September 14, 2015

the french girl: excerpt


London, October, in the year of our lord 1699
A rap at the door sent a ripple through Lucien’s consciousness, inducing him to open the one eye not submerged in the pillow. Cregar, his manservant, was approaching the bed. The knock was quiet and unobtrusive and the lady sleeping by his side did not stir. Lucien disengaged himself from the warmth. Mornings after, when the ‘after’ was still there, were to be avoided. He had his own personal policies and these usually meant that pleasure partaken whilst under the influence of various alcoholic drinks and recreational drugs often dimmed the effect of nocturnal pleasures when seen in the rather harsh light of day. The winter sun’s rays were weak, shrouding the glare of reality in a somewhat more flattering light, Lucien’s preference was ingrained to wake up alone. Only occasionally did he make an exception. Helen, Lady D., the lady currently in his bed, represented one of two exceptions. She was married, hence no danger of becoming too demanding. The other ‘pleasure’ was widowed, thus posing a slight threat of her emotions becoming entwined too deeply with his; trysts with her were, therefore, of less frequency.
‘M’lord, a message from the Duc de Tallard. I thought it might be urgent.’
Cregar was discreet and highly competent. He rarely spoke above a whisper whenever he was within five feet of his master. Whispering outright would be, in his mind, a breach of etiquette. The act of whispering, unless you were directly at someone’s ear, seemed uncouth and girlish. Under normal circumstances, Cregar might have witnessed more than his share of whispering amongst Lucien’s circle – the Duc de Tallard’s diplomatic entourage – currently residing at the court of King William III. But he never did. They found a place where they could speak without fear of being overheard. Cregar appreciated cool discretion.
Relationships between England and France were never easy. Since all signs pointed toward the endorsement of the French monarch, His Majesty, King Louis XIV, of a different successor to the English throne from that the English King himself had in mind, this indicated political turmoil on the horizon. Nothing new in Anglo-Franco relationships.
Lucien took the note and got out of bed. Cregar held up a deep crimson silk robe, which Luc quickly shrugged on. He left the room by a secret door behind the armoire, Cregar following close behind. A small winding staircase took them up to the third level of the mansion. A fire was already burning as they entered Lucien’s study.
‘Some breakfast, to be brought up immediately.’
Cregar bowed slightly and left the room through the main door. Lucien grunted his assent and sat down behind his desk to open the note.
‘Lucien, please meet me at the regular place at the 11th hour today. It is a matter of some urgency.’
Luc walked over to the fire, tossed the note in and watched the flames embrace it. He yawned and stretched with both arms over his head. The robe fell open, revealing a body that made anyone who had the good fortune to witness it au naturel either blanch with envy or swoon with desire. He was tall, broad shouldered, slim of waist and hips, lean of thigh and fleet of foot. His life was spent outdoors, be it riding for pleasure, hunting, fencing or astride his horse, and his body was like a map. Anyone with intuition, with a sense of heightened perception could tell and deduce what this man was about. He was blessed with all the attributes one read about in Greek mythology. Fair of face, nimble of mind, with superior strength. Many looked at him and sighed, uttering, ‘How unfair is life to me.’
Lucien was a rare man indeed, for he took no notice, not caring in the slightest about his appearance. One could counter: easy for one to say who appears to be perfect and unfairly blessed. Can there not be a flaw to this man? Some certainly secretly hoped an Achilles’ heel would reveal itself. Nevertheless, his friendship was genuine, his loyalties fierce and his heart true, with a keen sense of good and evil. This acceptance of himself was taken for granted. A rationale that he knew was who he was, that it could not be changed, that useless pondering on the effect he had was a waste of his time and a sorry way to spend it. He had that ingrained self-confidence that ran through his veins from centuries of good fortune, someone who was so confident, so completely at ease with himself and his place in the world that it overrode obnoxious conceit and arrogance, which translated into a maddening nonchalance and free-spirited grace, capable of tackling what stirred him.
