A bench provided seats for four of them. Elm and Lea quickly claimed two of those spots, and the goose girl and boy took the others. Taffy and another big boy and Perseverance sat down on the hearth, backs to the fire. The others glanced about and then sank to the floor to sit cross-legged. After a moment of indecision, I sat down at the edge of the group, on the carpet with them. The garden boy glanced at me, smiled shyly, and then looked away. Two of the others shifted away from me. They both smelled slightly of sheep. Scribe FitzVigilant had moved to a worktable and he took a seat there. “I shall have to send for more tablets,” he said, half to himself and half to us. “And ask Revel to bring in seating.”
Then he pointed to the children seated on the bench. “I’ll start with you. Please come up, one at a time, and tell me what learning you already have.” His gaze swept the room. “I am sure the rest of you can wait quietly while I do this.”
The children exchanged glances. He had not chosen to speak to me first. I wondered if they thought he already knew all about me or if, as I did, they knew it indicated he already disapproved of me. I had noted to myself that he ascribed the generosity to Lady Nettle, rather than my father, and that he spoke of coming to teach the children of the estate. No mention that I was sharing my tutor with them. No. He had grouped me with all the other students. As had I, I suddenly realized, when I had taken a seat on the floor with the others. An error. How could I correct it? Did I want to correct it?
Some of the children settled immediately into more comfortable positions. This was going to take some time. Taffy sat scowling. He took out his belt-knife and began to pare and dig at his nails. The gardener’s children were looking about in wonder. Perseverance sat as attentively as a dog at a table’s edge.
Scribe Lant called Elm up first. I folded my hands in my lap, stared at the floor, and eavesdropped with all my might. She could count, of course, and do simple sums as long as they did not go far past the fingers on her hands. She did not have any letters or reading or writing, except her name. She could name all the duchies in Buck, and knew that Chalced was dangerous to us. She was hazy on the rest of geography. Well, I knew more than that, but not so much that I felt sure of myself.
Lea had about the same level of learning as Elm, except that she could recognize the names of some spices from having to fetch the containers from the shelves. The goose girl was named Ivy. She had no reading or writing, but she and her brother played games with arithmetic to pass the time. Her brother was Spruce, and he stood as tall as his name. He, too, did not know letters but was obviously excited at the chance to learn them. He was as quick at figures as his sister, with our scribe setting him problems such as “Twelve geese were on the water, and seventeen more landed while five flew away. Then twenty-two goslings came out of the reeds. A bullfrog ate one. How many geese and goslings remain?” Spruce answered the question quickly but added, a bit pink about the cheeks, that not all numbers needed to be about geese. FitzVigilant praised his quick mind and his eagerness to learn and called Perseverance to him.
Perseverance stood, head bowed, and answered respectfully that he had no letters or reading. He could reckon “well enough to get my work done.” He volunteered that it was his father’s wish he learn more, and added that he respected his father’s will in knowing what was best for him. “As do I,” the scribe agreed. He set the stable boy some simple arithmetic problems, and I saw Perseverance’s fingers move as he worked them to an answer. The tops of his cheeks and his ears were redder than when the wind kissed them, and once, when he stumbled, he glanced my way. I pretended to be straightening the hem of my tunic.
It was much the same with the other students. I noted that most seemed to have inherited whatever level of schooling their parents had. Oatil, also from the stables, sometimes helped bring in the supplies and tally them. He could read a little, and his mother wanted him to learn more reading and writing as well so that he could help her more with her tasks. The gardener’s boy, to my surprise, could write his name and read simple words, but had little skill with numbers. “But I’d be willing to learn,” he offered, and “Learn you shall then,” our tutor replied with a smile.
When Taffy was called to the scribe’s table, he rose lazily and slouched over. The half-smile on his face did not escape FitzVigilant’s attention. He glanced up at him, said, “Stand up straight, please. Your name?” He poised his pen over his paper.
“Taffy. My da works in the vineyards. My ma comes round to help with the lambing, sometimes, when she’s not dropping a kid herself.” He glanced round at the rest of us, smirking, and added, “Da says she’s happiest with a big belly or one on the tit.”