This is just a little taster for you of the world of provincial pre-revolutionary France, where my upcoming novel, The Hidden Duchess is set.
Louise sighed, irritated with herself.
She had just daydreamed away a good half an hour – thinking about Francois again, of course. The always-present-but-completely-unattainable Francois.
She pulled her puckering hands out of the now lukewarm dishwater with a shudder and flicked the water off them. Angry at herself, she picked up the big kettle from the hearth and stomped outside to fill it at the pump. A twinge of disappointment at not seeing Francois along the way was ruthlessly suppressed.
Stop it, Louise. This childish infatuation has gone on long enough.
At nineteen years old, Louise had been the mistress of her family farm since their parents had died of influenza one awful winter, seven years ago. Louise had all but succumbed as well, brought low by not only the illness, but also the grief of losing her beloved parents. It was only the love and care of her big brother, Marcel, that pulled her through, giving her the strength to return to the land of the living.
Francois had come to the farm just after her illness, when Marcel realized he couldn’t shoulder all of the work himself. At that time Louise had been a skinny, sickly twelve-year-old girl, her blonde curls constantly in disarray, her head constantly in a book.
She could read. It was almost unheard of amongst the peasant farmers of her community for a woman to be able to do so, but her mother had insisted that she learn – and Louise was eternally grateful to her. Their parish priest also encouraged her by throwing open his library to her, giving her access to many marvels that a twelve-year-old provincial French girl would never usually know.
Looking back now, she smiled and shook her head sadly. She must have been a sight to the newly arrived Francois – still shaky from her illness, curled up in the only comfortable chair in the house, covered in a blanket, and devouring book after book. She read the local newspaper, which included not only local news but also copies of articles from the many journals in circulation in Paris, to her brother every week. Marcel was very good with numbers, but his reading was limited. Francois had been invited to join them after supper when the newspaper was to be read, and he gladly made up a third in their group.
They spent many hours arguing over the articles they read together, following the progress of politics and government in Paris, knowing the policies and changes would trickle through to their little southern corner of France eventually, and discussing how they might be implemented, and how they would affect their community.
Water splashed out of the top of the kettle, and Louise stopped pumping and tried to pick up the heavy pot, despite knowing that she couldn’t lift it. As always, she would have to drag it back to the kitchen, knowing that half of the water would splash out, and she would be drenched by the time she got there.
“I’ll get that, Louise,” a cheerful voice called from behind her, sending her pulse racing. Her face flushed, and Louise hoped that Francois, whose voice was soon followed by the man himself, thought her blush was from exertion and not his presence.
“Thank you,” she said in her gentle way, careful that her voice didn’t betray any of the flutters she felt in her stomach when she was in Francois’ presence. He lifted the kettle with ease, and carried it through to the kitchen. Louise followed him, marveling at the muscles that rippled across his back as he walked, and damping down the desire to lay her hand on his powerful arm, to feel the strength that lay just under the surface.
Francois had proven himself to be a man of few words, but when he did speak, he showed wisdom and deep thinking. For a farmhand, his understanding of the events taking place in Paris and the other commercial and intellectual centres of France was astounding. He seemed to have a very strong memory for facts and figures, often setting Louise and Marcel straight on a point of law, or a policy under consideration.
“There you go,” Francois said, drawing her sharply out of her reverie. “All ready to be heated. Did you get distracted while doing the dishes again?”
Francois’ jibe brought a little colour to Louise’s cheeks as she replied “I don’t get distracted, Francois. There were other more important tasks to take care of.”
“I’m sure there were,” Francois replied, quirking one eyebrow, before giving her a wave and taking himself back out to the barn. She smiled at his retreating back.
Francois had become a little like a second brother to her, and she found herself confiding in him as often as she did Marcel. And he would tell her things about himself too – how his family had been torn apart by poverty as his mother succumbed to diphtheria in the slums of Paris, how he had worked to help his sisters to find work as maids and laundrywomen rather than to let them sell themselves on the streets, his plans to buy his own farm, and, in his down moments, his despair that he would never accomplish the goals he had set out for himself when he had left home to seek his own fortunes.
At these times, Louise would remind him of all that he had already accomplished, his savings already made, and her unshakeable belief that Francois would succeed.
He would smile, ruffle her hair, and tell her that she was his good luck charm, and so long as she was there, he was sure everything would be fine.
