By mutual understanding, Cissy, Diana and I did our very best to remain on good terms with our neighbors. We felt this was a wise attitude, given the unconventional nature of our household: three women, two of which were widows without children, living together without a man about the house.
We made a point of speaking politely to everybody we encountered, enquiring politely after the health of this aged grandparent or that sickly child, occasionally offering one or another of our medicines where we thought that it might do some good, or at least we could be sure it would do no harm. We nurtured a reputation for honesty and charity - which was mostly true - and chastity - which was certainly not so.
For occasional work on our smallholding and, very infrequently, in our inner garden, we took to employing both local working men and the more itinerant kind. But we made sure that we did not favor any one man over another and that no individual was ever asked more than once. We preferred our privacy; we did not invite any of our neighbors into our home, nor did we accept any of the - rather infrequent - invitations to dinner or supper, especially where a widower or a man of marriageable age might also be one of the guests.
We also made a point of attending all of the local events in their cycle: the Spring Fayre and the Midsummer Barn Dance and the Harvest Festival. We even took to visiting the church on some Sundays, sitting through the hymns and sermons in stoic silence and, more importantly for acceptance by the priest and the congregation, contributing a few coins to the collection place as it passed by.
It seemed we were mostly successful; we did seem to be managing to still the tongues of all but the most vociferous of the gossips and critics. In any case, they made so many wild claims - most of which were subsequently proven to be false - that by now few of our more serious-minded neighbors would pay any attention.
The autumn morning dawned fair and bright, if a little chilly. It was our habitual day to attend the market in the nearby town, to sell our potions and other wares, and to buy groceries and other items we could not make or grow ourselves. We dressed warmly in our good cloaks and stout boots, packed up our handcart and baskets, the more delicate bottles carefully padded with straw, and set of along the track which joined the road which took us to market.
Our elixirs and tinctures sold rapidly and, by mid- afternoon, we had reached the point where we were only able to take orders for delivery at the next market. We had managed to add to the collection of copper and silver coins in our purses, even though first Diana and then Cissy had made a tour of the other stalls to secure the items we had listed earlier. We had just started packing up the old handcart when, much to my surprise, we were approached by a group of nuns in black habits and simple white headdresses.
We had become used to seeing the nuns fluttering about on market days, always in group of three, always carrying baskets. They came from the nearby abbey, which was set on a hillside perhaps an hour's walk from the market square. I had noticed that they all seemed to be quite young women, fresh of face and firm of step, with bright eyes and slight smiles playing about their lips; it seemed that the aesthetic life agreed with them.
The nuns would take in all of the market stalls, stopping to purchase a few items from this stall and that barrow, and taking care, it seemed to me, to spread their custom amongst the stallholders, buying apples from this greengrocer and cabbages from another. But they had never approached our little handcart before; perhaps the simple healthy life they led meant that they had no need for the medicines we had to offer.
"You are the Widow Abigail Stevenson, are you not?" the nun in the center of the group said.
"Yes, Sister," I replied, nodding politely while Diana and Cissy bobbed pretty little curtsies, "How may we help you today?"
"The Mother Abbess requests an interview with you and your companions," the nun said, turning to look at Diana and Cissy, "She would welcome you all as guests at the Abbey this night."
This was not an invitation I felt we would easily refuse. Besides, I had caught the sparkle in the eyes and the surprisingly unchaste grins on all three faces.
"Please inform the Mother Abbess we would be delighted to attend her this evening.
"Thank you, Goodwife," the nun replied, "I will send a message to the Abbey directly. We shall expect you after Evensong?"
The trio of nuns bowed politely, then turned and drifted back into the marketplace crowds. I glanced at Cissy and Diana with a certain amount of trepidation.
"Are we in trouble?" Diana asked querulously, her eyes wide.
I paused, unsure how to answer her question.
"Oh, I don't think so," Cissy blurted out, "Did you not see their faces? I've seen that look before!"