Troyes, France, c.1275
Agnes Blanchisseur tugged her cloak forward and ran her fingers over the barbette and veil hiding her grey hair. Humble in cut, color and fabric, they were nevertheless as clean as the bishop's own, and she drew courage from her mastery of her craft. Lowly it was, but none could do without laundering! As the winter sun dipped behind the city's walls, Agnes took a deep breath and pounded her fist on the door of the tall house.
"Yes?" A maid eventually peeked out. By the light of a candlestick, she took in both Agnes and the basket of garments and linens at her feet. Such a girl would not have been tending the door had a higher servant been available.
Agnes knew that this house kept few servants at all, and even fewer for long. In a way, she herself was their longest-serving retainer; her spine iced at the thought. "I am here to see your mistress."
"Is she expecting you?" The girl's brow creased with worry. "The house has only just risen. I mean—"
"I know what you mean, child," Agnes interrupted before the girl could get herself in trouble. Her mistress's ears were sharp. "Go and tell her that her laundress begs a moment of her time."
The maid opened the door all the way into the little anteroom, furnished with two long benches, one short table, and the ostentatious luxury of a large glass mirror on a wall. Agnes settled her basket and herself onto one of the benches, as usual. The girl set her candlestick on the table and disappeared up the steep stairs into the family's hall. The other door led to a ground-floor workshop, Agnes presumed, as it did in every house of this class, but through all her years attending here, she had never seen behind that door, nor heard what occupation occurred there.
Benoît, her late husband, had boasted this house already among his customers when they had married. She could, she supposed, pin the original sin on him; Lord forgive her. But in a lifetime of boiling metal cauldrons and soaking wooden tubs, she had exclaimed only once, as a new bride, over what came from this house; she had quailed, then, under Benoît's rare gimlet glare, and held her peace. As the years passed, she had learned for this house just what combination of wood ashes and caustic soda salvaged a gentleman's tunic soaked in blood, precisely how much fine Spanish hard soap rescued a lady's choicest linen spattered with blood, and the secret technique of restoring — first with lye, fuller's earth and verjuice, then wine and flour — furs stiffened by blood. Indeed, these skills touched most every home, sooner or later, amidst the miseries of this world, but... this house called on them most. Made them experts. Adepts. Workers of miracles on cloth and hide.
This house had always paid promptly and prettily. Agnes and Benoît, as their fortunes grew, had comforted each other with "chance," "fluke," "freak" when mourning clothes from other customers followed special loads from this house, time and again. When eventually the couple had apprentices and servants, they would quickly pack off any who remarked on such happenstance. With never any children of their own, there were never any who could not be packed off.
On his deathbed, Benoît had confessed — to the priest and to Agnes — the nature of this house. The priest had absolved her husband, giving him peace, but had warned that she must repent, too. She had nodded. When her husband was buried and her tears dried, however, she had sought out that curé, laughing as she affirmed that wealthy burghers who dine with the mayor and dance with guildmasters must not be bothered by the confused ravings of a dying launderer. There was nothing in Benoît's claims, she had lied. And lied and lied. Her business had continued well.
"So?" The little maid stomped her foot on the lowest step, startling Agnes. The girl had already picked up the candle. "Madame says she'll see you. Are you coming?"
Agnes hefted her basket and followed the maid upstairs. Agnes had rarely been in the large, low-ceilinged chamber, but recognized the embroidered hangings that she cleaned every second spring, whether the family was in residence or not. A hearth blazed under the hood of a huge chimney, providing light and warmth. The floor was oddly clear of rushes, but there were cupboards, chests and benches.
Leaving Agnes standing by the hearth, the maid tended first to the sideboard, checking that no pests had gotten under the cloths draping the wine jugs. Then she went to the wall and unhooked the chain suspending the oil lamp, lowering it carefully to the floor; once lit and hoisted again into place, its added illumination showed Agnes that it was positioned over a chess set of bone, or perhaps even ivory — either being far finer than the clay tokens with which she and Benoît had played — and that a game was in progress.
The taller and fairer of the house's two gentlemen, dressed blacker than mourning, entered the hall and strode to the sideboard. Shivering, Agnes set down her basket. Though she remembered nothing but civility from him, she felt the menacing miasma that poured from him even more than from the others. How depraved must she be, Agnes cringed, to have pretended otherwise for so long? The gentleman, once he had drained a cup, spared her a disinterested nod before silently seating himself at the chess board with his back to her.
The younger and handsomer of the gentlemen arrived, then, wearing a blue tunic and hose that she knew to be favorites, given how often they came to her. She did not like to think how commonly they had come crusted with blood. "Ah, the laundress," he addressed her with a benign smile. "Madame will hear you once she has completed her toilette."
"Very good, Monsieur." Agnes bobbed a courtesy.
He filled a cup and carried it to the chessboard, but did not sit. "The weather is fine and clear tonight, Lacroix. That newly arrived caravan will still be astir. Surely we won't waste the best of the evening on chess again?"
