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Wife to the Bastard
By Hilda Lewis
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Hilda Lewis
All rights reserved.
The Young Matilda
She sat very still, respectful as was proper, upon the stool at her father's feet. But, for all that, the hands folded upon her lap trembled with anger that consumed her utterly; at this moment anger was greater, even, than fear — and that was great enough. But beyond the light trembling of her hands, she gave no sign. She was fifteen, old enough to hide her feelings, let them be what they might. She lifted an all-but blank face to her father and mother sitting there, each in a great chair. Although this was her mother's private apartment in the palace at Bruges, still it had something of a presence-chamber; Adelais that had married count Baldwin of Flanders was sister to King Henry of France — and not likely to forget it.
'He most deeply regrets ...' her father was saying; and, though it was some hours since his messengers had returned from England, there was still surprise in his voice.
And still she listened; and still there was nothing but polite interest in her quiet face.
'He thanks us, most humbly, for the great honour ...'
'And so he should!' the voice of my lady the countess rose sharp.
'... and regrets, deeply, that he should have given us cause to think ...'
'Cause to think!' My lady's voice rose again, 'Surely, he did give us cause!'
Cause ... and cause enough! The girl's anger was bitterness in her throat. She said, evenly, as though she, Matilda, princess of Flanders and niece to the King of France, had not been betrayed; had not been offered and refused, 'If he is betrothed, he is betrothed!' And managed to shrug.
Baldwin, that men called the Great, raised his brows. Cunning in politics he yet found this young daughter of his too much for him. It was she, she herself that had urged him to set on foot negotiations for the betrothal. She had pointed out the wisdom of giving her in marriage in a manner that could, in no way, upset the courts of Christendom; neither the Emperor, nor the King of France, nor any prince in Gaul, nor yet any of the many princes of Europe. She had wheedled him — no doubt taken by the attractive young man from England who had, indeed, been more than a little attentive — and in the end she had convinced him. All Christendom waited to see how he would bestow his daughter; so much was true. Such a marriage must be a clear sign where he meant to show friendship; where he would, at need, raise his sword among the troubled kingdoms of Europe. So powerful a man, so strong his armies, so rich his resources, all Christendom must wait upon his choice. The English marriage — though not nearly as great as he had the right to expect — could give offence to none.
He had listened to his girl in some surprise; he knew her to be ambitious — as she had the right to be, not only on her father's account but on her own. She was beautiful, she was rarely educated, not only in all the ways of women; but she could outshine most princes in Latin, in writing, and in cyphering. They said of her that, young as she was, she had great wisdom; but her father preferred to call it a blessed commonsense.
My lady countess, having received no answer to her last remark, broke in once more. 'This Saxon fellow, this ...' she stopped short, affecting to forget a name too lowly to be remembered. 'I, for one, am glad of the refusal, humiliating though it may be. It was a match never to my liking. We have been saved, all of us, from a great folly.'
I have not been saved. I threw away my virginity upon a cheap fellow. And still the quiet face gave no sign of fear.
'Brihtric Meaw,' her father said; and at the sound of that name her heart shook, remembering his Saxon fairness, the blue eyes and the hanging curtain of his gold hair, 'is no low Saxon. He's the son of my old friend Algar that holds the Honour of Gloucester, and many rich lands besides; a great inheritance. He comes of noble stock; a prince you might call him! Not the best match for our daughter, perhaps, yet it would have been well enough, or I'd not have offered it. I offered it because there was wisdom in it.'
'No wisdom, none at all! And it would not have done. And so I said at the time!' My lady broke in sharp and sour. 'But you would not listen. My daughter is fit to be a Queen! There's no blood in Christendom so royal as hers; between us we have seen to it. Through you she comes of the line of the dukes of Normandy — your own mother was daughter to duke Richard. So easy-going you are, you have forgotten. But I do not forget, not I! Nor yet that I, myself, am from royal kings descended; daughter and sister to the Kings of France!'
He found her boasts distasteful; one should take gentle blood gently. 'Yet still the match would have been good!' For all his gentleness he was not to be put upon; nor was he minded to see his daughter shamed further by agreeing that the match was unsuitable. A fine young man — good blood and great promise; and, moreover, son to my old friend. It would have suited me well. Now our daughter's marriage must give us some thought; yes, and prayer, too, if we are not to quarrel with your brother in Paris, nor with your kinsman the Emperor, nor yet with Spain; nor indeed, with any prince of Christendom.'
'No need to trouble your heart,' Adelais said, waspish. 'Nor yet to importune God. Your daughter —' and it was no longer my daughter, 'has been refused by a low Saxon. I cannot think the bidding will be over-high for her!'
The crimson sprang into the girl's pale cheeks; her father looked at her with love. 'Your mother makes overmuch of this affair! What after all is it? The young man is already promised — so who's to blame?'
'You are to blame!' Adelais cried out. 'You are to blame that you took no better thought before you sent your offer into England. But the girl wanted it. You'd not refuse her any toy!'
