Lady of the English
Author:Elizabeth Chadwick

Ten

Rouen, June 1128

M atilda closed her eyes and took a deep breath, drawing in the smell of incense. Usually its holy scent and association with ritual, ceremony, and royalty would have soothed her, but not today. She had been at her prayers all morning, but it made no difference to her feelings. Her gown of deep blue silk was beaded with gold jetons and jewelled with sapphires, garnets, and pearls. A veil of cloth of gold, bound in place by a coronet from her German treasure, covered her hair.

“You are the most beautiful bride I have ever seen,” Adeliza said as she helped Matilda to don her cloak, gleaming with the pelts of a hundred ermine.

“What does it matter, save that I fulfil my obligation and do as my father bids?” Matilda said tonelessly.

Adeliza frowned. “I thought you were reconciled to the marriage?”

“I know my duty, if that is what you mean, but I will never be reconciled, and that is the truth of it.” Adeliza’s brow remained furrowed. “Everyone is proud of you. I know you have the strength to make a success of this match.” Her tone was bright with reassurance. “Geoffrey looked so handsome at his knighting. Your father says he is mature for his years and he is pleased with him.” LadyofEnglish.indd 81

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Matilda said nothing. Her betrothed and his entourage had been in Rouen all week for the marriage celebrations. Geoffrey and several of his companions had received the accolade of knighthood from her father in a grand formal ceremony. Geoffrey had been presented with a sword and a shield with a lapis-blue background, decorated with lioncels in gold leaf. He had acquitted himself well in displays of horsemanship and feats of arms, and had spent time closeted with her father. With her, Geoffrey had spent no time at all beyond formal public requirement, which had filled her with a combination of resentment and relief.

Her father had heaped upon her jewels and clothes, horses, hawks, and chests full of silver and treasure. She could have anything material from him for the asking, but all the wealth in the world could not compensate for what he was making her do. She knew he was not assuaging his guilt by such largesse, because as far as he was concerned he had nothing to be guilty about. The gifts were rather to reward her for her compliance and to express his pleasure in the match, whilst displaying his munificence to the world.

Over the next four days, the wedding party would travel the 120 miles to Le Mans, where the wedding itself was to take place in the great cathedral there before the entire nobility of Anjou.

“Would you take my place?” she asked Adeliza.

“If it were my destiny, yes,” Adeliza said. “You must give this match a chance. Set a smile on your face and your heart will lighten.”

Matilda curled her lip. “It would be a lie.”

“It would be your duty.” Adeliza’s voice sharpened. “Do you think my sweetness is all there is to me? Do you know how hard it is sometimes? But I smile and go forward because I am a queen and it is my God-given role to help and support your father. When I see my life thus, it becomes a reward to serve and not something onerous.”

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Matilda swallowed and did not answer, because she knew she would never be able to reconcile herself to being married to this preening boy when she had once been wed to a real man of dignity and standing. Adeliza did not understand. Matilda so missed the life she had had in Germany. Here, everyone seemed to be against her, or else to think that this marriage was a fine thing and her reluctance but the contrariness of a silly, fickle woman who should better know her place. Those who frowned on the match were her father’s enemies, or had their own reasons and agendas. The only person she could rely on was herself, and that made her feel terribly lonely.

Adeliza kissed her. “I must go and put on my own cloak,” she said, “and see that all is in order. But for your own good, consider what I have said.”

ttt

“I am worried about Matilda,” Adeliza said as she knelt to remove Henry’s shoes and set them to one side on the sheepskin rug beside the bed. It was late and they had retired to their chamber within the fortress at Brionne where the wedding party was spending the night on its journey to Le Mans.

Henry dismissed her concern with a brusque gesture. “She is my daughter and she knows what is expected of her, and so does the young Angevin sprig.” He gave an amused grunt. “He is already experienced. Not that he told me himself, and I don’t listen to the bragging of those boys around him, but my sources tell me he’s no virgin. He knows what to do and, God willing, he will get her with child on their wedding night.” Adeliza slowly began to rub his feet. “I cannot help but be concerned. It is a great step for her and I love her dearly.” She gave him a tight little smile. “I will miss her, not only as a daughter, but as a friend.”

