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The Blue Rose, Page 2

Kate Forsyth

  Remembering that old story, Viviane’s step quickened.

  It’s only a story, I know, she thought as she took the path towards the old spring. But there is often truth in old tales …

  Viviane loved Belisima with all her heart. She had inherited the estate from her mother the day she was born and had lived here all her life. Its soil was her soul. As she hurried through the green shadows of the beech trees, Luna prancing at her heels, she imagined rain soaking into the scorched land, a rich and bountiful harvest, the gratitude of the hungry serfs, the approval of her father as his pockets filled once more. It was an entrancing vision.

  She came at last to the Fountain of the Fairy. It was a long gash of dark water, enclosed within steep stone walls and overshadowed by trees. A huge boulder lay nearby, laced with golden lichen. The Stone of Merlin.

  Kneeling, Viviane reached down with her sabot and scooped up some water and threw it upon the boulder. Twice more she flung the water, silently praying all the while for rain.

  Then she hurried for home.

  She would be in trouble, she knew. Gone so long. Wandering alone in the forest. Madame would be angry. She broke into a run, till a stitch stabbed her ribs, then walked, then ran again, Luna loping ahead.

  The shadows grew long. The abbey’s bells rang the Angelus. The wind was rising, shaking the canopy of leaves overhead. It blew the puppy’s ears inside-out.

  Suddenly an old man slouched out of the forest. He was dressed in a moleskin waistcoat over a tattered shirt and soiled leather breeches. His long grey hair and beard were matted with leaves and twigs, and grime was deeply engrained in the furrows of his face. Over one shoulder he carried a pole hung with the limp bodies of dead moles, their pale paws dangling.

  His name was Maugan. He had haunted Viviane’s nightmares since she was a little girl. It was in one of his mole-traps that Luna had lost her foot, and it was clear the puppy remembered for she growled at him.

  ‘Out of my way!’ Viviane cried.

  ‘Damned aristo!’ Maugan spat at Viviane’s feet. ‘You think you rule the world, but a storm is coming, a storm like the world has never seen before, and then heads shall roll.’

  The mole-catcher had a reputation for strange mad prophecies, and indeed his eyes were fixed and crazed. Viviane remembered that her father had once had Maugan flogged for daring to predict the Marquis’s young wife would die without bearing him the much-desired son. Well, he had been right. Viviane had been born, a mere girl, and her mother had died in the bearing of her and the Marquis left with no-one to pass down his name.

  Viviane pushed past the filthy old man and ran headlong down the path towards home. Clouds loomed behind the château like a giant’s anvil. The lake scudded with white waves. Lightning fractured the sky.

  Viviane hurried forward through the flail and hiss of hail.


  The Lord’s Vengeance

  14–29 July 1788

  ‘Ring the warning bell!’ Viviane cried to one of the grooms, as she ran through the gate. The dogs in the kennels barked, and the horses neighed and reared in fear. ‘A storm’s about to hit. Hurry!’ He ran to do her bidding.

  Viviane gave Luna – frightened and whimpering – to the kennel-keeper, then ran through to the orchard and began to call down her doves. They wheeled above her head, their wings white against the menacing sky, then flew through the tiny windows under the pigeonnière’s pointed roof. When all were safe within, she pulled down the shutters and locked the heavy door.

  In the kitchen garden, an old man in an indigo smock and leather gaiters was flinging sacks over the precious glasshouse. Hailstones huge as fists pelted around him. ‘Yannic!’ Viviane cried. ‘Be careful!’

  She threw a sack over her head, and ran to help him. The old man guarded his domain zealously, despite the arthritis that threatened to cripple his fingers and knees. She wished once again they could afford a strong young man to help him.

  Thunder boomed, then lightning struck like adders’ fangs. Sleet pelted down. Viviane could scarcely see the château’s towers through the torrent. ‘Get inside!’ she called to Yannic. ‘It’s not safe out here.’

  ‘Mamzelle!’ Pierrick shouted from the kitchen door. ‘We need you.’

  She picked up her wet skirts and ran.