Cregar opened the door for the maid. As she placed a tray on the table near the window, the smell of coffee and warm croissants filled the room.
‘Thank you, Mary.’
She curtsied and left, closing the door gently behind her. They both waited to hear receding footsteps. This habit was ingrained. Cregar opened the door a crack, to make sure nobody was in sight. Lucien poured himself a coffee and took a bite of the croissant.
‘Cregar, I have to go out. A bath, if you please.’ He washed his mouthful down with a sip of coffee.
‘Certainly, M’lord, it awaits you in your chambers.’ Cregar had assumed as much and arranged all the necessary preparations.
‘Oh, and make sure Lady Helen makes her way home at some point – order her some breakfast, ask Mary to help with her toilette and make sure she leaves. I don’t—’
‘Certainly, M’lord. I understand.’
Lucien grinned.
‘We could communicate without talking, you know that?’
Cregar inclined his head in agreement. What Lucien lacked in arrogance, Cregar more than made up for. He was extremely proud of his position in the de Verlaine household, even if it was French. Scots had historically had more affectionate leanings toward the French and France, the ill-fated Queen Mary I of Scotland having been a prime example.
‘I have already sent Mary downstairs to nudge the Lady Helen out of her beauty sleep. She should be gone within the hour, depending on how intricate her clothing is.’
Lucien poured himself another steaming cup of the black brew. That was one thing he liked about London. Much less formal than in Paris. In Paris, there was always some servant hovering, not allowing one to do the most basic things oneself. Wiping one’s rear, if one so desired. He hated that. The Duc and Duchesse de Verlaine, his parents, were somewhat less indoctrinated to these customs; nevertheless, even their army of servants was enough to drive one insane. He had sworn to himself, and so far had kept that promise, to never reside at the King’s court in Versailles for precisely that reason. No matter how trivial, everything was put on display. Childbirth, sickness, your daily toilette, death – a public spectacle to be oohed and ahhed at by those aggressive or ambitious enough to acquire a position at Court. He shuddered at the mere thought.
Lucien looked over at Cregar.
‘Sorry, Cregar, was just enjoying my good luck at being here.’
Lucien demonstrated his perfect accent-free English. English governesses came in handy that way and made diplomatic coercion and secret missions all that much easier. He smiled and shook his head.
‘Very good, M’lord. We are pleased to have you.’ Half an hour later Lucien was on his way to the Duc de Tallard’s house on Great Marlborough Street. He strolled through Regent’s Park and along Regent Street to emerge just across from the Duc’s residence. The air was crisp and clear, unusual for this time of year, when skies usually hung low with leaden black clouds, the streets ankle deep in mud, horses caked in it up to their withers. Lucien had been in London for almost a year to the day. He felt his tenure might be coming to an end as the political situation was deteriorating. Conflict was on the horizon.
Lucien walked through the gates leading to Camille d’Hostun’s residence, the gravel crunching under his worn boots. A team of horses was being led to the stables. Before he reached the portico, the gleaming mahogany door opened. Camille employed an almost all-French staff. Raymond was the leader of the pack.
‘Bonjour, Monsieur le marquis.’ He stepped aside as Lucien walked through the entrance into the gilded halls of one of King Louis XIV’s most trusted advisers.
Only French was spoken in this household, a sanctuary of French and Catholic culture. Not overtly so, only for those invited. A dedication to French culture, offering a greater understanding of the French mentality. Lucien stopped in the hallway, removed his tricorn and was assisted with his overcoat by a young man, who took them away. Raymond showed him into the duc’s study, their footsteps echoing on the marble.
The duc was framed by large windows, sitting at his desk, glasses perched on his nose, concentrating on papers laid out before him. He carried on with his work, looking up when Lucien was seated across from him. A clock was ticking on the mantelpiece above the fireplace. The sound of the quill travelling across paper.
Camille d’Hostun walked around the desk to properly greet one of his clique. Lucien rose to embrace his superior; they exchanged kisses, as was the custom.
