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

OF PROPHECY; AND JEHANE IN THE PERILOUS BED

Well may the respectable Abbot Milo despond over this affair.  Hear him, and conceive how he shook his head.  ‘O too great power of princes,’ he writes, ’lodged in a room too frail!  O wagging bladder that serves as cushion for a crown!  O swayed by idle breath, seeming god that yet is a man, man driven by windy passion, that has yet to ape the god’s estate!  Because Richard craved this French girl, therefore he must take her, as it were, from the lap of her mother.  Because he taught her his nobility, which is the mere wind in a prince’s nose, she taught him nobility again.  Then because a prince must not be less noble than his nobles (but always primus inter pares), he, seeing her nobly disposed, gave her over to a man of her own choosing; and immediately after, unable to bear it that a common person should have what he had touched, took her away again, doing slaughter to get her, to say nothing of outrage in the church.  Last of all, as you are now to hear, thinking that too much handling was dishonour to the thin vessel of her body, touched on the generous spot, he made bad worse; he added folly to force; he made a marriage where none could be; he made immortal enmities, blocked up appointed roads, and set himself to walk others with a clog on his leg.  Better far had she been a wanton of no account, a piece of dalliance, a pastime, a common delight!  She was very much other than that.  Dame Jehane was a good girl, a noble girl, a handsome girl of inches and bright blood; but by the Lord God of Israel (Who died on the Tree), these virtues cost her dear.’

All this, we may take it, is true; the pity is that the thing promised so fair.  Those who had not known Jehane before were astonished at her capacity, discretion, and dignity.  She had a part to play at Le Mans, where Richard kept his Easter, which would have taxed a wiser head.  She moved warily, a poor thing of gauze, amid those great lights.  King Philip had a tender nose; a very whiff of offence might have drawn blood.  Prince John had a shrewd eye and an evil way of using it; he stroked women, but they seldom liked it, and never found good come of it.  The Duke of Burgundy ate and drank too much.  He resembled a sponge, when empty too rough a customer, when full too juicy.  It was on one of the days when he was very full that, tilting at the ring, he won, or said he won, forty pounds of Richard.  Empty, he claimed them, but Richard discerned a rasp in his manner of asking, and laughed at him.  The Duke of Burgundy took this ill.  He was never quite the same to Richard again; but he made great friends with Prince John.

With all these, and with their courtiers, who took complexion from their masters, Jehane had to hold the fair way.  As a mistress who was to be a wife, the veiled familiarity with which she was treated was always preaching to her.  How dare she be a Countess who was of so little account already?  The poor girl felt herself doomed beforehand.  What king’s mistress had ever been his wife?  And how could she be Richard’s wife, betrothed to Gilles de Gurdun?  Richard was much afield in these days, making military dispositions against his coming absence in Poictou.  She saw him rarely; but in return she saw his peers, and had to keep her head high among the women of the French court.  And so she did until one day, as she was walking back from mass with her ladies, she saw her brother Saint-Pol on horseback, him and William des Barres.  Timidly she would have slipped by; but Saint-Pol saw her, reined up his horse in the middle of the street, and stared at her as if she had been less than nothing to him.  She felt her knees fail her, she grew vividly red, but she kept her way.  After this terrible meeting she dared not leave the convent.

Of course she was quite safe.  Saint-Pol could not do anything against the conqueror of Touraine, the ally of his master; but she felt tainted, and had thoughts (not for the first time) of taking the veil.  One woman had already taken it; she heard much concerning Madame Alois from the Canonesses, how she had a little cell at Fontevrault among the nuns there, how she shivered with cold in the hottest sun, how she shrieked o’ nights, how chattered to herself, and how she used a cruel discipline.  All these things working upon Jehane’s mind made her love an agony.  Many and many a time when her royal lover came to visit her she clung to him with tears, imploring him to cast her off again; but the more she bewailed the more he pursued his end.  In truth he was master by this time, and utterly misconceived her.  Nothing she might say or do could stay him from his intent, which was to wed and afterwards crown her Countess of Poictou.  This was to be done at Pentecost, as the only reparation he could make her.

Not even what befell on the way to Poictiers for this very thing could alter him.  Again he misread her, or was too full of what he read in himself to read her at all.  They left Le Mans a fortnight before Pentecost with a great train of lords and ladies, Richard looking like a young god, with the light of easy mastery shining in his eyes.  She, poor girl, might have been going to the gallows — and before the end of the journey would thankfully have gone there; and no wonder.  Listen to this.

Midway between Chatelherault and Poictiers is a sandy waste covered with scrub of juniper and wild plum, which contrives a living by some means between great bare rocks.  It is a disconsolate place, believed to be the abode of devils and other damned spirits.  Now, as they were riding over this desert, picking their way among the boulders at the discretion of their animals, it so happened that Richard and Jehane were in front by some forty paces.  Riding so, presently Jehane gave a short gasping cry, and almost fell off her horse.  She pointed with her hand, and ’Look, look, look!’ she said in a dry whisper.  There at a little distance from them was a leper, who sat scratching himself on a rock.