He ignored her mockery; he said peaceably, since he could not entirely acquit himself, 'Well, now we know where we are!'
'Let us hope so!' My lady sent her daughter a thoughtful glance.
The silence was broken by a soft movement as the girl rose. 'Sir ... Madam ... if I might be excused.'
Adelais gave an irritable nod; but Baldwin, arm about his daughter, said, 'Do not trouble yourself in this matter. But in one thing your mother is right; some blame there is — and it is all mine. I should have made stricter enquiry. But for all that it is a good young man — still, we'll find you a better. You are young; over-young to marry. I care not at all for marriage between children; and I am glad to keep my daughter a little, yet.'
She took his hand and laid it against her cheek. He was surprised and touched; gestures of affection came rare to her. She passed through the arras, the gown of fine, bright wool trailing upon the stone floor. The little page, crop-headed, picked up the hem of her skirt as she passed; she twitched it away, impatient, lifted it before her in both long, fine hands and went, quiet, away.
Her father watched her still, loving the grace with which she walked. She was small-made — in that she took after his house, but she was perfectly proportioned — and there she took after her mother; himself and his sons were broad, shortish men, all. She was so beautiful, this young child of his! Those deep grey eyes set in the wide forehead, the fine oval of her face, the soft-flowing waves of her dark hair. She looked gentle, and her smallness gave her a fragile look; but, as he well knew, she was neither. Looks and nature, both, she had inherited from her mother. Her blood brooked no contradiction — inheritance from him as well as from her mother. Men called him gentle; but it was a gentleness he knew how to stiffen at need. Well, it was good she should have the strength to fight, to defy — if need be. A pity, though, she couldn't have the man of her choice, her life would have gone easier so; Brihtric was an easy sort of fellow — too easy, maybe. It was like having too many sweetmeats; she would, perhaps, have tired of him!
He sighed, a little, watching her out of sight.
Across the great hall she went and through the heavy doors fastened back now for carrying in trestles for dinner. At the heels of servants dogs fought and pushed and slank back from the well-aimed kick; then, kick forgotten, began their pushing and fighting all over again. So it is with men! Baldwin sighed a little.
Up the twisting stairs the girl went to the north tower of the great house. This last year she had demanded a chamber of her own; she would no longer share the women's dormitory. It was not fitting for the daughter of the house; the only daughter.
'A daughter of the house needs guarding more than most!' her mother had said. 'Oh, not your virtue — God forbid I should doubt it! But gossip. It springs from nowhere to bespatter the great; it has a way of spreading — and before you know it, there's a scandal on your hands!'
They had fought on the matter and had come to terms at last. Her own chamber she should have; but she must share it with Agnes her nurse. And to that she had agreed; one could always turn the old woman out.
The turret-door stood ajar; the old nurse seated upon a stool was darning a scarf of fine silk; Matilda had torn it carelessly passing. Agnes rose to her feet. Her young lady was white to the lips ... frightened; she was very frightened. Agnes had never seen her like this before; the girl had a proud spirit. But Agnes knew the reason. Reason and reason enough for fear! She said, very gentle, 'What ails you, demoiselle, my darling?'
'The answer from England. He'll not have me!' Again the girl affected to shrug.
'What then? A pleasant young man and you fancied him. But young men like him — they grow on every tree!' Head bent upon the fine silk, she was concerned, it would seem, only with her work — under, over, went the careful needle; under, over.
Matilda said, at last, 'That isn't the whole of it!'
'I know,' the old woman said, 'I've known it these three months.' And seeing terror leap to the girl's eyes, added quickly, 'No-one else, though. No-one handles your linen but me.'
Matilda said no more. She did not ask for help; but Help me. Help me. The dark troubled eyes spoke for her.
Agnes shook her head. 'You must speak to Madam, your mother.' And seeing the girl stiffen and grow whiter — if that could be — said, very earnest, 'There's nothing I would not do for you, if I might, though it cost me my life. But the thing on your heart could mean your life, my darling — and that I could not do. In this affair your mother is the only one. Oh, she will be angry, and very angry; that you must expect. But her bark is worse than her bite. She will have her say; and then she will arrange everything — you will see! No-one will know; not even my lord, your father. I was your mother's nurse. I understand her very well.'
And, since the girl stood dumb and obstinate with fear, added, 'The thing is hard to tell, and hard to hear. Yet, I fancy, she has made some guess already; her eyes are sharper than most. Why else, do you think, she allowed the offer to be sent into England? She had other plans for you — that I know. Now she waits for you to speak; then she will do what must be done. But first you must rest; stay quiet awhile.' Already she was unlacing the close-fitting gown.
Standing there in her shift the girl looked childish, forlorn, so that Agnes thought, pitying, We forget, even I that know her body as my own, how small she is, how young! And now the girl was taken with a fit of trembling so that Agnes thought, I gave the right advice; the only advice. But still at the thought of the coming interview she was troubled — a great deal for her young lady and, somewhat, for herself.
