The House At Old Vine


Josiana Greenwoods Tale

(Circa 1496)


Tomorrow the man I love is to die; horribly, and in public. Only two other people ever knew of our love, and they are both dead now; but there are circumstances which make it natural enough that I should spend the night on my knees before the altar in the St. Mary Chapel of the Abbey, praying for him.

I am supposed to be praying that he may recant. They don’t like this burning of heretics. A heretic who recants is defeated and finished, one who burns scores a kind of victory.

The common people who come to stare go away asking themselves: Would a man suffer so much and die untimely for anything less than a sincere belief?

Even the judges themselves must feel a nibble of doubt: Would I face such an end for my beliefs?

I wish I could pray.

If I could pray and if prayers were answered, Walter would recant within an hour. He’d be what they call ‘a known man’ and for a time would be obliged to wear a little badge, with a faggot on it, to show how near he had come to burning; but he would be alive, alive to feel the warmth of the sun, the splash of the rain, even the sting of the sleet.

I wish I could pray, and I wish I could believe. If I could believe anything I should believe as he does; then I could go with him tomorrow, certain that once the pain and the dying was done with there would be happiness in Heaven. Walter does not believe in Purgatory. He says there is no evidence for it in the Scriptures. He says that Christ said to the dying thief, ‘Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise.’ For Walter, that disposes of Purgatory.

I have studied my Bible, too, and have been left with the feeling that men have always been able to believe what they wanted to. Thousands of men, all through the ages, good men, sincere men, like Walter, picking out what they will believe and what they will not and making an issue of it.

Walter will burn tomorrow because he will not believe that at a given moment the wine and the wafer become the veritable blood and body of Christ—yet he has no difficulty in believing that Christ fed five thousand people on one boy’s dinner and walked about on the sea and made dead people come to life again.

I see no difference myself. And why go about saying what you believe and what you don’t? They’re going to burn Walter; if they could see into my mind they’d think burning too good for me. But they can’t. And the priests value me as highly as a parishioner as Arthur values me as a wife.

Poor Arthur.

He came with me to the Chapel and helped me to light the candles. This is St. Egbert’s Abbey so naturally he has his; Walter was born on St. George’s Day and my nearest saint is St. Michael, so they have theirs; our Lady, in her own Chapel must have two.

They are all tall candles, and thick; I pointed to them when Arthur asked if I should be frightened and offered to stay with me.

I needed, tonight, to be alone. Once I was frightened of the dark, of being alone in the dark but tonight, even if the candles burn out, I shall have no room in me for fear of anything except tomorrow.

I was thinking of it even while we lighted the candles. I held my little finger in the flame of one of them and counted. At three I couldn’t bear it any more. A whole body, Walter’s body, and a fire greater than a thousand thousand candle flames. Not to be borne. Not to be thought of. Oh God…

It’s no good. I believe in God but not as a kind loving father who cares what becomes of us. How could He have played such a trick on us if He cared? I believe in God the Grandfather Almighty, Grandfather Greenwood…

What am I doing? This was to be my time to think of Walter. One night, of all my many. I am Arthur’s wife; we are regarded as a happy, enviable couple. I have pretended well; and when this is over I suppose I shall go back and pretend again.

Tonight is for Walter and the truth; not the truth of what I believe, the truth of what I know because it happened to us.

Published by arrangement with the author’s Estate. Copyright © Clive Lofts 2013.
Cover illustration © 2013 Maggy Whitehouse/Tree of Life Publishing

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