“I need you to do this for me. If you don’t leave in the morning, the opportunity will be lost, and neither of us will be secure here,” Madelaine de Montalia said to Theron Heurer with growing emotion; she made herself speak softly in case one of the newly arrived Revolutionary Guards was listening outside the door. “Go while the safe conduct is valid. If you wait—”
“But I don’t want to leave you—because those damned Revolutionary Guards are here. I don’t like the look of them. Worse than gutter-scum. Those men are beasts!” Theron folded his arms and glared at Madelaine de Montalia to keep from revealing the level of dread he felt on her behalf.
“I’ve dealt with worse.” Madelaine had a sharp, unpleasant memory of the cellars beneath Hotel Transylvania and Saint Sebastien’s coven, half a century ago; she shook her head as much to banish the recollection as to dismiss his worries. “You have to go.”
“But wouldn’t you rather have me here?”
“Yes, if that were my only concern for my safety. But I’m only safe for as long as I can be sure of loyal friends. Whomelse can I trust with this errand but you? And what will the Revolutionary Courts demand of me next? This has to be done quickly or it may be too late.” She paced the floor in the salon des fenetres, her soft-violet silken skirts clinging to her body as she moved, the golden summer light making the room glow; where it touched her coffee-colored hair, it added an aureate sheen. It was a bit too warm for comfort but not hot enough to be miserable. “I would feel less worried if I knew you were out of France.”
“And I would feel worse, if I abandoned you, especially to the chaos of the Courts,” Theron declared staunchly but not loudly. He was tall and well-built, with light-brown hair and a lively countenance. At twenty-four he thought of himself as both a poet and a man of the world, in a position to advise this young, lovely creature who had welcomed him into her elegant life and her bed.
“I have to get word to Saint-Germain somehow,” she told him in a serene tone, but there was something in her violet eyes that was adamant.
“Send Bescart. He’s Swiss. They’ll let him cross the border.” His face was flushed and his eyes shone as he regarded her.
“Bescart is planning to leave tomorrow, with his wife and children. Why should he do this for me?” She waited for him to answer, and when he did not, she tossed her head, making the little curls around her face dance. “He might say he will do as I ask, but I doubt he will actually do it.”
“He’s been loyal so far.”
“Oh, yes. But things have changed, and his loyalty is with the Revolution now, or so he tells me. He says he bears me no ill-will, but that his cause must be with his people. He supports the Revolution, not the Old Order, though he says I have been good to him and his. Some of the others feel as he does, and who can blame them?” She sank down on the chaise in the bow of the windows that gave the room its name. “If you won’t take a message to Saint-Germain for me, I don’t know who will.”
“Are you so certain that he’ll help you?” He hesitated, then went on, “Do you know that he can do it?”
“Oh, yes, on both points,” said Madelaine. “He and I are blood relatives. He will help me. He has done so in the past.”
“Not during a revolution,” Theron said, determined to make his point.
“That doesn’t matter.” She held out her hands to Theron. “And dear as you are, you can’t achieve the results that he can. He has … skills that you and I lack in these matters. Not all my fortune and all your family’s wealth could pay bribes enough to get me free now that the Revolutionary Tribunal has its hooks in me.”
Theron held back from her. “But this Saint-Germain can?” He sounded incredulous.
“If it takes bribes, yes. He has a great deal of money. But he has other means at his disposal as well, and those are what I rely upon.” She took his hands in hers.
“So have I, if it comes to that,” said Theron.
“Not as he does.” She drew him toward her, smiling at him in a most tantalizing way. “I’ll order a horse, a remount, and a mule for you tomorrow morning, and I will have Gigot prepare a basket of food and drink for you. I know there is a tent you may take, and a bedroll. And a sack of oats for your animals.”
“But I haven’t said—”
“Stay at inns, not monasteries, while you travel. You know what they’re doing to clerics.” She frowned slightly. “Be careful of others on the road.”
“If I agree to go, I’ll bear all this in mind.” He studied her face. “You’re serious about this Saint-Germain, aren’t you?”
“You say this man is in Padova?” His expression had softened.
“He is presently connected to the Universita, and he has a business in Venezia. He goes by Conte da San-Germain in Padova.” She knew that Saint-Germain had both a publishing and a trading company, but decided not to complicate her persuasion with unnecessary information. “I will provide you with directions.”
