Chateau Aubrey: Book 2, Chapter 13

MargHat

New York City,  March 1901

One of Jimmy’s favorite spots in all of New York City was Central Park because it was as different as possible from the cramped, dark, and dirty factories and streets that made up the rest of his world. It was bright, open, and clean. The air felt fresher and he felt free to run around.

March of 1901 was unusually mild. On a fine Sunday afternoon, Jimmy was among the crowds of people strolling through the elegant tree-lined mall which was Central Park’s entrance from Fifth Avenue. The tree lined-mall widened and opened up to reveal a breathtaking view of a bucolic paradise, free from the sights and sounds of the city, which seemed to go on forever: a square with a gazebo and some benches and a green hill that slopes down to a large pond surrounded by trees.  The roofs of another part of the city were reflected on the water of the pond, where little sailboats floated. Beyond the pond was a meadow where some people were picnicking and an old stone bridge covered in moss. The carriages of the wealthy drove through the paths which crisscrossed the park.

Two girls walked past Jimmy path the path which crossed in front of the pond. One of them was pushing a small pram which contained a doll. The other was leading a little chestnut colored spaniel puppy on a leash. The girl with the puppy was the older of the two; she was about Jimmy’s age. She had caramel colored hair, somewhere between light brown and blonde, brown almond shaped eyes, and a little-upturned nose. Her blue coat had a velvet collar in a darker shade of blue and the rose-colored ribbons tied to her braids matched her dress. Jimmy thought she was very pretty.

She took dainty little steps, trying not to get her white, lace-up boots muddy. Her puppy was restless, constantly pulling at his leash trying to chase after birds and squirrels.

“You could carry him,” her sister suggested.

“No,” she replied, “I don’t want to get his muddy paws all over my dress.”

“You could put him into the doll carriage.”

The pretty girl in the blue coat picked up the squirming puppy and placed him inside the pram, tucked up next to her little sister’s doll. But the naughty beast quickly jumped back out of the pram and dashed off down a dirt path. The two girls ran off after him but they could not keep up.

Jimmy was a faster runner and chased after the puppy, following him down the dirt path and through a tunnel under an upper pathway. The tunnel lead out to the street: an intersection with a statue in the center. Jimmy searched for the puppy but the bustle of the city was overwhelming: the clip-clop of horse hooves and the crunch of carriage wheels against the cobblestone streets, the dull roar of the crowd of people talking and shouting to one another, and the ringing of trolley bells. The puppy dashed off towards the street but Jimmy caught him before he could disappear under a fire engine.

The two girls caught up with Jimmy, who returned the squirming puppy to them.

“Thank you,” said the pretty girl in the blue coat, who was looking at Jimmy and blushing. She stroked the puppy’s head with her gloved hand. “Jip, you naughty boy.”

“Nno pproblem,” Jimmy stammered, like he always did when he was nervous, “Wwhat’s yyour name?”

The pretty girl giggled.

“Mary-Katherine Boyle,” she replied, “And this is my little sister, Florence.”

The little girl curtsied to Jimmy.

“Ppleased to mmeet you.”

“What’s your name?”

“Jjimmy Bbeaumont.”

Jimmy noticed a ragged and skeletal cat living in the alley which ran alongside the lodging house. Following the cat, he found that it lived under a dusty old bush with hardly any leaves that grew out of the pavement. If you listened carefully, you could hear meows coming from the bush. Jimmy looked underneath it and found three kittens: two of them were black and one, the runt of the litter, was white.

Whenever he could, Jimmy liked to go and see how the kittens were doing. One day, he found two of the kittens nestled up against their mother’s belly, having their dinner. The runt was missing. Jimmy listened for mewing sounds and looked around for the lost kitten which he found sprawled out on the pavement. He brought the kitten back to the mother cat, who hissed at him. The mother cat picked up the runt by the scruff of its neck and carried it back to the spot on the pavement where she had left it before, then returned to her two other kittens.

“Wwhere you ggoing, Mmrs. Cat?” Jimmy asked the negligent mother, “Don’t you want your baby back?”

He picked up the abandoned kitten and held it in his hands. It was quiet and still and had a green goo dripping from its nose.

Jimmy brought the kitten back to his bunk in the lodging house and made a little bed for it on the pillow. The only sign of life in the kitten was the irregular little wheezing sounds it made. With some pennies he managed to pull together, Jimmy bought some milk for the kitten. He sat up all night stroking its fur and dipping his fingers into the milk to feed it.

By first light, the white kitten, the runt of its litter, was dead. Jimmy found a shovel and dug a grave in the alley beside the lodging house to bury the poor creature.

“The Llord is mmy shepherd,” he said after making the sign of the cross, “Ddust to Ddust, Asshes to Asshes.”

He sprinkled the dirt back onto the grave.

Into the new year of 1917, Catharine continued to receive letters from her husband, Georges. They contained half-hearted apologies for whatever he had done to upset her and pathetic pleas for forgiveness. He whined that the only news of their daughters he got were from the letters Mimi sent to him.

When Catharine read this, she rushed over to Mimi’s room to confront her.

“How dare you?” she growled, “I specifically asked everyone in this house not to write to Georges.”

“I thought that he deserved to know how Mathilde and Agnès are?” Mimi replied, “He is their father after all.”

Catharine slapped her sister across the cheek. Mimi whimpered like a puppy who had been beaten. Catharine felt terrible for what she had done but in her black mood, she was capable of anything.

A dalliance or two with some village trollops was one thing but Georges had crossed a line. Catharine had received a letter from Genevieve Brewer-Boudreau, a school friend of hers who lived in Paris, a few days earlier. Apparently, Georges had been given a leave of three days in Paris. Genevieve and her husband had gone to the restaurant at Ambassador’s Hotel for their anniversary lunch and saw Georges meet up with a friend of his. The friend was accompanied by a dark-haired beauty named Lise Fahmy, a celebrated Parisian courtesan who was one of the most notorious women in France. Some of the richest and most influential men in Europe had made her there mistress and soldiers in the trenches collected pictures of her. Genevieve had sent along a postcard of Lise dressed in a riding habit and brandishing a whip as well as a cigarette card of Lise dressed as an oriental odalisque. Lise was indeed beautiful, as well as exotic and dangerous; the type of woman that no man could resist.

Georges and Lise had then gone for a drive in the Bois de Boulogne then presumably went back to her flat around five in the evening. According to rumor, they had spent the entire three days of George’s leave together.

In the latest and most melodramatic of the letters Georges had written to Catharine he threatened to “rush out into No Man’s Land and throw himself in front of a German artillery shell” if she did not write back to him. This threat was finally enough for Catharine. She sat down at her writing desk and penned a reply.

“My dear Georges,” she replied, “I am pleased to hear that you had a wonderful time during your leave in Paris. You must introduce me to the famous Madame Fahmy sometime so I can thank her for taking such good care of my husband.”

Catharine doubted that Georges was bright enough to pick up on her sarcasm, so she added a stinging conclusion to her letter.

“About your threat to “rush out into No Man’s Land  and throw myself in front of a German artillery shell.” Go ahead, you’re too much of a coward to actually do it.”

Catharine neatly folded the letter and put it inside of an envelope with the address of where Georges was stationed. The next morning, she asked her maid to have it brought to the nearest post office.

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The Dove of Sedan

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I was twenty years old when I met Michel Brulon.

My family owned an inn on the outskirts of Paris called Le Colombier Rouge (the red dovecote), which was a play on our name, Colombe (dove) and the fact that it was housed inside a red building. Michel was a sergeant in the cavalry and when he showed up at Le Colombier Rouge, he looked so handsome with fair mustache and beard á la Napoleon III  and so dashing in his blue and red uniform. I fell for him right away and we were married shortly after.

When the war with Prussia began in July of 1870, we had only been husband and wife for a few months. I could not bear to be separated from Michel, so I applied to his unit’s Council of Administration to become a cantinière or canteen keeper. There was an opening for the position and so I was sent a patente.  My uniform consisted of a blue jacket, a short red skirt worn over a pair of red trousers, a black hat, and a small barrel called a tonnelet which had two brass spigots (one for wine, one for brandy) and the regimental crest. Michel said I looked quite fetching in my short skirt and trousers.

The name cantinière refers to the canteens that we keep for the men of our regiments, where they can buy food to supplement their official rations as well as other comforts such as wine and tobacco. Having been an innkeeper’s daughter, this was not terribly unusual for me. When we were near a town or village, I would go to buy food, wine, and other supplies.  My cantinière position required being wife, mother, and sister to the men and to provide a home-like place for them to relax from the hardships of war inside my tent and behind my wagon. I was young and pretty at the time, so they were all a bit smitten with me. They joked that they came for me rather than my wine, stating the old saying that “the quality of the wine is in inverse proportion of the beauty of the cantinière.”

They called me “La Colombe” (the dove) after my maiden name.

I had read plenty of romantic stories about cantinières where they were noble heroines fighting alongside their husbands. The reality was not as glamorous. Aside from my usual duties of selling food, wine, and tobacco to the men, I was often at the front line during battles, helping to bandage the wounded, just as vulnerable to injury and death as any man. At Mars-La-Tour, my head was grazed by a bullet. I quickly bandaged up my wound and went back to what I was doing. As the months passed, I realized that I had another reason to be concerned: I was expecting a child. In the mornings, I felt sick but other than that I was in excellent health. I imagined my baby growing up among the regiment as an enfant de troupe.

The Prussians advanced over the border throughout the summer of 1870 and gained the upper hand in the war. They laid siege to the town of Metz starting in August and our regiment was among the troops sent to relieve the siege. We were defeated and withdrew to Sedan, where the Prussians later encircled us.

Our Chassepot rifles were better than anything the Prussian soldiers carried but their artillery surpassed ours. Their canons boomed like thunder in the distance at all hours. As usual, I helped to the wounded, bandaging them up and giving them wine to ease their suffering. One of the men I looked after was a young officer from Normandy named Claude d’Aubrey. He was shot in both the arm and the leg.

