In this novel, set in the 15th century during the Hundred Years War between France and England, Hella Haasse brilliantly captures all the drama of one of the great ages of history.
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In a Dark Wood Wandering
A Novel of the Middle Ages
By Hella S. Haasse, Anita Miller, Lewis C. Kaplan
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1970 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Louis d'orléans, The Father
Se j'ay aimé et on m'amé, ce a faict amours; je l'en mercie, je m'en répute bien heureux.
If I have loved and have been loved, it was Love that made it so. I am grateful to Love, I am fortunate.
— Louis d'Orléans, in a letter.
On a July day in the year 1395, the King sat in the open veranda which bordered his rooms on the garden side of Saint-Pol. A green canopy had been set up over him to protect him from the blazing sun; on both sides of it tapestries hung down to the floor. Inside this tent, the King had been playing for a considerable time with oversized, gaily colored cards; he arranged them on the table before him, built tottering towers, and now and then swept them all together with trembling fingers. The court physician, Renaud Freron, personally appointed by Isabeau after de Harselly's dismissal, walked back and forth over the red and white tiles of the gallery, his hands behind his back. A few courtiers stood, bored and weary, in the shade under the archways.
The aviaries had been brought outside to amuse the King; birds of all sizes and colors hopped twittering about the gilded cage. The hot white light quivered above the slate roofs of the palace; for more than a week the sun had shone from a cloudless sky — the heat grew from day to day, scorching grass and shrubs. The streets of Paris lay deserted as though the city had been struck by plague: the stench of garbage hung over the squares and along the banks of the Seine. Under the bridges the river water flowed sluggishly, turbid, full of silt and filthy. Only in the fields outside the walls of Paris work continued without interruption, despite the scorching heat. The farmers wanted to get the grain inside the barns before the storms began. From the windows of Saint-Pol and the oudying castles, the mowers could be seen moving over the fields like tiny specks; the sun flashed on sickles and scythes. Half-naked, dripping with sweat, the men cut row after row of stalks of grain. The women came behind them, with cloths bound around their heads and shoulders, stooping and squatting, binding the sheaves. Blinded by sun and sweat, swarming with flies, they gathered the bread for the city of Paris, fodder for the beasts.
The King, who had stacked the cards neatly, pushed them to one end of the table and sat quiet, with downcast eyes, waiting for his brother Louis d'Orléans and the Provost of Paris, whose presence he had requested. The haze in which his mind had been enveloped continually since the previous year, had lifted. He recognized the people in his suite, was aware of events and joined in the festivities honoring the delegation which had arrived from England to make a formal request for the hand of the child Isabelle.
Although the physician Freron had, on the Queen's insistence, advised him to rest and avoid state affairs, the King wished to take advantage of the brief respite between periods of insanity. He knew only too well that the calm clarity, the comfortable feeling of being free, would not last long; that he would be overcome again by mortal fear, fierce pain in his head, darkness filled with hellish visions — but when? How? He saw with despair how much time had passed since he had last been sane. He could still remember hazily a few of the things which had happened afterward; a conversation with his sister-in-law, the Duchess of Orléans, who lay in bed — why? When? And the birth in January of his youngest daughter, Michelle. Charles shook his head slowly, and pensively bit his nails. He had a strong desire to see Valentine; he had wanted to send her a message but he gathered from what the courtiers said that she was no longer in Saint-Pol. Shame and pride prevented him from asking questions of the gentlemen of his retinue who sneered at him haughtily, or smiled at him with compassion. Only from his intimates could he learn about those things which interested him deeply. He considered himself fortunate that his brother was nearby and that the Provost was an able, honest and upright man, who knew how to hold his ground in the face of all opposition.
The King was secretly relieved that the pressure of business prevented Isabeau from coming to see him. The full responsibility of receiving the English legation rested upon her shoulders. Above all else, he feared an interview with his wife; although no one alluded in his presence to the affronts which he, blinded by madness, had offered the Queen, he knew enough. He remembered Isabeau's tears and reproaches, her nocturnal revelations; frozen with horror at his own unwitting cruelty, he had lain listening to her whispers.
That had been in the spring of the previous year. What have I said or done since then, he thought uneasily. He looked quickly and diffidently at the courtiers who chatted under the arched entrance. Before him on a table stood a silver tray heaped with fruit; he removed the peaches one by one and raised the tray before his face. He did not yet have the courage to complain about the absence of mirrors from his rooms, because he surmised, with considerable anguish, the reason for this absence.
Now, partially concealed within the tapestries, he looked at himself in the polished bottom of the tray, touching his cheeks and forehead with clammy fingers; his lips parted involuntarily in disbelief and horror. The sound of footsteps and voices reached him from the adjoining corridors; the birds twittered loudly and beat their wings against the bars. Hastily, the King set the tray back on the table. He saw his brother approaching; Louis' lips trembled with emotion.
"Sire, my King," he said, kneeling before the King without taking his eyes from his brother's face. "Are you well again?"
The King patted the cushioned bench. "Come sit beside me," he said in a low voice, "and tell the others to leave us alone."
