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In the small room which was Abbess Helewise of Hawkenlye's own sanctum, the Abbess leaned forward to refill her visitor's mug.
`May I pour you some more?' she asked. `It is a good restorative, and I am aware that you—'
She broke off. It was hardly diplomatic, to remind her guest that she needed restoring.
`You are aware that I have a tedious journey ahead of me and that I am far from being in the first flush of youth? Ah, Abbess, how right you are, on both counts!' With a gutsy laugh, the woman held up her cup. `Yes, pour more for me. It is quite delicious.
Relieved, the Abbess did as she was bid. 'A concoction of Sister Euphemia's,' she said. `My infirmarer. She is skilled in the use of herbs. This wine she makes from balm, thyme and honey. It is popular with her patients.'
`I have no doubt.' The older woman glanced at the Abbess. `Some of whom, I dare say, are not above prolonging their sickness so as to go on receiving of Sister Euphemia's bounty.
`Probably,' Helewise agreed. 'Although, in truth, our precious holy water remains our most popular medicine.
`Ah, yes, the holy water.' The visitor sighed. `I had intended, as you know, to pray this morning at the Blessed Virgin Mother's shrine, down in the vale. But I fear I will not have time.
Abbess Helewise, reluctant to appear pushy and impertinent, nevertheless knew how her visitor felt about the community at Hawkenlye. In particular, about the miraculous spring that was the reason fortheAbbey's existence. It was, after all, at her insistence that there was such a grand Abbey there in the first place. And it was even more due to her that the Abbey was presided over by a woman. `Could you not spare even half an hour? Helewise said gently. `Could the world not wait for you, my lady, just this once, while you do something purely for your own pleasure?'
The Abbess's guest gave her a rueful glance. And, with a short laugh, Queen Eleanor said, `No, Abbess. The world, I fear, is far too impatient for that.
There was a brief and, Helewise thought, companionable silence in the little room. Risking a glance at the Queen, she observed that Eleanor had her eyes closed. Leaning back in her great throne-like wooden chair — Helewise's chair, in fact, although Helewise was willingly perched on a wooden stool so as to give her guest the most comfort that the Abbey could offer — the Queen's still-beautiful face was, Helewise thought, a little pale.
Even if she has not the time to visit the shrine, Helewise decided, then we shall at the very least feed her before she departs. Silently rising and moving to the door, she opened it and crooked a finger at the nun standing in attendance outside.
`Yes, Abbess?' Sister Anne asked eagerly. Like all the nuns, she was aware what honour a visit from the King's mother bestowed on the Abbey. Such was the community's love for Eleanor that Sister Anne — also like all of them — would have walked barefoot over hot coals if the Queen had demanded it.
Helewise laid a warning finger across her lips. `Hush. The Queen is resting,' she whispered. `Sister, please will you go the refectory and ask Sister Basilia to prepare a light meal? The Queen looks so weary,' she added, half to herself.
`That I will, and gladly!' Sister Anne hissed back. `Poor lady, it's no surprise, why, all that travelling, and at her age, too! Why, she should be—'
`The food, Sister?' Helewise prompted gently.
`Yes, Abbess, sorry, Abbess' Sister Anne blushed and hurried away.
Helewise went back inside the little room, quietly closing the door behind her. She did most things quietly, with a serene grace of which she was unaware. Even the large bunch of heavy keys that always hung at her belt were quiet, kept from jingling and rattling together by the Abbess's hand laid on them whenever she moved.
Queen Eleanor opened her eyes and looked at the Abbess as Helewise resumed her seat. `You are too big for that stool,' she observed.
`I am quite comfortable,' Helewise lied. 'My lady, I have taken the liberty of ordering food for you. Even if you must rush off after but one night with us, will you at least take a moment to eat before you go on your way?'
Eleanor smiled. `You are too kind,' she murmured. 'And, yes, indeed I will.' She shifted in her chair, with a quick wince of pain. `Your sister out there was quite right. I am far too old for all this charging about.'
`I am sorry,' Helewise said quickly. `She shouldn't have spoken with such disrespect.'
`Disrespect? No, Abbess, I heard only kindness.'
Sensing a mild reproof, Helewise said, `I meant only that it is not appropriate for us to gossip about how Your Majesty sees fit to conduct her life.'
Even to Helewise, it sounded a pompous and fawning little speech, so she was hardly surprised when Eleanor gave a sudden shout of laughter. With a glance up at the Queen, Helewise grinned briefly and said, `Sorry.'
