Ximene Trencavel – 27th December 1361
Alyse trembled with excitement. ‘ So, I think we are ready’
She made minor adjustments to her hair and glanced sideways at Ximene.
‘Just so I know, I do not want to make any mistakes, who amongst our guests knows that you are Ximene Trencavel?’
‘Only yourself, the Prince and Joan. Indeed it is important that no one else should know… now, who am I Alyse?’
‘Diana, Countess of Shaftsbury, Milady.’ Alyse giggled, made a mock curtsey and then moved forward to give Ximene a firm embrace.
Ximene returned the embrace, before turning to the window, hoping to see the approach of her guests. As she did, the first snowflake drifted slowly past the window. Ximene watched in fascination as in the gentlest breeze it hesitated, hovered and danced in suspended animation, before falling once again. She willed it to repeat the performance but it didn’t. It was replaced by several other snowflakes each one larger than the last until, after no more than five minutes, it was snowing heavily.
The characteristic silence, which always accompanies snow, fell on Landon House.
Ximene gently pressed her fingers against the window. The glass was cold to her touch and contrasted with the rough warmth of the lead, which provided the structural support for the exquisite diamond shaped panes. It was like touching ice and this illusion was compounded by the condensation now coating the inside of the glass. Like melting ice!
She smiled with satisfaction. Four years of work was now complete and the former monastery dormitory was now home, and ready to receive visitors. Tonight it hummed with activity and she savoured the intermingling smells of sweetbread, roast pig and fresh bread permeating the entire building.
She smiled and rubbed the central areas of the window and gazed out at the ever-thickening snow. Not only did this glass keep out winter winds and let in light but a central diamond of a dozen panes had been cast, ground and polished, so that it was possible to see outside. Ximene chuckled, she had no idea what the central panes would have cost, but what was the point of trading with Arabs if no advantage was taken of the miracles of Arab technology?
Alyse touched her on the neck and Ximene turned again to acknowledge the touch. Alyse, her cousin, was, in the eyes of most of the world, her twin. Ximene smiled her satisfaction. Alyse had obeyed Ximene’s instructions. Tonight their visitors would not find it difficult to tell them apart. Ximene was wearing a black dress, which did not quite cover her breasts, whereas Alyse was in white, her body totally concealed, almost virginal.
‘Are we ready?’ Ximene’s voice had an edge of nervousness.
‘I think so, well, as ready as we will ever be’
Ximene signalled to a steward who stood by. ‘Light the candelabra’
The steward did as he was told and hoisted the candelabra until it was close to the ceiling.
‘Now! Test the special effects’
A second system of pulleys positioned a thin, curved, brightly polished piece of metal to a position alongside the candelabra. Ximene gazed upwards admiringly, a piece of Arab genius. The metal reflected and concentrated the light from the candelabra so that it was directed outwards through the window. Laughing like teenagers Ximene and Alyse ran down the stairs, kicked off their shoes and ran out into the snow-covered driveway.
The cold was almost painful to their feet, but they hardly noticed. A beam of light emerged from the window; highlighting the falling snow and making it look as if a moonbeam had broken through the heavy clouds.The moonbeam was focussed on a choir assembling opposite the doorway, chattering excitedly at the onset of snow.
Ximene and Alyse ran back inside where an unquestioning servant dried their feet.
‘Now the second part’
Alyse ran to the far side of the hall opposite the staircase. She assumed a relaxed stance and started to sing. The voice of an angel permeated the room. There was the barely audible sound of ropes on pulleys and suddenly the beam of light was redirected to shine on Alyse. Now she not only sounded like an angel, she looked like an angel, bathed in the narrow pencil of light, and stood in front of a pair of gossamer wings which peeped over her shoulders and spectacularly completed the illusion.
As busy as they were, the servants, who were criss-crossing the hall in a desperate attempt to complete their preparations, applauded spontaneously.
It was at that very moment that the choir outside bust into a more robust version of the same song.
‘Quick, quick’, Ximene shouted, ‘they must be coming! To your places’. She ran up the stairs to supervise the repositioning of the reflector and then skipped back to make sure that the house servants were ready to receive her guests. Then she ran up the stairs yet again pressing her nose to the window, straining her eyes to penetrate the blizzard, Then, at last, she saw the lights, twenty people maybe more!
Ximene knew it was the Prince, Joan his new bride and all the members of the court they had gathered around them. Ximene’s heart pounded with anticipation, it was one thing to be given a place in society, it was quite a different thing to be accepted by that society.
Now, tonight, she was being accepted at the highest level. She needed that acceptance to hide her other, more important, more dangerous activities.
It all went exactly as planned. The whole party stopped to listen to the singing and turned to gaze in wonder at the beam of light.
When they approached the door it was thrown open and servants served them punch, took their bags and led the horses away.
The singers clustered round the porch and without changing the song began to harmonise, then as the Prince and Joan crossed the threshold, Alyse started to sing, her pure, clear, voice demanding attention. In the dimly lit hall the additional undeniably beautiful voice was a mystery, until suddenly the spotlight fell on her. Just like the servants earlier, the group of visitors crowding into the hall burst into spontaneous applause.
Then and only then Ximene ran down to greet her visitors. She was ecstatic. These were courtiers, hardened by years of spectacular entertainment and yet they had found this essentially simple presentation impressive and there was more much more to come!
She gave a low curtsey to the Prince, rose, turned and prepared to make the same gesture to Joan when Joan pre-empted her, throwing her arms around Ximene’s neck and kissing her without reserve.
“ Thank you, thank you, Diana. I don’t know how you did it but you did it.”
Joan looked around at the servants bustling away up the stairs with the bags and the guests, hesitantly following the directions taken by their own bags as they gazed around in wonder at the opulent finishes in the hall.
Joan continued to bubble with enthusiasm “How long to dinner? Did your Butler say? Three hours? Good, take me to somewhere private, your own rooms would be good.”
Ximene guided her up the stairs weaving their way through all the other traffic. The Prince followed dutifully behind. Joan turned, smiled and kissed him tenderly on the mouth.
“ No darling, girl talk. I will see you in our own room in less than an hour.