Gentlemen and pages retired to the end of the gallery; Renaud Freron, annoyed, continued his pacing back and forth. The King was receiving against his advice; he feared Isabeau's displeasure. The brothers sat side by side under the canopy: Louis, tanned from frequent exercise in the open air, his posture that of a man who knew how to control every muscle of his body; and Charles, pale, drab, huddled together like an old man.
"Tell me, how goes it with you, brother?" said Louis, laying his hand on the King's. "Are you free from pain now? Is your head clearer? Nothing has made me so happy in a long time as this — that we can speak together in good health."
"I am like someone who has temporarily exchanged hell for purgatory," replied the King with a melancholy smile. "No, I feel no pain, but I suffer even more from uncertainty." He looked at his brother timidly, from the corner of his eye. "I cannot remember anything," he whispered, with a sigh.
Louis was silent. He could find no words to express the pity which consumed his heart. The King sat very still, huddled within the folds of his mantle, blinking his slightly inflamed eyelids.
"You must tell me everything now," he went on, after a pause. "No one knows how long I shall be able to busy myself with affairs of state. Have you kept a watchful eye, brother, in spite of everything, as you promised me?"
"I have been vigilant," said Louis, in an equally soft voice. He picked up the playing cards from the table and fanned them out; there was the smiling Queen, who bore a falcon on her wrist, the armored King, and the Jester with bells on his cap.
"Yesterday I received the English delegation in an audience," the King went on. "It seems I gave them permission to come here just before Christmas."
"Our uncle of Burgundy was strongly in favor of it," said Louis lightly, while he examined the handsome cards one by one. "And so Messeigneurs de Berry and Bourbon gave their consent also — at last. As to the Queen — the Bavarians maintain friendly relations with England. There is no better and easier way to strengthen an alliance than by contracting a marriage, especially when one is so indirectly connected to the bride that no financial obligation is entailed."
"What do you think, then, brother?" asked the King without looking up; he was preoccupied with braiding and unravelling the fringe of the tablecloth. Orléans smiled bitterly.
"I agree with those who say that if s senseless to conclude a treaty between two kingdoms which still have a few more years of armistice between them. And it is meaningless politically, because I don't believe it is possible to end hostilities. And it will be a crime against the child Isabelle who will suffer if the war goes on when she is queen over there."
The King shrugged. "They are here now," he said hesitantly. "They bring gifts and friendly letters from King Richard. This Norwich — he's Earl of Rudand, isn't he? — he seems to be a capable, courteous ambassador. Richard must really crave peace," he added doubtfully, "if he approaches us and leaves us to name the conditions."
"Ah!" Louis made a passionate gesture. "Don't think that England — to say nothing of Burgundy — will fare badly after a treaty has been signed. I'm even willing to assume that Richard does not intend to fight again — why shouldn't I? They say he is a trustworthy man, ready to settle any dispute quickly. But it remains to be seen whether a new armistice will really mean the end of raids and looting. For two years I've been working on the plan you and I discussed before you became ill the first time. Surely after Poitiers and Crecy anyone who knew anything about it could see that our soldiers were no match for the English bowmen. It's incredible that none of our captains thought of teaching our fellows to use English weapons. Now I have that in hand; you can rest easy. Now most towns and cities have bands of archers who can use hand-bows as well as crossbows. That was really useful last year in Normandy and Brittany when the English kept raiding the coast."
He was silent for a moment, and the bitter lines appeared again at the corners of his mouth. "It's really hard to have to watch the constant efforts of our noble lords to disband well-trained groups of fighting men. They are so frightened of rebellion that they would sooner hand the land over to the English."
The King's sigh was so deep that it was almost a groan. The physician turned on his heel abruptly and came toward him. The King, who, not without reason, hated and feared Freron, began to ramble, but he managed to pull himself together and call out with a semblance of his former authority that he wished to be left in peace. Freron backed away, bowing, and joined the group of attendants.
"I do not want that man near me anymore," the King said nervously. He drew the curtain and shifted the bench so that the physician could not see him. "He takes too much blood from me; I am weak and dizzy from it. No, no, brother, let me finish! God knows when I will get the chance again. I commiserate with you," he said vehemently, pushing away the beaker which Louis offered him, "your lot is more difficult than mine. Few will thank you for your efforts, and you will be thwarted at every turn — and I am not able to help you. God, God, why don't they kill me when the madness comes upon me!" Tears trickled from under his enflamed eyelids; he sat motionless, a shattered man.
"Be still now, control yourself." The Duke of Orléans spoke almost roughly. "I do what I can, but I cannot move mountains. We must help ourselves, brother, the wolves are stealing through the snow; they will not spare us. I shall have to put up with great frustration, but I do not propose to abandon the struggle because of that. I shall be too clever for Burgundy. He thinks he has put me in checkmate by effecting the marriage pact with England; but he is mistaken once again, our lord uncle. I shall seek my strength where he has sought it himself — in friendship with Richard of England. I have already taken steps to that end."
The King wrinkled his brow; he could hardly grasp the state of affairs, so much had happened since he had last been lucid. He strained to understand. A fierce throbbing behind his eyes warned of the onset of a headache. He put a hand to his forehead and sank back in his seat.
