I was roused before dawn. Servants clattered up the stairs with pails of hot water, followed by others carrying Monsieur Simon’s heavy tub. I was told to strip, to wash carefully and dress in the sombre clothes Monsieur Simon had brought: blue hose, soft leather boots from Spain, linen undergarments, a dark blue gown with a waistband which had a concealed fold for a dagger and a ring for my hand.
‘A gift,’ Monsieur Simon explained.
Finally a heavy dark brown cloak fastened round the neck with a silver clasp. Monsieur Simon also provided a money belt with little pouches sewn along the edge, each crammed with silver coins.
‘I would like to say this is also a gift from me.’ He shook his head. ‘The wealth was your uncle’s. You have it now. I can give you nothing else. Remember you are Mathilde de Clairebon, distamt kinsman of Monsieur Simon de Vitry. Look,’ he urged, coming up close and peering up at me, ‘I’ve studied you, Mathilde. You have a ready ear and a quick tongue!’ He smiled. ‘Your knowledge of physic, herbs and potions is truly remarkable. Your uncle aslo told me you know Italian, you can speak the Norman French of the court; it’s only a matter of time before you study English, learn their customs, adopt their ways.’
‘What will I be?’
‘What the Princess Isabella decides. You will be introduced as a demoiselle de chambre.’
What we have here is, in effect, the first volume of a life of Mathilde of Westminster, most sought-after physician in London during the years when Princess Isabella of France reigned supreme in England, first as Edward’s Queen and then as Queen and Regent with Mortimer at her side.
Like Isabella, Mathilde was French – the niece of a senior French Knight Templar. After the destruction of the Templars, when everyone remotely associated with the Order was in hiding, an old friend of Mathilde’s uncle found her a place (it was where he thought she would be safest!) right in the heart of the palace of King Philip himself. She became a lady-in-waiting to Princess Isabella.
It was as such, and by now Isabella’s only confidante, that she accompanied her to London.
But murders and assassinations were occurring all around them with ominous regularity. Who was carrying them out – or more to the point, who was ordering them? Was it Philip, in France? Was it Edward, now Isabella’s husband, in England – Edward, who loved to pretend and for whom nothing was as it seemed? And what part was Peter (Piers) Gaveston playing in all this?
This is Doherty at his best, on a character – Isabella – who seems to have fascinated him all his life. The last time he touched on her, in A Tapestry of Murders, it was to deal with her death as an old woman living under house-arrest in Norfolk. Now, though, he has given himself much more scope: at the end of this book the pieces are set out on the board but play has not yet really begun.
It is noteworthy, too, that in this book, Doherty takes on (for the first time, so far as I know) the role of the female protagonist, writing in the First Person as Mathilde. It is something I myself have done (and am still doing) myself in my Mariana de la Mar books, where I have found it both limiting and liberating: he does it superbly.