Authors: Ellen Jones
“I would rather Aquitaine belonged to you, Sister, than anyone.”
Eleanor reached over and kissed Petronilla’s sticky cheek.
Shortly after her father’s return, Eleanor’s grandmother, Dangereuse, her mother’s mother, asked to see her alone. Uncle Raymond had told Eleanor that Dangereuse had been married to one of Duke William’s vassals when the duke carried her off many years ago and installed her as his mistress in Poitiers. At the time he was married to Philippa of Toulouse, mother of his seven children, who created a storm of protest. The resulting scandal was such that in order to achieve a degree of respectability, Raymond said, his father hastily married his mistress’s daughter by the vassal to his eldest son, then sixteen years of age. Eleanor was their first child.
Although its exact nature eluded her, Eleanor knew that her grandparents had committed a grave sin—which the Church was still trying to rectify. She had heard the servants gossiping in corners that against all reason and God’s judgment, the wayward grandmother still kept a siren hold on Duke William of Aquitaine. The adulteress did it by witchcraft, they whispered, by magic potions and spells. Not that Eleanor believed this. Still, it endowed Dangereuse with an air of mystery that made Eleanor more than a little afraid of her.
On a hot afternoon the last week in August, she climbed the winding staircase to the top of the Maubergeonne Tower where Dangereuse had her own quarters. Eleanor had not seen her grandmother since returning from the abbey—one only visited her when summoned. The chamber floor was covered with rushes mixed with crushed gillyflowers and ivory lilies. Silver basins and jugs graced the gleaming oak tables. Clad in a robe trimmed with miniver and ermine, her still-beautiful grandmother lay on a canopied bed under an embroidered green-and-gold coverlet. Her luxuriant chestnut hair, streaked with wings of white, cascaded over her frail shoulders. She extended one languid white hand. In the other, she held a silver mirror, turning it this way and that while she examined her narrow face with its high cheekbones and unnaturally pink lips.
“I am glad to see you, child.” Eleanor kissed the proffered hand which smelled deliciously of rose water. “I hope all those nuns haven’t flogged the spirit out of you?” She gave Eleanor a penetrating look. “I can see they have not. It is safe for you to return to Fontevrault before too long, and continue your education.”
When Eleanor started to protest, Dangereuse held up an imperious hand. “Do not argue. Important for a woman to be lettered. It makes her equal in knowledge. Knowledge is power.”
Still looking at the mirror, she licked a finger and smoothed down one arched eyebrow. “How do you find your father? I have hardly set eyes on him.”
Tears of bitterness welled up in Eleanor’s eyes. “My father is always gone and when he’s not he’s in a foul mood. My grandfather ignores me. The servants who are supposed to tend us are always off gossiping. I miss my mother.”
“So do I, but life must go forward.” She put down the mirror and peered at Eleanor. “Sweet St. Radegonde, I hope you are not going to start feeling sorry for yourself. There is nothing I hate more than a whining female. If you do not care for the way things are, change them.”
She ran distasteful fingers through Eleanor’s thick tangle of chestnut curls. “Just look at you! What man will pay attention to a dirty, unkempt ragamuffin? Wash your hair with vinegar.” She ran a veined hand over Eleanor’s cheeks and forehead. “Such exquisite skin, like ivory and peaches, but I see spots and freckles. Too much sun and too many sweetmeats.”
“No one notices what we eat or if we eat at all.”
Dangereuse rapped Eleanor sharply across the knuckles. “The first lesson you must learn is that it is a woman’s business to get herself noticed.”
“How? How?” With a contemptuous snort, her grandmother picked up the mirror again. “Those that must ask will never know.”
“My father talks of marrying again. Having sons.”
Dangereuse shrugged and pulled a face at the mirror. “What of it? Men always talk of marrying and having sons. Apart from war and seduction it is their only other occupation.”
“But I could not abide a new mother—or brother.”
“Of course not.” She gave an amused cackle. “You would be pushed aside then for good, wouldn’t you? I suspect you want the duchy for yourself.”
“No! I mean, yes—I mean, I do want—”
Her eyes, pale green flecked with brown, oddly tilted at the corners like a cat—or a witch—silenced Eleanor with a withering glance.
