Authors: Ellen Jones
For the first time Abbé Bernard looked uncomfortable. “I have heard that Satan often uses a candle as his instrument of temptation.”
With an exclamation of pretended horror Eleanor crossed herself.
Before she left the chapel Bernard showed her the penitential codes. He pointed out that though a great number of lines were devoted to the sins of adultery, sodomy, and bestiality, by far the greatest was devoted to the sin of self-abuse as practiced by laymen. Because she read Latin, Eleanor noticed a whole other section that appeared to deal with self-abuse as practiced by the clergy, before Bernard quickly closed the book. She repressed a smile. So men of God were not immune to the same needs that pricked her own flesh.
“Curb your carnality, woman,” warned Bernard, “lest you fall into the sin of onanism, or self-abuse, which I consider to be worse than adultery. I will give you a forty-day penance and I enjoin you to pray to the Holy Virgin, day and night, to make you fruitful. I also advise a pilgrimage to a holy shrine.”
After this discussion, Louis was granted dispensations that permitted him to bed her five days of the week, although he rarely took advantage of this relaxation. Eleanor, on the other hand, found ways, unsatisfactory as they were, to temporarily dispel her own torments. This led her to wonder, not for the first time, if the strictures of the Church did not, in practice, often lead people to the very sins they wished to prevent.
Eleanor did not conceive but had no intention of visiting a holy shrine nor of observing the forty days of penance. Quite unexpectedly another solution offered itself.
One day in late autumn, as she shopped with her women in the marketplace at a draper’s stall, she overheard two well-dressed Parisian women talk of a visiting seeress, a gypsy woman from Moorish Spain, who was reputed to have success as a teller of fortunes.
When Eleanor returned to the palace she ordered one of her servitors from Poitiers to return to the marketplace and discreetly inquire about this gypsy. After several hours he returned with the information that the woman did indeed exist and where she could be located. The seeress spent much of her time traveling throughout Europe, he said, and had come to Paris in secret. In the south, gypsies were readily accepted. In France, Eleanor knew that the Church was particularly hostile to the seeress’s race as well as to the gypsies’ gift of second sight, which the Holy Fathers deemed witchcraft.
Eleanor dismissed the servant, sent for Petronilla, and persuaded her to accompany her on a visit to the seeress.
A week later when Louis was out of Paris to inspect a newly installed stained glass window at Chartres, Eleanor and Petronilla slipped out of the palace one chill November evening after dusk. Innocent of jewelry, fustian cloaks covering plain linen gowns, they looked like ordinary women of burgher status. Two Poitevin grooms and the servitor from Poitiers, sworn to secrecy, accompanied them on foot.
Eleanor had rarely explored Paris after dark. There were not many people abroad, she noticed, and those who were seemed anxious to avoid them. This gave the whole venture an added spice of danger and excitement. They passed through dark twisted alleys until they came to a narrow wooden house on a winding street beside the banks of the Seine. The dark street was filled with river fog; the light from a sickle moon cast mysterious shadows on the ground. They knocked and the door was immediately opened by a handsome youth with dark hair and swarthy skin who said he would take them to his grandmother.
Petronilla was afraid and refused to see the seeress, preferring, she said, to wait outside the chamber with their attendants. Also fearful, but still determined, Eleanor entered alone. The seeress, wearing many skirts in violet, rose, and deep purple colors, was seated on a divan piled high with cushions. A brass lamp burning a naked flame lay on a low table in front of her. She motioned for Eleanor to sit on a stool on the other side of the table. The woman’s face was in shadow but she appeared to be very old. Her head was loosely covered with a black shawl, and Eleanor glimpsed golden hoops dangling from her ears.
“What I want to know—” Eleanor began in a trembling voice.
“I know what you want, granddaughter of the Troubadour,” the woman interjected in a heavily accented tongue.
Eleanor was shocked into silence. How did the woman know who she was?
The woman chuckled softly, pleased at the effect she had created. “Your grandfather and father were always kind to my people, which is why I consented to see you. Give me your hand.” She stretched out an arm ringed almost to the elbow with jangling gold bracelets.
