Read French Passion Online

Authors: Jacqueline; Briskin

French Passion (32 page)

“Well?” he asked. “What will it be? Good English gin or ale?”

I asked for a small gin. He ordered it, and a large one for himself. The steward fitted our pewter mugs in the table slots. Mr. Bullock told me he imported French perfume, and went on to describe his various transactions. He talked too fast, and his gaze never left my bodice. He was fat, afraid. At the beginning I never considered that he was looking at me with lust. I pitied him. Sipping the sweet pink gin, I smiled, asking questions that should have distracted him from his fear. The
Dover Queen
lurched more violently. From time to time I had to clutch my chair with both hands to keep from being thrown to the floor. The storm had worsened.

“I thought you were the Comte de Créqui's daughter,” Mr. Bullock gabbled. “Such an exciting, pretty little woman—I wonder he lets you out of his sight.”

“Mr. Bullock, you're not to say such things.”

“Don't take offense,” he said.

The fear that drove him was stronger, and finally I began to understand where his desperation could drive him. But how could he harm me in a public salon with others about?

The door flung open. There stood a huge, drenched seaman, a bleeding wound at his jaw. Wind howled. Icy drafts curled through the salon. Water swirled across the tilting floor. I lifted my legs so my traveling boots and wool skirts would stay dry. The sailor was shouting at the steward. “Westridge went overboard. You're needed.” He turned to us passengers. “Gentlemen—and your ladyship—please get to your cabins. You'll be safe there.”

His voice rang false.

The fears I'd struggled to hide rushed through me. My teeth began to chatter. Unconsciously I held my hands to my flat stomach. I was afraid not only for myself, but for the child in my body.

At first my pregnancy hadn't excited me. Since that morning last week, though, when the mob had threatened the Comte's palace, I'd known I wanted this child—his and mine—as desperately as I'd ever wanted CoCo.

Mr. Bullock said, “My cabin is just beyond yours. I'll lead the way. Come.”

Unnerved, I let him escort me. Grasping the rail tightly, I followed him. The passage was awash with water. The
Dover Queen
dipped, wallowed, rose, fell. A sudden draft snuffed the lantern outside my door. I couldn't manage my key. Mr. Bullock's fat fingers unlocked my door. The raised threshold stopped water from running into my cabin, and I stepped over to the dry boards.

Mr. Bullock asked, “Aren't you going to thank me?”

“Thank you.”

Before I could close the door, he banged clumsily over the threshold, water from his boots splattering my cape. The door slammed. His arms went around me. He was fat like the carter who had assaulted me so brutally. The same soft yet demanding male flesh. And as Mr. Bullock embraced me, past merged with present, and I was reliving that terrifying day after my release from the Bastille. It all flooded over me: the sharp crack against my skull … André and the sound of blows … violence … soldiers to imprison me again … weakening to unconsciousness.… I struggled and twisted.

Mr. Bullock's breath was hot on my face. “I'll show you the way to forget a storm,” he panted.

My palms shoved against his soft chest. “Mrs. Bullock—” I said, starting to tell him his wife would quell his fears in her berth.

He misinterpreted. “She'll never hear us, not in this wild gale.”

“Let me be!”

“No need to put up a fight. I know you sensuous Frenchwomen! Now, now.” His hands moved, shaking and anxious, over me. I shoved harder. The trunks and other baggage, not properly secured, shifted and creaked with each dip of the
Dover Queen
.

The bunk, high and attached to the wall, was railed with wooden spooling, like a child's cot. His flesh forcing against me, Mr. Bullock backed me to the ladder, then clasped my hips to lift me.

My fingers raked down his cheek. The scratch didn't stop him.

“This'll help you, too,” he panted.

Suddenly there was a wild, lurching drop, as if the sea had opened, and the boat was dropping into a bottomless chasm.

“God save me!” Mr. Bullock cried.

Abruptly he released me. I fell. And with that same awesome drop into the depth of the sea, I slid across the cabin. I lay prostrate against the bulkhead. Just before the ship's lantern went out, I saw the rope snap around the biggest trunk. The heavy brass-bound wood slithered across the floor to where I lay. Then it went pitch black.

