‘I charge you, John Stanley, to assume responsibility for my granddaughter. Take over from me. Indulge her in trivial things, control her in important things. Learn the difference between the two. Care for her and always put her needs above your own. Will you promise me that?’
John Stanley – 8th June 1355
The music and singing commenced well before anyone arrived. Entertainment prefixed each course of food. Everyone seemed determined to enjoy themselves. Lady Ximene’s escape, which had become almost legend within the camp, contributed to the rejoicing.
Many people made a point of congratulating John on his part in her deliverance. Despite this, John found it difficult to join in the festive atmosphere. He watched with a heavy heart as, before she took her seat, Ximene chatted amiably to all those around her but continually turned back to converse with the Prince. Then when she did sit down at the Prince’s right hand it seemed to John that the Prince must be an accomplished raconteur as he spoke for extended periods, following which they both laughed.
John consoled himself by constructing an ode to Ximene, without having any idea when he would have the opportunity to deliver it. He struggled with concepts of the futility of his love, the lasting image of Ximene bathing in the Garonne, the gift of Helios and of his growing affection for this complex woman. In the midst of his reverie, John realised that someone else at the feast was as uninvolved in the celebration as he was. Sitting next to the Prince, who now seemed to be totally captivated by Ximene, Gaston Phoebus, the Comte De Foix, gazed around, his face expressionless. John wondered why, on the evening where his ambition seemed to be coming to fruition, he should seem so pensive, so glum.
Eventually, the Prince rose to his feet and proposed a toast to Ximene. He addressed her as the Comtesse of Carcassonne, Beziers, Albi and Razes, the Duchess of Occitan and the future Princess of Aquitaine, Duchess of Cornwall and Queen of England, Wales, Ireland and France.
John realised that though there had been no poetry and no song, the Prince had just made the most powerful statement of love for Ximene. He had promised her the whole world!
John disconsolately returned to his duty of guarding the ladies’ tent. Piers, who was now totally committed to his role of guarding Lady Eleanor, had taken the first watch because Lady Eleanor had retired early from the feast. John had only taken over from Piers for ten minutes when Lady Eleanor emerged from the tent. She stopped in front of him and studied him carefully. ‘John, thank you for what you did for Ximene yesterday afternoon. There is something special about you. I sensed it even before I met you.’
‘Before you met me?’ he asked with a frown.
‘Oh yes,’ Lady Eleanor replied. ‘I have known you were coming for a long, long time. You are the one who will bring about important change for my granddaughter. I know she shares my faith in you. Her gift of Helios is a testament to that. Now you are here, I confess I am frightened. You must never forget that even a good person can cause harm through the thoughtless use of power, influence or physical attraction.’
‘Are you talking about me, Lady Eleanor?’ He almost whispered the words.
She sighed. ‘Yes, I am talking about you and it concerns me not a little that you have no idea of the power within you and therefore the potential for good or evil.’ She grasped his shoulders and looked into his eyes. Her voice quivered slightly as she spoke. ‘I charge you, John Stanley, to assume responsibility for my granddaughter. Take over from me. Indulge her in trivial things, control her in important things. Learn the difference between the two. Care for her and always put her needs above your own. Will you promise me that?’
John struggled with a lump in his throat. There was only one answer he could give, though he had no idea how he could deliver what Lady Eleanor had asked of him. ‘Yes, Lady Eleanor, I will.’ He took her hands in his own and then slowly and deliberately kissed them both. ‘I need much training in this task, will you give me guidance?’
‘I will, John. I will tell you everything I know… about Ximene and about the world… but in a short time from now, I will be learning from you.’ She paused and sighed again. This time it was a much happier sigh. ‘Now I have a great need to look at the stars.’ She paused and looked John up and down. ‘And you have a great need to go into that tent and talk to Ximene. I watched you at the feast; I know how you suffered. To me, it is now more important for you to pursue your love for Ximene than for Ximene to arrange a dynastic marriage with some Prince or King.’ She looked at the tent and back at John. ‘Go to her now, John. In truth, I think she needs you as much as you need her, but remember in the end, you must make your suit and she will make her decision. It is her right, not mine, to decide if she will accept you and even then she will decide when to give you her favours and under what circumstances. This is our way, and you must accept that, or cease your involvement now.’ She reached up and gave John a gentle hug. ‘However, if I have learned anything in life it is that pure spiritual contact and the almost infinite pleasure which can follow is a precious gift. It does not occur very often. When it does, you must give it a chance. Go to her now!’
John hesitantly entered the tent. Ximene was still dressed in her finery, still looked haughty and uninvolved. Almost by instinct, she held out her hand to be kissed. John obliged with an accompanying bow. ‘Lady Eleanor believes you need company tonight.’
She smiled, but it was an icy smile, not the incandescent variety reserved for the other Ximene. ‘I do, John. My life is in disarray. The Prince is a charming attractive man but he was premature in announcing our betrothal at the feast. I still have to make my decision and there are other suitors. I am still under the guardianship of the Comte De Foix… Gaston. I believe the Comte and the Prince are in competition for my hand. I must escape so that any decisions are mine and no one else’s. However, Les Etoiles seem to have failed me. Worse, the arrival of those assassins may mean that security has been breached. As far as the Comte is concerned, it is simply an attempt to kidnap or kill me. I am valuable to him so he now intends to take me back to Foix as soon as possible.’
Her hand touched his. ‘If it wasn’t for you I might now be dead… or indeed something far worse.’ She moved her hand and turned away slightly. ‘Before we left the feast, Gaston proposed a second feast at Foix in two weeks’ time. This will allow for further negotiations with the Prince. After some discussion, the Prince agreed, so now I will rejoin Gaston’s party and be separated from you. I will once again be under Gaston’s control.’
He moved closer to Ximene and gently turned her to face him. He looked directly into her eyes. He had only heard the words separated from you. He searched his memory for the words he had prepared during the feast. There were no observers to worry about, but he desperately wanted his presentation to be flawless. To his surprise, some of the thoughts suggested by Lady Eleanor came to the fore.
‘For a thousand years, or so it seems,
you have been the vision of my dreams.
But now we have met I ache within,
and I cannot believe such desire a sin.
Only yesterday for the very first time,
I dared to think I could make you mine.
You went to bathe in a swift, cold stream,
That moment brought to life my dream.
Desire becomes now so severe
It may drive a wedge between us, dear.
Is it true you may be Queen,
before All Saints or Halloween?
Chivalrous men it is said, are prone,
To hopeless loves, and to die alone.
I have no wish their fate to share
To become a famous but tragic pair.
So now, tomorrow, before you are Queen,
Give me your love, fulfil that dream.’
The whole time John was speaking, Ximene maintained a serious look. Only towards the end did she smile. Slowly, she reached up to detach the lace mantilla from her tiara. ‘You must keep this forever,’ she said. ‘It is a sign that I accept your suit with my whole heart. It means that you will always be part of my life.’ She looked deep into his eyes. ‘Thank you, John. I really needed to know that whatever happens, you will be committed to me. However, in our faith, your declaration of love and my giving of my favour as evidence of my acceptance should be a public event. I think it would be wise… to save that until I come to a final decision on my future.’ She wound her arms around him and kissed him full on the mouth.
Once again, he was so surprised his hands hung by his sides. Ximene looked at him quizzically. Despite the formal dress, her eyes now held a devilish glint as she murmured, ‘For a man who is so good with weapons, you are not very good with your hands. You clearly need more practice.’