The Conqueror

by Georgette Heyer

Cover picture Raoul's words savoured enough of warning to whet Matilda's appetite for more. She presently became aware of him, and at a morning's hawking contrived that her palfrey should amble alongside big Verceray. She was sufficiently adroit to lead the talk into her chosen channels; after very little preamble she said with a faint smile: "Surely his friends, messire, would do well to advise the Duke to abandon his new quarry."

"Lady, the Duke is not advised," Raoul told her bluntly.

She sent him an appraising look up under her lashes. "He is besotted." She paused. "If I wed again the groom must be of birth as noble as mine own. I speak plainly because I perceive you to be very much in the Duke's confidence," she added, between haughtiness and the impulse of a girl panting to come at her goal.

He shook his head. Meeting her eyes he read something of her mind in them. He felt pity for her all at once, suspecting that she was torn between two passions, both great in her. "Lady, here is counsel," he said. "With respect I would say, do not use that weapon against my master. Your womanhood, your high estate would not then protect you from his anger."

She did not leave smiling; one would have thought the warning had almost set her purring.

"He is my liege lord, and dear to me," Raoul went on, "but I have come to know his temper. Lady, I must say God help you if you unleash the devil in Normandy."

He meant well, but blundered. Such talk make Matilda lick her lips. To unleash the devil in a man was an ambition very likely to appeal to her. Had he a devil? Eh, what woman could resist the temptation to see for herself?

At the end of a week the Duke withdrew to his own Frontier. From Eu he dispatched an embassage to Lille with formal proposals for Matilda's hand. The question of affinity went by the wind; not anything his councillors could say had the power to make him delay further. He chose Raoul for his envoy and would not by any means heed his gentle dissuasions. In desperation, Raoul said: "Beau sire, you will have Nay for an answer, and that is what you have not yet learned to take."

"Yea or nay, an answer I will have," William answered. "Heart of God, this siege has lasted over-long already! Go demand the keys of that citadel in my name!"

The embassage set forth upon the following day, and came in due course to Lille, where no doubt it was expected. The noble escort was received with all courtesy, and the envoys led in due season to Count Baldwin's audience chamber.

Montogoméri accompanied Raoul; both went richly dressed, and as solemn as befitted the occasion.

The audience chamber was filled by the Flemish nobles and councillors. At one end of the room the Count sat enthroned on a dais, with his lady beside him, and Matilda upon a stool at his left hand.

Raoul and Montogoméri came up the hall attended by their squires. They were accorded a suave welcome, but the Lady Matilda raised her meek eyelids for a moment and sent a straight look at Raoul that boded little good.

He came to his business at once, and recited the Duke's proposals to the silent Court.

He ceased, and a murmur rose, and died again. The Count stroked the miniver that edged his mantle, and spoke conventional phrases. He was sensible of the honour done his daughter, he said, but this was a question not to be decided without deliberation and good advice.

"The Duke my master, lord Count, believes you to have been aware of his mind these many days," Raoul said with a disarming smile.

The Count glanced towards his daughter. It was plain he was not at ease. He touched again on the problem of affinity, and seemed as though he would be glad to shelter behind it. Acting on his instructions Raoul pushed that barrier down.

"The Duke my master has very reasonable hopes, lord Count, that this hindrance may be overcome. It must be known to your puissance that the Prior of Bec is even now in Rome, and sends us comfortable tidings."

Count Baldwin thereupon embarked upon a speech of some length. The gist of it was that he would be pleased to ally his house with Normandy, but that his daughter, no longer a maiden to be disposed of at will, might feel some repugnance towards a second marriage, and must be allowed to give her own answer.

Perhaps only Raoul had an inkling of what she would say. Certainly the Count had none, nor his Countess, obviously taken by surprise.

The Lady Matilda rose slowly to her feet, and made a reverence to her father. Speaking in a cool, very audible voice, and with her hands clasped demurely together, she said, picking her words: "My liege and father, I thank you for your care of me. If it be your will that I should wed again be sure that I know my duty towards you, and will show myself obedient to your commands as befits my honour and yours." She paused. Watching her close, Raoul saw the smile lift the corners of her mouth, and was prepared for the worst. Veiling her eyes she said: "Yet let me beseech you, beau sire, that you will bestow my hand upon one whose birth can match with mine, and not, for the sake of our honour, permit the blood of a daughter of Flanders to mingle with that of one who is basely descended from a race of burghers." She ended as coolly as she had begun, and making a second reverence went back to her stool and sat down, looking at her hands.

A stricken silence hung heavily over the company. There were startled looks, and men wondered how the Norman envoys would stomach this insult. Montogoméri flushed, and took a step forward. "Rood of God, is this to be our answer?" he demanded.

Raoul intervened, addressing himself to Count Baldwin. "Lord Count, I dare not take such an answer back to my master," he said gravely. Surveying the Count's shocked face he came to the conclusion that the discourteous reply had been prepared without his knowledge. Curbing Montogoméri with a frown, he said: "My lord, I await Flander's reply to my master's proposals."

Count Baldwin availed himself of the loophole gratefully. He rose to his feet, and made the best of a bad business. "Messires," he said, "Flanders is sensible of honour done her, and if she is obliged to bestow our daughter in marriage on the Duke of Normandy, were it not for the repugnance the Lady Matilda feels towards a second marriage." So he began, and went on at length, smoothing away the insult. The envoys withdrew, one thoughtful, the other smouldering with indignation. What Count Baldwin said to his daughter is not known, but it is certain he sent for Raoul de Harcourt late that evening and was closeted with him alone for a full hour.

"By the Mass, Messire Raoul, this is a very ill business," the Count said, greatly perturbed.

"Pray God it may not be worse mended," agreed Raoul dryly.

This seemed poor consolation to a harassed man. "I call you to witness, messire, those discomfortable words were none of mine."

"Count," said Raoul smiling, "for my part I judge it best to forget what women say."

The Count was relieved, but Raoul added significantly: "There were others present beside myself, lord."

"Spine of God!" said the Count irritably, "there was never trouble yet but a woman made it!"

His daughter would no doubt have been flattered. Coming away from the Count's room presently Raoul stumbled against Matilda in the gallery. He put out his hand quickly to steady himself and her, and felt the throb of her pulse beating against his fingers. In the lantern light her face was no more than a pale blurred oval, but he could see the green flame of her eyes. He held her wrist still, and she suffered him. She spoke in a whisper, staring up at him. "Carry my message safe, messire, I charge you."

"God aid, I shall do my best to forget it," answered Raoul. He put his hand on her shoulder. "Were you mad, lady, to speak such words? Is this to deal nobly? Heart of a man, you have cut a weary road for yourself."

Low laughter broke from her, lacking mirth. "Let him know how I think of him. I am not for him."

Raoul let her go. He did not understand her, but it seemed to him that something more than hatred inspired her. "God send your laughter change not to tears," he said.

He would have passed on but she slipped in front of him. "Bear my message," she repeated.

"Lady, I wish you too well. What folly rides you? What do you look for?"

She clasped her hands round her neck. "Maybe I am too much a woman to know." Her hands fell away; she stretched them out to Raoul. "Tell him I am guarded yet!" There was a note of challenge in her voice; she looked anxiously into his face.

"Lady, are you so sure?"

The arrow was shot at random, but seemed to find a mark. She drew back, and he heard the hiss of her breath indrawn between her teeth. He went to his own quarters, wondering at her, and afraid of her.

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