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Passion and Glory

Grace (Book 4)







Samantha Kaye








Copyright © The author as named on the book cover and Harry Samkange. The author has asserted their moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work. All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, copied, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright holder, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

This is a work of fiction. The events and characters described herein are imaginary and are not intended to refer to specific places or living persons. The author has represented and warranted full ownership and/or legal right to publish all the materials in this book. This book may not be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in whole or in part by any means, including graphic, electronic, or mechanical without the express written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.



An End to Hope

The thunderous report of Austrian cannon firing continuously in battery crashed against every ear – a rumbling wall of sound. Crackling staccato bursts from the swarm of French skirmishers fanning out toward the advancing line of enemy troops answered back, obscuring the field of battle. Between the gaps of the battle-made clouds of smoke, the black boots and tall shakos of the Allied infantry advanced slowly over the trampled farm fields, the dark head of the column moving toward the very center of the French position. The combat had reached its point of crisis. If the densely packed mass of Cumberland’s Allied troops could reach the ridge and the gentle heights it commanded, the entire French line could be rolled up and the battle won.

More than fifteen thousand British and Hanoverians crowded together in close column, having marched with stout courage along the length of the enemy position to arrive at the center of the French line near a little village named Fontenoy. There they encountered what remained of the Gallic center and all the reserves that the French commander, Marshal Saxe, the German born illegitimate son of the King of Poland and Countess Maria Aurora of Königsmarck, could throw at them. This reserve included the Cavalry of the Maison du Roi, led by Général le Marquis de Blaise, who received his orders to advance while savoring the last of the hand-rolled short cigars he always carried into battle.

“Your orders Mon Général?” the Comte de Blancard, Aide de Camp to the Marquis de Blaise, shouted above the din.

Blancard had one eye on his general and the other focused down the road on the advancing dense column of Allied troops which threatened to overthrow the entire French position. Général le Marquis de Blaise glanced with haughty coolness at the glittering line of staff officers arrayed about him. He took a long draught from his cheroot, then tossed it to the ground, the smoke billowing up from his nostrils to mingle and disappear into the surrounding white haze of cannon fire.

“Prepare the Cavalry to advance. This is it my braves. France depends upon us. We must not allow those fellows to reach our infantry!”

The general lifted his hat in the air, the signal to his staff to ready the finest cavalry in France and perhaps all of Europe, to charge. All the troopers and officers were the handpicked praetorians of the French nobility. The general had no doubt that the men under his service would do their duty.

“The Horse Grenadiers are to advance in line abreast by squadron, echelon right, followed in support by the light cavalry. You there, pass on the order to sound the charge!” the general thundered, looking directly at his grandson.

Nicolas de Montferraud, Vicomte and Chevalier d’Argentolle, stared back in confusion. He couldn’t be at Fontenoy with his grandfather. The battle took place long before I was born. He stared down the road at the fine order of the dense column of slowly advancing Allied troops, swept up in the glorious panoply of unfolding battle. Then he remembered that his grandfather, whom he had never met, had been killed at Fontenoy.

Nicolas urged his mount forward toward the crest where his grandfather surveyed the battle, determined to warn him of the impending danger. The old soldier sat with magnificent prominence atop a bulging rise of ground on his great black warhorse, a splendid spectacle intended to provide encouragement to his men and sow doubt and irresolution in the hearts of the enemy. As Nicolas reached the base of his grandfather’s position, a stray ball from a cannon struck the marquis mid-thigh, taking the left leg clean off and knocking both horse and rider to the ground with the force of the impact.

Nicolas looked on in horror. He spurred his mount toward his grandfather who lay mortally wounded on the ground. Something struck him in the face. His neck exploded in pain and he fell from his horse and lay stunned on the ground. The mud in which he lay had the color of rust, fed by the blood leeched from the legions of bodies planted in the earth around him, death’s macabre crop of souls. Nicolas struggled to rise in vain, his fine blue coat covered in the blood drenched muck. The call to charge rang in his ears as the trumpeters sounded the bugles in unison. With desperation, he began to crawl toward his grandfather, but the path forward suddenly stood barred by the thunderous charge of the advancing French squadrons. Nicolas forced himself up on his elbows and called out to his grandfather, who pointed the way forward for his squadrons to charge as he lay dying in the arms of the Comte de Blancard.

The marquis made quite a heroic figure. So heroic, that Nicolas recognized the scene. The painting of it hung in the Great Room of the Montferraud château on St. Domingue. A dream. A dreadful dream. He wanted to wake up. He tried to stand up in the muck. “Grandfather!”

As soon as he spoke, blood poured from his mouth and he began to choke. He fell back into the mud. The darkness swallowed all sound, the battle, and then his consciousness. Whole.

Madame Lerescat turned on her side. She scratched at the rough straw matting that clung to her coarse cotton underdress and nudged her husband with the point of her elbow. “Look Petrus, he’s stirred at last, help him back on the bed before he does even more harm to himself.”

Mirande Lerescat led a life accustomed to hardship. She had a face both round and kind, with skin burnished brown and snakeskin tough from a lifetime of exposure to the sun. Most of her front teeth were missing, from poor diet and a lifetime of using them as a substitute for hand tools when she repaired the tough strands of her husband’s fishing nets. She had wrists as thick and tough as fenceposts, and the rest of her stood short, sturdy, and tough, with powerful scarred hands from a lifetime of ceaseless toil. Her husband Petrus fished for his livelihood. She cooked, cleaned, sewed, gutted and prepared the fish, mended sails and netting, and the few vestments she and her husband owned; and did anything else that need doing when her Petrus sailed the local bay in search of fish. Her demeanor toward strangers might seem gruff, but underneath the rough façade lay the softest heart imaginable; a heart that had endured years of sadness and tragedy, spurred by the loss of more than four children, none of whom survived infancy. After so many disappointments, that heart had turned the fullness of its nurturing instincts upon the poor lost soul who had been washed into their little stretch of sea.