  A man had stumbled in from the fields, blood pouring from a gash in his scalp. Viviane tended him with steady hands. The kitchen was soon full of frightened mothers and sobbing children. Viviane served them bowls of hot bouillon.

  ‘Do not be afraid,’ she said. ‘The Château de Belisima has stood here for six hundred years – it’s not going to break under a few hailstones.’

  ‘Mamzelle,’ a cold voice said.

  Viviane looked up and saw Agathe, her aunt’s maid, standing in the doorway. Her nose was tilted high as if she could not bear the smell of cabbage soup and wet peasants’ hair.

  ‘Yes?’ Viviane answered.

  ‘Madame wishes you to attend on her. You know how much she dislikes storms.’

  Viviane made a swift gesture at the crowded kitchen. ‘Please tell Madame that I regret I am unable to come at present.’

  Agathe’s lips thinned. ‘Madame will not be pleased.’

  ‘I am sorry for that,’ Viviane replied, ‘but these are my people and I must have a care for them.’

  Agathe inclined her head and went away.

  Briaca looked up, frightened. ‘Mamzelle, please, she is right. Your father …’

  ‘Is not here,’ Viviane said. ‘And even if he were, I still would not sit by and do nothing!’

  ‘Please, mamzelle.’

  Viviane bent and hugged her. ‘Don’t be so worried, Briaca. You cannot really expect me not to help, can you?’

  Just then the door slammed open, and four men carried in a white-faced boy on a stretcher made of a sack stretched over sticks. His arm was bent at an unnatural angle.

  ‘Quick, take him into the stillroom,’ Viviane cried. ‘Briaca, I will need splints. Can you find me some long straight sticks? Pierrick, get me some brandy!’

  As everyone hurried to do her bidding, she cast Briaca a swift determined look. ‘Unless you’d prefer me to go and sew a fine seam with my great-aunt in the drawing-room?’

  By dawn, the storm had passed away.

  All was quiet. People lay sleeping on the floor, rolled in coats or covered with shawls. Viviane trudged down the corridor, unutterably weary. The boy was sleeping now, but it had been an exhausting few hours. She had never splinted a broken arm before, and could only hope she had done it right.

  Viviane had begun taking care of the local people’s ailments some years before, after discovering her mother’s notebooks in the stillroom. She started in small ways. Binding up a burned finger. Gathering lavender, sweet marjoram and rosemary to make healing bouquets. Mixing rose oil and calendula into beeswax to make a balm. Gradually, following the steps outlined in her mother’s recipes, she had learned to do more. She found the people of the château preferred to come to her than to call the doctor, who was a rotund man with a bulbous red nose, dirty fingernails and a huge wig that he was always scratching.

  Soon, people were bringing her injured birds or asking for relief for a fussy baby. Viviane would ask for help from those on the estate who knew about such things. The falconer showed her how to set a broken wing, and the beekeeper’s wife suggested cool chamomile tea and rubbing honey on sore gums. Viviane helped Yannic in the garden, and listened to his long lectures on the properties of herbs and flowers. Burdock to purify the blood, comfrey to help bones knit, meadowsweet for heartburn, sweet cicely to lift the spirits and bring new energy. Briaca taught her how to make nettle soup and raspberry leaf tea and elderberry wine and bone broth, and made Luna a collar of amber to keep the fleas away. The Abbé came from Paimpont every Sunday to hear her and Madame de Ravoisier’s confessions, and to give Viviane religious instruction. A gentle and enlightened man, he had always encouraged Viviane to study and learn, and h
ad brought her many books from the monastery library, as well as his own Latin dictionary so she could decipher the botanical nomenclature of plants. Viviane carefully wrote down all she learned in her remedy notebook. Slowly her knowledge grew. The hours she spent in the garden and stillroom were the happiest of her day, for Viviane loved the feeling that she was of some use to the world.

  Seeing the warm flicker of a candle from the kitchen, she turned that way, wondering who could still be awake.

  It was Briaca. She was slowly and laboriously writing on a piece of paper.

  ‘Briaca, you should be in bed,’ Viviane said.

  The cook jumped so violently she knocked her ink-pot over. She dropped her quill and leapt to her feet, seizing a cloth to mop up the spilt ink.

