Authors: Ellen Jones
I’m glad to see you’re not like your hot-tempered father—may God forgive him his sins—he rarely avoided bloodshed.”
Eleanor bit back a hot rejoinder. “Unfortunately, my father’s temper too often ruled his judgment. But I’ve learned from his mistakes. If diplomacy will serve, use it. Violence is only a last resort in my opinion.”
Abbé Suger raised skeptical brows but let the matter drop. What Eleanor had not said was that it was quite in order for her father to put down a rebellion in his own lands, but she could not bear the thought of French knights spilling one drop of hot Aquitainian blood. Far better to postpone the consummation of the marriage.
On the journey north to Poitou, Eleanor slept as she always had with Petronilla, who confided to her that she had fallen passionately in love with the seneschal of France, Ralph of Vermondois.
“But he’s three times your age, with grandchildren!”
“What does that matter? This is true love.”
“Oh, you’re always imagining yourself in love with someone, usually unsuitable,” Eleanor said. She would have to keep an eye on her flighty sister.
On the second day of the journey they were overtaken by the count of Anjou and a small group of his knights near Angoulême. His son was perched on the saddle in front of him, and when Geoffrey reined his horse to a stop, young Henry clamored to get down. Eleanor pulled her roan mare to a halt and Louis was forced to do the same.
“How pleasant to see you again, my lord,” said Eleanor, her heart quickening at sight of the handsome count. “Do you ride with us awhile.”
Geoffrey smiled down at her. “There is nothing I would enjoy more, but I must return to Angers at once to prepare for another attack on Normandy.”
“I understand. We will miss your company, won’t we, Louis?”
To Eleanor’s embarrassment Louis mumbled something inaudible and looked away. He seemed ill at ease, uncertain of how to conduct himself when others were present. She gave Geoffrey an apologetic smile which he returned with a sympathetic look.
“Come along, Henry,” he called to his son, who had disappeared into the bushes along the side of the road.
Henry reappeared with a bunch of ivory lilies, wilting from the heat, clutched in his grubby fist. He trotted up to Eleanor and solemnly presented them to her, looking up into her face with wide gray eyes and a tentative smile.
“Why, how thoughtful!” Eleanor took the flowers, touched by the child’s gesture. “Thank you, my lord.” She smiled back, reconfirming the bond they had formed at the feast in Bordeaux.
Suddenly overcome by shyness the boy ran to his father, who hoisted him up onto the saddle.
“You’ve made another conquest, Lady,” said Geoffrey with a laugh and a meaningful look.
He rode on ahead with his party. Little Henry, peering around his father, waved until he was lost in a cloud of dust.
“What a charmer is young Henry of Anjou,” said Eleanor. “He will break many a heart when he grows to manhood.”
Louis said nothing.
Five days later when the royal procession crossed into Poitou, Eleanor rode ahead with Louis, eager to show him the wondrous sights so familiar to her. If she could instill in him a love of her native land it would go a long way toward establishing cordial relations between them. Although Louis dutifully followed her lead, she had no idea what was going through his mind because he continued to remain virtually tongue-tied. Eleanor began to find his silent, retiring demeanor irritating.
He had no reaction to stately castles surmounting cropped hilltops, fortresses rising over stone-faced cliffs, green marshes or cool streams. The only time he showed any interest was when they visited the Abbey of St. Maixent.
On a balmy morning in early August, six days after they had left Bordeaux, they came in sight of the Clain River that encircled the ancient walled city of Poitiers, capital of Poitou. Streaks of white cloud stretched across a deep blue sky; a dazzle of sunlight illuminated the red roofs and spires of the town. From the Church of Notre Dame la Grande the bells rang for Sext. Eleanor’s heart quickened with anticipation at the familiar sound.
“This is my favorite city in all Aquitaine,” she told Louis.
She was tempted to stop at the bottom of the hill and visit the monastic church of Montierneuf where her grandfather lay buried, but thought better of it. The roistering, wenching Troubadour would have thoroughly disapproved of Louis.
She spurred her horse forward and rode to the top of the hill. The gates of the city were thrown open, and they made their way along narrow streets, squawking chickens, and squealing piglets scurrying out of the way. Men doffed their caps; women bobbed a curtsy and smiled their welcome. One plump woman ran out into the street with something in her arms. She bent her knee to Eleanor and handed her a square of lace neatly folded.
