Author’s Note: The nunnery was the last house I played before switching over to the new aging system — which means that the orphans who were babies when we last checked in are now children. Which just makes so much sense. So let’s all just suspend our disbelief, pretty please?
Oh, and by the way, MERRY BELATED CHRISTMAS!
It was the end of yet another long day at Albion’s only nunnery. Mother Julian rolled her shoulders as she stared at the soup. Tonight had been the new novice Angelique’s night to cook, and the results were … less than appetizing. Still, the Lord Wright’s servants must be grateful for whatever bounty He chose to provide, even if that bounty came by way of a spoiled young lady who couldn’t cook to save her life.
Mother Julian’s eyes slid over to the young novice, who, if anything, was eying her food with more distaste than Mother Julian quite dared to show. Really, she should be more fair, more kind. Of course Sister Angelique was somewhat spoiled, all noblemen’s daughters were. How could they not be? They were waited on hand and foot from the moment of their birth, and when other children their age were learning to pick up after themselves, be kind to others, and to mind their betters, they were learning to order servants about, practice their haughtiness, and to be mindful of their exalted positions.
She took a spoonful of the soup and had to try not to gag. Grace of Wright, what did the girl put in this thing? With difficulty, she swallowed. The girls, Nyasha and Rhoslyn, were making faces, and Mother Julian didn’t even bother to give them a practiced mother’s look. Sister Margery managed to keep her expression relatively serene — she was even eating quickly — too quickly, in fact, to do much tasting of her food.
Mother Julian glanced again at Sister Angelique. She wasn’t even eating — well, she’d probably tasted the food as she was preparing it, and knew better — just spooning some of the mixture and letting it fall back into the bowl when she thought no one was looking. Mother Julian couldn’t even bring herself to blame her. Hopefully Sister Angelique had gotten herself a dinner from some of the raw ingredients as she was preparing the meal. And hopefully the rest of them could make it through this dinner without becoming sick or reaching the end of their patience.
With a deep breath and a glance toward their two young orphans, whose patience must be very near its end, Mother Julian set her spoon down. “I think,” she said evenly, “we had best review our assignments for the morrow and the evening.”
Sister Margery nodded, and the two girls looked resigned. Mother Julian did not look at Angelique’s face. If the past few weeks had taught her nothing else, it was that she would not see anything she liked if she did.
“As you all know, tomorrow is washing day. Girls,” she nodded to Nyasha and Rhoslyn, “it will be your task to see to it that all of the clothing is washed and laid out to dry.” The girls sighed, and Mother Julian felt familiar guilt twinge. They were really too young to be doing all the washing by themselves — but they simply didn’t have enough adult hands to do all the washing, and Mother Julian felt more comfortable putting the girls near the shallow washing buckets than, say, a cookstove.
“Sister Margery, after your teaching duties are completed, you will be expected to attend to the care of baby Jean,” Mother Julian continued, referring to the orphanage’s newest inhabitant. “When Sister Angelique returns from her music lesson, she will take over from you, so that you can attend to dinner on the morrow. You will also handle breakfast, of course.”
Sister Margery nodded, and the little girls — and Sister Angelique — sighed in relief at the prospect of at least two edible meals on the morrow.
“And Sister Angelique …” The novice stiffened when her name was called. “Other than caring for baby Jean while Sister Margery cooks, you have no special duties for tomorrow. However, when you are not — otherwise occupied — I expect that you will be employing your free time in a useful manner. By which I mean no romances, no wandering about the yard, and no entertaining any young men who ‘happen’ to get off the school wagon with you. There is a pile of mending to be done, you make a start on that.”
Sister Angelique huffed and stared at her soup.
“And as for this evening, Sister Angelique …” Sister Angelique stared at her with anger and suspicion dancing in her dark eyes. “As for this evening, once you have completed the washing-up and made the lunches for tomorrow, you will be sleeping in the nursery, to attend to baby Jean.”
“What?” Sister Angelique hissed.
“The nursery — you will be attending to baby Jean,” Mother Julian repeated.
Sister Angelique made no reply to that — not a verbal one, at least. Instead, she got up, threw her napkin to the table, and stomped from the refectory.
Mother Julian sighed. “Excuse me, my dears. I shall be back in a moment.” Once I figure out what’s bothering that useless brat this time …
“Why’s she always gotta be like that, Sister?” Rhoslyn asked, leaning around Nyasha to see Sister Margery.
