Flight From Terror
Never will King Louis or the Church of State allow the Huguenot to inherit a dukedom! With ambitious eyes lusting for his future inheritance, pretense of conversion will not save him. The gen d’armes have a network closing in. He must escape the country—leaving everything he knows behind forever!
*Contains scenes not appropriate for those under the age of 18.
The South of France — 1625
It was as if the infant in Isabeau Charte’s womb had some premonition of the monstrous things to come. It rolled, gained leverage and gave a kick that sent percussive waves to the inner backbone of its mother. Isabeau awoke and her eyes popped open as she moved to adjust the child in her belly. The cozy bedchamber was bathed brightly in stark moonlight.
Outside the casement windows of the neatly kept two-story stone dwelling, their little hamlet was quiet and still. Inside she only heard the soft snoring of her husband Paul, retired Captain of the King’s Regiment. She smiled. Many wives complained of their husband’s snoring but to her it was a lullaby reassuring her that he was home now for the rest of their lives. He had given twenty-five years in service to his king, more than enough. The prime of his youth, the best years of his manhood gladly sacrificed to follow the call of duty and fealty to his sovereign. Surely no one, not king nor God, could ask for more.
Isabeau moved restlessly in the warm featherbed and slowly stroked her belly. This child Paul would know from its very birth, this one they would share the memories of together, and this one would be the blessing of their old age. And if their eldest was already stretching toward his adulthood, at least the others would share some of their childhood years with their revered father.
Was that a sound she heard between Paul’s breaths?
Isabeau adjusted her position again and threw the coverlet off. The miracle of another child filled her with such ebullient joy but it also made her very warm. She had been concerned that she had grown too old to conceive again. Auguste was already seventeen and studying in La Rochelle. Doubtless, in a few more years they would be grandparents but God had given her another chance to have the daughter for which she longed. Not that she would love the babe any less if she had another son, she quickly assured both the child and the Almighty; as long as the babe was healthy, that was the only truly important thing.
She and Paul had been granted four healthy sons over the years despite the lengthy separations they had endured. Each one was a special source of fierce pride. Gabriel, their active fifteen year old wanted to be a soldier like his pa-pa; Lucien, her musician of ten played the violino like an angel at services each Sunday; little Pierre, almost seven, was always about some fanciful mischief but was so gifted in his letters that it was impossible to be harsh with him. And, of course, Auguste, their eldest, their first born, may God keep him from all harm in his stay away from home; he was a serious student.
The faint sound grew louder than Paul’s breathing but was not as yet identifiable.
She listened intently. The moment she realized it was the sound of horse hooves, she felt fingers of fear grip her heart and constrict her chest. Auguste! Something had happened! A messenger. No! She strained to hear. It was more than one horse. It was beginning to sound like a stampede of the animals and it had set distant dogs to barking.
“Paul,” she shook her husband. “Paul, awake, awake! Someone comes! Something must be wrong!”
Paul Charte was instantly alert. Years of discipline allowed him to shake sleep from himself like one shakes dewdrops from a fresh head of cabbage. His attention was already focused and assessing as he bound from the bed in the singular unstopped movement of a man half his age. He was at the slightly opened window just as a half dozen horsemen reined to a halt on the cobblestones below.
“Paul Charte!” a sonorous voice called out amidst the clatter of iron clad horse hooves. From each point of the compass, watchdogs could be heard barking in the distance adding to the dissonance.
“Who in the devil..?” Paul breathed low, his eyes narrowing on the riders.
“Is this the house of Captain Paul Charte?”
By then two of the riders had dismounted and were pounding vigorously upon the thick oak door below.
“What is it you want?” Paul called back in a level guarded tone from the window overhead. “Do you seek to wake the dead?”
“We seek Captain Paul Charte,” a voice replied.
“I am he, so you have found me. Now lower your voices before you awake the entire village.” Paul spoke authoritatively. He was a man used to commanding others.
“Paul Charte…?” “Is it him?” “There … see him..?” “I see him.”
“If you are Captain Charte, come out immediately!” The continued clatter of restless hooves on cobblestones combined with the horses snorting wind and the loud voices created a raucous din shattering the stillness of only brief minutes before.
“In the name of God, keep your voices down,” Paul replied at the window. “Not a captain any longer. What is it you want?”
“We must speak with you on the king’s business!” another voice came back in no quieter a tone.
“I will come out; one moment. But lower your voices or my neighbors will have my head tomorrow.” Paul gestured and turned back into the chamber almost bumping into Isabeau.
“Who are they?” she asked sucking in her breath.
“Isabeau,” Paul’s hand grazed her shoulder and gently took her arm. “Get back into bed, my dearest. I will go and find out what these noisemakers want.” His voice was soothing.
“You do not think… Auguste…?”
“No. No-no, they sound like soldiers. Doubtless it has something to do with my old command. They just cannot accept that I have no obligations to the military any longer,” he sighed. “My resignation was accepted. I am a free man. Soldiers forget their manners and the civilities of normal life. These clods forget they are no longer in a barracks encampment.”
“Paul Charte, come down in the name of the King,” a voice from outside demanded again.
“Come, now… to bed, to bed,” Paul coaxed his wife. “I must go down before they awaken everyone in the entire valley… if they have not done so already.” And with that, the retired captain left his wife and to the beat of fists pounding upon his front door, he descended the stairs to the hall below. More concerned with stopping the commotion than with ceremony, he was still barefooted and clad only in his nightshirt. Moonlight flooding in from the high windows made navigation easy within the darkened home. He caught sight of Joseph, their aged servant, coming from the back of the house with a candle.
“Master… I am sorry…” the old man shuffled stiffly, his arthritic hips and knees paining him. “I move as quickly as the Lord makes possible…”
“Never mind, Joseph, go back to your warm bed, I will take care of this,” Paul assured the white-haired old man. But the elderly retainer did not turn back. Instead, he continued slowly onward holding the candle up for light, following his master. Distracted, Paul was at the front door of his home within seconds and throwing off the crossbeam. “Has no one among you any sense of decorum? Someone is going to hear about this outrageous…” he began gruffly as he pulled open the heavy front door and stepped out to face his unwanted and noisy visitors.
Almost immediately he found himself seized by each arm. “Wh… what is the meaning of this? Unhand me at once!” he demanded in a voice of such authority that the youngest and least experienced member of the group almost released his left arm. The more seasoned and sadistic fellow on Paul’s right chose to respond by rendering a blow to his head with the butt of a pistol. The assault caught Paul completely by surprise so used was he to the respect and discipline of his regiment. He staggered, momentarily dazed, and struggled to keep his footing.
Joseph moved feebly to his master’s defense but was easily knocked aside. He fell, the candle flying out upon the stones, its small flame expiring. One of the men kicked out viciously at the fallen servant and landed such a fierce blow to his head that Joseph remained senselessly still.
“You have no protectors now, heretic!” The dark man still on horseback spat out the last word with venom.
Paul heard something in that voice that triggered a memory, an unpleasant recollection floating just beyond his grasp as his head began to throb. He stiffened as a name came to him. “Trebideau? Trebideau is that you, you bastard son of a syphilitic whore? What ill wind has brought you to my doorstep? Step down from that horse and face me like a man; do not hide in the shadows like a mangy cur!”
“The fine Huguenot ex-captain is no longer in a position to give orders,” the voice sneered. “And I come to repay old debts.”
“How dare you come to my house and in the middle of the night, pretending business for the Crown. You got exactly what you deserved and I would do it again. You were never officer material. Go back to whatever hole has been hiding you.”
“Enough! You are no longer protected by your commission from the king. You are a fool, Charte. Do you not realize that when you resigned, you became just another ordinary heretic? Your entire family could disappear and no one will even care.”
“You leave my family out of this!” Paul strained against his captors’ hold on him.
“I think we have a nest of heretics here,” the ominous voice stated calmly, “but I am a reasonable man. Do you wish to abjure your heretic ways, Charte?”
“What? Have you found your like among the priests, Trebideau?” Paul asked in disgust.
“In the name of the king and the Holy Roman Church, I ask you publicly if you wish to abjure?” Trebideau demanded, raising his voice.
Paul spit toward the rider. “That is all you will get from me!”
Trebideau nodded and the four men standing around Paul began to strike him.
Isabeau was watching the altercation from the window above.
“Stop! Please stop! Mercy! For the love of God!” She screamed out and left the bedchamber as quickly as her swollen girth allowed. Surely she could move these men to pity, she thought wildly as she made her way down the staircase. She could hear rapid thuds and strangled groans, the sounds of a merciless beating. As able as her husband was, he was only one against many. Who were these devils? What had they to do with her Paul? She must beg for his life before it is too late.
“Ma-ma?” It was fifteen year old Gabriel, his fair blond hair tousled from sleep. “What is it, Ma-ma? What is happening?”
“Je ne sais pas, I know not,” she gasped not stopping to look back at the youth. “Stay inside and mind your brothers.” As she raced to the door, she saw beyond the threshold to the white of Paul’s nightshirt covering a crumpled mass upon the courtyard stones while four men continued to rain heavy blows downward with the butts of their muskets. The leader remained calmly seated upon his horse and the sixth man held tightly to the reins of the nervous animals disturbed by the unmistakable iron smell of fresh blood.
“Stop! Stop, I beg you!” Isabeau screamed out again, panic destroying her self-control. By the light of the moon she could see black spots spreading all over the pale nightshirt and she knew with a sickening certainty that it was her husband’s blood. “Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu! What have you done?! Paul? Paul?” She fell on her knees beside her husband’s form and spoke toward the apparent leader who was still on horseback. “Have mercy… please, mercy, I beg of you.”
“Close your mouth, slut!”
Isabeau felt a rough hand jerk her back to her feet. “Only one thing her kind is good for…” her assailant looked toward the seated rider. Perceiving a nod of consent, he rent the thin linen shift down the front exposing Isabeau’s heavy breasts and swollen belly.
“The bitch is breeding!” exclaimed another as the moonlight reflected off her protruding abdomen.
“Just what we need. Another Huguenot bastard on the way!” a contemptuous voice came from behind as her arms were restrained to arrest her flaying nails. She felt other iron-hard hands pull her around. She was surrounded with nowhere to go and she could not move.
“We can soon fix that,” said the first, looking to the dark triangle below her belly, “but before we do, she can do us a service, think you not?”
Isabeau felt herself being half pushed and half carried down onto the small flower bed. She was on the ground, her shift ripped completely asunder, weight falling on her. There was a scream. Had it come from her? She felt the pricking of flower stems upon her neck, her back, her skin registered the cool of the ground, the damp of dew. The distinctive almost astringent smell of marigolds replaced the heavy smell of blood in her nostrils. She struggled for leverage. Her hands had lost all feeling so tightly were her wrists being squeezed as someone held them high, pulling her shoulders upward. The skin of her legs burned as the flesh was twisted in a steely grip against her struggles. She tried to resist but she could not. She did not have the strength and she thought of her baby. Better to lose her honor than their child. She gave up suddenly and let her legs be spread wide. She tried to look to Paul. Her anxiety and fears blocking all sensation of the penetration taking place below. She could catch only glimpses of him and he lay so deathly still. Isabeau closed her eyes against the moonlight and her shame, tears streaming from her eyes. Please dear God, Lord Christ, please, let it be over soon.
“Ma-ma?!’ Gabriel’s cry brought her back to her surroundings.
“Go back…” she cried out to warn him but it was too late. The brave child, armed with his father’s saber, rushed to her rescue only to have his arm sliced from his body in a movement so swift he did not realize what had happened until he tripped upon his own limb lying upon the ground at his feet. Briefly, he felt the warmth of his blood as it drained down his side. In shock, the lad’s large gray eyes grew larger as he looked to his severed limb, the fingers of his hand still wrapped tightly around the saber’s handle as it lay on the pavement in front of him. He could still feel the saber in his hand but he could not move it. He fell to the ground in a swoon where he was left to die, his life ebbing from him in gushing spurts timed to the beat of his heart.
Isabeau closed her eyes again. She blocked out all thoughts of Gabriel, all thoughts of Paul, all thoughts of the rape. A primal sense of self-preservation came over her as she thought only of her unborn child; she must protect this new life. She must submit and survive for its sake. It was the one thought to which she could still cling.
Excited by the violence and dry friction of her body, the man grunting over her made an early end of it as he gave out a gut-wrenching groan. The next was upon her, laughing as she squirmed to push his weight off her belly. The child was kicking erratically as though it also was trying to rid its mother of her attackers. Isabeau stifled her sobs and let the second stranger enter her without a struggle, his way made slick by the emissions of the first.
“The bitch is starting to enjoy it!” he gritted out then lapsed into a rhythmic grunting as he took his pleasure. “Who is next?” he invited when he finally withdrew and grabbed at his breeches to hoist them. Isabeau did not even try to move as the third took up his position in a failing effort to prove his manhood to his companions. He grunted in pretense, his flesh grown soft, and finished his charade in a matter of seconds.
“There, that is what they are good for,” he said with heightened braggadocio, quickly moving off. “Now you, Galère.”
“No names!” snapped one of the group.
“Sorry…” the third responded instantly.
“Now, the Huguenot slut knows my name,” growled the one called Galère. “Oh, well, no matter,” he grinned and grabbing Isabeau’s thick, silken hair he wrenched back her head and sliced her throat from ear to ear.
Isabeau felt a burn as though the blade was hot and then the soothing warmth of her own blood. Her breathing sounded like winds whistling in a cavern. I am going to die, she thought with acceptance. And with that knowledge she grew calm. It was a better world they would find with the Lord. Paul, you must wait for me, she tried to say but the words never came out and black folded in on her consciousness before she could hear the next words.
“Get the whelps inside,” ordered the leader from his horse. “There are three more.”
Immediately four soldiers went into the house seeking the other children. After a ransacking hunt through the premises, the two younger boys were found cowering under a bed in the attic, an old nurse standing a feeble guard.
“Step aside old woman!”
“No-no! Leave the babies alone!” she cried, “May God curse your wicked sou…” A powerful fist halted her speech and she was knocked to the floor. The swipe of a saber ensured she would never rise again.
Beneath the bed, Lucien and Pierre clung so tightly to each other that it took only one saber thrust to pierce both their hearts.
As the marauding group reassembled outside, some quiet had returned to the scene.
“Did you find them all?” asked Trebideau in a low voice.
“Only two, plus this one,” Galère said, kicking at the fallen boy.
“I want all four!” Trebideau snarled in frustration. “I want his bloodline wiped out forever! Where are the servants?”
“Dead,” came a proud reply.
“Idiot! The dead cannot be questioned,” seethed the leader.
“I will give you a fourth,” Galère responded and with gorilla-like movements he reached down and slit Isabeau’s belly open like he was gutting a fish. He ripped out the infant nestled inside. Holding up the wet and perfect little body in one hand, he laughed as it twitched and trembled. Spying a garden stake near the wall, he spiked the child upon it and drove the stake into the small patch of earth at Isabeau’s head. The last death throes caused the stake to quiver in the air. “A bouquet!” Galère laughed coarsely and wiped his bloodied hands on a strip of Isabeau’s torn shift. He hoped Trebideau was pleased.
