was smiling.
Blushing like a lad, he quickly looked away. A moment passed before, emboldened, he raised his eyes again. He wished he hadn’t when he saw that Barengar was again seated beside her, regarding her with every appearance of sincere remorse, and this time, she was listening to him.
Was it possible he was apologizing to her? He’d never known Barengar to apologize to anyone before, for anything.
Maybe he really did want to marry Lady Viola. If he did and her family approved, there was little chance for anyone else.
But to think of Lady Viola spending her life with a fellow like Barengar, who would never appreciate what a prize he had…
Melvin pushed away his trencher and left the hall without tasting a morsel or saying a single word. He was too disgruntled and upset to try to sleep, so he headed for the wall walk instead. He could go up there, look at the stars and try to convince himself he would get over his disappointment.
He climbed the steps and leaned against a merlon, looking out through the gap between them at the village and wood beyond.
He started and turned. Lady Viola stood in the shadow of the nearest tower. She moved toward him, her hands clasped, her gaze searching his puzzled face.
Note: This novella is PG13. With the exception of GWYNETH AND THE THIEF and THE WASTREL, MM's books are usually steamier.