Sister Margery sighed. It was a very good question, the difficulty was answering it in such a way as a four-year-old would be able to understand. “Well, Rhoslyn, you must remember that Sister Angelique is from a very … privileged background. She’s not used to working this hard.”
“Then why did she come here, if she doesn’t want to work even a little bit?” Rhoslyn asked.
Why can’t Sister Angelique be here to hear this? Listen to her! A four-year-old girl, told to handle the washing when she should be playing in the sunshine, is calling this a ‘little’ work! Of course the sad thing was that Rhoslyn had a point; if she had both her parents, she would have been working in the fields even at this tender age. And doing the washing.
Sister Margery took a deep breath and tried to explain the circumstances that had led to Sister Angelique coming to the nunnery in terms a four-year-old would understand.
Nyasha beat her to it. “Sister Angelique said it was because her father was too cheap to come up with a real dowry so she could marry someone.”
“What?” Sister Margery said, dropping her spoon and spraying soup everywhere. It was hard to tell what was more surprising: that Sister Angelique had been that blunt with Nyasha, or that she had spoken to one of the orphan girls at all. Generally she avoided them as if they carried some sort of horrible disease.
Some of her shock must have carried over to her face, for Nyasha frowned and stared at her soup. “Well, that’s what she said,” she said, before holding her nose and taking a large spoonful.
Before Sister Margery could — she wasn’t even sure what — comfort Nyasha, reprimand her, or even press for more details, Rhoslyn asked, “Sister Margery, what’s a dowry?”
“It’s money or gifts that parents give to their daughter when she gets married,” Sister Margery replied.
“That’s not what Sister Angelique said …” Nyasha murmured.
“No?” Sister Margery asked. She had been out of the world a long time, she knew, but surely not so long that what a dowry was had changed! “What did she say?”
“She said a dowry was money a father paid to some guy to take his daughter off his hands. Is that like slavery, Sister Margery?”
“No, no! Oh, no,” Sister Margery replied. “It’s — it’s — oh dear. Well, what Sister Angelique said was right, in a way — it’s just a rather …” She searched her mind for a term that would make sense to both of her young charges. “It’s just a rather sad way of looking at what a dowry is. You know … you know how if you have a cup with water coming up to the middle, some people will look at it and say that it’s half full, and others will say that it’s half empty?”
The two girls nodded; Sister Margery had gone over this before.
“Well, the way Sister Angelique is looking at a dowry — it’s like she’s seeing the glass half empty. Let me explain … you see, when a daughter marries, her parents will give her and her new husband some gifts to help them on their new life together. If it’s a poor family, they’ll give a gift like a cow, or some furniture for their new cottage, or a share of last year’s harvest — you understand? Something to help the young couple while they’re getting on their feet.”
Nyasha and Rhoslyn looked at each other, and slowly they nodded.
“That’s called a dowry. Now, when rich parents have a daughter who gets married, they also give their daughter a dowry. A very big dowry, usually.”
“Why? I mean, wouldn’t she be marrying a rich man who wouldn’t need it?” asked Rhoslyn.
“Not necessarily,” Sister Margery replied. “If the man wasn’t the oldest son, and wasn’t going to inherit the estate, he might need the money to help him support his wife just as much as a poor man would.”
“But what if he is an oldest son? Does the daughter get a dowry then?” Rhoslyn pressed.
“Yes, yes, she does.” Before either of the girls could protest that that was silly, Sister Margery added, “Think about it like this — do you think it would be fair to the girl who married an oldest son, if she didn’t get any gifts when she got married, and all her sisters did?”
“N-no,” Rhoslyn admitted, and Nyasha nodded.
“Well, there you have it, then. Besides, rich parents often set up dowries and things like that well in advance, before they even know who their daughter will be marrying.”
“Why?” asked Nyasha.
How to explain that? How to tell a five-year-old that the quality of a young lady’s future husband was often directly proportional to the size of her dowry? How to tell a four-year-old that parents planned dowries alongside potential future husbands, often when a young lady wasn’t any older than Rhoslyn or Nyasha was now? How on earth to explain to a sheltered convent child the schemes and machinations of noblemen?
It was impossible, so Sister Margery opted not to try. “A couple of reasons,” she said. “First of all, if something happens to the parents, this way whoever is the guardian of any daughters will know exactly how much to give them for a dowry. And secondly, if they plan out the dowry in advance, then they can start saving up for it early and have everything nice and ready when their daughter wants to get married.”
Saving money was, at least, one concept that the girls understood. If they were very good and did all their chores, every week Sister Margery gave them a single copper coin. It took a great deal of time and a great deal of patience to save those copper coins to buy anything worth having. The girls nodded their comprehension.
