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Un Geste d'Amour

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The linens were stiflingly hot and she must get free, but she was trapped under the weight of her brocaded covers. Above her the bedcurtains rose into a dizzying cone of pure blackness. She could not keep lying here, she would go mad, she would die. With a monumental effort she liberated one arm; the sight of her own fingers curling pale against the darkness roused her at last from the fearful, feverish dream, and with a great gasp she sat up. "Margaret!"

"My lady?" Margaret was the favorite among the Queen's waiting-women. The girl had a deceptively mousy look, but was quick and clever, and deadly loyal; to boot she commanded a fair measure of Latin in addition to her native tongue, and even spoke a bit of English. To her Eleanor was not the Queen of this dubious, perpetually gray backwater, but always and solely Her Grace, rightful ruler and proudest daughter of Aquitaine. "Do you thirst?"

"No--well, bring a little water anyhow. That's good." Eleanor put the cup down heavily. "I think I will take a little walk. I require air."

"But my lady, it is very late, and cold."

"Never mind, Margie." She gave her most reassuringly maternal smile, and felt the girl smile back in melting adoration. "Get you to bed."

The night was indeed chilly. She drew her fox-hemmed mantle closer as she paced the narrow walk above the garden, its branches now bare and encased with frost. Her mind pulsed and dashed like a hind fleeing from the hunt, as she remembered what she had seen before she had gone to bed with the nightmare.

Rarely did she seek Henry, these days. She had much to attend to: the busy correspondence that she staunchly maintained with her deputies in Aquitaine, the occasional meeting with her children, a requisite few hours spent at some tapestry or other with the old Empress per week. If she felt the need, she knew, she could command the attentions of one of dozens of bright-colored, brainless young sycophants. In the past she had, more than once or twice, indulged herself. But the barons' boys all seemed entirely too doltish to her now. Perhaps she was beginning to grow old.

That thought had tickled her as it came to her earlier, during supper, and had led to another: what was Henry doing? He had gone hunting in the morning, and though the horns had sounded his return in the late afternoon, he had not appeared for his meal. She had felt an old warmth when she fixed her mind on his name, and (so girlishly that she wanted to laugh at herself) had looked to her mother-in-law's face, across the table. Evidently no one had noticed a thing. Perhaps the fowl was captivatingly delicious, or perhaps they had merely begun to forget her! Sharp and fast flew further bitterness, little jolts the likes of which she had thought a relic of moon-eyed youth even when she had been twenty. She was Eleanor, flower of Aquitaine--how could they neglect her so? She would throw their coarse Norman bread in their faces, she would break her cup on their heads.

Feeling adolescent made her sparkle, she felt. Her smiles grew broader, her heart beat faster. She wanted to see Henry. It had been months since she had made the journey to his chamber, but she stepped down the corridors merrily, and as she mounted the final stairs she even flounced the skirts gathered in one hand, as if she were really a girl again. In the antechamber she told the guards to stand outside; they nodded and obeyed politely, but without nearly the correct amount of deference. Yet she did not mind, still floating and shining somewhere above her usual cares.

Henry's voice came low through the shut door. She leaned against the wall of the landing, grinning with glee at her espionage."--well? Don't you have any ideas? I truly don't know what to do with them. Stupid little beasts."

"I have always thought the Princes quite charming children." Eleanor's wild mood drained away in a rush. The hard wall now bit coldly through her thin sleeve and into her shoulder. The speaker continued, "A bit of kindliness, sir, may at times go a long way."

"Kindliness, Thomas?" There was a long pause. Henry guffawed, "What manner of creature is that? I'm afraid that my uncouth youth has kept me in ignorance of such a thing." Another silence, even longer, broken by Henry--but she could no longer make out what was said. With her jaw clenched, she slowly dropped to her knees, then bent her head to the door. Only blazing anger filled her; it had come too suddenly for her to dissect its origins, but she knew that it prompted her to press her ear against the heavy- grained wood as one of her hands fisted in her skirts and the other picked at a long splinter near the threshold.