Madame Lerescat wore a loose-fitting cotton cap that she had sewn from the same salvaged material used to make her gown. Her feet were bare, but tough enough not to be bothered by the hard, rough, planking of the floor, the dried boards another gift from the sea. She gave her husband a second nudge. Petrus Lerescat wore just a long shirt, the second of two he owned. He finally turned over and roused himself to sit upright on the makeshift bed of straw laid out on the floor. Petrus got to his feet and picked a coal from the hearth, turned it in his hand and blew on the end till it glowed dull red. He touched the tip to the taper wick on the mantle, and a moment later there was light.

“I heard him, too, Mirande. Stop poking me and get your balms ready in case he needs them.”

Petrus had plucked the stranger from a launch which had been set adrift at sea. The sea had yielded up many questions along with the body, ravaged by exposure to unrelenting sunlight and the biting lash of sea driven winds. There were also many wounds to contend with—savage, severe, and closely given. It seemed plain to Petrus that the stranger had suffered the knife before he suffered the sea, but who had done such a thing, and why, might always remain a mystery. Only the boy could tell them, but he might not live long enough to reveal his secrets to anyone. Even if he did survive, old Petrus knew one thing with certainty. Trouble would follow the boy, and he and Mirande already had more than enough of that. Petrus went into the bedroom. He hauled the boy gently off the floor and lifted him back into bed.

“What was that he said, Petrus? It sounded like ‘grandfather’ don’t you think? Perhaps he’s dreaming. He must be hungry. Oh, just look at how thin he is! We need to get some soup in him before he wastes away to nothing. Perhaps we ought to try now? Can you raise him up while I try and feed him?”

Petrus leaned the boy’s torso back and cradled his neck with care, avoiding the bandages which Mirande had wrapped around the throat. Mirande got up and went a few steps to the hearth. She took the bowl of soup she’d been saving from its perch atop the grey stone, and walked back to join Petrus in the bedroom of the two-room dilapidated cottage house.

The boy they cared for lay on a salvaged bed of hard wood, which had washed up on their beach after a rough storm. The sea provided many things. Some things like the bed came intact, the manmade flotsam from wrecks at sea. Other things like needles and hooks and the coverings for the few pieces of furniture they possessed, were fashioned from the raw materials of sea life, like bones and harvested pelts. The mattress the boy slept on, Mirande had sewn together from burlap cargo sacks washed up from another unknown wreck, stuffed with armloads of straw they cut themselves from nearby fields. The rough pillow which cushioned the boy’s head, had been made in the same way.

Mirande took up a stooped position near the head of the bed. “The poor dear. He might have hurt himself, but at least we know there’s still life in him. Now Petrus, remember to keep his head steady and mind the wounds on his back.”

Petrus shook his head. “I’m doing my best, Mirande. You just get something into him. No telling how long he lay out there. See how bronzed he is from the sun and how parched he still looks?”

“Of course, I see. Who do you think has been sitting by his side night and day, tending his wounds these many days?” She held the wooden bowl of soup in one hand and a thick spoon carved of wood in the other.

Petrus opened the boy’s mouth and Mirande guided the spoon inside it. The boy’s eyelids came half open, but the pupils rolled back so that just the whites of the eyes could be seen.

Mirande shuddered at the sight. “Can you hold his mouth open a little wider? Just press on his cheeks.”

Petrus squeezed gently on the side of the cheeks, using the thumb and index finger of one hand while supporting their patient’s head with the other. Mirande waited for the right moment and coaxed another mouthful of poor man’s broth, a concoction of boiled fish heads, mussels, and wild grasses, into the boy’s mouth. He groaned and his eyes creaked open, unfocused and dim, as if he peered into a separate world of shadow and fancy.

Mirande nodded her head with enthusiasm at the small but important victory. “That’s got it! Maybe the poor devil has a chance after all!”

Petrus shook his head with caution. “Don’t get so excited, Mirande. It’ll take more than one feeding to get him back on his feet. Saint’s breath, but I’ve never seen so many wounds on a body before, and the long one on his throat, that’s the slash of a knife, I’m sure of it. Whoever he is, he’s a very lucky soul to have made it this far.”

Despite the warning, Mirande glowed with optimism as she continued to spoon feed the patient. Petrus watched the shadows play across her face as the faint yellow light from their one and only taper danced with animated warning as the flame neared the base of the candle. It occurred to Petrus that they had been married to each other for so long they had begun to look alike, except Petrus had more teeth and the line of his nose and jaw jutted out from his face like a rocky crag, while Mirande’s softer features had more gently eroded. Their life together hadn’t been easy, but he didn’t know any woman more resilient than his Mirande. Others might look down on her for being a fishwife, but Petrus thought her the finest woman he’d ever met. He smiled at Mirande. Not just any smile, but the one he reserved for the nights when they shared a carafe of cheap wine and each other’s old bodies. Mirande smiled back, showing her gapped teeth. After all the years and hardship, Petrus always felt hope and love, whenever Mirande flashed her special smile.

“Well Petrus, whoever he may be, God placed him in our hands, so we must do our best to take care of him. Now open his mouth again if you can, I won’t be satisfied until he’s gotten at least half the bowl down. My, but it is a wonder, all these years and no surviving children of our own, and then the good Lord sees fit to throw one up from the sea just like that. It’s a sign I tell you, Petrus. We must do our best for him, no matter what.”

