THE SWORD AND THE SWANby Roberta Gellis
Henry of Anjou had started a war to gain the throne of England, but quite suddenly he returned to France to pursue the woman who would soon become his wife. Eleanor of Aquitaine held more lands than the King of France. Henry’s decision left those who had supported him in his war to win the throne of England without a leader. They made truce with King Stephen, but everyone knew that Henry would return, and both sides were subtly striving to improve their positions. When the Earl of Soke, a supporter of Henry, died, leaving as heir, a widowed daughter, King Stephen did not hesitate. He seized Catherine of Soke and ordered her marriage to Rannulf of Sleaford, one of his own most devoted supporters. No one cared that Rannulf did not want a third wife or that Catherine was sunk in a pit of grief and did not want to be married at all. Political necessity drove the king and queen and Rannulf and Catherine would marry and manage as best they could thereafter.
Catherine sat in the women's quarters of the White Tower not far from the queen, sewing and thinking about her husband. She had thought of little else in the two weeks that had passed since her marriage. He was a most peculiar and unpredictable man, but she no longer had much fear of him.
Since she had fulfilled Maud's purpose, Catherine was no longer held as a virtual prisoner. Free circulation in the court and some private talks with Lady Warwick had taught her much. It was very needful now to understand Rannulf's character for she understood something of the political situation and she was most anxious to be able to judge what he would do.
Rannulf was often rude and crude, but it seemed to Catherine that the bad manners were assumed deliberately to hide something else. Too soft a heart? It would be well for her if it were so, since then his manners would be the least of her problems. But it was difficult to understand a man who never offered a word of explanation for anything he did.
The habit might be excused on the grounds that he was so accustomed to command that it did not seem necessary to him to explain himself. Unfortunately he never allowed anyone else to explain anything either, and that prevented Catherine from judging his reactions. Take her request for money to buy cloth.
"Cloth!" Rannulf had roared, as he looked at the chests filled with Catherine's clothing.
Embarrassed, Catherine had tried to explain that the cloth was not for herself, but he had silenced her with a contemptuous gesture, unfastened a key from the group that he wore about his neck, and thrown it at her.
"So much as is in that chest is yours to use as you will. That, and no more," he said coldly as he left her.
Catherine allowed a smile to develop. Perhaps she could get some further response when she gave him the gowns she was sewing for him. So much apology as a softened glance in her direction would do her heart good.
A page made his way through the group of ladies and spoke to the queen. Maud lifted her head and smiled at the smiling Catherine.
"Your husband wants you, my dear, and that is a minor miracle. I never remember Rannulf sending for Adelecia in all the years he was married to her."
Catherine put down her work and hurried from the room. Although she no longer feared that her husband would murder her, she had no desire to feel his heavy hand. Not that he had yet struck her, but waiting threw him into the foulest of humors and Catherine found Rannulf better company when he did not growl or bellow.
"Here is your cloak, madam. We are leaving."
Never a word of greeting, Catherine thought with exasperation as she protested automatically. "Leaving? But my work is above, and I have not bid the queen farewell. "
Rannulf scowled. "You may return within the hour, or you may stay behind, for all I care. I thought you would wish to oversee the placing of your boxes."
Catherine was even more exasperated. "You mean we are moving to another house in London?"
"All women are idiots! Where would I go, when I must return within a few weeks to that accursed tourney and investiture?"
Mollified, Catherine realized that she had been rather foolish, but she had learned that excuses, like explanations, were not necessary. She merely took her cloak and followed Rannulf to their horses. She liked to ride with him, and one thing in particular gave her pleasure. Although there were always grooms present, Rannulf never failed to lift her into the saddle himself, as if he feared that someone else would not be sufficiently careful of her.
The journey was short, perhaps a half mile through the muddy streets, and Rannulf caught his wife to lift her down from the saddle. They had arrived in the courtyard of a typical London house, which they entered through the single door in the lower story constructed of stone. The courtyard was crowded with people who bowed and made way for Rannulf, mostly serfs carrying in loads of household articles.
Catherine lifted her skirt as they walked over the hard-packed earth floor, her exasperation rapidly returning. The rushes that had once covered it were pounded to dust in most places and slimy with rot in others. At the far end of the single large room that made up the lower floor of the house, a stair rose to the floor above. Here Rannulf stopped and turned to face into the room again.
