JUST BEFORE THE MOON ROSE to full glory over the city of Bordeaux in that June of 1137, a young man who had been moving swiftly and secretively through the deserted streets came to the end of his journey at the foot of a tall round tower. There he stood for a moment in the shadow and then, emerging cautiously, moved away a little, took in his right hand one of three small stones which he carried in his left palm, and aimed it at the narrow, unglazed arrow-slit near the tower’s top. His aim was accurate and the stone disappeared into the opening. He stepped back into the shadow and waited while a man might have counted, with deliberation, to fifty. He was fingering a second stone when a door close beside him opened silently and a voice whispered,
In his excitement he momentarily forgot to be cautious and said, “Eleanor . . .” in a loud, normal voice. The girl who had been waiting for him said,
“Sh! Danger everywhere!” She drew him into the complete black darkness of the tower and guided his hand to the wall. “Keep to this side,” she whispered. “There are eighty-four steps; be careful.” She closed the door, which swung silently on its well-oiled hinges, but she did not replace its heavy iron bar.
The eighty-four steps were worn hollow and smooth and dangerous, for they were part of the original castle and in the fardistant times of the Roman occupation of Aquitaine had formed the main approach to the lookout turret at the top of the tower; for the past two hundred and fifty years they had been used only by those on secret errands, by lovers and assassins, by grave men on worthy but unadvertised business, by hurried men carrying secret messages from popes and kings and sultans to successive Dukes of Aquitaine. The staircase ended at a doorway, always locked and concealed by a hanging tapestry within arm’s reach of the bed in the Duke’s own sleeping chamber. Tonight this door stood open and, as young Richard de Vaux rounded the last curve of the spiral staircase, he could see the glimmer of light ahead. Moving more swiftly, he gained the room and stood aside as Eleanor, who had been hard on his heels, entered and half closed the door behind her.
“It might be necessary for you to leave quickly,” she said, “so I will leave it ajar. If anyone should come to that door”—she nodded towards the door on the other side of the room, a heavy, bolted door—“waste no time. Run. For once you know the secret, your life will be in real danger!”
“What secret?” he asked. “Oh, Eleanor, what is all this? Why did you send for me so secretly? And it’s been so long . . .” He took her hand and brushed it with his lips as he realized that, after so long a separation, they had hardly greeted one another, that her first words to him had been a warning of danger. “What has happened?” he asked again.
“So many things,” she said heavily. “Terrible things, Richard. Perhaps it was wrong of me to send for you . . . but I couldn’t bear for you to hear it all from the lips of a casual gossip. And I’ve been virtually a prisoner ever since . . . ever since . . .” Her voice broke and Richard reached out a comforting arm which she ignored. “Sit down, dear heart, and I’ll try to tell you everything. You would do well to drink some wine . . . pour for me, too. Richard, the first thing is . . . my father is dead. He died six weeks or more ago, in Compostella.”
Richard set back the flagon he had lifted.
“My sweet!” he said and, taking both her hands, began to blurt out some muddled words of sympathy. Words never came easily to him, and now shock and bewilderment made him less than usually vocal. Eleanor listened for a moment and then drew away.
“Yes, you were fond of him, too; and he of you, Richard. And I’ve hardly had time to realize or grieve for him properly . . .” She steadied herself. “I didn’t send for you to tell you that only, there is so much more to say, and perhaps not much time.” She looked at the barred door, and as Richard began to speak she went on hurriedly, “Let me tell you first about how the news came and then you’ll understand why I am frightened for you. You know that, when my father left to go to Spain on this pilgrimage, he put Sir Godfroi of Blaye in charge here. Sir Godfroi behaved, as usual, very kindly to me and we enjoyed one another’s company; we had actually been out hawking together one morning six weeks ago when a man on a half-dead horse arrived at the gate just as we were entering. He gasped out that he had news from Spain, and Sir Godfroi immediately dismounted and dragged him into the guardhouse and turned the guards out. I stayed outside and I was worried; I knew that my father had set out a very sick man and I was afraid that he was worse. Presently Sir Godfroi came out and took my arm and said there was news which he would tell me later. Something made me suspicious and I asked to speak to the man. Sir Godfroi said that was impossible, the man was dead. That I didn’t believe. I’d seen the fellow on his feet only five minutes before, so I pulled myself free and pushed into the guardhouse. There the man was, very blue and swollen in the face, and dead. No, don’t interrupt me . . . Sir Godfroi had choked him, I am sure of that, but he gave out that the man had died of plague and, within the day, he had men posted on every road that leads to Spain, with orders to turn back, or if necessary kill, anyone who attempted to enter Aquitaine. He said it was to prevent the plague being brought in again. Very reasonable and very clever.”
“To hide the fact that our Duke is dead? Our dear liege lord dead in a distant land and we, who should be saying Masses for his soul, kept in ignorance, what is clever about that?”
“Wait,” she said. “That is what I have to tell you. Drink some wine, Richard.” She lifted her own cup and drank. “That same day Sir Godfroi took me aside and told me what I already knew—that I am now my father’s heir, Duchess of Aquitaine, Countess of Poitou. He said also what I did not know, but which I see might well be true, that the moment the news was out there would be at least six ambitious, ruthless nobles ready to take and marry me—by force if needs be.”
The young man’s face hardened and his eyes narrowed as, without speaking, he nodded his head in understanding and agreement. Heiresses, the world over, were regarded as fair game, prizes to be won by trickery or by violence. Even when the women themselves were old, or ugly, or of known ill temper, men would squabble and fight to marry them and rule their lands . . . even small estates. And Eleanor . . .
As though answering his thought she went on, in a deliberately steady voice, “This heritage of mine is very tempting, Richard; so wide: even I hardly realized, until Sir Godfroi showed me the map of its bounds, how wide it is. From east to west it runs from Auvergne to the sea, north and south it stretches from the Loire to the Pyrenees, and its cornfields and vineyards and orchards are the richest in the world, as is well known. A prize indeed for any man . . .” Her voice changed, became brisker. “I pointed out to Sir Godfroi that in the marriage ceremony the bride is asked for her consent and if any man used force to me I should scream and protest up to the very altar; but he laughed and said that I was not the first to think of that device. With such a prize to gain, any man, he said, could find a priest who, for a bribe, would go on with the ceremony even with the bride screaming.
“He gave me instances where such a thing had happened. Once the news was out, it would be merely a question of who could get here first with a strong force; and, once that one had married me, there would be no lack of others, wildly jealous, to set about him and start bloody civil war in Aquitaine. You know as well as I, Richard, how turbulent our nobles are, how ready to seize on an excuse for war. In the end he convinced me and I agreed to his plan—which was to stay in my own apartments, pleading a slight indisposition, to conceal my grief, and to keep the news secret until he had decided what was best to do and had made a plan which would settle my future peaceably, in seemly fashion and with dignity.”
She checked the headlong rush of her story and looked half shyly at the young man’s face, and then away. He did not speak, but she knew that they were both remembering the same thing. Richard’s father had been killed in one of the Duke’s minor wars, and the boy had come, years ago, into the castle, to be trained in the arts of knighthood. He had been first her chosen playfellow and then her tutor in all the unfeminine pursuits which appealed to her and which her indulgent father allowed. The affection between them had ripened, had been on the point of change, when, a year ago, Richard had returned to his own estate at Paullac. There had been then a half-understanding that when she was sixteen; when Richard had won his spurs, when her father had returned, in restored health, from his pilgrimage to Compostella, a formal betrothal between the pair was not unlikely. The Duke, as well as Sir Godfroi, had realized that whoever married her would become extremely powerful, and he had decided it might be better to take as his son-in-law a simple, well-bred knight of small estate than a great lord who might become too great and whose luck would lead to jealousy among the others. Nor had he, as a kind father, been blind to Eleanor’s liking for the boy.
Now all was altered . . . the half-promise, the unspoken understanding, was all part of a past which suddenly seemed very far away; her father was dead in distant Spain; she was alone, doomed to pick a careful path through a quagmire of shifting policies, threatening schemes, dark intrigues.
And time was short; she must say what had to be said, and Richard must go.