Petrus nodded, despite his doubts. We’ll do the best we can, but he can’t die here. We’ve ills enough of our own and don’t need more to weigh us down, no matter what Mirande thinks. If he lives, we’ll give him what we can and send him on his way. If he dies, he goes back to the sea and I’ll make sure that any trace of him being here, disappears with the body.

*

A pair of swallows darted playfully around the long black carriage, diving and soaring in tandem as the slow heavy rig moved along the road at just above a walking pace. A driver and one attendant rode together in front. At the back, stood two footmen on the riding board. The complement of four retainers marked the vehicle as belonging to someone of both stature and means, but the swallows soon lost interest, diverted toward a patch of meadow alongside the road, thick with flowers and insects.

The countryside surrounding the ancient lane, which the Romans had begun more than a thousand years earlier, blossomed lush and green. Wild flowers dotted the route of passage, delighting both eye and nose with color and fragrance. Peasants tilled the fields, the lucky ones with beasts to pull their ploughs in relative ease. Others used hoes and any other tools at hand, backs bent low from the hard work, like stalks of grain in a strong wind. Vague traces of country work songs drifted across the air to entice the ear, the sky a pleasant, pale blue, splashed with wisps of white. A more perfect scene could hardly have been conjured by any magus; a day to cheer the heart and lighten the spirit of any traveler.

The coach carried just two passengers, a young girl and her governess. Despite the enchanting scenery, the girl scarcely even glimpsed outside. No smile brightened her visage, no word of appreciation passed her lips. She had no more interest in the pristine beauty that rolled slowly by her window than she had in the attempts of her governess to make conversation. Despite her immense beauty and the advantages her noble birth and position provided over those who toiled outside in the fields, she sat listless and empty, an unfeeling grey wraith passing formlessly through a world of gaiety, color, and substance. A world which now seemed forever beyond her grasp.

Madame Tarnaut reached across the expanse of the coach to take the hand of the Vicomtesse de La Bouhaire, for whom she had been tutor, companion, and friend since her young charge had first lain in her cradle. “My dearest Sérolène, you must try and have some cheer. I know it’s very difficult to put things behind you, but you must try. He’s gone my dear, and much as we may lament it, nothing we can do will bring him back.”

Madame Tarnaut watched to see if her words would engender any effect, be it acceptance, or even defiance. But she received only the same blank expression and ashen stare that now seemed engraved onto the once joyful and bright countenance of her charge.

“You must not let what happened destroy your life. Dear Nicolas gave everything of himself so that you would remain safe and unharmed. You must not forsake the precious gift that he gave you.”

The mention of the hallowed name of the chevalier, at last had an effect. For the first time the vicomtesse raised her head and turned to look at her governess. Waiting.

“Live your life to the fullest my angel, mindful of the dear cost of each moment. Remember how much he loved you and what he gave for you in the end. Let your eyes see all the things he can no longer see. Let your heart feel all the love that his poured forth for you.”

The dam broke and Sérolène fell into the open arms of her governess. “Oh Madame! It just hurts so much! I don’t know how I can go on. Every moment I see his face before me. The way his eyes looked before he…before he…”

Sérolène couldn’t bring herself to say the words, closing her eyes against the horror of that night aboard the Belle Héloïse as the memories flooded back. What joy she had felt as she rushed with eagerness from her cousine Julienne’s side, keen to return to the main deck to tell her beloved of her acceptance of his unexpected proposal. Blinded by her happiness, she had made it only as far as the outer corridor when the wretch Malveau, who impersonated one of the ship’s real officers, accosted her—putting his hand around her mouth and brandishing the long knife he had used to cow her. The short journey she had taken as his prisoner through the dark corridors of the ship, pretending she merely took a stroll with the false officer, had been one of the most terrifying experiences of her life, especially after Malveau assaulted the Comte de Marbéville and knocked him unconscious.

Everything after that seemed a blur. She watched in horror as Nicolas fought with Malveau, and in a desperate attempt to save her, had lunged at the villain and taken them both over the side into the sea. The next two days had been agonizing. With each approaching minute she felt everything—her life, her dreams, her happiness—slowly receding from her, carried away on the relentlessly flowing current. Every hour that went by without finding Nicolas, the slimmer her hopes became that he somehow miraculously cheated death again and would return to her.

When Capitaine Closon abandoned the search after three days of fruitless efforts, she collapsed from exhaustion and despair and spent the next several days in her cabin, unable to leave her bed. Though weeks had now passed since the tragedy, she still keenly felt the anguish and hurt, as if it had only just occurred.

Sérolène squeezed the hands of her governess. “I know it’s a beautiful day and that should gladden my spirit, but it all seems dull and colorless to me, as if no more happiness remained in the world. All I feel is a constant ache and sadness. As terrible as it may seem, Madame, a part of me doesn’t want it to go away. It’s as if the pain is meant to be a reminder of what Nico endured, what he sacrificed for me.”

Madame Tarnaut pressed her lips to Sérolène’s forehead, stroking the vicomtesse’s hair to soothe her as she had done so many times before. “I know how deeply you loved him my dear, but you must not let your grief consume you. In time, the bitter sting of loss which you now feel with such sharpness, will pass, as it must. As all things must. Trust your soul and your prayers to God. He will guide you through your trials. I believe Madame de Salvagnac’s original intent in sending you to the Ursulines may have been equal parts correction and education, but I think now the choice proved a fortunate one. Perhaps in Troyes you will find the peace and the solitude that you seek. It must seem impossible to you now to believe it, but a life of promise and joy awaits you, if only you can bring yourself to allow for the possibility of your own future.”

Sérolène listened in silence. She gazed outside the window at the beautiful countryside of the Loire and felt nothing but the empty anguish of utter hopelessness. She closed her eyes and held fast to her governess, shielding her face in the soft brown silk-satin of Madame Tarnaut’s sleeve, to conceal the fresh trails of her tears.

