Authors: Ellen Jones
“I intend to marry for love, Aunt.” Petronilla stuck out her tongue when the aunt turned away.
“I never heard such nonsense.” Aunt Agnes, an unlikely sister despite her black habit, swung round again, hands on her ample hips. “Marriage is a business contract and has little to do with romance. Fief marries fief. Such are the realities of life, and sensible women do not imagine otherwise. You’ve been listening to too many of your grandfather’s songs.”
“But grandmother went with grandfather for love,” Petronilla pointed out.
“Love! Love! The girls of today think only about carnal love!” Aunt Agnes scowled. “With all that nonsense about romance and dalliance you listen to, it’s no wonder you both have such alarming ideas. When your mother died—may God rest her sainted soul—I told your father once if I told him a hundred times, William, you let these girls run wild. Speaking of that wicked grandmother, she never became duchess of Aquitaine, did she? In fact, she had no official standing at all, and was denied the respect and authority accorded a wife.”
“She never seemed to mind. What was it she often said, Nell?” Petronilla put a hand over her lips as she tried to keep from laughing.
“Ah—let me see—a woman rules her world from between her legs?” Eleanor kept a straight face at the outraged look that crossed her aunt’s face. In fact, it had not been her grandmother who said that but her grandfather, and for years she and Petronilla had tried to work out its meaning.
“Disgusting! You should have your mouths washed out with salt and vinegar!”
“A woman wields little authority in any event, Aunt,” Petronilla continued. “It’s Nell’s husband, that rabbity prince, who will rule here in Aquitaine.”
“Indeed he won’t,” said Eleanor. “Aquitaine is mine.”
She looked beyond the walls of Bordeaux to the far horizon, a silver ribbon glinting in the morning sun. One day she would wear a crown—but it could never compare with being duchess of a land at least twice the size of France. A lump rose in her throat, and she was seized with an aching desire to stretch out her arms and hold the entire duchy in a fierce embrace.
“Aquitaine is mine,” she repeated. “It will never belong to anyone else.” And, to her surprise, she felt her spirits lift.
“I don’t see how Nell could ever love the rabbit prince.” Petronilla threw herself on the bed and lifted her arms above her head. “She will have to make a cuckold out of him in order to find any joy in life.”
“Petronilla!” Aunt Agnes crossed herself. “What a wicked, shameful thing to say. Ask the Holy Mother’s forgiveness.”
Eleanor left the window, flung herself on Petronilla, and began to pull the thick plaits of her hair. “Of course I won’t put horns on the poor prince. Not unless he’s membered like a rabbit too.” She held up her thumb.
Giggling, she collapsed on top of her sister and soon the two of them were rolling on the bed choking with laughter. The other ladies joined in the mirth. Even Aunt Agnes could not repress a salty chuckle.
“Well, really, it does not do to take them too seriously,” she said.
“After all, they’re just children.”
When Eleanor was presented to the young prince in the great hall of the palace that same afternoon, she could hardly keep a straight face. Unfashionably clad in a dark blue tunic with a silver cross hanging from his neck, Louis was tall and broad of shoulder, with fair hair, a pointed beard, and docile blue eyes. Upon closer inspection his slight overbite did, unfortunately, confirm her impression of a startled hare. It was obvious he was instantly enraptured, could hardly take his eyes off her, which was gratifying—although she had come to take such attentions for granted.
A Benedictine cleric of middle years, frail-looking and thin, with a watchful expression on his sallow face, stood protectively next to the prince. This must be the famed Abbé Suger, advisor to King Louis the Fat, and a prelate of enormous influence. Eleanor had heard that he was the one who wielded the true power in France.
He was clearly less impressed with her than was Louis. Hazy bluish eyes narrowed as the abbé took in the scarlet and gold-embroidered gown with its long sleeves trailing the rushes, the tight bodice that clung to her slender body, outlining her uptilted breasts and narrow waist. Even the sparkling jewels around her throat and wrists, the narrow gold fillet set with seed pearls that held in place the cascade of chestnut hair flowing down her back, seemed to give him offense.
“I’m delighted to meet you at last.” Eleanor forced herself to smile at Louis as if she had waited for this moment her entire life. Whatever her feelings, Aquitainian hospitality must always be observed. “There’s a lovely feast prepared in your honor and the finest troubadours and jongleurs have come from all over the duchy to entertain us.”