‘Ride on, ride on, my heart,’ said Richard; but she, ’No, no, he is coming.  We must wait.’  Her voice was full of despair.

The leper came jumping from rock to rock, a horrible thing of rags and sores, with a loose lower jaw, which his disease had fretted to dislocation.  He stood in their mid path, in full sun, and plucking at his disastrous eyes, peered upon the gay company.  By this time all the riders were clustered together before him, and he fingered them out one after another — Richard, whom he called the Red Count, Gaston, Beziers, Auvergne, Limoges, Mercadet; but at Jehane he pointed long, and in a voice between a croak and a clatter (he had no palate), said thrice, ‘Hail thou!’

She replied faintly, ‘God be good to thee, brother.’  He kept his finger still upon her as he spoke again:  every one heard his words.

’Beware (he said) the Count’s cap and the Count’s bed; for so sure as thou liest in either thou art wife of a dead man, and of his killer.’  Jehane reeled, and Richard held her up.

‘Begone, thou miserable,’ he cried in his high voice, ’lest I pity thee no more.’  But the leper was capering away over the rocks, hopping and flapping his arms like an old raven.  At a safe distance he squatted down and watched them, his chin on his bare knees.

This frightened Jehane so much that in the refectory of a convent, where they stayed the night, she could hardly see her victual for tears, nor eat it for choking grief.  She exhausted herself by entreaties.  Milo says that she was heard crying out at Richard night after night, conjur ing him by Christ on the Cross, and Mary at the foot of the Cross, not to turn love into a stabbing blade; but all to no purpose.  He soothed and petted her, he redoubled her honours, he compelled her to love him; and the more she agonised the more he was confident he would right her.

Very definitely and with unexampled profusion he provided for her household and estate as soon as he was at home.  Kings’ daughters were among her honourable women, at least, counts’ daughters, daughters of viscounts and castellans.  She had Lady Saill of Ventadorn, Lady Elis of Montfort, Lady Tibors, Lady Maent, Lady Beatrix, all fully as noble, and two of them certainly more beautiful than she.  Lady Saill and Lady Elis were the most lovely women of Aquitaine, Saill with a face like a flame, Elis clear and cold as spring water in the high rocks.  He gave her a chancellor of her seal, a steward of the household, a bishop for chaplain.  Viscount Ebles of Ventadorn was her champion, and Bertran de Born (who had been doing secret mischief in the south, as you will learn by and by), if you will believe it, Bertran de Born was forgiven and made her trobador.  It was at a great Court of Love which Richard caused to be held in the orchards outside Poictiers, with pavilions and a Chastel d’Amors, that Bertran came in and was forgiven for the sake of his great singing.  On a white silk tribune before the castle sat Jehane, in a red gown, upon her golden head a circlet of dull silver, with the leaves and thorns which made up the coronet of a countess.  Richard bade sound the silver trumpets, and his herald proclaim her three times, to the north, to the east, and to the south, as ’the most puissant and peerless princess, Madame Jehane, by the grace of God Countess of Poictou, Duchess of Aquitaine, consort of our illustrious dread lord Monsire Richard, Count and Duke of the same.’  Himself, gloriously attired in a bliaut of white velvet and gold, with a purple cloak over his shoulder, sustained in a tenzón with the chief trobadors of Languedoc, that she was ’the most pleasant lovely lady now on earth, or ever known there since the days of Madame Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Madame Cleopatra, Empress of Babylon’ — unfortunate examples both, as some thought.

Minstrels and poets of the greatest contended with him; Saill had her champion in Guillem of Cabestaing, Elis in Girault of Borneilh; the Dauphin of Auvergne sang of Tibors, and Peire Vidal of Lady Maent.  Towards the end came sideways in that dishevelled red fox (whom nothing shamed), Bertran de Born himself, looked askance at the Count, puffed out his cheeks to give himself assurance, and began to sing of Jehane in a way that brought tears to Richard’s eyes.  It was Bertran who dubbed her with the name she ever afterwards went by throughout Poictou and the south, the name of Bel Vezer.  Richard at the end clipped him in his arms, and with one arm still round his wicked neck led him to the tribune where Jehane sat blushing.  ’Take him into your favour, Lady Bel Vezer,’ he said to her.  ’Whatever his heart may be, he hath a golden tongue.’  Jehane, stooping, lent him her cheek, and Bertran fairly kissed her whom he had sought to undo.  Then turning, fired with her favour, he let his shrill voice go spiring to heaven in her praise.

