An Old Chest
~ 1351 ~
There in the gloom of the second cellar, I found an old chest, covered with dust. I came upon it in innocence, for I had gone down there with cause, a bride taking stock of her new domain. Inside was nothing save a piece of old linen, but the cloth was still in good condition. Perfectly usable.
Seeing that it could be made into aprons for the scullery maids, who were in need, there having been no mistress in this castle these long years, I carried it up to the great hall and spread it out. Leaving it there, I went in search of someone to cut it. I had not yet mastered the names of my new Ladies, who were in no hurry to take me as their mistress, and not a one of them was anywhere to be found.
Finally, from the loggia, I saw them, like giant flowers in the meadow. Lady Blanche, who clearly had no favor toward me – she was one of the many here who had been in service to Lady de Toucy, Geoffrey’s first wife – had taken them all out there across the drawbridge to walk on this lovely, warm, late October day. Blanche, my darling Geoffrey had explained to me, had been head nurse at Lady de Toucy’s birth, and then later, her chief Lady-in-waiting. Indeed, since the death of Lady de Toucy – eight years now – with Lord de Charney often away, Blanche had clearly come to believe that she was the Lady of Pierre-Perthuis Castle.
She called me not Lady de Charney, as was my rightful due, but Lady Montfort, a mere visitor here. Blanche always spoke of Geoffrey’s first wife as “Mistress,” as if Lady de Toucy would appear at any moment, the keys to the castle stores dangling at her waist. I was determined to find the courage to speak to Blanche in private about this and request that she call me Lady de Charney. Or at least Lady Jeanne.
Finding no one to help me with the cloth, I returned to the great hall. There stood my husband, holding up a fold of the cloth with two fingers of his right hand. Not hearing me come into the room, Geoffrey began folding the cloth most carefully, as if it were the Shroud of Our Dear Lord Himself. Yes, it was cut as a shroud, I knew that, but good linen is good linen, and we were not so well off here at Pierre-Perthuis, nor in all of France, since the Pestilence, and the endless battles with England on French soil, that we could afford to ignore thrift.
I stood still, watching, as my husband finished gathering up the cloth. Without a word, he headed down the stairs. Knowing where he was going, I took a candle in each hand and followed him.
When he reached the cellar doors, Geoffrey finally realized that I was behind him. Bending to kiss my forehead, he then pushed the creaking doors open. “No one,” he said, “has business down here.” Then, seeing the chest gaping open, the lock dangling loose, his voice turned strange, almost strangled. “What is this? The lock has been broken off? Who has done this deed? Tell me, my dear, who carried this cloth up to you?”
“No one, Sire. I carried it up in my own hands.”
“You?” Geoffrey was standing there in the dim light, holding the linen cloth in his hands, shaking his head, with a look that I had not seen before, as the candles’ flames cast an eerie light over his face. “Jeanne, how could you have done such a thing?”
“What, Sir?” I challenged him, trying to make him smile. “Am I not allowed to open old chests here in my new home?”
I knew that I could speak to him in so bold a manner because Geoffrey loved me in the way that the new-wed have. With me, Geoffrey was so unlike the fearsome Knight in armor, as the English knew him. Unlike the stern mentor to Kings, as King John and the great French Lords knew him. And unlike the brilliant writer of books about Chivalry and battle, as the Knights knew him. We ourselves, not the pages, were the ones who stood at the drawbridge mid-mornings, giving out beer and leftover bread to the beggars. Then we would race our horses into the meadow, laughing like wanton children, and fall into the high grass in each other’s arms.
Afterwards, I would weave a chaplet of flowers. Geoffrey hated to take off his beret, but I would pull it off, and put the garland around his shining head. How handsome he looked, crowned with flowers. How young. We would take a basket of cheese and bread, grapes and wine, and in his raspy voice, Geoffrey would sing me the newest songs of the troubadours, not about battles, not about King John and his fearsome cousin, the Black Prince of England, not even about King John’s son-in-law, Charles of Navarre (that thorn in France’s side), but about love. Who would believe that this valiant Knight was such a lover at heart?
Such was my new husband, so I knew that this shroud that I had found must be of great importance when he spoke to me in such grave words, saying, “You broke the lock?”
In spite of my racing heart at the sternness of his voice, I raised my chin, for I knew that this was what Geoffrey loved in me, my high spirit. “I have done no such thing, Good Sir,” I said, tossing my head. “Look, the lock has quite rusted away. I had only to touch it and it fell off all on its own.”
Bending down, examining the lock, he saw that I was right, but Geoffrey did not apologize for his misspeaking, which brought a rush of blood to my cheeks. All he said was, “I must have a new chest made.”
“A new chest? Is this cloth so important?”
Not answering me, he placed the cloth back in the dark recesses of the chest as gently as if it were a newborn child. Closing the heavy lid, he sat down firmly upon the top, almost as if to keep me from trying to open it again. “This must be kept here, safely hidden, and it is not something to be talked about, Jeanne.”
I was of such an inquisitive nature – it was one of my confessed faults – that I had to know what was so worrisome about this piece of cloth. “I surely shall not speak of it, but will you tell me why it must be kept here in secret?”
With the candles burning ever lower, Geoffrey put his finger to my lips, warning me, “If such words are heard, it could mean trouble.”
“Trouble? For whom?”
Geoffrey leaned forward, rubbing his hands over his bald head. I had already learned that he did this when he was trying to clear his mind. Finally, he said, “Not in all these long years have ever I spoken of this, Jeanne.”