‘If you want to express your admiration for a woman it must be because you have watched her long enough to know everything about her and exactly what it is that attracts you. Shallow statements of affection will only please shallow women.’
John Stanley-12th May 1355
John went for a swim, which, with the benefit of his recent training, was now a pleasure rather than a challenge. As he swam, thoughts tumbled through his mind.
Being invited to an adult function, without discrimination because of his youth, delighted him.
The prospect of contact with remnants of the Cathar culture added additional spice… John had learned that Ximene practised the Cathar religion; now he had added to that knowledge that the Cathar culture allowed, perhaps encouraged, men, to pay compliments to women they met. Therefore if he ever met Ximene, it would be acceptable for him to pay her a compliment. He could use tonight’s feast to practice this skill. He would go out of his way to compliment every pretty girl he met.
John then chose the cleanest clothes he had available and walked to the village with several other squires.
Ewan was in full voice. ‘I have just heard that all the squires will gather together in a special troop, and from now on we will collectively report to the Earl. He wants to make sure that we all pull our weight.’ As he made his proclamation, he looked directly at John as if this new instruction was specifically aimed to pull John into line.
John returned the stare but remained calm. He was now used to Ewan being Ewan.
John settled at a table with the other squires. Ewan told anecdotes and crude jokes, encouraging playful insults to pass around the table. When a squire’s attention moved to the villagers or others of the expeditionary force, Ewan quickly jumped in with another joke. John shook his head. Ewan worked hard at making himself the centre of attention.
John surveyed the gathering for signs of the Cathar culture. As he turned from the table the music seemed to dominate other sounds. The smell of the food seemed more aromatic. He noted, despite his limited experience in social behaviour, the women’s equal standing among the group. They mixed freely with strangers, accepting compliments and teasing the men.
From time to time he turned his attention back to Ewan. Not only did Ewan not look beyond the table but when John did so, he was noisily reminded of the need to pay attention or asked a question which tested how well he had been listening to the conversation.
Eventually, John made his apologies and moved away. He could almost feel Ewan’s satisfaction and his determination to use John’s departure to reassert his influence. John glanced back at the table. Ewan obviously did have some support; the other squires swiftly repositioned themselves to eliminate the space John had vacated.
John listened to the music and watched the dancers.
A very pretty girl, whose eyes gleamed in the early evening light, approached him moments later. She wore a low-cut blouse fashioned from delicate gauze. Her bodice was only slightly deeper than a belt, accentuating her voluminous vividly coloured skirt. She wore shoes as light as slippers which were bound by ties around her ankles.
‘Would you like me to find you somewhere to sit?’ she asked.
John instinctively nodded but remembered that he should take the opportunity to speak. ‘Yes… indeed… I would.’ His cheeks reddened.
‘And your name is?’
‘John and yours is?’
‘Estelle,’ she replied as she led him to a table occupied by young people of both sexes.
She clapped her hands to attract attention.
‘Everyone, this is John, one of the Captal’s soldiers. He is from England …’
‘John, this is Yvonne, Paul, Jaques, Gabrielle, Edith, Pierre, Juiliette…’
As Estelle made the introduction she moved her hand to indicate each person she introduced; there were too many names for John to remember. He wondered how Estelle knew he came from England? His accent perhaps?
John immediately became the centre of attention.
‘Where have you come from?’ ‘How did you become a soldier?’ ‘What mission are you on?’
He learned quickly that these young people were enthusiastic supporters of ‘Le Duc d’Aquitaine’. He discovered that the remnants of the Cathar faith were stronger than the Earl had indicated. King John had prevented the crusaders from reaching western Aquitaine one-hundred-and-fifty years previously, creating a robust allegiance to ‘Le Duc’ and allowing the Cathar faith to continue.
His new companions led John to a buffet, which was mainly seafood, but supplemented by roast meats and highlighted by tray upon tray of oysters.
The girl closest to John gave him a dazzling smile.
‘Do you live in the village?…’ John asked her, desperately trying to remember her name.
She turned to face him. The smile intensified. ‘My name is Gabrielle and no, I am just visiting. I am from Arcachon.’
‘It must be wonderful living by such a spectacular bay.’
‘My family has long been oyster fishermen but now we have started farming them. These are all our oysters.’
‘Oh! I have, of course, heard of oysters, but I have never actually eaten one.’
Gabrielle laughed out loud. ‘Sorry, John, but I live surrounded by them. Go on, have one.’
John picked an oyster up and twiddled it around in his hand.
