NaNoWriMoInJa: Chapter Eight

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Chapter Eight
The Cottage

 

The next weeks were full of practical matters. Nicolas and I were moved, via a long and uncomfortable carriage ride, to “our” vineyard in Bordeaux. The long ride overland was the furthest I’d ever been from the sea, but Nicolas promised that Bordeaux was close to a greater ocean, and we could go to the shore sometimes. I mentioned to Nicolas once that it was strange not to smell any hint of salt on the air, and he said it must be strange to live in such a small island kingdom.

I’d never even seen England, but Anne of course grew up there. I wondered if Nicolas was obstinately refusing to realize that I was not his promised bride, or if he knew, and simply refused to discuss it.

The “cottage” was like nothing I’d ever seen. A large, modern house was nestled in a lush garden, and on all sides grew the rich Bordeaux grapes that became Savard wine, which in turn became Savard gold and influence. Nicolas told me the house had been completely rebuilt, inside and out, to the latest fashion, so that it would be fit to welcome his beloved wife. I thought it would be fit to welcome a princess.

The chateau was huge, with a steep grey roof and tall, slender windows. I’d never seen so much glass outside a church. Nicolas led me in through the grand hall, an empty room as tall as a cathedral and big enough to hold all of the Hotel Bessette inside. High above, the pristine white ceiling was carved with beautiful, intricate patterns, and below our feet was a tile mosaic which had been a part of the original building. Velvet curtains hung from the windows.

Nicolas told me that doors leading off either side led to the breakfast room, dining room, and drawing room. I wasn’t sure what the drawing room was for, but the idea of an entire room for breakfast was fascinating. At the maison we had breakfast on our feet, and dinner at the same table where we welcomed guests in the evening. Here there was a different room for everything.  We went up a curving staircase to the second floor, which had even more rooms branching off the central hall. Nicolas brought me into a palatial bedroom, with white and gold carved wall panels and bright blue carpet. Blue velvet curtains with gold trim hung from the windows and canopied the ornate bed. And it wasn’t simply a bedroom. On one side of the bed were couches and chairs, and on the other a little dining table. Just as I was drinking in the grandeur, a little man tiptoed in behind us.

“I’m so sorry, monsieur, madame. I had a little business to attend to,” he said, doing a curt little bow to each of us. Behind him followed a boy, a little younger than I, arms loaded with bolts of cloth and ledgers and instruments.

“Monsieur Aubrey is our tailor, minette. He’s here to create for you a new wardrobe,” Nicolas explained. “My wedding gift to you.”

“But I already have the things from the house in Fos-sur-Mer,” I protested weakly.

“My sister’s old things? Nonsense. It was lucky that they fit you, but they’re dreadfully out of fashion. We can’t have you wearing those old rags when we meet the King.”

“The King?”

“We’ll have to take you to court sooner or later. Father was a personal friend to His Majesty. It would be impolite not to introduce you.” With that he excused himself to attend to matters of the house, and I was left alone with Monsiuer Aubrey and his apprentice.

The next hour was spent in an embarrassing struggle with Monsiuer Aubrey, who insisted that I must take off my gown in order for him to measure me. I was outraged, but eventually a servant came in to see what all the ruckus was about and said she’d measure me behind a screen with Monsieur Aubrey’s instructions. He insisted that nothing would fit, but he relented at last. After the gauntlet of measurements was completed and I was permitted to dress again (with the servant’s assistance), he grilled me about what sort of things I wanted. I tried to remember what Sylvie had taught me about Parisian fashion, but when I did recall something, Monsieur Aubrey looked disgusted at my outdated suggestions. He commented to his assistant that the English has absolutely no sense of style whatsoever, and to me he rattled off colors and fabrics and styles that meant nothing to me. I finally told him to do whatever he liked. He seemed horrified, and then thrilled, and then he packed up all his fabrics and books and went away.

I sat on the plush couch and took a deep breath, but my borrowed stays bit into my hips when I sat, and I soon became uncomfortable anyway. I wondered if I shouldn’t have asked Monsieur Aubrey to make me a new one, but I feared he might need me to strip down even further for that. I shifted to take the pressure off, and pushed it from my mind.

I drifted off a bit on the soft couch, and a maid came to wake me a little later to bring me dinner. I asked her to sit and talk with me, but she had little to say. Her name was Marie, and she’d been brought into employ here just before I was due to arrive. She would be my lady’s maid, tasked with helping me dress and undress, bathe, brush and style my hair, and anything else I should need. It took too much energy to try to engage her in conversation, so I went to bed.

Every morning Nicolas and I shared breakfast in the breakfast room. The two of us ate at a round table that could have seated ten, under a glittering chandelier. Servants brought us bruit and cakes and they poured chocolate from the new world into porcelain cups from the orient.

