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“Are you really trying your best or are you just humoring me?” I asked impatiently after I had brought my sword down onto his arm for the third time in the past thirty minutes.
André lowered his sword and adjusted his gloves, panting and shaking his head. “I haven’t had much practice lately,” he said.
“I don’t have much time,” I said as I turned away from him and sliced the air with a few strokes of my sword—an épée. Smith had named his sword preference on the phone a few days after that boardroom meeting. “The tournament is going to be held in a week.”
“But what are those Americans up to, anyway?” he asked. “What will happen should you lose?”
“Who says I’m going to?” I asked irritably. “Clearly, they’re
testing our strengths, so to speak. This tourney is nothing but a blind, but if
it’s going to work for them I see very little reason why it’s not going to work
”They’ve smelled blood, then,” said André with his usual acumen.
I sighed. This was what happened when the society pages of the newspapers got too nosy with company figures. Stories would inevitably spill into the business pages if one were not too careful with the rumors.
Patrick Smith was no fool. It was evident that he was buying time; perhaps he wanted to have a good reason to back out of the deal, though it seemed pretty foolish for him to base his decisions on the outcome of a fencing duel.
What can his real reasons for the duel be? And what shall happen if I lose?
I’ll think of something for that eventuality, he had said in that easy manner of his. While I knew it would be difficult for him to back out of the deal at this late stage, something told me he had something else in mind to call for this kind of drama.
Standing in the practice hall of the old mansion in Arras, I decided it would be best not to think of these things yet as I waited for André to catch his breath. Outside the tall windows, dawn was gradually giving way to early morning. Antoinette and I had arrived the day before for that much needed vacation; André had accompanied us to get some work done. By my request, he had stayed on for the night in order to help me out with fencing practice this morning, but I would not be able to keep him from going back to Paris later today.
“Break time’s over,” I announced after a moment and swung my sword forward. “En garde, André!”
We had been practicing almost non-stop for three hours, yet the day was still early when we finally emerged from the hall.
“I’m sure Antoinette is still sleeping,” I said, “Let her. She looked so exhausted yesterday. We can have some breakfast before you go back to Paris then.”
André said nothing, merely nodded, before taking off to his quarters to have a quick shower and a change of clothes.
I stared at him for a moment before I went up to my own room. Since when, I wondered uneasily, did pauses in the conversation with Andre turn uncozy?
This was an occurrence that I had only started to notice lately. Gone were the comfortable silences we used to enjoy—those minutes and minutes we used to spend in each other’s company without a single word being exchanged between us. After the Incident, I thought things had settled down and gone back to how they were before.
Now, I was only starting to realize that André was all right so long as he was talking to me about matters concerning business, or some trivial chatter concerning somebody else. But the moment we stopped talking, this element of strain would enter the picture and I had a curious feeling that André could hardly wait to be away from me.
Take what happened after de la Motte’s dismissal, for instance. André’s report had clinched the man’s downfall. Meticulously researched (André obviously had friends in the various business registry offices, otherwise I doubted very much if anybody could have dug up that concealed company), he had singularly brought to light all the details, had painstakingly delved into all that covered up information to bring out, absolutely and undoubtedly, evidence of the man’s treachery by giving reasons to the anomalies brought to light by the dry accounting report of the Auditor’s office. As I had gone through his file, prepared with so much care, I had felt then such a rush of gratitude that André was my man of affairs.
Then came the moment I had wanted to thank him. Perhaps the one thing that became clear to me after the Incident was the careless way I had treated Andre throughout the years. The violence of all that pent-up emotion—one could only wonder how long he had kept his resentment in check. So instead of the usual, thoughtless greeting, I had managed to venture out of my usual reserve and told him truthfully what I thought of him.
And all he could do after listening to my heartfelt words was to look down and change the subject. Really, I felt as though I were talking to André through a screen these days, and I could not seem to be able to penetrate this invisible divide.
It was as if the Incident had continued to present itself, like a wounded presence, between us. I had promised myself that I was never, ever going to bring the Incident up; as if he were in unspoken agreement with me, André had chosen never to mention it either. So the hurt remained.