“I made a grave mistake, Richard,” she said, beginning to speak more rapidly. “I told Sir Godfroi that, although no fuss had been made because of my father’s illness, you and I were betrothed, with my father’s consent, before he left for Spain. It was nearly true! And I said, ‘If I marry Richard de Vaux, I shall be safe from other suitors, however ambitious; and there will be no cause for jealousy between the great nobles, since he is not of their number.’ I urged him to send for you and to let us be married immediately.”
Still Richard said nothing. The secret message, the furtive way he had been admitted by the secret stair, was proof enough that this plan had found no favor in Sir Godfroi’s eyes.
“All that I did by that speech, Richard, was to put you in danger—such danger that it is wrong of me to have you here tonight. But I wanted so much to see you again, and to tell you myself. And I have been careful. I asked Sir Godfroi’s permission to make a little vigil and say my prayers in this, my father’s own room. That door is locked and no one but I knows about the secret stair. We are safe enough, I think, for a little time. But we must be quick.”
He reached out and took one of her hands in his. Her long slim fingers, icily cold, closed over his warm ones with a force and strength which reminded him of how often in the past he had been astonished by the vigor and vitality concealed in her apparently delicate frame, and how those hands, which looked fit only for handling a needle or a lily, had proved themselves so apt and skillful at archery and horsemanship.
“Go on,” he said, “tell me what has been decided.”
“It all sounds so complicated, and so far removed from us, standing here hand in hand, with so many things to remember. Capet and Plantagenet, France and England, what have they to do with us? But Sir Godfroi made it clear to me; alas, very clear. Stephen is King of England now, but many men think that the Empress Matilda should, of right, be Queen, and it seems likely that when Stephen dies, Matilda’s son, Henry, is to have the throne. Henry will then be King of England as well as Duke of Normandy, Duke of Anjou, and Count of Brittany; he’ll be far more rich and powerful than the King of France . . . unless the King of France can add to his domains. The rivalry between the two houses is very strong and the King of France would stop at nothing, Sir Godfroi says, that would strengthen his position. Aquitaine would do that and, unless it goes to the French by means of a peaceful marriage, France will attempt to take it by force. I would hate to be the cause of a war, Richard.” She released his hand and turned away, making a great show of snuffing one of the guttering candles and though, when she turned back to him, she kept at a distance, he could see that tears had brimmed her eyes and were only kept from falling by a supreme effort of will.
“I can’t marry you —Sir Godfroi would have no hesitation in killing you to prevent it; and, if he failed in that, the Capets, hungry for Aquitaine, would never rest until they had persuaded the Pope to grant an annulment . . . and they would have grounds; my father never publicly acknowledged our betrothal and the King of France could claim his rights as overlord. I have thought and thought about it all and I can see that Sir Godfroi’s plan is the only way out of the muddle which can be followed with peace and dignity. So it is done. He sent a secret message to the King of France, and Prince Louis set out, as though on a hunting trip, and has moved quietly southward. Yesterday he reached Larmont. As soon as he arrives we shall be married and, before any Aquitainian noble or Plantagenet duke knows that I am for sale, I shall be sold to a bidder whose claim cannot lightly be disputed.”
She spoke the last words bitterly, but Richard hardly noticed. He was thinking how rapidly, how thoroughly, she had mastered all the facts, the rules of the political game. It seemed only yesterday that they had played together and he, by virtue of two years or so seniority and his superior sex, had been her mentor, devoted but patronizing. And now . . .
But it was not only for his good looks, his gaiety, and his skill with weapons and horses that she had chosen him long ago from the rabble of youngsters in her father’s castle. Faced now with all this talk of kings and princes and power politics, he hooked his thumbs into his belt and said diffidently but with spirit and firmness:
“There is an alternative. A strange alternative to being Queen of France, my sweeting . . . you could come away with me, now. My horse could carry us both back to Paullac, where I could get fresh ones and what money I could lay hands on; then we could ride to La Rochelle and take ship. The world would be open to us. King Stephen in England could find use for a good swordsman, so could the Emperor of Germany, or the Emperor of Byzantium. We’d find a place and I would see to it that you did not want. It’d be a life without luxuries; but if you come with me and leave them to hammer out who shall have Aquitaine, we’d be together and I’d . . . I’d hack you out a place with my sword and serve you with my whole heart as long as I lived.”
Color came to her face; her eyes sparkled as she cried:
“How like we are. It was my first thought! I remembered my uncle Raymond in Antioch; he’d welcome a good swordsman, and he’d stand by an action that was bold and free. Oh, I would do it with such a glad heart. The whole world . . . wide open. I thought of that . . . but it is impossible.” She swung away from him as she spoke the last word and began to pace up and down the long room. “And don’t think, never, never think, that my decision has been influenced by the prospect of being Queen of France. I am Duchess of Aquitaine and that is enough for me; and if I could leave Aquitaine safe and sound behind me I would dispense with all titles. But how should I leave it? We would go secretly and, until we were safe in some far-distant place, no one would know what had happened to me; think of the accusations that one would bring against the other; think of the Prince of France arriving and finding the bride promised him gone. That would mean war, the towns burning, the villages robbed, the vineyards ravaged. Compare that with what is in my power to do. This union of Aquitaine and France will mean such peace as this land has not known for six hundred years . . . no one would dare to challenge so strong an alliance. And if I have a son, he will be, by right that none could question, king of the widest realm in Christendom. I have no choice.”
He stared at her gravely, offering neither protest nor persuasion. He knew that he would love her and remember her all his life, but he knew also that, even if events had not taken this turn, any number of other obstacles might have prevented their marriage. The troubadours might sing songs of love and how it conquered everything, but marriages were still made for other reasons—convenience, policy, greed. Having made his offer, he accepted her rejection of it just as he would have accepted it if the Duke had returned from Spain with some other plan for his daughter’s future. The dream had been too wonderful to be realized.
It was Eleanor who, with an abrupt change of mood, cried:
“God’s fingers! What a state to be born to! The lowest little stinking goose-girl has freer rein for her fancy. We could have been so happy, Richard. Now I must say good-bye to you, and to all our play and our plans. They were childish, I see now, but sweet nonetheless. And wherever I go and whatever happens to me, I shall remember you. Always.”
She stretched out both hands to him and he took them; and thus, drawing her toward him, he saw all the color drain out of her face, her eyes fly wide open with dismay. He whirled round and saw what she had seen over his shoulder—the massive, ominous figure of Sir Godfroi, filling the doorway that led to the secret stair. His right hand was on his sword hilt, his left fingered the dagger at his belt.
Before either Eleanor or Richard could speak, he stepped into the room and said in a mocking, jovial voice,
“So this, my lady, is how you keep vigil! It cuts me to think that my handling of your affairs should lead you to believe me so easily fooled.”
“It is not what you think,” said Eleanor, moving swiftly between them.
“And how do you know what I think?” Sir Godfroi asked, still amiably. His eyes, brown and opaque, but glistening like wet pebbles, traveled over Richard’s face and figure in a long calculating stare. “I think that so handsome a young knight may well cherish high . . . aspirations.”
“If to act as my falconer and kennel-hind is an honor—yes, he does,” Eleanor said. “That is why I sent for him, Sir Godfroi; my birds and my hounds know him and he will tend them while I go on my . . . journey and handle them so that they are workable when I return.”
“A very sensible arrangement,” Sir Godfroi agreed. “And rightly contrived in secret, since such a commission from you, my lady, is a favor and likely to raise jealousy amongst the many other knights.” His voice changed. “Spare us the mummery, madam. I am not yet blind or senile. I know why he is here and what you have been telling him. I grant you, it was not easy hearing for him.” He looked directly at Richard. “If I greeted you churlishly, young sir, it was because I do not care to be deceived; and because I have much on my mind, as you—knowing what you do—will understand. I must ask you to swear on your honor that no word of what you have heard tonight will be repeated.”
“I swear, on my honor.”
“Then take your leave and go, as you came, secretly,” said Sir Godfroi, not unkindly; then, as they stretched out their hands to one another again, he ostentatiously turned his back upon them and stared about the bedchamber, which was for its period unusually comfortably and luxuriously furnished. Several of Eleanor’s ancestors had visited the East, either on crusades or for their private purposes, and they had brought back smooth silky rugs for their floors, cushions for their benches, curiously carved chests, and even rare looking glasses. Sir Godfroi found plenty to look at while Eleanor said briefly,
“There is no more to say, Richard, save that I wish with all my heart that things had been otherwise; and I shall always remember you.”