“Foolish child! So full of yourself. How can you know what you want? What do you understand of such matters? In three centuries of rule, despite its vast array of riches, the duchy has always been a source of trouble and strife to its dukes. Aquitania, the Romans called it, for the many rivers that abound. Hah! Rivers of blood would be more apt.”
“I would hate strangers ruling here,” Eleanor whispered, baffled by her grandmother’s words. “I love the duchy.”
“So do I. Which makes us both fools. But you will not get much joy from this paradise, I assure you.” Dangereuse sniffed, then shrugged. “ ‘Wild goose never reared tame gosling.’ What else did I expect?” After a significant pause she picked up the mirror again and examined herself. “In the absence of a male heir, women may inherit in Aquitaine. Thus, there is no reason—no legal reason—why, if your father does not marry again and produce a son, you should not have the duchy. If you are clever enough. Which remains to be seen.” Her gaze left the mirror and raked Eleanor’s face. “To get what you want you must take matters into your own hands. But to do that you must first get yourself noticed. If, as a female, you cannot accomplish such a simple task then I wash my hands of you.” She leaned forward until her face almost touched Eleanor’s, who felt her heart thump. “I may not leave my own quarters, but I cast a long shadow, child. When I speak, my lord listens—”
There was a knock on the door and Duke William entered, carrying a bouquet of pink summer roses. Her grandmother quickly waved Eleanor away.
“My dearest, how lovely you look today, quite like a young maid. Nell paying you a visit, is she?” He sat down on the bed, took Dangereuse’s frail hand in his, and laid it tenderly against his cheek. “I had a sudden longing to see you with roses in your hair.”
“William,” murmured her grandmother, her face suddenly youthful and radiant.
They gazed at each other while the duke snapped off the heads of several roses and began to twine them in her hair. Eleanor knew they had forgotten her presence. She crept to the door of the chamber passionately wishing that someone, someday, would love her as much as her grandfather loved her grandmother.
She was out the door when she heard Dangereuse call out to her, “Tell my new chaplain, Master Andre, to start teaching you how to read and write Provencal. One may as well be prepared for all eventualities. In the unlikely event you surprise me.”
During the next few days, Eleanor wandered distractedly about the castle, half-expecting any moment to meet her mother round the corner of a passage, see her presiding at the high table, or sewing with her women in the solar. Despite the fact that she had bathed in a hot tub of water and washed her hair with vinegar, she was still ignored.
She ate what she wanted—omitting sweetmeats—and did as she pleased. When she fell ill after stuffing herself with unripe apples, no one seemed very concerned. She rode her pony over forbidden fences, half-hoping she would fall and hurt herself so someone would pay attention. She persuaded the head falconer to teach her to fly sparrow hawks, and no one stopped her. When she and the steward’s son were caught buck naked together examining each other’s differences, the steward thrashed his son, but just warned her to start behaving like the lady she was. As far as she knew he never told anyone of the incident. Her father and grandfather, constantly preoccupied with the never-ending troubles in Aquitaine and their bitter quarrels with Fat Louis of France, appeared to have forgotten her existence.
She could think of no way to remind them.
One day her father left on a journey to Bordeaux.
“Please let me go with you,” she begged.
“What would I do with you? I have vassals to tend to, revenues to collect, cases to judge—” He shook his head.
To her surprise Eleanor missed Fontevrault: she missed her lessons, the harmonious surroundings, the sisters gliding through the grounds like a flock of black starlings. Most of all, to her even greater astonishment, she missed the calm, authoritative presence of Reverend Mother. Her only consolation was the instruction she received from Master Andre, the young chaplain.
One day about a month after she had returned from Fontevrault, sour-faced Aunt Agnes, one of her father’s five sisters, arrived from Maillezais, ten leagues distant.
“Just look at you, Eleanor,” she said, marching into the chamber where Eleanor and her sister slept. “When was the last time you put on a clean gown? I’ve a good mind to take you and Petronilla back home with me. Your grandfather’s court is no place for untended children.” She sniffed. “You’ve only that wicked old grandmother to guide you, which is like the blind leading the blind.”
