Read French Passion Online

Authors: Jacqueline; Briskin

French Passion (5 page)

I took a deep breath. “Next Thursday,” I said, “in Notre Dame Cathedral, we'll be married. Maybe you spoke so to your first wife. But your second won't accept it.”

For the first time he looked surprised. “Wife? But what have we been discussing? Why do you imagine I'm so anxious to learn about those opals? The price is far less than marriage, my dear, for second-hand goods.”

The insult was like a slap. My fear changed to anger, mostly self-directed. I, too, despise liars. If I was going to marry him, at least it must be on an honest level. It was bad enough that I didn't care for him. I couldn't go to him with a dowry of lies.

“I refuse to talk with you standing over me like a dissatisfied tutor,” I said.

An unreadable expression flickered on his face. “I'm no pedant,” he said. “And you have more spirit than I imagined.” He sat on the bowlegged chair again. “If this is satisfactory?”

“It is,” I said. And briefly I related the bargain I'd made with André—the highwayman, I called him—to save our lives. “I kept my side of the bargain,” I finished tersely. “As I left the coach he gave me the necklace wrapped in old linens. I didn't even know I had it until we were in the Hôtel de la Poste.”

“He must have enjoyed you,” the Comte said in an odd, choked voice.

I thought of the moment when, joined bodily, our eyes had met, and our souls seemed to merge.

“Marriage, of course, is impossible. However, you'll live in some comfort.” The lines in his face were deeper, but his voice was again suave.

“I don't understand.”

“It's really quite simple. I'm going to set you up in a little house. In your pretty new gowns you'll make an excellent salonnière, a hostess. You see, certain of my financial friends prefer the company of their courtesans. Charming ladies though they are, they can't be invited here. And, of course, I couldn't have even the wealthiest bourgeois in this house. Am I making myself clear? I need a place to transact business.”

“Business?” I murmured numbly.

“You'd be surprised at how much of the King's business is conducted in just such salons.”

I nodded.

He shifted in his chair as if something sharp had stuck him.

“It's a shame,” he said, “that I have to enjoy the same pleasure as a robber scum.” His tone was cruel.

“You want me to be your mistress?” I cried.

“My dear, for so quick-witted a girl, you reach foregone conclusions very slowly.”

“Never!” I was on my feet. “
Never!

“You were content enough to marry me.”

“We have no money. You're my guardian. What else could I do?”

“The situation remains the same.”

“If I am to lose all honor, become a doxy,” I shouted passionately, “I'll choose the man!”

“The choice is made.”

“You're ugly! And old!”

He was standing, too. His face was white with hurt.

“I'm going upstairs,” I said quietly. “Tomorrow you'll realize how impossible what you suggest is. Even if you aren't going to marry me, you were my father's friend. You're my guardian. And I'm still a d'Epinay.”

“Alas, you d'Epinays have fallen on hard times,” he said with cruelty. I knew he wanted to hurt me back. “That's why I'm able to collect one for a mistress.”

He was unlocking a drawer, extracting a sheet of paper, shaking it unfolded. “Here.”

I took the paper. It was an IOU for one hundred francs made out to the Comte de Créqui in my brother's hand, and signed Jean-Pierre d'Epinay.

“A hundred francs,” I whispered. “So much.”

“Your brother's an unlucky gambler.”

“Will you take the opals,” I asked, then clasped my hand to the necklace.

“Ah, the oft-traded opals. My dear, the setting is antiquated. Opals aren't a valuable stone. Besides, they don't appeal to me.”

“I'll sell them.”

“I can call this note tomorrow morning, before your chocolate is served. Your brother, unable to pay me, could be in the Bastille before his breakfast.”

“You're his guardian!”

“Fathers, my dear, put their sons in prison.”

I moved to a cabinet and stared, unseeing, at the small treasures in front of me. “How could Jean-Pierre be so reckless?”

“I encouraged him.”

“But why?” I asked. And then, of course, I knew why. “For this?”

“In my financial dealings for the King,” he said, “I've learned to keep secret liens. One never knows when one need be … persuasive. Yes. For this.”

I wanted to cry. Instead, I said, “So you've won.”

“No. I lost. You're too young to realize how badly I've lost.” His usually mocking voice was clogged with pain.

