Authors: Ellen Jones
“What would our beloved duchess like to hear?” the troubadour called out.
Some demon took hold of her and before she could weigh the consequences said, “The canso of the infallible master first and then the two sisters.”
There were loud guffaws, knowing looks, and expectant smiles from the Aquitainian nobles. Cercamon raised his brows, gave her a conspiratorial smile, and tilted his head to one side.
“I will now sing several cansos written by the First Troubadour, our very own, much beloved ninth duke of Aquitaine, whose colorful, adventurous life was, in truth, the measure of the man.” He paused. “His cansos reflect a few of these—adventures.”
“Forgive me but I’m not familiar with the life of your grandfather,” Louis said in a respectful voice. “To what glorious deeds does the minstrel refer?”
Eleanor watched Cercamon pluck a few strings. “He reminds us that the duke devoted most of his time to either pursuing, seducing, or writing songs about women. He thought of love as a game, you see, like chess, between two equal partners.”
Louis wore an expression of complete bafflement. Abbé Suger made a hissing sound, reminding Eleanor of a snake she had once trod on. Her mother would have considered what she had just done quite wicked; her grandfather would have highly approved. Sometimes she felt torn between these two influences, but the older she grew, the more her grandfather’s blood seemed to prevail. If she could have called back her thoughtless words she would have done so, but Cercamon had already started.
I am called the ‘infallible master’
for there is no woman who, after a night
with me, will not want me back the next day, and, I may say, I am so knowledgeable on this subject that I could easily earn my living thereby in any marketplace.
There was a roar of approving Aquitainian laughter. The French contingent looked decidedly uncomfortable, and Louis was so pale Eleanor feared he might swoon. Abbé Suger’s mouth had fallen open in horror.
Cercamon continued his recital with the familiar ballad of how Duke William took two licentious sisters to bed for eight days. The hall rocked with bawdy mirth and gusty shouts of encouragement.
Cercamon next sang a canso he had composed, he said, in honor of their glorious duchess. Her skin, kissed by the warm sun of Aquitaine, resembled the flesh of a ripe peach. Her luminous eyes sparkled like the waters of the Garonne; her hair was luxuriant as the flowering chestnut, her lips as soft as the petals of the rose, her body as supple and slender as a young willow, her breasts as firm and round as apples of ivory. But, alas, he could only worship her from afar.
Thank the Holy Mother he had added that. The troubadour’s words could not help but remind Eleanor that Cercamon knew whereof he spoke. Six months ago she had allowed the slender, curly-haired minstrel to kiss her briefly and fondle her breasts before she laughingly pulled away when his eyes became glazed with lust.
While the Aquitainians continued to stomp the floor in appreciation, the French were obviously discomfited. Louis’s eyes were closed and he seemed to be praying. When Abbé Suger’s outraged gaze met hers, Eleanor knew she had made a serious enemy. Had she allowed Cercamon to go too far? Probably so. On the other hand, these people must take her as she was.
What a curious race were these cold, bearded Franks, virtually unkempt barbarians compared to the elegant, clean-shaven Aquitainians with their lavish dress, long curling locks, and insatiable capacity for enjoyment. Had the French forgotten how to laugh? Was all pleasure condemned as sin? An icy sliver of foreboding touched Eleanor’s heart. Soon she must leave Aquitaine and a way of living she cherished. What sort of life could she make for herself among these alien northern strangers?
She glanced at the table where the elegant count of Anjou now sat without his son. Odd, but the one person with whom she had felt the most rapport was not Louis, her future husband, but the rebellious young Henry of Anjou.
CAN’T DO IT,”
said Eleanor. “I won’t do it.”
Clad in shimmering white, a snowy veil upon her head, Eleanor stood in the center of the turret chamber surrounded by Petronilla, her women, and all the visiting female relatives. They stared at her as if she had gone mad—which in a way she had.
“All brides are fearful the day of the wedding,” said Aunt Agnes in a brisk voice. “It’s natural. In truth, if you were not fearful, I for one, would be gravely suspicious.”
Eleanor sighed. “I’m not fearful. I simply know that I’ll be miserable if I marry him.”