Eleanor and Petronilla exchanged fearful glances. Everyone knew Aunt Agnes hated Dangereuse. She had never forgiven her father’s mistress for displacing her own outraged mother, Philippa of Toulouse, who, heartily sick of her husband’s amorous exploits, had repaired to Fontevrault Abbey, where she had died—of frustrated rage rather than grief, wagged malicious tongues. Aunt Agnes had made Eleanor’s mother’s life miserable by cruelly reminding her that not only the Church—which had excommunicated both the duke and Dangereuse—but even the easygoing Aquitainian nobles had been shocked by their duke’s scandalous behavior. The fact that Duke William continued to live in open adultery with his mistress only added more coals to the simmering fire of Aunt Agnes’s disapproval.
Her father returned from Bordeaux, and the next day a huge number of guests arrived from as far away as Champagne and Anjou. When Eleanor slid into her place at the high table her grandfather was in the middle of a story.
“… so my friends, though my life has been a most colorful one, having gone on crusade and seen something of the world, fought battles which I usually lost, kept the warring factions of this duchy in one piece, my happiest moments have been spent either pursuing, seducing, or writing songs about women. As you know, to appease the Church I agreed to give all that up and mend my ways. My only consolation is that the Christian heaven will turn out to be like the Moslems’—filled with beautiful houri.”
There was much sympathetic laughter.
Then her father told about his troubles in Bordeaux, how his vassals in Angoulême resisted his authority, and the difficulties he had in getting his rents collected all over the duchy.
Tonight, decorated with lady slipper and blue larkspur, strewn with fresh green rushes, the hall looked particularly festive. The ladies sparkled in gaily colored gowns, trailing long sleeves; gold ornaments glittered on their breasts. Jugglers tossed silvery balls into the air; acrobats turned handsprings; jongleurs sang Duke William’s songs about lovely domna who bestowed their favors upon worthy knights.
But Eleanor, sitting at the high table, was miserable. In order to make herself more presentable, she had bathed again in a wooden tub of hot water, found a reasonably clean gown of buttercup yellow, and plaited her hair with a silken gold riband.
Her grandfather held up his hand. The singing came to a stop, the entertainers moved back from the center of the hall.
Duke William began to strum his lute. A visiting troubadour from Moorish Spain danced into the center of the hall and accompanied her grandfather by snapping his castanets in time to the music. The air was blue with smoke and thick with the scent of roast game; dogs scavenged for bones under the trestle tables; pages dashed up and down the hall, refilling goblets of wine, carrying smoking slices of meat.
Overcome by a sudden impulse she could never after explain even to herself, Eleanor jumped up on the wooden bench and climbed onto the long, white-clothed table. She started tapping her feet to the rhythmic sounds. For a moment there was silence; she could see every head turn toward her, catch the looks of amusement and incredulity. Her heart leapt like a doe in flight, and for an instant she thought of scrambling back onto the safety of her seat. But her gaze collided with that of her astonished grandfather, his hand briefly paused on the lute strings before continuing to play, then moved on to meet her father’s dumbfounded blue stare. Both men looked as if they had never seen her before.
Slowly Eleanor raised the skirts of her gown, higher and higher up her yellow-stockinged legs, until her knees then her skinny thighs were revealed. She twirled and dipped, stepping over and around the silver salt cellars, platters of game, roast fowl, and baked fish, the silver bowls of ripe peaches, nuts, and sweetmeats.
“Hola! Hola! That’s my girl.” Her grandfather shouted his encouragement. A look of pure delight crossed his face, and for an instant she glimpsed the golden rogue of legend. “Look at Nell, my friends, the
runs in her blood! Here is a true daughter of Aquitaine!” He rose to his feet with a flourish, quickening the tempo; the castanets followed.
—the joyous art of the troubadours—ran in her blood! Duke William had given her the highest compliment he could bestow. Eleanor’s father began to clap his hands, and soon the entire hall was laughing, applauding her, crying out their admiration.
“Disgraceful,” Eleanor heard Aunt Agnes grumble over the din. “Flaunting herself like a strumpet.”
Eleanor, vibrant, joyous, filled with an intoxicating sense of power, did not care. At last, at last she was the center of everyone’s attention.
When the music stopped her father looked up at her. “Splendid, splendid. I had no idea, my girl! How old are you now?”
“How time passes! I’ve been neglecting you, Nell. We must spend more time together.”