Eleanor held out a shaking hand. The woman grasped it in warm brown fingers, surprisingly strong and reassuring. A moment later Eleanor found herself telling the old woman everything about her marital relations with Louis and her fears that with such a husband she would never produce a son.
“You will have many sons,” the old woman said in a crooning voice, gazing into Eleanor’s palm. “It is written here quite clearly. But not with the man to whom you are now wedded.” She looked up. Above the flickering flame her eyes, bright as ebony beads, met Eleanor’s. “Much about you is revealed. For instance, in the ignorance of youth you seek to lose yourself in love, to burn with passion’s flame. Beware, for such a love carries within it the seeds of its own destruction and may well be your undoing.”
The old woman’s words reminded Eleanor of Bernard of Clairvaux, and she was tempted to close her ears.
“Beware, as well, of a need for power, which—”
“Where is this man who will give me sons?” Eleanor interjected. She had not come to hear a sermon. “When will I meet him? Is it to be soon?”
The seeress smiled and let go of Eleanor’s hand. “Not very soon, I think. At the moment he is only nine years old.” She paused. Her smile faded; her eyes closed. Swaying back and forth in a kind of snakelike trance her words came forth in a soft hiss.
“Child of the sun, you will undertake many hazardous journeys and suffer much heartbreak, beyond that of most women. Four—yes, four kings will you know and two alien lands, but the road ahead is filled with treachery and stained with blood.” Her voice became silent.
After a few moments the gypsy opened her eyes and held out her hand.
Deeply shaken, Eleanor dropped several silver coins into the curled fingers. “Your words—what do they mean?”
The seeress’s eyes, opaque and unblinking, held Eleanor’s. “I speak that which I see; meaning is beyond my powers. But this I know: You have been given the strength to bear what must be borne. Others who cross your path may be less fortunate. You cast a long shadow, Lady—and will endure.”
Eleanor rose to her feet and stumbled out of the room as in a dream. All the way back to the castle the seeress’s words drummed through her mind. From some far-off place she sensed a breath of anguish, an aura of impending doom so faint, so fragile, a heartbeat later she wondered if she had ever felt it at all.
HE CART BOUNCED OVER
a rut in the road. Henry of Anjou, jolted awake, poked his head up through the straw to see a pearly dawn break over the wooded English countryside. He pushed aside a wooden cage of clucking chickens and several wheels of white cheese then sat up, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. They had left Wallingford at Matins. Surely they should be nearing London by now?
“Are we getting close?” he called softly to the driver of the cart.
Old Anson turned his black-capped head and glowered. “Keep your head down, Master Henry, for Lord’s sake, how many times must I tell ye we be in enemy territory? Aye, soon be there by me reckoning.”
London! At long last he would finally see for himself this noble and celebrated city that his mother had told him about, the city which, more than any other, represented his birthright. When Henry had heard that London lay less than a day’s journey from Wallingford where he was currently staying with his mother and uncle, he had been determined to see it for himself—despite the ongoing civil war between his mother and the cousin who had usurped her throne, King Stephen. Due to the danger involved he had been strictly forbidden to leave the castle grounds.
The dawn mist was just starting to burn off and Henry, wide awake now, inhaled deep breaths of the spring air as he looked around him. The trees were still barren of leaves but there was the loamy scent of sap rising and the earth had already put forth young green shoots. As far as he could tell the road was deserted.
“There’s no one about to see me, Anson,” Henry said.
“Sleeping, wasn’t ye? We passed a party o’ pilgrims a ways back, a cart or two going to market same as us, and a litter accompanied by armed knights. Next time could be a band o’ the king’s Flemish mercenaries. Suppose they stop us and ye get caught? Can’t ye get it through ye head, Master Henry, there be skirmishes raging all about us! Now if ye don’t keep down like I says we goes straight back to Wallingford.” He leaned over to spit on the ground. “Must’ve been addled in me wits to ever let ye and Master William talk me into this harebrained foolishness.”
Henry gnawed at his lip. The old man was quite capable of doing what he said. “I’ll be careful.”
The only response was a doubtful snort.
Henry prodded his cousin, William of Gloucester, with his elbow. “Wake up. We’ll soon be there.”