"--to the Queen since we returned today, Highness?" To hear that oily voice mention her made her shudder. "And your mother?"

"No, no," she knew that Henry was waving his hand in his usual childish way. "I don't want to see them, hear them, talk to them. No, not at all. Never." A shuffle of fabric; she guessed that he was lying across his bed, and had shifted. "Let's stop speaking of them, Thomas."

"Very well--but I should leave you, sir. It is nearly midnight, and you had rather too much to drink with the venison, don't you think?"

"You presumptuous bastard, you're my mother now?" The ensuing noises were difficult to place, and continued for some time. Henry was clearly well beyond even his impressive capacity, for his laugh, long and loud, sounded burred at the edges, not its clarion self. Becket said something but this noise drowned it; outside, Eleanor felt lightheaded, with the cold or with the discomfort of crouching on the floor, she did not know. She ought to rise to her full Queen's height, push open the door, stride in, address Henry in the most mannerly tones while ignoring that rat-faced, black-souled Saxon. But her ear seemed stuck to the door, her knees locked, her strength all flown away.

Then it came, the single reason for the Queen of England to be out alone on a icy little overhang above a sad bleak garden in the deadest hours of night: her King singing, huskily, no longer raucous.

So secretly have I concealed my pain,
no one would guess it from my face;
if it were not for that wicked race,
I would already embrace my gains.

Love would have granted me its prize,
but when I would have partaken,
then they descended, dread surprise,
may they be by Love forsaken!

She had to tilt her face to the gleaming gibbous moon to stay the tears in their place. He had sung that entire song, all its six verses, in her ear--two, or maybe three nights after their wedding. How vicious were men! They called the female sex treacherous and guileful, but even without an effort they could trample so upon all that was righteous and compassionate and Godly!

He hadn't gotten so far into the next verse before he stopped. Able at last to stand, she did so, leaning heavily against the door. Now, now she would do it. Her father had told her since she was learning to walk that every fall meant a toughening of the bones; she was hard now as the walls of stone around her, and as cold. She put her hand to the heavy iron door-ring and pushed.

Nothing happened; the door-bar, which, also being iron and very broad, did not even rattle in its setting.

They had locked the door--he had locked the door! The idea, like a thorny vine, stabbed her and sank into her even as she tried to drop it and flee. She had come to his door before when he'd a woman with him, and never had the bar been put down. The man had no shame, no concern for a performance of needless decorum. That had been one of the best things about him, when they'd both been young; even when she saw a black or yellow head beside him in the great bed as she strode in it had been nothing to her, or at least very little. Henry would smirk at her as she spoke of the weather, or the children, or of the newest machinations of Louis, and she would smirk in return before bowing and sweeping out. Once he had even detained her for the night, saying that he wanted to "introduce" her to the girl, but that had been so many years ago, before the birth of John, or was it before even Leonora? But never, never had he locked the door. Never had he sung a word, though sometimes--long ago, again--she had taken up a flute and given him the best songs of her girlhood.

She laughed, hard and long, as a persistent tear made its way despite her care down her cheek and into the fur at her jaw. The garden shivered in a wind; she shivered in her furs. Another half an hour, she told herself. Another half an hour and she would return to bed. Her knees were aching terribly from the strain and the weather, and her head throbbing. She would pray for peace to come and set her asleep, and then she would arrange for her things to be sent on to Poitiers before the New Year. She should have left this damnable place--cold, secretive, filled with passions that hid in stony caves like clammy serpents-- long ago.

[Note: The song lyrics are more or less as translated in Helen Dell's article on medieval
French chansons, with some (bad) tweaks by me; its title is "Li nouviauz tanz et mais et
violete," or "The new season and may and violets." Also, the reader should note that
Eleanor was in Poitiers at the time of Thomas's assassination, not in England--I've just
seized upon whatever "facts", from the film or historical record, come in handy here.]