Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 53

  They were no longer laughing; if Philippe died, the repercussions would be felt throughout Christendom. Louis’s own health was said to be failing. If he died soon after his son, there could be a vicious struggle for his crown. His two sons-in-law, the Counts of Champagne and Blois, would be sure to make claims on behalf of their wives, his daughters with Eleanor, Marie and Alix. Some would look to Marguerite, too, even though she was a younger daughter, for there were bound to be French barons who would eagerly embrace the idea of having the easygoing, pleasure-loving Hal as their king, just as there were Poitevin lords who’d prefer Hal to his more martial brother, Richard.

  “Marie is the eldest, of course,” Willem said thoughtfully, “but that might not count for much, what with her husband now in the Holy Land. My money would be on Thibault of Blois…unless you seriously back your son and the Lady Marguerite, my liege.”

  Henry knew this was the question in all of their minds, but only Willem was bold enough to voice it. Thinking that Hal had yet to show he could rule one kingdom, much less two, he said, “You are getting the cart before the horse, Willem. Let’s not be so quick to bury Louis’s son. I said I’d heard from Louis as well as from my spy. He has been half out of his mind with fear.” Adding fairly, “As any father would be. But it seems that St Thomas came to him in a dream and told him that if he made a pilgrimage to Canterbury, Philippe would recover. Needless to say, when he suggested this to his council, they were greatly dismayed and dismissed it out of hand.”

  Henry’s smile was sardonic. “My spy tells me they lectured Louis that it would be utter madness to enter the lion’s den of his own free will. The lion, I suppose, is me, which might be considered a perverse sort of compliment. Be that as it may, Philippe’s condition continued to worsen, and Thomas paid Louis two more nightly visits. After the third dream, he did what he ought to have done from the first—found a king’s backbone and told his council that he meant to make a Canterbury pilgrimage, their misgivings be damned. And so he has written to me, earnestly entreating me to issue a safe conduct so that he may come to England and pray for St Thomas to spare his son.”

  There was a moment of astonished silence and, then, incredulous laughter. “For some reason,” Willem said dryly, “a verse of Scriptures comes to mind: He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it,” and Hamelin gleefully recited a proverb to the effect that revenge was a dish best eaten cold.

  Henry smiled. “I’ve always believed that the best way to deal with temptation was to yield to it. So it came as a surprise to discover that it is not actually that difficult to tell Satan to get behind me. An interesting lesson to learn so late in life, no?”

  Hamelin’s mouth dropped open. “Harry, surely you are not saying that you might give Louis a safe conduct!”

  “Yes, I am,” Henry said, and saw that Hamelin was not the only one to be gaping at him. He had not expected to have to defend his decision, but he said, with rare patience, “It is too easy to put myself into Louis’s shoes. If one of my sons were on his deathbed, I would bargain with Lucifer if I thought that would save him. It is not the French king that I am accommodating, Hamelin. It is a grieving father.”

  ON AUGUST22, Louis landed at Dover, where Henry was waiting to welcome him and to escort him to Canterbury. It was the first time that a French monarch had ever set foot on English soil.

  HENRY LED WILLEM into the cloisters of the cathedral. He’d sent Willem to France with the safe conduct, and this was the first time they’d had to talk since Willem had returned to England with Louis and the Count of Flanders. It was a beautiful evening, that twilight hour in which stars were just beginning to glimmer in the sky and the clouds still reflected the dying glow of the setting sun. Both men paused to breathe in the sweet clover-scented air, listening as a passing bell chimed somewhere in town, signaling that a parishioner had gone home to God. Henry came often to Canterbury in the years since he’d done penance at the archbishop’s tomb, and he was always surprised that this place, the scene of sacrilege and murder, could seem like such a peaceful haven, that the cathedral he’d entered in such despair and dread could now be soothing to his soul.

  “I am on a rescue mission,” he confided to Willem. “Louis’s physicians begged me to coax him into ending his penance. They fear that he may become ill himself if he passes a second night fasting and praying. I promised to do what I could, for it would be rather awkward if he were to die whilst he was an honored guest of the English Crown.”