Matilda lay beneath the fur coverings; gradually the shivering stopped, warmth crept back to her limbs. Safe for a little from prying eyes, she let the rare tears have their way. The afternoon sun, falling dusty through the window-slit, struck arrows of rainbow light into wet eyes. Anger was dead in her; she was racked with fear, she was sick with shame. But, for all that, Agnes was right. She must tell her mother; and certainly my lady would take everything into her capable hands. Virginity is a valuable commodity in the marriage-market; it is, indeed, the indispensable commodity. More than once she had heard her mother berating some demoiselle slipped from virtue. Yes, her mother would see to it that the virginity of her daughter was not called in question.
Her mother's help. It shone like a light in a far harbour — but first one must venture the stormy seas.
At the thought of that stormy passage her distressed mind shrank; drearily it went back to the past.
She had loved him, Brihtric the Fair, the Bright Chief. She had loved him before ever she had known it; at fourteen one does not recognise the face of love. Her heart had been given; but not her body. That was a different matter. Yet he had taken that, too. She had not wanted to give him either. He was a Saxon; and though of good birth, not as high as she had been taught to look. Well, her heart being gone, there was nothing she could do about it. But her body — she had fought for it. In spite of all the love leaping with in her, beating down her will, she had known she must not give in. Girls must be chaste; and especially a girl whose marriage is the affair of Christendom. Virginity lost, a girl be she never so fair, never so gifted, never so high-born and richly dowered, must waste in loneliness — if, indeed, no worse fate befall. There were tales of girls thrust by parents within a dungeon; or, at very best, within a nunnery — and the difference was not so great after all! Girls paid the rest of their lives for their sweet sin.
Yet in the end he had persuaded her. It was no sin. They were promised one to the other; in honour bound, husband and wife — a secret betrothal, but not the less binding. It wanted but her father's word. That his father should not speak that word, he had never for a moment considered. The match was very great.
Husband and wife, and within a few hours he would be gone. But he would be back at once, he swore it. Her father had but to make the proposal — as was proper because of his exalted position; but who could doubt the outcome? Let her be kind then; how could she let him go hungering and thirsting?
So in the end he had his way.
But how, if there should be no betrothal and no return?
It was a question she had not asked; and now it was too late.
Against closed eyes she saw him as she had seen him then, tall and white-and-gold and burning with love ... He drew the bolts of the door, this very room where I lie weeping; he took the covers from the bed, the narrow bed, he spread them upon the floor. He pulled me down ...
Again she felt desire shoot through her innermost body so that she must clasp herself, both hands between her thighs, to thrust it down again. But it was useless. If he were here now she must give herself again.
That day he truly loved me; he was honest — I must believe it. He returned home to find his match made. He could not dishonour his father's word — the word spoken for all to hear; could not dishonour the bride they had chosen. But what of the secret word? What of the bride himself had chosen; chosen and taken — and forsaken?
What of me? She turned twisting and weeping upon the bed. And What of Agnes? For the first time she thought of Agnes that had been set to guard her, Agnes that had failed in her charge. There is nothing I would not do for you though it cost me my life. When Agnes had said that she had spoken the plain truth. Her punishment would be dire; dire enough to cost her life.
She was taken with fear for Agnes, for Agnes also. Anger sprang again, flamed yet higher. He had taken his pleasure. He had left an old woman no less than a young one to face the consequences. The fierceness of her anger gave rise, as always these past weeks, to threatened sickness. Trying to quiet herself she fought the sickness down.
Maybe he was not so much to blame. Maybe things had proved unexpectedly hard. In England there was unrest; things changed from day to day. Their King was not liked; they didn't altogether care for his piety; his peculiar, excessive piety. The Confessor they called him, half-deriding. And he was half-Norman, a foreigner. In all the five years since his crowning he hadn't learned to like his people. And they? They looked not to their King as leader but to Godwine their great earl. That family was altogether too powerful, her father said; they had the King under their thumb. Trouble was coming; her father said that, too. Great men in England must take sides, look to their position. They would, no doubt, marry their children to that end. Brihtric, she must believe it, had been a counter to suit his father's game. He could not, she thought, bitter, have put up too hard a fight! Had he shown some courage, dangled before his father's eyes the Flemish alliance, the great, the unlooked-for match, what then? But maybe it wasn't politic for Algar's house to marry a foreign bride. Well, but he should have thought of that before!
Excerpted from Wife to the Bastard by Hilda Lewis. Copyright © 2011 Hilda Lewis. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
The Young Matilda,
The Young William,
Matilda and William,
SOME BOOKS CONSULTED,
CHRONICLES AND DOCUMENTS,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was not the best of historical fiction novels i've read. I feel that the novel was rather boring, and that you really could not connect with the characters. It started out strong, but sort of dwindled the further you read on.