The trunk pinned my torso to the bulkhead. Agony shot through me. I braced my arms to push the weight from my body. My baby, I thought, oh, please, God, let my baby be all right. There was only room in my mind for my unborn child. I was scarcely aware of the terrible scream pressed from the pit of my abdomen, welling out of my mouth. The ship righted. The trunk slid from me. I lay too stunned to move, the screams continuing to well from me.

The door was thrown open. A sailor raised a ship's lantern. He took in everything, me huddled on the floor, the bleeding lines on Mr. Bullock's suety cheek.

My screams stopped.

“What's going on here, you fat bastard?” the sailor demanded.

“The lady's trunk came untied, and when she cried out, I came in to help her.” He wrung his hands.

“She scratched you for helping her? I'll tell you what I think, you fat son-of-a-bitching bastard. I think your breeches came undone, not the trunk.”

“The trunk did pin me down,” I whispered.

The sailor glanced at the heavy trunk, saw the unlashed rope on the floor. “Here,” he said, handing Mr. Bullock the lantern, kneeling by me, his wet hands going impersonally over my arms and legs. “Nothing seems broken,” he said finally.

“I'm
enceinte
… going to have a baby. I think it might've hurt me, the trunk. Is there a doctor on board?”

“No doctor, but there's another woman.”

“My wife,” Mr. Bullock said, his kerchief over his cheek as he backed out the door. “She's ill in her berth. Can't come. Besides—only accusations if you do an act of Christian charity.”

The door closed behind him.

“What was that fat coward doing in here?” the sailor asked.

A storm raged, and Mr. Bullock, a fat, terrified man, hadn't meant to hurt me. Lust was his nepenthe, and he'd sought to obliterate his fears in my body.

The pain was gone. I relaxed. Thank you, God, I thought. “He wasn't doing anything, really,” I said.

The sailor gave me a look of disbelief before helping me up the ladder to the railed bunk. He lashed down the baggage.

“I best be getting back on deck,” he said. “You'll be safe in here.”

“Thank you. Thank you very much.”

He relit my lantern and was gone.

My pelvis cramped, a mild cramp that soon ended. After a few minutes, though, another cramp started, tightening into pain. I gripped one of the protective bars, my nails digging into spoolwork. No, I thought wildly, no! These were the spaced pains I'd suffered during CoCo's birth. I'd had a midwife and Aunt Thérèe tending me, Izette bringing me food and drink, Jean-Pierre wandering in and out of my lying-in, and always there were both of the Comte's hard hands to grip.

Now I was alone with the moving shadows cast by the crazily swaying lantern.

The little boat wallowed desperately in mountainous waves and my premature labor worsened. As one particularly bad pain gripped me, I thought of that crowd milling beyond the iron fence of the Comte's grounds. And in that moment I realized the crowd hadn't gathered by random chance. The scene had been engineered by Goujon. He knew my terror of the mob—I'd told him myself. He had sent those hundreds of people for one purpose, and one purpose only. To throw me into hysteria. For then, he knew, the Comte would permit me to leave France.

The pain tightened. I moaned.

Goujon, his bearded face intent, had told me he could manage the Comte. I had never taken time to reflect on his means. Impetuous as always, I'd fled.

Unwittingly, I'd fallen into Goujon's scheme. The pain ended. Though the cabin was icy, perspiration beaded my forehead. I wanted this baby with all my heart. Yet in the most secret place of my being, I was aware that if I could turn back the clock, I would leave France again. Even knowing this tragic consequence, I would leave. Goujon had plotted for André. I would do anything for André.

Time lost all meaning. A streak of lightening lit the blackness beyond the porthole, and I felt a great burst of agony. Warmth drenched my thighs.

I had miscarried.

I had lost my baby, lost the Comte's only child.

Through that endless night, the
Dover Queen
rose up on mountainous waves and wallowed in their depths. I folded my arms as if cradling a child, and, the storm tossing me from one side of the bunk to the other, I experienced the awesome guilt of a murderess.

When we docked at Dover, two sailors came to unload my baggage. Seeing me, they ran for the captain, and he sent for a doctor.