  ‘Oh, I didn’t mean to startle you,’ Viviane said, hurrying to help her.

  ‘I thought you were in bed, mamzelle,’ Briaca gasped, screwing up her piece of ink-stained paper and throwing it on the fire.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ Viviane said. ‘You will need to write it again.’

  ‘It’s no matter,’ Briaca said, screwing the lid on the inkpot and putting away her goose-feather quill. She had a quaint little box, set with mother-of-pearl, to keep her writing implements in. It had been given to her many years ago by Viviane’s mother, who had taught Briaca how to read and write and count. Briaca had in turn taught Pierrick and Viviane, at least until the first of her governesses arrived to take over her education.

  Your mother had a heart of gold, Briaca always said. If she had not taught me my letters and numbers as a child, I could not have become cook here at the château. Things would have gone badly for me, you know, with a baby to feed and no way to earn my living. She could have turned me out to starve on the streets. Many women would have done so.

  Not for the first time, Viviane wondered who Pierrick’s father had been and how old Briaca was when he was born. She could not have been much more than fourteen or fifteen. Briaca would never talk about it, even though Pierrick had pestered her for many years. ‘It does not matter,’ she answered, and, once or twice, ‘It is better you don’t know.’ Pierrick liked to imagine that his father had been a travelling musician who had come to stay at the château and seduced the young Briaca. One day, Pierrick said, his father would come and claim him and they would travel the roads, singing for a crust. The possibility delighted him.

  ‘I must go out and see how the harvest has fared,’ Viviane said. ‘Try and get some rest, Briaca, you’ve been up all night.’

  ‘No point in going to bed,’ Briaca answered, gesturing at the loaves of bread set to rise on the sill. ‘They will all want to be fed again soon.’

  Viviane squared her shoulders and went out to view the damage. The sky overhead was clear and bright, but the sodden ground was littered with fallen branches, leaves, dead birds, broken slates, cracked bricks.

  She walked out to stand on the bridge, raising one hand to shield her tired eyes. Monsieur Corentin was astride his horse in the barnyard, talking to a group of mud-smeared and exhausted men. He raised his hat at the sight of her, and dismounted so he could come and join her. A hawk-faced man with pock-marked skin, she had never seen him look so bleak. Together they gazed out at the landscape.

  On the other side of the lake, the battered fields stretched away, silvered with frost. The flax stalks lay broken, drenched. The forest looked like a giant had smashed his way through it with a club. Trees lay with their roots in the air and their branches buried in mud. The slate roof of the barn was smashed.

  Viviane felt it was all her fault. If she had not tried to summon rain, if she had not meddled with forces beyond her ken, perhaps the storm would never have come. She had acted like a child, heedless, caught up in a game, not realising the potential for harm.

  Viviane wished to make amends, but it was not going to be easy.

  ‘The harvest?’ Viviane asked.

  He shrugged and shook his head. ‘It is ruined, of course. We saved what we could.’

  ‘What can we do?’ she asked.

  ‘I shall write to Monsieur le Marquis. I do not expect I shall receive a reply.’

  Viviane bit her lip and looked away. Indeed, her father was only interested in the estate for the money he could wring from it.

  ‘I shall write also.’

  He regarded her with a faint thawing of his expression. ‘I thank you, mamzelle. I pray that your entreaties bear fruit.’

  She nodded and tried to smile.

  They both knew it was no use.

  Two weeks later, a letter arrived from Versailles.

  Viviane’s heart shrank within her at the sight of the elegant handwriting. Carefully she sliced away the seal, and read the words within.

  After a few cold courtesies, her father told her that he had married once again and that his bride sent her new daughter her felicitations. The Marquis went on to say:

  I am grieved to hear of the devastation of the storm of July 13th. We have heard that the damage stretched more than four hundred miles, from Normandy to Toulouse. No doubt it is the Lord’s vengeance against the recent traitorous rebellions of a few misguided yokels. I do not believe it is my duty to ease the burdens caused by The Lord Our Father’s rightful chastisement. Nonetheless my dear wife the marquise has conceived a great longing for a garden in the English style, which the Queen has made fashionable. So I have engaged the services of an English gardener to build what her heart desires. I believe much land has been cleared by the storm’s unfortunate felling of trees. Give this land over to the new garden, and instruct Corentin to pay a few sous to the peasants who have lost their livelihood so that they may labour at the English gardener’s instruction.