“Matilda will return for visits, and you can write to each other,” he said gruffly. “I know what gossips you women are, 83

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but you have the other ladies of the court for company, and your duties and business as my queen. There is more than enough to keep you occupied.”

Adeliza smiled up at him, but she had to work hard to keep the sadness from her eyes. Books and leper hospitals, charities and little charters. She had no wish to rule and dominate the world of men, but she did desperately want to fulfil her role as a queen and a woman. Each time he lay with her, each month when she bled, served to point up her feeling of failure and inadequacy. “And I have you, my lord, also.” Henry drew her up to him and kissed her. “I admit here, if nowhere else, that I will miss her too, but I need her to make this match for me. Come, console me. It has been a while.” Adeliza yielded to him with wifely obedience. These days they seldom bedded together. Henry was still vigorous with the court concubines, but as she had continued to have her flux each month, he had ceased to visit her, as if he saw no point.

She knew he preferred his women blowsy and buxom, whereas she was slender and fine-boned with barely a curve. Although she was always welcoming and compliant when he did come to her, the act itself was painful, if seldom prolonged. Henry was always swift to business like a ram in the field.

When he had finished and rolled off her, Adeliza wondered if this was what it would be like for Matilda and Geoffrey. As she straightened her garments, she remembered what she had said to Matilda about the difference between a reward and an onerous duty, and for a moment tears sparkled dangerously close to the surface.

ttt

Matilda looked down at her left hand, bare except for the thin circle of gold Geoffrey had placed on her finger that morning in the cathedral of Saint-Julien at Le Mans. The magnificence of the church had penetrated the wall she had built around 84

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herself, and opened her up to feelings of wonder as she heard mass before the altar with her boy-husband at her side. Here was the majesty and essence of God. She had been awed by the greatness, and sickened too that she should be worshipping Him here, having taken vows to obey and cherish her husband.

It was bearing false witness before one’s maker. Contrasting it with her wedding in Speyer, she felt soiled.

Throughout the day, she had been unable to look at Geoffrey, but had felt his eyes constantly on her. How she was going to bear his hands on her body tonight, she did not know. Her only hope was in not conceiving, because then the marriage could be annulled. Her laundry maid, Osa, had told her the necessary steps to take to avoid conception.

The women had brought her to the great chamber where the marriage was to be consummated. Matilda gazed at the fine, big bed with its clean linen sheets and embroidered covers, and at the painted chests and rich brocade hangings. Her women had earlier set out her ivory combs, her pots of unguents, and her jewel and trinket boxes. Perfumed smoke twirled from a small brazier burning frankincense and bark, but she only felt nauseated. Holy and magnificent surroundings only served to point up the ugliness of what was happening to her.

Adeliza was nodding with approval as she looked round.

“You can make yourself a very pleasant chamber here,” she said. “All will be well.”

“So you keep saying,” Matilda said shortly. “Are you trying to convince yourself too?”

Adeliza recoiled for an instant but swiftly rallied. “You must give your husband a chance at least. Come now. Drink some of this hot wine and let me help you disrobe.” Matilda suffered Adeliza’s ministrations with a clenched jaw.

She wanted to strike her away but knew it would be unfair to vent her anger on her stepmother, who was as powerless as she 85

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was. Neither of them had a choice, but Adeliza was the better at adapting.

Matilda stared at the wall as the women removed her red silk wedding gown and gold belt; the gilded slippers and golden hose with brocaded garter ties edged with pearls; her crown of golden flowers; her veil; the ribbons wound through her braids.

All of it was carefully hung up or put away, leaving her standing barefoot in a plain chemise with simple ties at the throat. Like a virgin, she thought as the women combed down her hair until it lay like a dark-brown waterfall to her hips. A woman stripped of her power, no longer an empress, but a sacrifice. “I need to visit the latrine,” she told the assembled women and crossed the room to the small dark chamber set in the thickness of the wall.

