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An excerpt from 'The Dartington Bride'.
Sir Arthur Champernowne arrives in Ducey, but he comes alone

Spring 1571

In the month of May, as nodding bluebells carpeted our orchards, Sir Arthur Champernowne came to Ducey. He came alone.

I waited on the doorstep behind my parents as the red-faced Englishman dismounted and swaggered between the ranks of the soldiers Alain du Bois had drilled into a guard of honour.

‘But where is his son?’ I faltered, my voice no more than a breath. ‘Where is Gawen Champernowne? Where is the man I am to wed? The man I must serve till the end of my days?’

‘Hush,’ Maman hissed.

‘But, Maman! Can’t he even find the time to attend his own betrothal?’ My stomach was clenched into a ball and it was a struggle to keep my voice down. ‘Is it really to be a betrothal without a bridegroom?’

‘We still have a lot to discuss with Sir Arthur,’ Maman whispered over her shoulder. ‘Your father would have the wedding in England in the presence of the English queen.’

I choked back a little bark of laughter. I had always known that I would be bait in a trap to secure a wealthy husband who would bring lands and fortune to my family, or a military alliance to defeat our foes. That was the lot of all well-born girls. But my parents were setting a snare to catch bigger game, royal game. They hoped to use my marriage to the son of the Vice Admiral of the Fleet of the West to secure Queen Elizabeth’s support for the wars of religion in France.

I felt my fingernails digging into my palms and my throat hurt as I gulped down angry tears. But I had been well schooled from birth. As Sir Arthur reached the steps, kissed my mother’s hand and made his bow to me, I turned on my brightest smile. The corners of my mouth ached with the effort of it and inside I was seething. But I dipped a respectful curtsey and smiled sweetly as I raised my eyes to study the face of the man who might soon be my father-in-law.

In his youth Sir Arthur must have been a handsome man. A faint echo of the gorgeous Henry Champernowne lingered in what must once have been finely chiselled features and a head held high. His abundant brown hair, swept back from a lofty forehead, showed only a trace of grey near the ears. I was cheered to see a crinkled map of laughter lines around his eyes; he must be a man of generally good humour. But for all that I thought I could detect a hint of sorrow, something world-weary, in the striking blue eyes Sir Arthur fixed on me.

‘Mademoiselle Gabrielle,’ he said in excellent French. ‘The reports of your beauty hardly do you justice. My son will be a lucky man indeed to have you at his side.’ The look he gave me said more than the gallant, courtly remark. I knew I must accept it. This was the way of our world. A girl like me must expect to be appraised as if she was a prize mare.

I murmured the appropriate response then, on a whim, added ‘Sir! It would give me pleasure if you would call me Roberda, as my family do.’ Maman looked at me askance but Sir Arthur smiled and nodded.

I followed the party inside and the Englishman accepted a glass of Papa’s finest red wine. I stepped back and watched the show of bonhomie unfold. Sir Arthur Champernowne cut a fine figure, dressed to impress, throwing back his wine and laughing with Papa. I hid a little smile behind my hand. His fine black velvet doublet was strained across an ample girth. It was quite apparent that Sir Arthur Champernowne didn’t need to add much padding to achieve a stylish peascod belly.

My parents spared no expense. The tastiest dishes our kitchen could offer were served on silver platters. We drank fine wine from exquisite Venetian glassware. Gilles, Suzette and little Gabriel all appeared dressed in their best. Jacques and Gedeon, recalled to lend their presence to the festivities, talked about ships and arms and battles with Sir Arthur. When his nephew Henry was mentioned I saw a shadow cross Sir Arthur’s face.

Pierre accompanied me as I sang a French chanson. My protégé had moved on from the fife and was accomplished on many instruments, but especially the lute. A truly gifted musician, Pierre; you could tell he felt the music in his very soul. He ended our duet with a flourish of top notes and I looked up.

‘Bravo! Bravo!’ cried Sir Arthur, clapping his hands together. ‘That’s reminded me of happy times at the Court House in Modbury. My father kept a fine troop of musicians there. You sing well, mademoiselle, and the boy plays well. Perhaps, if your father will allow, he may come to England with you when you become Gawen’s wife? His music would be welcome in our hall at Dartington.’ Now that would be a fine thing, I thought, for I will have but few friendly faces about me in that foreign place.

As the evening shadows lengthened Sir Arthur was shown to the best chamber and I spent a fitful night full of fears for my future with the as-yet-unknown Gawen.

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