I didn't turn. He came up behind me, resting his hands lightly on my bared shoulders, letting his fingers graze the tops of my breasts.

My revulsion went deeper than I'd realized.

I couldn't bear for him to touch me! I began to shudder violently. I couldn't bear his hands on me! With all my strength, I pulled away, whirling. For a second I saw hurt and pain contort the clever monkey face, then I was running, my footsteps muffled by rugs. The footmen were no longer in the hall, but the great chandelier blazed. I echoed across the marble, skidding once on a step.

The Comte wasn't chasing me, yet I fled as if he were. I wrenched the huge round doorknob in both my hands.

And then I was outside.

Chapter Five

For a moment I stood in the cold night, catching my breath, blinking while my eyes adjusted to the light of a half-moon. Stone steps fell in twin curves from this terrace to gardens. Flower beds. Topiary bushes. A maze. Oaks, chestnuts, sycamores, and planes. The trees had been pruned this week. Moonlight outlined the amputated branches, making the gardens sinister. Yet anything was better than that grazing touch on my breasts! Lifting my skirt, I ran down the steps and along the broad driveway. Gravel cut into my thin soles. Dainty high heels threatened to trip me.

I didn't look back.

Wild, disconnected thoughts jumped in my brain. Where would I go? Unlike Jean-Pierre and Aunt Thérèse. I'd never left these grounds. I knew nobody in Paris. Had Aunt Thérèse ever mentioned where her friend, the widow, lived? And if she had said, and if I remembered the address, how would I manage to find the house? What would Aunt Thérèse do? She would faint. I ran by a little pond, the moon was reflected like a silver franc cut in half. Was Jean-Pierre there? If he was, what would he do? Use his new gold-hilted sword and end up either dead or in a dungeon.

My thoughts led nowhere.

I, however, had reached the tall gold-and-black iron-grilled gates. A huge lock held them shut. I pushed, mindless and desperate as a bird trying to escape its cage, then, abruptly giving up, ran on dew-damp grass along a row of cypresses that hid the iron fence. After a quarter of a mile or so, I found another gate. This, too, was locked, but smaller. Must be for tradespeople, I thought. Until last year Jean-Pierre and I had played and run and climbed trees together. Kicking off my silk shoes, throwing them over the gate, I climbed. Fabric tore. I swung my legs over. When I'd come down to what I thought would be the last three feet, I let go.

I fell a long way.

Piled leaves broke my fall. My breath coming in gasps, lying on the compost, my ankle twisted under me, I pondered—stupidly—why the gate had opened into a ditch.

After a few minutes I recovered enough to massage my ankle. While I'd run, I'd sweated. This sweat was chilling on me. I felt for my shoes, putting them on.

You have to have some plan, I thought. Some plan. However feeble or stupid. You can't just run like a terrified animal.

And then I thought, Monsieur Sancerre. He knew everyone at Court. He was friendly. More important, he was kind. And even more important, I could remember his address. I'd seen it often. He carried his bolts of fabric in large trunks green-painted:

R. Sancerre

Couturier to the Court

11 Rue Maupin

He'd told me, proudly, that Rue Maupin was a mile south of the Comte's palace, and other fine homes.
The ladies come in their carriages to me
, he'd said.
Carriage trade, it's called
.

I pushed to my feet. My ankle hurt with every step, but I was able to walk. I'd limped a long way on the sandy road, hugging my arms around myself in an attempt to keep warm, before I realized I wore my opals and a priceless diamond. I needed money to pay off Jean-Pierre's debt, and to start whatever life we would have. Footpads and thieves filled Paris. I stripped off the jewelry. Where to hide it? My fitted bodice would show any bulge.

I sat on the road, peeling off a stocking. Slipping the necklace and ring inside, I raised my petticoats to tie the stocking around my hips.

It was just as well I'd hidden my jewelry, for in a few minutes the wide avenue narrowed. I had left behind mansions and palaces. This was a slum.