“How many times must I tell you that no one marries for happiness!” Aunt Agnes turned to the other relatives. “This is the result of being brought up by men, especially my father—whose head was always in the clouds—and not exposed to a woman’s influence, where the realities of life would have been taught her.”
“Nell,” said Petronilla in an anxious voice. “Everyone is waiting for you. It’s too late to change your mind now. You must go through with the wedding.”
“Happiness comes from serving your husband, bearing him children, and doing your duty as a wife and mother,” another female relative said.
The chorus of agreement that followed reminded Eleanor of a group of clucking peahens.
She walked over to the bed, almost tripping on the long white train, and sat down. “No.”
Aunt Agnes threw up her hands. “If I told her father once I told him a hundred times: the child has no mother to guide her; you impose no restraints. She will grow up to be willful and assertive, altogether unwomanly. But would he listen?”
Her mother. The familiar lonely ache spread through Eleanor’s chest. Her mother would have understood, not forced her into a marriage every instinct she possessed warned her would be a disaster.
Aunt Agnes sat down beside her. “Listen to me, Niece.” She lowered her voice. “Once you’ve provided an heir or two for France, no one will give you much thought. Then, between ourselves as married women, mind, you may please yourself and who’s to know?”
Eleanor couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. Why did women make such a public show of virtue but follow their own inclinations in secret, hiding behind a curtain of respectability? Men at least behaved with less deceit.
“People will always take notice of me, Aunt. I am Duchess in my own right, and one day I will be queen. I have no intention of, one, becoming a mere brood sow for the French dynasty, and two, letting Louis run affairs in my duchy while I sit idly by doing nothing.”
“Doing nothing?” Aunt Agnes, along with all the female relatives in the chamber, looked at her with their mouths agape.
Finally, her aunt shook her head in disbelief. “Worse and worse. Of course you will be doing something. In truth you will be doing everything! Who do you think runs matters? Men? Of course not. Women! Why, without us every castle, fief, and manor in Aquitaine would fall apart tomorrow. Who do you think organizes the households, the servants, sees to the food, clothes, wounds, illness, the raising of children—”
“If the men are at war or on pilgrimage and we’re besieged, who do you think prepares the boiling pitch, the hot oil—” interjected another relative.
“I even ensure that my lord’s armor is kept oiled and polished, his arrows sharpened, and his bow strings taut—” said an elderly cousin.
There was another chorus of agreement.
Aunt Agnes sniffed. “Why should it be any different in France? You will do everything but, of course, your husband will hardly be aware of it. My dear departed lord—may God assoil him—never made a decision in his life—and never knew that he didn’t. That is women’s lot: you do the work but never receive the acknowledgment. Such is the way of the world.”
Eleanor could not keep from laughing. “But that isn’t sufficient for me. If I run my duchy I want everyone to know it. To take notice of me. I will not hide my light behind a husband’s vanity.”
“Humph. What say the old saws? ‘Gentleness is better than haughtiness,’ and ‘No galling trial until one gets married.’ Meanwhile, what will happen to Aquitaine? If you are not in Paris to keep an eye on the duchy, do you think Louis of France will? Or anyone else? What do you think it means to be a duchess? A life of singing, frivolity, and dalliance? Your subjects are depending on you to look after them, never forget that.” She shook a warning finger in Eleanor’s face. “ ‘If the head cannot bear the glory of the crown, better be without it.’ ”
Eleanor got up and walked to the turret window. Below, the courtyard was thronged with people, their upturned faces reminding her of daisies straining toward the sun. Someone caught a glimpse of her and pointed, shouting. Instantly she drew back. Forget? How could she ever forget? In the end everything always came back to Aquitaine. Even the glory of the French crown.
She turned and straightened her veil with resigned fingers.
A short time later when she and Louis led the wedding procession through the cobbled streets of Bordeaux to the sound of bells pealing and horns blaring, it was all Eleanor could do to keep a smile on her face. Only her cheering subjects lining the streets prevented her from giving way to the misery and frustration welling up inside her. She barely noticed the housefronts proudly displaying gaily colored banners and wreaths of pink, white, and yellow flowers, hardly felt the warmth of the July morning, was indifferent to the blaze of blue sky and fragrant air.
