Lady of the English
Author:Elizabeth Chadwick

Five

Fortress of Wallingford, Oxfordshire, October 1126

A cold autumn rain was shivering the banks of the Thames and filling the wheel ruts on the road with muddy water as Brian arrived at his great fortress of Wallingford.

The recently built stone keep on its high mound proclaimed the power of its lord, as did the series of ditches, palisades, and walls, slick with rainwater. Brian noted that the engineers and builders had made good progress over the summer during his absence at court. Men said that Wallingford was impregnable, and Brian could almost believe it was true.

As a groom arrived to take Sable, his wife emerged from the guest hall to greet him. “My lord.” She dropped him a brief curtsey.

“Madam.” He forced a smile. Untidy wisps of iron-grey hair escaped her wimple and she wore an everyday gown with the sleeves hooked back and pale dog hairs decorating her ample bosom. A pack of assorted, exuberant canines bustled around her feet, threatening to trip anyone who tried to take a step.

Brian tightened his jaw. She had had plenty of notification of his arrival, but he knew from experience that changing her gown was never a priority for Maude, and that, unless prompted, it would not occur to her to do so. However, when he entered the private chamber in the domestic block, he found a jug of LadyofEnglish.indd 41

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wine waiting on a cloth-covered trestle with fresh bread and good cheese. There was a ewer of warm water for washing, and clean raiment set out for him. Maude ran the household efficiently, but when it came to herself, saw no need to bother beyond the practical and mundane.

“I am surprised to see you,” she said as he stooped to wash his hands and face. Her tone was neutral. “I suppose you are not here for long.”

“A few days only,” he said as he dried himself. “I’ve to rejoin the court by the end of the week.” He looked down. One of her dogs had grabbed his shoe thong in its teeth and was worrying at it with ferocious growls. He stooped and picked up the creature, one hand under its tummy. It curled its lip at him and yapped and wriggled. Its eyes were almost hidden under a shroud of silky white fringe.

“He’s still a pup.” Her voice grew syrupy and fond. “He hasn’t learned his manners yet, have you, Rascal?”

“Rascal?” Maude always had one dog of that name as her personal companion. If this youngster was the current “Rascal,” then the old one must be dead.

“I lost his great-grandsire in the spring when you were in Normandy.” Her tone held no reproach for his long absence, merely stoic resignation.

“I am sorry.”

She shrugged. “He had lost his hearing and he was blind; it was for the best.” She removed the pup from his arms and cuddled it to her breast.

“All has been well here?”

“Nothing that I or your constable and stewards have been unable to deal with. I would have written if there was trouble.” He nodded. They exchanged words like polite strangers. He and Maude had been wed for nineteen years and had nothing in common. They did not even have the gift and mutual 42

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upbringing of sons and daughters to bind them together and that likelihood was almost gone, for she was nearly twenty years older than he was and long into her mid-life. She was always keen to try and conceive when he came home, in the same way that she eagerly bred her dogs and her oxen and her cattle, but she led her life at Wallingford and he led his at the court and their worlds seldom collided.

“Well, only the matter of the church at Ogbourne,” she said. “I would like to give it to the monks at Bec.” She set the wriggling little dog on the ground.

“I think it a good idea,” he said as he went to change his thick travelling tunic for a garment of finer, softer wool. “The empress will be pleased; Bec is her favourite priory.” As he spoke of Matilda, warmth filled his stomach.

Maude tilted her head to one side and folded her arms.

“What is she like?”

“Her father’s daughter,” he said. “She does not suffer fools gladly.

She is regal and elegant; truly an empress.” It was useless telling her of Matilda’s vibrancy, of her sharp sparkle and her beauty, because Maude would not understand, and anyway, he wanted to keep such descriptions to himself—like personal treasure.

“Will the king make her his heir?” Without waiting for him to reply she continued, “He must intend to. He has enough daughters born of his concubines to bind men to him in marriage alliances. He needs her for a greater purpose—why bring her back from Germany otherwise?” Brian nodded. His wife was astute. She might not move in the world of the court, but she was not ignorant. “It is one of his choices,” he said. “But for the moment he is keeping many doors open.”

“He will expect her to breed sons…” Maude’s voice strengthened on the last two words and her expression grew set and forceful.

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Brian excused himself before she could begin a long and tedious monologue on the matter of bloodlines: he had business to see to. His constable William Boterel brought him up to date on recent building projects. He examined the seasoned oak delivered for strengthening the castle doors and inspected the store rooms; he discussed supplies and the necessity of providing secure accommodation other than a dungeon for Waleran de Meulan, who was to be kept here as a closely guarded “guest.” He visited the garrison soldiers and talked to them, then retired to his own chamber to ponder various tallies and charters until the dinner hour. Not once in that time did he think of his wife.

When they met in the great hall to dine, Maude had finally changed her gown for a clean one of plain green wool and she wore a full linen wimple in the English style that framed her wide, round face. Her cheeks, forehead, and chin were rosy as if she had given them a good scrub. As they ate roe deer with wheat frumenty and assorted fungi, she talked to him of the minutiae of her daily existence; he let her conversation flow over him and tried to think of it as soothing rather than as dull as stodge. Maude was a good woman and without their marriage, he would not have all this wealth to call upon. She ran his household well and provided a refuge from the steely sharpness of the court. Here life was predictable and grounded; he did not have to listen to and measure every single word.