Hidden in there by Osa, under the piles of moss and squares of rag for wiping purposes, was a small vial of vinegar. Biting her lip, Matilda took a piece of moss, tipped the vinegar over it, and, having pulled up her chemise, squatted and inserted the swab as high up into her female passage as she could, just as Osa had told her to do. It would prevent conception, the laundress said. There was always a danger that the man might find out, but it had a reasonable degree of success if a woman wanted to avoid pregnancy—and was certainly better than putting parsley leaves under his pillow or wearing a charm of weasel’s testicles around one’s neck.

Task accomplished, Matilda returned to the women. She could smell vinegar on her fingers and went to splash her hands in the laver, and then anointed her wrists with rose-scented unguent.

“Are you all right?” Adeliza eyed her with concern.

“Yes.” Matilda nodded stiffly. Behind her, the women fussed with the bed, freeing the hangings from their hooks and turning down the covers. Matilda climbed between the sheets, pulled her chemise straight, and accepted a cup of wine from Adeliza.

Was it better to be drunk or sober? she wondered.

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The groom arrived in a rowdy jostle of companions and Matilda began to feel queasy. Geoffrey wore a plain white shirt, the equivalent of her chemise, and was still dressed in his hose and braies with a fur-lined cloak clasped across his breast.

Matilda prayed for him not to remove his clothes because she didn’t want to see his narrow white boy’s body.

Geoffrey’s companions were laughing uproariously and unsteady on their feet. Two of them swung each other around in an impromptu dance, legs flicking, heel and toe. Matilda clenched her jaw, determined to be regal in the face of this adolescent buffoonery. One young man removed the crown of flowers from his head and, dancing over to the bed, set it slantwise on her dark hair. She hesitated, torn between adjusting it to stay, or dragging it off and hurling it across the room. Adeliza leaned to take it from her, the smile on her face now set like stone.

“This is a circus!” Matilda hissed at her. “Are you still going to tell me that it will be all right?”

“All weddings have moments like this,” Adeliza said, a catch in her voice. “You must trust in God. Your husband is sober and that is a good thing.”

Matilda would rather he were dead drunk on the floor.

Her father arrived, his steps unsteady because, unlike his sonin-law, he had imbibed liberally. Geoffrey’s father swayed with him, and the bishop of Le Mans, all three cloaked in an air of well-fed and smug bonhomie. Geoffrey was manhandled to the bed by his cronies and bundled in beside Matilda. He pushed away the more inebriated of his knights with irritation. The guests gathered in a circle round the bed to watch the bishop bless the couple and wish them fruitfulness. Matilda thought of the moss sponge blocking the opening to her womb and felt triumph tinged with nausea. It was a sin, a terrible sin, but if it won her an annulment, it was a price worth paying.

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The blessing performed, the guests left the room, her father and Fulke of Anjou clasping shoulders and laughing like old friends. Adeliza went out with a parting glance of encouragement for Matilda, the smile still patched on to her face. Some of Geoffrey’s friends lingered, too drunk to be aware of etiquette.

Geoffrey left the bed, manhandled them out, and then slammed and bolted the door, ramming home the bar with force. He returned and stood at the foot of the bed and gazed at Matilda.

She took a swallow of wine and for the first time that day, studied him properly.

His hair fell over his brow in a red-gold tumble; a slender youth whose beard was little more than fluff, and whose smooth skin had yet to coarsen with stubble. Yet he had a shine about him and the looks of a fallen angel. A shiver ran through her. She wondered how much of his foolishness just now was bravado in the face of danger, and she did indeed have it within her to be as dangerous as a lioness stalking her prey.

His fine red brows drew together in a scowl. Squaring his shoulders, he came to her side of the bed. He took the cup from her and set it decisively to one side. Then he threw back the covers and pulled her to her feet. “Now,” he said, breathing swiftly, “let me see what I have given my oath for.” He had grown since their betrothal and was taller than her, and his grip was hard and confident. Through her revulsion, Matilda felt a frisson of desire. That he had taken the lead and pulled her out of the bed had surprised and unbalanced her; she had expected him to fumble when the moment came, and be gauche and indecisive. These were not the actions of a boy, but of a man accustomed to getting his own way.