`So I should think,' Eleanor murmured. `My very favourite retreat, so conveniently placed between London and the coast, and its Abbess' — she met Helewise's eyes — `also my favourite, incidentally, starts speaking like any other ingratiating subject wishing a boon of me.' Leaning forward suddenly, she said, 'Helewise, please, never become like everyone else.
Not entirely sure what the Queen meant, nevertheless Helewise said, 'No, my lady. Very well.
There was a timid tap on the door, and, in answer to Helewise's `Come in,' a novice from the refectory sidled into the room, bearing on one arm a wide pewter dish. `Her Holiness's meal,' the girl whispered.
`Majesty will do,' Eleanor remarked mildly. 'I am not a pope, merely a queen.' She frowned briefly. `A queen mother, indeed, now,' she added under her breath.
Helewise had been longing to ask the Queen a hundred questions about that very matter for the past twenty-four hours, but, lacking anything that could possibly, be regarded as an opening, had managed to learn little more than the barest details. Now, watching the Queen swiftly demolish the appetising and prettily presented meal — Sister Basilia had put a posy of dog roses on the edge of the dish — Helewise waited until the last piece of bread had wiped up the last drop of gravy. Then she said, `The marriage will be a success, do you think, my lady?'
Eleanor leaned back in her chair, patting at the corners of her mouth with a linen square. `A success?' She gave a faint shrug. `It depends, Abbess Helewise, what you mean by success. If you mean, will the union prove fruitful, then I can only say that I pray, day and night that it will do so. If you mean will my dear son and his bride find joy in one another's company, then my answer is that I very much doubt it.'
Helewise said softly, `Ah.' There was, she reflected, little else she could say.
`It had to be done!' Eleanor exclaimed. `I knew, as soon as I saw Berengaria, that she was not the ideal bride for him. But what was I to do?' She spread her long hands, palms up, the fingers heavy with rings, towards Helewise. `Richard has been King of England for almost two years, and, but for four months, he has been out of the country.' Eleanor clenched one of her hands into a fist and, with some vehemence, thumped it down on to the long table which, desk-like, stood in front of Helewise's chair. `Crusading, always crusading!' she cried. `First, he alienates his new subjects by that brazen sale of offices, then he dashes off to France to receive his pilgrim's scrip and staff! A brief pause while he supervises the mustering of his enormous fleet, and then off he goes to Outremer!' Eleanor's wide, dark eyes held passionate anger. `Not a thought, Helewise, for what he has left behind him for others to sort out! Not a care that, even before he left, already there was talk that he did not intend to return! That, far from applying himself to the great duty of reigning over England, he had ambitions to become the next King of Jerusalem!
`Surely not!' Helewise exclaimed. The rumours were not, in fact, new to her; she had heard them before, many times. Heard worse, too; some said darkly that King Richard's conduct since ascending the throne was so ill-considered that surely he must be unbalanced. That he suffered from some secret sickness which affected him in both body and mind, and which would probably kill him before the Crusade was out. But those rumours, Helewise decided, she certainly wouldn't pass on to Richard's mother.
Certainly, not while those remarkable eyes still looked so furious.
`Why must he insist on this course!' Eleanor was saying. `What, really, does it matter to the average Englishman who rules over the Holy City?'
`But surely—' Helewise began.
Eleanor's eyes fixed on to hers. `Helewise, do not try to tell me that you give a jot either way, I she said. `Whilst it is all very laudable to express the opinion that Our Lord's city must be occupied and governed solely by Christians, I cannot believe that you truly feel that the aim of recapturing it is worth all the effort. The expense of it, Abbess! Not to mention the pain, the losses, the anguish. The deaths.' Her face fell, as if, speaking of such things, she was imagining them happening to her beloved son.
Helewise leaned towards her. `Your son is a great man, my lady,' she said gently. `A superbly brave and capable fighter, even if—' She broke off.
`Even if that is all he is?' Eleanor said.
`But what a man!' Helewise, desperate to make up for her gaffe, put all the sincerity she could muster into her voice.
`You see, Helewise,' Eleanor went on, as if she had barely noted the interruption,' he is a man's man. A fighting man, as you say, a man who belongs in an army. At the head of an army, leading it to victory!
`Amen,' Helewise intoned.
`Of course, I've been crusading,' Eleanor said dismissively. `When I was married to that fussy old woman, Louis of France!
`Indeed: Helewise murmured. Should she really be hearing this? Was it not virtually treason, to hear one monarch decry another, even if he were dead?