Louis blushed, then turned to Abbé Suger, who shook his head. “Prince Louis should really fast today. He has had a long journey, fraught with danger, and has not attended a proper Mass for two days. A day spent in prayer will do him good. Tomorrow will be time enough to start the marriage celebrations.”
“But the feast is part of the prenuptial ceremonies.” Eleanor’s dark eyebrows met in a frown. “All my vassals and relatives, not to mention the guests, will be most offended if their new duke-to-be is not present.”
“Louis is an unworldly son of Holy Church,” Abbé Sugar said with a fond glance at the prince. “He knows little of feasts and entertainment, as befits one raised in a cloister.”
“If he is to become duke of my duchy would it not be politic for him to familiarize himself with Aquitainian mores?” Eleanor asked, keeping her voice gentle. If at all possible, she was determined to behave like her diplomatic grandfather rather than her irascible father. “As Duchess of Aquitaine I would be grateful if he would attend.”
“Perhaps, Father, it would be best if I followed the customs,” Louis said softly. “After all, we are guests in this land, and it would not do to give offense.”
So he had a tongue! Eleanor smiled. She held out a graceful hand, the fingers sparkling with rings. After a moment’s hesitation Louis took it carefully in his sweaty palm, as if it were a precious relic that might break in two. Abbé Suger bowed, and stepped back, but not before she had seen a flash of enmity in his eyes.
“Was the journey truly ‘fraught with danger?’ ” she asked in a whisper half-meant to be heard.
“Perhaps that is an exaggeration. There was some grumbling among the peasants and burghers in a few of the French towns. You see, my father had levied a special tax to finance the marriage.”
“You forget our reception in Limoges, my son,” said the abbé, his eyes on Eleanor. “There were several outbreaks of violence, quickly suppressed by our troops. Not everyone in your duchy, Mistress, is pleased by this alliance with France. In my opinion, it is only the presence of our army that prevents the lawless vassals of Aquitaine from open rebellion.”
Sweet St. Radegonde, the old man had ears like a fox. Still, what he said was probably true. Aquitaine was no more pleased at having a French duke than she was. She supposed she should be grateful that the Limousin barons had been suppressed, but in fact she was irritated by the Franks’ interference in her affairs. She would have to make that very clear to Louis—at the propitious moment.
Eleanor watched Louis glance from Abbé Suger to herself, thrown off balance by the antagonism he sensed between them. It was not an auspicious beginning, but she had no intention of letting the abbé rule her future husband’s life—nor hers—not if she had anything to say about it. Instinct told her that if she were to protect Aquitaine, Louis must be weaned away from the influence of this overbearing cleric.
With Louis seated next to her at the feast, Eleanor presided over the white-clothed high table set with the finest gold salt cellars and jewel-encrusted silver goblets her grandfather had brought back from the crusade. The great hall of Ombrière Palace was hung with huge silken tapestries depicting scenes of love and dalliance in forest glades, and decorated with freshly picked summer flowers and newly spread green rushes. It was also overflowing with guests from Aquitaine, Champagne, Blois, and Anjou, even as far away as Spain. There was hardly room between the trestle tables for the servitors and pages to trot back and forth between the hall and kitchens.
“There must be well over six hundred people here, perhaps a thousand if you include those outside the palace.” Eleanor heaped Louis’s trencher with mullet, lobster fried in egg, rice cooked with almond milk and cinnamon, morsels of roasted peacock, cranes, geese, and slices of pork, hot from the turnspit.
She watched Louis pick at his food, nibbling cautiously at a bite of pork and barely tasting the ruby-colored wine from her very own province of Gascony. “Aren’t you hungry?”
Given the enormous appetites of her grandfather and father, she found this unmanly behavior far from reassuring. Down the table she caught sight of Petronilla stuffing lobster into her mouth to keep from laughing, her eyes signaling What-did-I-tell-you? Eleanor made a face at her then looked around the hall, warmly nodding at relatives and smiling at a vassal-lord from the Quercy, waving at another from the Perigord—all of them known to her since childhood.
Unexpectedly she met the cornflower blue gaze of a stranger seated at the far end of the table. He was extraordinarily handsome, with red-gold hair and fair skin. Also sumptuously dressed in a green-and-blue tunic, gold-embroidered mantle, and blue cap, from which protruded a sprig of yellow broom. He raised his jeweled goblet to her with a disarming smile. Her pulse quickened and she smiled back. It was then she noticed that he seemed to be holding something in his lap. A dog, perhaps? She could not see clearly.