  Willem agreed that Louis was too frail for severe mortification of the flesh, and for a moment, Henry remembered what he’d been told of Thomas Becket’s self-abasement in the last years of his life, baring his back thrice daily for scourging, wearing a lice-infested hairshirt and braies, spending hours on his knees or prone upon the stone floor as he offered up his prayers to the Almighty. Even now, five years after he and Thomas had made their peace in that shadowed, silent crypt, Henry found it difficult to reconcile the holy martyr with the worldly chancellor who’d been his friend.

  “Ere I go chasing after Louis,” he said, “there is something I want to discuss with you, Willem. I learned this morning that the Count of Aumale died on Monday.”

  It was never comforting to hear of the passing of a man who was close in age to them, and Willem instinctively sought to distance them from the dead count, saying, “He was not in the best of health, was he? I seem to recall that he was called Guillaume le Gros, at least behind his back!”

  “He was on the stout side,” Henry allowed. “But it is not his sin of gluttony I want to talk about. He had no son, and his estates will pass to his daughter, Hawise. It is my intention to give the girl to you, Willem.”

  Willem was rarely taken by surprise, but he was now. Kings were usually loath to give up the wardship of an heiress, for that gave them control of her revenues and eventual marriage. “I am honored by your trust in me. I will be greatly pleased to have the lass as my ward, will do right by her, you may be sure.”

  “I am not offering you her wardship, Willem. I am giving her to you in marriage,” Henry said, amused to see that he’d managed to render the courtly, urbane earl quite speechless for once.

  Willem was overwhelmed. As Earl of Essex, he need never have to beg his bread by the side of the road, but his was not the wealthiest of earldoms. Guillaume of Aumale had held extensive lands in Yorkshire and other shires as well as his estates in Normandy. Henry was offering him a great heiress as casually as if he were proffering a benefice to an improvident priest.

  “Harry! How can I ever thank you?”

  “I’m sure I’ll think of something,” Henry joked, before saying, quite seriously, “Kings are not denied much in this life. But their friendships are as scarce as hen’s teeth, which is one reason why we rely so often upon kinsmen—though that obviously has its drawbacks, too. I’ve been luckier than most, for I’ve had two men I could call ‘friend,’ you and Thomas.” Unable to resist teasing, “Let’s hope that our friendship ends better than mine and Thomas’s did.”

  They laughed and embraced, and Henry then went off in search of Louis, in good spirits, delighted to be able to reward Willem’s loyalty as lavishly as he deserved. Entering the Martyr’s Door into the choir, he descended the steps into the crypt. There he found the French king, prostrating himself upon the tiles before St Thomas’s tomb, attended by one of his physicians, the archbishop, the new prior, and several monks.

  As soon as Louis’s prayer was done, Prior Alan impressed Henry by taking the initiative. Coming forward before the French king could begin another invocation, he said quietly, “My liege, King Henry is here.”

  Louis glanced up, squinting in the dim light, and Henry was struck anew by how feeble he looked. Louis was twelve years his senior, which put him in his late fifties, but if Henry had not known that, he’d have assumed that the French king had easily reached his biblical three score years and ten. Even allowing for the stress of Philippe’s illness, Louis seemed to be carrying the we
ight of the world upon his stooped shoulders.

  Reaching out his hand, Henry helped the other man to rise. “You have been keeping this vigil since your arrival yesterday. For a day and a night now, you have done nothing but fast and pray. St Thomas will not take it amiss if you get a few hours sleep.”

  Louis would have demurred, but Henry did not give him the chance. “What did Thomas say to you in those dreams? I assume you remember?”

  “Of course I do! He said, ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ sends me as your servant, Thomas the Martyr of Canterbury, in order that you should go to Canterbury, if your son is to recover.’”

  “As I suspected. He said not a word about your sacrificing your life for your son’s. You’ll do Philippe no good by dying at Canterbury. If you’ll not rest for your own sake, do it for mine, Louis. Spare me the embarrassment of having to explain to the rest of Christendom that the first French king to visit English shores did not make it home alive.”