"Hold your tongues and listen," he bellowed, and then, scarcely waiting for the voices to die down, added, "This is your new mistress, the Lady Catherine. Henceforward you will take your orders from her." He gave the men a few moments to study her, then nudged her rudely. "The women, I assume, are already above. Go up."
The top floor was lighter and not as damp, being constructed of wood, but the walls were patched with mold and the floor was in the same repulsive condition. Catherine stared about, dismayed. She had been wrong—Rannulf was a pig! He not only dressed like an animal, apparently he lived like one too. Could he not have set the servants to clean the house before he brought her to it?
Rannulf slammed the flat of his hand against the door frame to draw the attention of the women, about to introduce Catherine to them in the same graceful manner he had used below. Indeed, his lips had parted when a child's thin voice broke through the hubbub.
A small form tore through the press of women and flung itself upon Rannulf. Catherine gasped. Was this a nobleman's child? Unkempt, dirty, dressed in little more than rags, the little boy was revolting—and all Catherine's starved maternity leapt to life so that she could scarcely refrain from grasping at him. Meanwhile, Richard had embraced his father as high as he could reach, squealing and wriggling with joy.
"What do you here? You disobedient little devil!"
The child cowered back at his father's voice; Rannulf raised his hand to strike; and Catherine leapt between the father and son, taking a stinging blow on the shoulder.
"How can you strike a child that runs to you in love?" Catherine shrieked, dropping to her knees and clasping the filthy and trembling form to her breast.
There was an utter, paralyzed silence. The maids stood mute, expecting their master to kill the woman who had opposed him or to beat her senseless. The child was too frightened even to whimper. Catherine, too, was frightened by what she had done, and Rannulf stared down at his wife and his son in stunned, disbelieving amazement.
"How dare you?" he asked quietly. "Do you know how dangerous the road from Sleaford to London is in this season? Do you know how many enemies I have along that road? The child could have lost his life or been taken for ransom a dozen times."
"How should a babe know of such matters?" Catherine blazed, her eyes nearly purple with the reflected heat of her countenance. "He is here, alive. Could you not tell him what he has done amiss? What will a blow teach him except that his father does not want him or does not love him. Who would take him for ransom anyway? A villein's child is better cared for."
Rannulf nearly choked with rage and frustration. The only thing to do now was to tear the child from the woman and beat them both, but he could not. Without another word, he turned and left. Catherine remained on her knees, clinging to the little boy and trembling herself, wondering fearfully what would become of her. This time she had gone too far. She had shamed her husband before his servants. If ever she had a chance to win his love, now it was lost. He was not a forgiving man; he would never forgive this transgression of his rights over his own child. The little boy was struggling in her arms, crying, "Papa, papa," and at last broke into despairing sobs. Catherine could think of herself no longer.
It was fortunate for Lady Catherine that the house was in so wretched a condition and the child needed so much attention. The next five days passed swiftly, and as she tended to Richard and listened to him the bond between Rannulf and herself tightened.
Oh, he might return and beat her. From what the maids and Richard said it was very likely—and richly she deserved a beating, she acknowledged. Nonetheless, she looked forward to his return. No man whose servants had such implicit trust in him and whose son adored him so passionately could be other than basically good. Bad-tempered, yes, but Catherine was getting an earful about Lady Adelecia and she admitted that Rannulf had reason to dislike women.
Besides, Catherine was growing concerned. Rannulf seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth. When he did not return that first night, Catherine had assumed indignantly that he was comforting himself with some slut. She repressed her jealousy, telling herself that the man who could prefer a woman of greensleeves to herself was not worth jealousy.
Nonetheless, when Catherine returned to court to gather her work together and explain to the queen what had happened to her, she had asked discreet questions. She learned that Rannulf had not gone alone into the town; he had called his men-at-arms together and ridden away with the group. He had not gone to court a slut, but where he had gone no one could even guess.
One good thing had come of Catherine's quarrel with her husband. The maidservants and menservants regarded her with superstitious awe and leapt to obey her slightest wish. Catherine could not tell whether they were reacting to Rannulf's restraint toward her or to her own flash of temper. She took advantage of the situation, however, getting more work out of them in five days than Adelecia could have obtained in five months. Catherine was troubled, but too busy to be unhappy, and the days slipped by insensibly.