She leaned toward the archbishop of Bordeaux, who sat on her right. “Who is that lord with the broom in his cap?”
“Count Geoffrey of Anjou. You will recall that shortly before your father—may he rest in peace—went on pilgrimage to Spain, he joined the count in his initial effort to reclaim his wife’s duchy of Normandy from Stephen of Blois.”
“Yes, I remember.” So this was the man referred to as Count Geoffrey le Bel. Anjou was her nearest neighbor to the north; its borders marched with that of Poitou. “Surely Normandy is not yet won?”
“Not yet. But a slight wound in the count’s foot forced a temporary return to Angers. It is a great honor that he came all the way to Bordeaux to pay his respects.”
Eleanor was about to turn her attention to her other guests when a loud scream brought her eyes back to the count. What she had thought was a dog turned out to be a little boy of about four years of age with reddish hair and an angry scowl. Count Geoffrey, obviously discomfited, was talking rapidly into the child’s ear. As Eleanor watched, the boy shook his head vigorously, screwed up his eyes, and screamed again with such violence that his plump little face turned purple.
The count, his own face now bright red, stood up and slung the child over his shoulder like a sack of flour. As he limped past Eleanor, the boy’s blazing gray eyes met hers. Unexpectedly he grinned. Eleanor grinned back, then blew him a kiss; absurdly, she felt a conspiratorial bond had formed between them. The cunning little rascal had contrived the entire episode. His dramatic exit, followed by sympathetic laughter, had gotten everyone’s attention. It was exactly the same way she might have behaved at that age.
The archbishop lifted up his head and sniffed. “Trust the lively young sprig of the House of Anjou to create a stir,” he said. “I hear the young Henry is headstrong and self-willed, just like his Norman mother, and after that exhibition I can well believe it. I shudder to think what he will be like when grown.”
“A force to be reckoned with, I imagine,” Eleanor said.
By the time the fruits, figs, and berries had been served, the silver pitchers of red and white wine emptied, the men had loosened their belt buckles and slipped off their fur-lined surcoats. The women drowsed. Even the dogs, stuffed with scraps, lay panting under the tables in the July heat. The steward blew a silver horn, servitors cleared the center of the hall. Several troubadours entered the hall and began to play their instruments. As the sounds of viol, rebec, and pipe reverberated across the hall, many Aquitainian lords left their seats and began to perform rustic local dances.
After a time, the rhythm changed as the click of castanets struck a new sultry beat. Eleanor’s blood responded and she rose from her place, threading her way past the tables toward the center of the hall. The Lord of Ventadour joined her, and accompanied by the enthusiastic clapping and singing of her vassals they danced the fandango, a lively new dance that had crossed the Pyrenees from Moorish Spain. Whirling, dipping, spinning, Eleanor felt the blood pound in her ears, the rhythm of the music drumming through her entire body. Everyone’s attention was upon her; all eyes turned in her direction.
Flushed and breathless, she finally returned to the table. Abbé Suger’s eyes almost popped from his head, while Louis was apparently struck dumb.
Eleanor sipped from her goblet of wine. “Do you have dancing and troubadours in France?”
“Prince Louis has never danced, naturally,” the abbé said with a severe expression. “Nor does he listen to such—such bizarre sounds. Liturgical music, of course, is quite another matter.”
“Can Louis not speak for himself?” Eleanor arched her eyebrows.
“As Father Abbé says, I’m unfamiliar with such pastimes, Your Grace.”
“Oh please, Louis, do call me Eleanor. After all, we will soon be sharing the same bed.”
Louis lowered his eyes and blushed to the roots of his hair. Abbé Sugar’s look told her he thought the remark highly indelicate.
At that moment an expectant hush filled the hall as a troubadour strutted proudly into the center to kneel before Eleanor with an elaborate bow.
“We are most honored to have the great Cercamon attend our prenuptial feast,” she said in a loud voice.
The troubadour tuned his lute and, in a melodic voice of piercing sweetness, began to sing a planh, or lament, for her father. Reminded again of her great loss, Eleanor felt tears prick her eyes. There was a respectful silence in the hall when he had finished, and more than one southern baron unashamedly wiped his eyes.