“We’re going to have to pull the bullets out, Monsieur le Capitaine” I told him.

I gave him a good drink of brandy to make things easier for him. When he was properly liquored up, I reached into his wounds to pull out the bullets. Captain d’Aubrey writhed and screamed in pain, swearing and calling for his mother. This was not surprising since he was only a boy of twenty. When the bullets were out, I cleaned the wounds with brandy and bandaged them up with strips of linen.

“There’s a brave boy,” I said, giving him a cup of wine for his pain.

“Such sweet wine,” he said, “And such a lovely face.”

Michel was in one of the three cavalry charges which tried to break through the Prussian lines. I looked for my strapping and handsome husband on his white horse but could not find him. He showed up later among the wounded and I was relieved that he was not dead. He was brought over to me on a stretcher and I looked over his wounds.

“My love,” he moaned in pain, “Ma Petite Colombe.”

“You’re going to be fine, Mon Chèr,” I replied, “Just let me look at your wound.”

“I know those gentle little hands will take good care of me.”

He had been clutching his side but moved his hands so that I could roll up his blood-stained shirt and examine him. It did not look good: the bullet was lodged in his side. Trying to remove it would only make things worse. All I could do was disinfect the hole with brandy and bandage it up with strips of linen, then give him some wine to numb his pain.

“You look so beautiful. One would think I was already in heaven, looking at an angel.”

“Don’t talk that way, Michel. You’re going to live.”

“If I don’t, take care of yourself and the baby.”

It was still early in my pregnancy so I was not showing yet. I had been worried that the stress of battle would be bad for my unborn child but so far, things were going fine.

“You’re going to live, my love, and watch this baby grow up, I promise.”

Michel groaned in pain and clutched his side; we both knew that he did not have much time left. I took him into my arms and held him close. His heart beat strong and steady at first but grew softer and weaker. He lifted his head towards the sky.

“I love you, Ma Colombe,” he said in a feeble whisper.

“I love you too,” I replied.

When I could no longer hear or feel his heartbeat, I closed his eyes and gave him one final kiss, then went to tend to the other wounded.  Captain d’Aubrey had recovered enough to be able to sit up. He was working on carving a small figurine of La Madone from a piece of wood.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Madame Brulon,” he said, with a sympathetic look on his face.

It was a trick of fate that this baby-faced boy was alive and my Michel was dead but I did not resent him for it. He had a mother who would be relieved to hear that he was alright. I wondered if he would tell his children and grandchildren about the cantinière who saved his life.

The Battle of Sedan turned in favor of the Prussians who overwhelmed us with their artillery and superior numbers. While I was serving wine to some of the men at the front lines, my barrel was hit by a piece of artillery shell and shattered. Shards of wood were lodged in my side and I was carried off the field to a makeshift hospital.

The field surgeon carefully removed the shards and bandaged my wound, calling me a brave girl.

“Is my baby alright?” I asked him, foggy from the brandy I had been given.

“Yes, miraculously.”

I made the sign of the cross and thanked God. If I could not have my Michel, at least I still have his child.

Sedan ended with a loss for the French and our surrender. Emperor Napoleon III, who had bravely lead the troops himself, and 120,000 of our men were captured. Later on, I learned that he had fled into exile in England.

I spent the next few days in bed, recovering from my wound and wondering what I was going to do next. The rules were that I would have to remarry within the year to a man in the regiment in order to keep my position as cantinière. I was not yet ready to think of accepting a new suitor since my Michel was not yet cold in his grave. At least I had my child to look forward to.

The Bird of Resaca

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Adam Flood stood at the altar of Christ Church and looked out at the people who had gathered for his wedding. In the front pews were his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Flood, his brother Jesse, and  Aunt Esther, his father’s unmarried sister, as well as his bride’s family.

His bride was a certain Florence Baxter, a tall, pale, brunette girl of eighteen whom he had known for most of his life. She was considered a beauty and Adam thought so.  

He did not know how they had ended up like this. They had been pushed together as suitable partners and he found himself proposing. He found Florence attractive enough and believed that he would be as happy with her as he would be with any other girl.

Twenty-one year old Adam Flood and eighteen-year-old Florence Baxter were married on April 11, 1861. After the ceremony, there was the reception at Flood Mansion on Back Bay.

Flood Mansion had been built in 1666 by an Ephraim Flood who had been a largely successful ship’s captain who made a large fortune in the early days of Boston, rumor has it, through piracy. He had married the daughter of an English lord, and legend has it, the Lely portrait of a rosy-cheeked, bosomy young beauty with lowered eyelids leaning seductively in a lush and verdant garden had been what had made Captain Flood fall in love with the lady. But his young wife had been too curious for her own good and had gone exploring the attic, where she supposedly found her husband’s stolen loot which caused the angry captain to push her into the fireplace, burning her alive. Captain Flood himself either was lost at sea or hung himself out of grief over what he did to his wife depending on who you asked. A  hearth in the attic which had been bricked up for as long as anyone could imagine was said to be the one which Lady Flood had burned alive in and the rafters above were said to be where her husband hung himself testified to the truth of these stories.

The building which had seen these tragedies was a building with a gloomy sort of beauty. Made of rust-colored brick and ancient wrought iron and shaded by weeping willows, it sat discordantly in the middle of a pretty garden which Mrs. Flood had lovingly arranged when she was first married. Thick and wild vines, remnants of the garden’s formerly wild state, had overcome the arbors and gazebos and follies which Mrs. Flood had built and were always a constant threat to her neat and orderly beds of flowers, herbs, and vegetables. At the easternmost end of the garden was a tree-shaded sitting nook and beyond it was the Flood Family burial plot which overlooked the Charles River and seemed more in keeping with the spirit of the house. It was one of the showpieces of the property and its gravestone in a variety of styles from the grim stone slabs of the Puritan era to the neoclassical monuments of the previous century to the Gothic mausoleums of the past several decades stood in honor of the generations of Floods who had lived in Flood Mansion. It was said that for a Flood to be dead and buried there was infinitely better than to be alive in a lot of other places.

When one first entered Flood Mansion, they were confronted with a labyrinth of corridors full of portraits of grim-faced and puritanical looking ancestors and little models of ships. It’s rooms always had a dim and gloomy feel even at high noon on the sunniest and most joyful day imaginable. Dark drapes of heavy velvet and black shutters wished to keep the sunlight of Mrs. Flood’s garden at bay. Though Mr. Flood had purchased new furniture for his new bride, all of it had taken on the feel of the wallpaper which had not been changed for at least thirty or forty years.

For young Adam’s marriage to the lovely Florence, fresh bouquets of peacock feathers had been put in the giant Japanese vases, and the best China had been brought out. The ballroom had been prepared for the festivities, it’s dining table was laid out for a lavish meal and a band had been brought in to play music for dancing. The cooks had been busy since first light preparing the four-course dinner. First course: curried fowl, liver toast, mock turtle soup, and sherry. Second course: tête de veau, potato croquettes, turkey, and claret. Third course: pigeons à la Duchesse, french beans, salad Victoria, and champagne. Fourth course: Bakewell tart, tipsy cake, toffee, and cherry wine.

Everyone enjoyed themselves that evening and the party lasted late into the night.

Jesse, the groom’s seventeen-year brother, met with much teasing that it would be his turn to get hitched next, which he took with good humor. Jesse was a handsome and easy going young man who was a great favorite with everyone, especially the girls. A Miss Amelia Babson, a rosy-cheeked young belle, had set her sights on him.

“Watch out Little Brother,” Adam teased.

The two Flood boys were very fond of each other though they often butted heads as people with opposing temperaments often did.

Aunt Esther, who had disappeared after dinner, appeared on the gallery on the second floor, like a ghost in her nightgown. Esther was a skeleton in the family closet, having had a scandalous reputation in her youth. Jesse could not see why, with her squat frame and sleepy eye she had never been a beauty. Nowadays she preferred to keep to herself and stay in the little bedroom and sitting room she occupied in the front of the house. Other times she would sit in the burial plot and feed the ravens which sometimes gathered there. One which Adam had named Nevermore could be seen in a tree in front of the mansion.

Esther’s sudden reappearance fell upon the celebration like the first cold snap of autumn.

“And now she’ll disappear into that room of her’s for the rest of the night,” Adam told the group of friends that had gathered around him.

“How rude,” Florence said, “she doesn’t even bother to come to her own nephew’s wedding party.”

“I wonder what it would take to get the old girl leave her room,” Jesse speculated.

“You’re too yellow to find out,” taunted Steven Flint, a young man who had a grudge against Jesse because he was sweet on Amelia Babson who showed a marked preference for the youngest Flood brother.

“How much are you willing to bet?” Jesse challenged.

“I promised Jesse the last dance,” Amelia offered, “but if he gets scared, I’ll dance with no one but Steven for the rest of the evening.”

Jesse had no serious feelings for Amelia but had more pride than to let her snub him as a coward.

Adam and Florence tried to talk him out of this scheme but Steven and Amelia kept goading him on. The group went upstairs to the wing of the house where Aunt Esther’s room was. Jesse stood outside the door and began making the “caw” sound of a raven.

Not a peep from behind the door.

Jesse drummed his fingernails on the door and continued with his cawing.

Still nothing.

Steven and Amelia joined in the racket by banging their fists on the door and laughing.

The door creaked open slowly. Esther appeared in the doorway dressed in her nightgown with her white, streaked dark hair loose and Medusa-like.

“You’ll all be sorry for this,” she shouted at the young people, “and you, Jesse Flood, I’ll keep you up at night, mark my words.”

They all just laughed at her and returned to the ball.

The morning came along with startling news. War had broken out between the North and the seceded states in the South. Adam and Jesse decided to join the Union Army and proudly put on blue uniforms to go to battle.

Aunt Esther’s warning stayed in Jesse’s head for a while but after three years of war, he eventually forgot about it. May of 1864 found both Flood brothers in northern Georgia with their former enthusiasm cooling in the southern heat. They were camped in the hills surrounding Resaca one balmy, summer-like night when Jesse heard something move in the bushes.