"Am I tiring you, brother?" Louis spoke self-reproachfully. But the King quickly shook his head. "Tell me more," he whispered. "Do you advise me to continue negotiations then?"
"You don't have any alternative. The English lords are here and the Queen has let them know they can call upon Madame Isabelle this afternoon. The Dukes are meeting continually to define conditions. Take a piece of advice from me ..." He leaned toward the King and laid a hand on his knee. "Insist on the insertion of a clause in the treaty which excludes Madame Isabelle from succession to the throne — even from inheriting French territory. Be royal with a dowry, brother, but demand that clause!"
The King bit the knuckles of his left hand. He gazed into his brother's face, so close to his own: he saw the healthy glow under Louis' brown skin, the long, muscular hand raised in warning. The King shuddered with disgust at his own decrepitude.
"You could insist upon it," he said, groping for words. "You are always there, aren't you?"
Louis sighed with impatience.
"This is too important," he said emphatically. "God be praised, you are now able to enforce your views in this matter. They have kept me in the dark about everything, as usual: Burgundy has seen to it that I was kept busy elsewhere. Do you know anything about our difficulties with the Pope?" he asked, after a brief, prudent silence.
The King nervously shook his head. For a few moments Louis stared into space. It was a difficult task to enlighten the King; nonetheless he wanted to tell him as much as he could, for the Regents would no doubt attempt to force their views upon him during his temporary recovery.
"Can you remember," Louis went on slowly, "that you allowed a poll to be taken among the clergy more than a year ago, on the advice of the University? They favored then making concessions on behalf of re-elections."
"Yes. True." Charles still spoke hesitantly. "But — surely — they were correct — these doctors at the Sorbonne, were they not? You have always disagreed with them, brother, haven't you?"
Louis shrugged. "That is beside the point," he said testily. "I admit that I could not — and cannot — tolerate their blatant arrogance. 'Rectify and judge — et doctrinaliter, et indecialiter?" Softly he mimicked Gershon's hoarse voice. "They act as if they know everything. Besides, they supported Rome, which was to be expected — the learned doctors almost always come here from abroad. They cursed Avignon whenever they spoke. But then last fall Pope Clement died ..."
The King nodded a few times; his eyes began to shine.
"Yes, yes." He talked fast. "I know all about it. I signed letters to the Cardinals at Avignon, asking them not to choose a new pope."
"The Cardinals left the letters unopened and immediately chose Pedro de Luna." Louis' laughter was jeering; he was thinking of his own hopes at the time. "I thought then that this was a positive action, because I knew that Luna supported cession. Well, I soon had reason enough to doubt his good intentions. The University did not leave us in peace; daily it sent doctors and orators to plead the cause of cession. Then this spring Monseigneur de Berry and I went to Avignon with an embassy from the Sorbonne. We talked with de Luna day and night but he is a sly fox who does not let himself be tempted by promises — not even for a moment. And what is the result? A pope sits in Avignon — his name is Benedict — who never for a single moment considers resigning his office in order to have a second ballot. And so farewell to the unity of the Church."
"My God," said Charles softly. "How are we to find solace to ease the pain of existence when our comforter, the Church, is torn by discord and dissension?"
Louis made an irritable gesture. "The Church, the Church ... Sometimes I think that we ought to seek our solace, as you call it, anywhere where there are no priests and prelates. Who can enlighten us in our dark ignorance? For we are in the darkness, brother, we hardly dare to feel our way ..."
The King was becoming restless. He felt tired and hot. "What are you babbling about now?" he muttered. "What you have just told me is bad enough, but what can I do about it? What do you expect of me? Where is Madame d'Orléans?" he asked suddenly, sitting up straight. "Why hasn't she come to visit me yet? I would like to see her. It is a long time since she was last here — is she ill? Why don't you answer me?" He looked at Louis with suspicion. Orléans sat with bowed head.
"My wife is no longer in Saint-Pol," he said finally, without looking at the King. "She lives in the Hotel de Behaigne — she has been there since January, since she went to church after the birth of our son Charles."
The Hôtel de Behaigne was one of the many houses which Louis d'Orléans owned in Paris. It was comfortably furnished and set amid beautiful gardens.
Two red spots appeared on the King's cheekbones. He too lowered his eyes. "Why?" he whispered, inexplicably choked by feelings of guilt and shame.
"Your friendship for Madame d'Orléans has aroused suspicion and mistrust," said Louis formally. "I thought it advisable that she should leave Saint-Pol."
"My God," said the King, "this is a gross insult. Is Burgundy behind it?"
Louis shrugged. "It can't be tracked down. You might as well try to surprise a viper in his hole as try to trace the origin of an ugly rumor; you know that as well as I, brother."
Excerpted from In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse, Anita Miller, Lewis C. Kaplan. Copyright © 1970 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
First Book: Youth,
I Louis d'Orleans, The Father,
II Of Valentine, The Mother,
III Burgundians and Armagnacs,
Second Book: The Road to Nonchaloir,
II The Thought Book,