Authors: Ellen Jones
She began to speak, obviously choosing her words with care. “Your only brother is dead. Once your esteemed grandfather, Duke William, has passed on, your father will inherit the duchy of Aquitaine. But after him, who is left? Only you and your younger sister. Unfortunately, your father’s reckless nature and outspoken temperament are well known. Should anything happen to him—Heaven forfend—you, as the eldest child, follow next in line to inherit Aquitaine. Naturally one assumes your father will marry again and have other sons, but meanwhile …” The abbess released Eleanor’s chin.
Confused, Eleanor could not take in the import of the words. “Marry again? You mean—a new mother to replace mine?” The possibility of such a betrayal was so shattering she felt quite breathless.
“Come, don’t look so astounded. Duke William is getting on in years now, and God will soon call him to His bosom. But your father has many years left—if his headstrong spirit can be bridled—and is sure to want a male heir for Aquitaine.”
“Instead—you mean instead of me?” The world teetered on a knife-edge. A bottomless pit yawned beneath her. An unknown mother? New brothers to replace little William? Total strangers ruling in Aquitaine? The chamber whirled, and Eleanor grasped the polished wood of the table in front of her.
“That is the way of the world. Not that I approve this time-honored custom that favors sons to inherit their fathers’ lands. Women are just as capable. That is to say women of some education.”
The chamber righted itself. The abbess swooped to the door.
“I don’t want a new mother,” said Eleanor in a fierce voice she did not herself recognize. “Or a new brother. You said—if that doesn’t happen then would Aquitaine be mine?”
A long silence ensued, during which Reverend Mother regarded Eleanor thoughtfully. “What I said was that you are, at the moment, next in line. Although the likelihood of you ever ruling the duchy is indeed remote, there is no law in Aquitaine forbidding women to inherit.”
Eleanor stared at her. “So—so I could then?”
“Anything is possible. But if you want to be a successful duchess, you will need your wits about you. The English king Alfred put it very well: ‘Unlettered king, crowned ass.’ This applies to any ruler. Therefore, it behooves you to continue your education …”
Despite the turmoil bubbling inside her, Eleanor shot the abbess a grudging look of respect. Reverend Mother always got her way in the end. Nor, Eleanor realized, did she disagree.
her journey to Poitiers she would most certainly return to the convent to continue her studies. If she was going to prevent Aquitaine from falling into the hands of a stranger, she would indeed need her wits about her.
The Vespers bell sounded.
“Go now.” The abbess opened the door. “Pray to Our Lady for what you want. She knows how to answer our prayers.” A fleeting smile touched her mouth. “I will join mine to yours.”
Instantly, the severe look returned. But Eleanor, who from the beginning had regarded Reverend Mother as the most formidable opponent ever encountered, knew that she had found an unexpected ally.
After going to the St. Benoit Chapel with Sister Cecile, where she tried her best to pray, Eleanor said she did not want any supper, and went to look for the equerry. She ran alongside the high stone wall that enclosed the abbey, past the fish pond, vegetable garden, granary, mill, and dovecote. In the hazy distance she caught a glimpse of the monks’ quarters, separate from the nuns’, and a long line of black-robed figures heading for the refectory.
She reached the guest quarters where she found Conon, a young equerry with hair like thick straw, who served her father. He lay asleep on a pallet, his black boots covered with dust. Eleanor prodded him with the toe of her shoe. He woke with a start.
“Is it true? Are my mother and brother really dead?”
Conon stumbled to his feet. “Yes, Mistress.” He bowed his head and crossed himself.
“How? No one sent to tell me they were ill.”
“There was no time, as it was very sudden and unexpected. Your mother and brother went on an excursion one afternoon. It was very hot, the food they had with them may have spoiled—several servitors also fell ill and died. All that is known is by the next morning both had fever and complained of severe stomach pains. The physicians could do nothing. Within a fortnight both had died.”
Tears appeared in Conon’s eyes. Eleanor felt a heavy weight settle on her chest.
“Your grandparents are inconsolable. The entire court is plunged into mourning. It is feared your sister may pine away, so great is her grief. Duke William has even composed a lament in honor of the sad occasion.” Conon wiped his eyes and began to hum a few notes.
“And my father?”