“Heretic swine,” Trebideau looked down upon the body of Charte. “Make certain he is dead.”
The youngest hovered over the body, then drove his sword directly into the fallen man’s chest. “He is dead.”
“I am satisfied,” Trebideau said after several long moments of consideration. “Let us go.”
They lost no time in mounting their animals and urging them back the way they had come. Again, there was the clatter of twelve pairs of iron hooves hitting the cobblestones until they hit the dirt road leaving the village. The dogs renewed the intensity of their barking. The sound lasted a long time as the retreating horsemen faded off into the distance.
They were gone and the last echoes vanished with them.
Nothing stirred, nothing moved, and the dogs again grew quiet. There was only an occasional bark now.
The cold and emotionless moon continued to light the scene. In black and gray starkness the bodies, which only minutes before had been animated with living souls, now were but empty bloody husks of discarded flesh and bone without breath, without life, the blood growing cold as it mingled with the earth.
After several long minutes, the shutters of the window on the house to the right opened very cautiously. Then the second story window of the house on the left opened slowly. Across the road a door swung open. And another. A door down the way. Slowly the neighbors emerged and, carrying lanterns, they cautiously approached the grim gray scene of carnage in front of the Charte home. They were shocked into utter silence, floating as ghosts around the grisly tableau until one woman burst out weeping.
Paul and Isabeau had been such fine people voices whispered, good neighbors, a lovely family. God-loving, Christ-loving people. A model family. They were martyrs now, gone to receive their rewards in a better life. And could not any one of them expect the same if they were not extremely careful, the voices continued to murmur? The authorities would do nothing. The murder of a Huguenot was no murder at all. It was merely an extermination. The children? What of the children? Such good-looking, polite children. Such innocents. They saw the infant suspended on the stake and several became sick, falling to their knees and retching violently. An elderly woman pulled the little body free and wrapped it in her shawl before her own tears blinded her. It was a girl, the daughter Isabeau Charte had wanted so badly.
They were living in murderous times but none could recall having seen such obscene and brutal cruelty before. This went beyond sanity. The work of madmen, they told each other.
Madame Isabeau’s mutilated body was horrifying to behold; someone covered it hastily with a blanket but the expression upon her finely featured face was one of incomprehensible peace.
The cobblestones were sticky and slick with blood. What was left of Captain Charte was beyond recognition. Gabriel’s fingers were gently pried from the saber hilt and his arm tenderly placed with his young body. Only old Joseph was found to still be breathing but very weakly.
What of the other children?
Soon their bodies were also found. Shrouds were quickly made. The bodies were covered. A cart was brought. They must be buried in all haste, secretly, so the authorities could not defile their graves.
As dawn was about to break, a quiet gathering was bowed in prayer over the new grave at the edge of a clearing in the forest. The pastor gave a final blessing and urged everyone to hurry home before daylight came. The family had been laid to rest together, the site would remain unmarked.
“Someone must go to New Rochelle and take the news to Auguste,” the pastor said half to himself as he led the way back to the hamlet. “He has family, I believe, in the north. He must go there and never come back here again.” Various sounds of agreement riffled through those within hearing.
“I will carry the unhappy tidings myself,” the pastor said with resignation, closing his lips tightly against the unpleasantness of his task. There were times, God forgive him, when deep in his heart he would much rather take up a saber against these foes than pray for their souls’ forgiveness. He would sooner see their souls burn in Hell.
Almost immediately the pastor felt a tide of shame wash over him. Forgive me, Lord. That is wrong. You have called me to be a shepherd to these people, not an avenging angel. If you could forgive all that was done unto you, how can I not do the same in your name? But strengthen my resolve, I pray, for it is so hard to turn the other cheek when I see your faithful children so terribly abused.
Northern France – 1684
The old man sat in a sturdy chair upon which wheels had been attached for easier mobility. His silk dressing gown, old and showing wear, enveloped his shrinking figure. With the addition of a shawl draped over his fragile shoulders, his small gray head resembled that of a turtle trying to emerge from its shell. Another shawl laid across his lap and bony legs as he basked in the warmth of the summer sunshine. A young man sat attentively on a bench near him listening to stories he had heard many times before.
“It was open season on Huguenots,” the elder went on, his thin voice raspy with age. “It had been so ever since Good King Henry’s wedding when the soldiers and the Roman Catholic clergy decided to slaughter all the unarmed Huguenots who had come to Paris for the occasion. We know it now as the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and that viperous daughter of Satan was behind it, that Medici woman! Within a week thousands of them died just in the city alone. Henri Quatre himself escaped by making promises to convert to Catholicism.”
“I know, Grand-père… ‘Paris is worth a Mass’ is that not what he said?” nodded the younger man stretching his well-shaped legs out in front of him. He marveled that his grandfather could stand to wear so many layers of clothing and shawls while sitting in the heat of the sun. As for himself, Jacques-Jean had left his waistcoat and cassock indoors and was enjoying the warm breezes in the informal comfort of just his linen shirt and breeches.
“You have no idea what it was like in those days,” the old man said almost as an accusation. “Over 100,000 Protestants were killed within a week,” he wheezed slightly. “One week! Men, women, children all fell in heaps before the mobs and the bloodthirsty troops. No one in their grasp was spared. Bodies were left tangled within the corners of public buildings, corpses sprawled on stairways. The rivers were so filled with the carnage that for months, no one would eat the fish. In the valley of the Loire, wolves would come down from the hills to feed upon the decaying flesh of our countrymen. And small massacres continued on and on, through the countryside wherever might had the advantage over the defenseless.”
“Oui-oui, Grand-père, but that was so long ago and since Good King Henry signed the Edict of Nantes, all Huguenots have had the same protections as any Catholic citizen of France. The slaughters have ended, it is long over.” Jacques-Jean knew his grandfather had not even been born when the War of Religions had started although it had continued through many years of his childhood.
The old man looked sharply at his grandson. “Not so long ago,” he waggled a finger just barely visible from within a huge cuff. “Not so long ago. Forget not my sainted mother and father, your great-grandparents, Jacques-Jean. They were part of the ongoing slaughter… as were my three brothers and my poor unborn sister.”
Jacques-Jean’s handsome young face grew more sober. “Oui, Grand-père,” he nodded respectfully.
“I hope some day to meet her in Paradise… my sister,” the old man muttered softly.
“Do you think she will have grown up?”
The old man looked at his grandson and smiled indulgently. “Do the ancient writings not tell us the Lord God created all souls at the same time? That means all souls are the same age, we just wait to serve our time on earth and just as our Lord came as an innocent babe, we all must come as innocent babes, remembering nothing of what was before… but would God in His mercy allow us to remain in the form of inept babes through all eternity?”
Jacques-Jean said nothing; deep thoughts on religion seemed an elder person’s sphere. His grandfather had grown silent. The young man could only guess what thoughts were running through the old man’s mind.
“Private vengeance was often the main motive,” Auguste spoke out suddenly. “No one can convince me that battle-hardened soldiers give much thought to what church their comrade attends or if he attends. No. It was a convenient way to exact revenge and take from your neighbor that which you envied and for which you lusted.” The old man coughed and took a swallow of wine from the glass setting upon a small table to his side. “I will never forget the day our village pasteur arrived at my school. He had set upon the journey as soon as he had laid my family to rest and he requested a private room where we could talk. No one else knew exactly why he had come.
“He tried to spare me the gory details but I would not believe him. I could not believe him. My entire family gone?! Wiped out in a single, random evening? Not from the plague mind you, which might be considered the will of God but by human hands? Who could believe such a thing? It was beyond my comprehension.” The old man paused again. For some moments he was lost in his own memories.
“I thought it was the most tasteless of macabre jokes. For a moment I thought I must be dreaming and at any second I would awake from the nightmare. Finally, he told me how my unborn sister had been wrenched from my mother’s womb to be impaled upon a garden stake and at last I knew it had to be true.” The elder man shook his head slowly, a tear glistening in the corner of his eye. “No one could say such a thing, no one could dream such a thing… unless it was true.”
“It is beyond words,” nodded his grandson who never failed to be moved by the story but whose compassion also saw the events as being so distant in time that they had little relevance to his life for he was only nineteen and sixty years was many lifetimes ago in his mind.
Jacques-Jean enjoyed visiting his grandfather but wished the old man would not dwell so on the horrors of the past. They were brutal times, of this there was no doubt, but it was ancient history. Now, the 17th century was rapidly hurtling toward an end and they lived in a different age. A new modern century was advancing toward them. Philosophies were changing. New worlds beckoned the adventurous. Advances were being made in medicine and science. It all made the times of his grandfather’s youth seem very ancient and barbaric indeed. What purpose was served in dredging up old memories of horrors one could do nothing about? It only served to foment continuing personal upset. Better to forgive and forget as the Bible taught and enjoy life, was it not? Louis XIV was king now and it was an enlightened era filled with gaiety and pleasures.
“Oui-oui… beyond words,” the old man nodded an echo, his wrinkled face reflecting all the old anguish. “Only two short years after I left La Rochelle, Richelieu and Louis XIII had the town besieged. They starved out half the Huguenot population. Half! While the other half dined on rats and dogs… even their own flesh! It is an irony to me that because of my family’s tragic misfortune, I escaped it all.”
Jacques-Jean said nothing.
“I have lived my life knowing I live because my family was murdered and because I live your mother was born and because she lives you were born. Think on that, boy. Think on the debts we owe the past. You exist because your great-grandparents were murdered!”
Jacques-Jean was not certain what he thought of that. Perhaps it was true, but might not his grandfather have been one who survived eating dogs or rats in La Rochelle? Might he not have escaped to the north anyway? Might not he have still met his wife… oh, what good was wandering down such odd paths of thinking? Was it not the kind of twisted reasoning that had Italian families stabbing each other in alleyways for generations?
“Grand-père, you are letting it upset you again,” the young man cautioned. He sat quietly and politely as his grandfather lapsed into another melancholic, ruminating silence.
Auguste Charte had been a youth on the cusp of manhood when his family had been obliterated. With the hot blood of youth, he had desired above all else to seek revenge but cooler minds had prevailed in sending him to his father’s brother in the northern part of France where his father’s enemies could not find him. It also got him away from those who advocated open rebellion. And in truth, had he not been grateful in the end? It was against his bookish nature to wield a sword. He had no skill in fighting. He was good with a ledger not a pistol. It was his brother Gabriel who had been born to be a soldier, a fighter, a warrior. If Gabriel had been a little older, had escaped the murderous visit, Gabriel would have exacted revenge for the family, Auguste had no doubt of that.
Instead, Auguste accepted his fate and was educated to be an estate clerk. In time he lived a respectable and rather protected life at the behest of the Duc du Pouvoir. But even now, in his secret heart of hearts, Auguste thought himself a very unworthy son and brother; a shameful coward for never seeking out his family’s slayers and avenging their brutal deaths. The rancor he bore his family’s murderers was well deserved but as he saw his end approaching he wondered. Did he not have just as much rancor for himself?
“Jacques-Jean,” Auguste said suddenly with a strange sense of urgency, “it is not over. I worry for your mother. She is alone. She will have no one to seek protection from when I am no longer here. There are rumblings if you know how to listen. Like the gathering of the clouds at the horizon before the winds send the storm to encompass you. I worry for you, too, my boy. Be warned, be warned. It is not over and you are all that is left to carry on our bloodline. Our king has become too insulated and too ill advised. His mistress wants the blood of every Huguenot. The enemy is creeping, creeping to the door.”
“Grand-père, you worry too much,” Jacques-Jean said soothingly and gave his grandfather a very charming smile full of positive youthful optimism. “Nothing is going to happen, and never fear, upon my honor I shall always watch over ma mère.”
A few days later Auguste died quietly in his bed and Jacques-Jean was forever grateful that he had made the time to visit when he did. He would miss the old man, the only father figure around when Jacques-Jean had been a small child.
A shaft of sunlight made its way passed the window’s edge and streaked into the upper chamber of the small cottage; it hit Jacques-Jean in the eye as he lay in a troubled sleep in his mistress’ bed. The peace of the French countryside, streaked with its watercolor pastels of spring, was deceptive as the unseasonable heat was incongruently oppressive but it was the sound of the pigeons, restless in their nest under the eaves, which had broken into the young gentleman’s dreams. He jerked awake and, upon opening his eyes, immediately blinked as an involuntary scowl marked his handsome face. His pounding heart found relief in the realization that he was awake, that he had only been dreaming.
He quickly moved out of the sunbeam’s reach and threw off the limp linen sheet with irritation. Now that his pulse had slowed and his breathing had steadied he was infused with a vague anger at being overly warm. He felt stifled, smothered. No wonder he was sweating so profusely. It was small wonder he was having bad dreams, he told himself. It had hardly been a refreshing slumber and that realization made him frown again.
The dream… he could not remember it anymore, it had flown out of his grasp and retreated into the darkness that belongs to the land of slumber. It had been nothing but fantasy, he was certain. But the pigeons were real enough, shifting and fluttering and making deep throaty noises in soft tremulous coos. He focused his irritation on them.
Had he not told Bertrell to clean out that filthy nest so close to the bedchamber window? One could not open the window for a simple breath of air without contending with feathers and noises and bird droppings. It was disgusting. His mood was not improving as he recalled that he had, in fact, specifically told the dim-witted servant just that. He was sure of it. He remembered the oaf had grunted and shuffled away. Shuffled like a sack of meal that had grown legs. Why Celimene persisted in keeping that worthless dullard around was beyond reason.
With his right hand he pushed golden curls from his face. Stray hairs clung to his sweaty brow and caught on the soft stubble which had appeared on his jaw overnight. He gave a habitual and absentminded stroke to his small, silky moustache. It was still early in the day but already the air had a heavy, moist, tangible feeling. It was much too hot for a healthy spring, everyone said so.
As the young man purposefully stretched his athletic body trying to rid it of the residue of tension created by his dream, his skin and chest hair glistened with a thin layer of perspiration. Well formed muscles, supple and smooth, moved beneath taut skin. The muscles purposely tensed more tightly, bunched and relaxed. The light snoring of his mistress stopped as she stirred beside him with a tiny sigh. He looked over at her and all remaining irritation melted away.
Masses of chestnut curls tumbled about her pretty head and spilled over her pillows. Her mouth, generous to a fault, had a hint of a smile as though she was dreaming of something amusing. He knew the teeth behind those full lips were straight, white, and well spaced. Even at seventeen it was a wonder to possess as perfect a set of teeth as hers. In all his twenty years he could remember seeing no other woman with a smile to compare to his beautiful Celimene. But that was only one of her treasures.