Thinking it might an enemy scout, he grabbed his gun and got up to see what it was.

“Where do think you’re going?” Adam asked him.

“Leave off, Adam,” Jesse answered.

“I promised Mother I’d look after you, if you’re going to get into trouble, I’m going with you.”

The two boys went to follow the noises they heard in the bushes. Jesse poked the butt of his rifle into the bushes to see what was there.

“Come out now,” Adam shouted.

Whatever was making those noises was unlikely another soldier. They were too light and soft to be the heavy tread of a soldier’s boots.  And there was the sound of someone crying.

“Come out, no one’s going to hurt you.”

The dainty form of a girl appeared before them. She was a pretty little thing of about fourteen or fifteen and had long red-gold hair and large blue-green eyes. Her calico dress looked worn and shabby but once it had been pretty.

“Where did you come from?” Jesse asked.

The little girl haughtily ignored them.

“It’s alright, child. You shouldn’t be afraid of us just because we’re Yankees.”

“My parents had a plantation nearby,” she said to them, suddenly defiant, “The Yankees burned it to the ground. My family all got sick with the typhoid, I was the only one who survived.”

“Do you have a name, missy?”

“Alicia.”

The Flood Boys convinced Alicia to return with them to their camp because they did not want her to get caught in the rainstorm that was coming.

“She can stay at the camp until we figure out what to do with her,” Adam told Jesse.

“Listen,” Jesse said to Alicia, “If anyone there bothers you, come to me and I’ll take care of it.”

Alicia settled into life in their camp and lost her initial distrust of the Flood brothers due to their kindness towards her. She became especially fond of Jesse.

Alicia was at the age when a young girl tends to fall in love for the first time and the kindness of the handsome Jesse touched her heart in a way that nothing had before. Jesse, for his part, was as fond of her as one would be of a charming child. Her fifteen was still a little girl to his twenty. But one day he found himself asking her a strange question.

“Alicia, how would you like to come back to Boston with Adam and Me?”

“I would like that very much,” she answered.

“We could get married, would you like that?”

“Yes.”

Jesse leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. She grabbed his face and kissed him on the lips.

That night, Jesse was awoken by the sound of a raven squawking outside of his tent. He lay on the ground and waited for the noise to die down but the raven kept at it. Jesse grabbed his rifle and rushed out of his tent to fire at the offending bird.  But it kept on squawking as if to mock him. He loaded and fired several more times until he ran out of ammunition. A button was pulled off of his shirt and pushed it down the barrel of his gun and fired at the raven. This final shot was the one which silenced it.

The war ran its course and spring of 1865 found Adam and Jesse returning home to Boston. Mrs. Flood and Florence warmed greeted them at Flood Mansion with kisses and embraces and the latest news. Jesse introduced Alicia to them as his future wife and they graciously received her.

Aunt Esther came limping down the stairs.

“Poor Aunt Esther had an accident some months ago,” Mrs. Flood told them, “She suddenly had a sharp pain in the leg and fell down the stairs. When the doctor looked at her leg, they found a button lodged in it.”

A Important Announcement

For years, I have angsted over the fact that I’ve never been in a relationship. I’ve had opportunities to be in a relationship but each time I felt stressed and uncomfortable, not because of anything the person did but because I simply wasn’t comfortable with the idea of actually being in a relationship. I liked the romantic idea of relationship but not the emotional and physical reality. I’m a very closed off person and I don’t think I can provide the intimacy necessary for a relationship.

After much soul searching, I’ve realized that the only reason I was so insecure about never having been in a relationship is because I felt like I had to be and was missing out on something if I was not. I’ve been teased about it a lot and that fed my insecurity.

Maybe after growing up a little bit more I might change my mind someday but right now, being in a relationship doesn’t feel right for me right now. I’d rather do other things like write and study and learn to love and be comfortable with myself.

Annabeth

[Français]

Je me promène sur la plage.

Le sable est humide et dur sous mes bottes;

Il est ondulé à cause de la marée qui va et vient.

Je regarde dans l’Atlantique.

L’océane en face de moi est grise et orageux, comme mes yeux, pas étincelant et verte de la mer comme les tiens.

Tout autour de moi est sombre et froid; C’est approprié.

J’enveloppe mon écharpe autour de mon visage et m’enfonce plus profondément dans mon manteau.

C’est Décembre, près de Noë.

Je devrais être à l’intérieur

avec une couverture douce, une tasse de thé et un bon livre.

Le son des vagues, la voix de ton père, m’appelle à la plage, espérant en vain que je puisse te trouver là.

[English]

I walk a long the beach.

The sand is wet and hard underneath my boots;

It ripples from the tide coming in and out.

I look out into the Atlantic.

The ocean in front of me is grey and stormy, like my eyes, not sparkling and sea-green like yours.

Everything around me is drab and cold; it’s appropriate.

I wrap my scarp around my face and I sink deeper into my coat.

It’s December, close to Christmas.

I should be inside with a soft blanket, a cup of tea, and a good book.

The sound of the waves, the voice of your father, calls me out to the beach, hoping that I might find you there.

A Lament for Eurydice: Part 1

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Another April arrived with all of its sweetness. The land budded and blossomed with potential as Proserpina returned to the loving arms of her mother. Spring’s bounty was used to adorn the village of Somnolentus Oppidum for the festival of  Cerealia.

Lord Gaius Marcus Valerius arrived back from Rome on the day that the celebrations were to begin. All of the inhabitants of his vast estate gathered to greet the master upon his return.

“How are things in Rome, my lord?” asked his wife, Lady Cornelia.

“Noisy and corrupt as usual, my lady,” his lordship answered.

Then approached his two stepdaughters, Augusta and Lavinia, and Lord Gaius  kissed them affectionately. They were tall, womanly, and beautiful girls with their mother’s dark eyes and hair and carved ivory features.

“Young Octavian, is he as handsome as everyone says?” Augusta inquired.

“He is everything a man of twenty-six could hope to be.”

“And his new wife, they say she is the most beautiful woman in Rome,” Lavinia joined in.

“She is nothing compared to thee, Lavinia, my dear.”

“Father!” a sweet voice like that of a lark called out from the garden.

It was his own dear child, Eurydice, returning with henna blossoms for her hair. Eurydice and her stepsisters were close in age but she was the youngest. Small and delicate, she appeared as though she would blow away in the wind like the posies in her hand. Her golden brown hair shown a ruddy gold in the sun and her sea colored eyes danced with delight upon seeing her father.

“Oh, how I missed thee.”

Lord Gaius  bestowed his fatherly blessing upon her with a kiss.

“Well, my beauties, I see thou all art ready to go to the festival.”

The three girls were dressed, nymph-like, in diaphanous robes with bare feet and adorned with flowers. They danced together like the three graces in anticipation of excitement and pleasure, bracelets and earrings jingling as they moved.

Somnolentus Oppidum’s Cerealia festival coincided with the arrival of a group of traveling performers lead by a character called Oeagrus the Thracian. What caught the village’s attention was a boy among the Thracian’s band who was devastatingly handsome. Swarthy and freckled with a wild head of deep brown curls, merry dark eyes, and a wide, roguish grin full of dazzling white teeth, he was the type of youth who made parents wish to hide away their daughters. Even more striking was how well he sang and played the lyre.

The music that this young man made seemed to cause nature itself to stop and listen. The wind quieted down, the birds ceased their chattering, the trees and flowers appeared to bend in his direction as if hanging on his every note.

It went around that he was Orpheus, the adopted son of Oeagrus. Rumor had it that he was the bastard offspring of Apollo himself and had gods and goddesses for his relatives. His mother had been called Calliope for her beautiful voice. Her enchanting singing was said to have caused Apollo to be consumed with passion for her. But this love turned out to be her downfall; she died bringing forth their child into the world. Bacchus, who gossip named as the boy’s uncle, gave Little Orpheus to his faithful servant, Oeagrus, to raise, since his wife was barren. Orpheus grew up favored by the gods: Apollo, his possible father, gave him the gift of song; Venus gave him beauty and success with the girls; Bacchus, his patron, looked after him.

Eros was often found at such village festivals because they were ideal places for him to work his mischief. He appeared in Somnolentus Oppidum as a common farm boy and blended into the crowd which had gathered to watch a troupe of musicians and dancing girls. Recognizable were the voice and lyre of his cousin, Orpheus, who was a great favorite with both him and his mother, Venus because he sang their praises so beautifully.

Eros took his bow and aimed an arrow at the young bard’s heart. Perhaps a youth such as him would like to spend the night frolicking in the bed of some village maid. But his concentration was broken by a trumpet fanfare announcing the arrival of  Lord Gaius Marcus Valerius and his family. The man himself, paunchy and pompous in his toga, rose from his sedan chair and took the place of honor to watch the festivities. His wife, graceful, elegant, and serene with a diadem studded with pearls and rubies adorning her hair, appeared from behind the blue curtains of her sedan and went to join Lord Gaius. Then appeared three maidens, who looked awfully tempting in their thin silk stolas. The oldest wore the blue, green, and purple shades of a peacock and the middle one wore  the gold and bronze hues of money. Pearls dangled from their earlobes and their arms were covered in golden bracelets; their eyes lined in black with the lids shaded purple.  The youngest was dressed in virginal white, her waist girded with a belt of lustful red and henna blossoms were arranged into her hair. Her eyelids and fingernails were painted blue; gold chains with tiny bells adorned her delicate ankles. The tiny bells jiggled as she scampered off with her sisters to join the dancing.

Orpheus sang praises to Bacchus and the joys of wine and revelry. The crowd was entranced and moved with reckless abandon. Eros again raised his bow in the direction of the bard and fired one of his lovely and deadly arrows into his heart.

The first thing that Orpheus noticed was the maiden with the bells on her ankles prancing and twirling her veil around, intoxicated by the music. Eros’s poison made his heart burn with longing for the girl which was further inflamed by watching her dance. The theme of the bard’s song changed to love and desire; the hearts of the crowd were uplifted by the knowledge that there were so much beauty and pleasure in the world.