She paid no attention to Louis, a silent shadow marching beside her, except to note that his clothes were appropriate for the occasion. He wore a white linen shirt, a purple pelison of cloth and silk trimmed with fur and embroidered in gold thread around the neck and sleeves, a deep purple tunic and mantle of the same color also edged in fur. A golden chaplet crowned his pale hair. The gems flashed brightly in the morning sunlight.
Inside the Cathedral of St. André, hundreds of white tapers had been lit; incense lay like a stifling fog; the sound of chanting monks was overpowering. Enclosed in a suffocating web of doubt and loneliness, Eleanor knelt before the archbishop of Bordeaux. Was her aunt right? Would she feel less miserable now, more accepting of her fate, even well-disposed toward Louis if her mother had lived to guide her? For the first time in years, her heart yearned for what might have been, for the reassurance and comfort she had once known—and might never know again.
The archbishop was frowning at her, she could delay no longer. In a faltering voice edged with misgivings Eleanor exchanged her vows with Louis who, taut with anxiety, fumbled his marriage lines and dropped the ring.
After the main part of the ceremony ended, the archbishop intoned the Te Deum and, when the choir had finished the prayer of thanksgiving, pronounced a special blessing over them.
“Let this woman be amiable as Rachel, wise as Rebecca, faithful as Sarah. Let her be sober through truth, venerable through modesty, and wise through the teaching of Heaven.”
The ceremony dragged on. Finally the Agnus Dei was sung. Louis advanced to the altar and received the kiss of peace from the archbishop. Now he was supposed to turn and at the foot of the great crucifix embrace her, then transmit the kiss of peace. He gingerly put his arms around Eleanor’s waist but forgot the kiss. There was a moment of stunned silence, but he had already released her before she could remind him.
After the ceremony they bent their heads to receive the golden diadems that gave them official status as duke and duchess of Aquitaine. When Eleanor looked at the timid Louis—his resemblance to a rabbit was even more pronounced today—and compared him to the handsome, impetuous giants that had been her father and grandfather, she knew she could never think of him as the real duke. In her mind
was both duke and duchess, the heroic savior of her duchy. After all, by marrying Louis, hadn’t she saved her beloved Aquitaine from falling into the hands of her own unscrupulous vassals or greedy foreign nobles? The thought cheered her. It was done; she was now a princess of France and must make the best of it.
The wedding festivities were held at the Ombrière Palace. At Eleanor’s order, the walls had been hung with red and green silks, and the floor strewn with roses and lilies picked fresh that morning. In the center of the high table a roast swan, dressed as if it were still alive, with gilt beak and silvered body, rested on a bed of green pastry marked with little banners.
According to custom Louis was handed a great silver goblet. His hands trembled as he drank, and in passing the goblet to Eleanor he spilled some. She looked down. The ruby-colored drops of wine looked like blood against the dazzling white of her gown. Like the omitted kiss of peace, it was a sinister omen.
They were only two hours into the feast when Abbé Suger, who had been absent, hurriedly approached the high table.
“I’ve just received word that there is unrest and fighting in the Limousin which could easily spread to Bordeaux,” he said. “As I told you when we arrived, Madam, the barons there are displeased by this alliance with France, and the moment our troops left, trouble began. Although it means ending the festivities and postponing the wedding night celebrations, it would be best if we headed north to Poitou at once. I’ve already ordered our camp to be struck and the packhorses loaded.”
“But there is no need to leave,” Eleanor said, surprised at his sense of urgency. “The barons of the Limousin are always causing unrest.”
In truth, there were uprisings, troublesome vassals, and skirmishes in the duchy almost all the time. It was a way of life in Aquitaine and no one took it very seriously. Besides, she looked forward to the wedding night. Despite all the indications to the contrary, should Louis somehow miraculously prove himself a satisfying lover there was some hope for their happiness. She clung to that remote possibility like a talisman.
“That’s as may be,” Abbé Suger said, “but I cannot take the chance of running into difficulties with your vassals. Suppose a major battle were to ensue in the middle of the wedding night ceremony?”
“Perhaps you’re right,” Eleanor said slowly. “If we can avoid bloodshed we should do so.”