He smiled to himself as his gaze dropped to her flawless breasts exposed in perfect symmetry above the sheet. What magnificent creatures, women, he thought indulgently. Incredibly soft, infinitely tender, one delightful curve after another, yet certainly capable of a peculiar tensile strength that defied visible explanation. They tasted at once sweet and salty. They could look so cool yet contain such molten heat. Appearing frail enough to be crushed under a single blow and evoking the lenient consideration due their fragile forms, yet they could beguile, hypnotize and mesmerize a mighty giant or cut a man to the quick with one well-placed withering glance.
He chuckled aloud. It was already too warm to think of strenuous activity and he was hungry. As if in response to this thought, his belly echoed a rumbling growl. He sat up and gingerly swung his legs over the edge of the bed. The air had a mildly cooling effect as perspiration evaporated from his warm body. He went to the dressing screen and took aim at the slops pail housed there.
“Celimene, ma fleur de cœur,” he called out in a rich resonating voice, “come my heart’s flower, it is time to rise and fetch me something to eat.” The smell of fresh urine rose up from the slops pail to mingle with the other aromas in the small bedchamber. Through the partially opened window drifted the musky, earthy scents of the neighboring farm animals laced with the subtle but unmistakable fragrance of spring grasses. The cheerful little flowers blooming at the window box added their own sweetness to mingle with the rather pungent inner smells of human living: sweat, sex, and alcohol.
Taking a deep breath he sucked his lungs full to capacity and stretched his body once again before grabbing a towel resting on the washstand. He dipped it quickly in the washbasin as he poured water from the pitcher and rubbed vigorously over his torso, neck, and under his arms. Feeling refreshed, he padded barefooted over the waxed planking of the floor back to the bedside.
“Celimene, my sleepy one, get up, get up. I am going to die of hunger and who will you bring into your bed to replace me, huh? Have you grown tired of me so quickly?” His voice held the trace of a good-natured chuckle and he pulled the sheet completely from the bed and watched Celimene respond by turning and burying her head under the pillows. He eyed her plump bottom and gave it a playful smack at which she turned back, took a long languid stretch and smiled.
“Bon jour, ma chérie,” he said with a little grin as she opened her eyes to him. Celimene, her dark blue eyes only half open, stretched her arms out and waited for him to fill her embrace.
“Never, never will I grow tired of you,” she murmured in his ear as he bent over her and kissed her soft fresh cheek.
“You are truly the most adorable of treasures but if I die of starvation how will I ever be able to show you again how much I do adore you?”
“Oh, JJ, you are impossible,” she sighed, her fingers tracing lightly over his muscled back and down over the now crisp hairs of his arm. “How can you be so hungry for mere food? It is early still.” Her voice was a throaty whisper. The warm morning air had a decidedly different effect upon the young woman and it was not food she was craving. Undulating her hips with intended provocation, she looked at him invitingly. Her gaze traveled from his smiling face to his chest. With growing overt sensuality, her eyes took on the attitude of a caress so palpable he could almost physically feel her touch run over his abdominal muscles until eventually she was boldly gazing upon his prominent male appendage. She took a long moment to look upon him appreciatively, watching him visibly react. She reached out her practiced hand to stroke him teasingly, lightly but persistently.
“Woman, how brazen you are!” A feigned expression of shock played over his lean, well-proportioned face, his gray eyes now reflecting her playful mood. “It is broad daylight!” He pretended to be scandalized. “Have you no shame?! No modesty?! God and all His creatures are watching you!”
“Perhaps that makes it even better, no?” she giggled softly as she watched him continue to react, swell, rise, and harden under her touch.
“You are a witch,” he sighed, then took in a sudden gasp of air. “I had no other thought but to feed my hollow belly.” His arched brows knit in mock surrender. “You are insatiable, ma chérie, and I am very glad that you are mine.”
Slowly her legs parted in a familiar invitation as she arched upward, reaching out to wrap her arms around him and draw him down over her as her legs made him her prisoner. Jacques-Jean had, for the moment, forgotten completely both his empty stomach and the heat.
It was close to eleven o’clock when the young man finally bid good-day to his amorous young mistress still rosy from their lovemaking and now contentedly curled up in sleepy repose amidst the tangled sprawl of bedding. He smiled as he pulled on his boots, draped his jabot around his neck, and jammed on his hat. She had every reason to be exhausted, he thought to himself with more than a hint of self-satisfaction. Taking his waistcoat and rapier filled scabbard in one hand, he gave the well rounded bottom presenting itself to him a final pat before exiting the room.
He slipped on his sleeveless waistcoat as he tread lightly down the stairs and fastened on his sword belt, freeing his hands. Scrounging cold chicken from the larder, he grabbed a breast in one hand and took a hunk of day-old bread in the other. It would have to do he shrugged and began to eat without sitting down.
He strode out of the cottage, chewing as he went to the barn. Bertrell was nowhere to be found. Of course! Jacques-Jean would have to saddle his own horse. The food disappeared at amazing speed, verifying his famished state. When the last scrap of chicken was in his mouth, he tossed the bones aside and paused briefly to wipe his hands and mouth fastidiously with his handkerchief. Stroking his moustache to assure himself no remnant crumbs clung to the hairs, he set about preparing his horse.
Leaving the cozy, low roofed little cottage behind, he headed toward the village on a narrow dusty road. He had no pressing business but still a gentleman must make it a point to keep himself informed. These were changing times they lived in.
What was the future to bring, he pondered? From beneath his hat he squinted slightly in the light of the full radiant sun. The sky was absolutely cloudless and a dazzling deep blue, but the breeze was not enough to move the tree limbs already heavy with their leaves. The birds hidden within those leaves gave out a cacophony of chatter that lent itself to the impression that their number was in the hundreds as the young rider and horse trotted undaunted beneath them.
Jacques-Jean continued in his thoughts. He was a gentleman by birth but with little to no means. Fate had dealt him a sad hand, he sighed while still retaining a smile. It was not self-pity, just realistic assessment. To be the bastard son of a duke could be quite respectable, if one was the first son, bastard or not, or the only son, but to be the third bastard son of a man who already had legitimate sons was to be… nothing.
At that moment his glance fell upon a peasant in a nearby field occupied in planting the prepared soil, back bent in weary toil, bare arms as brown as the earth itself with a wet kerchief upon his head to deflect the sun’s heat. The young aristocratic offspring reconsidered from beneath the broad brim of his plumed hat. Well, almost nothing, he corrected himself, although admittedly blood ties to nobility no matter from which side of the blanket did give a certain advantage in social standing.
The former Duc du Pouvoir, had found much pleasure and amusement with the lively eyed and intelligent young daughter of his resident clerk and stores keeper, Auguste Charte. The duke had been in his late fifties, recently widowed and disconcertingly faced with a strong sense of his own mortality. It had pleased him to settle down and begin taking his confessions and penance seriously, and to be faithful to just one mistress. He chose the modest and reverent girl who had a soft laugh, haunting beauty, and a gift for appreciating the simple things in country life. When her baby was born, the old man was properly proud and basked in the admiration of his peers that he should yet father such a fair son, fat cheeked, strong limbed, and glowing pink with perfect health.
Perhaps because she never asked anything of him, the aging duke favored the young madonna with the provision of a modestly adequate pension in his will and the endowment of a sturdy little cottage of her own. And so, when he died somewhat suddenly of heart failure two months after Jacques-Jean’s third birthday, mother and child were not in poor circumstances.
Jean-Andre, legitimate and first born son of the old man, inherited the estates. He was a self-absorbed and spoilt young fellow bent toward tyranny and cruelty. Fortunately for all who were dependent upon the ducal lands, the new duke did not live long. After a drunken and sadistic tirade on the village one night, Jean-Andre met a fitting end when his horse threw him over a sty and landed him head first into a pile of sheep dung. He well might have survived if directly beneath the dung had not lay a sizable formation of solid rock. Two days later the new duke was dead, never having regained consciousness.
And so the ducal title passed to the next legitimate son, Jean-Philippe, a thoughtful and serious fellow who valued books and paintings more than the amusements of wine, women, and song. The new young duke had an honest regard for the lands which had unexpectedly become his duty to manage just as it had become his obligation to look after and provide for all the people who made their living on those lands. It was a heavy and sobering responsibility to fall upon the slight shoulders of a callow youth only just out of his teens. And there had seemed to Jacques-Jean to always be an aura of sadness about the young duke. Jean-Philippe was only twenty when the estates passed to him but, of course, to the very small boy, the new duke had seemed quite old. Old enough to be his father, as old as his own mother, although, Jacques-Jean mused, his mother would never seem old to him.
The present Duc du Pouvoir, however, had always appeared almost elderly. It was perhaps his stoop, or the slow careful way he always did everything. The conservative rather antiquated cut of his clothing certainly added to the illusion. And then there was his quiet pensive manner, more suited to a monk than a young lord.
Duke Jean-Philippe had always demonstrated an appropriate amount of respect toward Jacques-Jean’s mother. He had nodded his head in acknowledgment of her when, by chance, they met at the festivals or in passing through the village on market day. And in time, he had paid a personal visit to her tidy cottage. Jacques-Jean remembered that day well.
The duke arrived on a dapple gray horse rigged out with a magnificently hand-tooled, black Spanish leather saddle trimmed in the most intricately wrought silver. Jacques-Jean was a boy of twelve at the time and very impressed by such things.
He remembered his mother flushing pink from the edge of her modest neckline to the roots of the hair above her smooth forehead as she received her unexpected guest although his manner was meant to put her at ease. The duke had gestured for her to be seated; then, he himself had sat lightly on the edge of the damask covered couch in her small salon. Jacques-Jean had stood close to his mother; he recalled her faint scent. She always smelled like summer flowers.
“Madame,” the twenty-nine year old duke had begun after clearing his throat. “Your young son is growing up very quickly and I have come to ask your permission to give my half-brother a place at my table.” The words had come out slowly with deliberate care. “As the son of my father and the grandson of my esteemed clerk, I wish to see him educated as a gentleman. It is fitting that he should not be ignorant…”
“Pardonnez-moi! Monsieur le Duc,” his mother had dared to interrupt while her face turned very pink again. “Jacques-Jean already knows how to read as well as write. I, myself, though only a woman, have taught him as I was taught by my own ma-ma.”
“Forgive me, Madame Charte, of course, I meant no insult,” he had said most earnestly, looking strangely uncomfortable but quite handsome in his dark blue velvet knee breeches and matching jerkin. “Please excuse my regrettable choice of words. I only meant it is fitting he should learn more advanced studies,” he paused for a moment. “Latin, philosophy, also… fencing and hunting. I know your father has been unwell for some time and I would consider it a favor if you would grant me the privilege of contributing to your son’s education.”
There was, for one brief moment, a look that passed over the duke’s face that the boy had not understood. Yet, it made an impression on him. Even today, as Jacques-Jean rode relaxed, letting the horse set its own pace, he remembered that look. It had said the duke really meant it when he said it would be “a favor” to him. And so Jacques-Jean had moved into the chateau.
For the most part it had been a very happy time. The duke had no children of his own, although a match had been made for him soon after his elder brother had died. Gossip said his wife had brought forth one stillborn child and since, had remained barren. Jacques-Jean ate at the duke’s table, took lessons with the sons of the estate’s more highly esteemed employees, and had private lessons of his own in fencing and dancing. The duke himself took the young lad riding and hunting. Jacques-Jean never felt his half-brother much enjoyed those ventures. Later, the youth realized it was the hunting itself that the pensive nobleman had no taste for, yet he made a point to go out anyway. Why? Just to spend time with his half-brother was Jacques-Jean’s only answer, to set an example and to lend encouragement in the acquisition of such skills.
Duke Jean-Philippe was really a very kind and unselfish man, Jacques-Jean concluded, something of a rarity within the titled nobility of France. Perhaps a rarity within the nobility of any country, he pondered. And the youth grew quite proud of his quietly studious half-brother.
As the years went by, Jacques-Jean visited his mother and grandfather often but it had become different. He no longer felt that his mother’s cottage was his home. The chateau had become his home and his mother’s house was where he was now the guest.
There was only one point on which Jacques-Jean did not blend into the ducal household. His mother had raised him from the cradle in Calvinistic Protestantism, reading the Bible for himself, rejecting the graven images and papal rule of the Roman Catholic Church, and thus, he could not accept his half-brother’s religion. Jean-Philippe respected the young lad’s choice and Jacques-Jean had not been required to attend mass with the rest of the household. Instead, he went always to services in the village, sitting next to his mother in the pew-box his grandfather’s uncle had established for the family, and enjoying the warmth of her appreciative smile.
Now, at the age of twenty in this spring of the year 1685, Jacques-Jean was in all ways the portrait of a young country gentleman. His blond curls and clear gray eyes were a masculine copy of his mother and his slightly arched aristocratic nose showed a marked likeness to his father’s side of the family. He had the easy graces and manner of a young lord. He hunted well, fenced with an engaging style, and carried himself with an air of noblesse oblige that made him appear much taller than his actual height which was average. And it was with this self-controlled yet aloofness of carriage that he now dismounted from his horse and entered the local tavern.
It was dark and cool within the small stone building. Jacques-Jean paused for a moment just inside the doorway to allow his eyes time to adjust to the dimmer light. The brilliance of the outdoors was now reduced to only a few shafts of light sneaking through the small windows in the thick stone walls.
“Jacques-Jean, mon ami, over here,” he heard a voice call out to him. The voice was familiar and he moved toward it, slowly at first. As his eyes adapted to the dimness he could see more clearly the table in the corner where three young men sat over glasses of wine. Two he recognized as his close friends, but the third fellow sitting between them was not familiar to him.
“Come, come, sit, sit, we have been expecting you for some time. We had almost given up hope. That enchanting mistress of yours must have had you chained to the bedpost, eh?” The deep raucous laughter unmistakably identified the speaker as Richard Bonchance, Jacques-Jean’s closest friend. He was an angular young man, obviously the tallest of the group but lacking the easy grace of movement possessed by his best friend. “Ahh-ha, we should all have jailers such as she, my friends,” he grinned as he turned his dark, bushy head to the other two, “she could turn a stay in the Bastille into paradise, eh, Jacques?”
“I come when I want, I go when I want” Jacques-Jean replied with a slow easy shrug, smiling a bit smugly at the envy Celimene could invoke from other men. “The significant point is… when do I want, eh?” He added with good humor as he took hold of the empty chair thrust toward him. He acknowledged the others with a nod, then he turned to speak directly to Richard. “Besides, what are you talking about? The sun has not yet reached its zenith!”
“At least for another moment or two you can say that,” Richard bantered back, then he gestured to the stocky, clean shaven young stranger seated beside him. “Let me introduce you to Denis Dufee, whom I have just learned will soon be taking marriage vows with my little cousin, Madeleine Mouri, which makes him my cousin now as well. As small children, we all played together each summer when Denis came to the country with his mother to visit. Denis, this escapee from the bedchamber is my closest friend, Jacques-Jean Charte.”