Eurydice was happier than she had ever been in the entirety of  her young life. All of her fears and cares flew away as she lost herself in the rhythm. Suddenly, she felt a hand on her shoulder which made her nearly jump out of her skin. Fortunately, it was only her stepsister, Lavinia.

“I’m sorry to scare thee, Eurydice, my love,” Lavinia said, “Especially when thou wert enjoying thyself so much.”

“I thought thou wert someone else,” Eurydice answered.

“A handsome boy?”

“A frightening man.”

“Why frightening, dear sister?”

“Because he has been following me like a shadow which reappears whenever I think I have lost him.”

“It is because thou art beautiful, my love. A face like thine cannot expect but to drive men mad.”

“He goes about in what looks a shroud and wears a mask of a dead man’s face; he looks like death itself.”

“Tis only a reveler looking to make merry. Many go about sporting disguises during these happy days.”

“I went to pray at the temple of Diana nearly two weeks ago, he has tormented me since then. Every time I go into the village, he has appeared to frighten me.”

“I thought thou wert nearly a woman, but I see thou art a child still.”

Shamed by her own cowardice, Eurydice hung her head. Lavinia took her hands and they rejoined the dancing.

Orpheus took a break from playing. He noticed his fair dancer talking with another maiden, presumably her sister. A small peasant boy was near them playing the timbrel.

“My good man,” he said to the child, “Dost thou know that maiden over there, the one with the henna blossoms in her hair.”

“Aye,” the little peasant answered, “Tis Eurydice of the Valerii, daughter of Gaius Marcus Valerius, who owns that big villa near here.”

“Many thanks, take this for thy pains”

He tossed a coin into the timbrel; the boy thanked him and danced off.

So her name was Eurydice. Should he approach her? If so, what should he say? He, a lowly bard, could not just walk up to the daughter of a great lord and speak words of love. Such words got stuck in his throat unless he sang them. His music could say more than plain speech ever would.

The young bard did not suspect that the little peasant boy with the timbrel was, in fact, his cousin, Eros, who was laughing at his plight. A poor, wandering player in love with a high born lady, it was all too much. One of Eros’s favorite jokes was making someone fall for a person they could never have. Even if Fair Eurydice did return his love, her family would never approve. The case of poor Orpheus was hopeless.

A group of women clad in white robes carrying torches walked through the streets of the village when it grew dark, symbolizing Proserpina’s reunion with her mother, Ceres. But the behavior of the crowds belonged more to Bacchus. Music and riotous dancing filled the night. Much wine was drunk.

Although it was late, Eurydice was not one bit tired. She felt as though she could dance forever and never feel fatigued. Many of the other revelers had donned costumes and masks. Among the crowd appeared a slender, agile, cat-like form shrouded in a dark cloak. He wore a pale gaunt face which looked like a skull.

All of the color drained from Eurydice’s face and she let out a chilling scream. Her stepsisters rushed over to comfort her.

“Sweet sister, what troubles thee so?” Augusta asked.

“Dost thou see him?” Eurydice responded.

“See who?”

“The one in the death mask.”

Augusta and Lavinia searched around to see what she was speaking of. They did not see anything. Poor Eurydice grew more hysterical.

“There’s the man I spoke to you of. Lavinia, thou shouldst remember.”

“Poor child,” Lady Cornelia added, “All this Bacchanalia has caused her to run mad.”

Eurydice was sent home in a sedan chair and told to go straight to bed. The slave assigned to be Eurydice’s maid was a girl her own age named Flora, who had been born in Lord Gaius’s household. She had been a playmate to Eurydice when they were children and a confident now that they were older.  Flora helped Eurydice undress and drew her a bath scented with rose petals and cinnamon oil. While she bathed, Flora read Cicero aloud to her.

The night’s festivities ended with a pack of foxes with lit forces tied to their tails being released into the fields to purify them and scare away vermin. It had been a rewarding evening for Eros, who had managed to seduce a baker’s daughter. Imagine the look on her betrothed’s face when he realizes that someone already took a bit out of his little pastry. Then there had been a shepherd boy; Eros flattered himself that he had been a step up from the shepherd’s flock of sheep.

With nothing more to do, Eros decided to follow his cousin, Orpheus. Love drew the young bard to the villa of Gaius Marcus Valerius and showed him to the lit window which belonged to Eurydice. He began to play, singing of love in his sweetest notes.

His song soothed Eurydice’s troubled mind and drew her to her window. She had never heard such beautiful music before and desired to know where it came from.

“Thou playest marvelously,” she said to the young man below her, “But if anyone seest thou, my stepmother is sure to have thee killed. What a shame it would be to kill the source of such lovely sounds.”

“Come down, sweetest Eurydice,” he implored, “and we’ll disappear into the night where no one can see us.”

“Such a thing is impossible. Thou art too forward.”

“Then I will come up and claim the fee for my song.”

He began to climb up a vine-covered trellis to her window. Eros aimed one of this arrows at the maiden’s heart, and laughed, suspecting that she would not be a maiden for much longer. He hit the mark and she felt an unbearable pang.

Orpheus took one of Eurydice’s tiny, delicate hands and kissed it. She felt flushed and dizzy. He leaned in and gave her another kiss on the mouth before descending with one of his roguish grins.

The sweet days of April and May passed in a dreamy blur for Orpheus. He wandered the meadows when the sun was in the sky, strumming his lyre and singing to himself. Wildflowers, ruby red poppies, bright blue cornflowers, and golden buttercups, bobbed in the wind as if waving a greeting to him.  

At night, he would return to the window of Eurydice and sing the songs he spent the day composing. The feelings of love which he inspired in her were so unfamiliar and overpowering that she felt they would be the death of her. He smiled, knowing that her heart was more and more his every time they met. Then he would climb up the trellis and claim a kiss as a reward for his song.

When the sun rose on the horizon, Orpheus would walk through a forest outside of her father’s estate and rest under one of the trees for a few hours; lovers need very little sleep. The yews, the limes, the maples, the willows, and the elms all would bend their branches as if bowing to him as he entered. A gentle breeze would seem to whisper “there he is, the dreamer; there he is, the lover.”

The center of the courtyard of the Valerii villa was taken up by a bathing pool which was tiled in blue mosaics. At its far end was a fountain which spilled over into a fish pond. Surrounding the pool were fruit trees which grew figs, peaches, apricots, and pomegranates.

Eurydice lay by the bathing pool while one of the maids rubbed fragrant almond oil into her skin. The  sweet voice of a greek slave girl read aloud from The Odyssey accompanied by the strumming of a lyre. Other maids combed cinnamon oil through Augusta’s hair, plucked at Lavinia’s armpits, and hung up silk sheets to be aired which provided privacy for the bathers.  Lady Cornelia reclined under a blue canopy. The flock of peacocks, which followed her around as if she were Juno herself, were gathered around her, eating seeds from her hand; one rested its head in her lap.

There was much for Lady Cornelia and her daughters to speak about. Both Augusta and Lavinia were to be married that summer to wealthy and handsome young patricians. Love and marriage were things which Eurydice had not yet thought about until now. What she felt for Orpheus was so strong that she believed she would run off with him without the solemnization of marriage if he wished her to. As her father’s only child, she would inherit everything when he died and when most men saw her, they saw his fortune. A peasant maiden could marry for love but a wealthy heiress had other considerations, though finding love was not impossible; Augusta and Lavinia both loved the men they were betrothed to. Orpheus only wanted her and did not care who her father was or how rich he was.

Eurydice would swear that she heard something rustling in among the fruit trees in the orchard. It may of have been just her febrile imagination but she saw a death’s head poke out at her.

“Eurydice, Eurydice, what ails thee, child?” Lady Cornelia shouted in concern when she saw her step-daughter faint.

“Tis him, my lady: the death’s head!” Eurydice cried.

“Nonsense, thou hast spent too much time in the sun. Tis all.”

She called for a maid to bring the girl some refreshments. The maid returned with a glass of sweet and chilled wine. After taking this sustenance, Eurydice was brought back inside to rest.

Lord Gaius was immensely proud of a giant, black, brute of a stallion which was a new addition to his stables. To celebrate the acquisition of the animal, His Lordship threw a dinner party for some of his friends. The party lasted until late into the night. Rollicking drunk, Lord Gaius, and his friends went out to the stables to see the horse. A stable lad was ordered to bring out the horse.

Orpheus snuck into the grounds of the Valerii villa that night for another of trysts with Eurydice. To his surprise, he discovered that the villa was bustling with activity. A group of noblemen, including Lord Gaius, lead by slaves carrying torches came towards the stables to look at a fine black stallion, restrained by a pair of stable lads. Something in the bushes must have startled the horse for he broke free from his handlers and charged towards the group of noblemen. He reared and looked as though he would trample Lord Gaius.  

Orpheus stepped in and began to strum his lyre and sing a hymn in praise of tempestuous Poseidon, who created the first horse in a vain attempt to woo his sister Demeter. The black stallion became calm and gentle and let the young man stroke his flanks.

“My son,” Lord Gaius said, “I owe thee my life. Whatever thou ask for in return, I shall grant.”

“My lord,” Orpheus replied, “I ask far too great a price for such a small service but it is the only thing I want. I humbly ask for the hand of thy daughter, Eurydice.”

Lord Gaius was shocked by the audacity of this request but he had given his word. He called for Eurydice and told her that if she loved this brave and bold young man, he would think over letting him marry her.

“I love him,” Eurydice swore, “and I will be no one else’s wife but his.”

Lady Cornelia and her daughters disapproved of the match. Eurydice deserved better, they argued, than to traipse about the empire, begging for coins and sharing a pauper’s couch. But Lord Gaius dismissed their arguments, saying that this was a matter for the gods. He would go to the temple of Apollo in Rome and seek guidance from the family patron.

The temple oracle burned bay laurel leaves to summon the god and Lord Gaius poured half the contents of a goblet of fine wine onto the ground and drank the rest. His lordship beseeched the god for guidance in choosing a husband for his beloved child.