“Remember most of all that, if at any time I can be of service to you, my heart and my sword are yours to command.” He lifted her hands to his lips.
“This green-sickliness strikes us all in youth, and we all survive to laugh at ourselves,” said Sir Godfroi; and the hearty words, for all their tactlessness, seemed to indicate a desire to comfort. “I will see you down and bar the door behind you,” he went on.
“I will light you down,” Eleanor said and stepped to the table by the bed where a five-branched silver candlestick stood. As she did so, Richard passed through the door and set his foot on the stairs; Sir Godfroi followed and Eleanor, moving forward bearing the light, was in time to see him whip out his sword and, with the calm deliberation of a man spearing a gobbet of meat from a dish, run the blade through Richard’s body. There was a choking cry from the stairway, a shrill wild scream from the door. The spitted body sagged, hung for a second from the sword, and then fell forward into the darkness. Sir Godfroi turned back and, with the bloody blade dripping from his right hand, took the candlestick as it dropped from Eleanor’s nerveless fingers. He stood it safely aside, then closed the door and let the tapestry fall into place over it.
“The outer door I barred when I entered,” he said. “And I hope, my lady, that all your intrigues will be handled as discreetly.” Then, as she swayed forward, he caught and laid her on the great bed.
Three weeks later, when the whole vast plot had been brought to a successful conclusion, when Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, had been safely married to the Prince of France and all the unruly nobles of her domain had knelt to the young Prince, laid their hands in his, and promised to be his liege men, old Sir Godfroi, well pleased with himself, well pleased with the rich manor which had been given him by King Louis as his reward for the handling of a very tricky and dangerous business, sat himself down and engaged in the—for him—unfamiliar and difficult business of letter writing. The letter, when at last completed to his satisfaction, he confided to a monk by the name of Odo who had accompanied the Prince from Paris, and whom his shrewd old eye had picked out as being a man both cunning and discreet.
“This,” he said, “is for the King’s hand alone. On no account must the Prince or the Lady Eleanor know of its existence.”
Odo, fully as cunning and discreet as Sir Godfroi had judged him, placed the letter in his pouch, and guarded it well. To deliver it to the King of France was beyond his power, however, for while the cavalcade with the Prince of France, and his new Princess, the nobles of his train, and a few Aquitainian knights who were following their lady to Paris, was still traveling the hot, dusty summer roads of Touraine, Louis the Sixth of France, for long a sick man, died and was buried.
The letter troubled Odo and, as soon as they arrived in Paris, he went straight to his Abbé, Bernard of Clairvaux—since the King’s death, the most powerful man in France. Odo explained the situation, saying, “The old knight was very explicit in his instructions, my father. ‘Not to the Prince,’ he said. But now that the Prince is King . . .”
“An interesting problem,” said the Abbé. “Give me the letter!”
Without hesitation he broke the seal and read the words so badly, painfully, and yet so clearly penned. The letter began by referring to the plot, now happily brought to fruition; then it went on:
The Lady Eleanor, behind a courteous manner, conceals a deep and devious disposition that will bear watching. I tell you this for your guidance, the more so as my lord the Prince, her husband, has been taken with her charms beyond what might have been expected in a match so hasty and so contrived. I have of late had excellent proof of her cunning and willfulness and of her desire to manage all things in her own way.
“You did well,” said Abbé Bernard. “The letter is purely personal, mainly in praise of the Prince, and the words addressed to his father, the King, now in the tomb, would only hurt his tender feelings. Put it in the fire, Odo.”
But Sir Godfroi had judged Odo well. Something went into the fire, something crackled and flamed; something else went into hiding in Odo’s sleeve. There were now two men in Paris who had been warned that, behind a courteous manner, their new Queen concealed a cunning disposition and a desire to manage. And since that description applied exactly to themselves and they wanted no competition, they watched her as closely and as coldly and as distrustfully as even Sir Godfroi could have wished.
IT WAS SPRING AGAIN IN Aquitaine. In the orchards outside the city of Poitiers the plum and peach and pear blossoms had lost their first brightness and the petals were falling, but the tide of gay wild flowers had run over the orchard grass and over the roadside verges and all the air was full of the sweetness of newly cut hay. The fragrance reached even the high room where Eleanor sat before her looking glass while Amaria brushed her long hair.
Fifteen years since she had seen the spring in her own land! She would be perfectly happy if only the children were here with her. She missed them more than she had expected; for in Paris, owing to all the regulations which governed their upbringing, she had actually spent little time with them. Still they were there and she was always devising little games for them or thinking of amusing things to tell them, so that her visits, though brief, should be gay and have meaning.
She sighed, then said, “Today, Amaria, we’ll take a holiday. For ten whole days I have worked at affairs of state, asking and answering dull questions, and going through those dismal accounts. Today I shall leave it all; we’ll ride out and watch the haymaking, and take some food and eat it under a tree, then sleep a little and ride back in the cool of the evening. I must admit, Amaria, I find it very delightful to say, ‘I will do this, or that,’ and not have to ask permission beforehand, or listen to reproaches afterwards.”
She could see, in the looking glass, the glumness of Amaria’s face.
“What ails you?” she asked, as Amaria stayed silent. “If your head aches, you need not come.”
“If you ride, I shall ride. But I think you would do well to stay within the city walls at least, though even there, God knows, you may not be safe. It looks to me as though we may never be safe again.”
“Oh come! You make much out of nothing. Two little scuffles on our way down from Paris! Just silly boys’ pranks. And we were well protected.”
“I lack your stout heart. I can see that when men protect women from other men, some of the blows they aim at one another may fall on the women they are protecting.”
“No blow came near enough to us to disarrange our head gear. What has happened, Amaria? You were not so timid when we rode on crusade,” Eleanor protested.
“I was always timid. At least, on crusade, we knew our enemies—their clothes and their faces betrayed them. Those boys, as you call them, who lay in wait for you the other day at the ford looked like Christians and we were nearly taken unaware. There are two young noblemen who have tried to take you—run off and marry you—already . . . and greedy, ambitious young noblemen are common as dandelions. Yet there you are, talking of lying down in the sun to sleep! I do beg you, my lady, if we ride out today, to order a strong escort.”
“If it comforts you, I will do so. But remember, we are now in my own domain.”
“And do the Aquitainian nobles lack ambition or greed?”
“Ah, but I am no longer an innocent young girl, Amaria. Once the thought of being run off with and married against my will did frighten me. The man who tried it now would find that he had caught more than he bargained for. That I do assure you.”
“Boldness,” said Amaria with a sourness unusual to her, “is mainly the capacity for underrating danger. With a gag in your mouth and your hands tied behind you—which is how the Lady Beatrix was led to the altar not ten years ago—you’d be as helpless as the next woman.” She dropped the tress of hair she was holding and passed the brush up and down the palm of her hand. “What I’m going to say may be distasteful, but there’s nothing for it but for you to marry again—and as soon as possible.”
“And whom do you propose I should marry? You seem to have planned it all, Amaria. Boldness in planning, allow me to say, is mainly the capacity to underrate difficulties.”
Amaria, for the first time that morning, smiled.
“I know the man, my lady. And so, I think, must you.”
“Well, name him!” She looked into the mirror and her clear green eyes met Amaria’s grey ones in the shadowy depths.
“Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy,” Amaria said, and saw the white lids blink, saw the faintest possible color creep up from Eleanor’s throat to lose itself in the pale clear rose of her cheeks. Then, no more than half a second too late, she laughed.
“Amaria, unless that young man has added another birthday to his tally, he is eighteen years old!”
“What of it? The last fifteen years have gone lightly over you, my lady. We were saying the other day that you look no older now than when you left Aquitaine; and the young Duke is a man, whatever his years. More a man, if you ask me, than his father. Surely you must have marked, when they both came to the French court, how he always took the lead, how sometimes in their talk his father would look to him before giving an answer, instead of the other way about. You must have noticed.”