`Back in 1147, it was,' Eleanor said, a reminiscent smile on her face. `I had a wonderful time. Louis didn't want me to go, but what he did or did not want was never of great relevance! She laughed aloud. `Do you know, Helewise, a rich young Saracen emir wanted to marry me? I might have accepted, too, had I not had Louis tagging along.' She sighed. `What was I saying? Ah, yes! The crusading fervour. You see, my dear' — she reached out to tap Helewise quite sharply on the shoulder, as if to make quite sure she was attending — `the way I see it, there are far more important things that Richard should be doing. Rescuing the Holy Land pales into insignificance when compared to the crucial matter of securing the accession.'
`But King Richard now has a wife,' Helewise said, `thanks to Your Majesty's efforts.'
`Yes, yes, indeed,' Eleanor acknowledged. `What a journey it was!' Then, as if one train of thought had led to another, she said, `Naturally, he couldn't marry Alais of France, no matter how hard King Philip pressed his sister's case. Betrothed they might be, but Richard couldn't go through with it. Even if it did create all that unpleasantness, when Richard and Philip were setting out for Outremer.'
`Indeed,' Helewise said. There was no need for the Queen to upset herself recounting the reason why Richard could not marry Alais; Helewise already knew.
But, `She was damaged goods, that Alais,' Eleanor said. `My husband, the late King Henry, seduced her and impregnated her, although the little bastard that resulted had the discretion not to live.' Furious indignation and hurt pride were very apparent in the old face. Oh, my lady, Helewise thought, do not distress yourself over matters so far in the past!
`Not a fit bride for my son,' Eleanor said, bringing herself under control with an obvious effort. `Despite the fact that a union between Alais and Richard would, I was told, have been permitted by the Church, nevertheless, for a man to marry his own father's discarded mistress smacks, to me, of incest.'
`I see what you mean,' Helewise said. Diplomatically trying to change the subject, she said, `But what of Berengaria of Navarre, my lady? Is she as beautiful as they say?'
`Beautiful?' The Queen considered. `No. She is rather pale and wishy-washy. When I arrived at her father's court in Pamplona and first set eyes on her, I admit I was a little disappointed. But, then, what do looks matter? Besides, there was so little choice — Richard is related to most of the other royal young women of Europe, Berengaria is one of the few who were eligible. Anyway, he did actually express a favourable opinion of her, you know — he saw her at some tournament of King Sancho's that he attended a few years ago, and he wrote her some pretty verses. And, even if she isn't beautiful, she's virtuous and learned.'
There was a small silence. As if both women were thinking the same thing — that virtue and learning were hardly qualities to make a woman appeal to Richard the Lionheart — their eyes met in a brief glance.
Eleanor spoke, too softly for Helewise to be sure of what she said. What it sounded like was, `I don't care for passive women.'
`Then you took her right across southern Europe to meet her bridegroom,' Helewise said hurriedly into the awkward pause. `My goodness, what a journey! And you crossed the Alps in the depths of winter, I believe it is said?'
`I did,' Eleanor said, not without a certain pride. `And I'll give Berengaria her due, not a word of complaint from her, even when the going got really bad. Snow, bitterly cold lodgings, bedding alive with lice, inadequately salted meat, all the dangers of the open road, she took them all with her head held high and her mouth buttoned up. Unlike most of our attendants, I might add, who, to a man, moaned like a group of sickly dowagers.'
`And, when you finally met up with the King's party in Sicily, it was Lent, and so the marriage could not take place,' Helewise said, recounting what the Queen had already told her.
`I handed Berengaria over into my daughter Joanna's care, and told her to get the girl wedded to Richard at the next stop, which was Cyprus, Eleanor continued, 'I am reliably informed that they were married in the spring.
`I wish them luck,' Helewise said.
`So do I,' Eleanor agreed fervently. `So do I.'
`And now you go back to France, Your Majesty?' It seemed wise, Helewise thought, to turn Eleanor away from contemplation of the apparently slim chances of her son's marriage being a successful one.
`I do. But not until the morrow. This night I stay with my dear friend Petronilla de Severy. Petronilla Durand, I must now call her, for she has a new husband.' The Queen paused. `A new young husband. And, Helewise, I have to admit, although it pains me equally much to do so, that there is as little chance of this being a good marriage as there is of my son's.'