Dufee stood. He was dressed very conservatively like a mercantile man. His simple linen shirt was devoid of lace but had a linen band tied neatly about his throat and his sleeveless tunic and pantaloons were of brown jersey. His hair was cut close to his head at the sides while the back was tied snugly with a brown ribbon at the nape of his neck. The two young men exchanged respectful bows of greeting, then both were re-seated.
“Denis has just come from Paris,” Richard continued more quietly, “everything is astir there it would seem. Go on, Denis, continue. Jacques-Jean is to be as trusted as I.”
Dufee spoke softly. “There really is not that much more to say. In appearance all is quiet. The Court abandoned the Louvre several years ago when Louis moved all the nobles to Versailles. One hears nothing coming out of Versailles. Of course, being at le Académie des Sciences is very much being in a world apart. We stick to the Latin quarter and read Plato and argue the theories of Descartes and Pascal; we discuss the Englishman Newton’s work. We are not particularly concerned with politics… or religion. But at night in the taverns there is talk. Rumors spread through the shadows like steam coming off boiling water. Who knows how they start or where they come from but is there ever smoke without a fire? Can there be steam without heat? Some say we will see another St. Bartholomew’s Day,” he said. “Some say it will be worse. That it will stretch far into the provinces. That there will be many arrested, imprisoned. Lands seized. Le Roi Soleil is choosing to look the other way while the cry goes out to eradicate the Huguenots.” Dufee’s voice had dropped to little more than a whisper.
“Our king may look the other way but can anyone believe these things happen without his approval?” The question was posed by the fourth young man whose rich if well-worn costume betrayed his noble standing. Thomas du Vaille, second son of the third highest ranking nobleman in the province, was a Catholic by birth. His loyal friendship with the others had bridged the gap of common prejudices.
“How could they?” he answered his own question. “The Edict of Nantes established by his grandfather promises tolerance. But Louis promises nothing; he wants all France to be united in one religion. On the one hand, he promotes reason and logic, the tolerance of artistic freedom, and the international exchange of ideas, but the Church… there is a much different point of view, n’est-ce pas? It never accepted the Edict. And no matter which side you speak for, the other will passionately despise you. Louis needs money and the Church is inclined to be very generous… if it gets its own way. But our king wants the affection of his people, as well. So, he makes it difficult to tell where he stands.”
“Louis stands only for Louis,” Richard added darkly.
“Hush,” Dufee spoke quickly, glancing around. “Men have gone to the Bastille and the gallows for far less than such words,” he cautioned. Nervously looking about again he decided to say something positive in case anyone was eavesdropping. “We cannot forget that there is much going on in our country that is very good. Louis has made us world leaders. A nation to be respected and reckoned with. Look how his policies in the New World have expanded our holdings. The trading companies had such a narrow view. Believe me, I know. And look how all the courts of Europe try to imitate us and our beloved sovereign. Their courts all speak our language; they all seek our knowledge…”
“They all receive our countrymen who have fled for their lives!” Du Vaille interrupted. The passion of the moment was quickly set aside as Marie, the little serving wench, approached the foursome.
“M’lord, I bring you a goblet… is there anything else you would like?” the young girl asked with a smile that uncovered a slightly chipped tooth. She leaned in closely, setting the pewter goblet in front of Jacques-Jean; she draped her arm easily across his chair back. Her sweat-stained linen blouse opened so widely at the neckline that it served as little more than sleeves while the soiled kerchief around her grime-streaked neck had twisted askew, exposing a good deal of her young breasts thrust up by her corselet. Unabashedly, she stroked back a few strings of greasy hair and coyly tucked them up under her cap. Not knowing her actual birthday, the girl marked the years with the calendar and had only recently passed her fourteenth new year. But she, like many, had been forced to grow up too quickly.
“I require nothing more at the moment, but merci,” Jacques-Jean replied politely and with a wink gave her a small coin. It was understood that since the wine was already paid for, the coin was for her alone to do with as she wished.
“Merci, m’lord,” she cried out softly with delighted appreciation mixed with affection for the familiar young gallant; then, she left the group to their discussion.
Like any temperate Frenchman, Jacques-Jean would never think of drinking plain water unless he wanted an ague. However, Jacques-Jean Charte was not a drunkard. He drank his wine well-watered at breakfast, usually well-watered at lunch, and enjoyed it in the evening at full strength but chiefly in moderation. When he did get drunk, which was rare, it was with purposeful intent. Now he poured wine and water into his goblet.
For a time, the four young men sat silently around the heavy black oak table, each deep in his thoughts. It was growing busier in the tavern as more travelers stopped in for some respite from the mid-day heat. Marie’s coarse childish laughter could be heard as she bantered with a couple of soldiers sitting on the far side of the room.
“I fear for us, my friends,” Richard finally spoke quietly. “It is not healthy these days to be a Huguenot.”
Du Vaille nodded sympathetically.
Jacques-Jean gave Richard a smile. At the moment, his friend reminded him of his departed grandfather. “Richard, you worry too much,” he responded calmly, stroking his small moustache. “Have you forgotten the true objective of the Church leaders? They cannot line their coffers with the small allowance of a bastard son. You have nothing of value, mon ami, you are quite safe. I have nothing of value and so, I am safe as well. Even the cottage of my mistress is owned by my half-brother and ours to enjoy through his generosity alone. To arrest us and confiscate our horses would hardly be worth the Church Council’s time.”
Du Vaille snorted in humorless agreement.
“And what of your mother?” persisted Richard.
“Ah, ma mère,” Jacques-Jean said carefully, mindful that women who are to be respected were not openly discussed in a public tavern with too much familiarity. “A beautiful and charming lady, is she not? But quite penniless. Her home, in fact, belongs to le duc’s estates and shall revert back upon her death. Her pension, although adequate for her needs, comes again from the cash box of le duc. She received only a small monetary inheritance when my grandfather died and she has no other assets. I think my mother is quite safe as well,” he concluded with a small smile of ironic acceptance as he lifted his goblet to his lips.
“My family, on the other hand,” said Dufee very seriously, “does have something to lose and the threat is very real.”
“I have told Richard,” du Vaille said thoughtfully, “it would be better for us if we were to try our luck in the New World. What have we here, I ask you?” He looked pointedly at Richard and Jacques-Jean.
“You have position here,” offered Jacques-Jean.
“Let us be very honest,” du Vaille quirked a dark brow. “My brother Arnaud is healthy and young and has already sired two healthy sons. When our father dies, may God keep and preserve him,” he added quickly, crossing himself, “the family holdings go to Arnaud who shall pass them on to his oldest son. And so, what of me? My prospects are so poor despite my family name I cannot even make a decent match for marriage!”
“It is true, it is true” grunted Richard morosely, “that is the way of it. There is not enough land to be had. Our forefathers fought for their sovereign and received gratuitous land grants. Our great-grandfathers received divided portions, and now, everyone fights to keep what is his intact. And I, like you, bon ami,” he nodded toward Jacques-Jean, a note of bitterness creeping into his voice, “am a noble bastard. What real prospects do we have in this stale and used up place? We have been educated to have the tastes of our betters who never will let us forget they are our betters.”
“There are many untried opportunities in the New World,” spoke Dufee with soft encouragement. “A man with nothing can go there and become a veritable prince.”
“Oh, oui, it is that easy?” Jacques-Jean asked with gracious humor masking his sarcasm.
“Not easy,” Dufee responded quite seriously, “many have also died for trying. But it is possible. I have heard so many stories…”
“Ah, stories!” Jacques-Jean interrupted with an exaggerated sigh, more polite than a scoff. “Mon ami, one can always hear stories. The Spaniards, hah… they thought they would find cities built of gold and silver. Easily amassing fortunes beyond their wildest dreams.”
“And so they did in the southern Americas,” put in du Vaille.
“But not in the northern America,” continued Jacques-Jean.“And Ponce de Léon? He hunted for the fountain of youth and disappeared for his efforts.” He poured himself more wine and added water.
“But the English were more pragmatic,” Dufee continued undeterred, “they sought land for farming and raising families. They set down roots. Now, since they have gained the New Netherlands from the Dutch, the English own the majority of the accessible eastern coast of the northern continent. I speak not of fortune hunters, mes amies, but the real fortune to be had that comes from owning land and trading goods. England’s James II was just crowned a few weeks ago and I heard that in his address he encouraged colonization in the New World.
“My father now owns three ships that do nothing but go back and forth across the ocean to the New World and he is in the process of building a fourth. Often he has the captains come for dinner when they arrive back in port, and I have heard such marvelous tales. But they are real stories, testimonies, my friends, not fantasies.”
Dufee had their full interest again and paused for a moment enjoying the attention. He took a sip from his goblet and set it back upon the table top with exaggerated care.
“Where do these ships go?” Thomas du Vaille asked with genuine curiosity.
“One goes always to Acadia, to the north, in the late spring and again in late summer. It travels up the river Saint Laurent, deep inland, and comes back with the most magnificent furs you have ever seen. Nowhere in all of Europe can you find furs like these, so thick and soft, like a cloud from God’s own Heaven. The natives sell them for beads and simple trinkets. And many of our countrymen run traps themselves and grow very prosperous in the business of trapping and trading,” he nodded knowingly, and took another sip of wine before continuing. “When seasonal storms turn fierce and the rivers begin to ice up, this same ship joins the second in the tropical waters of the south. There are many island ports, and the sugarcane plantations flourish. The natives are not nearly so fearsome as in the Brazils… let the Portuguese have those jungles, eh?
“And the third?” Richard asked.
“The third ship finds port within the English colonies… when we are not at war. But my father has our ships fly our own private flag which is much better for business anyway. The English colonies can never get enough of our goods and they have fine hardwoods to trade and tobacco.”
Denis’ serious plump features became very animated as he continued for some time keeping the other three amused and spellbound retelling the stories he had heard from the sea captains. Stories of planters and sugar plantations, rum trafficking, the growing settlements, trading posts and Indian natives, the fortunes made and lost, the misfortunes and dangers, but mostly, the opportunity and hope of the New World.
“The land is so bountiful and there are so few people. It is just there for the taking,” Dufee gestured, reaching out and grabbing the air with his fist, “to farm, to plant. We bring back skins and furs, sugar, molasses, copra, lumber… that is true gold. And to them we bring cloth, tools, utensils, goods of all kinds. They are people who need everything we have here. Is not our furniture the most beautiful in the world? Do we not make the very best wine? And through our trading contacts can we not supply the most beautiful fabrics, the finest laces, the most intricately worked silver, crystal, not to mention weapons…?”
“Enough, enough,” Richard raised his hands in a mock gesture of surrender and laughed, “spoken like a true merchant, cousin. So… tell us, Denis, why does your father send you to le Académie? Does a merchant need to study philosophy?”
Du Vaille had just refilled his goblet and cried out dramatically, “I drink therefore I am!”
The young men laughed easily. Dufee shrugged, going back to Richard’s question.
“This I do for Henri,” he said, pointing his thumb at himself and giving a small sheepish smile. “I know my father wants me to work with him. I am to carry on the family business. It is more exciting than anything else I can imagine. I truly like it. But I wanted to study other things as well. I willingly agreed to follow in his footsteps, I asked only to be allowed to go to le Académie first, and so my father agreed. For is not all knowledge valuable?”
The question hung in the still quiet of the now empty tavern as though suspended by the thickening humidity. Each young man silently considered his own answer. None noticed that Marie had found a place in the corner not far from them where she had been mesmerized listening to their every word.
The afternoon shadows had grown long when the four took their leave of each other and stepped outdoors into the late afternoon heat. Jacques-Jean decided to head to his mother’s cottage. With a tinge of guilt he realized it had been three days since he had last seen her, and that was only at church services. He had ample time now, he reasoned; he would stop by for a visit before supper began at the chateau.
Jacques-Jean let his horse walk, not pushing the beast to any speed in the still afternoon heat. As they moved along, the young man removed his lace jabot from around his neck and stuffed it into the deep pocket of his sleeveless waistcoat. From his seated position, he slipped out of the waistcoat itself, laying it across the saddle in front of him.
His full sleeved, linen shirt was clinging to his damp skin. With his lace kerchief he mopped his brow and scratched his chin stubble. He made a mental note; he must have the chateau barber shave him again. He liked to be smoothly shaven especially in the heat. Never in his twenty years could he remember such weather at this time of the year. It was, perhaps, a very bad sign for the summer to come, he mused. Finally, he loosened the ties which gathered his shirt closely to his neck so that it fell open more comfortably. As he crossed the meadow to his mother’s cottage, he could feel a tiny breeze and the air hitting his moist clothing had a cooling effect that was reviving.
To say his mother lived in a cottage was true but there were many kinds of cottages in the French countryside. A peasant’s cottage was little more than a hut, sometimes having a small loft gained by use of a ladder whereas the cottage into which he had been able to move his Celimene had a pleasant little upstairs under its sloped roof. Hélène, on the other hand, lived in a spacious home comprised of two full stories and an attic, with pleasant gardens in the rear. It was still considered a cottage being nowhere near the size of a manor house but very fitting for a ducal favorite such as a mistress raising ducal offspring.
Jacques-Jean resisted the temptation to prod his horse to hurry in order to more quickly gain the cool shadows of a small copse of trees separating him from his mother’s home. In good time, man and horse entered the quiet stand of elms and walnuts and the young rider was aware of a mixture of melodious birds singing and calling high in the tree tops. Other than bird sound, there was no evidence of any other wildlife. The twittering above turned almost to irritated scolding. Jacques-Jean laughed aloud at the thought of the disturbance he had created within the secret world of the birds and in response a group of them took flight from the trees and soared up into the blue.
By the time Jacques-Jean reached the small footpath leading to his mother’s front door, he felt mildly refreshed. His sweat dampen clothing had dried somewhat and he slid down from his saddle without ceremony. A series of strides brought him to the entrance where he simultaneously rapped, opened the door, and called out.
“Mère? C’est moi!”
Turning into the salon, he was shocked to see his young mother reclining on her couch, a compress to her brow.
“Ma-ma, what is it? What is wrong? Are you ill?” Jacques-Jean instantly was beside her on one knee.
Hélène Charte looked up at him and smiled weakly. “It is nothing, mon fils, just the heat, but it is so good to see you.”
“How long have you been ill?”
“I am not ill… really…”
“You look quite pale, Ma-ma,” he observed anxiously.
“JJ, when have I ever not looked pale?” she replied with brave humor knowing full well her alabaster skin tones never contained a great deal color. “I just felt a little dizzy and decided to lie down. It is the heat.” Her words sounded convincing but the drawn look about her mouth was saying something else.
Despite the humidity which was wringing sweat from the stones, Hélène’s skin looked as dry as parchment. Jacques-Jean put his hand to her cheek and felt radiating heat.
“Ma-ma!” he exclaimed, “You have a fever! You should not be alone. What if I had not happened by?”