*

The black coach proceeded across the lush green valleys and winding rivers of the Pays de la Loire, then northeast through Tours, Blois and Orléans. Though Sérolène and her governess began the journey by coach in Nantes, they had several more weeks of travel before reaching the convent of the Ursulines in Troyes. Each day they rose early and embarked across the countryside, following the post route past the lush green vistas dominated by the watersheds of the rivers Loire and Maine, the flowing arteries of life and commerce in central France. The towns and villages along the route stood so well situated that it seemed difficult to think of them as providing purpose other than to be admired. But when stopping to eat, or to change horses, the muck and the smell and the grim reality of poverty and hunger upon too many faces, tore aside the false veil of idyll to reveal the villages for what they truly were, the simple rough artifacts of country life with deep but troubled roots built up over centuries of ceaseless struggle for existence.

The vicomtesse’s carriage reached Orléans on the 29th of August, arriving from Blois via St. Die, Auley, Beaugency, Clery, and St. Memin. Exhausted from almost three months of continuous travel, Sérolène refused to go any further without a brief respite. Madame Tarnaut also felt the rigors of the road, and agreed to spend several days recuperating in the ancient city of Orléans, in whose great cathedral French Kings were traditionally crowned. The vacant city hôtel of an absent local seigneur served as their place of lodging, it being standard practice among the nobility to render to those of their own class, the privilege of boarding as guests. The household staff, some thirty-eight in number, appeared very pleased to have something meaningful to do while their master journeyed out of town, allowing Madame Tarnaut and Sérolène to soothe both spirits and backsides, in preparation for the last portion of the journey. They departed Orléans on the 6th of September. Seven days later they arrived at last, in Troyes.

*

“Was that an inn we just passed Madame? Can we stop soon? I believe I’m rather hungry,” Sérolène said.

The coach passed by the famed cathedral near the center of Troyes. Madame Tarnaut smiled her encouragement, happy to see her charge recover some of her appetite if not yet all her spirits. She rapped her parasol on the inside ceiling of the coach to gain the coachman’s attention. “Driver! We shall stop at the next suitable establishment if you please. We are both famished and in need of rest!”

“I know just the place, Madame. A superb carriage inn not far from here. It’s modestly priced but also well suited to distinguished ladies such as yourselves,” the driver called out with enthusiasm.

“Very well then, I shall rely on you not to disappoint us,” Madame Tarnaut replied.

The sound of hoof beats and clattering wheels drowned out the driver’s reply as he nudged the horses along over the cobblestone streets. They arrived a short time later at the inn the driver had suggested, which appeared both comfortable and homespun. The delectable aroma of spicy meats and freshly baked bread emanating from within, enticed the road weary travelers to disembark with more than the normal haste.

The driver went inside to speak to the proprietor, a distant relation by marriage. As soon as he announced Sérolène’s title of vicomtesse, the entire staff hurried to put their best foot forward in welcome. The driver came back outside to inform his passengers of the arrangements.

“Madame, the staff are making some adjustments to the lodgings to best accommodate you. It seems another guest took the best rooms, but I’m told he’s gone off on a hunting excursion and won’t return for a few days so they’re giving you his quarters. Would you care to dine while things are being made ready? It’s been a long journey and I’m sure you and the vicomtesse must be hungry.”

Madame Tarnaut nodded her acceptance.

“Very good then Mesdames, the proprietor is ready to escort you both to the private dining area.”

*

Madame Tarnaut led the way inside, followed by Sérolène. The place had low, thick beams, stained with age and the flavorful smoke of more than two centuries of cooking fires. Two separate hearths, each brightly lit, stood at opposite ends of the room, with several tables of diners clustered near each one. A large doorway toward the rear of the establishment teemed with a steady flow of traffic as the staff brought dishes in and out of the kitchen for the tables. The inn’s staff of eight stood to present themselves near the entrance to the main dining area as the special guests filed past. Madame Tarnaut inspected each of the inn’s workers with a thorough gaze as she walked by the assembled staff. Sérolène followed behind, head and eyes downcast, the weight of sadness adding a sympathetic fragility to her bearing that marked her even more than her great height and beauty.

They passed through the main room into a private section to the side of the first hearth, cordoned off with thick tapestries hung from the beams overhead. The patrons in the common dining room stared with as much discretion polite curiosity allowed. A few even rose to their feet as Sérolène and her governess filed past into the ornately decorated dining room reserved for special guests. The room measured about a third of the size of the main hall, and had a round, carved mahogany table at the center that accommodated six chairs. The staff removed the unneeded seats and prepared the place settings. Sérolène and Madame Tarnaut sat beside, rather than across from each other. A waiter brought out an ornate porcelain bowl, so they could wash their hands, while another poured two glasses of the inn’s best wine for the special guests. Once the wine had been served, three servers carried in hot plates of the region’s special sausage along with bread, jams, and cheese, as the cooks prepared the main meal.

Madame Tarnaut took a small sip of wine and glanced about the room. “What a delightful place, don’t you think? I worried it would not be up to standards, but I see no reason for complaint. It seems they are indeed capable of accommodating guests of quality here.”

Madame Tarnaut took several samples of the small plates which had been brought out and set before them. “Why do you not eat my dear? I thought you said you were hungry. It must be a relief to you to know we shall at last reach the Ursulines on the morrow and your long journey will be at an end.”

Sérolène smiled politely, though in her current state of melancholy it seemed more of a grimace. Madame Tarnaut reached for Sérolène’s hand. “Is something wrong my dear?”