“Dame Marie, did you make this for me?” She took the lace in one hand. “How beautiful! I cannot thank you enough. How fare your children? Did little Jean recover from his ague?” She prodded Louis riding beside her. “Dame Marie is the finest lace-maker in Poitiers, Louis. Have you ever seen anything like this?”
“In Poitiers?” Dame Marie gave Eleanor a slightly affronted look. “In all of Poitou, Madam, at the very least.”
Eleanor laughed. “Of course. Probably in all of Aquitaine, if truth be known.”
Dame Marie beamed. Louis looked blank; what was the matter with him? Perhaps—was it possible he was dull-witted and people had kept it from her?
“Master Grimbold, how thoughtful of you. Has the pain eased in your leg since your fall last year?” she asked a tall man leaning on a cane who proudly presented her with two wheels of round white cheese. “Master Grimbold makes the tastiest cheeses in Poitiers—in all of Poitou. Don’t they smell wonderful, Louis?”
An elderly white-haired man was the next to approach her. He slipped a newly made leather bridle into her arms, which were now so full of gifts that Eleanor called for a groom to help carry them.
“Old Raoul, how kind. Louis, have you ever seen more exquisite workmanship? Tell me, did your mare give birth to a filly or a colt?”
After she had received more gifts and exchanged a stream of pleasantries with the townsfolk, Eleanor waited until they were out of earshot before turning to Louis.
“Cat got your tongue? Why didn’t you respond?”
“I—can’t think what to say. Do you really know these simple people?” Louis’s look of astonishment was almost comical. “To think you can actually remember their names.” It was the very first question he had originated.
“Of course I know them. I traveled with my father all over the duchy year after year since I was ten, and never forget a face or a name. These are my subjects, after all, and Poitiers the city I know best. Did you never travel through France with your father?”
“I? Oh no, I rarely left Paris—or the cloister.”
The cloister. She kept forgetting about the cloister. What kind of a king would he make, she wondered, if he knew neither his country nor his people?
“As you will officially become count of Poitou, it might behoove you to get to know these people,” she said, not reassured by his look of dismay. “I will help you in every way I can,” she added, impulsively reaching over to touch his hand.
They reached the town square, thronged with Poitevins who tossed flowers on the bridal couple and greeted their new countess with roars of welcome. To her delight Eleanor was lifted from her mare and carried upon the shoulders of her cheering subjects to the Maubergeonne Tower, part of the ancestral palace of the counts of Poitou.
She immediately dragged a bewildered Louis through the grounds to see her favorite haunts: the garden of fruit trees heavy with rosy pears and amber peaches; the stable of Arab stallions and the falcon mews. She even introduced him to Master André, her old tutor. Ignoring Louis’s diffident reaction to everything, Eleanor arranged a feast, summoning the city’s most renowned troubadours and jongleurs for the evening’s entertainment. She was determined to bring this dull and retiring prince to life, whether he liked it or not.
After all, this
a rather special night: at long last the marriage was to be consummated.
HAT EVENING, AT THE
high table in the great hall of the palace, Eleanor presented Louis with a gift.
“This exquisite goblet belonged to my father,” she said in a little speech she had prepared. “He inherited it from his father, the Troubadour, who always claimed that it was the gift of a Moorish princess.”
She held out the goblet. Carved out of a single piece of rock crystal mounted in jewel-set gold, it was one of her most prized possessions. Before Louis could accept the gift, Abbé Suger snatched it from her grasp as if it were a red-hot coal.
“I will take this—for safekeeping.”
Before Eleanor could protest, her attention was diverted by the appearance of a huge pasty carried into the hall by the chief cook and two servitors. They laid it proudly on the table in front of Louis.
“Open it,” Eleanor said, handing Louis her own knife.
He looked at the abbé, who nodded. An expectant murmur ran around the hall as Louis rose and tentatively poked a small hole in the pasty. The guests snickered.
“Is that the best you can do?” someone called. “I hope you fare better with Lady Eleanor.”
There was a chorus of ribald laughter.
“Our Countess needs a man, remember,” someone else shouted.
