Read THE BOOK OF YEA - CHAPTER I of The Life and Death of Richard Yea-and-Nay, free online book, by Maurice Hewlett, on ReadCentral.com.

OF COUNT RICHARD, AND THE FIRES BY NIGHT

I choose to record how Richard Count of Poictou rode all through one smouldering night to see Jehane Saint-Pol a last time.  It had so been named by the lady; but he rode in his hottest mood of Nay to that, yet careless of first or last so he could see her again.  Nominally to remit his master’s sins, though actually (as he thought) to pay for his own, the Abbot Milo bore him company, if company you can call it which left the good man, in pitchy dark, some hundred yards behind.  The way, which was long, led over Saint Andrew’s Plain, the bleakest stretch of the Norman march; the pace, being Richard’s, was furious, a pounding gallop; the prize, Richard’s again, showed fitfully and afar, a twinkling point of light.  Count Richard knew it for Jehane’s torch, and saw no other spark; but Milo, faintly curious on the lady’s account, was more concerned with the throbbing glow which now and again shuddered in the northern sky.  Nature had no lamps that night, and made no sign by cry of night-bird or rustle of scared beast:  there was no wind, no rain, no dew; she offered nothing but heat, dark, and dense oppression.  Topping the ridge of sand, where was the Fosse des Noyees, place of shameful death, the solitary torch showed a steady beam; and there also, ahead, could be seen on the northern horizon that rim of throbbing light.

‘God pity the poor!’ said Count Richard, and scourged forward.

‘God pity me!’ said gasping Milo; ‘I believe my stomach is in my head.’  So at last they crossed the pebbly ford and found the pines, then cantered up the path of light which streamed from the Dark Tower.  As core of this they saw the lady stand with a torch above her head; when they drew rein she did not move.  Her face, moon-shaped, was as pale as a moon; her loose hair, catching light, framed it with gold.  She was all white against the dark, seemed to loom in it taller than she was or could have been.  She was Jehane Saint-Pol, Jehane ‘of the Fair Girdle,’ so called by her lovers and friends, to whom for a matter of two years this hot-coloured, tallest, and coldest of the Angevins had been light of the world.

The check upon their greeting was the most curious part of a curious business, that one should have travelled and the other watched so long, and neither urge the end of desire.  The Count sat still upon his horse, so for duty’s sake did the aching abbot; the girl stood still in the entry-way, holding up her dripping torch.  Then, ‘Child, child,’ cried the Count, ‘how is it with thee?’ His voice trembled, and so did he.

She looked at him, slow to answer, though the hand upon her bosom swayed up and down.

‘Do you see the fires?’ she said.  ‘They have been there six nights.’  He was watching them then through the pine-woods, how they shot into the sky great ribbons of light, flickered, fainted out, again glowed steadily as if gathering volume, again leaped, again died, ebbing and flowing like a tide of fire.

‘The King will be at Louviers,’ said Richard.  He gave a short laugh.  ’Well, he shall light us to bed.  Heart of a man, I am sick of all this.  Let me in.’

She stood aside, and he rode boldly into the tower, stooping as he passed her to touch her cheek.  She looked up quickly, then let in the abbot, who, with much ceremony, came bowing, his horse led by the bridle.  She shut the door behind them and drove home the great bolts.  Servants came tumbling out to take the horses and do their duty; Count Eustace, a brother of Jehane’s, got up from the hearth, where he had been asleep on a bearskin, rubbed his eyes, gulped a yawn, knelt, and was kissed by Richard.  Jehane stood apart, mistress of herself as it seemed, but conscious, perhaps, that she was being watched.  So she was.  In the bustle of salutation the Abbot Milo found eyes to see what manner of sulky, beautiful girl this was.

He watched shrewdly, and has described her for us with the meticulous particularity of his time and temper.  He runs over her parts like a virtuoso.  The iris of her eyes, for instance, was wet grey, but ringed with black and shot with yellow, giving so the effect of hot green; her mouth was of an extraordinary dark red colour, very firm in texture, close-grained, ‘like the darker sort of strawberries,’ says he.  The upper lip had the sulky curve; she looked discontented, and had reason to be, under such a scrutiny of the microscope.  Her hair was colour of raw silk, eyebrows set rather high, face a thinnish oval, complexion like a pink rose’s, neck thinnish again, feet, hands, long and nervous, ‘good working members,’ etc. etc.  None of this helps very much; too detailed.  But he noticed how tall she was and how slim, save for a very beautiful bosom, too full for Dian’s (he tells us), whom else she resembled; how she was straight as a birch-tree; how in walking it seemed as if her skirts clung about her knees.  There was an air of mingled surprise and defiance about her; she was a silent girl.  ’Fronted like Juno,’ he appears to cry, ’shaped like Hebe, and like Demeter in stature; sullen with most, but with one most sweetly apt, she looked watchful but was really timid, looked cold but was secretly afire.  I knew soon enough how her case stood, how hope and doubt strove in her and choked her to silence.  I guessed how within those reticent members swift love ran like wine; but because of this proud, brave mask of hers I was slow to understand her worth.  God help me, I thought her a thing of snow!’