Sérolène gave a long sigh. “I was just thinking how much I will miss your company, Madame. I don’t know what I’d have done without you these past weeks. Do you think the sisters at the Ursulines will be very strict? Or that I should be able to make any friends there among the other boarders?”

“Oh, my poor dear girl. Is that what concerns you so? I assure you there’s no need to feel apprehensive. The Ursulines are not one of the severe disciplinary orders. You’ll find no harsh words or punishments among those kind sisters.”

Sérolène eyed her governess with a look midway between hope and wariness. “Truly?”

Madame Tarnaut downed two bites of the delicious sausage, wiped her mouth with the white linen napkin then fixed her gaze on Sérolène. “Did you think I would allow your aunt to send you to that sort of place? Oh, I perhaps overstated some things to make Madame de Salvagnac believe that overall conditions and the quality of your education would be up to her exacting standards. God, I expect, will forgive me if I exaggerated, knowing the benevolence of my intent.”

Sérolène leaned over to embrace her governess. Madame Tarnaut could see the relief in the vicomtesse’s eyes. “I am very relieved to know it, Madame, but how I shall miss you, nevertheless. You’ve known me longer than anyone, and with all that’s happened in my life…”

Madame Tarnaut turned away to prevent the swell of her own emotions from inundating them both. She cut a small piece of sausage and placed it on her fork, then fed it to Sérolène as if feeding a small child. Sérolène obediently opened her mouth and accepted the offering.

“You see. It’s delicious isn’t it.”

The vicomtesse nodded in agreement. Madame Tarnaut cut another piece for Sérolène. “You shall see for yourself tomorrow. I doubt any of the nuns from my time are still there but I’m sure things haven’t changed so very much. The convent is situated on a hill overlooking the outskirts of the city, just to the east of the Cathedral. You’ll have the most splendid view should you be fortunate enough to secure one of the upper rooms.”

The proprietor of the inn announced himself, leading in a small procession of waiters who brought with them a succulent chicken dressed with vegetables and bathed in a rich wine sauce, also a large ham, two pheasants, and a wild hare roasted in its own blood.

Mesdames, your diner is served!”

The serves laid the courses on the table along with several side plates to complement them. Madame Tarnaut directed precisely how much of each dish should be placed on her plate and Sérolène’s.

“If there is anything at all you require, Mesdames, anything—you have only to ring the bell and I shall be most honored to tend to your needs at once! I have taken the liberty of alerting the local constable to your presence. He assures me they will be watching over everything to ensure you are not troubled.”

The plump proprietor had a cheerful disposition, with a crooked beak for a nose, kind hazel eyes, and curly reddish hair which peeked out from underneath his ill-fitting wig. He went by the name of Corbusier. Madame Tarnaut found everything about him pleasant and welcoming, just like his establishment. She nodded her thanks. The host understood the value of his guest’s privacy and retired as quickly as he had come, bowing several times as he backed out of the room.

Madame Tarnaut watched Sérolène pick at the feast in front of them with a marked lack of interest. She shook her head at the vicomtesse. “Now please, you must eat something. You’re wasting away in front of my very eyes.”

Sérolène let a few small morsels pass her lips. “I shall try. I promise.”

Madame Tarnaut sighed with resignation. “Very well. I shall say no more upon the matter.”

*

After the meal, a maid led Sérolène and Madame Tarnaut to their small suite of rooms. The rooms, like the food were simple and comfortable, and like most inns in France, also somewhat dirty. Sérolène, however, found a most welcome bonus in the attached private bathroom.

“Madame, they have a full bath! How wonderful it will be to bathe after so many days on the dusty roads.”

Madame Tarnaut saw no utility in bathing completely nude as Sérolène preferred, a habit of cleanliness the vicomtesse acquired from Madame de Blaise. But on this occasion, the first genuine smile from Sérolène caused her to overlook the gross impropriety of bathing toute nue.

It took nearly an hour to fetch and heat the water, after which the vicomtesse had a long soak in the wood and copper receptacle. When she finished, and stepped out of the tub, the maid stood ready to help her prepare for bed. Pretty and ever-smiling, the girl stepped forward to dry Sérolène off with a soft towel.

“Mademoiselle is very beautiful,” the maid said to Sérolène.

“You are very kind to say so,” Sérolène replied.

The maid helped Sérolène change into a soft muslin nightgown, which Madame Tarnaut had laid out on the bed. “May I brush Mademoiselle’s hair?” the girl asked.

“You may,” Sérolène replied.

The vicomtesse sat on the edge of a green settee while the girl tended to her long, thick tresses, combing them out with slow gentle strokes. Madame Tarnaut watched Sérolène’s reflection in the mirror. She scarcely recognized the face in the glass. So much had it changed since they had left St. Domingue. She felt as if she stared at the mere husk of the child she knew.

Sérolène caught Madame Tarnaut’s gaze in the mirror, the line of her shoulders slumped, as if she had read what her governess had been thinking. Madame Tarnaut put down the bible she had been thumbing through and placed a protective arm around the vicomtesse. She gestured to the maid to stop her brushing.

“That is all. You may go now,” Madame Tarnaut said.

The young maid bowed her head and departed without a sound. Madame Tarnaut guided Sérolène toward the bedchamber they would share. It consisted of an outer chamber that could be used as a small parlor and an inner chamber with two identical beds. Madame Tarnaut locked and bolted the door of the outer room then entered the main bedchamber, safeguarding the inner door in the same manner.

“One can never be too careful when travelling without a large retinue of escorts,” she reminded Sérolène.

The governess tucked her charge into the bed on the left, then climbed into the matching bed on the right. Each bed had a linen canopy for privacy which hung from a rectangular wooden frame. Madame Tarnaut blew out the last remaining candle. “Goodnight my dear child. Tomorrow, another and I hope a happier life begins for you.”

