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- Via Crucis - 10/55 -
Then they all halted, and the Duke's herald rode forward to the gate, and the King's herald was seen within, and there was a great blowing of horns and a sound of loud, high voices reciting formal speeches in a monotone. After that there was a silence, and horns again, and more recitation, and a final blast, after which the Duke's herald came back, and the King's herald came out upon the drawbridge, followed by men in rich clothes of white cloth, embroidered with gold lilies that shone in the autumn sun, like little tongues of flame; and the Duke's standard was unfurled to the river breeze, and the goodly train rode slowly over the drawbridge at the end of the solid wooden causeway which spanned the main width of the stream, and so, by the main gate, into the great court of honour. And Gilbert rode close behind young Henry, who called him his chancellor in jest, and would not let him ride out of his sight.
Within the court were great buildings reared against the outer walls; but in the midst was the King's hall and dwelling, and in the porch at the head of the steps which led to the main door, the King and Queen were waiting in state, in their robes of ceremony, with all their household about them, to receive their Grand Seneschal and brother sovereign, Geoffrey Plantagenet. But Gilbert, looking boldly before him, saw that the King of France was a fair, pale man with a yellow beard, strong and knightly, but with dull and lifeless blue eyes; and Gilbert looked at the lady who sat beside him, and he saw that the Queen of France was the most beautiful woman in the world; and when his eyes had seen her it was long before he looked away.
He saw a being so unlike all he had known before, that his idea of woman changed from that hour for his whole life--a most perfect triplicity of beauty, grace and elastic strength. Some have doubtless possessed each separate perfection, but the names of those who had all three are as unforgotten as those of conquerors and supreme poets. Gilbert's eyes fixed themselves, and for a moment he was in a sort of waking trance, during which he could not for his life have described one feature of the Queen's face; but when she spoke to him, his heart leapt and his eyelids quivered, and her image was fixed upon his memory forever. Young though he was, it would have been contrary to his grave and rather melancholy disposition to lose his heart at first sight to any woman, and it was neither love, nor love's forerunner, that overcame him as he gazed at the Queen. It was a purely visual impression, like that of being dazzled by a bright light, or made giddy by sudden motion.
She was as tall as the King, but whereas he was heavily and awkwardly built, her faultless proportion made an ungraceful movement an impossibility, and the rhythmic ease of her slightest gesture expressed an unfaltering bodily energy which no sudden fatigue nor stress of long weariness could bring down. When she moved, Gilbert wished that he might never see her in repose, yet as soon as the motion ceased, it seemed a crime upon beauty to disturb her rest.
Her face and her throat, uncovered to the strong morning light, were of a texture as richly clear as the tinted leaves of young orange-blossoms in May; and like the flowers themselves, it seemed to rejoice in air and sun, in dew and rain, perfected, not marred, by the touch of heat and cold. The straight white throat rose like a column from the neck to the delicate lobe of the faultless ear, and a generously modelled line sprang in a clean curve of beauty to the sudden rounding of the ivory chin, cleft in the midst by nature's supreme touch. Low on her forehead the heavy waves of her hair were drawn back to each side under the apple-green silk coverchief that was kept in place by the crown of state. But she wore no wimple, and the broad waves flowed down upon her shoulders and hung behind her like a heavy mantle. And they were of that marvellous living hue, that the westering sun casts through oak leaves upon an ancient wall in autumn. All in her face was of light, from her hair to her white forehead; from her forehead to her radiant eyes, deeper than sapphires, brighter than mountain springs; from the peach-blossom bloom of her cheeks to the living coral of her lips.
She wore a close-fitting upper garment of fine green cloth, embroidered with a small design in silver thread, in which the heraldic cross of Aquitaine alternated with a conventional flower. The girdle of fine green leather, richly embroidered in gold, followed exactly the lower line of this close garment round the hips, and the long end fell straight from the knot almost to the ground. The silken skirt in many folds was of the same colour as the rest, but without embroidery. The mantle of state, of a figured cloth of gold lined with straw-coloured silk, hung in wide folds from her shoulders, her hair falling over it, and it was loosely held in place by a twisted cord of gold thread across her breast. Contrary to the fashion of the day, her sleeves were tight and closed at the wrists, and green gloves encased her hands, and were embroidered on the back with the cross of Aquitaine.
Gilbert was standing two steps behind young Henry, who was on his father's left, and was consequently directly opposite to the Queen, as the boy bent one knee, and taking her gloved hand, touched the embroidery with his lips. Gilbert was hardly aware that she was looking into his eyes, while his own were riveted on her face, and when she spoke, he started in surprise.