  Yours etc,

  Louis-Auguste-César de Ravoisier, the Marquis de Valaine

  PS: If you ever disobey your great-aunt again, I shall have you thrashed.

  Viviane lay down the letter and stared at it in disbelief. How had he known? Who had told him? She cast a glance at her great-aunt, who was eating sweetmeats and reading scandal sheets. She had hoped Madame de Ravoisier would not complain of her to her father, but obviously it had been a vain hope. It was puzzling, however. Viviane had not seen any letters written in her great-aunt’s handwriting laid out on the silver salver in the hall for Pierrick to post.

  ‘What does your father say?’ her great-aunt demanded. ‘May we return to Versailles?’

  ‘My father has married again.’

  ‘Indeed? To whom?’

  Viviane read out the name inscribed in her father’s letter. ‘Mademoiselle Élisabeth-Marie-Clothilde de Jussieu de Charmille.’

  ‘Clothilde de Charmille! Why, she is little more than a child. Younger than you. But then my nephew always did like a pullet. Her blood is of the best, and I believe she has a pretty fortune to her name. I wonder what strings Cesar pulled to arrange such an advantageous marriage? No doubt her father was in debt to him. Cesar was always a devil with the cards.’

  ‘Poor Clothilde,’ Viviane whispered.

  Her great-aunt clicked her tongue. ‘Not at all. She is no doubt thrilled to be made a marquise. Not all girls have such nonsensical romantic notions as you.’

  Viviane did not answer. Perhaps my new stepmother will be a friend to me, she told herself. She must be so afraid. Perhaps I could help her … comfort her …

  Her heart quailed within her. If Viviane was to meet her new stepmother, she must see her father again.

  The thought filled her with terror.


  The Marquis’s Daughter

  2–4 August 1788

  Angry crowds surged about the post-chaise, striking spades and scythes against the lacquered door emblazoned with the shield of the Marquis de Valaine.

  David leant from the carriage window. ‘What is the problem?’ he asked in his clumsy French.

  A ragged girl held up her cupped hands. ‘A few coins, please, m’sieur?’

  ‘Bread! Give us bread!’ a thin woman cried.
br />   ‘I’m sorry. I have no bread, and very few coins.’ He made a rueful gesture, but the crowd was not appeased. An angry mutter arose.

  ‘Damn aristos!’ A man flung a stone at the carriage, causing the horses to shy.

  Another man seized hold of the door handle, rattling it violently, then hit the carriage with his pitchfork.

  ‘Quick, let’s go!’ David called.

  Crouched low in their saddles, the postilions spurred the horses on. The coach raced away over the cobblestones.

  David had heard that there had been riots in Rennes. The local parlements had opposed the king when he tried to impose new taxes. So Louis had tried to dissolve the parlements. Violence had broken out in Paris, and all through the countryside.

  David had not expected to run into any trouble himself. It was the marquis’s luxurious coach, he realised. His new employer had offered him the carriage so he could travel in comfort, and David had been pleased to accept.

  It had been a mistake.

  David had been travelling for five days, and he was eager to see the Château de Belisima-sur-le-lac, and to start planning its new garden. It was David’s first-ever commission as a landscape designer, and he wanted to impress the marquis. If he created something truly beautiful and unique, more commissions would surely follow.

  The road wound its way through a patchwork of small fields and tiny villages. The men wore billowing linen trousers with wooden shoes on their feet, while the women hoeing the fields had their hair pinned up under huge caps. David saw oxen pulling a plough, and an old woman spinning wool onto a distaff, and felt as if he had somehow travelled back in time.

  By sunset he had reached Paimpont, a village built around an abbey on the edge of a lake. Some distance beyond was a set of rusted iron gates, half askew. Battered stone shields showed a hand holding a sword above waves. David put his head out the carriage window. ‘Turn here,’ he called.