“Goodnight, Madame.”

Madame Tarnaut closed her eyes and listened to the cadence of the vicomtesse’s breathing. Every night of their journey to Troyes, Sérolène softly cried herself to sleep, and more than once she awoke in the middle of the night, crying out until her governess came to console her.

Madame Tarnaut prayed for Sérolène to gain the peace of sleep without tears, but again she heard Sérolène’s soft whimpering in the darkness. Her prayers would go another night unanswered. She felt a pang of aching grief for the child she loved as dearly as a daughter. And then sleep at last rendered the vicomtesse the mercy of forgetfulness and rest.

*

The Marquis de Blaise sat behind a large ornate desk, hands folded together in thought. The spacious office containing the desk, and several other pieces of ornate furniture, belonged to his friend, the Comte de Orvault, as did the large hôtel cited in the north central part of the Ile de Nantes. Monsieur de Orvault never used the hôtel, preferring to remain at the Court of Versailles. Blaise occupied the house now, along with Francis and Julienne. The marquis’ original plan had been to remain for several weeks in Nantes before embarking for Paris. But with the tragic death of his youngest son, his plans had been thrown into a state of fluctuation. He couldn’t decide on whether to proceed on to Paris, remain in Nantes and send for the marquise, or take the first ship back to St. Domingue and inform his wife of the tragedy in person.

The weight of sadness seemed to darken the lines of his furrowed brow. The Marquis raised his gaze from the polished walnut veneer of the desktop toward his eldest son, the Comte de Marbéville, who sat facing the desk and the large bay window behind it. The marquis tapped his fingers along the gilt edge of the polished, intricately wrought writing surface.

“How am I to tell her Francis? I can’t possibly write such a thing in a letter. Such disastrous and unexpected news must be delivered in person. I must be there to convey the evil tidings myself.”

The comte wore a red banyan gowni over stockings, loose breeches and a shirt. The marquis dressed in a similar manner, but with a patterned banyan of pale green and a short Turkish cap atop his head. “But you can’t possibly return home yourself, Father. It’s too long a journey and the seas are hardly safe now. British Marauders are everywhere, and when the news reaches London of the capture of their frigate, I daresay the Atlantic might become even more hazardous for our ships. I think it would be best to send for the marquise. It will be late September at best, before the letter of summons reaches her. By the time she takes ship and arrives here sometime in November, perhaps we might know definitively…”

The marquis slapped his hand on the desktop with a loud thwack. “By the great blue heavens, Francis! That’s quite enough!”

Francis’ eyes widened in shock. The marquis felt the blame of his eldest son’s regard and turned to look out the window to avoid it. Light streamed into the room, but even the brightness of a splendid day in Nantes could do nothing to clear his mood. He shook his head in silence. Such an unseemly outburst. He needed to regain control of himself. Such behavior must seem a shocking aberration to Francis. A man as carefully and elegantly bred as himself, with so many strains of nobility coursing through his blood that even those with royal antecedents used his house as an example of what the best of proper breeding could achieve, did not act in such a manner. All his life, he never raised his voice against women or a hand against children, never swore, spit, swaggered, or let his temper wander far enough to ever become lost. He dressed with exactitude, made love with elegance, and war with brio. And yet, the wound of his youngest son’s death felt so raw to the touch that he had quite lost his temper before his eldest son, and for the most innocuous of reasons.

The marquis looked back at Francis. At least he should try and explain himself. “We must stop these illusions that Nicolas has survived. I know you loved him dearly, and I assure you no one feels his loss more keenly than I, but it does not help us to have false hopes. It only prolongs the pain.”

Francis eyed his father with sympathy. “I’m sorry, Father, but I just can’t help wondering why we found no trace of the launch that Closon cut loose, or of Nicolas’ clothing. Perhaps he managed to make it into the boat and reach shore somewhere. I know you believe my hopes to be unfounded, but…well, I just feel as if he’s still out there somewhere. I watched him come into this world, father. And I feel in my heart of hearts that were his spirit to depart his life, I should feel it’s passing.”

The marquis’ gaze lay on Francis a long time. Then he stood and began pacing the floor, his steps deliberate and measured. “And you think we’d not have heard something by now? The word’s gone all along the coast to report any discoveries of missing persons alive or dead that match his description and we’ve heard not a peep. Even the most optimistic of the seamen have told me that no one can survive two weeks on the open sea without food or water, and no rations had been laid down in the launch...”

“Not by the by the crew, Father, but Malveau might have set a small store aside. None of the men checked the launch before they cut it loose,” Francis appealed.

The marquis shook his head and exhaled a long sigh. “For God’s sake, Francis, there’s nothing I’d like more than to believe this has all been some kind of nightmare, but wishing it away won’t bring him back. I’m afraid nothing will.”

The marquis turned away from his sole remaining son and heir, and stood facing the window. Francis stood and walked to stand by his father’s side. “Perhaps this isn’t the best time to tell you…”

The turned his head quickly to look at Francis. “What is it now? Is it Julienne? Has something happened?”

Francis nodded his head. “Yes, Father. Julienne is with child. By springtime you’ll be a grandfather.”

The marquis’ glum mood instantly gave way to elation. He grasped Francis by the shoulders and embraced him. “Why that’s wonderful! Congratulations! How pleased I am for you, and for all of us!”

Francis gave his father smile tinged with regret. “If it’s a boy, we hope to name him Édouard-Nicolas. That is, if you have no objections.”

The marquis turned away to look out onto the grounds two floors below the window. There a small park lay below, in which several pairs of strollers took the air beneath planted elms and cedars. He turned back toward Francis. “That is a splendid idea.”

