The Elephants of Norwich
‘Elephants?’ she said in astonishment. ‘You brought elephants back to England?’
‘Yes, my lady. Two of them.’
‘Where did you find them?’
‘That‘s a secret,’ said the other with a quiet smile.
‘But I thought that you were visiting your estates in Normandy.’
‘My search took me further afield.’
‘For the two elephants,’ he explained. ‘When I set my heart on something, I’ll move heaven and earth until I possess it. That’s why I hunted them down with such patience. You’ll not see two such beasts in the entire kingdom. Those elephants will make a perfect wedding gift to my bride.’
Richard de Fontenel gave a confident grin. He was a big man in his forties with the build and rugged features of a soldier. Time had thickened his waist, thinned his hair and lent him a florid complexion but he could still be accounted a moderately handsome man. Ten years younger, the lady Adelaide had retained the beauty and poise that made her such a desirable prospect as a wife. The great wealth she had inherited from her late husband only served to intensify desire.
‘Nothing has been agreed, my lord,’ she reminded him.
‘I’m in no rush to make a decision.’
‘Wait until you see the elephants.’
‘Why should they make any difference?’
‘Because I got them for you, Adelaide.’
‘It’s a curious way to court a lady,’ she teased. ‘Tracking down two monsters in the hope that they may further your suit. To be honest, my lord, I had grave doubts that such things as elephants even existed. I’ve heard the tales, naturally, but I never met anyone who had actually laid eyes on the creatures. Since you have brought two of them to Norfolk, I shall be interested to see them, but I cannot promise that they’ll win me over.’
‘Elephants are, by report, large and dangerous. I’m more likely to be frightened by them than enamoured.’
His grin widened. ‘There’s no chance of that.’
‘How can you be so sure?’
‘Because I would never dream of doing anything to upset you,’ he said with rough courtesy. ‘I seek only to delight your senses. That’s why I went to such trouble to secure the elephants for you.’ He moved to the door. ‘I’ll have them brought in at once.’
‘Here?’ she gasped, suddenly afraid. ‘Are they not tethered and penned?’
‘No, my lady. They are tame enough to handle.’
Richard de Fontenel opened the door of the parlour and barked an order. When he turned round, he saw that his guest had withdrawn for safety to a corner of the room. Torn between curiosity and apprehension, the lady Adelaide waited in silence. Her host ran covetous eyes over the shapely body beneath the long blue gown. She looked even more entrancing than when he had taken ship for Normandy. Absence had increased his fondness for her and, he suspected, melted away some of her reservations about him. She was finally within his reach. The wedding gift would remove any lingering doubts she might have.
There was a tap on the door, then Hermer, the steward, came in with a wooden platter in his hands. Silken cloth covered some objects on the dish. A short, stout individual in his thirties, Hermer had the cautious look of a man who walked in fear of his master. He stood beside de Fontenel.
The guest was mystified. ‘Where are the elephants?’ she asked.
‘Waiting for you,’ said her host, indicating the platter.
‘Is this some kind of jest, my lord?’
‘Far from it. Lift the cloth and see for yourself.’
‘I expected two vast animals.’
‘These are not live elephants, my lady.’
‘But you led me to believe that they were.’
‘I did nothing of the kind,’ he said, beckoning her over with a crooked finger. ‘I would never offer a fragrant lady like you such foulsmelling pets as a pair of elephants. These creatures are designed to excite and allure.’
The lady Adelaide crossed slowly towards him and looked down at the platter. Taking the edge of the cloth between thumb and forefinger, she pulled it tentatively away to reveal two objects that made her gape in wonderment. They were miniature elephants, made from solid gold and standing four inches in height. Affixed to the top of each head was a small crucifix. Richard de Fontenel picked one of the gleaming animals up and handed it to her. She was entranced. Its sheer weight gave her some idea of its value but it was the craftsmanship that really appealed to her and she ran her fingers gently over the smooth contours. Never having seen an elephant in the flesh, she could not tell how accurate a representation the miniature was, but the large head, long trunk and curved tusks held a thrilling novelty for her. And she was not just being offered a piece of treasure. The crucifix gave each object a religious significance.
It was impossible not to be touched. She looked up at de Fontenel.
‘You brought these back for me, my lord?’ she said with gratitude.
He gave a nod, took the elephant from her and put it back on the platter. When the two animals were covered once more with the cloth, Hermer went out of the room, but not before he shot a sly glance of admiration at the lady Adelaide. She was sad to see the miniature animals go. The tips of her fingers were still tingling from the touch of the gold. The very sight of the objects had stirred something akin to lust in her, but possession came at a price.
‘Well?’ said de Fontenel, searching her eyes.
‘They’re exquisite, my lord.’
‘An exquisite gift for an exquisite lady.’
‘That remains to be seen.’
‘Did you not like them?’
‘I adored them,’ she confessed, ‘but then you knew that I would.’
‘I’m well aware of your tastes,’ he said softly. ‘I’ve studied them long enough. I seek to please you in every way, Adelaide. Precious as they are, those elephants are only a means to an end that is far more precious to me. I’ve offered you my hand already but I do so again now,’ he continued, extending a palm towards her. ‘I think that I’m entitled to an answer from you.’
‘You’ll get one, my lord,’ she said, politely ignoring his hand.
‘In due course.’
‘You’ve been saying that for months.’
‘Marriage is not something into which I’ll enter lightly.’
‘You were swift enough to wed Geoffrey Molyneux.’
‘That was different,’ she said with a note of reprimand in her voice. ‘I was young and inexperienced in the ways of the world. I was also very much in love with my husband. I still grieve over Geoffrey’s untimely death.’
‘So do I, Adelaide,’ he assured her. ‘So do I.’
‘Were he still alive, you could not buy me with a hundred gold elephants.’
He feigned indignation. ‘There is no sense of purchase here, I swear it. No amount of money could attract such a wife. I offer you love and devotion, not riches and finery. You already have those in abundance. What you don’t have — and what you need — is a husband who will cherish you.’
‘The lord Mauger said the selfsame words.’
‘Mauger is a fool!’ he retorted.
‘He offers me everything that you do, my lord.’
‘Including two gold elephants?’
‘No,’ she conceded. ‘He lacks the imagination to find such a gift.’
‘That’s not all that he lacks,’ said the other, still bristling. ‘Let’s put Mauger aside for the moment. He has no place in this discussion. Unless, that is,’ he added, arching an inquisitive eyebrow, ‘some promise was given during my absence?’
‘Not by me, my lord.’
‘Mauger has been rejected?’
‘Neither rejected nor accepted. I’ve still to make up my mind.’
‘Does my wedding gift carry no weight at all?’
‘Then why do you hesitate?’
‘Because it’s my privilege to do so.’