“But, Sister Margery …” Nyasha asked. “Aren’t parents supposed to love their daughters?”
“Then why would any parents send their daughter someplace they don’t want to go, just so they can save money?”
Well, isn’t that the question! Sister Margery sighed. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
And if you do, pray tell, will you explain it to me?
Some hours later, Angelique made her bed in the nursery of the abbey, glaring at the crib to the side of what was to be her bed, and glaring especially at its tiny occupant.
“You’d better be quiet,” she snarled, fluffing her pillow. “I’ve better things to do than get up all night to some whore’s brat.” Her “fluff” became more of a punch to the pillow’s feathery interior. “I can’t believe they’re even making me do this. Don’t they know who I am?”
The baby gurgled. “Easy for you to say,” Angelique snapped, flopping into the bed and pulling the covers up to her chin.
She blew out the candles and rolled onto her back, but sleep refused to come. Instead, she stared at the ceiling. Perhaps the trouble was that Mother Julian and Sister Margery knew exactly who she was. She wasn’t a young novice from an excellent, powerful family who would be more than willing to transfer her and her extensive dowry to a better convent if she wasn’t treated exactly as her exalted rank demanded. First of all, she didn’t have an extensive dowry; secondly, her father didn’t care how she was treated. Nobody in her family cared if she died here. Why, she hadn’t even had a letter from any of them — not even from Lynn or Clarice, both of whom actually liked her!
Angelique turned her face to the wall and tried to blink away the tears. No letters, not in all the weeks and weeks she had been here. No messages of love and remembrance. Nothing. She might have already died here for all that her family was acknowledging her existence. And she couldn’t write to them. Her father would confiscate any letter she sent to her mother or to Clarice. She could, she supposed, write to Lynn — but she had forgotten the address.
Not for the first time, tears rolled down her cheek, wetting the pillow as she silently tried to compose herself for sleep.
She woke some time later with a very wet pillow and a start as a scream registered in her ear.
The baby was crying.
“What?!” Angelique screamed back, swinging her legs from the bed. “What do you want?” The baby continued to scream even as Angelique took her from the crib. “WHAT?!”
She checked the diaper — nothing — tried to burp the baby — nothing — held her and even jiggled her a bit. Still nothing. “WHAT DO YOU WANT?!” she screamed, quieting the baby — but only for a second, until the mouth opened and the entirely too large lungs sent forth another ear-splitting shriek.
Watching the gaping maw and unearthly sounds issuing from it, Angelique knew she had to shut this child up — somehow — and she didn’t particularly care how. She searched for some sort of pacifier in the crib, but there was none to be found. Oh, well, that wasn’t the only thing one could shove into a baby’s mouth to keep her from crying. She stopped out of the nursery and into the kitchen, praying that the baby’s screams woke up those sanctimonious prigs, Mother Julian and Sister Margery, even as it was waking her.
Angelique grabbed a bottle from the larder and shoved it into the baby’s mouth. “There — there, you happy now?” she snapped. The baby’s eyes went wide, then happily, greedily, she began to suck.
“Are you kidding me? You were hungry? That’s what all the racket was about?” Angelique snapped. “You can’t wait until morning, like normal people?” The baby didn’t answer, being too occupied with its midnight snack. Angelique sighed and kept the bottle going.
Eventually the baby turned her head away, and Angelique stuck the bottle back in the larder. She didn’t know exactly what the procedure was for dirty, half-finished bottles and frankly didn’t care. She went to go back to the nursery, but the baby’s head, nuzzling against her nightgown, stopped her.
“What do you want?” Angelique sighed, but the baby said nothing. She continued to nuzzle, and after a moment, turned a happy, milky smile to Angelique. Then she started to squirm.
“Oh, what now?” she asked, putting the baby on her shoulder. The baby nuzzled again, even as Angelique patted her back and tried to get the gas that was probably causing the problem out of the baby. Finally, the baby burped, and Angelique sighed with relief.
But she didn’t go back to her bed — not yet, anyway. She patted the baby’s back instead. After all, she wondered, what are we both, but orphaned brats nobody wants?
The thought was sobering, and Angelique stood in the kitchen for quite a long time, just holding the baby.
“All right — come on,” she murmured. “Let’s get you back to bed … and pray that we both can get to sleep. Because unlike you, I actually have things to do tomorrow.”
The baby cooed, and eventually Angelique and the child made their way back to the nursery.