“A professor of some sort, then, is he?” Theron regarded her with undisguised dubiety.
“Among other things, yes. He has been about the world a great deal.”
“Then I take it he isn’t a young man,” said Theron with a look of ill-concealed hope lighting his face.
“No, he’s not,” she replied, coaxing him down beside her. “I think you will like him, once you cease to be jealous.”
He stared at her, shocked. “Jealous? I? Of him?”
“It is certainly in accord with your demeanor,” she said lightly, teasing him. “You may discover that he likes your poetry enough to publish it. You must take some of your best work to him. You can conceal my letter to him among your poems.” Her smile faded. “He has a publishing company in Venezia, and he often receives manuscripts of all sorts; no one will think anything of you giving him your poems.” The publishing company was, as she knew, one of several, but she kept that to herself.
“I haven’t said I’d go yet,” he reminded her.
“But you will, won’t you? For me?”
“I will consider it,” he conceded.
“Excellent.” Her kiss was lingering and evocative, sweetly languorous; she wound her arms around him, feeling his arousal against her thigh. She leaned into him, guiding his hand to the swell of her breast. “I knew I could depend on you.” She kissed him again, with more fervor than before.
After a long, delicious silence he pulled away. “If you insist, I suppose I can go.”
Madelaine kept hold of him. “Thank you.”
“Not just because you kissed me,” he said flatly.
“Of course not,” she said. “You have begun to realize that my request is sensible for the both of us.”
“Perhaps,” he said. “I don’t like leaving you.” He continued to caress her through the silk of her high bodice.
“Nor I you, but that is out of our hands now.” She sighed, and let go of him. “Later. When we can be truly alone.” With a regretful chuckle she got to her feet. “And speaking of matters out of my hands, I must see Gigot to arrange a meal for the Guards.”
“Let Bescart handle it,” Theron suggested.
“He’s packing. Besides, he’d let Gigot feed them swill, and that would do me no good.” Her smile was wan.
“Will feeding the Guards well help?” Theron asked.
“It might.” She glanced toward the door. “And I must take care to do all that I can to treat them respectfully.”
“Because, cher Theron, they can make my detention pleasant or difficult, and I would rather it be as pleasant as possible. Not slighting them should have a better result than treating them like barbarians, since they are as much spies as guards.” She took a deep breath. “And to that end, when we dine tonight, we must argue. Nothing vile, but forceful, so that you may wash your hands of me. If you wish to express regret, do so, but make it clear that you and I have reached an impasse. That way, no one will wonder at your departure. Unless they see some disagreement, they will suspect a ruse, and that won’t suit our purpose.”
“I don’t want to argue with you,” said Theron anxiously.
“Still, it would be better that you do it. I don’t want you to be detained.”
“They won’t detain me,” he said with more bravado than conviction.
“No, they won’t—not if you’re in Padova.” She went the length of the room, her face set in determined lines. “These Revolutionaries are hungry for blood, and they will not be easily sated. All through the country, the National Razor is busy shaving heads at the neck. I would prefer they spare me mine.” Her irony was too strong for Theron, who did his best not to look shocked at her bitter humor.
“If I decide to do this for you, I would like a very wondrous farewell tonight,” he said, reaching out for her again.
“That you shall have, no matter what you decide,” she promised.
His voice dropped to a kind of purr. “I’ll think of every way to please you, and you will use your sorcery on me.”
She evaded his embrace. “Yes. Tonight. Not just now with the Guards outside the door.”
He stepped back from her. “You kissed me,” he reminded her.
“So I did. And I will do more. But not here. We want them to believe our argument, don’t we?”
“I suppose so,” he said, looking a bit sulky.
Madelaine reminded herself that he was only twenty-four. “You will be well-rewarded for waiting.”
“I have no doubt of that.” The purr was gone.
“Until then, keep in mind that we must remember that we are being watched. Tonight we will be private.”
He let out an abrupt sigh. “What do you plan to do once I’m gone?” he asked more loudly as he shot a glance toward the door.
“Put this house in order as much as I can with a reduced staff. Gigot will stay on to run the kitchen, but only four will be left in the house, and six for the fields, and who knows? more may leave in the twenty-one days granted in the safe conduct. If Maxime will remain as well, the mansion may not fall into ruin. I have to assume that there will be a few more who prefer safety to good pay.” She gave a little shake of her head. “If we shut up six of the rooms, the task of caring for the place shouldn’t be too overwhelming.”