Rannulf's situation was less satisfactory. Incapable either of punishing Catherine or accepting what she had done, he had retreated to the keep of a minor vassal of his not far from London to nurse his grievance.
The trouble was that his rage would not rise, and the grievance against himself, the more he thought about it, became more and more a virtue on Catherine's part. Rannulf never pretended to himself that Catherine saw anything attractive in him, although she was agreeable throughout the day and willing throughout the night.
The reason for that was apparent. She had said she was afraid of him, and he believed her. Her behavior was no more than a reasonable reaction to fear, and, in spite of an uncomfortable feeling that he wished she would yield him the same complaisance without the fear, Rannulf did not trust her enough to attempt to reduce her terror of him.
The wonder of it was that, putting her personal good aside, she had leapt to the defense of a defenseless child—his child, at that, not even hers. Adelecia had never defended Richard from his discipline, justified or unjustified, had not, indeed, paid any more attention to her son than if he were a stray dog.
It was her indifference to her son that had changed Rannulf's dislike and disdain for his second wife into absolute loathing. That the woman seemed revolted by him and would not be a wife to him naturally enough made him dislike her, but that she would not be a mother to the child she had borne made him hate her.
How much Catherine's beauty and his steadily increasing desire for her contributed to his recognition of her courage and virtue, Rannulf was not certain. Having a keen sense of humor, however, he admitted freely that her physical charms clarified greatly the beauty of her character. In fact he would not have protracted his absence as long as he did except that—Rannulf smiled grimly thinking of his reputation for coolheaded courage—he was afraid to face his wife. For the life of him, Rannulf could not decide how to behave when he had to confront her.
It was fortunate that he resolved only to act in a manner suitable to Catherine's demeanor toward him because he had no previous experience whatsoever with anything that happened to him after he walked in his own door. First of all, he very nearly walked out again, almost believing that he had wandered into a stranger's house.
The walls were newly whitewashed, the floor spread with clean rushes, although they were dry and scentless from long storage. In the large hearth a fire burned clear, unchoked by the ashes of previous fires. The benches and tables for eating were stacked neatly along the walls and beneath them lay clean straw pallets for the servants and men-at-arms to sleep on. Even the servants themselves seemed neater and cleaner.
While Rannulf stood in the doorway taking in the changes and thinking that no keep or manor of his had this appearance since his mother's death, he saw his third wife coming toward him.
Rannulf swallowed nervously and scowled. Catherine's face was red as fire and, thus far in his experience with her, a flushed face had always preceded some insubordination. She was beautiful, very beautiful, and had many virtues, but if he permitted any more willfulness on her part he would be no better than a slave to his own lust.
Catherine sank to her knees. "I come to beg your pardon, my lord. I did great wrong to come between your son and yourself."
It was not easy to humble herself, for Catherine had her own pride, but she had been wrong and, more than that, she wished to spare Richard the sight of her humiliation and punishment. The child was very passionate and had taken her to his heart. To tear him apart by the sight of the father he loved striking the woman he was learning to love would be cruel.
"Indeed," she forced herself to add, "I can offer no excuse except that my heart is sore for the loss of a babe, and—"
"Get up," Rannulf snapped, every other feeling submerged in the violent revulsion he felt when he saw Catherine kneel to him.
"Nay, my lord, I do not expect that you will so lightly pardon me. Do with me what you will, but show a softer face to the child. I have explained how wrong he was to steal away with the servants and how much trouble and grief he could have brought upon you. Indeed, he is very sorry. He swears he will never do so again. Do not be angry with him any longer. He has been crying for you for days."
"Get up!" Rannulf roared.
"Not until you pardon the child."
The tone brought Rannulf somewhat to his senses. Whatever the meekness of the position, there was no meekness in that voice: "A pox take you woman, I am not angry now." The fury of his own voice penetrated his ears; his sense of humor was touched again, and he began to laugh. "At least I was not angry when I came in, and would not be except for your silliness. For God's sake, if not for mine, get off the floor."
Catherine took the hand he extended and rose to her feet.
"We will come to the subject of my son when I desire to come to it," Rannulf added severely. "Tell me first, since we are here, what has happened to the house."
"I had it cleaned," Catherine said, and then the thought of the repulsive condition the place had been in and his lack of consideration in bringing her to it overwhelmed her. Her voice filled with contempt. "I hope you did not desire us to live like pigs."