“The thing I marked most about him was a strange resemblance to someone I knew many years ago . . . someone of whom I was very fond . . .” She brooded for a moment, remembering that first innocent love. Then she roused herself and said, “Go on with the brushing, Amaria, or we shall miss the best of the day.”
“You’d do well to think over what I have said,” Amaria persisted. “Married to him, you’d be safe. And he admired you, I could see that.”
“Even so, marriage between us is well-nigh impossible. If the thought entered his head—which I doubt it ever would—he would dismiss it; the King of France would object strongly; after all, these Plantagenets hold Brittany and Anjou from the French crown, great and powerful though they may be.”
“Ah well, I didn’t mean tomorrow or the next day. By all accounts, the young Duke will be King of England one day, or know the reason why, and then he’ll be independent of the King of France. Bear him in mind, my lady; and, in the meantime, take no risks of being married by force.” She glanced towards the window. “There’ll be no riding abroad today, anyway; a storm is blowing up.”
“Don’t sound so pleased,” said Eleanor.
The room grew darker as Amaria looped and coiled the long hair and fixed it with the silver and ivory pins. When it was done, Eleanor went and stood by the window. The black-purple cloud had covered the sun’s face, but from its lower edge one ray of concentrated light escaped to fall upon the castle courtyard, the bridge that linked it to the town, and the huddled roofs of the nearest houses. It all looked unreal, a scene from a nightmare.
As she stared, a little knot of horsemen clattered up to the far side of the bridge. One man detached himself to ride on alone and halt for a moment on the bridge, raking the castle with an arrogant appraising stare.
Her breath stopped as she recognized the solid, barrel-chested, long-legged figure, the cocksure set of the head, the red hair showing under the cap with its jaunty sprig of broom—the planta genesta, from which his family took its name. She had just said that he would hardly dare to come, and here he was, looking just as he had looked when he came, arrogantly and belatedly, to pay his allegiance to Louis, his overlord—so young, so handsome, so high-hearted. Her eyes had followed him then, and she had thought, Naturally he attracts me, he is the son I should have had. Then, hearing his voice saying brief, downright things, she was reminded of Richard de Vaux and imagined that there lay the secret of his attraction for her.
Now, looking down from her high window, she knew that neither of these reasons was the true one.
Suddenly breathless, she turned from the window and said, “Amaria, quick! My best gown. He has come!”
“The Plantagenet? Well, well. They say, ‘Talk of the Devil,’ do they not?” She hurried towards the great press where the few gowns which Eleanor had brought with her from Paris lay folded, and sprinkled with lavender and rosemary. As she lifted the lid, the lightning struck into the room like a sword and, immediately after, the thunder sounded as though a thousand battering rams were assaulting the gates of Heaven. White-lipped, Amaria gasped, “He comes with the storm. Oh, what an omen, my lady! What an omen!”
Eleanor swooped across the room, took up a gown, and began to shake it from its folds.
“Don’t stand there like an image, Amaria, run out and tell them—De Rancon and the rest—to receive him formally, formally ; to take him to wait in the anteroom, and offer refreshment. Send Sybille to me, and then run on and tell all my women—their finest clothes—and quickly, quickly.”
Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy, acknowledged heir to Anjou, and, in the eyes of many, rightful heir to England, prided himself upon being “a plain, blunt man.” Reared in the saddle, the hunting field, and the stern school of war, he had no time and less liking for what he called “nonsense and mummery.” In his own court he was as accessible as a farmer or shopkeeper; a man stated his business, was granted an audience, told to say what was to be said as briefly as possible, and dismissed. Today he himself was the one who came asking an audience, and, when he had dismounted and said in his loud firm voice that he wished to speak privately to the Duchess of Aquitaine, he expected to be led straight into her presence and left alone to say his say.
But in the small anteroom, kept waiting, surrounded by the few nobles and knights whom Eleanor had gathered around her in the ten days since her homecoming, he began to feel uncomfortable. These Aquitainians, gay and careless as they could be at times, had a talent for formality and ceremony. He remembered that in the old Duke’s time this court had been the cradle of the most elegant form of chivalry. There had actually been a kind of school, called the Court of Love, at which young knights were taught how to behave towards ladies; how to please them by turning pretty speeches, by making music, by singing songs. It was all elaborate, set to pattern, a kind of playacting, in fact, hitherto Henry had dismissed it all as the greatest nonsense and a wicked waste of time. Now he wondered . . . and as he stood, impatiently slapping his leg with his gloves, he gained less pleasure than usual from his thought—“I’m only a plain, blunt man.”
When at last he was confronted by Eleanor, wearing all her finery, surrounded by the gaily decked ladies who had been hastily mustered to form as impressive a court as possible, he was annoyed to find himself nervous; and, to the first remarks addressed to him, he gave answers so short and awkward that even in his own ears they sounded unmannerly.
Soon he rallied; he was a plain, blunt man; he had no time to waste; he had something to say which he did not intend to say before this gathering of smiling posturing popinjays, so presently he said,
“Your Highness, I have that to say which is for your ear alone. Can we—or they—withdraw?”
The words rapped out so harshly that Eleanor knew a moment’s doubt; perhaps, after all, he had come on some political errand; perhaps he was meditating making war on his over lord, the King of France, and saw in her, the divorced Queen of France, a likely ally. Well, if he wished to be businesslike, she would match his manner. She stood up, abandoning the advantage of the high-backed chair in which she had seated herself for effect, and said, “Come with me, my lord.”
When they were alone, he refused the seat she offered him; “I always stand, save when I ride or sleep,” he said. Standing stiffly before her, he went on, “It must be clear to you why I am here. A year ago when you were Queen of France and there seemed little likelihood that the divorce would ever be granted, I wished with all my heart you were a free woman. Now you are, and I . . . Madam, I am a plain, blunt man, no hand at pretty speeches, and a sorry figure I’d cut at these courts of love you think so highly of in Aquitaine . . . so I can only offer you my hand and have done with it.”
He stared at her with his light, bright, overprominent eyes, and she could see that he expected her to reply to this proposal in a manner equally brisk. Some of the assurance went out of him when she smiled and said nothing.
He waited; then, with considerably less jauntiness, he went on. “At the moment I can offer you nothing that you haven’t yourself, already. Aquitaine is wider than Normandy, wider than Normandy and Anjou; and, if what I have seen during a hard ride is a fair sample, it is richer and more productive. But with God’s help—and yours, my lady, if you care to give it—I shall have England, too, before long. And the crown of England will become you better than the crown of France ever did. What’s comical in that? Why are you laughing?” The ringing merry laughter, so seldom heard of late, broke irrepressibly from her.
“Not—I assure you—at you, my lord Duke. No, I am laughing at all the minstrels and poets with their tales of love. I am told that I am not ill-favored, and I have travelled farther than most women. I have now received three proposals and not a word of love in any one of them. My lord of France said to me, ‘Madam, a marriage has been arranged between us; I trust you do not find me distasteful.’ That was forgivable in him, for he was reared to be a monk and monks are not trained to make proposals. Then there was an emir in Antioch who addressed me through my uncle, who knew his language; he said literally, ‘If you will leave your husband, I will dispose of my eldest wife and you shall rule the others.’ There was excuse for him, he was a Saracen. But for you, my lord, I find it hard to find excuse, just as I find it hard to decide whether you really want my hand in marriage—or my help in your bid for the English throne.”
She spoke laughingly, teasingly, but no spark of answering amusement lighted Henry’s face. He drew away angrily. “By God’s head, madam, I thought better of you! A year ago, in the court of France, there was a moment in the talk—you had been sitting there looking as pretty and innocent as a flower—and then you spoke and cut through all the flummery and the nonsense like a sickle through wheat, going straight to the heart of the matter. And I was astonished. A woman in ten thousand, I thought to myself, and to Louis I could scarcely speak civilly on account of the envy that was in me. The moment you are free and it is decent for me to speak, haven’t I followed you here? . . . so close that I rode in your dust almost . . . though I know that the moment Louis hears of it he’ll call me a faithless vassal and most likely will attack my province.”
