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.

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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

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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.

Chateau Aubrey: Book 2, Chapter 10

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High spring meant the beginning of milking season. The milking parlor had to be kept immaculately clean. It had to be thoroughly wept, scrubbed, and whitewashed before they could even think of bringing in the cows and the milkmaids had to wash their hands rigorously and wear a scarf to cover their hair before going into the milking parlor.  Anaïs told Madeleine that she could practice milking on Rosette, the calmest and most patient of their heifers. Madeleine received a quick briefing on how to milk before Anaïs went to milk Violante, who was a completely different story from Rosette.

With uncertain hands, Madeleine reached down and tugged on Rosette’s udders. The cow was startled and kicked over Madeleine’s bucket.

“Calm her down and get her to feel comfortable,” Anaïs called over to her, “Try stroking her flanks and singing.”

Madeleine returned her bucket to its upright position and began to stroke Rosette’s cream-colored hide with one hand and reached for her udders with the other.

Vache, vache à l’oreille rouge,” she sang, “Ta rouge oreille je la tiens. Vache, vache à l’oreille, je bois ton lait, le matin.”

Pearlescent jets of milk squirted into Madeleine’s bucket. Aside from cream and butter, the milk would go into making the camembert and neufchâtel cheeses for which the area was famous.

The strawberries would come into ripeness by the end of the month. The patch had to be weeded and ducks let in to eat the slugs and snails which threatened to the destroy the budding plants. A border of lyme and caustic soda was drawn around the strawberry patch to keep away any more pests.

The potato crop was also in danger from weeds and pests. A small plow was used to uproot the weeds; the goal was to get rid of all of them without destroying any potato plants. A dilution of water and copper sulfate was sprayed on the plants with a crop sprayer.

Some extra money was to be made by picking wildflowers, arranging them in attractive bouquets to be sold in Paris. Madeleine picked a small nosegay to dry and send to James in her next letter: bluebells (constancy, gratitude, and everlasting love), lilies of the valley (humility, chastity, sweetness, and purity), and violets (faithfulness). She hoped that this floral message would soothe her husband’s worries.

Luscious, red, jewel-like strawberries began to appear in late May and were far too tempting resist eating a few while you were filling a basket to be sent down to Paris. Almost as many strawberries went into the bellies of those that picked them as were sold in Parisian markets. Some of the strawberries were served along with Anaïs’s homemade ice cream. A tub filled with crackling salt dusted ice was placed in a shady corner of her kitchen. An ice cream maker filled with a custard mixture was put into the tub and Anaïs turned the crank until the liquid custard turned to solid ice cream.

Gabriel and Yves hovered around her, anxious to be able to eat this rare treat. Anaïs had to keep shooing them away, saying that the ice cream wasn’t finished yet. While she was turning the crank on ice cream maker, tubs of boiled milk and rennet were left to sit on the table. Every few minutes, she would take a break from churning and stir the milk. Curds began to form after a few hours, which were then put into cheese presses to set until the next morning.

The Renaults enjoyed fresh milk, cheese, and strawberries all throughout the months of May and June.  

The balmy weather meant that the sheep were at risk from having their precious fleece infested with fleas. A mixture of tobacco leaves and sulfur soaked in water was poured using a watering can over each sheep, as it struggled, wiggled, and kicked to try to get free. The Renault flocks were lead into fields overlooking the lower Seine to keep them cool until the end of June when they were to be sheared.

June’s waning days soared well into the nineties. Anaïs and the other women who worked on her farm hitched up her skirts and waded into a nearby pond to wash the sheep. The water was ice cold but it was a refreshing way to spend such a scorching day. Madeleine unlaced her boots and rolled down her stockings and put a hesitant toe into the pond and shivered. The other women shouted their encouragement and Madeleine hiked up her skirts and ran right in.

After their bath, the sheep would have to dry out in the sun for about a week before they were sheared. Most of their wool would be requisitioned to make blankets and uniforms for the army. Some of it would be boiled to make lanolin.

The June air smelt of freshly mowed grass, which was gathered up into large piles. To make silage which would feed the animals over the winter, these piles of grass were covered with straw mats and then a thick layer of soil to seal it all in.

July was berry season. The bushes of Ferme Pommier were laden with raspberries, currants, and blueberries. Marianne and the little Renaults were put to work helping to pick these berries. More ended up in their bellies than in their baskets and they wound up with stomach aches.

Pascal set to work repairing the rungs of a number of tall, clumsy looking ladders used for cherry picking, which was the major task for July.