Conon put a hand over his heart and closed his eyes. “Undone by grief. My lord has not touched food or drink for a sennight. He weeps constantly. Mistress, you have never seen such despair. It is feared he will die of a broken heart—even now they are readying his coffin—”
It was the typical Aquitainian way of describing events, most of which could be discounted. Still, there was probably a kernel of truth in Conon’s tale. In such a state her moody, unpredictable father might do anything—Eleanor suddenly had a vision of him surrounded by the slew of well-born women who attended her mother. All eager to comfort him, to become the next duchess when her grandfather, Duke William, died. Her blood froze. She
return without delay.
“Do take me with you when you leave, Conon.”
“But I understood from Duke William that you were to remain.”
“Please, Conon.” Her lower lip began to tremble. He had to take her. He could not refuse. “Surely you see that I cannot stay here now.”
“What will the duke say if I disobey his orders? Moreover, I travel first to Châtellerault to inform your uncles. Now, if I had a valid reason to take you with me …”
Eleanor closed her eyes, gasped, and held both sides of her head between her hands. “I will go from my wits if I cannot go home—I may fall mortally ill …” She began to sway back and forth.
Conon nodded. “Very well, Mistress, I will tell the duke that with my own eyes I saw you fall into a dead faint, and fearing for your life I undertook to disobey his orders. But in the event he does not accept this, you must intercede on my behalf.”
“I promise. Thank you, thank you.” Weak with relief, Eleanor threw her arms around the equerry. She was going home.
When Eleanor arrived in Poitiers three days later, the castle was in its usual state of uproar, almost exactly as she had left it a year ago.
“I’m so glad you’re here, Nell,” said six-year-old Petronilla without surprise when Eleanor appeared in the courtyard, covered with dust from the journey. “Maman and William have gone away and aren’t ever coming back.” Her sister’s face was streaked with dirt and her eyes rimmed with red. “No one tells me what to do now.” She threw herself into Eleanor’s arms. “I knew you would come.”
Eleanor’s whole world had tumbled apart, yet here everything appeared the same. The courtyard was still crowded with servants drawing water from the well; hens squawked loudly; falconers aired their charges; fewterers walked the greyhounds and wolfhounds back and forth. Everyone crowded around her offering sympathy; even the fat cook waddled out to hug her.
After searching through the castle, Eleanor finally found her father in the stables. A giant of a man with azure eyes and a head of corn gold hair, he gave her a gloomy, puzzled look.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at Fontevrault, Nell?”
“I—uhh—I felt I should come home, and persuaded Conon to take me. It wasn’t his fault.”
He nodded absently. “Perhaps it is for the best. I don’t know what to do about Petronilla. Not much of a homecoming, I fear.” He patted her affectionately on the head, then gave her a big hug. “I’m glad to see you, Daughter. Your poor mother—and little William—both gone.” He began to sob.
“I know, Father.” She could not bear to see him so distraught.
He gave a tremulous sigh and wiped his eyes. “What will I do? I must have an heir.” He bit his lip and shook his head. “Well, I’m off to the Limousin. The barons there are causing unrest, worse than usual. Those conniving bastards can certainly pick their moment. And the whoreson king of France has ordered your grandfather to appear before him to answer one of his ridiculous charges. Between ourselves, mind, the duke is unwell, not up to either journey, so I must go in his place. What a coil. You must look after yourself, and Petronilla too.”
“What are you doing here, Nell?” asked her grandfather, Duke William, that night at supper in the great hall of the Maubergeonne Tower.
“Reverend Mother—Reverend Mother thought I should come home.”
Her grandfather’s hair, once bright as sunlight, was now faded. His face, usually bronzed from wind and weather, looked pale and old. Duke William, whom everyone affectionately called the Troubadour, glanced at her from blue eyes not quite as piercing as they once had been. “Expressly against my instructions? I think not. If you must lie, at least learn to do it with more finesse. Still, I am glad to see you, child. I hear you are Fontevrault’s prize pupil now. Well done.”