After a while, I would find myself getting impatient by the strained silence and by the fact that I was powerless to address the reason for the discomfort directly. My impatience would transmit itself to André by means of my snapping at him, like what I just did at fencing practice this morning. Being André, he would take it all in without a single word, and I would be left to feel even worse as guilt set in.
We started breakfast without Antoinette. I watched him spread some cream cheese on a piece of bagel, watched him as he tried to swallow the bagel along with his coffee at the same time.
“What’s your hurry?” I asked as I sipped some orange juice. “The plane’s not leaving without you, you know.”
“I’ll need to catch a cab to the airfield,” he answered.
“Relax. I’ll drive you,” I said as I started on my bagel.
There was a moment of stunned silence. “You don’t have to—“ he was beginning to say when I cut him off.
“How is your research into the painting coming along, by the way?” I said, as I would not allow him to continue with his excuses.
I had only asked because I just had a dream of that mystery woman in the painting again. Over the past months, I had gotten used to being her in my dreams to the point that I had learned to take things in stride as she went about her story.
If I had not known better, I would have thought that my present drama had projected itself into my subconscious, complete with eighteenth century settings. In my dreams I saw through that woman’s eyes. She had changed her white uniform into a wine-red one by now; she had grown up. She was falling in love with this magnificent man in an equally impressive uniform. She was getting hurt because he was obviously in love with somebody else—the woman she had been assigned to protect. She was hurting somebody else as she went about loving this man that she could not have.
Oddly enough, the characters who peopled my dreams also had very familiar, present-day faces—Fersen, Antoinette, even Andre and Rosalie. Only, I could not remember much upon waking, although I knew the dreams to be richly detailed.
And my name in those dreams. Whatever it was, it was definitely not Françoise. Sometimes, I could feel it hovering on the tip of my tongue, but it would never come. The harder I tried to coax it from my memory, the hazier it would become.
“Oh, that,” I heard André say now, and I turned to look at him. “I’ve not been able to do a lot of research after all that flurry following Louis de Brun’s death. The painting seems to have come at a dead end after tracing it back some thirty years. No matter. I’m sure I will be able to get something out soon. I’m tracing the galleries for another possible portrait of the woman.”
“All right,” I said. “Update me soon, then.”
He looked as though he was about to say something at that, but changed his mind at the last minute. “Okay,” he said simply.
The short drive to the airport was filled with final instructions and there was very little time lost on uncomfortable silences.
“Make sure to ask Rosalie to follow up the appointments, and have her call me as soon as they’ve been finalized,” I said as we got out of the car.
“All right. Will there be anything else?” he asked.
But I wasn’t listening to him just then. He was walking ahead of me, toward the waiting plane. As we emerged onto the field, rays from the morning sun had just then landed full on his back.
I found myself staring at his short, wavy hair as sumptuous as the richest, darkest chocolate, and for some reason the most insane urge to reach out and ruffle it took hold of me. I knew it was ridiculous. How long had we been together? Practically forever, and I had never once bothered noticing—as in actually speculating—about the color or the possible texture of Andre’s hair.
To make matters complicated, he suddenly turned to me then and he was just in time to catch me gazing at his head. My look must have been odd indeed, for he asked, “What is it?”
“Uh…nothing,” I said. “It’s just that…you’ve got something in
”Oh?” He asked as he put up a hand to run over his head.
“There,” I said hastily. “It’s gone now.”
As we continued walking, I willed myself not to show any trace of the acute embarrassment that I was feeling inside. What is with you lately? I asked myself.
“Is there anything else you’d want to endorse?” He repeated.
I shook my head. Our eyes met for an instant before we looked away almost simultaneously.
“I’ll see you in Paris in two days then,” he said and boarded the plane.
“I’ll see you in Paris in two days then.”
What kind of goodbye was that?? I thought, frowning, as I drove back to the mansion. André had never been so abrupt before. Was this going to be part of the new routine as well?
What was going on?
As I headed back to the mansion, to a waking Antoinette and all her stories that would surely be unpleasant to hear, I knew that a rough day was ahead of me.
But surely it could not be any more unpleasant than the things slowly evolving between André and myself
Antoinette raised the steaming cup of tea and took a slow sip. She had risen late and had requested that lunch be moved to a later hour. I had already finished a load of work by the time she had made her way down. Now, sitting opposite her in the terrace overlooking the gardens, I thought I must look the very picture of idleness, although I was, as usual, restless to get back to my laptop to get some more work done.