Henry swung about and began walking to and fro, as was his habit in moments of agitation. In a calmer voice he went on, “I said, ‘with God’s help, and yours,’ but never think I need help from you or anyone. It is true that with Aquitaine behind me I should be more formidable, but if all Europe sank into the depths of the sea, leaving me afloat in my nightshirt, I still would have England—or die in the attempt. It is my right; and, if the usurper who drove my mother out and is driving the country to beggary by his mismanagement will not acknowledge my claim, I’ll force it from him. When I said, ‘with your help,’ I meant that when the crown of England was set on your head you could feel it was yours by right—not yours because some creeping politician had arranged it, or because you’re fair of face. By the rood, I was fool enough to think that point of view would find favor with you!”
His weather-beaten face had darkened, the light eyes were even more prominent; they stared at her defiantly. After a moment’s silence Eleanor said in a surprisingly humble voice,
“Truth to tell, it does. And I have no doubt that with, or without, backing from me you will have your England. I remember your visit to Paris . . . I remember thinking . . .” (For all his dislike of soft speeches, Henry listened eagerly.) “. . . thinking that I pitied Stephen of England having you for an enemy.”
For the first time Henry smiled. “In Normandy, my lady, we have the saying, ‘Good enemy, good lover.’ All I ask of you is the chance to prove that I can be one as well as the other.”
“Now that,” Eleanor said, “is quite a pretty speech.”
“It was not so intended,” Henry said; but, as though encouraged, he added, “I will tell you another thing. I am no monk. A sweet smile, a pretty face, even a stray curl, can bring me down as a falcon brings down a hawk, but since the day when I saw you in Paris I have given no thought to any woman. There’s a yellow-headed Hohenstaufen girl—and if you think your lands and men will help forward my ambition, think what such a bond with the Holy Roman Empire could do for me. I was on the verge of making an offer for her hand, but, once I’d seen you, she looked as tasteless as a plate of cold porridge—without salt.” He seemed to become aware of the fact that he was indulging in the despised pastime of bandying words. “Well, all’s been said now. Will you take me or not?”
“It is no decision to make in a moment.” Eleanor was grave now. “After all, this will affect all my life—and all yours. And, to be honest with you, the advantage is by no means all on your side. As someone who has my good at heart pointed out only this morning, I must either marry again or go about with an armed bodyguard all my days; a woman alone, a woman of property, seems to be regarded by most men as a plum for picking; and so she shall be while priests can be found to perform the marriage ceremony whether the woman concerned be willing or not.”
“Ah!” said Henry; quite unwittingly she had invited him to mount his hobbyhorse. “There you put your finger on it. The Church is wise; no matter what problem arises, the Church has the right, wise answer. The Church foresaw, centuries ago, some poor woman being carried off and married against her will; so it decreed that the priest should ask in a loud audible voice, ‘Wilt thou take this man?’ and that the woman should say—and be heard by the whole congregation—‘I do.’ Or, provided she had cause, ‘No, I do not.’ Holy Mother Church was on guard against the greedy and the unscrupulous. But the priests . . . ah, there is the weakness. Sheltered and pampered, they think themselves above the law; they break it with impunity; they defy God, and man . . .” He broke off and swallowed. “Dear lady, this is not the moment . . . but you will find when you know me better that two bees buzz in my bonnet. One is my right to be King of England; the other is that priests should stand level with other men in the sight of the law. Until they do, the whole thing is a mockery. Why, not long since, a woman of some substance, a widow to boot, and sixty years old, was dragged to the altar, gagged and bound, and married to a man who coveted her property. Now that could never happen in Normandy.”
“My priests know my mind. There are loopholes that I have not yet closed—places where canon law and secular law do not fit side by side, but where I rule at least, they are mindful to obey the canon law because it is their bulwark against the other.”
Eleanor’s heart warmed to him.
He blundered on. “I’m a good churchman, but I’m a soldier, too, and I hold that a priest who breaks the law of the Church, or the law of the land in which he lives, is as guilty as a soldier who deserts to the other side or goes to sleep on guard. Some rogue the other day—he’d come from Venice with some stuff to sell—was telling me about a country where cows were holy. Can you imagine that? They can do no wrong; if they break into your garden and eat all your lettuces, or into your field and trample down your growing corn, you have no redress. It’s a poor heathen country, of course, but it seems to me if we’re going to let priests disregard all law, they’ll end as holy cows. I’m talking too much, wasting time which you need for thinking things over and making up your mind.”
But Eleanor already knew what her answer was to be.
THE LARGER OF THE TWO rooms was fourteen ordinary paces long and twelve wide; the inner, smaller one, into which she was locked at night, measured ten paces each way. So had her wide domains shrunk. Sometimes, if Nicolas of Saxham, her jailer, was in one of his rare kindly moods, and the weather matched, she was taken down to walk in the little garden which some unknown, more fortunate woman had made in a corner between the brew-house and the bakery. It was an unthriving, too-shaded little garden, a maze of narrow paths edged by low-growing hedges, the spaces between the paths offering, in due season, a few gillyflowers and primroses, a musk rose or two, a fleck of blue lavender flower on an overgrown bush; but to walk in it and breathe the free air, to see the sky and to hear a bird sing now was something to anticipate eagerly, to remember with joy. She had never counted how many paces it took to walk over every one of the little intersecting paths . . . best not to know; let it be just a walk out-of-doors. So tamed now; and cramped and confined was this most adventurous of women.
She was not alone; the faithful Amaria, left in that other room in Poitiers, had followed, step by step, back from Poitou to England, and at last had risked the King’s anger by accosting him and begging permission to join her mistress at Winchester. Amaria had chosen her moment well; Henry had just learned that the King of the Scots, who had taken advantage of his absence on the Continent to make a raid on England, had been taken prisoner and brought, with his legs tied under his horse’s belly, to Richmond. Henry was in a good mood and inclined to grant a favor to his other prisoner—his wife. So Eleanor had Amaria.
She had a lute.
She had four books.
She had a tapestry frame and what wool she asked for.
She had a bed, hard and narrow certainly, but she had slept, and slept well, on many worse.
She had three meals a day; a breakfast of bread and thin sour ale, a dinner of some meat or fish, a supper of bread and bacon, or bread and cheese, and more ale. Thousands of people, she often told herself wryly, would be glad to have so much and so regularly. But that self-rebuke invariably brought in its train the thought that to have less, and less regularly, would be more bearable. Food, except to animals and people on the verge of starvation, should do more than merely fill the stomach; it should attract, and sometimes surprise, the eye; it should sometimes wait until one was hungry; it should, above all, be what one had chosen. The sad thing was that, after a long time of bread, ale, meat, fish, bacon, and cheese, always enough, always punctual in appearing, one thought of, dreamed about, and longed for food in a quite shameful way . . . how crisp a fresh apple in September would be between the teeth; how sweetly honey would smell; how smoothly grapes would lie on the tongue.
“But madam, you are well fed,” Nicholas of Saxham would say in those early days when she had not learned the uselessness of a request or a complaint. “Three times a day, with unfailing regularity, food of the best quality is set on your table. The household accounts prove that.”
“Madam, I only carry out the orders of my master, the lord De Glanville, who receives his from the King . . .”
“Madam, nothing in my orders would justify me . . .”
When the mummers came and everyone else in the castle gathered in the outer bailey to witness, by torchlight, the performance . . . and the torturing sound of laughter, of hands clapped, feet stamped in pleasure, reached the room in which she sat, and she asked permission to go—not to the bailey, she knew that was too much to ask—but to a small window overlooking the scene.
“Madam, I have no orders to that effect . . .”
The days dragged on. Until one had nothing to which to look forward, one did not realize how great a part of life consists of merely looking forward, in thinking, Next Thursday I shall do this or that . . . in April this or that will happen. To look ahead and know that next Thursday will be as like this Thursday as this Monday was like last Monday, that next April will be the blank-faced dragging month that this one is, can be a specially subtle kind of torture.
And she was without hope. Henry believed that she had encouraged her sons to rebel against him; he had captured her by a trick and locked her in prison; and since he was younger than she was, she dared not even look to his death to release her.
She had been in Winchester for three treadmill years when something of interest, of excitement, did happen.