Around me tall houses leaned together, like enfeebled ancients holding one another up. Most of the windows were dark, for very few inside were able to afford either fire or candle. Across the street, at irregular intervals, clumsy lanterns hung on ropes. The feeble candles gave off a sickly light. Over narrow shop doors swung trade signs showing faded pictures of the smallest loaves, tiny cuts of unrecognizable meats. The few people hurrying through the night wore ragged clothes, a hunched, starving look. Rough cobbles rose like crippling stepping-stones, and I picked my limping way over sour-odored water.

I heard a rustling.

In a dark slit two scarecrow children, their rags too tattered to differentiate their sex, picked through an offal pile. The odor was foul, like death. A mongrel slunk near them. Both children raised sticks, shouting the foulest oaths. I remembered the thin boy with the little band of robbers. That child was robust compared to these. The dog whimpered away into darkness. The skeletal children went back to whatever lay hidden in that odorous pile.

What could I give these starvelings? I had no money purse. I'd forgotten the jewels hidden under my petticoats. Looking down, I glimpsed my black velvet belt. I undid the silver buckle.

“Here,” I called.

The children, seeing me, turned as if to run. I threw the sash toward them. Silver clinked, velvet soaked into mud, and the buckle shone in feeble light.

The gaunt faces gazed down with the same awe with which I'd looked at the Comte de Créqui's priceless miniatures. The taller of the two children snatched up the belt. Without a word they ran off. Barefoot, they faded silently into darkness.

I turned a corner. Here were wineshops, each with its own inadequate lantern. A few women in gaudy bonnets walked listlessly.

I was planning to ask one of these prostitutes the way to Rue Maupin when a wineshop door burst open. A man staggered out. Seeing me, he called, “Come here, pretty little whore.”

He was burly, with huge hands. I moved faster. He came staggering after me. He was very drunk, but in high-heeled slippers, with a turned ankle, on slippery cobbles, I couldn't outrun him. He caught me. Grasping my shoulders, his wine-sour breath spilling over me, he said, “A sou?”

The price of a glass of bad wine!

I pushed him away. He must have been more drunk than I thought. He sprawled on his back looking up at me. And I, amazed at what I'd done, stared back.

A streetwalker stopped to look. “Why'd you do that?” she asked. “Ain't that much trade around.”

Her face had the huge-eyed expression that comes with hunger.

“He's yours,” I said. “Only tell me. Where's Rue Maupin?”

“Three down, four to the left,” she replied. “Ain't you got no shawl? It's too cold without a shawl.”

The drunk's butcher hands grasped for my skirt. I kicked at him, touched the girl, and said, “Thank you,” then hurried in the direction she'd pointed.

Rue Maupin was difficult to find. The narrow streets twisted and turned like a rabbit warren. Finally I came to a wider street, with more lights and fresh paint.

R. Sancerre

Couturier to the Court

11 Rue Maupin

I hammered on the door until a lackey in a leather apron answered.

His arms outstretched on the jambs, he barred my entry. “Well, wench. What is it?”

And then I realized how I must look. Curls blown over my forehead, bodice torn, sash gone, green silk skirt splattered with dark water marks, shoes muddy. The lackey, sober, knew no whore plied her trade so bedraggled. He must've imagined he was facing a lunatic escaped from the madhouse at Charenton.

“I wish to see Monsieur Sancerre.” I took a deep breath to steady my voice. “I'm Mademoiselle d'Epinay, a client.”

At this Monsieur Sancerre, pulling a gold-laced sky-blue coat over his canary satin breeches, came into the hall. “Mademoiselle d'Epinay!” he cried, effusively repeating my name as he ushered me into the warm room.

In shadowed corners stood dressmaker's forms and pushed against walls were long cutting tables piled with fabric. In rosy firelight sat three handsome young men in lacy shirts and bright satin breeches. His apprentices, Monsieur Sancerre said. Though they were exceptionally handsome, the three were somewhat soft, girlish. There could be no further doubts about the kind of man Monsieur Sancerre was. I felt no revulsion, only a vague comradeship. On this wild run through a slum of Paris, I'd understood in order to survive I'd have to suspend morals and so-called virtue. I didn't judge them. I felt no superiority. I was grateful for their kindness. One scurried for a warm coverlet, another for a goblet of red wine, another brought me a stool so I could sit closer to the fire. Their long-lashed eyes were round with curiosity, but Monsieur Sancerre said, “We need to talk. My boys, begone.”

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