"And who is this?" she asked, smiling, as she saw what an effect her beauty produced upon the young man.
Henry turned half round, with a step backward, and took Gilbert's hand.
"This is my friend," he said, dragging him forward; "and if you like me, you shall please to like him, too, and tell the King to knight him at once."
"You have a strong recommendation to grace, sir," said the Queen.
She looked down at the imperious boy's square face and laughed; but looking up and meeting Gilbert's eyes again, the ring of her laugh changed oddly and died away in a short silence. It was long since she had looked upon so goodly a man; she was weary of her monkish husband, and she was the grand-daughter of William of Aquitaine, giant, troubadour, and lover. It was no wonder that there was light in her eyes, and life in every fibre of her beautiful body.
"I think I shall like your friend," she said, speaking to Henry, but still looking at the man.
And so Gilbert first met the Queen; and as she held out her hand to him and he took it, kneeling on one knee, she unconsciously drew young Henry close to her, and her arm was round his neck, and her hand pressed his shoulder in a very gentle way, so that he looked up into her face. But if any one had told her then that she should love the man in vain, that she should be divided from the fair-haired King beside her and become the wife of the broad-faced, rough-fisted little boy whose curly head barely reached her shoulder, the prophet might have fared ill, as readers of the future often do.
But meanwhile the King stood talking quietly with Duke Geoffrey, who presently crossed to salute the Queen, not dreaming what strange spirits had taken possession of the hearts of three persons in one moment. For the third was Henry himself. When the Queen gave her right hand to his father her other was still on the boy's shoulder, and when she would have withdrawn it he caught it with both his own and held it there; and suddenly the blood sprang up in his cheeks even to the roots of his hair, and for the first and last time in his life Henry Plantagenet was almost ridiculous, and wished that he might hide his head. Yet he would not loose his hold on the Queen's hand.
While Duke Geoffrey tarried in Paris, receiving much honour at the King's court, but obtaining very little encouragement in his hope of help against Stephen, the time was heavy on the hands of some of his followers; but others of them, seeing that they had little service and much leisure, made up their minds to do not only what was good in their own eyes, but sometimes also that which was evil, as a certain chronicler once said of the English knights. For the wine of Gascony was good, but some said that the vintage of Burgundy was better, and a matter of such weight was evidently not to be left undecided; yet the more often it came to judgment, the more evidence and testimony were required in the case, so that the court sat night and day without agreeing upon a verdict.
But Gilbert had never learned to sit for hours over a cup, slowly addling his wits and marking the hour when the room should begin to swing upon the pivot of his head; and Henry kept him constantly by his side, saying that he was the only sober man in his father's court, knight or squire; nor would the boy let him go, excepting when he himself could pass his time with the Queen, and then he was more than anxious that Gilbert should disappear. At first Eleanor was amused by the lad's childish passion, but as she herself greatly preferred Gilbert's society to that of Henry, she soon grew weary of the rather tame sport which consisted in making a boy of twelve years fall desperately in love with her.
Moreover, Henry was precocious and keen-sighted beyond his years, and was not long in discovering his idol's predilection for his friend. His chief consolation was that Gilbert himself seemed indifferent, and came and went at the Queen's bidding as though he were obeying an order rather than an impulse.
One lazy autumn afternoon, when the air was as hot as summer, and the flies were swarming about the open doors of the great stables, and before the deep archway that led into the main kitchen, and about the open windows of the knights' and squires' quarters,--when the air was still and lazy, and not a sound was heard in the vast enclosure of the castle-yard,--Henry and Gilbert came out to play at tennis in a shady corner behind the church, where there was a penthouse that would serve.
In half a dozen strokes Henry had scored high to Gilbert's nothing, and the boy dropped the ball at his feet to tighten the network he had made on his hand by winding a bowstring in and out between his fingers and across the palm, as men did before rackets were thought of. Suddenly he turned half round and faced Gilbert, planting himself with his sturdy legs apart and crossing his arms, which were bare to the elbow; for he had taken off his cloth tunic, and his embroidered shirt, girdled at the waist by a leathern belt, hung over his scarlet hose, and was wide at the neck and turned back above his elbows. He was hatless, ruddy, and hot.
"Will you answer a fair question fairly, Master Gilbert?" he asked, looking his friend in the eyes.
Gilbert had fallen into the habit of treating him like a man, as most people did, excepting the Queen, and gravely nodded an answer.
"Do you not think that the Queen of France is the most beautiful woman in the world?"
"Yes," answered Gilbert, without a smile, and without the slightest hesitation.
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