Quand nous chanterons le temps des cerises,” sang the women as they were precariously perched on the rungs of these ladders, picking the sweet, juicy fruit, so tempting that it was hard to resist eating a few, “et gai rossignol et merle moqueur seront tous en fête, les belles auront la folie en tête, et les amoureux du soleil au cœur. Quand nous chanterons le temps de cerises sifflera bien mieux le merle moqueur.”

The cherries were put into large baskets lined with cloth, which were loaded into a cart and pulled into town by Garçon, the pony. Some of them were brought into Anaïs’s kitchen, where she cut out the pits and stems and boiled them with sugar on the stove and then jarred.

It was a tradition at Chateau Aubrey to host a special party for the children of the local tenant farmers after the cherry harvest. A long table was placed out on the front lawn, where the children were served cherry clafoutis and tea. Abbé Anselm, the village priest who had baptized them all and married most of their parents and ran the local school, said a blessing. Mathilde, Marianne, and Agnès were allowed to join the other children in enjoying clafoutis and playing games such as jumping rope and rolling the hoop.

Marianne toddled over to join Gabriel and Yves and some other boys in shooting marbles. Without asking, she pushed around some of the marbles, messing up a good shot that Gabriel had set up.

“Gosse!” Gabriel shouted, pushing Marianne over. Tears began to swell up in Marianne’s eyes and Nounou swept in to pick Marianne up and brush the dirt off of her dress. Gabriel rolled his eyes, he had little patience for pampered little girls with their nounoues and starched white pinafores.

The cherry feast was followed by several days of rain, which caused a blight in the potato crop. The tops of the potato plants were scythed off and then burnt to keep the blight from spreading and the crop would have to be harvested as soon as possible. Abbé Anselm gave his pupils the week off to help bring in the potato crop. The work was not difficult or unpleasant and the children enjoyed getting out of school and earning some pocket money. As July turned into August, they were also the blackberries to be picked.

August’s first days were grey and drizzly. Pascal began to worry because a week of warmth and dryness was needed for the oats to come into full ripeness. But as the weeks passed, the rooster-shaped weathervane on top of the barn pointed towards the northeast and the barometer in the kitchen began to rise, meaning that the weather was changing for the better. Another cause for concern was the fact that the army had requisitioned his two Ardenne workhorses to pull ambulances and pieces of artillery. Posters had been hung up all around Contaille advertising an agricultural affair with demonstrations of the latest farming equipment. Anaïs began work on some of her famous jam as well as a couple of berry tarts.

The fair took place in the middle of August. Displays of tractors and other machines were set up in the town square along with booths for games and refreshments such as cider, lemonade, cakes, and pastries, as well as the tarts, jam, and the bottle of currant wine that Anaïs had brought. Pascal was interested in buying a tractor since he would need one to bring in his oat crop. Another machine he had seen demonstrated was called a reaper-binder, which would also be useful during the harvest.

As the most prominent family in the area, the d’Aubries were obliged to put in an appearance. Marianne particularly enjoyed seeing the animals. She picked fistfuls of grass and tried to feed them to the cows, sheep, and goats.

A band was there to play music and Pascal danced the cake walk, first with his wife, then with Madeleine, then picked his daughter Gillian and swung her around to the music. Gypsies from the coast had come to sell dried seaweed to be used as fertilizer. Anaïs approached them to buy some bushels for her strawberry patch but Pascal stopped her.

“Don’t go near that sea scum, Mon Ange,” he told her, “I’ll do it.

The Baronne and Catharine oversaw a scrap metal drive. They had allowed the scullery maids at Chateau Aubrey to collect the dented pots to be donated to the war effort. Mimi and some other young women helped to gather up rags and lint for bandages. Their baskets filled up with old pots and pans and worn out bed linen which could be used for a better purpose.

The tractor and reaper-binder that Pascal purchased at the fair were christened a few weeks later when the oats were ready to be harvested. Sheaves were gathered and left to dry for several days before being threshed by a machine powered by the tractor and stored in the lofts of the barn.  

This successful harvested was celebrated by the Renault family and their tenants with mugs of cider.

Chateau Aubrey: Book 2, Chapter 9

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In March, when the weather began to warm up, Madeleine began doing calisthenics to strengthen and tone up her upper body and taking long walks to build up her stamina.  This was always her favorite time of year; drab and unprepossessing but full of potential and hidden beauties to be found by those willing to look.  

It was a tradition of Madeleine’s to pick the first crocus she found and press it in a book.

“Look at this,” she said to her toddling daughter, Marianne, who sometimes joined her on her walks. She presented the little girl with a delicate, pale, purple, bell-shaped bloom with bright yellow stamen. Marianne gazed at it with wonder.