“That sounds as if you intend to do some of the work yourself,” said Theron, his disapproval obvious.
“Of course I shall.” She shook her head. “Oh, Theron, Theron, I am not some hot-house flower, to be coddled and pampered. I know how to sweep a room and scrub floors, and dress a chicken, if it comes to that. I can mend clothes and lay a fire.” She looked him steadily in the eyes. “You may not believe it, but I would be delighted to go on an antiquarian expedition to Egypt or India, or … oh, I don’t know. Anywhere there are ruins of ancient cities.”
Theron laughed as he reached out to stroke her cheek. “You want the adventure, the romance. But you don’t know the dangers and hardships such expeditions face.”
“Yes, I do, and I welcome them; I’ve told you before that I know what such expeditions are like, and I don’t make light of the hardships they entail,” she declared, then added quietly, “Say nothing more now; this would be a perfect argument for tonight.”
“But—” He stopped himself, aware that in some way he could not understand he had overstepped himself. “I’ll leave you to think about what you have said, I know it was only fancy that inspires you. I would not like to think that you would so demean yourself that you would set aside all propriety for the sake of exotic travel.”
“So would I,” said Madelaine bluntly. “I don’t think travel is demeaning. When you consider some of the places I have gone—” She moved past him. “I’ll be in the kitchen for the next hour. I’ll see you when you dine this evening.”
He could not stop himself from saying, “And you will not eat with me, will you?”
“No; you know I will not. When have I ever?”
His smile was charmingly reckless. “In bed.”
Rather than laugh, Madelaine gave him a warning look. “That is between us,” she whispered. “It is nothing to jest about.”
His face fell. “I suppose you’re right.”
“In this I am.” She raised her voice once more. “Are you considering the safe conduct, then?”
“I don’t know,” said Theron, taking his cue from her expression. “I may. At least I’ll give it some thought.”
“Of course,” she responded with exaggerated courtesy while mitigating her sarcasm with a wink. “Well, if you must, you must.”
“This is not the time to discuss this. As you say, you have things to do.” He gave her an answering wink, then turned and stormed out of the salon, leaving the door open in his haste to be gone.
Madelaine watched him go, wondering how much of his indignation was performance and how much was genuine, thinking that Theron might yet bring them both to ruin. She smoothed the front of her dress, and went out the door, passing between two Revolutionary Guards as she did, and made for the kitchen, doing her utmost to keep her worries from being too apparent in her demeanor.
“Madame,” said Gigot as Madelaine entered his hot, cavernous domain. “You are most welcome.” He was large and loose-limbed, in his mid-thirties, of a comfortable size, and with a rumpled face that gave him the air of an affectionate hound.
“Thank you, Gigot.” She looked around. “Your scullions are leaving?”
“Only Pierre. Dion is staying for now, and Maxime. Dion’s out turning the cheese in the creamery.” His attempt at a smile was wary. “I can’t say if he might not change his mind and decide to leave.”
“Well, if he does,” said Madelaine in a rallying way, “I can turn cheeses, and bake bread if I must.”
Gigot could not conceal his shock. “It wouldn’t be right, Madame. Not even Maxime will turn cheeses.”
“It isn’t right that the Revolutionary Guards are here, but that can’t be changed, so we must accommodate. Let us hope that the worst we will have to do is turn cheeses.” She settled on the bench near the enclosed ovens. “Since they are here, we, perforce, will house and feed them.” For a moment she paused, seeing increasing dismay in his eyes. “There are nine of them, aren’t there?”
“Yes. With two couriers due tomorrow.” Gigot sounded disapproving. “Eleven rough villains, with the manners of brigands.”
“Then prepare them a good supper. Make them a meat pie with the last of the hung beef and the small pork sausages. We have vegetables enough to make the pie a sufficient meal in itself, don’t we?”
Gigot shrugged. “If you require it.”
Before he could become intractable, she held out a hand to him. “Oh, Gigot, think. If we anger them, or show them any contempt, it is not they who will suffer for it, is it? Treat them well, and we will stand in less danger from them than if we defy them. Don’t you see that?”
He nodded slowly. “It upsets me to cater to such men as they are.”
“They aren’t my favorite house-guests, either, but that is out of our hands now.”