‘Please, sit.’
Camille beckoned to the seats across from the fireplace.
‘Lucien, I’d like you to look into a matter.’
The duc paused as a tray of refreshments was placed before them on the table. He continued when the door slipped into the frame.
‘There is a woman by the name of Anne de Ghislaine. She came to this country eighteen years ago. She is a Huguenot.’ Lucien waited for him to continue.
‘As you may or may not know, His Majesty revoked the Edict of Nantes almost fifteen years ago. In its stead, the edict of Fontainebleau was issued. Simply put, people not of the Catholic faith were made unwelcome within the borders of France. A few years prior to this rationalisation of intolerance, pressure was already being applied, causing many to flee. Apparently, Madame de Ghislaine felt so inclined.’
He paused and took a cup of fragrant tea.
‘Sir, if I remember correctly,’ Lucien responded, ‘His Majesty issued a four-month period of grace for those who fled the country, to return to France and repossess their citizenship. And even that was given a wide berth of tolerance. The Huguenots were not required to immediately declare themselves Catholic. They were allowed to wait upon God’s Grace. While waiting they would be permitted to retain their property and engage in private commerce, thereby assuring their continued livelihood. Why did Madame de Ghislaine not make use of this amnesty?’
Lucien looked at the duc without guile, open and genuinely astonished. Camille smiled at Lucien’s interpretation of the situation, like a father tolerant of his enthusiastic child. Lucien had been all of five or six years old when these events had taken place.
‘Not everyone sheds their beliefs as they would a gown, Lucien. Besides, I do not know the exact circumstances of Madame de Ghislaine and what induced her to remain here in England. At this point in time, it’s not for you or me to speculate.’ He replaced the fine bone china cup delicately onto the saucer and poured himself more of the steaming brew.
Lucien was duly contrite but said nothing. He thought the conditions fair and didn’t quite grasp how a man would risk being sent to the galleys. And a woman would risk prison. To be honest, his faith had never been questioned. He was never asked. It was his God-given right. He couldn’t imagine being anything other than Catholic. It was part of a long history of tradition he had been brought up with and part of his heritage. Part of the heritage of France. Lucien’s exposure to another way of worshipping the Lord here in England had made him think, but not too long and not too hard. Realising that this was a chance to broaden his mind, he looked the duc directly in the eye.
‘I… Where can I find this Madame de Ghislaine?’
‘That’s for you to find out, Lucien. Many Huguenots took up residence in Canterbury. Plus, you have the contacts. Use them.’
Camille stood up, indicating the meeting was over. Lucien rose as well. The duc proceeded to his desk and searched through some papers.
‘There is a daughter. Madame de Ghislaine has a daughter. She will be around 19 years old. They fled with a Mongolian servant. That shouldn't be too difficult to figure out.’
He opened a drawer and pulled out a small leather pouch. ‘Here.’
Lucien took it and looked inside. A golden locket. He opened it up.
‘That is her daughter.’
He held the locket in his fingers, the finely wrought chain dangling between his hands. Blue eyes. Brown hair. An oval face. Serene, but at the same time wary. Yes, she looked wary, even though a slight smile played upon her lips.
Lucien’s head shot up.
‘Does this have something to do with Philippe being called to Paris by his father?’
Camille gave him a measured look.
‘Lucien, I know you and Philippe are the best of friends and that your two families share much, not least the common borders to your estates in Languedoc.’ He paused again, sitting down while pulling the ornate chair closer to the desk.
‘When you find Madame de Ghislaine and her daughter, please escort them to London at my request. They shall reside here with me.’
Lucien stood there. He looked at the girl’s face. Something was wrong here.
‘That’s all, Lucien.’

working title 'the french girl' will be published on Amazon in October 2015. Chapter Two will be available on my blog next week. For the prologue, please click here. Please leave a comment if you like it and even if you don't. The complete first draft of 'the french girl' is currently available to read for free here


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