"You have no patience, Nicholas." The one called Lacroix moved a piece; Agnes could not see which. "When someday you have, you may be a worthy opponent. Check."
The one called Nicholas seated himself and pored over the board.
It was Monsieur Lacroix's move again when Madame entered, trailed by her maid. Elegant in an old red gown and a new golden surcoat — never yet washed — both caught in at her dainty waist by a belt, Madame's recent dishabille was betrayed only by her exposed hair, as black as death and shining as salvation in the firelight. She had the complexion of an angel and the features of a siren, as she had since Agnes had first seen her, when they had appeared of an age.
"Femme Blanchisseur!" Madame greeted Agnes, who made a gesture of courtesy while Madame seated herself in a carved chair by the hearth. From behind, the maid began working Madame's hair into bulky cushions over her ears; one of Madame's delicate crespines, such a challenge to wash without wear, would cover the entire hairdress when complete. Madame said, "I trust that your work meets your usual high standards. Did you have to use up that exorbitant oil soap? I ordered more from a Madrileño merchant, but it will be a month yet arriving."
"You will find your garments as clean as new, Madame, as always. And no, I have not used all the hard soap you provided." Agnes folded back the top layer of linens in her basket and produced a packet, made carefully of the waxed paper used to cover windows. "Here is the remainder. I keep nothing that is yours!"
Madame raised her chin, loosening the lock that her maid was just pinning in place. "Explain."
"Respectfully, I wish no more work from this house."
Agnes heard Monsieur Lacroix sigh. She saw Monsieur Nicholas stand, come to Madame, and place his hand on her shoulder. A frown creased his brow.
Madame covered his hand with hers without taking her eyes from Agnes. "Why is that, femme Blanchisseur? Have my payments been late? Stingy? Are our needs too great for your household's labor?"
"No, Madame." It would have been an excellent excuse, but Agnes let it pass. The scaffold was no place for lies. She had come straight from confession.
"Have you heard some rumor that discomfits you?"
"No, Madame." Agnes remembered uncounted proofs that it was truth, not rumor, that Benoît had spoken of this house, of the evils that he and she had helped conceal.
"Then why, my dear? Why?"
Monsieur Nicholas's frown deepened. "The girl should leave us."
"Madame?" the maid asked.
"Go make up the beds, Marie. Wait there until you are called."
As the maid disappeared through the heavy door, leaving Madame's hair up but uncovered, Agnes straightened her spine as best she could. It was just, she thought, to fall to the evil she had abetted. It was mercy, to someone else who would live one more night.
Madame exchanged a look with Monsieur Nicholas. He fetched her some wine, which she gulped greedily and finished sighing for more; she set the empty cup on the hearth. Turning back to Agnes, Madame ordered, "Tell me."
"Begging your pardon, but I've been engaged to train up the bishop's new laundress, and to tend to his vestments myself until and unless she surpasses my teaching. It's a very great honor!"
"Of course it is," Madame soothed. "Are you giving up all your other customers?"
Better to die with the hope of somehow joining Benoît, even in Purgatory, than to spread her corruption, Agnes reminded herself. She could do this one brave thing and then face eternity. She swallowed. "It would be wrong to tend the bishop's vestments with hands sullied in the service of demons."
"I knew it!" Monsieur Nicholas growled. "Janette, this is the third time that this woman has come here looking for her own death since her husband's. Just give her what she wants!"
"She does not seek death," Madame said. "She seeks freedom — from her guilt, from her grief, but freedom just the same. Can you not tell the difference, Nicolas?"
Turning toward them, Monsieur Lacroix asked, "Is she still the best laundress in Troyes?"
"Troyes, Paris, Cologne, Ghent!" Madame threw up her hands. "Her skills ease our way more than you realize."
"Then may the proverbial 'luck of the third adventure' ease us all." He returned his attention to the game board. "Do it right this time, Janette."
"Yes, Lacroix." Madame bowed her head, then rose to her feet. Her slippered steps made no sound as she approached.
Agnes saw Madame's eyes flame and her teeth grow. In the very face of a demon, Agnes could not help screaming. She wanted to run — she wanted to live — but Madame's hellish gaze rooted her to the spot.
"Hush!" Madame pressed a finger first to Agnes's open mouth, and then to her own smiling lips. Agnes's voice did as commanded; inside her head, her desperate cries continued. Madame stroked Agnes's cheek. "Femme Blanchisseur — Agnes, is it not? — I want you to look into my eyes. Yes, just like that..."
Agnes Blanchisseur tugged her cloak forward and ran her fingers over the barbette and veil hiding her grey hair. Outside the door of her very favorite customers, she picked up her basket, empty but for a packet of Spanish soap — absurdly expensive, yet really the only thing for certain stains — and headed home in the moonlight. Her gracious, generous patron had not only given her permission to use the soap on the bishop's vestments, but had promised to double her supply. Agnes could hardly remember feeling so happy, so... free.