Gabrielle nodded. ‘Go on, they have been loosened from the shell. Just swallow it, or as I do myself, bite it gently to tear the flesh before swallowing it. You get more of the taste that way.’
John did as he was told but was unsure about both taste and texture. He hoped his disappointment did not show.
Nevertheless, when he piled up his plate with prawns, langoustines, bean and tomato salad and wonderful fresh roasted bread, he added some oysters.
An hour later he had changed his mind. Washed down with copious quantities of white wine, oysters were suddenly his favourite food.
John glowed with pleasure. Never before in his life had he been quite so much the centre of attraction for so long.
After the novelty wore off, he felt that despite being a stranger he was accepted as part of the group.
Estelle came to sit beside him.
She repeated many of the questions he had been asked by the rest of the group. In particular, she was interested in why this group was in Aquitaine and what they intended to do. John was very tempted to tell her everything he knew in order to impress her, but he resisted the temptation.
She persisted in her questioning.
‘So, tell me again, why are you in Aquitaine?’ she asked.
He tried to deflect her questions. ‘Serving the Prince is a great honour and anyway it gives me the opportunity to visit Aquitaine. I love Aquitaine.’
‘It’s my home. I love it too, but you still haven’t told me why you are here.’
‘We are here to protect the Prince, while he carries out an important diplomatic mission,’ John said, remembering the information the Earl had given to the wider audience earlier in the day; passing it on should be safe.
‘Here in Biscarrosse? I wouldn’t have thought there was much danger here. ‘Estelle batted her eyelids at him.
‘Your Duc d’Aquitaine will be the next King of England, we must always be vigilant.’
‘Such an important position for one so young.’
John thought this might be the opportunity he was searching for.
‘I will tell you this; I think you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.’
‘Thank you, John, for the compliment, but do tell me, what colour are my eyes?’
It was now growing dark and in the flickering light of the flares, he could not tell the colour of Estelle’s eyes. He tried to hide his confusion but failed.
Estelle smiled. ‘John, you are such an attractive man, but if you want to express your admiration for a woman it must be because you have watched her long enough to know everything about her and exactly what it is that attracts you. Shallow statements of affection will only please shallow women.’
John hung his head. ‘I am sorry. I did not mean to insult you.’
She brushed her hand gently across his cheek. For John, it was as if he had been struck by lightning.
‘You certainly did not insult me. I now know that you admire me. Given time, our relationship might blossom. A good place to start is to make friends with a woman you admire. If she responds and tells you about her interests and ambitions that is the time, if you find her physically attractive, to tell her so.’
She stood up. ‘I must go now, but before I do, why don’t you talk to Gabrielle? Before you came over to join us she seemed anxious to meet you.’
She left the table and walked slowly and deliberately towards the village. Shortly afterwards, equally deliberately, the Earl rose from his table and left as if he was following Estelle.
John was confounded. He could not be sure that the two events were connected but they certainly seemed to be.
Despite his disappointment, John moved along the table and sat by Gabrielle.
‘You were telling me about oyster farming.’
‘Yes I was, but you lost interest. As soon as Estelle sat beside you, you paid no attention to me. You are so very fickle, John.’ She turned away to commence a conversation with her neighbour.
Suddenly John was no longer the centre of attraction. He knew he had broken some rule of etiquette by switching his attention from Gabrielle to Estelle and then attempting to switch it back again, and yet it was not his fault. Estelle had known of Gabrielle’s interest and yet had deliberately intervened. Why? There was obviously more to this ‘culture’ than met the eye, which was not something which pleased him.
John liked working within a framework of rules where if he complied with the rules he would be well regarded. He tried to join in several conversations but suddenly again felt like an outsider. The night was, therefore, a great disappointment.
As they returned to their camp, John listened to the conversations of other members of the expeditionary force. The more constructive consoled themselves that they had been royally entertained, perhaps to a standard they had never previously experienced. ‘Give thanks for small mercies,’ seemed to be the consensus.
There were dissenting voices, however. Many of his companions had also noticed the Earl leaving to follow Estelle. When they returned to the campfire, one man expressed his feelings forcibly from the anonymity of the darkness.
‘This so-called culture and its code of ethics is nothing but a rich man’s charter. Women will always seek out the most powerful, richest, best looking and most talented men. If in this culture women are in total control, what hope will there be for ordinary men?’ There some murmurings of an agreement but they were muted by alcohol and tiredness.
As John settled in his tent, questions rippled through his mind. Was the Earl so attractive? Or was Estelle attracted to someone with privilege and power? When had the Earl expressed his admiration for her? Had the Earl known Estelle before this evening? Had she given him her favour?