Lady Eleanor-21 May 1355
Whilst the celebrations at the end of the archery contest continued, Guillam whispered in Lady Eleanor’s ear, ‘Darling, so that you will not be implicated in any way it is essential that you arrive at Muret before Ximene’s escape. We should leave immediately.’
Two hours later, Guillam lifted his two female companions onto the boat which was tied up at the jetty at Porte St Marie, on the river just below Clermont.
Eleanor could see from Pipa’s demeanour that she had something on her mind. ‘Did you feel excluded? It was your idea to pretend to be a servant, not ours.’
‘I was pleased he won, but he made no effort to see me; no effort to thank me for everything I did to help him. He must have noticed I had given him my favour, but he was too busy talking to the Earl of Salisbury and Joan of Kent.’
Lady Eleanor smiled consolingly. ‘I think I can say that I know Joan well and yet I have never seen her so excited about anything. The young man is not only skilled but very fortunate, to be the favourite of such an influential person.’
Pipa frowned. ‘Why was Joan so interested in him? I saw her introduced to him only just before the contest. I don’t think she knew him before that.’
‘People play games. He is probably just another of Joan’s conquests; if so, she has good taste.’
‘He should have made an effort to thank me! But Guillam made us leave immediately after the contest, so perhaps he did not expect that.’
Lady Eleanor hardly noticed Pipa’s chatter, and cut in with her own train of thought. ‘The Earl also seemed pleased. John is certainly not just another indolent courtier, he was unassuming, workmanlike in the way he approached the contest. Even I could not help admiring him!’
By late evening the following day, Lady Eleanor was luxuriating in a warm bath on the terrace of her elaborate mansion at Auch, the capital of Armagnac.
She had bought it as a staging post between Foix and Guillam’s Home at Clermont. The house sat almost at the head of the two hundred or more steps which led from the quay on the Gers canal to the main square.
The house had originally been built by the Moors and, though it had been renovated many times, still kept its Moorish overtones. Rooms were subdivided with graceful arches, pillars and elaborate screens, and virtually every wall was lined with plush couches. The room in which Eleanor now relaxed led onto a terrace overlooking the Gers and had as its centrepiece the large tiled bath. Musicians hid behind a screen at the side of the room and the sound of harp, flute, bagpipes and drums flowed through the room.
Occasionally the voice of a male singer broke in with renditions of the traditional ballads of the troubadours. Musky perfume from incense burners filled the room. Beyond the balustrade of the balcony, the sun slowly set in a sky streaked with pink and turquoise.
Guillam settled into the bath, leaned back and issued a sigh of pure contentment. Eleanor bent forward and touched his hand. She waited for the end of one of the ballads before she spoke.
‘Don’t you think it strange that the Black Prince, possibly the most powerful man in Europe, is forced to lurk north of the river and go all the way round Toulouse in order to get to Muret, whereas we—supposedly persecuted—can travel across the country in perfect safety?’
‘Ah yes, but we have had a long time to learn how to do it. It is a tribute to the strength and discipline of our security systems. This house of yours is a case in point. It is thought by the citizens of Auch to be the town residence of a local landowner. No one queries the fact that it is empty for long periods and entertains guests from out of town. In fact, we have created a trend; many non-Cathars are now establishing townhouses.’
Lady Eleanor smiled. ‘Thank you for hosting the festival of Selene, I thought it particularly good this year.’ She chuckled. ‘Our choices for Amun and Amunet were particularly inspired.’
Guillam also chuckled. ‘I noticed that they both enjoyed it. Joan is a born performer, isn’t she? And the Earl so strong and serious, her perfect foil. Do you think we have rekindled old fires?’
Eleanor eyed her lover carefully. ‘Oh! You know very well that the fires have never been extinguished. The fact that the Pope declared their marriage invalid did not affect their relationship. They are lovers for life.’
‘And are you ready to tell me about your conversations with Joan and the Earl?’
‘Yes, but don’t expect any conclusions. Let’s start with Joan. Her enduring affection for the Earl does not mean she has abandoned her ambition to be the next Duchess of Aquitaine and Queen of England. It is a problem for us all. Both the Earl and Joan showed trust in me, but it is a trust I fear I will find it difficult to honour.’
‘The Earl assured me of the Prince’s commitment to Ximene and assured me that any marriage contract would include her expectations from the union as well as the Prince’s.’ She raised her eyebrows. ‘This was something I wanted to hear but is too good to be true. He seemed to believe Ximene would be unable to resist the Prince once she met him during the hunt. I think that is because in his own way he also loves the Prince. He cannot imagine that anyone could not love him.’
‘These are strange circumstances. The irony of the fact that Joan emerged from the same bedroom as that in which the Earl had spent the night was not lost on me. Despite her affection for the Earl, Joan claims she is also deeply in love with the Prince and has been since childhood.’
Guillam frowned. ‘She expects to retain that relationship even if the Prince marries Ximene?’
‘Much worse than that! She now wants a full contractual marriage so that any children by the Prince will be heirs to the English crown. This ambition is complicated by the fact that Joan is still married to Thomas Holland, her second,’ she looked upwards, ‘Or was it her first, husband.’
‘But she still expects to go through a Roman Marriage with the Prince?’
‘Definitely, determinedly. Despite the fact that King Edward has always been keen that the Prince should make a dynastic marriage, preferably with a princess from Aragon, Castile, Navarre or France, and now with Ximene. It is obvious that Joan’s chosen path is not an easy one. Therein lies my dilemma. They have both put their trust in me but their objectives are not compatible.’
Lady Eleanor pulled her thoughts together. ‘Up till now, the Black Prince has seemed a good option.’ She took a sip from her glass. ‘Even though Ximene wants her freedom, I still believed that eventually, he would be a good choice, but after what I learned at Clermont, I have changed my mind. I like the Earl of Salisbury as a person and Joan is delightful. From what I hear, the Black Prince is also a thoroughly honourable person, though I have never met him.’
‘So why have you changed your mind?’
‘They were all brought up together in the Cathar household at Old Sarum and I have always thought that they should be able to offer a suitable environment in which Ximene can be happy. Unfortunately, my current view is that because of Joan’s obsession with becoming the next Queen of England and the fact that both the Earl and the Prince are hopelessly in love with her, Ximene would always be the outsider.’
‘So a marriage to the Prince would be a mistake?’
‘In the Prince’s favour, it must still be said that he would give Ximene protection from persecution. The delay caused by Ximene’s escape will enable Ximene to negotiate better marriage terms, but the portents are not good. At the festival, I’d planned, or rather hoped, to make Joan renew her relationship with the Earl of Salisbury and hopefully give up her plans to be Queen. Despite its success, I don’t think I succeeded. I believe we must look for alternatives.’
Eleanor gazed at the evening sky. ‘We probably should look for a staunch ally of the Prince, who could become his appointee for Occitan.’