“No, please, be not so concerned.”
“But of course I am concerned,” Jacques-Jean’s worry made him exclaim more forcefully than he intended. “I shall stay and care for you and have no argument about it.”
“I have been more than blessed to have you as a son,” she said with an accepting sigh full of appreciation. Noticing his cast off bits of clothing, she added in a mother’s way, “JJ, please make yourself more comfortable… put your things over there. Eva will come, in the morning… to take the laundry… Find yourself fresh linen in your old room … and something cool to drink. The food has all been put into the spring house where it is cooler… the cupboards in the cook shed… are bare, I am afraid,” she tried to give a little laugh. “Lisa now comes over… every day to help with the evening chores… she will fetch the meal… I will be fine, I just needed… to rest a moment… but, perhaps… we can play some cards…” Hélène was breathing in short, shallow breaths, and this, too, alarmed her son. He had never before known his mother to be ill.
“Sh-sh, Mama, you are supposed to be resting, now lie quietly and I will take care of everything. I am going to the spring house to bring more cool water for your towels. This has grown as warm as soup.” He picked up the basin on the small table beside her and strode out quickly glad to have some action to take.
By the time he returned, she had lapsed into delirium. Her skin was as hot as embers and Jacques-Jean kept changing the towels on her head. He paced back and forth to the door looking for Lisa, the farm girl from down the lane. At last he saw her coming slowly up the road and he ran outside the cottage to meet her.
“Lisa, can you ride a horse?” he called to her as he rushed toward her with his horse in tow.
“Oui, monsieur,” the girl replied timidly. Hearing the tension in his voice, she sensed something was wrong with Madame Charte and quickened her pace.
“Good! My mother is very ill and she must have a physician. Go into the village at once! Take my horse. Find le physicien and send him here. Then, go to the chateau to tell le duc that madame is ill and we have great need of Gussie. And get back here as fast as you can!” As he spoke, he lifted the girl up into the saddle. Her eyes growing big at his words. She, too, had never known madame to be ill.
“Bon, now what did I tell you?” Jacques asked her gravely.
“To go to the village and fetch le physicien, monsieur,” she replied quickly.
“And?” he prodded.
“And then I must ride to the chateau and ask for… for…” she stumbled.
“For Gussie,” he stated strongly.
“Gussie, oui, monsieur, Gussie,” she repeated.
“Now go quickly!” he cried and smacked the horse soundly on its rump. Now was the time to demand speed of the animal who lurched forward as if sensing the human distress. Without a sound, it took off at a lope with the young girl clinging to its back, both of her hands buried in its mane.
Jacques-Jean watched horse and girl disappear down the road to the village and he returned to the sitting room inside. He bent over the couch and picked up his mother as easily as one might pick up an infant. She was completely limp now and unaware. Carrying her up to her bedroom, he laid her gently upon her bed and loosened the laces on her bodice. Flinging the window shutters on one side of the room open and opening the doors wide to the small balcony, he could feel a merciful evening breeze flow through the stuffy room.
Returning to his mother’s bedside, Jacques-Jean gingerly slipped her tight bodice off over her head while drawing the equally heavy sleeves from her arms. Next, he removed her heavy silk skirts. Remembering from the time he was a small child, he easily found a light linen bedgown in one of the drawers of her dressing chest. He slipped it modestly over her head and shoulders. Averting his eyes he struggled with removing her stays and half tore her delicate chemise. The young man was not to be faulted. He was very familiar with the feminine garments of the day but undressing his mistress and undressing his mother were two very different tasks.
Pulling the bedgown farther down, he removed the bulky petticoats from beneath. Sweating lightly with distress as much as activity, he gently smoothed the garment below her knees. There, he thought to himself hopefully, she will be much cooler now, more comfortable.
He went back down the stairs to fetch the basin. Returning to his mother’s side, he continued putting cold compresses on her brow and wrists while waiting for someone to arrive.
Behind the tavern in a roughly hewn lean-to, Marie scrubbed the pots, crockery, mugs, and pewter goblets from the day’s crowd. The purpose of the raw timbered structure was to provide covering overhead in inclement weather and little more. To the side of the lean-to a small fire burned under a large old cauldron which had been handed down from mother to daughter or daughter-in-law for several generations. The vessel was too heavy to transport with ease and had sat in much the very same spot for many years. The tavernkeeper’s wife had died childless; there was no one to pass the ancient cauldron to now, and mysteriously, it had begun to show signs of rust and deterioration. From this aging cauldron, Marie dipped scalding water with a large, long handled dipper in order to rinse the bowls she had just scoured clean.
As she worked over her buckets, she could feel the sweat rolling down her back and tickling through her scalp to emerge on her face and find its way in rivulets down to her chin. She was alone at her work. The tavernkeeper had given her instructions concerning the tasks he expected to be completed when he arose from his afternoon nap to prepare for the evening crowd. And so Marie toiled on. She dare not complain. She was fortunate to have a place to sleep and food to fill her belly. It had not always been so.
Almost two years ago, Marie had come to the tavern to beg a crust of bread. The tavernkeeper’s wife, Anoui, had taken pity on the frightened awkward girl, heavy with child, and had offered her a place to stay. Within the month, Marie had given birth but her small son had been too frail and sickly. They did all they knew how but the babe would not suckle and did not survive.
Marie herself fell into a fever, her breasts engorged and heavy with milk. They ached and were extremely painful to the touch. Anoui gave her cold packs and compresses while the news traveled around the district quickly. By the second day, a tenant farmer from the neighboring valley arrived at the tavern with a small infant in his arms. His wife had just died in childbirth and he agreed to make payment for Marie’s shelter for the next six months if she would keep his son and wet nurse the child. Marie agreed without hesitation and taking the crying infant into her arms, she instinctively shoved one sensitive nipple into its greedy little mouth, feeling at first pain and then relief as the baby clamped on eagerly and began to drain her breast.
Baby Bo-Bo, she had called him. She liked that, it suited him much better than…? She had already forgotten whatever it was his father had said he had named him. Probably “Louis” after the king as her oldest brother had been named, or perhaps “Léon” after the comte who owned the valley acreage the farmer planted.
“My Bo-Bo,” she would coo to the babe “you are not a stuffy aristocrat, no-no-no, and you do not look like a weary, long faced saint, no-no-no, you are my little Bo-Bo.” And with gentle pokes to his sides, she would draw a toothless grin from his round little face. Anoui watched the bonding develop and tried to warn the girl that she must not become so attached. Marie dismissed the older woman’s concerns. But in truth, the young girl realized she was thinking of Bo-Bo more and more as though he were her very own son. And his bright eyes recognized her as his mother. It was the first time in her young life that she had ever felt such need and love. It made her feel good and secure.
Time passed quickly and six months became ten and still Bo-Bo stayed on. The arrangement agreed with everyone. Soon the toddler was pulling himself upright, then walking, then chasing the ducklings and worrying the chickens to death. His father came every month to check on his progress. The farmer was proud of his son’s growth and pleased that Marie’s milk was proving to be so nourishing. Although the rugged man was awkward in handling the babe, it was obvious that he cared deeply for his little son. As things were, however, what could a man in his position do, alone on a farm with too much work, one half grown child and no woman? How could he possibly take care of a small baby as well? So he was pleased that Marie seemed content to continue keeping the child for the small remuneration the poor farmer could barely afford.
In the shade of the lean-to, Marie sloshed water over the mugs and wiped her face with her worn apron. Those were happy days, she thought sadly, those were the happiest days of my life. I had a little family for a little while. Anoui was like the mother she had lost when she was almost too young to remember. Baby Bo-Bo made her forget she had lost her own child. Even the tavernkeeper could be caught every now and then with a smile sneaking across his usually grim face when Bo-Bo was being particularly adorable. Then with a swiftness that is life itself everything changed.
It began very late in the autumn. The weather started out mildly enough and everyone thought it would be an easy winter. Then, it began to rain. The temperatures grew colder but still it would not freeze. The rain continued, day after day, constant, bone-chilling rain that turned every inch of exposed earth into mud. The dirt floors of the poorest huts became spongy with the cold dampness. The cooking and heating fires would not burn well because there was no truly dry wood to be found. The peat fires even under the best of conditions put out as much smoke as heat and filled the huts with a stinging acidic vapor that made everyone’s eyes water and throats burn. The villagers began to grow fearful and increasingly superstitious. Almost everyone had a runny nose or sniffles by Saint Nicholas Day and coughing drowned out the mass on Christmas Day. They wore garlands of garlic and asafetida bags filled with raw onions and bitter herbs. Charms were sought from the village wise woman while the stories circulated: who had the flux, who had the fever sweats, and who had died.
The tenant farmer arrived unexpectedly one day and told Marie he was taking his son home to stay.
“I am most grateful for all you have done, but it is time he is weaned from his wet nurse,” said the large man, rain dripping from his clothing. “He is a boy now, not an infant.”
“Truly he is only a baby still,” Marie said, struggling with the tears coming to her eyes as a feeling of despair crept over her.
“He will be two years soon.” The farmer realized he did not sound convincing even to himself and paused a moment before confessing the truth. “I am a-feared. If he stays here… he could die. Everyday more are stricken. There is too much sickness in this valley. It is for the child’s own good. My son must live.”
“I know you are right,” Marie forced an agreeable attitude. “It is best. It is best for his health. Very well, take him to your cottage and tend him well all winter, he is a good boy, a very good boy… such a sweet, good boy.” She patted his pudgy little leg as his father held him. “By the time it is spring he will be helping you to plant. He likes a little song at bedtime and he will eat most everything except turnip greens.” She forced a small smile at the minor imperfection, blinking back her tears. “Will you ever bring him back to visit?”
“Of course,” replied the farmer as he watched Marie gather the child’s belongings, but they both knew it was not likely that the farmer would have time or reason to come back to the village except perhaps for fairs and festivals when he could trade his crops. And that would be a busy time with none to spare for useless visiting.
The child cried as his father carried him out to the wagon and put him under a tallow treated canvas, trying to keep the wiggling bundle warm and dry.
Marie heard the cries coming from the small wagon and she thought her heart would tear in two as she dug her fingers into the door frame forcing herself not to fly out into the rain and grab the child back to her bosom.
Anoui stayed up late that night consoling the desolate girl whose room without Baby Bo-Bo now appeared to her as empty and cold as a prison cell.
“What is the point, Anoui, what is it all for? Life is so dark and miserable, why are we born?” Her tears flowed, unchecked by any pretense of pride. She was, at that moment, just a thirteen year old child. “From as far back as I can remember, everything has been death, drudgery, and losing the people I love most,” she wailed. “Does God intend for people like me to only have happiness in small flashes as short lived as lightning?”
“We learn to be strong,” the older woman said quietly. “The Almighty gives us our rewards in Heaven.”
“Why must we wait for Heaven?” Marie cried. “It is not fair,” she sobbed. “It is not fair. Louise was about my age when our mother died. I remember Ma-ma was in the bed and called us all around her. Her voice was always so soft and quiet. Like rose petals, Ma-ma’s voice was always soothing and gentle. ‘This is your new brother,’ she had said, ‘God has sent him to us and now the Lord is calling me to be with Him. I want you to love each other and care for each other… especially your new little brother.’ I was three and did not understand it at all; she made it sound as if they were trading places. I remember looking at the scrawny new baby, all red and blotchy, and thinking… ‘no wonder God does not want him, he is so ugly, but we do not want him either. I already have two brothers, I do not need a third, I want my ma-ma.’ I wanted to give him back.
“I did not understand why she had to die. Ma-ma told us Louise was to be our mother from then on and Louis, the oldest boy, was to help her.”
Marie had lain with her head in Anoui’s lap and as her sobbing subsided she had started to babble, talking about her whole family. Going on and on, dragging up memory after memory. Things she had kept locked away in her heart for a long time.
Marie paused to take stock of what kettles were left to be cleaned. She was almost finished and needed to gather the linens to be washed before she went back inside to sweep out the tavern for supper.
What a lot they had been, she shook her head to herself with a wiry smile as she spread the linens out on the rope line to dry, and how much she missed them all even now. How wonderful it would be to gather together again even if for only one afternoon. Maybe that was what Heaven was like, she mused to herself, but Heaven was supposed to be for only the very good. Well, her mother would certainly be there. The woman had been a saint. Surely God knew that.
Marie remembered little of her mother except that she was a very gentle, patient presence. And that she had always been able to calm their father who had a very volatile temper. She had bore seven healthy children, four girls and three boys, and had one child die at birth, and one miscarry. Louise had been the first born and had taken after their mother. She had the same sweet and gentle nature, but she could not control their father’s temper like Mother had.
Louise took tender care of the baby their mother had named Guillaume but who they all called “Shu-shu.” She kept the house and watched over them all until suddenly one night just before her twentieth birthday, Louise doubled over from severe pains in her right side. She lay in agony with fever and pain for five or six days. None of the home remedies the local midwife tried did any good. And suddenly, Louise was dead. Gone from their lives forever just like Ma-ma.
Louis was the second born, a bright and spirited boy who at thirteen years of age did not need to do much to raise his father’s anger. When he was younger his mother had saved him many times from a beating at his father’s hands but soon after her death he received a severe and brutal one and ran away from home. No one had heard from him since and Marie did not blame him for going although she had always hoped that he would come back.
Juliette was the next child that had lived. She was ten at their mother’s death and when their brother ran away she was expected to watch over Annette who was only seven, Armand who was almost five and Marie who was just three. Unfortunately for them, Juliette had a temper like their father. Annie, Mandy, and Marie received a goodly share of slaps and pinches from their older sister but thanks to Louise’s watchfulness, it had been nothing too severe.
With Louise’s sudden death, the household again changed drastically. Their father began drinking even more and was often gone for days. Juliette, at sixteen, wanted a home of her own, not to be keeping her father’s house, and her frustrations did little to improve her moods and temper. It fell upon Armand, who was now eleven and no longer answered to Mandy, and thirteen year old Annette to do much of the field work while nine year old Marie and six year old Shu-Shu helped Juliette with the animals and the house.
Juliette grew more bitter as time went on. She saw no hope for her own future. No one had expressed any interest in marriage with her although she was a comely girl with rich dark curls, a flawless complexion, and flashing dark eyes. But she had no dowry and her face and hands had both grown hard. And so it was that when she found her barely twelve year old baby sister in the barn with a pretty young boy from some wandering troupe of players, Juliette had become so angry she had lost all self-control, picked up a length of board, and set upon them both. It had been a mad scramble of naked bodies, flying clothing, curses, and screams.
The agile fellow, although handicapped by the tangle of clothes, managed to defend himself and disarm Juliette but not before she had landed a glancing blow on Marie, chipping her tooth and causing her mouth to bleed profusely. Once Juliette caught sight of the blood and realized what she had done, her anger quickly subsided. The lad grabbed his clothing and ran away without a word, his pale, naked buttocks being the last either of the girls saw of him. Marie was left to face their father alone.