He records her dress at this time, remarkable if becoming.  It was all white, and cut wedge-shaped in front, very deep; but an undervest of crimson crossed the V in the midst and saved her modesty, and his.  Her hair, which was long, was plaited in two plaits with seed-pearls, brought round her neck like a scarf and the two ends joined between her breasts, thus defining a great beauty of hers and making a gold collar to her gown.  Round her smooth throat was a little chain with a red jewel; on her head another jewel (a carbuncle) set in a flower, with three heron’s plumes falling back from it.  She had a broad belt of gold and sapphire stones, and slippers of vair.  ‘Oh, a fine straight maid,’ says Milo in conclusion, ’golden and delicate, with strangely shaded eyes.  They knew her as Jehane of the Fair Girdle.’

The brother, Count Eustace as they called him (to distinguish him from an elder brother, Eudo Count of Saint-Pol), was a blunt copy of his sister, redder than she was, lighter in the hair, much lighter in the eyes.  He seemed an affectionate youth, and clung to the great Count Richard like ivy to a tree.  Richard gave him the sort of scornful affection one has for a little dog, between patting and slapping; but clearly wanted to be rid of him.  No reference was made to the journey, much was taken for granted; Eustace talked of his hawks, Richard ate and drank, Jehane sat up stiffly, looking into the fire; Milo watched her between his mouthfuls.  The moment supper was done, up jumps Richard and claps hands on the two shoulders of young Eustace.  ’To bed, to bed, my falconer!  It grows late,’ cries he.  Eustace pushed his chair back, rose, kissed the Count’s hand and his sister’s forehead, saluted Milo, and went out humming a tune.  Milo withdrew, the servants bowed themselves away.  Richard stood up, a loose-limbed young giant, and narrowed his eyes.

‘Nest thee, nest thee, my bird,’ he said low; and Jehane’s lips parted.  Slowly she left her stool by the fire, but quickened as she went; and at last ran tumbling into his arms.

His right hand embraced her, his left at her chin held her face at discretion.  Like a woman, she reproached him for what she dearly loved.

’Lord, lord, how shall I serve the cup and platter if you hold me so fast?’

‘Thou art my cup, thou art my supper.’

‘Thin fare, poor soul,’ she said; but was glad of his foolishness.

Later, they sat by the hearth, Jehane on Richard’s knee, but doubtfully his, being troubled by many things.  He had no retrospects nor afterthoughts; he tried to coax her into pliancy.  It was the fires in the north that distressed her.  Richard made light of them.

‘Dear,’ he said, ’the King my father is come up with a host to drive the Count his son to bed.  Now the Count his son is master of a good bed, to which he will presently go; but it is not the bed of the King his father.  That, as you know, is of French make, neither good Norman, nor good Angevin, nor seethed in the English mists.  By Saint Maclou and the astonishing works he did, I should be bad Norman, and worse Angevin, and less English than I am, if I loved the French.’

He tried to draw her in; but she, rather, strained away from him, elbowed her knee, and rested her chin upon her hand.  She looked gravely down to the whitening logs, where the ashes were gaining on the red.

‘My lord loves not the French,’ she said, ’but he loves honour.  He is the King’s son, loving his father.’

‘By my soul, I do not,’ he assured her, with perfect truth, then he caught her round the waist and turned her bodily to face him.  After he had kissed her well he began to speak more seriously.

‘Jehane,’ he said, ’I have thought all this stifling night upon the heath, Homing to her I am seeking my best.  My best?  You are all I have in the world.  If honour is in my hand, do I not owe it to you?  Or shall a man use women like dogs, to play with them in idle moods, toss them bones under the table, afterwards kick them out of doors?  Child, you know me better.  What!’ he cried out, with his head very high, ’Shall a man not choose his own wife?’