  Henry had long ago concluded that Louis did not have a humorous bone in his body. But the French king was still able to recognize humor in others, and he mustered up a wan smile. “You are right,” he admitted. “I am indeed bone-weary and in need of sleep.” Looking vastly relieved, his physician started toward him before he could change his mind. But he held up his hand, and slipping his arm in Henry’s, drew him aside. Henry did not resist, startled by how heavily Louis was leaning upon him for support.

  “You have been very kind, Harry. But I must impose upon your kindness by seeking yet another favor from you. I would ask that you add your prayers to mine, that you entreat the Blessed Martyr to save my son. St Thomas showed himself willing to perform a miracle on your behalf, so I think yours would be the voice he’d be most likely to heed.”

  Henry managed to keep his face impassive, and he would later consider that a remarkable accomplishment. “I will pray to St Thomas for your son,” he promised the French king, after taking a moment to savor the irony of Louis’s request, and watched, bemused, as the older man let his physician lead him from the crypt.

  Archbishop Richard and the others accompanied Louis, but one of the monks lingered behind. “Should you wish some time for private prayer, my liege?”

  “Yes, Brother Bertram, I would,” Henry confirmed, for this had become his practice upon his visits to Canterbury. He waited until the monk’s footsteps receded before walking over to the martyr’s tomb. “Well, I suppose you heard that, Thomas,” he said breezily, for that is what his talks with Thomas were, conversations rather than prayers. He’d discovered that he could unburden himself to the dead far easier than he could with the living. The Thomas he confided in was the friend he’d lost to the Church, somehow restored to him by his anguish in this crypt and the victory at Alnwick, a miracle so manifest that not even the French king could doubt it.

  “I hope that you’ll show mercy to Louis. If you could snatch a king and scatter a fleet, curing a skinny, skittish whelp like Philippe ought to be child’s play. And yes, Thomas, I daresay you’re marveling at how magnanimous I’ve become in my old age. You need not fret, for I have no yearning for sainthood, am not poaching in your woods.”

  Henry cocked his head, half listening for a response. “I admit it—my own interests are invested in Philippe’s recovery. Louis does not look as if he is long for this world, and I’d rather my son face a stripling like Philippe than Henri of Champagne or Thibault of Blois. Christ help him, Thomas, for either one of them would eat Hal alive.”

  There was a relief in being able to confess his doubts about his eldest’s capacity for kingship. In the past few years, he’d occasionally asked Thomas for guidance, entreated him to show Hal the way home, to restore the laughing, fair-haired lad of cherished memory, not the sullen, erratic stranger he’d become. But tonight his prayers were only for Philippe Capet, and he said softly, “I never thought I’d pity that fool on the French throne, Thomas. Fathers and sons…mayhap you were wise to choose the Church.”

  He paused then, for he’d caught the sound of sandals on the crypt stairs. “My lord king, may I approach?” Brother Bertram hovered in the doorway, loath to intrude upon his sovereign’s prayers. “Your son has just ridden in, my liege, and is asking to see you straightaway. Is it your wish that I send him down?”

  “Of course.” The monk retreated before Henry could ask the identity of this son, and as he waited, he entertained himself by trying to guess which one it might be. Not Johnny. Not Richard, either, for it would not even occur to him to ask for permission; he’d just sweep on into the crypt. Nor would Hal have sought permission. His innate good manners had succumbed to a more pressing need—to show the world that he was a king in deed as well as name, his father’s equal in all matters. So that left one of his Geoffreys, he concluded, and was pleased to be proven right a few moments later when Geoff came into view.

  “What a welcome surprise, Geoff! When did you get back to England?” Struck by a sudden ominous thought, he did not wait for his son’s reply. “You are not bringing word that Philippe has died?” And when Geoff shook his head, he sighed with relief. “Thank God for that. I do not see myself as craven, but I would not want to be the one to tell Louis that his son was dead.”

  “I came straight from Tours, did not even know Philippe was ailing until I landed at Southampton. It was good of you, Papa, to let the French king make this pilgrimage. When I think of all he did to turn your sons against you, I would not have been so generous.”