Every afternoon, Marie brought me English tea and little cakes in the garden and I sat and watched the birds flitting among the flowers. The tea was awful, but they kept bringing it so I assumed it was something Anne liked, and I tried to drink it.

In the evenings we had dinner together in the dining room. We sat at an even larger table and made awkward conversation. Nicolas sometimes spoke to me in fractured English, but usually he stuck to French. I knew so little of Anne and I didn’t know how to act like her. I was no aristocrat. I had no idea what was expected of me. But I would realize, often, that I was doing something wrong. The servants would exchange looks, or Nicolas would look at me differently and clear his throat, and I’d know I was doing something I shouldn’t. Rarely, he’d actually tell me what not to do or what to do. Sometimes he wouldn’t say a word, but I’d notice that how he did a thing and how I did it were desperately different.

After dinner, Nicolas would walk with me, arm in arm, to my bedroom. The first time, he’d tried to kiss me and I’d flinched away. He hadn’t tried again. Since then, he’d asked each night whether I was feeling completely myself again, and I always said no. He’d leave me at the door, heading to another bedroom where he had slept since we arrived.

A month after I was fished out of my lost little boat, Nicolas was saying his goodnight as usual. I had just told him I wasn’t feeling myself, and he sighed. Later, after Marie had helped me get ready for bed and gone to bed herself, there was a gentle tapping at the door.

Nicolas was outside in his dressing gown and an embroidered shirt which hung past his knees. I’d never seen him so informally, and he hadn’t seen me attired as I was for bed since the first night we met.

“I’m sorry, mon cœur, I must speak with you,” he whispered.  I let him in, wrapping my own dressing gown tighter as I led him to the couch.

“I have to go away tomorrow to Port-la-Nouvelle,” he said formally. I wondered why this couldn’t wait for our usual awkward breakfast.

“Oh… will you be gone long?”

“Two months.”

“Oh.”

The weak conversation stagnated.

“I…” he began, and then faltered. “We should… we should consummate our union before I go. In case… well, we should.”

I hesitated. How could I have forgotten to expect this?

“I am…” I grasped for excuses. “I am too young.”

“Nonsense,” he retorted. “You are seventeen and wed. My sister was younger when her first baby came.”

We sat in silence for a moment.

“We cannot. It would be adultery,” I said quietly.

“Adultery? You are my wife.”

“No, Anne Stuart is your wife. You are promised to her alone, and I will not befoul her marriage bed.”

“You are Anne Stuart,” he said. His tone was calm but quietly threatening. “You are my wife. You have suffered a terrible illness and you have forgotten who you are. You will remember.

“I AM NOT ANNE STUART!”

Time stood still as we hung in the stillness after my outburst. I wondered suddenly if he would hit me, but he did not.

“Anne Stuart, my fiancé, was lost at sea,” he said finally. “We found you. We cared for you in our home, and a wedding was held to bind us together for all time. You have lived in my house, pretending to be my wife, for a month. You have accepted my wife’s gifts. You wear clothing and jewels bought for my wife, under the presumption that you were she. You sleep in my bed while I sleep elsewhere, a courtesy I would not extend to someone not my beloved wife.

“Now you tell me that you are not my wife. If you are not my wife than I swore my marriage vows to a dead woman, and the woman living in my house and sleeping in my bed and wearing my late wife’s clothes is nothing but a vile pretender, stealing into my home under false pretenses and taking advantage of a poor widower.”

I was stunned. They made me pretend to be the drowned English bitch and now Nicolas accused me of the very counterfeit he and his father engineered?

“I would prefer,” he continued, “if you would admit that you are still suffering the effects of your terrible ordeal. I can help you recover, but not if you fight me. I do not wish to be married to a corpse.”

I couldn’t imagine why such a noble family would need to kidnap a commoner like me, but if I did not submit, I knew I’d be in more trouble than I’d ever seen before.

“I have been very ill,” I said uneasily. “And I have forgotten myself.” He nodded. “I… I will remember.”

He smiled broadly. “All is forgiven. Now then, come to bed mon amour.”

Afterward I heard his breathing slow beside me and finally relaxed. I laughed darkly about the twists of fate. I was barely half a year older than Sylvie when her innocence was bought from her by a stranger. I’d traveled hundreds of miles over land and sea, and killed a dozen men to escape my mother’s fate, only to end up here. But it wasn’t quite the same as if I’d stayed at Hotel Bessette. Though born the illegitimate daughter of a second-rate French whore, I lost my maidenhood a wife, a lady, and, strangest of all, an Englishwoman.

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