Authors: Jackie French
Tybalt hunted. I had to dance.
No father would employ a young dancing master for his daughter, but Master Dance looked as if he were made of sawdust, so old a breeze would blow him back to dust. His legs were like a sparrow’s in his cotton stockings.
We practised. Little Tom, the apprentice minstrel, played his mandolin to keep the time. The Joans and Nurse made up the numbers for a set, and Joanette giggled every time Master Dance’s corset creaked.
At last he left, still creaking, with a honey cake from Nurse to sweeten him. We sat on our cushions and worked our tapestries; or rather the Joans twiddled their needles and threads, and Nurse burped gently after her morning ale, while I stared at the garden and thought about Tybalt fighting Montagues, about the dead man’s widow and his children. Were they weeping now?
Little Joanette gave me a hopeful curtsey.
‘What is it, Joanette?’
‘My lady,’ Joanette lowered her voice to a whisper, ‘could you read us the book?’
I grinned at her and nodded. Ladies didn’t grin. Nor did they read the kind of book Nurse kept hidden under my mattress.
Joanette ran to fetch it. She handed it to me as if it were made of gold. But this book was more valuable than gold. All gold can do is shine. This book of stories took us to a hundred places and a thousand hearts.
It was small, with a faded cover and gilt-edged pages. I had found it in my father’s library while looking for a book of French lessons to translate for Master Scholar. This book was in French, but as soon as I read the first story Nurse decided it should be hidden.
The stories were written by a woman, hundreds of years ago. Had any other woman ever written a whole book? Her name was Marie de France. A woman was remembered only if she were a queen or a saint. I could be neither. But sometimes I wished that I could do something like Marie had done, so that people would speak my name in hundreds of years’ time.
I smiled at myself. What would they say? ‘Ah, Juliet de Capulet — a good daughter and an obedient wife.’ My mother says a woman is remembered in her children.
I opened the book. ‘The Lay of Guigemar,’ I translated.
‘Ah,’ said Nurse, ‘now that is a good one. And you read it so fine, my little apple pie, just like it was proper tongue.’
In truth, I did not translate it well. I skipped the words I did not know and made up half the rest. But still, each time I read it I heard a whisper, as though from Marie herself so far away in time and place.
‘Guigemar was a fair knight, the son of a king,’ I said, half-reading, half-imagining. ‘Straight as a spear, with strong legs and a kind smile, and hair like the glory of the sun.’
‘Ah, I knew a man like that once,’ said Nurse.
‘One day Lord Guigemar shot an arrow at a white deer. It hit the deer, but bounced back, striking his heart too. Guigemar and the deer lay dying together on the grass. But even as she lay dying the white deer pitied him, for Guigemar’s heart had not known love. In those last breaths before her death, the doe could speak too. “I must die here today. But I will give you a gift. If you can find the woman to whom your heart is joined, your arrow wound will be healed.” The white doe’s head dropped to the grass.’
Little Joanette stopped stitching, her eyes wide as she listened to the story. I nodded at her to keep on working.
‘With his last strength, Guigemar ordered his squire to place him on an empty barge upon the river. “Let the wind and the tides carry me,” he said, “until I find my love.”’
‘Oh, the poor gentleman,’ said Nurse.
‘Guigemar slept as dead on his silk pillows. The barge floated down the river to the sea. It was pushed by waves and storms. At last it came to a far land and beached itself on the sand.’
‘Like one of your father’s trading ships,’ offered Janette.
Nurse was affronted. ‘The Capulet ships sail with great skill!’
‘It beached itself on the sand,’ I said firmly, ‘on a beach below the King’s castle. His wife was young and fair. She saw the barge land, though no hand was at the sail. She and her niece hurried down over the rocks and climbed onto the barge. The Queen saw Guigemar, so fair and pale upon his cushions. She laid her hand upon his chest and found that he still lived.’
Janette pulled at a knot in her green thread. ‘What was her name?’
‘The book doesn’t say what her name was,’ I answered.
‘There, what a question,’ said Nurse. ‘She was the Queen. What name does she need but that? A woman has her father’s name, or her husband’s. What needs she of another?’
I went on reading, loosely translating the words scratched on the page. ‘In that one glance, that single touch, the Queen knew she loved him.’