Gigot reached for a celery-root and began to trim it. “This, cooked with the beef and sausages, some cabbage, and some turnips, should suffice. I will make the dough for the crust as soon as I finish chopping this.” He waved his wedge-knife as if it were a sword, then set it down with a bang. “I have onions and garlic. There’s beef stock in the pantry, only a day old. Chervil, savory, thyme, a little pepper to liven it, and they will be satisfied.” He paused. “I’ll make something a bit better for the household, and your companion.”
“Thank you, Gigot,” said Madelaine, rising from the bench. “I think you and I should plan meals for at least two weeks, so that we can secure the things we need for the Guards.” She saw him rankle, and went on, “We will need to be prepared. If we don’t make plans now, who knows what they might decide to commandeer for their—”
“We should lock the pantry, and the wine-cellar. And the creamery,” Gigot said emphatically.
“By all means lock whatever you wish.”
“Do you think this will be over in two weeks?” Gigot asked.
“No, I don’t. I think it will get worse,” Madelaine said, her voice flat. “We have to be ready for whatever comes.” She pressed her lips together. “Does Dion know how to butcher? With Olivier going to his brother in Autun, we’ll be without a butcher here, and I don’t trust any of the Guards to know how to slaughter a hog and dress it. I daren’t think what they would do to a lamb.”
“Saints save us! No.” Gigot was shocked. “Better that I should do it, and I am only a cook.”
“There is nothing only about your cooking,” said Madelaine.
“How would you know? You never so much as taste it,” Gigot responded, his manner lightly teasing.
“I can smell, and I know aroma from odor,” she answered in the same manner.
“Madame is most kind,” said Gigot with the suggestion of a bow.
“Oh, Gigot, don’t play with me,” said Madelaine.
He chuckled. “Very well. Tell me what you want me to serve your friend for his supper tonight.”
“Nothing too fancy; perhaps ribs of lamb with sauteed cabbage; the Guards will notice if you make one of your special dishes, and might not take it in good part that Theron has better fare than they. Be sure that the Guards have large helpings.” She did her best to smile at him. “I am sorry you’ve been brought to this state, Gigot. If you decide you’d rather not remain, I would certainly understand.”
Gigot gusted out a sigh. “Where would I go? Who would hire me in these times? I haven’t the disposition to be an innkeeper, and there is no one now who can afford to maintain the kind of household I am accustomed to cooking for.”
“True enough,” said Madelaine. “Well, I am pleased to have you with me, whatever your reason for staying.”
“If I had a wife or children it might be different, but since I don’t…” He made another sweep with his knife to finish his thoughts.
Whatever Madelaine might have said was silenced as Bescart came into the kitchen. She regarded him steadily, but with a sinking sensation in her heart. “Good afternoon, Bescart. How are your preparations coming?”
“The carts are mostly loaded, and we have chosen two mules and a spare to pull them,” he said gruffly, pulling at the lobe of his large ear. “I was coming to ask for some cheese and sausage and perhaps a smoked ham to take with us, for food. I don’t know where we’ll find farmers willing to sell us provisions, and half of the travelers’ inns are keeping their doors closed.” He stared at her with a mixture of defiance and shame in his stance. “If you’ll permit it, of course,” he added.
“Certainly you may have food; I told the household that this morning, and nothing has changed,” said Madelaine. “All of you who have chosen to leave have been promised food for your journeys, and you shall have it.”
Gigot scowled, but said, “I’ll bring you two rounds of cheese—the large ones. I have a fennel-sausage made with veal—you know them; the ones that are as long as your forearm and big around as a large beetroot—you shall have three of them. They’re in the pantry. I can fill a jar with pickled onions-and-cucumbers. If Madame will permit, I will give you three bottles of white wine.”
“Yes. That should keep you and your family for a few days,” said Madelaine.
“You are generous, Madame,” Bescart conceded.
“I would not like it said that I haven’t made reasonable settlement on you. I know you already have the funds I’ve provided.” Madelaine took a step toward him. “Let us wish each other well and part friends, Bescart.”
“Giving me a year’s wages and a letter of introduction is a kindness, Madame, but you are a noble and I am not. There can be no friendship between us now.” He turned away from her and spoke to Gigot as if Madelaine had vanished. “I will come for our food in an hour or so. And we will dine in our quarters tonight. My wife will do a baking before ten tonight; you will have bread for tomorrow. We will leave at first light, so that we will not have to travel much in the heat of the day, and can nap, like civilized persons do.”