Apollo had seen that his son loved this mortal’s daughter and sought her for his wife. He took the form of a particular elderly nobleman, an old friend of Lord Gaius, and asked what was troubling him.

“I wish to know if I should consent to have my daughter marry a young man who has asked for her hand,” Lord Gaius responded.

“Who is this young man?” Apollo asked.

“Orpheus the bard. He is poor and yet blessed beyond most men in his voice and lyre, which he has used to win the love of my daughter.

“He is certainly blessed, not least of all in his parentage. His father is Apollo himself and his mother Calliope was said to exceed most women in her beauty and skill with music. Any maiden would highly fortunate if she were to become his wife.”

Lord Gaius was won over by the prospect of having a demigod as a son-in-law and semi-divine grandchildren. He sent for young Orpheus and gave his consent for the youth to marry Eurydice.

The Valerii had a summer full of weddings. Lady Cornelia scarcely finished planning one bridal feast when she had to start preparing for another. Lord Gaius’s head steward frequently went into the nearby market to order supplies for the kitchen. The head steward was a notoriously discerning individual and would only accept the best for his master.

On the night before her wedding, Eurydice offered up playthings and maiden’s robes at the shrine to her household gods. Among the trinkets of her childhood was a lunula, a crescent-shaped amulet worn as a protective talisman by young girls prior to marriage. In the morning, she was dressed in a white gown with a belt tied around her waist in a special knot called the “knot of Hercules” and an orange veil held in place with a crown of flowers.

Orpheus waited for Eurydice at the Valerii family shrine where they clasped hands and repeated the vows of consents.

He said: “Quando tu Gaia, ego Gaius,”  Where you are Gaia, I am Gaius.

She replied: “Quando tu Gaius, ego Gaia,”  Where you are Gaius, I am Gaia.

He untied her belt, which symbolized her being freed of her family ties. They made an offering of a special type of bread called Panis Farreus to Jupiter and then ate it.

 

When night fell,  oil lamps were lit and placed all around the villa. Guests were lead in through the atrium, past brightly colored murals and mosaics depicting scenes of the countryside, past marble busts of dead family members, including Lady Lucretia, Lord Gaius’s first wife, and past the pool which collected the water that fell in through the skylight, to the dining room.

Slaves washed the feet of the guests as they came in and gave them crowns of roses anointed with perfume to enhance their scent. Bondmaids fanned them with peacock feathers or carried pitchers, basins, and towels for them to wash their hands. The couches were softened with feather cushions and covered in rich fabrics. A table covered in delicious things was brought out at the beginning of each course and removed to be laden again for the next course. Bread dipped in wine was brought out for the first course along with fried pig’s nipples, roasted mice in honey and poppy seeds, fried stuffed cow’s wombs, green and black olives, pomegranate seeds, milk-fed snails stuffed with mincemeat, and goose liver fattened with figs.

Lord Gaius  proposed a number of toasts to the health, happiness, and good fortune of his dear daughter and her new husband and brought out the finest wines he could afford.

The next course was made up of a soft cheese, calf’s brain custard with garum, quail eggs, roast capon, honey glazed rabbit sprinkled with rose petals, fish in a pepper sauce, and pork meatballs.

A Trojan hog was the climax of the feast: a pig roasted in garum sauce and served whole on the table with suckling piglets made of pastry nestled up to it. When the pig was cut open, sausages fell out.

A statue of the god Priapus stood as the centerpiece of the final course and held a basket of peaches and figs. The fourth and last course included small cakes that shoot out saffron custard when you touch them, honey fingers, and savillum, a honey-sweetened cheesecake.

Dancing girls dressed in flowing silk appeared at the end of the feast and shimmied and swayed to the music of drums, tambourines, and cymbals, sprinkling rose petals on the guests.

Orpheus, with his bride reclining next to him on the top couch, sang hymns to Hymen, the God who blesses and curses all marriages. His singing summoned the god to the feast.

Hymen arrived to find the torch he had carried with him had cooled to smoking embers. He tried to blow and fan  it back into a flame but it was all in vain.

The young couple was oblivious to this ill omen. When the night grew so late that it may be called early, a joyful Eurydice was lead to the bridal chamber by her new husband. She carried a special torch which she blew out and tossed among the guests. Clinging to her stepmother and stepsisters, she made a humorously melodramatic show of pretending to be scared and hesitant to enter her bridal chamber. Orpheus ripped her from their arms with mock force and carried her over the threshold.

Eurydice had never passed such a blissful night. A deep and sweet sleep fell upon her, which lasted until first light. In her half-awake delirium, she saw death’s heads in every dark corner of her chamber.

Orpheus stirred in the bed next to her. He kissed her and bid her good morning. The rosy dawn chased away all of Eurydice’s dark thoughts. Her maids crept in, bringing with them a breakfast of bread dipped in wine, and porridge.

“My Lord, My Lady,” they chirped.

The newlyweds quickly dressed and took their morning meal into the garden. Orpheus composed a song, thanking Venus for the happiness he now enjoyed.

Retribution: Chapter Thirty-Four

Delaroche,_Paul_-_A_Christian_Martyr_Drowned_in_the_Tiber_During_the_Reign_of_Diocletian_-_1855

Marianne shook her hair free of its braid and unbuttoned her corduroy shirt. She shed her boy’s clothing and let her sweat-damp skin cool off. In stories she had read, when a girl adopted a masculine disguise, she would rave about how liberating it was to be free of cumbersome corsets and petticoats and the constraints of lady-like behavior. The clothes she had borrowed from Léon, the corduroy shirt and a pair of denim overalls, were too big and baggy for her and felt unbearably hot and scratchy on a day like this; what she would not give to be able to wear one of her light cotton summer dresses.

What a relief it was to be free of her of them; to sit in the gritty, beige colored sand and feel the breezing coming off of the water against her bare skin and through her gossamer-like rayon underthings.

The sky over the Channel was a clear azure blue without a single cloud, the way it would be in a watercolor postcard. Off in the distance were the chalky, greyish white cliffs which Normandy was famous for. Their pale color stood out against the rolling green hills which capped them. Marianne and Augustin and had found this beach outside of Le Havre as they were exploring the town. Throughout her life, Marianne would always remember this place as one where she had been perfectly happy. There she had died and gone to heaven.

Augustin lay by her side in the sand. She could not tell if he was asleep. Smiling at him, she stood up and walked towards the water. It was cold but felt refreshing on such a hot day. She walked into the Channel until she was waist deep and then dove into breaking wave. Her head felt clear again after hours of being in a dream-like haze from heat and fatigue. When her head popped up above the water, she saw that Augustin was sitting up with, looking absently at the sky and petting Johnny, who was next to him. Marianne swam to the shore and returned to his side.

“What were you thinking about?” she asked him.

“A place I was many years ago,” he replied, “When I was little. The memories I have of it are so hazy that I’m not even sure its a real place. A crescent-shaped beach like this one, except the water was turquoise blue instead of grey-blue.”

“Maybe we’ll go there someday and see if its real.”

After the sun had dried Marianne off from her swim, they returned to an abandoned chateau on the outskirts of  Le Havre which had been taken over as a hobo jungle. It had the white stone walls and bluish grey slate roofs typically of French architecture. The walls were overgrown with moss, ivy, and mold and the windows were mostly smashed. Inside, the front hall had a black and white marble floor and a grand staircase with a delicate wrought iron banister. Its former grandeur was hidden under years of dust and grime.

The other hobos were in the back courtyard, sitting in the shade of the three massive oaks that grew there. In the center was a fire pit dug in the ground and marked off by a circle of stones. It was filled with the ash and charcoal from previous fires. Pots and pans for cooking were scattered around it.

The chateau was an ideal place for a hobo jungle. Close to the railroad tracks and the city proper but far away enough to be out of reach of the authorities. There was the house itself which provided shelter from the weather and the nearby Seine for washing and fishing. The woods surrounding the chateau were filled with rabbits, pigeons, and edible mushrooms and people in the area would give you food and other necessities in exchange for work. A symbol was carved in the wood of the front gate: a square with its roof missing. Gui had told them that this meant that the location was a good place to camp.

A girl named Alice lit a fire under a pot of stew. She had a bag filled with tomatoes, onions, and wild mushrooms and began to cut them up with a pocket knife and through into the stewpot.

“Where did you get those?” Marianne asked her

“There’s an old woman who lives nearby,” Alice replied, stroking Johnny’s velvety black ears “In exchange for help in the garden, she’ll give you a share of the produce. You can come with me tomorrow if you like?”

“Certainly, which house does she live in?”

“The one what has the cat carved into the fence.”

A cat carved onto a fence meant that kind people lived the house behind it.

“I have a present for you,” Augustin whispered to Marianne as he sat down beside her.

“Oh,” Marianne responded, “What is it?”

He produced a small switchblade knife from his pack. It was a silvery color with a bone handle and Marianne could almost describe it as beautiful.

“It’s little and pretty, just like you, but it can be dangerous,” Augustin stood up and gestured for Marianne to do the same, “But first you have to know how to use it. Keep it somewhere on you where can easily get at it. The time you waste reaching for it can be the difference between life and death.”

He flicked open the knife and stood in front of Marianne as if he were about to fight her with it.

“Keep your knife arm close to your body. It will keep your attacker at bay and make it easier for you get at them and make sure the knife is pointed directly at your target.. Now try to take the knife away from me.”

Marianne reached to take it away from him but he jerked his knife hand away from her before she could get at it. She tried again but he did the same thing again. His hand moved rapidly in every direction, forming a protective shield.

“Keep moving. If your hand stays still, they can easily rip from the knife from your hand. It also makes it harder for them to get close to you.”

He held his other arm in front of his face.

“Use your other arm to protect your face. We don’t want that sweet puss to get cut up, do we? If possible, use it to grab your attacker’s other arm.”

The knife’s blade was placed on the left side of Marianne’s neck, underneath the chin.

“This should be enough to get them to back off. One good swipe of the hand from here would finish them right off.”