It was a Tuesday in early February, the day dark with snow. The winter had been severe, snow and frost following one another until the roads were impassable; and to make matters worse, of their three precious needles, Amaria had broken one and she herself had lost one down a crack in the stone-flagged floor. So now they could no longer sit companionably together at their work; one must sit idle, and things had come to such a pass that Eleanor, who in Paris, long years ago, had hated needlework, must now say to Amaria, “It is my turn now . . .” and take up the stitching with a sense of relief. Something to do; something to decide . . . which stitch? which color? which pattern?
She had asked for another needle, making the request to Nicolas some time before Christmas, and he had said in his usual way that needles were not specifically mentioned in his orders, but he would ask De Glanville when he paid his routine visit of inspection. Permission to purchase needles was duly given, but just before the snow and frost set in.
“Between us and the town, madam, the drifts lie eight feet deep. Your needles must await the thaw.”
Then on this Tuesday morning, while she and Amaria were playing one of their interminable games of chess—interminable because in reality it was a game of Eleanor against Eleanor, since Amaria was so poor a player that she could be beaten in fifteen minutes, Nicolas of Saxham, jingling his keys, appeared in the doorway of the room and said,
“A crazy pedlar, hot for a penny’s profit, has pushed his way through the drifts, God knows how, he’s no bigger than my thumb. And he has needles. What kind, and how many, do you ladies require?”
In the old days how blithely she would have said that anything with a point at one end and an eye at the other would do! Now even the choosing of a needle offered a small but welcome break in the dull routine of the day; so she and Amaria began to describe what they would like if the pedlar carried it, and what they could make do with if he didn’t, and sometimes they argued, for Amaria, who was very nearsighted, preferred extremely fine needles since she worked with her nose almost brushing the stitches, while Eleanor preferred a stout needle, easily threaded and capable of making bold, stabbing stitches. Nicolas stood there understanding nothing, except that the two bothersome creatures were being as tiresome as possible. Moreover, the room, small as it was for walking about in, was lofty and the smoking fire, beside which the women sat, warmed it very little; he wished to get back to the great seven-foot logs blazing in the big hall; so presently he said, with no notion of the importance of his words, “Oh, stop this clacking! I’ll send the fellow in and you can see for yourselves what he carries!”
Alberic the pedlar was shown in by a page who made very plain that he despised the errand and was eager to get back to his game of knucklebones. Retiring, he slammed the door with such vigor that a great billow of smoke sailed out of the chimney and momentarily obscured the room. When it cleared, Eleanor looked at the man who had braved the snowdrifts in order to make a penny profit. He was very squat, mainly because he seemed to have no neck; his head, rather overlarge, appeared to rest on his broad shoulders; his face was reddened and roughened by wind and weather; and he had bright hazel eyes, very lively and candid between their bristly lashes.
“I give you good day, Your Grace,” he said, bowing so low that the pack on his shoulders, neatly bundled into a piece of sailcloth, swung forward over his head. Straightening himself, he slipped his arms out of the leather straps and, carrying the pack to the table, opened it and laid its contents out for their inspection. There was nothing of much value, and very little to gladden the eye; it was not one of those packs which, opened, spill out color like a miniature bazaar. There were a few needles and pins, some small blocks of salt, three or four knives, and a few buckles.
“It’s a poor selection,” Alberic said cheerfully. “But of course if you, Your Grace, and you, madam, require anything that isn’t here, you could give me an order and I could come back . . .”
There was an undertone of meaning in his voice which caused Eleanor to look from his goods to his face. The bright eyes met hers with something of the wish to communicate without words which she had seen in the eyes of good intelligent dogs. And that look persisted even as he spoke.
“I get about. I’m often in London. And sometimes I go to Dover. I have a friend who has a ship. He could bring me anything from Calais . . . or even Bordeaux . . . if it was ordered. So ask for anything you wish.”
“Why do you mention Bordeaux?” Eleanor asked.
“Just to let you know how much I get about, Your Grace,” Alberic said, and his bright gaze flicked towards Amaria.
“Amaria and I differ about which thickness of needle is preferable,” Eleanor said, “but otherwise we are entirely at one. And the thing we need, the thing we crave most, from London or elsewhere, is news.”
In a lifetime of frank speaking, she never said a more sincere thing; the lack of news, the knowledge that outside the walls of her prison things were happening, wars being started, treaties being signed, while she sat here as much cut off as though she were blind and deaf and dumb, had in the last three years been one of the things hardest to bear. Both Richard and Young Henry wrote to her occasionally—she suspected that they wrote more letters than she received—but neither of them told her anything of much interest; perhaps because, knowing her helplessness, they deliberately withheld any news that might anger, or sadden, or excite her; perhaps because they were neither of them skilled in conveying meaning with a pen. They always wrote fondly, always saying that they were nagging at their father to set her free, always urging her to have patience and hope because one day she must be free, and Richard had actually said that he would never be friends with his father so long as she was a captive; but of their own doings, the things she longed to hear, they said very little.
“Well now,” said Alberic, “news is one thing we pedlars get for nothing, and pass on without charge. What would you wish to hear, madam? You’d best ask questions—I mustn’t stay too long.”
“Give me news of my sons,” Eleanor said.
The pedlar looked at her with compassion; it was true then, what gossip said—that she was locked away, more secluded from the world than a nun in her cell, treated as though she were already dead. In the prime of life, too, thought the pedlar, who had a shrewd eye for women, most of his trade being done with them. A lovely, proud-looking lady; just to look at her made you understand the nice songs that were sung about her; and, once you’d seen her, you’d not believe the others.
“Well now,” he said again, and swiftly and surely, out of the mass of gossip and hearsay and sheer nonsense which he gathered on his travels, he picked out the bits which concerned her sons. Prince Henry had made peace with his father and come to England for a visit, but they hadn’t stayed friendly long; in London people expected fighting between them to break out any day; Prince Richard was still in Aquitaine, knocking his barons about, so they said; last time he and his father came to blows, some of the barons hadn’t been as reliable as he wanted, so he was getting them tamed and openly talking about “next time.”
It occurred to Alberic, as he gabbled along, that none of this news made very cheerful hearing for the woman who was the mother of the young men and wife of the old one. But then it was a peculiar situation; husbands locking their wives away and sons fighting against their fathers weren’t heard of every day! She’d asked for news of her sons and he was giving it, as straightly and honestly as he could. Finally he gave her news of her youngest son, John—most women he met were specially attached to their last-born. The news of John couldn’t fail to please her, unless she’d also fallen out with him; he’d been made Governor of Ireland, and there was talk of his having some land on the Continent too.
Eleanor listened without interrupting; she realized that this pedlar could bring her news of what was being said in the alehouses and market squares, but he could never penetrate below the surface; she took his chatter as he had received it, at face value. But when he had gone, with an order for several trivial items not in his pack at that moment, and had promised that he would bring them back and with them any further news he could gather, Eleanor brooded over the mention of John and spoke aloud to Amaria the thoughts which were troubling her.
“What land on the Continent could Henry give to John without taking it from the others? Unless he conquered France—and, surely, even he would never dream that wild dream. Young Henry has Normandy and Anjou—at least he bears the titles; Richard has my lands, Aquitaine and Poitou; Geoffrey has Brittany. What is there left for John?”
Of her four boys she liked him least; indeed, unnatural as it sounded, she liked him hardly at all. Time and again when he was a child, she had found him to be both sly and cruel, and the treatment which, meted out to the others, had at least checked their faults, had had small effect upon his. She’d slippered him just as she had the others, rapped out the same frank rebukes when he displeased her, but he never minded; he slithered away, moaning when he was punished, and then did the very same thing again. A changeling child, even in his appearance, dark, short, fat—in a family of reddish-blond, lean giants. Against that, one must remember that he had what the others lacked entirely, a prodigious, deliberate charm, and a very subtle intelligence which even rage could not throw out of working order. Any one of the other boys, like Henry himself, was capable of throwing away, in a fit of temper, advantages which had cost years of labor to achieve; Eleanor was a master of the art of “cutting off her nose to spite her face”; but John was different. As a child, he had pursued his secret ways, indifferent to punishment or rebuke; as a man, he pursued his own ends, indifferent to jibes or persuasion. Now, if he had set his heart on more land than his position as fourth son entitled him to, he would plot and plan, and smile his secret smile, and swallow insults, all to that end.