He told her about Waleran, and that he was to be kept at Wallingford until the king deemed him safe to release. “I have told William to see to the ordering of a suitable door with bars and locks. He’s to be kept under strict house arrest until the king decrees otherwise.”

She looked at him in surprise, but without trepidation.

“What a shame,” she said. “Why do men fight over things that do not matter? When the hens stop laying or there is murrain among the sheep that is far greater cause for concern than who 44

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sits on the throne. I remember Waleran de Meulan when he was a foolish boy too young to grow a beard.”

“Now he is a foolish man,” Brian said curtly. “He should not have dabbled in rebellion, and now he is reaping the consequences.”

Maude tutted and, with a shake of her head, passed a scrap of meat under the table to Rascal.

As evening fell, Maude leaned towards him and laid her capable, alewife’s hand on his sleeve. “Husband, will you come to bed?” There was no seduction in her voice; the request, although spoken in a low voice for privacy, was matter of fact.

“Yes, in a moment,” he said with a sinking heart. “I have a few charters to look over first.”

“Good, then I will expect you. I will take the dogs out while I wait.” She left, calling her entourage of canines to heel and bidding a servant bring her cloak.

Brian retreated to his chamber. Sitting down in his chair he massaged his temples where a slow headache had begun to pound. It had been a long day. Eventually he picked up his quill and, drawing a sheet of parchment under his hand, wrote to the abbot of Bec, and then to the bishop of Bath. The motion of the quill across the parchment soothed him, as did the intellectual flow of his thoughts. He sometimes wondered what would have happened if his father had dedicated him to the Church instead of giving him to the king to be raised at court. Would he have found religious vows hard to keep?

Perhaps, but then many clerics made a mockery of such, and lived in the lap of luxury and power with their mistresses and offspring—witness Roger of Salisbury and his castle at Devizes and his palace at Salisbury.

His work completed, he went to open the shutters and look out. He could hear Maude calling to the dogs, jollying them along in her brisk, deep voice. She would have been a fine 45

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mother to a brace of sons, he thought, and felt a surge of melan-choly. Even while she irritated him, he appreciated that their marriage was not one she would have chosen for herself had the decision been in her hands, because he no more measured up to her standards than she did to his ttt

Still red-cheeked and glowing from her walk, Maude looked at Brian expectantly. The servants had made up the great bed for the night and been dismissed, taking the dog pack with them.

“If we do not have an heir now, it will be too late,” she said.

“My fluxes barely come at all these days and you are returning to court within the week.” She jutted her fleshy jaw. “I am entitled to claim the marital debt from you. I know you have no desire for me, but this is not about desire, it is about procreation.” Brian bit his lip. If the situation had not been so appalling, he would have laughed. Besides, it was no laughing matter, because if he did not pay that debt, then he was violating his oath of marriage. She removed her wimple and gown. Reluctantly he took off his tunic and his shirt, but it was she who approached him. Her chemise was plain but clean. The smell of lye soap mingled with that of fresh sweat from her recent exercise. She rubbed her hands together to warm them and, without further ado, unfastened the drawstring on his braies. Delving down, she began to fondle him. Brian closed his eyes. He wasn’t a stallion in the breeding pen. He had never felt less amorous in his life and he was flaccid in her grip, which was becoming ever more desperate and vigorous. “Give me a moment,” he gasped, pushing her away. “Go and get into bed.” She heaved a sigh, but did as he bade, and lay back, hitching up her nightgown and opening her legs. Brian hastily snuffed the candle and climbed in beside her. It would be better in the dark, he told himself, easier to pretend. He banished the thought of Maude’s dimpled flesh from his mind; blotted out 46

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too the smell of lye and sweat. He tried to ignore the grunt she made as he mounted her and imagined instead a lithe taut body scented with royal incense and roses, eyes the blue-grey of lavender flowers and a mouth that drove him wild. Such fancies in his mind, he became hard enough to do his duty. To enter her body and give her his seed. And once inside her, it became easier to envisage that this was not Maude but Matilda, and the act not just one of procreation, but of lovemaking.

When it was over he lifted himself off her and sat up, his ribs heaving. In the aftermath of release, he felt sullied, but at least he had given her what she wanted.

“There, there,” soothed Maude, patting his back as if he were a dog or a horse that had performed well. “That wasn’t so difficult, was it?”

“No,” he said, and thought that while he was relieved at a duty done, she was obviously satisfied that she could remove it from her own list of things to do while he was home. Her hand left him; she turned over and was soon asleep, soft snores catching at the back of her throat. Brian quietly dressed in the dark and went out. As he opened the door, he felt her dogs trotting past him into the room and he heard them leaping on to the bed, encouraged by Maude’s sleepy murmur of welcome.

Rousing a squire, he had the lad kindle a lantern and guide him to his own chamber. Let her have her dogs; he would seek the comfort of the written word.

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