Authors: Jacqueline; Briskin
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The French Passion
Jacqueline Briskin writing as Diane du Pont
For Bert and Jackie Briskin
On the Brink
“We never should be on the road, not in the dark,” wailed Aunt ThÃ©rÃ¨se, twining her plump, gloved fingers. “We were meant to be at the HÃ´tel de la Poste two hours ago.”
“Two hours,” I said. “By an odd coincidence, Auntie, that's how long we had to wait for the horse to be shod.”
My effort to calm her with a joke didn't work. Aunt ThÃ©rÃ¨se went on, her voice trembling. “These days there are so many rough people about. Highway robbers.”
This was true. One heard of lawlessness, particularly on the Paris-Rheims road. Aunt ThÃ©rÃ¨se, as if to catch a glimpse of (supposed) highwaymen, peered out the small window of our old coach, and Jean-Pierre and I both turned involuntarily. Several miles back, when we left the smithy, our carriage lanterns had been lit. This smoky light, veiled by hard rain, was all we could see.
The horses floundered into a mudhole. We jounced in unison, Aunt ThÃ©rÃ¨se fell against me, and Jean-Pierre, who sat opposite, reached out to steady her.
“What was that?” she panted in terror. “What?”
“Nothing, Auntie,” I said. “The peasants aren't doing their road duty, that's all.”
“Sometimes robbers dig a pit to slow travelersâor so they say.”
Aunt ThÃ©rÃ¨se, our great-aunt, was very kindhearted. And very old-fashioned. She was forever quoting
“You tell me, Auntie,” I asked, “what sane criminal would brave this storm to rob so dilapidated a coach?”
“Manon,” she reproved, “you mustn't joke about serious matters always. Soon you'll be married.”
At the word
, I gave a small involuntary shiver.
And my brother, far better at soothing than I, said in his musical tenor, “There've been dragoons on this road.”
“Jean-Pierre, that's exactly what I mean!” she cried. “They're patrolling because of the lawlessness! At our last stop they told of a terrible case that happened just the other day. The people, a baron, and his wife and sister, were robbed of everything. The baron was killed. The ladies were”âshe stopped, glancing at me before she went on in a low voiceâ“they were mistreated.”
“How much sadder,” I said, “for the dead Baron than his mistreated ladies.”
“You're too young to understand what I'm talking about, Manon.” And the dear, stout old spinster, her corsets laced so tight she was breathless, held a hand over her traveling cloak where her heart was. Aunt ThÃ©rÃ¨se firmly believed that I, living among farm animals all my sixteen years, was innocent of what the male did to the female.
In the gloom I caught Jean-Pierre's eye. My brother winked. It was all I could do not to burst into laughter.
Dear, dear Jean-Pierre. Brother, friend, only kinsman. I would do anything for him. When I was three and he four, our parents had died of the cholera on the same day, and being orphaned made us closer than most brothers and sisters. Jean-Pierre might be the elder, yet always I mothered him. His health was delicate. Often he grew feverish, with coughing spells and head pains, and during these illnesses I stayed in his dark room, nursing him. Because of the head pains he often skipped his lessons, and I would hide him in my bed curtains, protecting him from the almost blind tutor's cane. To be honest, illness wasn't the only reason Jean-Pierre left his books. Both of us had inherited the d'Epinay fun-loving streak. Together we would wade in streams and slide down haystacks, ride fat farm horses, race our dogs through the woods. Jean-Pierre would sing. He had a lovely voice and I could listen to him for hours.
In this dim light I could make out the delicate arch of his forehead, the proud angle of his head. He looked, and was, an aristocrat. In olden times we d'Epinays had been wealthy and powerful, but various generations had sold off farms and manor houses to pay for fine clothes, a night of gamblingâthe d'Epinays, people said, never spared themselves a pleasure. Now, in 1785, Jean-Pierre's legacy was a mortgaged ramshackle house with a leaking slate roof. And I had the d'Epinay opals, a necklace currently hidden in the secret drawer under the bench below Aunt ThÃ©rÃ¨se's voluminous skirts.
Our poverty never disturbed me.
Jean-Pierre, however, often spoke wistfully of a miraculous future when somehow the d'Epinay fortunes would be reversed, and we would again be of France's great nobility. Our house, our shabby clothes, embittered him. Odd. Usually it was Jean-Pierre who blocked out unpleasantness. He saw the bright side of everything. Even thrashing with the pain of a fever bout, he would say,
At least I don't have to do my rotten lessons!
These two things, his hatred of our poverty and his ability to see the good side, were why Jean-Pierre approved of my marriage to the Comte de CrÃ©qui.