At least, she reflected, Alberic’s chatter had given her something outside herself to think about. She was grateful; and, as the months went by, their seasons almost unmarked save by the changes to be seen during the rare visits to the little garden, she had, again and again, reason for gratitude to the pedlar. By some means he had got himself into favor with Nicolas of Saxham and, so far as Eleanor knew, he was never refused admission to her room. Her purchases from his pack were very modest, for she was allowed the smallest amount of spending money, and his profits could hardly have paid him for the time and trouble of the errands he performed. Sometimes she said to him, as she said very often to Amaria, “If ever I regain my freedom, I will make up to you a thousandfold.”
Once or twice he carried letters out for her; once or twice he smuggled letters in; but she was cautious. As dull month followed dull month and the years mounted up, her hatred of Henry grew, swelled into a poisonous growth; but the only revenge left to her—to make further trouble between him and his sons—she shrank from. The memory of the burning town of Poitiers and the deserted countryside around it haunted her. So to Young Henry and Richard, she wrote mild letters which, had they fallen into Henry’s hands, could not possibly have led to further ill feeling. Once, for his birthday, she sent Richard a pair of gloves which she had made from strong supple goatskin, embroidering the backs of the gauntlets with a pattern of pearls from a gladly sacrificed necklace.
It was Alberic who brought her, in the sixth year of her captivity, the news that Louis of France was dead. He had been her husband, they had ridden on crusade together . . . but somehow now, to her, sitting by the smoky fire in her narrow prison, the very memory of him seemed remote, hardly concerned with her at all.
“One thing is quite certain,” she said to Amaria, “his soul is safe. He was a saint at heart. Even when he dragged me away to Jerusalem and lost all hope of making the crusade a success, he did it from the best motives. Angry as I was, I never doubted his integrity for one moment.”
Amaria, sharply conscious that for two women, growing old, locked up together, to begin looking back on the past might be a dangerously depressing business, said briskly,
“Well, they say that Hell is paved with good intentions!”
“And that may be true. I also had good intentions in my time! The thing to remember, Amaria, is that those who make those good intentions are not necessarily the ones who walk that pavement.”
“You’ve not lost your nimble tongue,” Amaria said.
“How could I, with you to practice it upon?” asked Eleanor, smiling affectionately upon the faithful woman. Then her mind returned to the news.
“Things will be different now. Louis was King of France and he hated the King of England, but he was a father too, and he never wholeheartedly approved of boys rebelling against their father—what father would? Now that the King of France is young too, and probably as headstrong as all young men seem to be these days, anything might happen.”
“Well, one thing that might happen, and that would gladden my heart at least,” said Amaria, getting up and dealing the sulky fire a blow which sent a cloud of smoke into the room and a shower of sparks up the chimney, “would be if they all got together and made a rebellion and won a real victory. Then, you, my lady, might get out of this dungeon before your limbs set fast from the damp.”
“It would gladden me more if it could be done peaceably,” said Eleanor, “but that is too much to hope for. And somehow . . . no, no matter, just an idle thought.” She had been on the verge of saying that she felt that Young Henry would never be the one to score a victory over his father and set her free . . . Richard might. But that was no thing for a mother to say.
And there came the time when she was glad that she had never decried Young Henry, even to the faithful Amaria; for the next news from the outer world, brought this time not by Alberic but by special messenger from the King, was that Young Henry was dead. The rebellion which Eleanor had foreseen, with three young men against the elder, had scarcely begun before Henry, the Young King, was stricken down by fever, and died—so it was said—in an agony of repentance. In his last hours he had sent for his father in order to make peace with him; but Henry suspected a trap and did not go. The gay, frivolous, pleasure-loving young man had made a strange gesture of penitence at the end, bidding his servants spread a bed of cinders and lay him upon it.
The sorry news bore heavily upon Eleanor’s already drooping spirits. Her secret preference for Richard—the son most nearly resembling herself—had never blinded her to the charm of his brother; she had loved Henry too. Now, with nothing to distract her thoughts, cut off from the children who remained to her and in whom she might have found comfort, she was in danger of falling into brooding melancholy.
Amaria, ever watchful, was distressed to see how often she would sit, the needle halted in her hands, her eyes staring at nothing and then slowly clouding with tears. “Dear Mother of God,” she would pray, “make something happen to take her mind from her loss.” And she regarded it as a direct answer to prayer when something quite startling did happen—a visit from Prince John.
He arrived, from Amaria’s point of view, in the very nick of time. She had been nagging at Nicolas of Saxham all through the past weeks to grant Eleanor such trivial favors as a change of diet, a little of the wine she loved in place of the ale she loathed, some seasoned logs instead of smoldering green ones for the fire. Often she met with rebuffs; but this morning, windy indeed but with a promise of sunshine, her request for a little outing had been granted, and she had run back to the apartment in high glee to tell her mistress that she might walk in the garden today. Eleanor said,
“You begged for it, didn’t you, out of your good heart?”
Then she walked to the window and looked out.
“All the same, Amaria, I think I shall stay within. It looks very windy . . .”
“But you love the wind! Over and over again you’ve said you love the wind, especially when it blows from the east, from Aquitaine. Why, once, I remember, you said it blew so strong and fast that you could smell the vintage . . .”
“Today it would buffet me,” Eleanor said; and, turning back from the window, she shuddered and wrapped her arms about herself.
Small, apparently trivial as the incident was, it was significant; it marked a step in the wrong direction. Once let apathy set in and we’re finished, Amaria thought . . . once let go and you die. Ten years we’ve borne up hopefully, turning every tiny thing into a treat, holding on doggedly; and we’ve kept our health and our sanity. Ten years . . . like rocks repelling the waves of the sea . . . now, if we start to crumble . . .
She said, with great craftiness, “Well, I’m glad. I always hated the wind. I’ll mend the fire and pull up the screen and we’ll have a nice cozy game of chess. And this morning I shall beat you. You’ll see!”
And even that speech had its bitterness; for lately Eleanor had loosened her grip on the chess game, too.
They had just set out the pieces when a commotion was heard outside, and there was the jailer bowing and scraping and pages pushing and grinning, and in the midst of them . . . John.
He was wise enough not to say anything except the one word “Mother.” No explanation of his presence; no reason for his sudden arrival. There he was, alive and smiling, handsome—all her children were handsome—and beautifully dressed. And, just for a moment, he represented them all, all her brood, the three lovely girls, scattered and married, Henry dead, Richard in Aquitaine, Geoffrey in Brittany.
He made a great bustle; he knew, he said, that his sudden coming might disorganize the domestic arrangements, so he had brought his own provender; he sent everybody scuttling to prepare the feast. And he talked, mainly about Ireland. Afterwards, thinking it over calmly, Eleanor realized that he talked about Ireland as though he had been there through the whole time that she had spent locked up in Winchester. But, while he was there, describing with immense humor the customs and manners of the Irish chieftains, such a thought would have seemed churlish, no less. He brought with him a breath of the outer, busy world; relating news of Joanna in Sicily, of Eleanor in Castile—married to the richest king in the world and spending money gloriously in great buildings, tournaments, and pageantry—of Geoffrey and his children, of Richard and his conquests of the turbulent nobles of Aquitaine. Within an hour he had warmed and changed the whole mental climate. She was no longer the woman who had lost one son to death . . . she was the mother of a flourishing family; she was no longer a prisoner without hope; she was a woman whose youngest son, hitherto somewhat discounted, had come to her rescue. For over the venison, the oranges and the figs, and the familiar, longed-for red wine of Bordeaux which John had brought with him, his talk had changed abruptly from the joking gossip, the giving of news.
“Hitherto,” he said, “my father has treated me kindly—that I must say to give him his due—but as though I were a child. Now things have changed. Since my return from Ireland and Henry’s death, he is more inclined to listen, to take advice . . .”
“Then he has changed as well as the times!”
