‘Who nominates these bedeswomen?’ asked Esclairmonde.
‘That does the Queen,’ said Mistress Bolt. ’Not this young Queen, as yet, for Queen Joan, the late King’s widow, holds the hospital till her death, unless it should be taken from her for her sorceries, from which Heaven defend us!’
‘Can it be visited?’ said Esclairmonde. ’I feel much drawn thither, as I ever did to the Beguines.’
‘Ay, marry may it!’ cried delighted Mrs. Bolt. ’I have more than one gossip there, foreby Sister Avice, who was godchild to Aunt Cis; and if the good lady would wish to see the hospital, I would bear her company with all my heart.’
To Malcolm’s disgust, Esclairmonde caught at the proposal, which the Scottish haughtiness that lay under all his gentleness held somewhat degrading to the cousin of the Emperor. He fell into a state of gloom, which lasted till the loving-cup had gone round and been partaken of in pairs.
After hands had been washed in rose-water, the royal party took their seats in barges to return to Westminster by the broad and beautiful highway of the Thames.
Here at once Alice Montagu nestled to Esclairmonde’s side, delighted with her cat gloves, and further delighted with an old captain of trained bands, to whose lot she had fallen, and who, on finding that she was the daughter of the Earl of Salisbury, under whom he had served, had launched forth by the hour into the praises of that brave nobleman, both for his courage and his kindness to his troops.
‘No wonder King Henry loves his citizens so well!’ cried Esclairmonde. ’Would that our Netherlandish princes and burghers could take pride and pleasure in one another’s wealth and prowess, instead of grudging and fearing thereat!’
‘To my mind,’ said Malcolm, ’they were a forward generation. That city dame will burst with pride, if you, lady, go with her to see those bedeswomen.’
‘I trust not,’ laughed Esclairmonde, ‘for I mean to try.’
‘Nay, but,’ said Malcolm, ’what should a mere matter of old rockers and worn-out tirewomen concern a demoiselle of birth?’
‘I honour them for doing their Master’s work,’ said Esclairmonde, ’and would fain be worthy to follow in their steps.’
‘Surely,’ said Malcolm, ’there are houses fit for persons of high and princely birth to live apart from gross contact with the world.’
‘There are,’ said Esclairmonde; ’but I trust I may be pardoned for saying that such often seem to me to play at humility when they stickle for birth and dower with the haughtiest. I never honoured any nuns so much as the humble Sisters of St. Begga, who never ask for sixteen quarterings, but only for a tender hand, soft step, pure life, and pious heart.’
‘I deemed,’ said Malcolm, ’that heavenly contemplation was the purpose of convents.’
’Even so, for such as can contemplate like the holy man I have told you of,’ said Esclairmonde; ’but labour hath been greatly laid aside in convents of late, and I doubt me if it be well, or if their prayers be the better for it.’