He flicked the blade closed and handed the knife back to her.

“Remember, using this isn’t whats important, it’s making people know you can and you will. Your average thug is usually a coward, especially the ones who would harass a woman, and will usually back off if you show them you can take them on.”

“I hope I never have to slit anyone’s throat,” Marianne said.

“I hope you never have to do it either but it never hurts to be prepared. Now you try.”

He handed the knife over to her and instructed her to hide it either in her waistband or in her boot. The waist of her overalls was too loose, so she decided that her boot would be the better place to keep the knife.

“I’m coming at you. See if you can fight me off.”

Marianne reached into her boot and pulled the knife out. While she was bent down, Augustin grabbed her by the waist.

“You’re too slow.”

She fumbled with the knife to try to flick it open but he snatched it out of her hand before she could do so.

“Now you are disarmed. Better keep practicing, Chérie.”

The Young Martyr by Paul Delaroche was one of Catharine’s favorite works of art in the Louvre. It depicted a sweet-faced, fair-haired maiden dressed in white robe floating in a lake or river with her wrists tied while two enshadowed and distraught figures (presumably the poor child’s parents) looked on from the banks. Catharine figured that the dead girl was meant to be an early Christian who had been put to death for her beliefs. She pitied her for having been foolish enough to throw her life away but pitied her parents more because her death must have broken their hearts. God would have wanted her to marry a good man, have children, and live a long and fulfilling life. He gives us life and the last thing he wants is for us to squander it away.

“My dear Chatte,” a weak, raspy voice called to her from behind.

She turned around to see a tall, well-dressed man carrying a newspaper under his arm. His once handsome face was florid and puffy and his once trim, elegant waist had doubled. He greeted Catharine with a leering smile.

“Georges,” she replied, “I never noticed how fat you’ve gotten.”

“You’re no longer a fresh young flower yourself, my dear Chatte.”

“And I’ve seen more of you this year than I care to.”

He grinned at her like a schoolboy with a secret. His teeth had been stained yellow and reeked of tobacco.

“What the devil are you smirking about, you fat fool?”

“So you did not read today’s paper?”

He handed her the newspaper he had carried under his arm and walked away laughing. The ugly, mean-spirited leer on his face reminded Catharine of a statue depicting a satyr she had seen the Louvre’s gallery of Greco-Roman statues. Georges had the intelligence and morals of a satyr; nothing on his mind except for his appetites and satisfying them. He was a weak fool who could not keep this hands off of any pretty bit of skirt who crooked their wicked little finger at him. This is why she had divorced him in the first place.

The two times she had to put up with him this year, at the weddings of their daughters, were more than she was able to bear and running into him like this was enough to almost make her lose her temper. She tried her best to remain calm and composed but inwardly she was cursing her ex-husband to the deepest pits of hell.

Catharine looked at the newspaper Georges had given her. On the front page was a photograph of Augustin Lerou above the headline “Augustin Lerou flees Paris following backstreet confrontation” and an article describing how the “young protege of the notorious Bruno Faucherie” is implicated in a violent assault on Edmond Danton, a “high society man about town.”

Lower down on the page was a photograph of Marianne.

“The cause of the fight between Lerou and Danton is believed to be blonde beauty, Marianne d’Aubrey,” the article read, “Mademoiselle d’Aubrey (19) has been missing for several months and is likely to have joined Lerou in leaving town.”

The article gave the implication that Augustin Lerou and Edmond Danton had clashed because they were rivals for the lovely Marianne’s affections. Preferring Augustin, Marianne had run away from her friends and family to join her lover and then left Paris with him. Police were looking for the couple since he was already a wanted fugitive following an escape from La Santé prison.

“Readers are advised to be on the lookout for a tall, swarthy young man with dark hair and green eyes,” the article continued, “and a petite, blonde haired young woman with greyish eyes. Lerou was last seen wearing a grey flannel suit and a red silk shirt; d’Aubrey was last seen wearing a pale pink chiffon dress and a cloche hat decorated with white ribbons.”

Catharine imagined that Georges had a good laugh when he read this. Like most small minds, he never forgot even the most minor of slights and brooded over them, always waiting for even the smallest victory over those who he believed had wronged him. Being blackmailed by a former mistress had been humiliating enough without the high and mighty d’Aubries closing ranks against him. This had been a rare instance of solidarity between Catharine had her sister Madeleine, who had been the one to inform Catharine of the blackmail scandal. Now Madeleine’s precious little daughter was being dragged through the press as the floozie of a wanted fugitive. Revenge certainly was sweet, was it not?

Catharine continued walking through the museum and came to a long gallery displaying statues. She stopped to admire the Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave, the only two Michelangelo statues on display outside of Italy, as a guide announced. At the far end of the gallery was Antonio Canova’s famous Psyche Awakened by Cupid’s Kiss, another of Catharine’s favorite pieces in the museum. An exquisitely handsome, winged youth cradled his beloved in his arms after giving her true love’s kiss. Theirs was a romantic tale about an exceptionally beautiful maiden who offends the goddess Aphrodite but wins the love and desire of her son, Cupid.

“Madame Catharine,” a young man standing nearby called to her.

She turned to see Gabriel Renault also admiring Psyche Awakened by Cupid’s Kiss. Gabriel gave Catharine a polite bow of his head. Catharine smiled; Pascal Renault had raised his son well.

“What brings you to Paris today?” she asked him.

“I’ve been feeling restless at home and needed to get away,” he replied.

Catharine understood. Contaille was a pleasant enough place to live but did not offer much excitement for a young man. Young people of Gabriel’s generation seemed to suffer from a general malaise. They had come of age in the wake of the trauma caused by the Great War and saw little besides hardship and upheaval. When they looked around them, they saw thousands of people out of work and struggling to support themselves and their families and those in power too busy quibbling over petty differences in ideology to do anything about it. That fat clown, Mussolini, was still causing trouble in Italy and some buffoon with a Charlie Chaplin mustache had come to power in Germany. The world seemed to be hurtling towards yet another disaster.

“When the things seem hopeless, the best thing to do is to go to an art museum,” Catharine told Gabriel, “They remind you that mankind is capable of doing great things which will last throughout the centuries.”

Gabriel’s eyes drank in every detail of the statue: the serene, adoring smiles on the faces of Psyche and Cupid, the way her arms were thrown around his neck, and how one of his hands cradled her head while the other caressed her left breast.

“How’s Marianne?” he asked, “Have you heard anything from her?”

Catharine handed him the newspaper she had read. It was a cruel thing to do, shattering this young man’s illusions, but he deserved to know the truth. Gabriel looked over the newspaper. She expected him to be shocked, or angry, and upset, but he simply looked concerned. He made the sign of the cross and murmured something to himself, possibly a prayer or blessing. If Catharine had been in this situation, she would have cursed Marianne for her foolishness and cursed Augustin for stealing her away but Gabriel appeared to be a more forgiving soul than she was.

She put her hand on his shoulder, thinking that she could at least buy the disappointed swain lunch.

Gabriel had to refuse Catharine’s lunch invitation because he had already promised his sister Gillian that he would meet her for lunch at the nearby Café des Beaux-Arts. He made his way across the river via the Pont des Arts bridge, its railings laden with locks inscribed with the names of countless lovers.

Gillian had found a table outside of the cafe. She stood up when she saw him; he came over and kissed her on the cheek. Though she was five years his junior, Gillian always fussed over him. Today, she said that he was looking pale and thin. Gabriel responded that the opposite could be said about her. Gillian was a pretty, rosy-cheeked girl with reddish brown hair and large blue eyes who was inclined to be slightly plump. She had been putting on weight, which was unsurprising in her condition. Her little rosebud mouth was full and petulant which made her look childish instead of like a woman who was expecting her first child.

When they sat down, Gillian placed a newspaper on the table.

“Did you see this?” she asked.

“Yes,” he growled in reply, not wanting to go through this again.

“I told you that mooning about after that d’Aubrey girl wouldn’t end well. She turned up her nose like she is too good for you, now look who she takes up with. Pampered princesses like Marianne d’Aubrey never know how good they have it.”

They had this conversation many times before and Gabriel did not feel like having it yet another time.

“How was your doctor’s appointment today?” he inquired for the sake of changing the subject.

Gillian patted her stomach and stated proudly that all was going as well as could be expected and she was in good form.

“When is my nephew due?”

“In December.”  

“Congratulations.”

As they ate their lunches, Gabriel managed to avoid bringing up the subject of Marianne d’Aubrey. They talked about their father’s health, how they were going to pay the mortgage on the farm, and Yve’s letters from Morocco. Gabriel was not feeling very chatty; he picked at his meal and gave a two or three-word answer to Gillian’s questions and comments.

Gillian looked at her brother’s dejected expression with a smug, “I told you so” smile.

“Cheer up, Gabriel,” she said to him, “That girl’s not worth it.”

At the beginning of July, the Dantons hosted a party celebrating their daughter Solange’s engagement to Germain Muffat, heir to the Muffat mustard fortune. The match was all over the society columns, which predicted that their upcoming nuptials in November would be the wedding of the year.  

Edmond had been released from the hospital the week before and the bandage over his eye had attracted considerable attention. He told anyone who would listen about how he had been wounded while heroically trying to stop his poor cousin Marianne from running off with a dangerous criminal and was shot because that floozie had urged to her lover to do so.

Young Muffat had used his connections to engage Mademoiselle Hélène to sing at the party. When she walked into the drawing room, Edmond approached her, took her hand, and kissed it.

“Mademoiselle,” he said to her, “I’ve had the pleasure of hearing you sing a number of times at Le Monstre. You were superb.”

“I thank you, Monsieur…” Hélène replied.

“Edmond Danton. May I get you some champagne?”

“Certainly.”

Edmond grabbed two glasses of champagne from a nearby tray held by an impeccably turned out footman and lead Hélène over to where Mathilde was standing, by a massive bouquet of yellow irises.

“Poupée,” he called over to her, “Come meet the guest of honor. Mademoiselle Hélène, this is my wife, Mathilde.”