“Ah, such delightful sleep,” began Antoinette in her usual charming way. “I’ve never rested so well for a long time.”
“You ought to get as much rest as you can while we’re here,” I said. “That’s the primary reason for this vacation.”
Just then my phone chirped, signaling an incoming text message. Antoinette was silent as I answered the message from Rosalie, who had confirmed that all appointments had been readied for my return. André must have reached the office by now.
“I am keeping you from the office,” remarked Antoinette as I set the phone aside.
“Don’t be silly,” I said gently. “It’s good to get away for a while. I see you haven’t brought your phone down.”
“I left it behind in Paris,” she answered.
“I gave Auguste your number here, in case he needs to call me. I doubt if he will, anyway.”
“And how about other friends?” I asked. I, for one, did not relish having to answer that Martin woman’s calls.
“Yolande can call me when I get back to Paris,” said Antoinette indifferently as she caught my implied question. “I think it’s best this way.”
Seeing my quizzical expression, she rushed on, “I am mad at her because she started that rumor about you and Fersen. How could she possibly do it?”
I let out a sigh of exasperation. “Why indeed?” I asked, unable to keep my distaste from showing.
“She said she did it to protect me. Me!” cried Antoinette miserably. “I’m so sorry she dragged you into it, Françoise. I’ve already told her off. I know it must be so ridiculous; you and Fersen are very good friends and it has caused you no end of trouble. She had no right to do it.”
I must really be getting over him, I thought in surprise, if I am to feel only mild annoyance at Antoinette’s words.
Aloud, I said, “What does she mean that she’s trying to protect you? It sounds pretty much like a demolition job to me.”
Here, Antoinette turned pink. “I must have been seen talking to him too often at those parties. But what’s so wrong with it, Françoise?” she asked, bewildered. “He’s so interesting. Can I not talk to single men just because I’m married now?”
“If you will allow me to be frank,” I said, my voice turning as hard as flint, “that friend of yours is a fool if she thinks her tactics will work. Never mind my feelings about the matter, although I assure you that I can feel no end of contempt for being dragged into the whole thing. I know Fersen and he’s much too discreet to fuel the rumor further. Well, Yolande Martin’s lies have backfired now, and I fear that you shall get caught in the crossfire. And as for you and Fersen--”
“Oh, please do stop, Françoise!” cried Antoinette suddenly at this point, cupping her ears with her hands.
As I stared at her in astonishment, she continued, “ don’t think that I’ve not had enough sermons from everyone back in Paris. Ever since I got here, I can’t seem to do anything right! Those board directors, Mercy, my brothers in Vienna, Mama—yes, you can just imagine what we talk about over the phone night after night—I do not mean to sound ungrateful or anything, but I’ve had just about enough!”
Her tone had taken on a shrill ring, and I wondered what to do next. I was used to dealing with men losing their bearings during heated discussions related to business, but I must admit that I was at a loss on how to deal with hysterical women.
She paused to catch her breath and her composure, and then went on bitterly, “Then, just when I thought I can turn to my aunts for some support, they goad me on that Becu woman and blame me for that woman’s mad idea of a potential book! I just…”
Here she actually broke down, and I cast about for something to say. Women like Antoinette were so odd! What could one say in situations such as this? Deciding not to say anything, I stretched out an awkward hand to pat her arm.
“Oh, Françoise!” she said brokenly. “Why can’t things be simple like the way they used to be before I got married?”
Because you chose to marry into this family…I thought silently. Aloud I said, “I did not mean to censure you, or cause you any grief with my words. Only, think about your position. I know how difficult it is to fill your place; people will not hesitate to take advantage of you or your kindness. Don’t let them.”
“You mustn’t be too harsh on Yolande,” Antoinette began, shaking her head as she caught on.
“After spreading that rumor, why not?” I asked, my voice cold, “Can you not see what she’s doing? All that gambling…how much have you lost on the tables?”
“She’s…she’s actually been very kind to me!” cried Antoinette, and I felt as though I had stepped onto a landmine once again. “She’s there when I need her.”