The damp grass and mud squeaked underfoot as they walked back. It was warm and mild in the sun but the March winds blew strong and bitterly cold. As the month wore on, more crocuses popped up among the filthy remains of snow drifts and were then joined by primroses, wood anemones, and wild violets, poking their heads through bracken and last autumn’s leaves. But the stars of March were the vast patches of swaying yellow daffodils.

Mado went into the fields with the other women to pick the daffodils to be sent to florists down in Paris. Countless baskets overflowing with flowers were brought over to a shed where Anaïs carefully arranged bundles of daffodils according to height, wrapped these bundles in cheerful green paper and packed them into boxes. These boxes in turn were loaded onto the pony cart and brought to the station then sent off to Paris on the next train.

March are also marked the beginning of the lambing and laying season which would last until May. A ewe named Primevère was the first to go into labor. Madeleine offered to stay the night with Primevère and stroked her fleece as she gave birth and Pascale helped pull the lamb out. The lamb, a female, tried to stand up on her unsteady legs seconds after birth. Primevère sniffed and licked her affectionately. When the lamb steadied herself, she suckled from her mother.

“I thought of the perfect name for her,” Madeleine said to Pascale, “ St. Agnès.”

In April, the cows were put out to pasture. Pascale lead the herd on foot while Madeleine made up the rear on horseback. A cow named Blanche Laiteuse was heavily pregnant and expected to give birth soon. She was kept behind in the barn and Anaïs went to check on her every morning to see if the calf had come and rub lanolin on her teats to keep away flies.  

The Renaults decided to sell a fine black bull calf to a nearby farm which offered a good price for it. With the money they got for the bull calf,  they purchased paraffin which was rationed and expensive due to the war, to heat up the water tank that warmed the egg incubator.

March and April were occupied with plowing fields, planting potatoes, and ushering young animals into the world. Easter came towards the end of April. The Baronne d’Aubrey, along with Catharine and Mimi, passed her time dying eggs to hand out to the village children at the Easter mass.

“How pretty they are,” Madeleine cooed when they were showed to her. Each dyed red or yellow egg had little holes at the top and bottom through which the yolks were blown out and patterns of dots, stripes, rabbits, daffodils, and crosses drawn in wax.

The four d’Aubrey women stood at the church door on Easter morning handing these eggs out. Pascal stopped and tapped Madeleine on the shoulder as he and Anaïs walked in.

“Come over with Little Marianne after mass,” he told her, “I have something to show you.”

He brought them to the barn when the dropped by Ferme Pommier and proudly showed them to the egg incubator. All of the drawers were opened up to reveal fuzzy, yellow, chirping chicks. Madeleine picked one up and showed it to Marianne, who reached over to stroke the little creature.

“C’est un petit poussin” the toddler babled.

“That’s right, Princess,” Madeleine replied.

“Come inside for tea,” Pascal joined in, “Anaïs has made some of her famous almond cake.”

Anaïs received her at the farm house with her customary polite aloofness and served tea and cake. They discussed plans for the upcoming summer: May and June were the beginning of milking and shearing season and the potatoes had to be harvested in July while Marianne and Gillian played on the floor with their cloth dolls. Pascal cooed over what a pretty child Marianne was and how she promised to become just as lovely as her mother.

If anyone were to ask her, Anaïs would say that her husband enjoyed having young Madame Beaumont around too much. A more self aware woman than Madeleine might have noticed Pascal’s attentiveness to her and his wife’s hostility. It took a letter from her husband to make her see this.

The men of James’s unit had been given a leave of several days for Easter. They stationed near a place called Verdun, a few hours away from the Belgian border. After attending mass on Easter Sunday, James found that he had a letter from his wife. The letter had plenty of news from home especially the goings on at Ferme Pommier. Madeleine raved about Farmer Renault’s kindness towards her which made him feel a bit uneasy. Maybe it was just his inclination towards jealousy but he got the impression that Renault was a bit smitten with her. Renault was a married, middle aged, peasant and it was unlikely that Madeleine would think of him in that way, but that probably was not much comfort to his wife.

The letter came with a photograph of Marianne with a large bow tied in her hair and holding a bouquet of flowers. James kept the letter and photograph in his pocket the entire week.

“My Dear Mado,” he wrote back to his wife, “I hope you had a pleasant Easter, visiting Farmer Renault and his family. Renault has been very kind to you, hasn’t he? I wish I could have been there myself instead of sitting in the trench listening to the chaplain drone on. But have you thought about how Madame Renault feels about your visits to her home and the time you’ve been spending with her husband?”