‘No,’ said Jehane, ready for him; ’no, Richard, unless the people shall choose their own king.’

‘God chooses the king,’ says Richard, ‘or so we choose to believe.’

‘Then God must appoint the wife,’ Jehane said, and tried to get free.  But this could not be allowed, as she knew.

She was gentle with him, reasoning.  ’The King your father is an old man, Richard.  Old men love their way.’

‘God knows, he is old, and passionate, and indifferent wicked,’ said Richard, and kissed Jehane.  ’Look, my girl, there were four of us:  Henry, and me, and Geoffrey, and John, whom he sought to drive in team by a sop to-day and a stick to-morrow.  A good way, done by a judging hand.  What then?  I will tell you how the team served the teamster.  Henry gave sop for sop, and it was found well.  Might he not give stick for stick?  He thought so:  God rest him, he is dead of that.  There was much simplicity in Henry.  I got no sop at all.  Why should I have stick then?  I saw no reason; but I took what came.  If I cried out, it is a more harmless vent than many.  Let me alone.  Geoffrey, I think, was a villain.  God help him if He can:  he is dead too.  He took sop and gave stick:  ungentle in Geoffrey, but he paid for it.  He was a cross-bred dog with much of the devil in him; he bit himself and died barking.  Last, there is John.  I desire to speak reasonably of John; but he is too snug, he gets all sop.  This is not fair.  He should have some stick, that we may judge what mettle he has.  There, my Jehane, you have the four of us, a fretful team; whereof one has rushed his hills and broken his heart; and one, kicking his yoke-fellows, squealing, playing the jade, has broken his back; and one, poor Richard, does collar-work and gets whip; and one, young Master John, eases his neck and is cajoled with, “So then, so then, boy!” Then comes pretty Jehane to the ear of the collar-horse, whispering, “Good Richard, get thee to stall, but not here.  Stable thee snug with the King of France his sister.”  ‘Hey!’ laughed Richard, ‘what a word for a chosen bride!’ He pinched her cheek and looked gaily at her, triumphant in his own eloquence.  He was most dangerous when that devil was awake, so she dared not look at him back.  Eagerly and low she replied.

’Yes, Richard, yes, yes, my king!  The king must have the king’s sister, and Jehane go back to the byre.  Eagles do not mate with buzzards.’  Hereupon he snatched her up altogether and hid her face in his breast.

‘Never, never, never!’ he swore to the rafters.  ’As God lives and reigns, so live thou and so reign, queen of me, my Picardy rose.’

She tried no more that night, fearing that his love so keen-edged might make his will ride rough.  The watch-fires at Louviers trembled and streamed up in the north.  There was no need for candles in the Dark Tower.

They rose up early to a fair dawn.  The cloud-wrack was blown off, leaving the sky a lake of burnt yellow, pure, sweet, and cool.  Thus the world entered upon the summer of Saint Luke, to a new-risen sun, to thin mists stealing off the moor, to wet flowers hearted anew, to blue air, and hope left for those who would go gleaning.  While Eustace Saint-Pol was snoring abed and the Abbot Milo at his Sursum Corda, Richard had Jehane by the hand.  ’Come forth, my love; we have the broad day before us and an empty kingdom to roam in.  Come, my red rose, let me set you among the flowers.’  What could she do but harbour up her thoughts?

He took her afield, where flowers made the earth still a singing-place, and gathered of these to deck her bosom and hair.  Of the harebells he made knots, the ground-colour of her eyes; but autumn loves the yellow, so she was stuck with gold like a princess.  She sat enthroned by his command, this young girl in a high place, with downcast eyes and a face all fire-colour, while he worshipped her to his fancy.  I believe he had no after-thought; but she saw the dun smoke of the fires at Louviers, and knew they would make the night shudder again.  Yet her sweetness, patience, staid courtesy, humility, never failed her; out of the deep wells of her soul she drew them forth in a stream.  Richard adored.  ‘Queen Jehane, Queen Jehane!’ he cried out, with his arms straightly round her — ’Was ever man in the world blest so high since God said, “Behold thy mother”?  And so art thou mother to me, O bride.  Bride and queen as thou shalt be.’

This was great invention.  She put her hand upon his head.  ’My Richard, my Richard Yea-and-Nay,’ she said, as if pitying his wild heart.  The nickname jarred.

‘Never call me that,’ he told her.  ’Leave that to Bertran de Born, a fool’s word to the fool who made it.’