  “Not all of my sons, Geoff—not you,” Henry said fondly. But as he studied the young man, he felt a prickle of unease. “You may not be bearing sad tidings about Philippe, lad, but you’ve come to tell me something I’d rather not hear.”

  Geoff blinked. “How did you guess? Can you read my mind?”

  “No, but I can read your face. What is it, Geoff?”

  “My news is indeed sad, Papa. On August 9, the Bishop of Worcester died at Tours.”

  Henry sucked in his breath. “Roger? God in Heaven…” He turned aside as he fought to get his emotions under control, and then sat down heavily upon the closest seat, which happened to be the archbishop’s tomb. Geoff took an anxious step forward, remembering that St Thomas had punished a young boy for falling asleep against his shrine. But he decided then that the martyr was willing to allow his father liberties that he’d deny to other men, and came forward, dropping his hand to Henry’s shoulder in a mute gesture of comfort.

  “Tell me,” Henry said huskily, “how he died.”

  “The Archbishop of Tours was accompanying Roger to Rome for the Lateran Council, but he fell ill in Paris and had to turn back,” Geoff said dutifully, for he’d been rehearsing this speech since he left Tours. “Upon his return from Rome, Roger journeyed to Tours to see how the archbishop was faring. He became ill himself soon after his arrival and died at the abbey of Marmoutier not long afterward. He was buried with great honors in the abbey church of St Martin.”

  “One of the world’s bright lights has gone out,” Henry said, after a long silence. “My cousin was a good man and a brave one. He alone dared to tell me that I was not blameless for Thomas’s murder, for he was never intimidated by my temper or my rank.”

  “I remember your telling me of the time you and he quarreled on the road over Thomas and over Hal’s coronation. You said that when you shouted at him, he shouted right back, and when some of your courtiers sought to curry favor with you by denouncing him, you flew into a rage, saying ‘Do you think, you villains, that if I say what I please to my cousin, you and the rest can insult him?’ And you and Roger then rode off in perfect harmony.”

  Henry nodded. “I remember that day well. I remember, too, another time that we quarreled because of Thomas. He’d excommunicated my chancellor, Geoffrey Ridel, and of course that meant other Christians could not consort with him. When Roger encountered Ridel during Mass, he turned around and walked out. I was angry that he was heeding Thomas and not me. I lost my temper, Geoff, and ordered him from my domains.
Another man would have tried to make peace, to beg my pardon. Roger said his foot was already in the stirrup and stalked off. I soon calmed down and sent a messenger to recall him. But damned if he would come! It took three messages ere he’d deign to return and I had to make sure that Geoffrey Ridel did not come into his presence for the remainder of his stay.”

  Henry smiled sadly. “I often thought that it was a pity he’d not been my uncle Robert’s eldest son instead of his youngest, for he’d have made a far better Earl of Gloucester than that boneheaded William. But then, that would have been a great loss to the Church.”

  Henry had dropped his head into his hands. When he looked up, Geoff saw that his eyes were wet. “Did I ever tell you my favorite story about my cousin, lad? Roger was on his way to see me when he came upon two wretches being held outside under armed guard. He always had a cat’s curiosity and stopped to see what was happening. He was told that these men had gotten drunk in an Eastcheap tavern and uttered words insulting to the king. They had sobered up by now and were scared out of their wits. Roger told them to deny nothing, to admit what they’d said and plead for mercy.”

  Geoff had never heard this story, and he said, “What happened then?”

  Henry grinned. “They were brought before me and freely confessed that they’d called me ‘evil tempered’ and a ‘miser’ who wanted to tax Londoners of their last drop of blood. Whilst I was considering this, one of them added, ‘And that was nothing to what we would have said if the wine had not run out.’ Of course I laughed, and then sent them on their way. Roger later denied that he’d put words in their mouth, but that sounded so like him that I never believed it.”

  Geoff grinned, too. “That does sound like Cousin Roger,” he said, chiming in with a story of his own about the bishop’s dagger-sharp humor, and they stayed for a time in the cathedral crypt, mourning Roger the way he would have wanted—laughing through tears.