“It’s a pleasure,” Mathilde responded.

“Likewise,” Hélène retorted.

Across the room, Agnès stood staring at Hélène. She had heard that Hélène was the most beautiful woman in Paris and the woman she saw in front of her did not fall short of this description. Hélène was one of those women who made the whole room gasp when she walked in.

Kit playfully elbowed her in the stomach.

“Stop gawking,” he said, “Go over and talk to her.”

“I wasn’t gawking,” Agnès snapped, “And you can’t just walk up to a famous person.”

Kit did exactly that. He grabbed Agnès by the arm and dragged her over to where Edmond, Hélène, and Mathilde were standing.

“Mademoiselle,” he said to her, “This young lady has been dying to talk to you.”

Agnès flushed red and glared at her husband.

“I’m Agnès Trask,” she told Hélène, “You’ve just met my sister and brother-in-law.”

“It’s a pleasure,” Mathilde responded.

“And this is my husband, Kit.”

So, you’re married. Why you’re just a child.”

“I’m old enough to know my own mind.”

Hélène smiled and nodded her head to acknowledge that the younger girl had spirit.

“What’s with the eyepatch your brother-in-law is wearing? Did he think this was a costume party?”

“He says he was shot by someone called Augustin, who’s my cousin’s lover.”

“Augustin… Augustin Lerou?”

“I think that’s his name.”

“Is your cousin Marianne d’Aubrey?”

“Yes, do you know them?”

“We’ve met.”

“I’ve read in the papers that they left town together. Do you know where they might have gone?”

“They could be in the Land of Oz or Never Neverland for all I know and if I did know, I wouldn’t say anything. Augustin is reckless but he’s not stupid, I’m sure they’re far away and he’s keeping your cousin safe.”

“I hope you’re right.”

Agnès walked over to a footman with a tray of champagne flutes. Walking over, she passed Edmond who gave her a nod.

Marianne admired the bone handle of her knife. With the sharp end of a file, she had carved three fleurs-de-lys flowers into it. When she was a child, she one of her toys had been a wooden sword with similar carvings that she used to pretend she was Jeanne la Pucelle. She would swing her sword and battle English knights and fearsome dragons. Monsters and enemies were easily defeated in those days, quickly sent back into the closet or under the bed where they had come from. Hopefully, the triple fleur-de-lys symbol would bring her the same level of confidence.

Augustin brought her over a tumbler of Calvados from the bar at the cafe in Le Havre where they were sitting.  Marianne took a sip; it felt like acid going down her throat.

“Would you like some soda in that?” Augustin asked after seeing the grimace on her face.

“No, I’m fine,” Marianne replied.

She took another sip of calvados and made another grimace.

“You don’t have to drink it if you don’t want to. I can get you something else.”

“I’m fine, let’s not waste our money.”

During the weeks they had been in Le Havre, Augustin had found on-and-off-again work unloading ships that came into the docks. Marianne herself had found work at a fried fish stand on the Quai de Southampton, where the ferries coming and going across the Channel to England left from. She spent the hot and hazy days of late June rolling greasy chunks of shellfish such as oysters, clams, and mussels in flour and cornstarch and frying them in boiling oil before drizzling them in vinegar sauce and wrapping them up in old newspaper. The fish stand had a nice view of the Channel. On a clear day, she could see the faintest outline of the English coast, possibly the city of Portsmouth. Marianne whiled away the hours staring across the water and dreaming about hopping on a ferry to England and leaving all of her problems behind in France.

The radio in the cafe was tuned into the Muffat Mustard Hour and tonight they were having music live from the ballroom at the Ritz. The band played loud and infectious jazz music. Marianne had finished her calvados in several large gulps and it had gone right to her head, making her giddy. She got up and danced, swaying and shuffling to the music and swinging her arms around.

Two young men at a nearby table noticed her. They were local toughs of the type that Augustin often came across around the docks: coarse, mean, and not terribly bright. One was thin and lanky while the other was stout and beefy. Augustin figured they had roughly the intelligence that God would give a pile of gull shit but they were not blind. They knew what a girl looked like, despite the way she might be dressed.

But Marianne only had eyes for Augustin. He shot her two admirers a smirk and a look which said “you’re broke, ugly, and stupid. what girl in her right mind would look at you?” which they took offense to.

The two dock workers came over where Augustin was sitting and pounded their meaty fists on the table to get his attention.

“Hey,” the skinny one  said to the beefy one, “Last time I checked, this place didn’t serve gypsies.”

With Augustin’s swarthy complexion and dark, wildly curly hair (which he had had not cut in several weeks),  they thought he might have come to town with one of the caravans that traveled around the coast.

“They don’t seem to have a problem letting ass-holes in,” Augustin sneered.

The beefy dock worker lunged at Augustin’s neck but was stopped in his tracks when Augustin pulled out his pistol and firing a bullet into the wall behind them which sent the two scurrying like rats. After leaving the money for the drinks on the bar counter, he grabbed a giggling Marianne by arm and ran out into the street, followed by a yipping Johnny.

“I hope they brought a change of pants,” she laughed.

The best places to hide were the warehouse by the docks. They ducked into an alley behind one of the warehouses after checking to see if anyone was following them. Marianne scooped Johnny into her arms to soothe him.  When he saw that the coast was clear, Augustin picked Marianne up and placed her on top a stack of wooden crates.

“I shouldn’t have brought you with me,” he said in between playful kisses on her lips and neck, “You stick out too much.”

Marianne kissed him back and threw her arms around his neck. He began to unbutton her shirt until he was interrupted by Johnny’s barking.

“Ahh merde,” he groaned.

“What’s the matter?” she replied.

“Laurel and Hardy are back.”

The two dock workers came down the alley looking like a pair of rabid dogs. Augustin got up to face them.

“ Returned for more, haven’t you?” he taunted.

They circled around Augustin, vulture-like, while he dared them to come at him. The beefy one knocked him down with a blow to the stomach. Augustin quickly got back up and took out skinny one with a punch in the face. Beefy avenged his friend by shoving Augustin back to the ground. As he got back on this his feet, Augustin managed to trip Beefy, who, along with skinny, lunged at him.

Marianne pulled her knife out of her boot and flicked it open. She jumped in front of Beefy and Skinny before they could get to Augustin, her knife drawn on them.

“Very funny sweetheart,” Skinny sneered.

Beefy tried to take the knife from Marianne but she kept moving her hands in rapid motions the way Augustin had instructed her. She kept her arms close to her body and used one of them to protect her face and block Beefy’s blows. The swift movement tired him out until she had a clear shot at his neck. With a quick thrust, she cut a gash down his throat. He yelled in pain, clutching his wound, and ran off with Skinny in toe.

Augustin smiled at her when they were alone again.

“I’ve taught you well,” he chuckled.

In one of the towers of the abandoned chateau sat what was left of a great lady’s boudoir. The furniture was covered in dust cloths and the french windows were boarded up. Every flat surface in the room was covered in dust and the air smelled moldy. To let in a fresh breeze, Augustin found a crowbar and removed the boards over the windows so he could open them.

One of the pieces of furniture that had been left behind was a sofa wide enough for two people to lay together.

Marianne began to wake a first light. The dry dusty air had given her a stuffed up nose and scratchy throat. One of Augustin’s arms was wrapped around her waist. She gave a nudge and he responded with a sleepy groan.

“Augustin,” she whispered.

“Yes,” he yawned.

“Can you let me go please?”

“No.”

“Please, I have to go into the woods.”

Augustin wrapped his other arm around her.

“No you don’t”

Marianne sighed and rested her head on his shoulder.

“We did well back there, did we not?”

“Yeah, we did.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t lose your temper at those two goons right there at the cafe, after how they spoke to you.”

“I’m used to it Chère, loudmouth bullies don’t scare me anymore,” he stroked her cheek, “I guess I was stupid for putting you in danger, but, now I see, you can take care of yourself.”

“Yes, I can.”

Marianne yawned and snuggled up closer to him.

Chateau Aubrey: Book 2, Chapter 12

Grace_Cathedral_-_Votive_Rack

Madeleine tied the ribbons of blue and gold mask behind her head. It matched the outfit she was to wear to her family’s New Year’s Eve costume party: a sleeveless frock, the color of the sky, with a gauzy skirt, flecked with gold, over a flowing pair of azure harem pants. A gold sash was tied around her waist.

Her family had not thrown a New Year’s Eve costume party since the war began and this year, it was to be a comparatively modest affair. Before the war, her parents had spared no expense for this annual event and her mother would chose a theme such as mythological gods (Madeleine has gone as Hebe, goddess of youth, cupbearer to the gods, and consort of Hercules, in a diaphanous white dress, a crown of pink rosettes, and an eagle feather fan), historical figures (she had gone as Louise de La Vallière, mistress of King Louis XIV, in a grey-blue seventeenth century style frock and a white veil with her hair worn in long ringlets), or fairytale characters (she had gone as Princess Aurora from  Sleeping Beauty in a medieval style gown printed with red, gold, and blue flowers and leaves with gold trim and under-sleeves and her hair worn in two long braids intertwined with gold ribbons). This year there was no theme, just come in evening dress and wearing a mask, and the guest list was limited to a handful of close family friends who lived in the area. It was more appropriate this way. Madeleine did not feel like dressing up as Hebe without her Hercules, as Louise de La Vallière without her Louis XIV, or as Princess Aurora without her Prince Charming. If she felt like dressing up as anyone, it was  Penelope, the loyal wife of the Greek hero Odysseus, who waited patiently for her beloved husband to come home.

She prayed that the new year would find her James returned home safely to her.

When guests entered the drawing room at Chateau Aubrey, they encountered footmen carrying trays of oysters on ice, pieces of toast spread with pâté de foie gras, glasses of champagne, and tumblers of cognac and calvados.