“Aye, the lusty blood of the Troubador runs in her veins.”
The hall rocked with mirth. Louis, crimson with embarrassment, seemed unable to move. Taking pity on him, Eleanor took the knife from his hand and boldly slashed open the pasty. Scores of little birds fluttered out, flying wildly about the hall.
“That’s it, that’s the way. You’ll show the French prince a thing or two, Lady.” The entire hall applauded.
Eleanor smiled broadly and waved, then turned in expectation to the entrance doors where a handful of falconers waited, hawks on their wrists. At a nod from her they unhooded their birds. Within moments the feasters, shouting their delight and encouragement, scrambled from their seats, and tried to dodge the hawks who pounced upon their prey, bringing the little birds down in the middle of the trestle tables. The dogs began to bark and jumped up after the hawks. The hall was in an uproar what with mingled screams and laughter, blood and feathers scattered everywhere.
Louis grew so white, Eleanor feared he would be sick. Was the nobility of France so backward they did not have this form of entertainment? What
the Franks do except fight and pray?
Finally the wedding feast was over. Eleanor and Louis were solemnly led into the huge chamber that had been her father’s and grandfather’s before her, going all the way back three hundred years, she told him. The chamber was lit by fifty white candles in silver holders and hung with garlands of pink summer roses and pale blue forget-me-nots. The archbishop of Bordeaux blessed the nuptial bed and sprinkled holy water over the chamber to dispel any demons who might be lurking in the corners—for it was well known that such spawn of the devil were drawn to carnal acts.
After the traditional ceremony of putting the couple to bed had been completed, Eleanor’s attendants, with much giggling, departed. Petronilla flashed her a knowing look and took her leave. Repressing a smile, Eleanor slipped out of her ermine-trimmed robe and settled herself in the wide crimson-canopied bed. To her surprise, Louis, still dressed in his robe, suddenly hopped out of bed and knelt on the white-and-gold cushion at the prie-dieu in a corner of the chamber—a prie-dieu Eleanor had last seen used by her late mother.
Be patient, Eleanor reminded herself, trying to ignore the silken caress of lilac-scented sheets against her skin. Make allowances for his upbringing. Don’t rush matters.
But, like her forebears, the hot blood of Aquitaine ran in her veins, blood that could be traced in a direct line to Charlemagne, she thought with pride. Exposed from the cradle to the varied pleasures of earthly love, particularly in the example of her wanton grandparents, Eleanor had always looked forward to losing her maidenhead.
From the moment she had danced on the tabletop as a child and held everyone’s attention, she had learned a valuable lesson about the impact of feminine power. When she grew older there were friends of her father’s and others, like the troubadour Cercamon, drawn to her alluring beauty like moths to candle flame. She knew every male who saw her wanted to taste her ripe lips, hold her firm high breasts in their hands, and press themselves against her taut slender body. They reminded her of panting hounds, their tongues hanging out, crawling on their bellies for approval. From the time she discovered her power over men she enjoyed teasing them while keeping herself aloof. In truth, their whimpering eagerness filled her with scorn.
Only once had she herself come close to being scorched by Cupid’s fire.
Last winter a comely troubadour with bronzed skin from Moorish Spain had visited her father’s court at Bordeaux, where he created a sensation with his deep caressing voice and the pulsating rhythm of his castanets. His hot black eyes had raked her body with such intensity that Eleanor felt as if he had undressed her. After entertaining the guests in the hall he had taken Eleanor outside and, despite her struggles, masterfully kissed her on the lips in the moonlit gardens surrounding the palace. Claiming that she was the most beautiful creature he had ever set eyes on, he declared that he would fall mortally ill if he could not possess her. Eleanor knew that this was the very least compliment an accomplished troubadour would pay any reasonably attractive female if he did not wish to be accused of extreme discourtesy.
But, unlike the others, even Cercamon, he had been more persuasive, less reverent, and before she could stop him, he had forced her lips to open under his. By the time he had succeeded in sliding his hand up the silky skin of her thigh, his fingers just starting to explore the mysteries of her sex, Eleanor, entranced, had no will to stop him. She often wondered what might have happened if her sister had not discovered them—much to Eleanor’s vexation. For days afterward she would grow moist between her legs, remembering the delicate touch of his seductive fingers.