Nurse snorted. ‘One glance? What family did he have, what money? That’s what you need to know before you love. Why, I remember …’
I thought of the man beyond the mirror in my dream. How could a night shadow have a family or money? But he was a dream, no more.
‘Hush,’ I said to Nurse. ‘Their love was so great that Guigemar was healed of his great wound. They kissed, and every day they sat together in the rose gardens of the palace.’
Janette smiled at her needle. ‘Surely they did more than that. A fair man and a beautiful queen …’
Nurse glared at her. ‘You tend to your stitching. If your mistress says they sat in the gardens, that is what they did.’
‘The Queen knotted Guigemar’s shirt in a lover’s knot that only she could untie. “I will only love a woman who can untie the knot,” said Guigemar.
‘Guigemar made a belt for the Queen that only he could undo. “I will never love a man unless he can untie my belt,” promised the Queen.
‘But the King heard of their love. He cast Guigemar back onto his barge. He hoped Guigemar would die in a shipwreck.’
‘Why didn’t he just kill him?’ asked Joan. ‘Slash him with his rapier.’
Janette shook her head. ‘A king would have a sword, not a rapier. Maybe Guigemar was a swordsman like Lord Tybalt.’ She blushed. ‘Maybe the King was too scared to fight him.’
Somehow I didn’t think Guigemar had been like Tybalt. I hoped my cousin hadn’t been flirting with Janette.
‘The King cast his Queen into the dungeons. The rats scratched in the darkness. Every morning, dry bread and a sponge of water were slid under her prison door. But love made her strong. She felt for the dirty sponge and drank the water. She caught mice to eat with the bread.’ This was my story now. Marie de France hadn’t said how the Queen survived in prison. ‘Each day the Queen dreamed of Guigemar. His beauty warmed the darkness. For his sake she would not die till she had seen him again.’
The Joans had stopped their stitching. Even Nurse was silent now.
I spoke slowly, enjoying their gazes. ‘For two years the Queen lay in darkness. At last she knew the King would never pardon her and she vowed to end her life. But how could she die, here in the dungeons, when she had kept living with so little for so long? And then, in a dream, it came to her. She should open the door and run to the rocks. She should cast herself down into the sea where her lover’s barge had lain.
‘The Queen opened her eyes and tried the door. It was unlocked! She slipped her way along the dark corridors, down through the night to the rocks. The waves crashed below the castle. But just as she was about to throw herself into the sea …’
I paused. They looked at me, their eyes wide, even though I had told them the story before.
‘… there was Guigemar’s barge on the sand, just as it had been when he had first come to their shores. But this time the barge was empty. The Queen ran down to the beach and stepped aboard. The wind and waves bore her swiftly to another country — so swiftly,’ I added, before Janette could ask another question, ‘that she did not need food or water.
‘She landed on the beach below the castle of a war-like lord, Meriaduc. He was a savage man and no woman was safe with him.’
‘Like a Montague,’ put in Joan.
‘Most like a Montague. His legs were bandy, like a little dog’s. His arms hung to his knees. His hair …’ I tried to think of something Montague-like for his hair.
‘His hair was like a dirty broom,’ said Nurse.
I laughed. ‘That morning, the Montague had risen early to ravage the land. But when he saw the Queen on her barge he was filled with glee. He carried her back to his castle. He undid her bodice. He tried to undo her belt …’
The Joans had almost stopped breathing now.
‘… but the girdle would not untie. “What is this?” he cried.
‘The Queen looked at the Montague calmly. “My belt can never be untied except by my own true love,” she said. “Just as I have tied a lover’s knot into his shirt.”’
‘Why didn’t the Montague just lift her skirts?’ asked Janette. Nurse silenced her with a look.
‘The Montague called a great jousting tournament to try to lure the knight who could undo the Queen’s belt. Every knight in the land came to compete, and Guigemar came too.
‘When the Queen saw Guigemar at the banquet before the joust, she almost fainted on her bench. Guigemar saw a woman so like the one he loved. But the Queen lived in a faraway country. How could she be here?
‘The Montague saw how the Queen gazed at Guigemar. He called Guigemar to the high table. The Montague said, “I have heard this knight has a knot in his shirt that no one can undo except the woman who made it. Unfasten it, so he may be free of the vow.”