Geoffrey unfastened the ties of her chemise and pulled the garment over her head. He looked her up and down with leisurely thoroughness before reaching out to fondle her breasts. Her nipples had stiffened in the cold and his hand was 88

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soft-skinned but firm with intent. “Your father wants a young stallion to prove his worth at stud,” he said huskily. “I thought you’d be a hag, but you’re not. It’s going to be a pleasure to do my duty.” His hand trailed down her body to her pubic hair. “I am adept at hunting through forests and finding hidden streams.” Matilda swallowed. She wanted to strike him aside, and at the same time she was aroused. Whatever he was or was not, this boy-husband of hers had a powerful physical charisma.

“I am going to get you with child. That’s what you want, isn’t it? That’s what you and your father need?” She gave him an icy stare. “Do what you must and let us be finished.”

He pushed her back against the wall and began kissing her, and she felt his hardness through the fine linen of his braies, and in that too he was most definitely a man. Plainly he was already experienced, because he was not awkward. She had thought to be able to disconnect from the event, but found herself responding and becoming involved, and while it was distasteful, there was pleasure too. She closed her eyes and made her mind a blank. She would think about it all later. His body was sinuous and smooth, but it was masculine too. The youth. The man. Desire wound through her veins like a drug. He pressed her against the wall, his hips grinding, and then he swung her round and pushed her on to the bed. His mouth covered hers and his lips and tongue were fierce. He dragged off his shirt and pulled down his hose and braies, impatient now. Matilda kept her eyes shut because she did not want to see that part of him.

Geoffrey was swiftly inside her, but there was no pain because her body was moist and ready. He had indeed found the hidden stream. He held himself over her and Matilda clenched her fists as he thrust back and forth. He took her parted legs and rested them on his shoulders and heaved into her, and she felt a growing pressure deep within her loins. She 89

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wanted him to finish and let her escape, and at the same time she needed him to continue and throw her off the edge of the precipice into oblivion. But Geoffrey ceased moving and lifted his chest and shoulders off the bed and suspended her there for a long, long moment. Their eyes met and held and it was like enemies facing each other on a battlefield. And then he let go with a curse of pleasure and a final thrust while Matilda stiffened as a tide of sensation rippled over her, wave upon wave of surge and release.

Geoffrey withdrew from her and rolled over on to his back.

“For all that you look at me as if you hate me, you didn’t hate me then, did you?” he smirked, pillowing his arms behind his head, revealing tufts of ruddy-gold hair. “In fact I think you liked it a lot.”

Matilda said nothing. There was a bitter taste at the back of her throat.

“He was an older man, your first husband,” Geoffrey continued. “I intend to be more vigorous in your bed than he was.”

“You know nothing of my first husband,” she said, feeling sick. “He was a great man.” She puts emphasis on the final two words.

“I do know that he is dead.” He gave her a sidelong glance from his beautiful eyes. “You are mine now. I know you think of me as a nothing and I know your father thinks of me as little more than a strutting Angevin cockerel to tread his hen, but I am Count of Anjou and my father is to be the king of Jerusalem—and I have time to build my own empires.”

“But you will never be a king, even when I become Queen,” Matilda retorted. “And you will never be an emperor either.” Geoffrey rolled on to his stomach and faced her. “It matters little in the scheme of things whether I have gold at my brow or not, although I see the store you set by it, madam. What 90

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matters is power. You may call yourself an empress and one day you may be a queen, but here, in this household, I am your lord and master, and I command your obedience. If I order you to kneel at my feet, then you kneel.”

Revulsion surged through her. “And you would think yourself all powerful for such a petty ability…my lord?” He clenched his fist and then grazed it gently against her jaw in a caress that nevertheless threatened violence. “Yes,” he said.

“I would.”

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