Louise didn’t know exactly when she began to fall in love with him. Maybe with the maturity of her own body came a maturing of the mind as well – or even some kind of in-built desire to find a mate. She had been far too busy to actually go searching for male company, what with her duties on the farm and the additional things she took on – making sure that their entire community was well fed, despite far too consistent poor harvests and stock losses, and helping Father Augustin to run the primary school. So it was no surprise that she had latched on to Francois as a potential husband.
Of course, she had never spoken to him of this. They had such a strong friendship, she didn’t want to destroy that by admitting her infatuation. Francois would start to avoid her, or worse, Marcel would throw him off the farm. She couldn’t imagine her life without Francois in it, so she held her tongue, her fixation growing into what she assumed was love, totally hidden from the oblivious men at the farm.
Louise would rage about it in the confines of her own room at night. She would wonder how Francois, for such a smart fellow, could be so blind to her emotions. She was sure they shone brightly out of her cornflower blue eyes, and were confirmed in every hesitant word she spoke to him. But he seemed to be unaware, treating her like the little sister he always had.
Then she would weep silently, her heart breaking to think that her love wasn’t returned, and may never be. At those times, she vowed to hunt Francois down and tell him exactly how she felt, even show him, if her nerve held out. She would pull his head down and kiss him, fiercely and possessively, and he would snatch her into his arms, holding her body close to his. They would confess their feelings, and love would win out in the end. With such pleasant thoughts, and the surges she felt through her body as a result of thinking them, she often fell asleep with a little smile on her face.
But when she woke up the next day, the light of dawn informed her again that she risked her friendship by telling him, and it would be better all-round if she just kept quiet, and continued on as she was.
The water hissed on the fire and again Louise found that she had been daydreaming. The kettle was boiling over. She grabbed a dipper, and ladled some of the water out into a basin which she took over to the still-dirty dishes. Another basin was for Marcel’s shirts, which were filthy with grime and sweat. By now, the kettle was empty enough for her to drag out from the middle of the fire and place on the hearth, so it would stay warm and could be used during the rest of the day and evening.
She prayed for the day that the eminent scientist, M. Bonnemain, whose experiments with water heating she had been following closely in the Paris journals, to get around to building an in-house system of water heating – but for now, she was stuck with the old method. Not that she was complaining – their pump was right outside, and since the fire was going pretty much all the time in the kitchen, heating the water wasn’t one of her more onerous chores.
Putting Francois and M. Bonnemain firmly out of her mind, she quickly zipped through the chores, then made her way into the kitchen garden.
Louise always felt a deep sense of pride in her garden. She had different vegetables, herbs and pulses always growing – even a few during the cold, snowy winter. There were old fruit trees that had been carefully planted by her parents so that they were easily cross pollinated and produced some of the most delicious fruit in the area. And in between, she had flowers – marigolds, lavender and nasturtiums, that not only kept the insects at bay, but produced bright drifts of colour and fragrance across her plot.
Today, she was harvesting a little of everything to take to her closest neighbours, the Debrys. Augustin and Charlotte and their three surviving children lived all together in a much smaller house than she and Marcel, and their main income from cattle was curtailed several seasons ago when a good portion of Augustin’s stock had to be slaughtered, rather than being allowed to starve to death. The Debrys were on the verge of losing everything, but Charlotte kept the family together with a firm and gentle hand, and by taking on other work as it came up. She would do mending, laundering, dyeing, spinning and weaving, each small job providing just a tiny bit more money so that her family didn’t go without. Louise was in awe of Charlotte’s inner strength, and she made sure that if she had surplus in her kitchen garden, Charlotte’s family were the first ones whose provisions she supplemented.
As she harvested, the thin autumn sun warmed her back and she wondered if she should go back and get a hat from the house. Her basket filled with a variety of vegetables – squash, beans, and maize sat side by side with mustard greens, tomatoes and bell peppers. She added a few handfuls of herbs, then brought her treasure inside to given them all a good wash before swapping her grubby apron for a clean one, and putting on her hat. She shrugged into a short woolen shawl as well – while the sun was warm now, in a few hours it would disappear, and the cold afternoon and evening of the autumn night would take over. She had no desire to walk home freezing.
Stepping out of the house, Louise bellowed “Marcel! Where are you?”
In the distance, she heard an answering yell “In the front field.”
She made her way to the front field. The property was divided into four fields according to the old way. Three fields were under cultivation, while the fourth was left fallow for a year, so that it could replenish its condition. Louise had read an article about a three-field method that some English lord had pioneered, but it sounded a little bit unrealistic to her to keep all fields in rotation all the time, so she hadn’t really looked out for more information.
