Matilda let herself in without knocking.

Matilda let herself in without knocking.

Alred looked up from his letter, and for the hundredth time was surprised at the change in her. Githa on her bier had not lain so frail and wan as Matilda now appeared. Her face was like a premonition. Matilda was disappearing, and the baby was scarcely growing. At six months the child had earned barely a bump on its mother’s silhouette.

But she would not appreciate any words of concern or compassion from his part.

“What?” he asked.


She turned towards Dunstan. Even her eyes moved slowly now.

“Dunstan, will you go out and leave your mother and me for a while?” Alred asked at once.

Dunstan scrambled to his feet, nearly dropping his book in the process. It was a valuable book, and Alred was irritated.

Dunstan scrambled to his feet, nearly dropping his book in the process.

“Is there anything you would like me to do?” Dunstan asked him.

“Can you not find a single useful thing to do in this castle on your own without being told?” he snapped. “Even the scullery maid can find a plate to be washed or a floor to be scrubbed on her own.”

“I – ”

“If you can’t find anything, you might ask her for advice.”

'You might ask her for advice.'

“Yes, father.” Dunstan bowed and went out.

“Sit down, please,” he said curtly to his wife. “I won’t have you on your feet all the time.” She would not allow him to be solicitous about her health, and so he compensated by ordering her around. There was a certain satisfaction in it.

She leaned on the arm of the couch and lowered herself awkwardly into the seat. Alred twitched with the desire to rise and help her, but she would not have allowed it, and he would not be shrugged off again.

“What is it?” he asked.

She stared at him. Her head listed on her neck like a ship whose load had come unbalanced, and her mouth hung slightly open. It seemed too much effort to her to speak – too much effort even to close it.

“Matilda…” he said more gently.

“Why are you so hard on him?” she cried, startling even herself.

'Why are you so hard on him?'

“On whom? On Dunstan?”

“Yes! Why are you so hard on him? Why don’t you treat him as you do Yware or Cynewulf?”

“I think I am harder on Yware and Cynewulf.”

“No. If they do something wrong, you give them a cuff and tell them to stop, and then you’re friends again. But if Dunstan does something wrong…”


“You sigh at him!”

“Oh! And the boy is so frail that I knock him down with my breath. I see.”

'And the boy is so frail that I knock him down with my breath.'

“Don’t joke about it!”

“That wasn’t a joke. That was sarcasm.”

“Sarcasm then. Listen to me! You expect him to be a little Alred, and that isn’t fair. Even you weren’t a little Alred at his age.”

Expect him to be! Matilda! If I am hard on the boy, as you say, it is precisely because he is a little Alred. He is precisely what I was at that age!”

“Then why are you so hard on him?”

'Then why are you so hard on him?'

“Because I don’t want him to grow into a big Alred! Proportionately speaking.”


“I don’t want him to grow into me! Jupiter! I wouldn’t wish that fate on an enemy, much less my eldest son.”

“What’s the matter with you?

He stared at her. She seemed to mean it as an honest question.

“After fifteen years,” he sighed, “don’t you even know?”

'Don't you even know?'

“Why? Because you cry when you get drunk?”

“Oh, right. That too.”

“What then?”

“What? Everything he is now, that’s what I am still. Shy, awkward, stuttering, melancholy, miserable. And I cry like a girl when I drink!”

“That isn’t true at all, none of it. Except the crying.”

'That isn't true at all, none of it.'

“Isn’t it? What isn’t true is what you thought when you married me. You thought you had found a great knight who also wrote bad poetry. But that wasn’t true. I was a miserable excuse for a knight who wrote rather good poetry. I was a worthless, sniveling brat who wished he were anywhere else but with the army, and who got turned around in the confusion of battle and saved the Earl’s life almost by accident, and thereafter I was still all of those things, but also a fraud, because I let you all believe the part about the great knight. The funny thing is that I had thought that you had recently grown wise to me.”

'The funny thing is that I had thought that you had recently grown wise to me.'

“What a story! I knew perfectly well how you came to save Harold. But you wouldn’t have managed if you weren’t the swordsman you were.”

“That’s nothing. I had to learn to fight to defend myself, as small as I am. That’s nothing. Brede is a finer knight than I ever was, and not nearly the swordsman. Even Egelric, who handles his sword as if it were a writhing serpent bent on killing him, is more a man than I. Even you, when you tied a sheet around your breast and put on a pair of leggings, were more a man than I.”

“What are you then? A lizard?”

“No! A worthless, sniveling brat, as I said. Who writes tolerably good poetry.”

“And what is Dunstan, if you’re that?”

'And what is Dunstan, if you're that?'

“Dunstan is not worthless. It’s not too late to make him what I should have been. Perhaps if my father had lived to finish the job…”

“Your father! I think it’s fortunate for you he died when he did!”


“If the way you treat Dunstan is any indication of the way he treated you, it’s no wonder you are what you are! The only wonder is that he didn’t break you.”

“I don’t treat Dunstan as he treated me. Perhaps I should? It was my father who told me I was a worthless, sniveling brat. I certainly don’t tell Dunstan such things. I don’t believe it of him, anyway. He is redeemed by what he has from you.”

'He is redeemed by what he has from you.'

“You don’t tell him so, but I think you make him believe it.”


“I think you do. He was a different boy when Leofric was here.”

“Ah! It is certain that if Leofric had been his father, he would have been a very different boy. Or even if Leofric had only the raising of him. Perhaps I am as miserable excuse for a father as I am for a knight? What do you think?”

“Not with the others.”

'Not with the others.'

“But it is with Dunstan that it matters most. Well, Matilda, since you think that the only thing that saved me from utter ruin was the death of my father, perhaps you might tell Dunstan so, and your combined prayers might be enough to convince the good Lord that I am not worthy of the three-​​score-​​and-​​ten originally allotted me. And you may give Leofric the raising of him then, or Sigefrith, and with my blessing.”

'And you may give Leofric the raising of him then, or Sigefrith, and with my blessing.'

She glared at him. “It is too serious a matter for sarcasm.”

“That was neither a joke nor sarcasm – alas! Indeed, my prayers will be joined to yours. It is quite clear to me that everyone would be more at ease if I were dead, beginning with myself.”

She shook her head slowly.

'She shook her head slowly.'

He was long past the point where he might have hoped to win some sign of affection through such an outburst. The truth was that he spoke truly. The tragedy was that she had only given him another reason to wish himself dead.

The tragedy was that she had only given him another reason to wish himself dead.