“I’ve sent for my nephew to do the baking,” said Gigot, trying not to reveal the extent of his disapproval of Bescart’s departure. “He should be here in two days. In the meantime, Remi and I can make loaves for the household.”
“If your nephew answers your invitation, you mean. In these days, who knows if he will take the chance.” Bescart gave Gigot a searching look. “You should come with us, Gigot. It isn’t safe to stay here any longer.”
“Montalia is my home, as it was my father’s,” Gigot said firmly. “I won’t leave it just because some upstarts from the city have taken it into their heads to try to drive me away.”
“As you wish,” said Bescart, tugging at his earlobe again before he swung around on his heel and stomped off to the outside door.
“Well!” exclaimed Gigot when Bescart had closed the door behind him. “What do you make of that?”
“I suppose he’s frightened.” Madelaine shook her head. “And he may be right—those of us from the Old Order are now at the mercy of the New, and he wants to be on the winning side.”
“Do not despair, Madame,” Gigot said, his voice ragged.
Madelaine managed a kind of a smile. “I will do my best not to, Gigot.”
Encouraged, the cook went on, “It will all come right. You’ll see.”
“Do you think so: perhaps.” She started toward the corridor that led to the dining room, but paused in the doorway. “For tonight, do something remarkable for my guest. He will be departing tomorrow, and I want him to have a memorable meal tonight.”
“Would lamb do, with rosemary and garlic? And a creamed-chicken soup with fine herbs?” Gigot’s eyes shone at the prospect.
“It sounds delicious. I can almost taste it,” said Madelaine, and added, “I will be in my study for an hour or so. I have a letter I must write.” And saying that, she was gone.
* * *
Text of a letter from Madelaine de Montalia at Montalia to il Conte da San-Germain in Padova, written in Latin, and carried by Theron Baptiste Heurer, delivered twenty-two days after it was written.
To my most dear, most cherished San-Germain, the greetings of Madelaine de Montalia,
This is being carried to you by Theron Heurer, who has been my companion for the last four months. He is a poet of some promise, but still too filled with the sense of his own genius to have done great work yet, though it may be in him. I have tasted his blood five times, but no more than that.
He will tell you that I have been confined to Montalia on the order of the Revolutionary Tribunal of Avignon. There are nine Revolutionary Guards posted to my home, and a pair of couriers are supposed to arrive in a day or so, I assume to keep the Tribunal informed of all that happens here, and may yet carry a warrant for my arrest and imprisonment, which would take me away from here.
I know that you warned me of this when I left your house in Verona. You said that the Revolution might well deteriorate into squabbling, vindictive gangs, but I thought that a woman in my position would not come to the attention of any powerful Revolutionaries so that I could be left alone to preserve my estate and my dependants from Revolutionary excesses. You came for me at the beginning of the Revolution, and I was glad to go with you then. I know you disagreed with me when I returned to Montalia, saying that the worst was still yet to come, and that I would not be safe. You were right. I should have allowed you to persuade me to remain. Yet you, of all people, must understand the tie I feel to this place: it is my native earth, and though not of my blood, these are my people, or they were.
Half of my household has left, granted safe conducts for the period of a month. I suspect more may decide that it is wiser to be gone from here than to remain. I do not trust these men, and so have taken to sleeping with a poignard under my pillow, and when I go about on the estate, I keep a charged pistol with me. Some of the Guards laugh at me, thinking that I have no knowledge of firearms, but if they attempt to force themselves upon me, they will learn otherwise. I am doing my utmost to make this unpleasant arrangement as bearable as it can be, for I do not wish to be denounced to the Revolutionary Tribunal.
Which brings me to the purpose of this letter: dearest San-Germain, will you please come and get me before they chop off my head? I would attempt to get away through my own efforts, but if I am caught making such an attempt, the consequences would be immediate and severe; I would like to avoid the True Death for a while longer, and I am relying on you to help me to realize this goal.
I know I needn’t ask, but be kind to Theron, for my sake. He is a bit vainglorious but his heart is good, and he truly cares for me.
I will look forward to your arrival in poor, beleaguered France, and until then, I hold you in my heart, as I have done from the first time we met, forty-nine years ago.
at Montalia, on the 5th day of July, 1792
Copyright © 2012 by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro