The Illuminator

Brenda Rickman Vantrease

St. Martin's Press


John Wycliffe put down his pen and rubbed tired eyes. The candle burned low, spitting tendrils of smoke. It would burn only minutes longer, and it was the last. Only the middle of the month, and he'd exhausted his allotment. As master of Balliol College, Oxford University, he was afforded what would be adequate for most clerics--for most, who worked by day and slept by night. But Wycliffe scarcely slept during the nighttime hours. Purpose drove him from his bed early and kept him from it late.

The orange glow from the charcoal brazier did little to dispel the twilight thickening in the corners of his Spartan chambers. The candle sputtered and guttered out. The girl would be here soon. He could send her to the chandler, paying out of his own purse. He would not call attention to his work by begging more from the bursar or borrowing from colleagues.

At least the chargirl's delay gave him a much-needed respite. The muscles in his hand ached from holding the quills. His head hurt from squinting in the dim light, and his body was stiff from hours bent over his desk. Even his spirit was fatigued. As always, when he grew tired, he began to question his mission. Could it be pride, intellectual arrogance, and not God, that called him to such a gargantuan task? Or had he simply been pushed down this treacherous path by the machinations of the duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt? The duke was on his way to gaining a kingdom and had no wish to share its wealth with a greedy Church. But it was no sin, Wycliffe reasoned, to accept the patronage of such a man, not when together they could break the tyranny of the priests and bishops and archbishops. John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, would do it to serve himself. But John Wycliffe would do it to save the soul of England.

King Edward's death had been a blessing, in spite of the political struggle now going on between the boy king's uncles. Too much lasciviousness had swirled around Edward; the taint of sin corrupted his court. He had consorted openly with his mistress. It was rumored Alice Perrers was a great beauty, but Wycliffe thought her the devil's tool. What black arts had the scheming baggage practiced to gain the soul of a king? At least with Edward's death, Alice Perrers was gone from the cesspool that had been his court. John of Gaunt was now regent. And John of Gaunt was on his side.

For now.

Wycliffe pushed his chair away from the desk. He faced the window that looked out over Oxford. From below, he heard revelers, students with too much ale already in their bellies and now in pursuit of more, though where they got the money for an endless supply was a mystery to him. He guessed they drank the cheapest, the last pouring, though it would take more of that than a fat man's belly could hold to produce such an excess of exuberance. For a moment, he almost envied them their innocence, their wanton joy, their singular lack of purpose.

The girl should be here soon. She was already an hour late. He judged this by the deep indigo reflected in the window--a glazed window to honor his station. He could have translated two whole pages from the Vulgate in that time--two more pages to add to the packet going to East Anglia on the morrow. He was pleased with the work the illuminator had done for him. Not too ornate, yet beautiful, worthy of the text. How he loathed the profane antics of beast and bird and fool inserted for amusement in the marginalia, the ostentatious colors, the lavishness that the Paris Guild produced. This illuminator worked cheaper than the Paris masters, too. And the duke said he could be trusted to be discreet.

Voices drifted up from below, laughter, a snatch of song, then receded. Surely the girl would not be much longer. He must finish more of the translation tonight. He was halfway through the Book of John. Shadows flickered around the room. His eyelids drooped.

Jesus had faced down the temple priests. Wycliffe could face down a pope. Or two.

The coals shifted in the brazier, whispered to him. 'Souls perish while you dawdle.'

He dozed before the glowing embers.

John knew that she was late as she rushed up the stairs to Master Wycliffe's chamber. She hoped that he was so busily engaged with his writing that he would not notice, but she had seen no candle glow from his window. Sometimes, he hardly noticed she was there as she collected his soiled linen, swept his floor, emptied his chamber pot. Wouldn't it just be her luck 0that today he would be in one of his rare moods, asking about her family, how they spent heir Sundays, if any of them could read?

It wasn't that she resented his curiosity--in spite of his abrupt manner, he had kind eyes, and when he called her "child" he reminded her of her father who had died last year--but today, she didn't want to talk to him. She was sure to cry and besides, he would not approve, she thought, as she fingered the relic hanging from a ribbon attached to a hemp string. It girdled her waist like a rosary.

She smoothed her unbound hair beneath its shabby linen cap, took a deep breath, and knocked lightly on the oaken door. When she heard no response, she rapped again, louder, cleared her throat. "Master Wycliffe, it's me, Joan. I've come to clean your lodgings."

She tried the handle on the door, and finding it unbarred, opened it just a crack.

"Master Wycliffe?"

From the interior gloom, gruffly: "Come in, child. You are late. We waste time."

"I'm so sorry, Master Wycliffe. But it's my mother, you see. She's very ill. And there's only me to see to the little ones."

She scurried about the room while he watched, lighting the rush lights, their flames flickering as she opened the window and slung out the contents of his chamber pot. She collected his soiled linen into a bundle, conscious of his eyes on her. She never disturbed the papers on his desk. She had learned that the hard way.

"Shall I replace the candle, sir?"

"Umph. I've naught to replace it with. I've been waiting for you. So you could fetch more."

"I'm sorry. I'll go right away."

She hoped he would not report her tardiness. Who knew when her mother would be well enough to return to her own work as a charwoman. He turned his chair away from the window to face her, held up his hand in a halting gesture. "Your mother is ill, you say?"

"Her fever is very high." She blinked back tears, then blurted out her confession. "I've been to Saint Anne's to beg the priest to pray for her.

His mouth pressed into a tight line above the gray hairs of his beard. The priest's prayers are no better than yours. Perhaps not as good. Yours may well come from a purer heart."

He stood up, towering over her, austere in his plain robe and tight woolen cap that scarcely covered the gray hair flowing over his shoulders and mingling with his beard.

"What's that you have hanging on your belt?" he asked.

"My belt, sir?"

"Beneath your arm. Something that you call attention to in trying to conceal."

Copyright (c) 2005 by Brenda Rickman Vantrease