For some reason Juliette never told their father. Marie lived with the anxiety of their father’s homecoming and when he finally arrived, Juliette remained silent. Five months later, however, none of Marie’s clothing fit her properly. One night, when her father gazed up from his bottle and took a long, hard look at his youngest daughter standing before the fire, their eyes met and he knew. He started up at her and, more out of fear for the child she carried than for herself, she bolted out of the cottage door and into the dark cover of the woods beyond, knowing she never dare go back.
From that time on, Marie had not seen any of them. For a while she had cried incessantly, telling herself if Louise were alive she would help her, if Louis were there he would help her, if Ma-ma were alive Marie would be safe. Then, she stopped crying and took to the road, begging a little, stealing a little, scratching up barely enough food to remain alive until she ended up in this village, begging bread from the kind and childless Anoui.
Marie emptied the last bucket of dirty water over near the vegetable patch. With the weather so hot, the plants could use the extra water. She made certain the herb garden received a goodly share. Too dry a heat would spoil their potency. As she walked back into the dark of the tavern, she recalled again the winter just passed.
After that single night when Baby Bo-Bo had departed, Anoui did not allow Marie to indulge in any more tears. “You must learn to go on,” the older woman had told her over and over again, “Never give up hope. It is the most precious gift we have.” Being a practical person, Anoui knew there was work to be done. Much sickness was lurking and a sad spirit was more likely to fall victim.
But it was Anoui who was the next victim. Between violent vomiting and watery stools, the woman was sapped of all strength in less than a week. She could not eat. Nothing, not even water, would stay down. Her skin began to hang loosely on her face. Marie kept cold cloths on the older woman’s searingly hot forehead, but her fever would not break despite a potent concoction the mid-wife had brought over made of lemon grass, hibiscus flower, chamomile, and a few other very nasty tasting things she would not identify. Anoui’s eyes burned so hot they were red, filled with blood shot veins. Her tongue was swollen and blackish. By the morning of the twelfth day, it was over.
Marie felt as though she had lost her mother again. But there was no time to cry once the earth covered Anoui’s shriveled body. Now Bouchet, the tavernkeeper, expected Marie to do everything the older woman had been doing as well as her own work. And so, life and struggle continued.
Marie paused for a moment to catch her breath and mop her brow with her forearm, with the edge of her apron she blotted deep into her young cleavage. Where was her life going, she asked herself? She knew things could not stay as they were now. Her small cache of savings had not grown since Baby Bo-Bo had left except for the occasional coin she received from a friendly customer such as the young gallant, Jacques-Jean Charte.
The tavernkeeper had given her some of his wife’s old clothing but… in truth, she was beginning to feel very uncomfortable whenever she was alone with him. He said little. He was a gruff, abrasive man but there were times lately when she caught him staring at her with a hard glint in his eye. It was different when his wife had been alive. His looks had pierced through her as if she was not there. Now, she knew he looked at her with lust.
She thought about the things she had overheard in the tavern that afternoon. The New World. It must be a frighteningly savage place but also an exciting place. The young men had talked of it being a place of opportunity. Did that mean opportunity for women as well? Was it possible for a girl who worked very hard to gain something of her very own? Did she not work very hard already, everyday – day after day? But it got her nothing save today’s roof over her head and today’s meal. In her present circumstance her life held no hope for the future that she could see. Had not Anoui taught her hope was a precious thing? Hope kept one going onward, but one had to have something in which to hope. And the young gentlemen had talked of the hope in the New World.
The ugly, shapeless parasite was satiated, gorged with blood and easily prodded off of its host. With consummate concentration, the dour faced physician held this last leech ever so gently with a blunt pincer-like tool and conveyed it into a jar to join its kind. It was the third time the physician and his jar of loathsome assistants had been out to see Hélène, the third time he had strategically placed their kind on the insides of her wrists and elbows, the tender flesh behind her ears, over the veins in her neck. And it was the third time the noxious appearing worms had plumped themselves up, fat and full, by sucking in her warm, red blood. Now, with a great sense of his own importance, the physician gravely packed the leeches back into the black leather satchel he had brought to the house with him. He was satisfied that he was doing good. Hélène was lucid again. That she would have been lucid without this procedure was a thought that never occurred to him.
“I shall be back tomorrow, but she is looking better,” he said abruptly to Jacques-Jean. “We can be grateful the heat has lifted. Now, do not let her chill. Try to get some soup in her and give her these powders.”
“Oui, monsieur, merci,” Jacques-Jean accepted the packets mechanically and walked to the bedroom door with the older man. “Lisa, please see le Monsieur Physicien out,” Jacques-Jean called to the young girl who had been living at the house since Hélène’s collapse. Lisa came to the foot of the stairs and waited to open the front door for the departing physician.
Back at his mother’s bedside, Jacques-Jean adjusted the shawl about Hélène’s shoulders and took a long look at her. The pale blonde hair, streaked ever so lightly with silver giving it a gilded appearance, lay spread across the white pillows. Her skin was almost as white as her pillows, sheets, and bedgown. If it were not for the coloring of the shawl, one could almost lose sight of the human being lying there. She looked so tiny, as if she could drown in the bedding itself. He saw her trembling finger twitch and her eye lids fluttered. Intuitively, he knew she was calling to him. He bent low over the bed, his ear close to her lips.
“JJ… I beg you… do not allow him… to do it again.” Her voice was so weak he could barely hear her, but the look in her large gray eyes was full of fear.
“Very well, Ma-ma, I promise. You have seen the last of the physician’s leeches. Gussie never believed in them… but your fever is gone,” he added, trying to convince himself that his mother’s ordeal with the disgusting creatures had been of some benefit.
Just then Augustine opened the door and brought in a pungently inviting bowl of herbal broth. Setting the tray down on a small polished table near the bed, her eyes quickly surveyed the room.
“I see someone has closed up all the windows again,” she said dryly and immediately went to the farthest windows on the south side of the room and opened them enough to admit a warm but fresh breeze. The room itself did not smell like a sickroom. Augustine insisted that all the bed linens be changed daily and had personally bed-bathed madame with rose water and herbs every morning and again each night. The woman knew the stimulation of the accompanying massage was itself a tonic.
Affectionately known as “Gussie” by the family, Augustine had a reputation within the household of the chateau that inspired awe from some, fear from others, and a veritable deification from a few. In hushed tones she was called a mysticité, a healer of supernatural powers. Many whispered of the special talents she had inherited from her dark Gallic ancestors practiced in such arts. She would have been in charge of the nursery if the duke and duchess had children, but as things stood, her broader duties centered on maintaining good health everywhere on the estates.
It was difficult to tell Augustine’s age. Her face had no wrinkles and always held a placidly serene appearance no matter the circumstances of the moment. Her black eyes were full of life and sparkle. Her carriage was so perfectly balanced and fluid that small children had been known to stand watch at the bottom of the staircase to catch a glimpse beneath her skirt hem to see if her feet really met with the floor or, as rumor insisted, just floated above it. At first glance, one would almost mistake her for a girl of twenty but for a thick full head of pure white hair that was done up in one huge braid that wrapped round and round her head.
“Madame needs to drink this, please.” Augustine always spoke with the utmost of formal politeness but her patients knew better than to argue with her. She carefully held one spoonful of broth to Hélène’s lips, guiding it down her throat and followed it with another and another in a rhythmical pattern, pausing only to allow her patient to breathe.
“Madame has been leeched too much,” she added with an unmistakable tone of condemnation. “One should not dabble where one has no wisdom.” She had said everything of importance to say for the moment and silently continued her task.
Jacques-Jean watched, suddenly remembered the packets. “Here,” he stretched out his hand to the older woman, “he said to give her these.”
Augustine took the packets and held them to her nose. She sniffed briefly, almost imperceptibly lifted her nose to look down at them and slipped them quietly into a large pocket in her skirt. Jacques-Jean did not bother to ask what she thought of the medication, he already knew. She would probably throw it out with the slops.
After the bowl of broth had been emptied, she announced that madame must sleep and ushered Jacques-Jean from the room. He waited until the door was closed before speaking.
“Gussie, is she going to be well?” he asked, seeking reassurance, his round gray eyes betraying his fear and his youth.
“Madame is very weak,” the woman said in a level voice, “too weak. Even your physician should have realized she should not have been leeched as well as bled. If he steals more of her blood, I am certain she will have no strength left to live. But if you keep that man away from her, I am just as certain she can recover. She is strong and still young. I will work with her.”
“Merci, Gussie,” Jacques-Jean said with quiet sincerity. He felt guilty and yet, relieved. Augustine had a competent strength about her that allowed one to relinquish all concerns, turning them over to her with complete trust.
“Monsieur Jacques, if I may be so bold,” she observed after a discreet sniff, “it would do you much good to freshen up with a rosewater toilette, take a change of clothes and lie down for an hour or two.” And she added, as though there were no question of his agreement to her suggestion, “I will send Lisa with the hot water.”
Jacques-Jean nodded and gladly did as Augustine suggested. He almost staggered as he went to his old bedroom. He stripped out of the clothes he had been wearing for several days straight, sponged off and stretched out on his old childhood bed. For the first time in four days, he slept soundly, so soundly that he did not awaken until early the next morning.
Dressed in the fresh breeches and clean shirt which had mysteriously appeared in his room along with a pair of slippers, he immediately made his way to his mother’s bedroom where he found Augustine sitting in a chair pulled close to the four poster bed. The gauzy bed curtains were pulled almost closed but through a small opening, Jacques-Jean could see Hélène quietly sleeping. A faint color was returning to her cheeks! Augustine rose from the chair as soon as she saw him and walked into the hall motioning him to follow.
“I have been spooning my broth into her every two hours, Monsieur Jacques. As you saw, her color is beginning to return. There is a root about which my mother taught me, it helps to build back the blood – but he must not be allowed to take anymore of hers!” she warned sternly.
“I promise to talk to the physician.” Jacques-Jean nodded contritely, and felt the need to add an apology. “I am sorry, Gussie, I should have known you were all my mother needed. If it had been me, if I was the one ill, I would not have had a second thought but to let you alone attend me but this is Ma-ma! I have never seen her ill before in my life, and I admit – I panicked. I would have called upon the Devil himself to see what he could do for her. Can you forgive me?”
Jacques-Jean looked so handsomely appealing in his earnestness, Augustine was placated and a small smile flickered about her lips. “Would have? Monsieur Jacques, you did call in the Devil – Monsieur le Physicien is the Devil.” She said it so matter-of-factly that Jacques-Jean had to laugh.
With the aid of her little donkey and cart, Eva, the village laundress, delivered the fresh laundry on schedule that morning. She inquired as to Madame Charte’s health before she left with another load. She was very glad to hear the madame was doing better for two reasons. First, she genuinely liked the petite lady whose linens she had been caring for ever since Hélène and her son had been installed into the cottage upon the old duke’s death. And secondly, the workload had increased tenfold under Augustine’s cleanliness campaign and it was fatiguing the aging laundress. She did her job well, however, no matter the load. Everything was always returned sweet smelling, spotless, and pressed.
Young Lisa had done such a commendable job delivering messages on horseback that Jacques-Jean also sent her to Celimene to inform her of events. Lisa returned with a basket full of fruit breads, some small cheeses, and a jar of strawberry preserves which Celimene sent with her best wishes for Hélène’s speedy recovery.
Hélène was growing stronger each day. It was now almost two weeks since she had taken ill and she was sitting up on the small divan in her bedroom, having just finished her breakfast. The doors to the small balcony were wide open and a delightfully light breeze floated through the room.
Hélène wore a loose linen bedgown and silk shawl. Her back rested against a cushion of satin pillows braced against one end of the divan which rose up to form an ornate side arm. A soft, light throw lay in her lap. With her feet pulled up daintily under the throw there was ample room for a visitor to have a seat at the far end.
“Entrée, entrée,” she beckoned when she saw her son’s smiling face peering through the partially opened door. His expression was one of honest happiness at seeing his mother up and looking much stronger.
“Good morning, Ma-ma, it is wonderful to see you looking so much like yourself again,” he greeted cheerfully and bent toward her, brushing a kiss upon her cheek. “And see what a dashing figure your son cuts in the tailor’s latest creation? Thank you, Ma-ma, it was most thoughtful but it really is not necessary for you to buy me clothing,” he added almost sternly. “I receive sufficient allowance from le duc to dress properly.”
“I know, I know, but I wanted to… and, yes, you do look very dashing, very handsome,” she smiled proudly, her attention diverted for a moment. “The colors suit you.”
He grinned and preened just a trifle like a magnificent young cock justifiably proud of its plumage. He struck a pose in a new suit of rust brocade with a waistcoat of peach silk. The light summer wool breeches were cut tighter in the leg as was the growing fashion. The outfit had arrived from the tailor the day before, a present from his mother arranged for long before she had taken ill.
“I love the brocade pattern, JJ, it is full of life, just like you,” she smiled.
He returned her smile and pushed the topic of clothes from his mind. He actually was less concerned about what he wore than was thought fashionably proper amidst the aristocracy. It was one reason he knew he would be bored to tears at court.
“I have spoken with Lisa,” Jacques-Jean said mildly, “and she is going to stay here from now on. I insist. She is a bright girl; I think she will make a very able maid and companion to you. You need someone to be with you, Ma-ma… all the time, not just for a short moment in the mornings and evenings. You used to have a housekeeper.”
“And a cook.”
“Who is there to cook for?”
“And a full-time gardener…”
“He still comes twice a week.”
“You should have someone here all the time, Ma-ma.”
“As you wish, JJ,” she sighed, “I suppose you are right.” Hélène gave her son a small amiable smile. She appreciated his concern for her.
“Of course, I am right. I shudder to think what might have happened if I had not stopped by that first evening. Or worse, I ask myself – if I should have come by earlier, might you have been saved such distress?”
“No distress, JJ, you could not save me from a fever, please…” Hélène waved aside the conversation. Deeply focused on her own thoughts, she hoped and prayed her son’s regard and concern for her might never be altered. As if gathering her strength she continued much more seriously. “JJ… I…” she halted for a moment.
“What is it, Ma-ma, are you in pain?” he asked most tenderly.
“Oui, but of a different kind. I mean, oh, mon fils, mon fils, I have something I must tell you and I am afraid it is not very easy for me to begin. Please sit down.” She gestured graciously to the divan beside her.
“Is it so serious?” he asked lightly, his handsome face cast in a relaxed almost teasing smile, his gray eyes attentive.
“Oui.” She motioned again for him to sit by her. He removed his new coat, carefully laying it aside, and took a seat at her feet on the end of the divan. He grasped her small hand affectionately in his. She began to speak slowly, her eyes on their hands at the edge of her lap.
“I have a very troubled heart, JJ. I have something to tell you, something I know I should have told you long, long before now. But the longer I waited, you see, the harder it became to approach the subject. I kept telling myself, someday, someday… someday.