‘If I could, if I could!’ thought Jehane, and sighed.  There were tears in her eyes, also, as she remembered what generosity in him must be frozen up, and what glory of her own.  But she did not falter in what she had to do, while he, too exalted to be pitied, began to sing a Southern song —

     Al’ entrada del tems clair, eya!

When their hair commingled in their love, when they were close together, there was little distinguishing between them; he was more her pair than Eustace her blood-brother, in stature and shape, in hue and tincture of gold.  Jehane you know, but not Richard.  Of him, son of a king, heir of a king, if you wish some bodily sign, I will say shortly that he was a very tall young man, high-coloured and calm in the face, straight-nosed, blue-eyed, spare of flesh, lithe, swift in movement.  He was at once bold and sleek, eager and cold as ice — an odd combination, but not more odd than the blend of Norman dog and Angevin cat which had made him so.  Furtive he was not, yet seeming to crouch for a spring; not savage, yet primed for savagery; not cruel, yet quick on the affront, and on the watch for it.  He was neither a rogue nor a madman; and yet he was as cunning as the one and as heedless as the other, if that is a possible thing.  He was arrogant, but his smile veiled the fault; you saw it best in a sleepy look he had.  His blemishes were many, his weaknesses two.  He trusted to his own force too much, and despised everybody else in the world.  Not that he thought them knaves; he was certain they were fools.  And so most of them were, no doubt, but not all.  The first flush of him moved your admiration:  great height, great colour, the red and the yellow; his beard which ran jutting to a point and gave his jaw the clubbed look of a big cat’s; his shut mouth, and cold considering eyes; the eager set of his head, his soft, padding motions — a leopard, a hunting leopard, quick to strike, but quick to change purpose.  This, then, was Richard Yea-and-Nay, whom all women loved, and very few men.  These require to be trusted before they love; and full trust Richard gave to no man, because he could not believe him worth it.  Women are more generous givers, expecting not again.

Here was Jehane Saint-Pol, a girl of two-and-twenty to his two-and-thirty, well born, well formed, greatly desired among her peers, who, having let her soul be stolen, was prepared to cut it out of herself for his sake who took it, and let it die.  She was the creature of his love, in and out by now the work of his hands.  God had given her a magnificent body, but Richard had made it glow.  God had made her soul a fair room; but his love had filled it with light, decked it with flowers and such artful furniture.  He, in fact, as she very well knew, had given her the grace to deal queenly with herself.  She knew that she would have strength to deny him, having learned the hardihood to give him her soul.  Fate had carried her too young into the arms of the most glorious prince in the world.  Her brother, Eudo the Count, built castles on that in his head.  Now she was to tumble them down.  Her younger brother, Eustace, loved this splendid Richard.  Now she was to hurt him.  What was to become of herself?  Mercy upon her, I believe she never thought of that.  His honour was her necessity:  the watch-fires in the north told her the hour was at hand.  The old King was come up with a host to drive his son to bed.  Richard must go, and she woo him out.  Son of a king, heir of a king, he must go to the king his father; and he knew he must go.  Two days’ maddening delight, two nights’ biting of nails, miserable entreaty from Jehane, grown newly pinched and grey in the face, and he owned it.

He said to her the last night, ’When I saw you first, my Queen of Snows, in the tribune at Vezelay, when the knights rode by for the melee, the green light from your eyes shot me, and wounded I cried out, “That maid or none!"’

She bowed her head; but he went on.  ’When they throned you queen of them all because you were so proud and still, and had such a high untroubled head; and when your sleeve was in my helm, and my heart in your lap, and men fallen to my spear were sent to kneel before you — what caused your cheek to burn and your eyes to shine so bright?’

She hid her face.  ‘Homage of the knights!  The love of me!’ he cried; and then, ’Ah, Jehane of the Fair Girdle, when I took you from the pastures of Gisors, when I taught you love and learned from your young mouth what love might be, I was made man.  But now you ask me to become dog.’  And he swore yet again he could never leave her.  But she smiled proudly, being in pain.  ’Nay, my lord, but the man in you is awake, and not to leave you.  You shall go because you are the king’s son, and I shall pray for the new king.’  So she beat him, and had him weeping terribly, his face in her lap.  She wept no more, but dry-eyed kissed him, and dry-lipped went to bed.  ‘He said Yea that time,’ records the Abbot Milo, ’but I never knew then what she paid for it.  That was later.’  He went next morning, and she saw him go.