Trudging up to the rough fence, she found her brother coming toward the fence from his side. She smiled to see him – a massive bear of a man, shirtless, covered in mud, but with laughing brown eyes and scruffy black hair. They were as different as two siblings could be, but the love between them was obvious to even the most obtuse day worker.
“I’m just off to drop some vegetable around to Charlotte,” Louise informed him, indicating her overflowing basket.
“Are you sure you’ve left enough for us?” Marcel asked, chuckling. “It seems like you’ve emptied the entirety of your garden there.”
“This? Oh, this is just a tiny part. And even if I had emptied it, you could do to lose a little bit of weight,” Louise replied, a sparkle in her eyes. It was an old joke between them, Marcel grumbling that she was starving him, and Louise informing him airily that he could do to lose a few pounds. In actual fact Marcel was large, lean and muscular, not a spare ounce of fat on him. He was one of the most handsome men that Louise knew, apart from Francois. One of the nicest people as well.
“When can we expect you back?” Marcel asked. While the question was asked lightly, Louise knew that Marcel worried about reports of vagabonds and bands of brigands in the area, though Louise had never come across anyone she didn’t already know in her walks. But she appreciated the care, and so told Marcel that she would be back in time to make the evening meal.
“Very well,” Marcel said. “Don’t let Charlotte talk your ear off.”
“I won’t,” she threw the words over her shoulder as she turned away, only to come face to face with Francois. “Oh!”
She took a startled step backward, and Francois reached for her, so she didn’t stumble. His hands at her elbows caused the blood to race to her face and her heart to pound in her chest.
“Look out,” Francois said lightly. “We don’t want you falling in the mud.”
Righting herself, Louise looked up at him, pretending to be affronted. “I only stumbled because you crept up on me.”
“Nonsense,” Francois responded. “I don’t have the capacity to creep, and you have the hearing of a gazelle.”
“Well, either your capacity has improved, or mine has deteriorated, because I didn’t hear you at all.”
Louise secretly thrilled that Francois still hadn’t taken his hands off her. In fact, his hands seemed to be sliding down her arms, his gaze boring into her. Her throat went dry as she found herself unable to look away. His fingers clasped around her wrists loosely, and Louise took a hesitant step closer to him. His breathing became ragged, and his dark eyes were almost black. She wanted nothing more than for Francois to push her hands behind her back and pull her to him. She could feel his kiss on her lips, his breath on her cheek, if he would just take that one little step and close the distance between them. She closed her eyes and turned her face up to him.
Francois muttered “For God’s sake, Louise, I’m not made of iron,” before he pushed her away, releasing her hands and leaving her disappointed. She opened her eyes and walked past him without another word, not looking up, but knowing he would be running his hand through his brown hair, messing it up and having to pull it all back again into the leather thong at the base of his neck.
Marcel shouted something, but Louise didn’t turn around. She didn’t know if her brother had seen the exchange, seen her forward behavior, and she didn’t care to know, not right now when she was feeling so conflicted.
She almost didn’t notice the walk to the Debry farm, her thoughts being consumed with Francois’ muttered words, and his touch. His hands had been rough and sinuous, as one would expect from a farm worker, however his touch had been gentle, while his gaze had been anything but. She flushed still to recall his gaze with its undercurrent of what she assumed was passion. But was it just a young man feeling lusty with a young woman in his arms, or did Louise see a hint of more?
Driving herself crazy with her thoughts, she sighed and trudged into Charlotte’s farm, the greetings of Charlotte and her family pushing the memories back for the time being.
* * *
Leaving the farm a few hours later, Louise was surprised to find that the light was dimming in the sky. Peering out, Charlotte said “Looks like it’s going to rain, Louise. Perhaps you should stay here a little longer to see if it clears up?”
“No, I have to get back to make dinner for Marcel and Francois,” Louise said. “It’s alright. I’ll hurry along, hopefully I’ll make it home before the rain begins.” Louise wasn’t too concerned. There was rain more days of the year than without in these parts, and she was used to a sprinkling. She was, however, thankful that she had brought her shawl, which she could put up over her head, if need be.
Waving her goodbyes, she started to walk quickly, her head down against the wind that was blustering up.