Perhaps he had misjudged her; perhaps she was not afraid of him after all. Rannulf had to laugh again at her indignation, but all he said was, "I care not how you live so long as the labor comes not upon me. Now, I am ready. Where is my son?"
Catherine's apprehension returned. "Above, but—"
A gesture silenced her. She had no right, after all, to interfere, and she knew now that Rannulf would not be unduly harsh with the child. He paid no more attention to her, and Catherine followed him up the stairs hoping that Richard's behavior would do her credit. She had worked hard with the boy. If Rannulf was pleased, all might yet be well.
Catherine watched her husband while he listened to Richard's apology, and her heart sank at the increasing rigidity of his expression. Rannulf, however, was not at all displeased. He was only striving, with growing difficulty, to prevent himself from laughing as he listened to the elaborate phrases that the child had obviously learned by rote. He did not wish to hurt the boy, nor to hurt his wife. Catherine had plainly taken great pains to teach Richard what she hoped would pacify his father's anger. There was a little pause, but Rannulf still could not speak because he was having trouble in controlling his mouth.
Richard raised his eyes to the stem countenance. "Oh, please, papa, I am sorry. Truly I am sorry, but you said you would return at once and then the servants began to pack your clothes and I knew you were not coming back. Let me stay with you, papa, oh, please, do not send me away."
That plea was completely natural, the child stuttering slightly in his earnestness, and Rannulf dropped his hand to the boy's head, all desire to laugh fading into tenderness. "The labor of keeping you does not fall upon me, my child. Nor is it safe, perhaps, to keep you in London where I have many enemies and one foot beyond these doors you are on a stranger's land—"
"You do not want me. You do not love me. You always go away from me or send me away from you." Richard's eyes filled with tears.
"Let him stay, my lord," Catherine pleaded. "I will not let him out from under my eye for a moment. No man shall harm him or take him—upon my life."
"Thank you, papa, thank you!"
A wet and smacking kiss was pressed on Rannulf's hand, and he shook his head. Give a child or a woman the smallest sign that a decision was not absolute and irrevocable and they assumed that the decision would be remade in their favor. Rannulf could not, however, destroy the joy that had filled his son's face. They were at peace; the danger to the child was not acute, and for some reason Catherine's assurance that she would guard Richard imbued him with perfect confidence.
"You should thank the Lady Catherine, Richard," he said, yielding completely.
The boy capered away, gave his benefactress a rough hug, and jumped upon the bed, sending a pile of neatly folded linen flying. "Oh," he laughed, "she does not mind. She likes to have me. She told me so."
"If you make her pick up what she has just folded ten times a day, she will soon be sorry."
Catherine moved to her husband's side, smiling at him with a genuine warmth. "Truly it is a pleasure to have him. He is such a clever child. Only think, he learned all that long speech and did not forget a word of it, and I only told him three or four times over what to say."
So she was not stupid at all! Rannulf burst into laughter. "I thought you meant me to believe those were his words."
"Nay, how could I be so foolish? A child does not speak so, and it would be an indifferent father who could not tell his own son's way."
Rannulf's eyes narrowed. Stupid! Perhaps she was altogether too clever. She seemed to read him very well. "And how is it known to you that I am not an indifferent father? What you saw of us together did not speak of great tenderness."
"How not? You were only afraid for the child's welfare. Have I not beaten my own child with one hand while I clasped him to my bosom with the other after he had committed some dangerous folly. My lord, even at the moment I came between you, I knew 1 did wrong."
Rannulf continued to frown, not angrily but thoughtfully, and Catherine, feeling that he might have a distaste for her discussion of her past life, changed the subject.
"Now, my lord, will you bathe and change your garments? You are wet and muddied. Did you ride far?"
"Not five miles, but the roads are very bad. I wish, however," Rannulf added caustically, "that you would content yourself with making my child and my house models of cleanliness and propriety. I am not four years old to be told when to change my clothes."
Looking sidelong under her lashes at him, Catherine thought that he was acting very little older. Still, if he wished to remain wet and dirty just because she had suggested that he change, it was his affair. In the future, she would know better how to manage. She would order the bath and lay out the clothing without question, and also, she decided, looking at her husband's face, she would employ a barber. A man should either grow a beard or shave, not walk around looking like a half-mown field. He was a well set-up man; he would look none so ill with those gray eyes and curly hair if he did but comb his disordered locks now and again.