Catharine reminisced with those among them who had been attending the New Year’s Eve costume parties for years about better days. She recalled the outfit she had worn when she was Athena the year when the theme had been mythological gods (a gold painted helmet with white plumes and a matching breastplate and wristguards, a gauzy white tunic, and a shield and spear). The year they had all dressed up as historical figures, she had gone as Cleopatra in a gown of pleated silver silk, a golden sash tied around her waist, a leopard skin worn around her shoulders, an Egyptian style cobra crown, gold bracelets on her arms, and pearl necklaces and earrings around her neck and hanging from her ears. She had gone as the fairy queen the year that the theme had been fairytale tale characters and worn a beautiful pair of gossamer wings, a green velvet robe, and garlands of silk leaves and flowers. Like the rest of her family, Catharine had always loved to dress up. While her sisters masqueraded as romantic heroines, she preferred to be powerful queens and other symbols of female strength and wisdom. Putting on a splendid costume and pretending to be someone else was a good way to start a new year.

They all toasted the old year and whatever lay in store in the new. Catharine was as glad as anyone to see the back of 1916. It, and her philandering husband, Georges, could go hang. She had always known that most men lacked the intelligence and moral strength to remain faithful to their wives and it was easy to remain cynical and detached when it was happening to another woman, but when it was you yourself being humiliated, it was hard to be so blasé. The humiliation was the worst part of it. It was best to hide from the world how one truly felt; if people knew you had been wounded, they would twist the knife in even deeper.

A footman walked into the drawing room bringing a telegram on a silver tray. He brought it over to Madeleine, who was sitting with Mimi and drinking champagne.

“Telegram for you Madame,” the footman said.

Madeleine took the telegram and read it. Tears welled up in her eyes and she threw the piece of paper on the ground then ran out of the room. The Baronne and Mimi went after her to see what was the matter.

Catharine bent down to pick it up off the floor and saw for herself what it said. The words “missing: presumed dead” stuck out at her.

They found Madeleine in the nursery, sitting in an armchair with her sleeping daughter in her lap and staring into the fireplace. Her eyes were heavy and wet.

“I don’t believe it,” she said as they walked in, “They make mistakes all the time. He’ll show up somewhere.”

Mimi knelt by her sister’s side and rested her head on her shoulder. The Baronne stood behind Madeleine and stroked her hair.

“If it wasn’t for dear little Marianne, I wouldn’t know what to do with the rest of my life. To think, she will never know her father.”

“Go to bed, my love,” the Baronne instructed her daughter, “You’ll need your rest. We’ll sort everything out in the morning.”

Madeleine’s maid helped her undress for bed then fixed her a sleeping draught and a cup of camomile tea. The draught and the tea had the desired effect but when Madeleine woke up, she was troubled by grief and a headache from drinking too much champagne. She had been told that things always looked better in the morning but the fact that it was morning made everything seem worse. It was a reminder that her life would have to go on without her beloved James. Never again would she go to bed with him or wake up beside him. She was not yet twenty-seven and had hoped for a long, full life with her husband and to have more children: brothers and sisters for her dear little Marianne. But now all of that was out of the question.

Catharine remembered being read a story as a child about Pandora, a young woman who is tricked into opening a box and releasing evil and suffering into the world. The last to leave the box was hope, a weak, crawling figure. Over the years, Catharine wondered how hope could be considered an evil when it usually had such a positive connotation.

Her reaction to the death of her brother-in-law, James, was anger; anger that a man’s fate was reduced to the words “missing: presumed dead”; anger that the Bureau de Guerre could not be bothered to look after the sons, husbands, and fathers who were fighting and dying for their country or give their families the consolation of having a body to burry and knowing the fate of their loved one; anger at the world for allowing such a destructive war to take place.

Madeleine was surprisingly serene during the whole ordeal. She half-heartedly went through the motions of planning a memorial service for James as if it was not really happening. She seemed to expect to get a telephone call, letter, or telegram saying that a mistake had been made and that her James was alive.

Perhaps this was why hope was considered an evil. It was merely an illusion which kept you from accepting the world the way it was and made you expect impossible miracles.

The church in Contaille had a wall devoted to plaques commemorating the local men who had fallen in battle. Madeleine hung up the most recent which read “James Beaumont 1888-1916”.  Her hands trembled and Mimi had to help steady her.

He wasn’t even thirty, she thought, wiping a tear from her eye.

Dies Irae played on the organ as the mourners took their seats in the pews. They watched as the young widow came down the aisle towards the d’Aubrey Family pew, holding her daughter in her arms and they pitied this woman who had lost the man she loved and this child who would never know her father.

Madeleine sat still and straight in the pew, her face was pale and expressionless. She occasionally lifted a handkerchief to dab her eyes or ran her fingers through Marianne’s hair. When the service finished, Madeleine walked over to a rack for votive offerings and lit a candle in front of a photograph of James, looking handsome and dashing in his uniform. She knelt down and made the sign of the cross.

“Dear God,” she prayed, “Please make it not be true. Please send him back to me.”

Chateau Aubrey: Book 2, Chapter 11

no-mans-land

Catharine sat down at her desk and glance over at the pile of mail she had asked her maid to place there earlier that morning and had completely forgotten about. Most of it was invitations for things like dinner parties and pleas for money from various charities. She would say yes to the invitation for dinner on the fifteenth but not the one for the twentieth and agree to donate a large sum of money to a charity set up for the widows and orphans left by the war. Catharine could imagine everyone seeing the amount she was donating and thinking how generous she was.

At the bottom of the pile was a letter from Catharine’s husband, Georges. Catharine tore open the envelope and looked the letter over.

“My dear Chatte,” it began.

Catharine rolled her eyes; she always hated the nickname Chatte.

The letter started with ramblings about how Catharine had not been answering his previous letters and pleas to know what he could have done to upset her. Catharine scoffed; as if he did not know.

Georges was a fool and she did not have much patience for fools, as the lot of men were. They ran the world and behaved like spoiled children, expecting all of their whims to be indulged.

At this point, Catharine wondered why she had even bothered to get married in the first place. Had the fact that it was expected of her made the whole thing worth it? Georges was handsome and from a prominent family. Plenty of other girls had been after him, so catching him had been a triumph.

Catharine tried to take her mind off of him by reading the newspaper but found it impossible. The war was dragging on and thousand had been killed. And what was that damn fool, Georges, doing? Sitting comfortably at headquarters, drinking, gambling, and whoring while better men were dying in the trenches.

 

Madeleine took Marianne out into the fields surrounding Chateau Aubrey to pick late summer wildflowers. Marianne filled her pudgy little hands with poppies and black-eyed Susans and Madeleine helped her arrange the flowers in her hair.

“There,” Madeleine said, “A crown for my princess. Come, let’s show your Tante Mimi.”

Madeleine picked up her daughter and brought her home. They found Mimi arranging some long stem roses in a vase in the drawing room. When she saw them come, she rushed over to Marianne and picked the toddler up.

“Oh, how pretty you look,” Mimi said, kissing her niece all over her face.

The Baronne swept into the room and looked over Mimi’s handwork.

“What lovely roses,” she said, “Are these from the gardens?”

“Yes,” Mimi responded, “From the bushes by the back terrace.”

“This late in the season, amazing.”

The Baronne turned her eyes over towards her granddaughter. Her mouth curled into a smile which looked unnatural on her cold and severely beautiful face.

“How sweet,” she said, “She looks like an elf child.”

“Let me fetch my camera,” Mimi joined in, “I’ll take her picture and send can send a copy to James.”

“Great idea,” Madeleine responded.

 

To a poilu in the trenches, there was not a more heavenly sound in the world than the two worlds: mail call. James’s ears pricked up and he hoped to hear his name called. They had already gone through the As and were part way through the Bs.

“Beauchamps,” the orderly shouted, “Beaulieu, Beaumont.”

James ran up and grabbed the envelope with his name on it. It contained a letter from Madeleine which told about Marianne’s second birthday party as well as a photograph of Marianne with a crown of flowers placed in her hair.

So she was two years old now? Could it have been that long? The minutes old baby he had held in his arms was long gone. James had blubbered like a fool when he first saw her because he had never seen anything so beautiful.

The German guns boomed off in the distance. Their roar had frightened James when he had first come to the trenches but time had minimized them to an annoyance.

James wanted to climb up the wall of the trench and shout “damn it, will you sons of bitches keep it down!”

But it was when the guns were quiet that you had to worry. That was when you knew something worse was about to happen.

The other men were singing as if defying the enemy artillery.

“Pour le repos le plaisir du militaire,” they sang, “il est là-bas deux pas de la forêt, un maison aux murs tous couverts de lière. Aux Tourlourous c’est le nom du cabaret. La servante est jeune et jolie, lègère comme un papillon. Comme son vin son oeil petille. Nous l’appelons la Madelon.”

“La Madelon pour nous n’est pas sevère,” James joined in, “Quand on lui prend la taille ou le menton. Elle rit c’est tout l’mal qu’elle sait faire. Madelon, Madelon, Madelon”

“Get down!” the soldier on guard duty shouted.

The entire range of the symphony known as the German artillery was on full display from thunderous booms and rumbles, to wave-like crashes, to whizzing whines. A whistle was blown, the signal for the men to line up at their ladders in preparation to go over the top. Some of them made the sign of the cross, others took swings of wine, and others kissed lucky charms. James did all three: he took a long sip from a bottle of cheap and sour burgundy, pressed Madeleine’s ring and Marianne’s photograph to his lips, and crossed himself before heading to his ladder. He usually thought that the Lord had more important things to worry about than James Beaumont and did not bother him with his problems but today he would need all the help he could get.

Another whistle blew, the signal to charge, followed by the exclamation “pour La France.” James took a deep breath and went forward into a muddy brown wasteland marked by lines of barbed wire, black and grey clouds of smoke and dirt raining down on him. He ducked down to avoid being hit by an onslaught of artillery fire: bright flashes of orange among the smoky obscurity. Getting up, he lost his footing and landed into a knee-deep puddle of murky water.

“Halt!” a deep, hostile voice shouted, “Beweg dich nicht!”

James looked up to see a German soldier holding a gun at him.