“Being so ill has made me realize that I could have died without that someday ever coming. That would be very wrong.” She paused and took a breath stealing a glance up into her son’s face which was attentive but expressionless. “I might have left things unsaid which must be told. I know it is very wrong that I have waited so long.” She paused again to steady her voice, realizing it held a nervous tremor.
“Ma-ma, if it is so upsetting to you, please, it has waited this long, it can wait until you are stronger,” he tried to ease her.
“No, JJ, I might have been standing before God on Judgment Day trying to explain why having sinned I had not the courage to at least set the record straight for my own son. I thank God He has given me another chance to do so. Now listen… and please,” the next came in almost a whisper, “forgive me.” She looked up now into his eyes. “I cannot rest until I… I can only start by saying I love you more than my own life. No mother has loved her child more than I love you. JJ, you must know this.”
“Of course, Ma-ma, I do know this,” he reassured her, patting her hand.
“If I have done some hurt to you by keeping this a secret for so long, I can only beg you to please forgive me. We expect our parents to be wise but they are, after all, just people, full of human weaknesses and not always so wise.” She could not look in his face any longer and turned slightly away.
“When I was very young I made some terrible mistakes… terrible mistakes… but I was very young, you see, and young people are often very foolish,” Hélène paused for another moment, gathering the strength to continue.
“When I was very young,” she began again, “I fell in love with a young boy, a boy barely seventeen who said he loved me with all his heart. We were both so young, so innocent, so inexperienced in love and I could not help myself. He was so compelling in a quiet, tender, intense way and I found myself overwhelmed by his brooding passion. Then, le duc took notice of me, and at almost the same hour that I suspected I was with child, the old man proposed that I should become his mistress.
“As you know being the mistress of a duc is a very honorable position. My young mind was flooded with questions and doubts and fears. I had no mother from whom to seek counsel, I had to make my decision quickly… whether it was better for me and my child to be the mistress and bastard of a duc or to be the wife and legitimate child of a young boy who had nothing, a boy not yet out of his teens who could ill afford a family, a boy whose very livelihood would eventually depend on the generosity of a monster of an elder brother.
“But God has punished me for not being true to my heart, and not being true to your father, your real father. No, that is not fair. It is not true,” she corrected herself with a small shake of her head. “God has not punished me, I have punished myself. My choice has punished me. How was I ever to know things would turn out as they did?” Hélène’s thoughts had turned inward and she was quiet for a moment.
“My real father? Ma-ma, whatever are you saying? Are you telling me the old duc was not my father?” Jacques-Jean’s voice betrayed his surprise. His mother shook her head. “But , who….?”
“Le duc, my son, le duc! It is life’s irony. Do you not see? I turned my back on his love to go to his father, passed his son off as his half-brother and he ended up being le duc, after all,” Hélène’s voice broke into a sob. “I am so ashamed. You must believe me when I say I did not do it for money. Money never meant anything to me. I had no idea the old duc would give me a cottage and an annuity for life. I did it for you. Whether I was to bear a son or a daughter, I knew being the offspring of a duc was of some consequence. Oh, JJ, please, please do not hate me.”
“Hush, Ma-ma, never,” he took her hands again and drew her closer. “There, there, be calm. Am I hearing correctly? Le duc is Jean-Philippe… so you are saying Jean-Philippe is really my father?” He stared at her intently while she nodded her head, then he put his arms around her. “Does Jean-Philippe know that I am his son, Ma-ma?”
Hélène shrugged her small shoulders within her son’s embrace. “We have never spoken of it but I think he knows it to be so. No one else knew of our love affair so no one else could have guessed. But Jean-Philippe knows you were born quite short of the nine month anniversary of my first going to the old duc’s bed and the old duc was no longer a virile man. For him to father a baby at all would have been a great surprise – to father one so quickly, nothing short of a miracle.”
“My father is… alive!” Jacques-Jean contemplated the full meaning of the words. “Jean-Philippe is my father! But Ma-ma, this is wonderful! Now I understand the special interest he has always shown me. I cannot believe you two have not spoken of this… not once in all these years?”
“Are you forgetting my shame?” she retorted quickly, pulling away as a tear rolled down her pale, smooth cheek. “I loved your father deeply as I believe he loved me… yet I went to his father’s bed. Truly, Jean-Philippe must despise me. I crushed his heart and denied him his own son. I can hardly look him in the eye, even today after all this time. It has been my great sin that I cast away his love.”
Jacques-Jean gathered his mother into his arms again bestowing a comforting embrace and offering soothing words as he held her. “Hush, Ma-ma, hush, you must rest now… and relax. Everything will be well. I promise you. Life is full of mistakes, is it not?. You were not the first young girl to break a man’s heart and you will not be the last. Now calm yourself, please. You punish yourself far more than you deserve, far too much.” Hélène took comfort from him and after a deep breath, she pat his arm as he held her. “What did my father say when you told him you had accepted le duc’s proposal?”
“We never had a chance to talk. Jean-Philippe was gone suddenly, disappeared. I was alone with the realization that I carried his baby and the old duc made his proposal. It all happened so quickly. It was only later that I learned Jean-Philippe had been sent to another vineyard to stay with them and study something about leaf molds, I believe. And when he finally returned I had made my decision and there was no going back.”
At that moment there was a tap at the door, it opened and Augustine returned to her post directing Jacques-Jean to leave.
“I am sorry, Monsieur Jacques, but it is time for madame’s toilette, and then we shall have a very short stroll in the garden.”
“Very well, Gussie, I leave her in your good hands,” Jacques-Jean replied as he stood up and leaned over to kiss his mother’s forehead. “I need to go now, Ma-ma, I shall return before sundown. Perhaps we can sup together this evening?” Hélène knew he would talk to Jean-Philippe and said nothing as she nodded a weak agreement.
As soon as Jacques-Jean left the room, Augustine set about preparing Hélène’s toilette silently, sensing that she was deep in her own thoughts. Going to the side cupboard, Augustine withdrew a very large pan and set it down in the center of the room. Next, she brought out towels and perfumed soap and a large copper wash basin. A knock on the door announced Lisa’s arrival with a large bucket of fresh warm water. The young girl could barely carry the full bucket but Augustine took it from her with ease and shut the bedroom door again.
“We are ready, madame,” she announced quietly, and Hélène stood. Augustine helped the slender woman remove her light linen gown. Completely naked and without self-consciousness, Hélène stepped into the middle of the shallow pan. With a wet sponge and fragrant soap, Augustine quickly but gently lathered Hélène’s firm body. Carefully, the older woman used a porcelain pitcher to pour a slow sheet of clear, warm water down around Hélène’s shoulders rinsing away all the little bubbles clinging to her pale, smooth skin. Another pitcher full was poured slowly around her waist. Before Hélène could begin shivering, Augustine wrapped the tiny frame in towels and guided her to sit at the dressing table. With gentle yet powerful hands, she rubbed Hélène’s limbs briskly with the towel to aid circulation.
“It is still too soon, madame, to be concerned with full accoutrements. A fresh bedgown and a light peignoir are best, I think.”
Hélène nodded her approval as she allowed herself to be dressed.
Her linen bedgown embroidered with tiny multicolored flowers peeped out from under the peignoir wrapped snugly around her as she sat quietly before the dressing table watching their reflections in the mirror. She was remembering the last time Augustine had cared for her. The old duke had sent the woman to watch over a very pregnant Hélène in her chambers within the chateau. The young girl had trusted Augustine instantly, and when labor began Hélène had no fears. She did exactly as the older woman told her and Jacques-Jean had been born almost easily.
Augustine brushed the long, pale blonde hair until it shined and wrapped it up into a simple chignon.
“A touch of rouge, madame, may make you feel better,” she suggested tactfully.
“You are right. I look so pale.” Hélène reached for her rouge powder and small puff. “Tell me, Gussie, how is the duchesse these days?”
“I hear she does beautiful needlework…”
“and plays the harpsichord charmingly…”
“Does she like my son?” As soon as the question left her mouth, Hélène regretted having asked it. “I am sorry,” she gasped, “I do not know what made me ask that, it is a stupid question. Please forget the words were even spoken.” She stole a furtive look in the mirror at Augustine’s expression. It was as placid and inscrutable as ever.
“Please tell the duc et duchesse that I am most grateful for your care,” Hélène finally said with sincerity, “and their generosity in sending you, but I do think it is time I let you return to your duties at the chateau. I am sure you are very missed.”
“As madame wishes, if you are feeling so well tomorrow, I shall take my leave. And now our walk, madame,” she said, taking Hélène’s arm and guiding her down the cottage staircase and out the garden doors.
On a swift horse the ride from Hélène’s cottage to the chateau was a short one. Jacques-Jean’s mind raced with a hundred thoughts as he urged his horse on. So, he contemplated, Ma-ma and Jean-Philippe were lovers. He had never even suspected but as he considered the fact, it explained so much. The looks. The strange tension between them. It also explained Jean-Philippe’s interest in Jacques’ welfare. The young man laughed aloud. Last week he thought he was nothing, a mere bastard half-brother, but today? Today, he was the one and only son of the current Duc du Pouvoir. Life was amazing! Absolutely amazing! And Celimene was now the mistress of an heir. Jacques-Jean laughed aloud again as he envisioned the passion such news would inspire in his beautiful, long limbed darling.
The day was magnificent. Huge, billowy clouds like ships with full sails dotted the upside down ocean of the deep blue sky. The air was much lighter than it had been for weeks, the breezes were refreshing, and the sunlight was bright and just comfortably warm. Jacques-Jean imagined he heard the birds singing but the sound of his horse’s hooves upon the road was too loud for him to hear much of anything else.
A stable boy took Jacques-Jean’s horse as he leapt down from his saddle and took the stairs, two at a time, up to the huge iron bound front doors. A smaller door, cut into the larger one was used for entering and exiting in inclement weather and at night. But during the day when the weather was pleasant, the immense twin doors stood wide open to circulate the air and admit the breezes. A second set of equally large doors carved out of fine golden oak stood open at the top of a shorter set of inner stone steps. These doors opened into the large main hall of the chateau.
The white Italian marble floors echoed the sound of Jacques-Jean’s heels as he approached the large curved inner staircase. A downstairs servant told him the duke was in his upstairs study.
As Jacques-Jean strode up the long staircase, he became more hesitant on broaching the subject with Jean-Philippe. Surely the duke knew but why had he never said anything? What if he did not know? He must, at least, suspect, must he not? But why had he never pursued the facts himself? Still, one’s parentage was not a subject a man could ignore once it had been brought out into the open. Jacques-Jean told himself he could not set this news aside and, two or four years later say Oh, yes, by the way, a while back my mother told me you were my father, I assumed you knew. No, that would be absurd, this was much too important.
He had reached the door of the duke’s study and after a brief final pause he knocked lightly only to be suddenly overwhelmed with the thought that perhaps the duke did not want to acknowledge him as his son or his heir.
“Entrée!” spoke the voice from within and Jacques-Jean opened the door. “Ah, Jacques, it is you. Come in, sit. How is your mother feeling?” The duke was seated at his finely carved desk and set aside the bulky old manuscript he had been studying. He wore his usual garb, a pair of dark knee breeches with dark stockings and a jersey tunic over his soft linen shirt trimmed sparingly with lace around the old-fashioned collar.
“M’lord, she is doing much better, thank you. But I hate to think what might have happened without Gussie. She is quite fantastique.”
“Oui, I can remember several illnesses Augustine nursed me through. And oddly enough, I can remember my mother saying the exact same thing. It gives one pause. I have never had the audacity to ask Augustine how old she is.” He gave a small laugh. “I remember once, as a young boy, I did ask her how long she had been a healer and she replied rather enigmatically, ‘ever since I knew what needed to be done.’” After a pause he added thoughtfully, “Well, anyway, I am most pleased to hear Madame Hélène is again feeling well.”
“Oui.” Did he detect a certain sentimentality when Jean-Philippe referred to Madame Hélène? “Merci. After all the deaths this winter, I must admit it was quite frightening to see her so ill. It gave us both a terrible scare.” Jacques-Jean was aware of feeling uncomfortably warm but he could not stop now, he told himself. “As… a matter of fact, Ma-ma was so shocked by her own frailty that she was pressed to make a confession to me,” Jacques-Jean paused, watching the duke intently.
“A confession?” the older man puzzled.
“Oui, something that she admitted should have been said years ago but out of her overwhelming sense of guilt and shame she could never bring up the subject.”
“I cannot imagine your mother having done anything for which to feel so much guilt or shame,” the duke replied evenly.
Jacques-Jean watched his father’s facial expression carefully, trying to detect any trace, any hint of an indication that the duke knew what Hélène had confessed. There was nothing.
“I, too, sir, could not imagine what my dear mother could have done that would weigh so heavily upon her conscience.” Jacques-Jean paused again trying to find the right words. “She told me that when she was very young she did something very foolish which she has regretted all these years.”
Jean-Philippe’s face remained expressionless while he listened to Jacques-Jean with singular attention.
“It seems she was very much in love with a young man who she said also loved her but she…to quote her…’cast away his love.’” Jacques-Jean saw it now, like the shadow that moves over the ground when a cloud comes between the earth and the sun. He detected a shadow passing over the duke’s countenance. “But worse than the love she threw away, she grieves most deeply that all these years she has denied him the knowledge that he, in fact, fathered her son.”
The air within the study suddenly grew very still and quiet. The only sound to be heard was the ticking of the small porcelain clock on the fireplace mantel and a faint dog bark from the far end of the courtyard. Neither man moved a single muscle. Jacques-Jean felt as though time had stopped, life had frozen, all except for the beating of his heart which he could feel within his chest. He could say no more, he awaited the duke to say something, anything. At last, Jacques-Jean heard the duke’s voice.
“You are saying my father was not your father?” the words were measured.
“Sir, I am saying I have just been told that you, m’lord, are in fact my father.”
The duke slowly pushed back his chair and stood without a word. He walked to the window, his hands clasped behind his back, his shoulders slightly stooped. He peered through the curtains, apparently staring at something but his eyes were unfocused; he saw nothing. His concentration was all on the past. After a few moments, he turned to Jacques-Jean with great self-control.
“I have always loved you as a son because you were her son. Now, I am proud to call you my own,” he rasped in almost a whisper.
Jacques-Jean rose from his chair and stepped into his father’s embrace.
Marie heard the rap at the door of her little room. She lay very still, almost afraid to breathe. Her eyes were closed, her ears straining for every sound. It was the fourth night Bouchet had come to her door. She pretended to be sound asleep but she heard him try the latch which she had taken the pains to tie off securely. Tomorrow he would say nothing, he would watch her and ask how she had slept and she would reply that she had been exhausted and had slept deeply. But she knew what he wanted and she was frightened.
She was a nobody, she thought to herself, as she lay in the dark. A tear formed in her eye. She had no one, she belonged nowhere, but she was not a nothing. She was a person. She had feelings. She had dreams. She wanted more from life; she was trying to make her own way. And he treated her as if she was of no more consequence than a kettle in his kitchen.