It might have been Aunt ThÃ©rÃ¨e who had gathered us, a pair of bewildered, weeping orphans, to her soft vanilla-scented bosom and raised us, but it was the Comte de CrÃ©qui who was our guardian.
The Comte de CrÃ©qui was one of the great nobles who surrounded King Louis. He hunted with the King, he rode in the King's coach, he advised the King. The Comte had visited us once, when our parents died, and I remembered him as a tall, black-glittery figure with a snow cloud of a wig.
This May, for my sixteenth birthday celebration, he had visited again. A three-year-old's sense of height isn't reliable. The Comte de CrÃ©qui's imposing bulk of chest and shoulder was feebly supported by short, thin legs. Quick raisin-dark eyes were set in the face of a clever monkey. Despite this ugliness, though, he exuded breeding and presence. His black satin frock coat glittered with diamond-paved buttons. His neck moved easily in his high lace-trimmed white stock. He had the almost brutal politeness of a man who knows he can have whatever he wishesâmansions, fine horses, loose women. He was a widower.
My mother's green silk dress had been cut down to fit me. My hair, so fair as to appear powdered, I'd let fall in silky curls behind my neck. Aunt ThÃ©rÃ¨se, inspecting me before the dinner, exclaimed over my delicate figure, silver-blond hair, high forehead, white skin, rosy cheeks, the green of my eyes, adding that I should tuck a fichu in my low neckline.
Don't be so old-fashioned!
The Comte de CrÃ©qui told amusing tales of Court life. He was an old man, six years older than our father had been. Yet such was the strength of his personality that I found myself responding flirtatiously to his wit. He smiled at me so intently across the smoking candelabrum that before the lamb was carved I was wishing I had tucked that fichu in my low-cut bodice to hide the rounded tops of my breasts. Yet â¦ wasn't there a faint twinge of pleasure in having this great noble who passed his days and nights with the celebrated beauties of Versailles Palace gaze at me?
That night the Comte announced to Aunt ThÃ©rÃ¨se he would marry me. Not a proposal. An order. She knew me better than to tell me before his coach pulled out of our muddy yard. I'm high-spirited, impetuous, andâeveryone saysâtoo willful for a girl. She knew my answer.
No, no, no
, I shouted through low, water-stained rooms.
Aunt ThÃ©rÃ¨se panted after me, saying that this house was mortgaged, and we owned nothing except the hand-me-down clothes we wore. A poor, dowryless girl should be overjoyed by such a great match.
I cried, locking myself in my room, flinging myself on my bed, whispering
. Call me a romantic, but I wanted a love match. I sobbed through two days.
It was Jean-Pierre who brought me around. The next few weeks he spoke of the Comte de CrÃ©qui's good points. He was amusing. He was immensely powerful. CrÃ©qui was an ancient and honorable name, and the Comte, close to King Louis, was welcome in every great mansion in France.
Think Manon, you'll be a Comtesse
, Jean-Pierre said with his lilting charm.
When you're presented to the Court, you'll outshine every lady, including Queen Marie Antoinette. You'll give elegant card parties and dances. At your midnight buffets you'll serve the best wines and pheasant pastries. And as for me, I'll woo and win a beautiful heiress and we d'Epinays will again be respected
I never could resist Jean-Pierre's enthusiasm.
One hot August afternoon that smelled of ripening pears, I wrote a formal acceptance letter to the Comte de CrÃ©qui. To be honest, it was more the thought of Jean-Pierre's hoped-for marriage to an heiress than my own that prompted my acceptance. As I said, I'm a romantic, and I wanted to marry for love. Foolish, yes. In this modern day and age, as everyone knows, a girl looks for love anyplace but in marriage.
But what other choice did I have?
Now, jolting through the stormy night, every mashing turn of the wheels bringing me closer to Paris and the Comte de CrÃ©qui, I felt my stomach grow tighter and tighter with apprehension. I dreaded spending the rest of my life under those cynical raisin-dark eyes.
Jean-Pierre, to soothe Aunt ThÃ©rÃ¨se, was humming old children's tunes. “FrÃ¨re Jacques â¦”
I forgot the rainy night, forgot my approaching marriage. Lulled by the jolting and by my brother's singing, I drowsed.
I jerked awake.
It took me a moment to realize the eternal rumble of wheels had stopped and we were no longer jolting. Outside, loud over the rain, were men's shouts. My heart began to pound. Aunt ThÃ©rÃ¨se had fallen toward me, her weight pressing me against the coach wall. She breathed in gasping moans.