The appreciated his son’s grand gesture. Though Francis had always been the eldest son and heir, as of late, the comte had been forced to live in the shadow of his heroic younger brother. But with Nicolas gone, the future of the entire Montferraud clan depended upon Francis and his heirs.

“We’ve been long enough in this city, Francis. We should move on quickly to Paris while the comtesse is still able to travel without hindrance.”

Francis nodded his concurrence. “I had hoped you might feel so inclined.”

“How soon can you be ready to leave?” the marquis asked.

“A day to make ready should do it. The clothiers are coming by tomorrow to fit Julienne for her new wardrobe. She declared she didn’t want to see any of the things she travelled in ever again.”

The marquis nodded, adjusting the sash of his gown. “I well understand the sentiment. We did get rather more usage out of everything due to the length of the voyage. I had all but a few of my coats and surtoutsii burned. Two weeks hasn’t been long enough to get everything replaced, but I’ve enough to take me to Paris without looking too much the Colonial.”

The marquis looked across the gleaming parquet floors, toward an end table upon which a set of chess pieces had been placed. The pieces lay out of proper order, most noticeably the black king, which lay on its side in the middle of the board. Francis walked to the board and picked up the downed king, rolling the cool piece of carved stone between his fingertips. “You know as good as Nico was in most things, he never quite took to chess. It seemed I could always best him at that, if little else.”

The marquis joined Francis by the table and placed a consoling hand on the comte’s shoulder. “He was devoted to you, Francis. Perhaps you might have felt that sometimes he outshone you, but he looked up to you more than anyone. He couldn’t have been what he was without you. Don’t forget that.”

Francis’ face shone with gratitude. He placed the chess piece back upon the board in its proper place. “What are we to do with Nicolas’ things, Father? I’ve two trunks of his and that extraordinary sword, though I confess I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to even inspect the rest of his baggage. I also have his horses, which have been stabled alongside my own.”

The marquis folded his arms in thought. “Have everything sent to the château in Argentolle for now, including his mounts. When the marquise arrives, we’ll have a ceremony for him there. I want his tomb to be on his own lands…even if the blasted thing must be empty.”

The marquis retook his seat, still troubled that as he sat comfortably in his chair, the worms and carrion eaters of the sea dined on his son’s flesh. Even wouldn’t even have Nicolas’ bones to bless and put to rest. The thought caused the marquis to shiver. At that moment, the steward announced the arrival of the Comtesse de Marbéville. Julienne’s entry immediately brightened the mood.

“I’m sorry, am I interrupting something?”

The marquis strode forward to welcome his daughter-in-law with kisses to each cheek. “Not at all, my dear. In fact, you could not be more welcome…both of you!”

Julienne smiled teasingly at Francis. “So, you couldn’t keep a secret could you, Monsieur?”

The marquis guided Julienne to sit and took a chair beside her. “Not where such an illustrious arrival is concerned, Madame. The comte understood his duty to report the happy news at once. You look very well indeed, but I should like to be more assured however, of your general welfare. I think it best to have you seen by a physician as soon as we reach Paris. We plan to depart as soon as you are ready.”

Julienne nodded compliantly. “Of course, anything you wish, Monsieur. I never thought that I’d be looking forward to travelling again so soon. But if truth be told, I’d prefer to reach Paris as soon as possible.”

The comtesse gently massaged her abdomen beneath the pale cream and white striped folds of the habit that she wore, as if coaxing the slowly forming life within her to hurry itself along. She looked up at Francis, who had moved to stand behind her, then took his hand. “The sooner we conclude the formal marriage ceremony, the better I shall feel. I shouldn’t like to be too conspicuous in front of everyone.”

The marquis understood her point. Though the marriage contracts had been executed some months ago, and the family ceremony itself already performed, it would still look rather unseemly for the bride to appear with full rounded belly at the grand marriage rite in Paris, even if this second observance functioned as a purely ceremonial affair.

“You are quite right my dear. You have only to let us know your pleasure and we shall depart the instant it should prove most convenient for you.”

Julienne seemed excited by the marquis’ declaration. “That is splendid news, Monsieur. I’ll need a day to make ready at most. Oh, I’m so excited, I can hardly wait!”

Blaise excused Julienne’s exuberance, which he felt to be out of place given the background of other circumstances. “You remind me that I’ve a letter to finish. Come let me kiss you again and then you may both leave me to complete my work.”

Julienne rose to comply, then took her leave with Francis. Once they had gone, the marquis took out quill, ink, and paper and began to compose the letter which circumstances allowed him to delay no longer.

My Dearest Love,

You must come to me at once. Do not tarry even a day more than you must, but book passage as soon as you can for Nantes. I shall explain all once you are here. You are the light of my life. My thoughts and my heart are always with you. Fly to my side. How I have need of thee!

Édouard

The marquis folded the letter and placed it in an envelope, sealing it with wax and affixing his seal. He rang a bell to summon an attendant. The man arrived promptly and bowed before his lord.

“Have this sent at once to the marquise, by the most expeditious means possible. Is that understood?”

The lackey nodded and left as silently as he had come. The marquis leaned back in his chair, contemplating the bleakness of his regrets. Perhaps it is cruel not to tell her, but I don’t have the heart to say what I must in so cold a manner. No, she must hear the evil tidings from my own lips, so that I may take her in my arms and provide what small comfort I can.

*

The river Sarthe remains placid most of the year, flowing southwest to join with its sister the Mayenne, near Angers before draining its volume into the Loire. Almost the entire length of the watershed is picturesque and tranquil, extending through the very heart of the Loire Valley. In Autumn, one of the widest stretches of the flow occurs through Le Mans, where the olive-brown waters are enriched with the city’s nutrient leavings as they meander by the Cathédrale St-Julien on the eastern bank.