On Easter Monday, James went into a nearby village. He purchased a newspaper and sat down in a cafe to have a glass of wine and a pastry. The day’s headline was about an uprising of Irish Republicans in Dublin. After reading the newspaper, he took the photograph of Marianne out of his pocket to look at it.

A girl, young, petite, blonde, and pretty, approached his table. She looked over his shoulder at the photograph.

“What a cute little thing,” she said, “Who is she?”

“My daughter,” James responded.

“Is her mother just as cute?”

“Yes, every bit.”

She then began to rub his shoulders.

“You can pretend I’m her, soldier.”

He had to admit that tempted for a moment. She was cute, and a lot like his Mado, but taking her up on her offer would make him feel like a hypocrite. He had viewed Georges’s infidelity from the high ground of smug, moral superiority and often mocked Lamarque, who was plowing his way through the filles du joies of Northern France but constantly fretted about the possibility of his wife cuckolding him.

“No thank you, love,” he told her.

She huffed off, offended by this slight.

Chateau Aubrey: Book 2, Chapter 8

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The winter of 1916 was exceptionally cold and the plowing scheduled for January had to be delayed until February. These winter days were short and dark without much time to get through all things that needed to be done. Anaïs Renault woke up at the crack of dawn as she usually did. Shivering in the darkness, she washed up and dressed as quickly as she could. Her first chore was to put coal into the kitchen range which heated the house and boiled water for washing and cooking. Pascal woke up soon after his wife. She had brought him a pitcher of hot water for washing up and he went to the dressing table to shave and brush his teeth. The first thing to be done in the morning was to feed and check on the animals. Anaïs brought along a bucket of kitchen scraps to feed the pigs. Hay was running low in the barn, so Pascal had to cut into the ricks; the hay on outside of the ricks was damps and moldy but on the inside it was dry and fresh. While he did this, she fetched buckets of water from the nearby stream to fill up the troughs. After the animals were fed, their stalls and stys were mucked out. The cows and sheep were pregnant and Pascal checked them over to see if they were healthy; their hooves were clipped and cleaned. One of the geese had been badly injured by a fox and it was decided that the poor thing would have to be put down. “Looks like we’re having goose for supper tonight,” Pascal said to his wife. Around eight o’clock, Anaïs returned to the house and woke up the children. Gabriel and Yves were dressed and sent out to fetch buckets of water and to gather eggs for breakfast and sticks for kindling. Gillian sat on the floor of the kitchen playing with a rattle, while her mother washed the dishes with wet sand and a rag. Madeleine arrived at Ferme Pommier around half past nine. The Renault boys were playing outlaws in the yard using large sticks for horses and small ones for guns. “Bang, bang, you’re dead!” Gabriel shouted at his little brother, who pretended to fall down shot. Inside, Anaïs was washing her hands, face, and neck. Madeleine flushed with embarrassment to see her without her bodice on. “Good morning, Madame Beaumont,” she said nonchalantly. She put her bodice back on and went to the mirror to comb and arrange her hair. Two plaited hair pieces were pinned into her hairdo. For the next couple hours, the two women passed the time by scrubbing the floors and then hanging the rugs on the clothes to beat the dust and soot out of them. At noon, they walked into town to run errands. The first was to the boulangérie to buy some loaves of bread, then to the épicerie where Anaïs bought a can of golden syrup and a jar of marmalade. The shop owner wrapped her purchases in blue paper and put them in a basket for his son to deliver to Ferme Pommier. Lastly, they brought Pascal’s boots to the cordonnier to be repaired. They returned at little after one o’clock and joined Pascal, the children, and the other farm hands for lunch. After lunch, the farrier came to check the horses to see if their hooves are healthy. St. François needed to be reshoed. To prevent losing more geese to the fox, a gander was brought in to protect them. Gabriel and Yves started tormenting it by chasing it around while throwing rocks. The gander honked at them aggressively. “Stop that!” Pascal shouted at his sons, “Go get some more firewood before I tan your backsides.” When the sun went down at six o’clock, Pascal and Madeleine put the animals to bed in the barns and fed them a second time while Anaïs cooked dinner; the kitchen smelt temptingly of roast goose and bread pudding. Bedding down the animals being the last chore of the day, Madeleine returned to the house to say goodnight before going home. The main tasks to be done in the month of February were to plow the fields after the worst of the winter frost had thawed and plant them with oats. A traveling salesman visited Ferme Pommier with a new petrol powered tractor which he demonstrated in the one of the fields. Pascal did not much care for all of the noise that the machine made and thought the furrows it plowed looked sloppy. It also cost more money than he could afford at the moment, so he had to say no thank you. His Ardennes might need more care and maintenance, but they were much more pleasant to work with.