Helewise's surprise and discomfort at receiving the Queen's confidences had disappeared. Now, she felt honoured. Deeply honoured. Hadn't Eleanor said earlier that Hawkenlye was one of her favourite places? If she felt that way because it was only here in the privacy of the Abbey that she was able to speak of private concerns, then Helewise could do no better than offer a discreet and sympathetic ear. `You emphasise the youth of your friend's new husband,' she said. `Is that a factor in the marriage's chances of success?'
`Oh, yes,' Eleanor said. `Petronilla is a rich woman — her father left her extremely well provided for — but even those of us who love her couldn't call her beautiful. She is tall, thin, with an indifferent complexion and those narrow lips which, when a woman grows old, appear to fold in on themselves. And dear Petronilla is old.'
`What is the age difference?' Helewise asked.
`Petronilla is, I think, forty-two. Possibly more. Tobias Durand cannot be much over thirty, and I believe I have heard that he is even younger.'
Involuntarily Helewise said, `Oh, dear.'
`Oh, dear, indeed,' Eleanor agreed. And he is a handsome man, by all accounts, of good height, well-built.'
`But impoverished,' Helewise guessed. There seemed no other reason for such a man to have married a plain woman so much older than himself.
`Again, you guess right.' The Queen sighed. 'I doubt she will keep him. She is probably too old to bear him a son, which alone might have ensured the continuance of his attentions. As it is, once he has access to her wealth ...' She did not finish the sentence. There was, Helewise thought, no need.
What sorrow can be ushered into people's lives by marriage to the wrong partner, she reflected. And, at the opposite end of the scale, what joy when the choice is good. Briefly she pictured her own late husband. Ivo had been a good-looking man, too, tall and broad in the shoulder like this opportunist Tobias. And what a sense of humour he'd had.
Out of nowhere a memory flashed into her head. She and Ivo, enduring an apparently interminable visit from one of Ivo's distant cousins, had crept out of their own house and, packing up food and drink, gone to spend a few blessedly private hours in a secluded spot by a stream. Ivo had stripped off and waded into the water, and, drying off on the bank, been stung on the left buttock by a bee.
`What is amusing you, Abbess?' The Queen's chilly tones brought her abruptly back to the present.
Recalling what she and Eleanor had been talking about, Helewise hastened to explain her laughter. Fortunately, the image of a dignified knight of the realm lying face down while his wife extracted a bee sting from his bottom appealed to Eleanor's sense of humour, too.
`I recall that you mentioned your marriage at the time I appointed you as abbess here,' Eleanor said. `It was clearly a happy union.
`And you had children, I seem to remember?'
`Ah.' `The Queen fell silent.
The two of them, Queen and Abbess, sat for some time without breaking the silence. Helewise wondered if, as she were, Eleanor also was thinking about her sons.
After some minutes, there was another tap on the door. Getting up to open it, Helewise was greeted by the sight of the porteress. Craning round Helewise to catch a glimpse of Queen Eleanor, Sister Ursel said, Abbess, a party has arrived for the Queen. A man who says he's Tobias Durand, and he's come with a retinue to escort Her Majesty to his house.
A retinue,' the Queen murmured. `Does he not realise I already have one? Two retinues will only serve to double the dust.'
`Perhaps the lady Petronilla has sent him,' Helewise remarked shrewdly, `eager to impress Your Majesty with the sight of her handsome young husband in all his finery, at the head of a band of his own men.'
Eleanor glanced at her. `How right you are,' she observed.
Sister Ursel was watching them from the doorway. `Go and tell Tobias Durand that we shall join him directly,' the Abbess ordered.
`Yes, Abbess.' With one last look, Sister Ursel hurried away.
Helewise went to stand beside the Queen, trying to be ready to help her up if necessary, but without making it too obvious.
But Eleanor said, without any apparent attempt to conceal her need, `Give me your arm, Helewise, I've become stiff from sitting too long.'
As they made their slow way out of the room and across the cloister to where Tobias and his party could be seen, mingling with Eleanor's own escort despite their best efforts not to, Eleanor leaned her head close to Helewise's and said softly, 'Thank you, Abbess'
There was no need to ask, for what?, Instead Helewise replied, 'The thanks are mine, my lady.
`I shall come back,' Eleanor said, `and, if my arrangements permit, I shall stay with you for rather longer than a day and a night.'
`The Abbey is at your disposal, Helewise replied. `Nothing could give us more delight, than to have Your Majesty as our guest.'
Nothing could give me more delight, Eleanor muttered. `But it is not yet time for me to do what pleases me.'
As the two of them approached the waiting ladies, men and horses, Helewise was quite sure she felt the Queen give her arm an affectionate squeeze.