Southwest of the cathedral, ensconced in a comfortable three story hôtel, the Salvagnacs had a fine view of the river as it flowed past, but kept their windows closed to avoid the ripe smell and the noisy shouts of the washer women clustered along the riverbanks. The Salvagnacs had lingered in Nantes only a few days before departing because the baron had pressing affairs to attend to in Le Mans and the family seemed eager to escape the gloomy atmosphere of Nantes in the wake of the chevalier’s death. Now they could all look to the future. A future in which plans for the vicomtesse could be made of their own choosing.

On most days the baron left the Hôtel San Cristi early, returning in the late afternoon after a day of appointments. Madame de Salvagnac and Éléonore amused themselves as they willed, and occupied much time touring the surrounding countryside to visit the various picturesque châteaux of note. Madame de Salvagnac had just returned from one such excursion. The baronne sat at a desk by the hearth in her large bedroom. The mid-afternoon sunlight streamed in through the windows as the baronne completed a letter to the Comtesse de Talonge informing her most intimate friend, of all that had occurred on the long odyssey from St. Domingue to Nantes.

My Very Dearest Charlotte,

I wrote to you from Nantes of the heroic but tragic nature of our voyage and the death of the Chevalier d’Argentolle. No doubt must be as shocked to hear of the circumstances in which he met his end, as we all were to have experienced them. We are presently in Le Mans on our way to Paris, though Julienne has remained with the Montferrauds in Nantes. To be in the company of the marquis and the comte is to know the essence of inconsolable grief. Fortunately, my husband’s affairs took us away from that gloomy and ill-omened place.

I do regret the marquis his loss, dearest Lottie, but if I am to be selfish and consider only my own plans and desires, I must admit that things worked out rather well in the end. My niece and therefore our collective fortune is secure, and she is now on her way to the sanctuary of the Ursulines in Troyes. There she can be kept under proper lock and key until she should come of age and be married, this time to a suitor of the family’s choosing. The seclusion of the convent is precisely what is needed to avoid the inconvenience of another unsuitable liaison that might disturb the plans that Monsieur de Salvagnac and I can now freely make on her behalf, of course with your sage advice and counsel.

Perhaps my observations might be deemed cruel, but they are truthful and as always, I conceal nothing from you, dearest heart. You alone are privy to both the bloom and the blemish of the flower which opens only for you. As to the condition and demeanor of my niece, we were very much afraid that she might not survive the aftermath of the shocking tragedy, but she proved more resilient than many would have believed, and with Julienne’s constant efforts and attentions, in the end, Lena pulled through the worst of the crisis. Yes, her heart might now be suffering, but she is young and will overcome her loss in time. Many are prone to regard her circumstances as tragic, but no one ever really dies of a broken heart except in novels. In my life I have known people to die of hunger and of want, of sickness and war, but I have never known anyone who died of too much love or too little.

I believe my decision to send my niece to Troyes for her safety and confinement is the best thing for her well-being. The isolation of the convent, fervent prayer and the assistance of the nuns, will allow my niece to cope with and then conquer her grief. At the Ursulines she will also be educated in preparation for marriage, and I have made it clear in my instructions to the Abbess, that my niece is also to learn to be docile, obedient, and properly subservient. She must, once and for all, learn to accept the importance of doing her proper duty to her family and her eventual husband, whose ultimate ward she will be.

Most importantly, I believe the convent is proper surety that she will remain chaste until marriage, unexposed to unwanted temptations and insulated from the heightened emotions and preoccupations young girls of her age, particularly those too fond of reading, are generally susceptible to. As you know, with the immense fortune she will inherit when she marries, the list of suitable prospects is now entirely more interesting than before. Of course, she remains unaware of the true nature of her circumstances. The sky, or more accurately, a throne, is now perhaps the only limit to her possibilities.

I would be remiss however, not to include a few words about the chevalier, who died in the most heroic manner. I suppose it somewhat ironic that he should lose his life just as we had achieved a true rapprochement between us. The more I came to know him, the more I liked him. He lived and died wholly without guile. I believe his heart and his soul were truly pure and noble, and none can doubt his sincere and absolute devotion to my niece.

We spent much time walking the decks together during the voyage, after his transfer from the warship. You would have found him immensely amusing. He knew so much about so very many things, that Monsieur de Salvagnac deemed him the walking encyclopedia. Had he lived he would have undoubtedly gone far, but even in death he again covered himself with glory. The memory of his conduct against the English when he led the French charge of boarders and captured the English Capitaine himself still stirs the heart. The English called him Young Hercules for his valor. Rightly did he deserve such praise.

I shed real tears, when I learned of what he had done to protect my niece from being abducted and dishonored in the most unspeakable manner. I shudder now to even think of the villainy the wretch Malveau planned. Tragic and heroic as it was, however, Nicolas’ death has made things infinitely more convenient for us all, as I’m sure you must agree.

After I complete this letter to you, my pearl, I shall write to the Marquise de Blaise, something suitably somber and heartfelt, extensively detailing the boy’s merit, his many noble qualities and the heroic manner of his passing. How droll that for once, I shall not even have to exaggerate things and my words will be entirely sincere.

I embrace you tenderly my dearest and most cherished friend, and send you many kisses, carefully, tenderly, and most particularly placed. Please write to me when you can and inform me of when we may expect your arrival in Paris. Julienne’s day approaches ever nearer and we yet have much to do.

I have the honor to be, etc. etc.

The baronne regarded her completed work with a sigh of relief as she moved from her desk to lie back on a comfortable chaise longue placed near the salon’s hearth. She had a large and important ceremony to plan and she wasn’t going to let anyone, or anything impede the accomplishment of her goals.


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