She didn’t know how it happened. At one step she was walking along just fine, and then at the next, she found herself careening down a short slope as the dirt gave way under her feet. She felt her foot twist under her as she landed, followed by excruciating pain.
Of course, then the rain started to spatter.
Alright, Louise. Get back up on the road and get home right now.
But no matter which way she tried, her ankle simply wouldn’t hold her weight. After several failed attempts, she sat, crying in pain, at the bottom of a gully that would shortly be carrying the rainfall.
The rain continued to just sprinkle, and Louise’s practical nature came to the fore. She was only going to get a little bit soggy in the small amount of rain, so she didn’t need to worry further about that. She couldn’t walk home, or back to the Debry’s, she knew that. The only other alternative was to stay right where she was and listen out for passing traffic, then shout her lungs out and hope to be heard. If she didn’t arrive home in time for dinner, Marcel would look for her. He would look at Charlotte’s place first, so she should hear him come down the road from the farm and be able to shout at him from her perch in the ditch. Of course, dinnertime was still a few hours away, and she hoped that someone else would come along sooner than that.
She waited, straining her hearing for any passing carts, horses or pedestrians, but to her consternation, there were none. It felt like hours passing.
She realized she was in a bit of a fix. Not that the rain would flood the gully or anything, she would just end up very wet and very cold if she was to stay here. But there seemed to be few alternatives. She took a moment to pull herself out of the very bottom of the gully so she was seated awkwardly on the angled side, then closed her eyes as a wave of pain went through her ankle. She hoped it wasn’t broken. She poked around at it a little, but it was already swelling and all she managed to do was to make it hurt more. A blackness swam behind her eyes, and she tried mightily to keep herself from falling under it’s spell.
In the evening gloom, Louise wiggled in place uncomfortably. Her skirts were soaked through and her backside was numb from cold and sitting in the same place for so long, but each time she tried to stand, the pain from her ankle was so severe that if she didn’t sit back down, she knew blackness would descend. And she couldn’t pass out. How exactly would she yell at passers-by if she was fainted?
Finally, she was rewarded with a familiar voice. She could hear Francois, shouting her name urgently and loudly.
“Here! I’m here!” she shouted in reply. They had to shout backward and forward a few more times before Francois could locate her, and she was relieved when his lantern threw light over her gully, bathing her in light.
Francois cursed, and slid down into the gully. Then, to Louise’s shock, he gathered her up in his strong arms and kissed her soundly, before holding her so close that she was surprised she could still breathe.
“My darling, we’ve been looking for you for hours,” he whispered, and if Louise didn’t know better, she would have thought she could feel warm tears coursing down the side of her neck. Although the tears were the least of her thoughts at the moment.
Francois just kissed me. And called me his darling.
“Why didn’t you call out when we rode past earlier?” he asked. “We’ve gone past here at least three times, going backward and forward between our farm and the Debry’s.”
“I didn’t hear you,” Louise replied. “What time is it?”
“It’s almost midnight.”
“It is not. You’re making fun of me.”
“No I swear,” Francois said, looking into her eyes as he nestled her in his arms and picked her up. She whimpered at the movement of her ankle, but Francois said “Shhh. We’ll get you back home and get that foot looked at.” He seemed to debate for a moment, then he leaned in to kiss her again. This time, it was a warm, tender caress, and Louise joined in, throwing her arms around his neck and getting lost in the heady feelings that the kiss created.
“I love you, Francois,” she said, a moment before she realized she had said it. She stiffened in his arms. What would Francois’ reaction be to that?
“I love you too, Cherie,” he said, struggling with his burden back up the hill to where his lantern burned brightly. “I’ve loved you for a while, but it was only today that I thought perhaps my love was reciprocated.”
“Really?” Louise said in astonishment. “When was that?”
“When you turned your little face up to me and closed your eyes. I was sorely pressed not to snatch you up and carry you to my… ah, I was sorely pressed to keep from kissing you.” At his lame cover up, Louise laughed, despite the pain in her ankle.
“And here I’ve been holding back, because I thought you saw me as only a sister.”
“Believe me, I see you as much more than that,” Francois replied with a secret smile. “Now, can you stand on your own?” He put her down, but she could put no pressure on her foot at all, and hopping along on the other foot still jerked the sore one enough so that she knew she couldn’t walk.
“Alright,” said Francois, sweeping her back up into his arms. “I’ll have to carry you.”
And snuggled in his arms, Louise could finally dare to think of the future she and Francois might have together – – a long future full of love that stretched off into the distance.