“But it is so. Dear Mother, the quarrel between you two is hardly a matter for you to discuss with me, your son; but I am certain that, properly handled, it could be mended now.” He propped his elbows on the table and his chin on his linked fingers and eyed her narrowly. A dozen thoughts ran side by side through her mind. Was it, after all, to be John with his cunning, not Richard with his bluntness, who was to open the prison door? Did the mending of the quarrel mean going back to London and taking her place among people who, in order to please Henry, had for ten years believed her to be a murderess, people who had gone about the streets singing songs about her and Fair Rosamonde, songs in which, oddly enough, the little workbox and the embroidery silks had taken an important, but completely legendary place? And did Henry’s new inclination to be advised mean . . . She pushed all the thoughts away and said with something of her old manner,
“John, understand this. Your father wronged me; he accused me falsely; he captured me by trickery; he has kept me a prisoner here for ten years. Sooner than ask him for mercy, or to have mercy asked on my behalf, I would die in this prison. I know what is said and sung about me in the London streets . . . and those words are aimed to please him; that shows what he thinks of me. His wife, Queen of England, I will never be again. If you ask anything for me, ask him to set me free to go back to my own lands.”
“To Poitou where the sun shines, to Aquitaine where the grapes ripen, where Richard rules?” John’s jeweled fingers tightened on the strip of orange peel with which he had been toying, and it broke with a little squelching sound. “Richard is now—don’t forget it—heir to England.” Something gritty and harsh had come to the smooth, pleasant voice. “That is what I mean when I say all things have changed . . . and, in my scheming, I have never lost sight of the fact that you were a Duchess in your own right before ever you were a Queen. Can you trust me to make a move for you in this game, Mother?”
Countless little memories of his trickery, even in very early childhood, swarmed into her mind like wasps, each with its sting. “Slippery John” the other boys had called him.
“What move; and in what game, John?” she asked with something like her old sharpness.
“Ah,” he said with a smile, “who can say? I make my plans as I go along; what the move will be I cannot tell you yet; but the game—well, Getting a Queen out of Pawn would be as good a title as any, don’t you think?”
Suddenly Amaria, who was present, but carefully effacing herself and seeming to give all her attention to the palatable food, looked up and interrupted.
“Oh, madam, let him try. Think what it would mean to be out of this place, free to come and go as we wished, with no bolts and bars and jailers always saying ‘no’ to everything. We’re neither of us getting any younger, and to think of the years wasting away while we linger here . . .” She burst into tears.
“If you will swear to use only peaceable means,” Eleanor said.
“But of course, Mother. I am the one who has never used any other kind. Therein lies my power now.” He spoke the last words softly, gloatingly.
“Very well then; but remember it is justice, not mercy, I ask; justice, and freedom to go back to my own land.”
“That you shall have, I promise,” John said.
TWO DAYS LATER SHE WAS on her way back to Westminster. She was Regent of England.
Richard had wasted no time. His first action when the news of Henry’s death reached him had been to send William the Marshal speeding to England with orders to go straight to Winchester and rescue the Queen from prison. He, Richard, must stay in Normandy, to bury the dead King and receive the homage of all the vassals of Normandy and Anjou—men who, up to yesterday, had been fighting against him; and the Queen was to act for him, to have complete power in England until he was free to come to London.
William the Marshal was the most honest and the most famous knight in England. He had laid his hands between Henry’s and taken the oath of allegiance, and he had kept it faithfully. It was he who in the recent battle had had Richard for a moment in his power—but he had seen, in that moment, not the rebellious prince, but the King’s son; he had deflected his blow and killed Richard’s horse.
Henry’s death ended the war, and Richard and William the Marshal met next by the side of the bed where the great King, Henry the Lawgiver, lay dead.
“Last time we met, Marshal,” Richard said, “you tried to kill me.” He made the comment without malice . . . just a statement of how things had changed. William, utterly straightforward, without trace of cunning or trickery, said,
“I killed your horse, Sire. I could as easily have killed you, had I wished.”
It was all said in that one simple sentence; and Richard, no mean judge of men, knew all that it meant. William the Marshal was the King’s man; one inherited him as one inherited the crown.
“I bear you no grudge,” he said. And he sent him to England with his orders.
William the Marshal carried them out with such speed that he tried to leap on the Channel-crossing boat before it had been tied to the landing stage, and he was very lame from the injury to his leg when he arrived at Winchester late in the evening of the day of Kate’s rescue. His coming, like the wave of a magic wand, changed everything.
As the Queen rode, this time well escorted, along the summer roads, people flocked to see her. In every town and village, at every crossroads, they had gathered to look upon this woman about whom, for so many years, there had been such rumors and counterrumors, such speculation, and such argument. And when they had done staring, they cheered her and waved their hands, and called, “Heaven save Your Grace,” or knelt for a moment and, crossing themselves, murmured, “God save the Queen.”
Some of the enthusiasm was the easy-come, easy-go emotion of a crowd moving with the time; but much of it was genuine. Eleanor’s feeling that the instinct for justice in the English would eventually turn in her favor had been right enough; in many places, from the City of London to lonely farmhouses, there were people who had thought her ill-used, imprisoned unjustly, and who had always referred to her as “the poor Queen.” It was to these that she came most as a surprise; expecting to see a poor, broken-down, old woman (she was sixty-seven, an immense age for those times), ruined in health and looks by her long ordeal, dazzled, and perhaps somewhat overcome by her sudden change of fortune, they saw instead an upright, vital figure of truly royal dignity. She was very thin and very pale, but this fleshlessness and pallor gave her fine-boned face something of the quality of marble, a classic beauty of form with its arrogant nose and smooth brow and hollowed, long-lidded eyes. Even in her prison gown and stuff veil, she was impressive—imagine, they whispered to one another, how fine she would look in proper robes, glittering with jewels.
A trivial happening, just on the London side of Guildford, sealed her popularity, especially with the poor, and spread it among thousands who would never see her face.
Through towns and villages, or past groups by the roadside they rode slowly, but, between times, they made a rattling pace because Eleanor was anxious to get to London and begin the work of receiving—in Richard’s name—the homage of the great nobles; and prepare for the coronation, which she was determined should outshine any previous ceremony. So, with Guildford behind them, and an almost deserted road ahead, they were making good speed when they met a trio of men. The one in the center had his hands tied together with a rope, and the man on each side held one end of it; all three were covered with the whitish grey dust of the road, and the sweat had channelled through it on their faces.
A prisoner of some sort, Eleanor realized with a quick stab of sympathy. To be going dungeonwards on such a fine hot day.
She reined in beside the three men, who had stepped humbly into the verge of the road to allow this impressive company to pass.
“Where are you taking him?” she asked.
The older of the two rope-holders said—and she noticed that he spoke without pleasure in his task—,
“To Guildford jail, my lady.”
“For what fault?”
The man cleared his throat and assumed a pompous, official voice.
“In that on Saturday last, he entered the King’s forest, accompanied by his hound and armed with a bow and arrow, in pursuit of a hind. He stands convicted of an offense against the forest laws of His Grace.”
“The beast had trampled and ravished my oat patch twice over,” the prisoner said in a flat, matter-of-fact voice.
“And his sentence?”
Before the older man, the village constable, could speak, the prisoner said in that same voice,
“On me, six months in jail; on my wife and four children, death, for they will surely starve.”
The two other men nodded solemnly. With their oat patch ruined and no man to do day labor to make good the loss—yes, they would starve, for in six months it would be winter, when even the most charitable neighbors would have little to give away.
“Turn him loose,” Eleanor said. They stared, bewildered, not moving. Even the man seemed either not to realize or to doubt his good fortune. The constable, recovering a little, mumbled something about the manor court.
“By the Queen’s order,” said William the Marshal.
They loosed the rope willingly enough, and the man fell on his knees, sobbing and calling down the blessing of Heaven upon the merciful Queen.
“That shall be my first act,” Eleanor said as they rode on again. “As you will understand, I have a fellow feeling for all those who lie in jail. Thieves and murderers and those who give short measure, it might be wrong to turn loose on the community—but all those whose only fault is trespass against the game laws, they are to be freed forthwith.”
There were thousands of them, for Henry’s forest laws had been strict and brutal; and every one of the released men went home to his family, his village or hamlet, a Queen’s man for life and death. Richard’s man, too—and that was all to the good, for Richard, who had spent his life abroad, who had rebelled against his father and caused so much strife, had no ready-made popularity awaiting him in England; that must be built up, layer by layer, largely by Richard’s mother.
© 1983 Norah Lofts