Which is more than what I could say of myself. Is that what you want to say, Antoinette? I asked in my head. The thought made me very sad.
“We’re all here for you when you need us, Antoinette,” I said, willing my voice to be steady and gentle even as I felt despair sweep through me. “We…we all want you to be happy, believe me, but not through these means.”
“It’s so easy to talk about being happy,” remarked Antoinette tonelessly, “when in actual practice it is so difficult to achieve. Tell me why is it so, Françoise?”
And I found that I couldn’t tell her what I really thought then: that all this unhappiness had been of her own making.
In the mess that was our conversation before lunch, Fersen had not been mentioned again. Nor was he mentioned during lunch, or anytime thereafter. By the time we settled down to a late luncheon, Antoinette’s good humor had been fully restored and she had chatted gaily about the latest outings she had had.
In the late afternoon, after a few hours of rest in her suite, Antoinette had wanted to go out to visit the small park adjoining the mansion.
“Don’t be silly,” she remarked to my proposal that I accompany her. “You’ve got work to do; I just want some fresh air. I’m sure I can manage going there and back without any difficulty. I will be back in half an hour.”
I must confess that I found it a relief for her to leave me even for just a moment. I worked on steadily and soon succeeded in losing track of time. When I brought my head up again, the light was fading fast from the windows.
A brief inquiry from the servants told me that Antoinette was not back yet.
In the gathering dusk, the sound of my booted feet was loud on the cobbled stone path that led to the nearby park. It must have been an hour or an hour and a half since Antoinette had left the house; could she possibly have stayed all this time in the park? It was a small, boring place that one could walk around but for a few minutes. Perhaps she had gone to visit the town center, or the nearby war memorial cemetery.
It seemed inconceivable that she could spend an entire hour or more roaming around a small park.
Unless, of course, she had someone with her.
I slowed to a halt as I caught them embracing among the trees. In the dying light, the sight of their figures so close together as though they were fused into one, sent a shiver through me.
Even though I had sworn to give up Fersen, why must I always suffer these scenes? As if replaying the scene of our first meeting in the moonlit terrace all those months ago, I watched as they gradually drew away from each other.
I registered Antoinette’s faint gasp as she finally turned and saw me, but I kept my eyes resolutely on Fersen until he looked down and refused to meet my gaze. Even now…even now that I had supposedly given up on him, I must confess that he still had the power to hurt me.
Not any longer, I thought. Not if I can help it. Please God, let me get over him quickly…
“Go on back to the house,” I said quietly to Antoinette. “Dinner’s waiting.”
As she wordlessly ran past me, I looked back at Fersen. “I thought you have more sense,” I said after I was sure Antoinette was safely out of earshot, my voice slicing through the deep silence that had come to envelop us.
Fersen shook his head slowly, as if in defeat. “I’m afraid nobody makes sense when he’s in love,” he said quietly.
“So the rumors about you and Antoinette are finally true,” I said, my voice barely above a whisper. “You’ve started an affair.”
Here he raised his eyes, and I could see he trembled. “I want to thank you actually,” he said. “If you had not whisked her away this weekend, we would have all attended that ball. I would have danced with her—I won’t be able to stop myself. And if I did that, the others would have seen right through me. I would have given further cause to fuel that rumor and drag her into another scandal. God knows I’ve made her suffer enough. I know I shouldn’t have fallen into a romance, but how could I help it?
“And so I have decided, Françoise,” he continued, “I’m going to run away. As far as I can go. Thousands of miles away, if I can.”
“Where will you go?” I asked.
“The United States,” he answered. “I finally got my answer today from the external affairs department. They have got an opening for an exchange program. Three months. I’ve come to say goodbye.”
I closed my eyes briefly. “I wish you luck in all your endeavors, of course,” I murmured, feeling a dull ache in my chest. A sign of progress, actually. “Goodbye then, Fersen.”
Save for the faint rustle of the evening wind stirring through the trees, everything was deathly silent as I turned away from him and started back to the house.
Neither of us had felt like eating dinner that night. She was crying again. All through the night, she talked on about how it had all started.