He turned to the guests at the high table. “For a while I feared Nell might be booted out of the abbey school. Unruly behavior, I was told.” He rolled his eyes. “Distracting the worthy monks from their prayers more likely, if she’s any granddaughter of mine, eh, poppet?” He kissed the hand of a lady seated beside him—she had embroidered green ribbons plaited into her braids—winked at a smiling beauty across the table, and, although Eleanor could not be sure, squeezed the thigh of a noble’s wife sitting on his other side.
“Really, my lord,” said the archbishop of Poitou in a disapproving voice.
Eleanor suspected that if her imperious grandmother, closeted in her own quarters which she rarely left, had been present, the duke might have been more restrained. When everyone joined in the laughter that followed, she felt confused. She had come home to protect what was left of the world she had known. Her father and Petronilla were distraught, but otherwise the atmosphere was as gay and carefree as she remembered. Why did no one mourn her mother? Inside her chest a dam burst. Tears flooded down her cheeks. For the first time it was blazingly, horribly real. Her mother was dead.
There was a moment of silence except for the sound of her sobbing. She could see all the heads at the table turn toward her.
“It’s a great shame about your mother and brother.” Duke William crossed himself. “Tragic. But ‘Least said, soonest mended.’ Pay attention to people when they are alive, I always say, not after they’re gone. We must find you a new mother, my child, the sooner the better. Your father needs to sire an heir, and—”
Eleanor choked on a sob which silenced him.
The conversation continued. No one was paying any attention to her now. Eleanor brushed the tears from her eyes and looked around for her father’s younger brother. Raymond would surely understand and comfort her. But he was not at the high table, nor had she caught a glimpse of him since she had returned.
“Where’s Uncle Raymond?”
“Gone to King Henry’s court in England to seek his fortune,” said her grandfather. “In truth, my incorrigible young son had dallied with one wife too many. There was an irate husband at his heels, and he barely escaped over the border into Anjou.” He sighed. “Let us hope the English court has a sobering influence, and that Raymond will grow more circumspect with age.”
“I doubt it! How far can the apple fall from the tree?” someone shouted in a voice slurred with wine. “In any case, the English king has so many of his own bastards hanging about that he sets a poor example.”
Duke William repressed a smile. “Shocking. Perhaps I should have sent Raymond to the papal Court?”
A great burst of laughter followed this.
“Really, my lord, a most unsuitable conversation before the child.” The archbishop of Poitou looked down his nose.
“Quite right, quite right. The worthy archbishop is trying to help me lift the ban of excommunication I’ve labored under all these years.” He gave Eleanor a sly wink. “In exchange I have promised to mend my ways. Whatever one has done during one’s life, it is prudent to expire in the bosom of Holy Church.”
Duke William, the Troubadour, began to strum his lute and sing a canso of his own composing in the slightly cracked but always thrilling voice that Eleanor loved. Tonight, however, even her grandfather’s music could not dispel her loneliness and heartache. She had been very fond of her uncle Raymond, only eight years older than herself and a jolly companion. She missed him almost as much as she missed her mother.
Her grandfather finished his song with a flourish of chords and much applause. Then: “What was I saying?”
“You mentioned the bosom of the Church,” said the archbishop with a complacent smile.
“Ah! Less alluring than some bosoms I’ve known, I must confess. Speaking of which,” said Duke William, and he started on one of his stories.
While the hall rocked with laughter, the archbishop, red as a squawking gobbler, grabbed Eleanor’s hand and half-dragged her, protesting, from the hall.
Over the next few weeks Eleanor became increasingly aware that she might as well have stayed at Fontevrault. No one paid her any attention, including her father. He had returned after ten days, morose and frustrated, having lost a skirmish with the battling nobles of the Limousin. He stormed about the castle, refused to attend the French king’s summons in the duke’s stead, and made himself thoroughly disagreeable. Fulfilling Eleanor’s worst fears, the attendant women spent much of their time trying to console him.
“One of those silly peahens is hoping to marry him,” Eleanor said, watching Petronilla stuff her mouth with marchpane.
They were in the kitchen, where the fat cook always made them welcome.
“Don’t want him to marry again,” said her sister, spittle dribbling down her chin. “No one tells us what to do now. I like that.”
“You’ll make yourself sick with all those sweets,” said Eleanor. “I don’t want him to marry again either. No one can take our mother’s place. Reverend Mother says I’m now the heir. If father gets another son I won’t be.”