‘The Queen’s white fingers untied the knot. Guigemar kneeled on the floor. He said to the Montague, “You have saved my only love! I will be your man for three years in gratitude for what you have done.”
‘But the Montague only smiled. He said, “I found her, and I will keep her.”’
‘Oh, the evil of him,’ said Nurse. ‘Spoken just like a Montague.’
‘Guigemar left the castle. All the knights followed him, angry at this dishonour to a lady and to love. They promised they would fight with Guigemar to free his love.
‘They lodged that night at the castle of the Prince. The Prince welcomed them as he was at war with the Montague.’
‘Ah, ’tis well to please princes,’ said Nurse. ‘I remember when your father —’
I spoke over her. ‘The next morning, the knights rode out to take the Montague’s castle. None had ever taken it before, for the walls were steep and thick. But their hearts were pure.’
‘Like Lord Tybalt when he fights the Montagues,’ breathed little Joanette.
I didn’t think Tybalt’s heart was pure.
‘Time after time, they tried to scale the walls or break the drawbridge down. But the knights were beaten back. Guigemar sat on the grass within arrowshot of the keep, fasting and praying. And once again his knights stormed the castle.’
‘I think Guigemar should have gone with them.’ That was Janette again. ‘Sitting there safe on the grass while the knights fought.’
Joanette glared at her. ‘Guigemar wasn’t safe. An arrow could have killed him. He was the bravest of all because he did nothing.’
I nodded. ‘And by the power of Guigemar’s love, the good knights won. Just like the Capulets will always beat the Montagues, because we are good and they are evil. The good knights burned the walls. They slew the
Montague in his own hall. And then Guigemar lifted his lady in his arms and bore her away to his own land. And there they lived in peace.’
‘I warrant they had more than peace when they got home,’ said Janette. ‘Now he’d got her belt undone and all.’
Nurse stood up. ‘Away with you. It’s time for my lady’s dinner. And there’s mending to do. And chamber-pots to scrub too, if anyone deserves it,’ she added darkly.
The Joans fled, though Janette was still giggling.
Nurse beamed at me. ‘You said it lovely,’ she said.
No bodies fell over my wall that evening as I lay on my linen pillows. Were my pillows as soft as Guigemar’s? I listened to the night. The sounds of the lavender sellers and the women who sold baked apples died away. Even the yells from the tavern quietened. This was the time for peaceful sleep — or for deadly roistering. Out in the darkness, men swaggered through the streets, men in our colours or those of the Montagues, men with no purpose but to defend their own house and attack their enemies.
The Capulets were brave and noble, like the knights who fought with Guigemar. There was no lady to rescue tonight, but the Montagues had slain one of our own and cast his head into my garden. That must be avenged, just as the insults of a hundred years must be avenged, day after day …
How had this war started? What evil had the first Montague done, so many years before? I realised I did not know. True, our houses competed for the spice trade in the city. Had the Montagues sunk one of our ships, or killed our traders? Perhaps, like Meriaduc, the Montagues were naturally bad. And bandy-legged, with hair like brooms. Rats should be swept from the streets and rooftops. So should the Montagues …
I lay in my soft bed. Sometimes, despite the silk curtains, it seemed a prison. If only I could go to battle like a knight, or even like Tybalt. I had never seen the streets in the dark; had never walked in the street at all. I was carried in a chair to church and back, to keep my silk slippers from the mud.
One day, when I became a married woman, no longer a girl, I might walk to the market with my maids and footmen. I would go to banquets in the houses of our kin. Apart from that, my life would not change; except for Tybalt in my bed sometimes. From what I had overheard from the Joans’ gossip, husbands never spent much time with their wives, just enough so they would bear children. A mistress for pleasure, a wife for heirs, and hunting or business to fill the day. I would stay living in this house, in this room, behind these walls. My mother would probably even keep the storehouse keys and instruct the housekeeper.
Out there beyond the garden wall were … what? Brawls and adventures in the city streets. Did I want to
fight the Montagues, like Tybalt? Thrust my rapier at Montague hearts, watch cockfighting and street singers, go to theatres and taverns and a hundred other places I would never see?
Master Scholar’s maps showed mermaids in vast oceans, dragons in deep forests. A girl could not fight a dragon. Would I ever even see a forest, or an ocean?