As I had suspected, it had started soon after Fersen’s return to France. Antoinette had not been married two weeks when Louis de Brun died. Hence, her honeymoon (if one could call it that—“Auguste is not very attentive in bed,” she complained to me now) had been cut short as the couple hastened back to France. From then on, they were to see very little of each other as Auguste’s tasks took him farther away from the company of his wife.
Alone most of the time and prey to the claustrophobic and often disapproving regard of the elderly directors, Antoinette was soon looking for a way out. I was too busy most of the time to accompany her on her many whims, each as flighty as the next, and she had found solace in others as bored as she was.
And so how could she not resort to Fersen, when he was within calling distance? Hadn’t he and I also sworn a gentleman’s agreement to look out for her as best we could? I was certain Fersen had entered into the situation with this pact in mind.
Given this backdrop, it had not been long before they succumbed to the attraction that had always been present between them. Gradually, even Fersen’s restraint and discretion had eroded as raw passion took over.
Antoinette had not said, but I wondered where they met? Had it been in the houses of friends? Most probably. The whispers became stronger, and they were abetted by that nasty rumor Yolande Martin had tried to propagate about Fersen and myself. While it was heartening to see that people had found it unbelievable, the rumor had rebounded on its spin-doctor, exposing Antoinette to further talk. It irked me to imagine that Martin woman smoothly talking her way out of everything by saying she had done it to protect Antoinette, when her original design had been to attack Fersen and myself.
“Then there was this incident in Madame du Deffand’s ball last month,” said Antoinette. “You weren’t there, unfortunately. She was the most beautiful and elegant creature I had ever laid eyes upon. It had been a good thing she came, otherwise I would not have known what to do except dance the night away with Fersen.”
I said nothing, merely stared at Antoinette as she continued her narrative, “Still, when I watched her dance with him, I had felt so jealous. I realized then that I would never be able to give him up, but give him up I must because I’m married to Auguste. It was just so unfair.”
I watched her silently as she gave a heavy sigh, vowing to myself that she would never know who had been Fersen’s dancing partner that night.
As if from a great distance away, I heard her finish her narrative, “So there. Now you know. I never knew I could get so jealous of anyone until that night, but at least an even greater disaster had been prevented for an evening.”
Most unfortunately, there were several evenings to come when disaster could not be alleviated, and so we found ourselves facing the present problem.
And now Fersen was going away again.
I wasn’t very sure if it were the right move, though I was pretty sure of my enormous feeling of relief to find him going away and not getting affected by it so much. In itself, the act of leaving would feed the rumors even further, at least for a while. And I could not guarantee that I would be there for Antoinette as I was now busier than ever.
I felt as though my relationship with Antoinette had fallen into a cycle of affection and, in instances such as these, of mild irritation and impatience. It was true that there were times when her actions had been thoughtless and unbearably flighty, but it was also understandable why. She was terribly unhappy, though as I had said before, much of her unhappiness had been of her own making. She was also fast becoming notorious, though I knew deep down that she was basically a good and decent person.
Still, she had to be told.
I had a mind to tell her a great number of things when she was starting her story, but now, after she had finished it, I found that I could not say a word. Not when Antoinette was miserable. As usual, when it came to her, I found my iron resolve melting.
At least now she had learned not to trust her aunts, the Mesdames, nor to go about so carelessly as she had done before. She had also found out a thing or two about her friend, Yolande Martin. But I doubted if there was anything to be done about Antoinette’s unhappiness just yet.
If only there was something that can be done, I thought as I lay in bed that night, but it’s almost as if Antoinette was fated to be unhappy…
That night, in my dreams, the lady in the blazing red uniform became an entity separate from myself. Twins, from the look of us—she in her magnificent military uniform, I in my designer work clothes. As we walked through a familiar, well-manicured garden drenched in sunlight, she was telling me something most urgently, her serious blue eyes fixed on mine.
“Remember,” she said in a stern tone—her final word for me for the night, and then I woke up with a start.
Now that I was awake, try as I might, I could not recall what it was that she had told me to remember.
Author’s Notes: More fencing terms are bound to come up in the succeeding chapters, but I have decided to pick out the épée as the sword to be used by Francoise in her upcoming duel. For more information on fencing and its weapons, click on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fencing
To Be Continued…
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