He had started touching her. At first, it was a pat, almost a bump, as if to move her out of his way although there was always room enough to pass. Yesterday, he had pinched her buttocks and laughed. Today, when she had returned from the hen house, her hands carefully gripping her apron full of fresh eggs, he had come up behind her and actually put his hand under her skirts and tried to grab her between her thighs. She had tried to pretend nothing had happened as she deftly slipped away from him. She did not know what else to do. If she acknowledged him, she could not ignore the circumstance; she would have to face him. What would he do tomorrow?
Marie knew it was only a matter of time. Now that Anoui was gone, he wanted Marie to do all the things his wife had done but she did not want to play his wife. She was not a virgin and he knew that. Perhaps he thought she had been with many men. Perhaps he thought she would agree to lie with anyone. But that was not true. She had been only a child when she and the young boy from the traveling troop had… and it had happened so quickly. He had been so young himself, so tender and sweet… he had touched her down there and pressed his hips against hers. She had not even understood what he was doing to her, he had been small and she had barely felt him. He had groaned deeply and then, Juliette had been there shouting and… Marie had had no idea that a baby would come of it.
In the darkness, the girl shuddered. She would have to make a choice: sleep with Bouchet or leave. But where could she go? She heard his footsteps as he shuffled away from her door.
The duke had sent word ahead to Hélène that he was planning to visit her cottage. It was two days since Augustine had returned to the chateau and Hélène felt quite like her usual self again except for the cloud of butterflies that kept dancing about in her stomach. Lisa helped her to dress that morning. Hélène chose a pale lilac frock that she had most recently ordered to be made up according to what one heard was the fashion at the Court of Louis Quatorze. The neckline, edged in a very wide snowy white collar of heavy Belgium lace, dropped low and off her slight and softly rounded shoulders. The snugly fitting bodice accented her tiny waistline as the over-skirt pulled back in front by plump bows displayed a silver silk taffeta underskirt. Hélène had chosen the colors because they were a compliment to her soft coloring. With Lisa’s help, her hair was arranged in small rings of curls which cascaded from high off either side of her head over her ears.
“Madame is very beautiful,” Lisa said shyly, her eyes wide with admiration.
“Thank you, Lisa, but tell me truly, do I look like I have been ill?” Hélène asked anxiously as she patted more powder on her nose and smoothed it over her cheeks.
“No, madame, not at all,” replied the girl earnestly.
“Just a little crème rouge now for my cheeks… and my lips and… I am finished.” Hélène paused still staring into the mirror.
“Madame, I am so nervous. To receive a duc in your home is such an honor, and I am only a peasant girl; I am afraid I will not know the proper thing to say or do.”
Hélène looked at the serving girl and smiled sympathetically.
“Lisa, I am so sorry. Please, forgive me. I have been so involved in my own preparation, I never thought about your feelings. But you will be fine,” she spoke encouragingly, “just do as you always do. You should curtsy when he first arrives and pay attention to what you are asked. You have been doing a splendid job here for me. Le duc is a rather quiet man, he does not hold to the fancy airs of the Court, it will not be difficult to serve him.” Hélène stood and spontaneously gave the girl an affectionate squeeze on the arm before walking down to the small salon.
The older woman did not want the young girl to see how her own stomach was a mass of nerves. It had been years since Jean-Philippe had last been to the country cottage. That was when Hélène had allowed for his son to move into the chateau with him. She had thought he had known. Now she knew for certain that he knew. Jacques-Jean had spoken to him. What exactly did she expect Jean-Philippe to say? One moment she looked forward to his coming like a young maiden awaiting her swain. The next moment she was filled with dread, fearing the recriminations he might heap upon her for what she had done to him.
No, Jean-Philippe was not like that, she told herself. He had never shown her the slightest contempt for what she had done when she had become his father’s mistress. His heart was too good, too generous for that. He was too kind and caring. He had had no security to offer her. Hélène began to relive the memories of their romance over twenty years ago and found passion stirring within her once again.
At last, the duke arrived. With knees trembling and voice shaking, poor little Lisa answered the door. She dropped an awkward curtsy and ushered Jean-Philippe into the salon where Hélène was waiting. She was poised graciously to receive him.
He had a small moustache now and there was a bit of silver in the hair at his temples. But he still looked much as he always had. His clothes were austerely conservative, old fashioned some would say, and yet he was so pensively handsome.
“May I offer you some refreshment, m’lord?” Hélène asked graciously after she dropped a deep curtsy, hoping he did not notice the slight quake in her voice.
With that, Hélène excused Lisa who was more than happy to escape to the safe familiarity of the cooking pantry. The sound of the girl’s quick departure left a silence in the room. For a long moment Jean-Philippe looked intently at his first and only love and then he spoke.
“You are looking very well, Hélène.”
“Merci, m’lord,” she replied simply, modestly casting her gaze downward.
“It is quite unbelievable,” he went on in a tone of mild disbelief. “I came here fully expecting to find a wan and sickly creature and here you are… looking more beautiful than ever, if that is even possible.” It was a casual compliment, like so many one might hear fall glibly from the lips of any gentleman but it held special meaning for Hélène. Jean-Philippe had never been a courtly flatterer and he had spoken with serious sincerity.
“M’lord, you are very kind,” she replied softly. They stood, each extremely conscious of the other’s presence. The silent seconds ticked by until the atmosphere grew awkward. “Please… be seated, m’lord, forgive me for not offering sooner…” the words rushed from her in embarrassment.
He waved aside the apology. “It is nothing… I am satisfied to stand for a moment,” he added, then had a sudden thought. “But perhaps you wish to sit. You are still weak?”
“No-no, I am quite well now.”
“Jacques said you were very ill,” he said softly in almost a question.
She started to deny it, but thought better of it. She had been very ill, it was what prompted her to confess to her son. There was no sense in lying about it.
“Oui,” she said simply.
“Very ill,” he repeated. “Despite how well you look. You gave everyone quite a fright,” he said looking at her intently as she cast her eyes down again. “You gave me a fright as well.”
“M’lord?” she looked up again in puzzlement.
“Am I never to be Jean-Philippe to you again?” It sounded almost like a cry choking up out of his throat and her eyes were riveted on his face. He added quickly, “Jacques has told me… is it true? He is my son?”
“It is true,” she nodded and diverted her eyes again from his scrutinizing gaze.
“You never told me.” Was there a trace of anguish in his voice, or was it accusation? She could not tell.
“I always thought you knew… and that you must hate me for it.” He looked at her with hurt and sadness in his eyes but said nothing. “When you came to my home and asked to take JJ to the chateau to live, I was certain you knew. I even had a fear that somehow you would take my son away from me and turn him against me to punish me for what I had done to you.”
“Oh, Hélène,” her name came out in a long anguished sigh. “I could never wish to hurt you. No, I did not know. I suppose it never entered my mind that you could have left me knowing you were carrying my child.” The words were spoken candidly, without malice, but they stung her to the bone. “If only you had told me, Hélène,” the words came wrenching from within, “you would have been my duchesse!”
“Please, do not hate me, Jean-Philippe. I was a foolish, foolish girl who thought she was doing the best thing for our child. Perhaps I thought when your father died, we could be lovers again. I do not know. Not a single day has passed that I have not regretted my decision. My happiness ended. I have spent the past twenty years without a man’s love, and the past eight years alone. That has been my punishment. I could not bear it if you now hated me as well.”
He stepped toward her, drawn irresistibly to be near her. His arms longed to hold her once again, caress her, feel the warmth of her kisses, kisses that still lived in his memory. He took her hand in his, brought it to his lips, and smelled her scent. She looked like a fragile crystal angel but she was warm and soft.
“Oh, ma chérie, I could not hate you though you broke my heart. I have never stopped loving you. If only you had not stopped loving me. You are and always will be the love of my life, the only one to whom I have ever given my heart. My poor wife, may God forgive me, deserved better. I could not foster enough interest to get her with child.”
Hélène was drawn by an invisible force to be closer to him, her trembling fingers traced lightly over his cheek. How many years since she had been permitted this intimacy? Her fingers went on touching him, his brow, his jaw, then, boldly she caressed his lips.
“Jean-Philippe, mon amour, mon cœur, I never ever stopped loving you. Is that what you thought? Of course, you did. What else? I acted so heartlessly but I thought… You were not here when I realized I was with child… oh, my love, how could I have been so stupid?”
His eyes were full of a sad longing which as her words registered was replaced by passion. She was quivering, standing so close to him. Suddenly, the years melted away and they became very young lovers again, thirsting for each other’s embrace. For a long while they held each other, feeling their hearts beat in unison and being consumed by a burning desire.
At last, he picked her up in his arms, drawing her into his body. She was gossamer light and clung to him as he carried her up to her bedchamber. Drunk with the heady wine of mutual passion, desire, and love, they spent the next hours making up for twenty lost years.
It was late and the last customers had just left the tavern. Marie hurriedly carried the abandoned tankards to the kitchen. She brought a bucket, brush, and rag back out to the main room and began to scrub down the table tops just vacated. She was very aware of her employer and could not wait to finish so she could escape for the night to the safety of her room.
Bouchet walked heavily to the thick planked front door and opened it. He extinguished the candles in the lanterns that hung outside on either side of the entrance. He moved back inside and closed the door, dropping the bar in its place. He saw the girl working in a frenzy. He had already decided that she was not going to get away from him this night.
Every evening it was his routine to tip the chairs and benches up onto the tables and sweep and sometimes scrub down the floor. Marie planned to finish with the table tops before he had completed his task so she could slip out as she had been doing. She had just wiped off the last table and turned to leave. Startled, she dropped the bucket on the floor as she ran right into Bouchet who had quietly crept up behind her.
She gasped and looking up at his face, her own face went white. He did not need to say a thing. She knew and she began to shake her head.
“No… please, monsieur, no, no, please.” It came out in almost a whimper for he had grasped her wrist in a vice-like grip. He said nothing but a mirthless smile played upon his lips as he bent in closing the distance to her mouth. She was neatly pinioned against the table.
She could smell the stench of garlic and rotting teeth on his breath and struggled, trying to evade his kiss. In desperation she gripped the wooden brush tightly in her free hand and wheeling it with all her strength she attempted to hit him. It was a mistake. He saw it coming, easily ripped it from her grasp and let it drop to the floor. In retaliation, he delivered a stunning blow to her head with his huge meaty hand.
Marie felt the blow with a crack that rattled the teeth in her gums and sent darts of pain shooting through her head to her eye and ear. She was momentarily stunned and almost lost consciousness as strange light bursts danced before her eyes. She hardly felt it when he threw her onto the table. His voice sounded as if coming from a great distance.
“Do not play the innocent with me, you little slut! You came here with some man’s seed growing in your belly. I see you with the others, you like to tease.”
His hands yanked her skirts up and out of his way. He pushed her legs apart and stood between them. Before she could gain back control of her arms, both were pinned against her chest by one hand pushing down on her. She could barely draw breath.
“I feed you, I shelter you… I have a right…” he was panting now, his free hand fumbling fiercely with his own laces.
Marie felt a burning pain as he thrust into her with his bloated member. She winced and cried out but there was no one to hear her and he only laughed. She could not fight him, he was too strong. In response to her struggle he simply leaned more heavily upon her until she thought her ribs would crack. She had to endure. She willed herself to relax to make it easier on herself but she could not. It would not take long, she told herself it would be over soon. She must endure. Every stroke was a searing burn against her tender flesh and she bit her lip to keep from screaming. She could taste her own blood in her mouth. She could hear his labored breathing, like an animal with each exhale fanning her face with fetid air. She would endure. Her eyes were clenched shut until a final harsh thrust sent such a lightning bolt of pain through her body she opened her eyes with a gasp and saw a black curtain begin to draw up around her but she did not pass out completely.
Bouchet was sweating profusely. He shuddered and with short repeated jabs he ejaculated in a series of snorting grunts. Then he was still. He had been a fool to wait this long, he thought to himself taking a deep breath. He withdrew looking triumphantly at the flesh he had just violated, very pink in its nest of curls. She was here for the taking. She had no protector and there was no reason he should not have her whenever he pleased he assured himself as he pulled up his britches.
Marie lay like a limp bird whose wings had been broken. Bouchet sneered, licked his dry lips, and moved off to get a tankard of ale. Slowly she lifted herself to her elbow, and struggled to sit up. Gingerly, she slid off the table top, her skirts falling back down over her nakedness. She felt bow-legged as she began to walk across the room.
Bouchet was watching her over the tankard as he swallowed. He saw her cheek beginning to change colors where he had struck her.
“Marie!” He barked. She stopped. “Where do you think you are going?” She turned toward him, her eyes averted. “Did I say you could leave?!” He heard her utter a small sound. “Get back over here!” She shrank from him involuntarily. “I told you to come here!” he commanded and she moved slowly toward him, stopping just out of arms’ reach.
Bouchet emptied the tankard deliberately and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. He had just robbed her of all dignity and it empowered him absolutely. He felt the power and pushed his advantage over the small female standing broken before him. He set down the tankard and lumbered toward her.
“Look at me!” he commanded sharply. She looked up at him quickly and avoided his eyes, dropping her gaze to his whiskered chin as he glared down at her. “No more games from you unless you want more of this,” he threatened and tapped her swelling cheek with just enough force to make her wince. “Understand?!” She nodded quickly, submission in her eyes. “Good!” He belched loudly. He deliberately grabbed hold of her ill fitting bodice and with a ripping tug on the rotting fabric, he exposed both round young breasts. He took hold and squeezed them, pinching her flesh between his forefingers and thumbs, wanting to leave her black and blue in reprisal for all the time she had made him wait. “It has been a long time,” he said ominously, “and I am not yet through with you.”
Marie tried not to cry.
a High Crime . . .
Jacques-Jean is a charming, honorable young man who lives a peaceful, privileged life within the French dukedom of his Catholic father. Although a bastard raised in his Huguenot mother’s faith, he unexpectedly becomes his father’s only heir. Life seems deceptively idyllic until October 1685. Louis XIV rescinds the Edict of Nantes which had ensured every French Protestant protection under the law. Overnight, it is a High Crime to practice the Huguenot Faith!
A jealous and aspiring family member turns the attention of the Court upon Jacques-Jean. A Royal Warrant is issued for his arrest and his father cannot protect him. Never will King Louis or the Church of State allow the Huguenot to inherit a dukedom! With ambitious eyes lusting for his future inheritance, pretense of conversion will not save him. The gen d’armes have a network closing in. He must escape the country—leaving everything he knows behind forever!
Louis XIV rescinds the Edict of Nantes which had ensured every French Protestant protection under the law. Overnight, it is a High Crime to practice the Huguenot Faith!
The Huguenot: Flight From Terror
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Two Men, One Woman, and a New World that Offers Endless Possibilities . . .
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