William, eldest son of Henry’s uncle, Earl Robert of Gloucester, sat up with a yawn, scratched his crop of nut brown hair, and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.
“God’s eyes, mind where you go.” Henry carefully moved a straw basket of eggs. “Anson’ll kill us if we upset his precious eggs.” He lowered his voice. “He saw some armed knights ride by and now he’s talking about Flemish mercenaries. I think he’s scared.”
“Of course he’s scared. Do you blame him?” William shivered. “This journey’s filled with danger. Even though you seem to regard it as nothing but a lark.”
Henry, loath to admit the possibility of any real danger, wished he had kept silent. He watched the fields and undulating downs stitched with countless hedges stretch away to the purple horizon. Not once in all the days of cajoling and finally bribing Old Anson, chief wheelwright in the village of Wallingford, to take William and himself to London had he given serious thought to the possible consequences of getting caught. Of course, he
London was held by his mother’s arch-enemy, King Stephen, but the fact had no real meaning for him.
Aware that he was able to persuade most people into doing what he wanted, the risks involved did not concern him. Or so Henry’s father, the count of Anjou, never tired of telling him over and over and over again. Thoughtless. Reckless. Foolhardy. These were only a few of the count’s favorite expressions when it came to his son and heir. It was a good thing he paid them so little mind or he would never make
“Well, I’m not,” Henry said with an air of defiance.
“You would be if you had any sense. If you’d lived here these past four years, instead of only a few months, you’d have reason to be afraid, let me tell you.”
“I didn’t think you were a coward, Cousin.”
William threw a fistful of straw at him. “Hold your tongue, boy. You’re only ten. I’m thirteen and soon to be knighted. Treat me with proper respect or I’ll make you sorry.”
Henry scowled, hating to be reminded of his age. Had it really been so long as William said? He reckoned on his fingers: Stephen usurped his mother’s throne in 1135; she had set sail for England in 1139 to reclaim it. It was now 1143. Four years. His cousin was right.
Henry watched William collapse on the straw and stare at a pale blue sky streaked with wisps of white cloud. “God’s teeth, if my father ever finds out about this I won’t be able to sit for a week.” He glanced at Henry. “And if your mother gets wind of it—in truth, Cousin, I’d rather deal with my father ten times over than explain to my aunt Maud why I let you talk me into risking our lives just to show you London. I might even prefer dealing with the Flemings.”
The cart swayed as it labored up a hill. Below lay the green and blue reflection of the Thames River. Henry knew exactly what William meant.
Yesterday, when his mother and uncle had suddenly been called away from Wallingford, leaving William and himself in the care of an overburdened castellan, Henry had decided the time was ripe for his planned escapade. Such a moment might not come again. But the possibility, remote as it was, of having to face his formidable mother was so daunting that he instantly retreated from the thought.
He sent William a sullen look. “I’m supposed to be heir to the throne, king of England one day. I just want to see London, my future capital. Is that so terrible, I ask you?”
“God’s teeth! Do you forget that London is violently opposed to your mother and all things Angevin? What do you think would happen if King Stephen got his hands on you?”
Since Henry had never entertained such a possibility he had no ready answer.
“Well, I’ll tell you, blockhead,” William continued. “You’d be held for ransom; the war would be over; your mother’s cause lost, and all the misery and fighting we’ve endured over here on your behalf would have been for nothing. Do you understand? Nothing! My father’s lands would be confiscated, your mother would never be queen, and even if Stephen let you live, you would never be king of England.”
There was a note of bitterness in William’s voice that Henry had never heard before. He wondered if his cousin blamed his mother for returning to England to fight for her crown, thus plunging the country into civil war.
“You shouldn’t have come if you think it’s so dangerous.”
“Someone with sense had to look after you.”
Henry threw himself on William and began to pummel him with both fists. William punched him in the nose with such force Henry could hardly breathe.
“I don’t need any looking after,” Henry said, gasping. “Nor to be kept out of danger. I was sent here to be a rallying point for my mother’s supporters. Everyone knows I’m going to be king of England one day. How can anything happen to me?”