Two seamen carried me ashore on a litter. By now the wind had died to a crisp breeze, and through ragged, racing clouds a wan sun peeked. On the wharf I glimpsed Mr. Bullock. One buttery, unlined cheek was covered with a white plaster. A brief, hot rage engulfed me. If he hadn't attacked me, if in the extremity of his terror he hadn't dropped me so I fell across the cabin, my child would still be safe in my womb. Rage dissipated into numb weakness.

I never again saw Mr. Bullock or his hatchet-faced, bony wife.

The seamen carried me up to rooms in a hotel that faced the harbor. The doctor, who had accompanied us, asked if I had friends or relatives in England, and I gave him Jean-Pierre's London address.

After that I lay staring dry-eyed out the window. Gulls wheeled in an English sky. Emptiness is the only word to explain how I felt, inside me was so much emptiness.

On the second day I tried to pray. In my terrible times, though, I have always seen God as vengeful, and this was no exception. I had left France out of love for a man who wasn't my husband, and God, inflicting His awesome judgment, had taken my unborn child. Empty, I thought, empty, empty …

On the third morning my door opened. Thinking it one of the fresh-faced serving girls, I turned.

It was Jean-Pierre. His boots were muddy, his cape turned up over his ears. His cheeks blazed, and his eyes were glassy.

I was out of bed and in his arms, and we were clutching each other like the lost, frightened orphans we once had been.

“Manon, oh, Manon.”

“Jean-Pierre, how I've missed you.”

“I traveled all night on the mail. My poor little sister, what a sad happening.”

“If there were one thing in this world I could sell my soul for, it would be for the Comte's baby to be safe. I'm guilty, Jean-Pierre, so guilty.”

“Hush, hush. The storm wasn't your fault.”

“I … I'm not here just to see you. I came away because of André.”

“Égalité?”

“If I'd stayed … something bad … would have happened to him.”

“Hush,” Jean-Pierre repeated.

“Losing the baby's my punishment.”

“Don't be silly,” Jean-Pierre said. “In any case, I have you with me.”

He began coughing violently. His cheek was hot, abnormally so. He had a high fever. Frantic as always during his illnesses, I rang the bell, and when the maid came, I rushed her off to get the doctor. I dressed, rang again for hot mustard plasters to put on Jean-Pierre's susceptible chest.

I pushed my grieving emptiness aside and set about nursing my brother.

My dearest dear
,

When you are home, I will hold you while you weep, and then we will make other babies
.…

My dearest husband
,

I cannot return yet. My brother is gravely ill
.…

Your brother is always ill
.…

I have brought Jean-Pierre to London. The doctors fear consumption.…

It is not in my nature to plead, so this is an order. Come home.…

Please, please, come to me.…

Comtesse
,

Since you refuse to act as a wife, I no longer act as a husband. Lloyd's Bank has orders to grant you no further money drafts. My solicitors, Camberwell and Camberwell, have received orders to watch you. If there is infidelity on your part, you will be imprisoned according to British law. Your brother's malingering repels me. I shall honor no more of his gambling debts
.

Comte
,

Jean-Pierre has coughed blood. This past three months the doctors have not permitted him to leave his bed
,
therefore he has no gambling winnings or losings. For my part, I assure you I would rather starve than accept your money.…

I received no letter during that hot rose-scented English August, nor during the warm September.

My dear husband
,

I apologize for my last letter. It was written in anger. Jean-Pierre recovers slowly. Please, please come to me. Otherwise I shall visit you
.

My dear Comtesse
,

You are not to return. The situation worsens, and I do not allow you here. Should you disobey, I shall not see you. However, I have given orders that Lloyd's Bank pay you whatever sum you
—
and your brother
—
need to live in accordance with your station.…

Reading the letter on a foggy December morning, the Comte's words seemed cold. To me, they were colder by far than the earlier letter, which obviously had been written during one of his uncontrollable rages.

I didn't pursue the idea of visiting. That same chill morning I discarded all thoughts of returning to France. If André discovered I was there, he might vent his anger on me and that would bring disaster on him. England was a harbor from the rage of the two so different men who loved me. I gazed musingly down at the dominant strokes of the Comte's writing. It was the coldness of his words that made me wonder: Did either the Comte or André still love me?

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