For these feats Bertran was appointed to her household, as I have said.  He made no secret of his love for her, but sang of her night and day, and delighted Richard’s generous heart.  But indeed Jehane won the favour of most.  If she was not so beautiful as Saill, she was more courteous, if not so pious as Elis, more the woman for that.  There were many, misled by her petulant lips and watchful eyes, to call her sulky:  these did not judge her silence favourably.  They thought her cold, and so she was to all but one; their eyes might have told them what she was to him, and how when they met in love, to kiss or cling, their two souls burned together.  And if she made a sweet lover, she promised to be a rare Countess.  Her judgment was never at fault; she was noble, and her sedate gravity showed her to be so.  She was no talker, and had great command over herself; but she was more pale than by ordinary, and her eyes were burning bright.  The truth was, she was in a fever of apprehension, restless, doomed, miserable; devouringly in love, yet dreading to be loved.  So, more and more evidently in pain, she walked her part through the blare of festival as Pentecost drew nigh.

‘Upon that day,’ to quote the mellifluous abbot, ’Upon that day when in leaping tongues the Spirit of God sat upon the heads of the Holy Apostles, and gave letters to the unlettered and to the speechless Its own nature, Count Richard wedded Dame Jehane, and afterwards crowned her Countess with his own hands.

’They put her, crying bitterly, into the Count’s bed in the Castle of Poictiers on the evening of the same feast.  Weeping also, but at a later day, I saw her crowned again at Angers with the Count’s cap of Anjou.  So to right her and himself Count Richard did both the greatest wrong of all.’

Much more pageantry followed the marriage.  I admire Milo’s account.  ’He held a tournament after this, when the Count and the party of the castle maintained the field against all corners.  There was great jousting for six days, I assure you; for I saw the whole of it.  No English knights were there, nor any from Anjou; but a few French (without King Philip’s goodwill), many Gascons and men of Toulouse and the Limousin; some from over the mountains, from Navarre, and Santiago, and Castile; there also came the Count of Champagne with his friends.  King Sancho of Navarre was excessively friendly, with a gift of six white stallions, all housed, for Dame Jehane; nobody knew why or wherefore at the time, except Bertran de Born (O thief unrepentant!).

’Countess Jehane, with her ladies, being set in a great balcony of red and white roses, herself all in rose-coloured silk with a chaplet of purple flowers, the first day came Count Richard in green armour and a surcoat of the same embroidered with a naked man, a branch of yellow broom in his helm.  None held up against him that day; the Duke of Burgundy fell and brake his collar-bone.  The second day he drove into the melee suddenly, when there was a great press of spears, all in red with a flaming sun on his breast.  He sat a blood-horse of Spain, bright chestnut colour and housed in red.  Then, I tell you, we saw horses and men sunder their loves.  The third day Pedro de Vaqueiras, a knight from Santiago, encountered him in his silver armour, when he rode a horse white as the Holy Ghost.  By a chance blow the Spaniard bore him back on to the crupper.  There was a great shout, “The Count is down!  Look to the castle, Poictou!” Dame Jehane turned colour of ash, for she remembered the leper’s prophecy, and knew that De Vaqueiras loved her.  But Richard recovered himself quickly, crying, “Have at you again, Don Pedro.”  So they brought fresh spears, and down went De Vaqueiras on his back, his horse upon him.  To be plain, not Hector raging over the field with shouts for Achilles, nor flamboyant Achilles spying after Hector, nor Hannibal at Cannae, Roland in the woody pass of Roncesvalles, nor the admired Lancelot, nor Tristram dreadful in the Cornish isle — not one of these heroes was more gloriously mighty than Count Richard.  Like the war-horse of Job (the prophet and afflicted man) he stamped with his foot and said among the captains “ha ha!” His nostrils scented the battle from very far off; he set on like the quarrell of a bow, and gathering force as he went, came rocking into his adversary like galley against galley.  With all this he was gentle, had a pleasant laugh.  It was good to be struck down by such a man, if it ever can be good.  He bore away opposition as he bore away the knights.’

If one half of this were true, and no man in steel could withstand him, how could circumstance, how could she, this slim and frightened girl?  Mad indeed with love and pride, quite beside herself, she forgot for once her tremors and qualms.  On the last day she fell panting upon his breast; and he, a great lover, kissed her before them all, and lifted her high in his hands.  ‘Oyez, my lords!’ he cried with a mighty voice, ‘Is this a lovely wife I have won, or not?’ They answered him with a shout.

He took her a progress about his country afterwards.  From Poictiers they went to Limoges, thence westward to Angoulesme, and south to Périgueux, to Bazas, to Cahors, Agen, even to Dax, which is close to the country of the King of Navarre.  Wherever he led her she was hailed with joy.  Young girls met her with flowers in their hands, wise men came kneeling, offering the keys of their towns; the youth sang songs below her balcony, the matrons made much of her and asked her searching questions.  They saw in her a very superb and handsome Duchess, Jehane of the Fair Girdle, now acclaimed in the soft syllables of Aquitaine as Bel Vezer.  When they were at Dax the wise King of Navarre sent ambassadors beseeching from them a visit to his city of Pampluna; but Richard would not go.  Then they came back to Poictiers and shocking news.  This was of the death of King Henry of England, the old lion, ’dead (Milo is bold to say) in his sin.’