As the carefree Suzette breezes into Serenity’s world, dare she confide in the capricious young Comtesse the incredible truth? And just who is the mysterious stranger who enters her bedchamber – long after the clock strikes midnight?
The clink and rattle of glasses ever nearer, Serenity’s lifeless gaze drifted in the direction of the laboured breathing, the floorboards of the adjacent room creaking from the heavy tread.
“Ah, child! I return!” proclaimed Dr Pavier as he appeared in the doorway, an off-white handkerchief pressed to his furrowed damp brow. The jangle of bottles inside his battered black bag even louder than before, upon reaching the tapestry chair beside the bed, he slumped into it with a fatigued sigh.
Eyes straying towards him, Serenity watched the flushed-faced doctor as he fiddled with his spectacles, humming tunelessly as he yet again delved into the bag’s cavernous depths, at length retrieving a miniature smoky grey bottle. A sudden clatter from her left beyond the bedside table, turning her face she glanced down at the plump ankles having just entered the room. Her eyes running the full length of the redhead’s corpulent body, Serenity observed the woman as she rounded the foot of the bed, a small glass tumbler half-filled with white liquid held in her dumpy fingers.
“The milk you requested, Doctor.”
“Ah! Indeed!” he replied, arm poker straight as without looking up, he reached out to receive it, engrossed by whatever was written on the fluted bottle in his grasp.
The maid stopping short of handing the tumbler to him, the doctor waved his stubby open hand to and fro, the woman merely clearing her throat in response. A scowl on his face, Dr Pavier shot her a glance. “Hold this, child!” he ordered, as in a jerking movement he prised the glass from the redhead’s hand, passing it to Serenity. “That will be all!” he snapped, pushing his spectacles up the bridge of his nose.
The pokerfaced maid pinching the fabric of her dress, with a brisk nod she curtsied, retracing her icy footsteps around the foot of the bed, the doctor – his head again lowered as he unscrewed the tiny glass stopper of the bottle – all the while peering up at her through his circular lenses, his blotchy jowls wobbling from side to side in obvious displeasure as he followed her every step.
“The milk, child!”
Wrenching the tumbler from Serenity’s fingers, he tapped the neck of the bottle against the rim of the glass, his pitted bulbous nose tilted upwards, the loose skin on his neck stretching as he observed clumps of the yellowish-brown powder tumble into the milk. Face creased in a wizened grin of satisfaction, he handed the glass back to Serenity.
“The smallest of sips. Let the potion do its work!” he commanded.
With his bag snapped shut, heaving himself free from the elegant restraints of the padded chair, Dr Pavier made for the end of the bed where, momentarily, he paused to catch his breath.
“Now, I will return later to see all is well!” he wheezed, stretching wide all five fingers of his chubby hand, as, with a final nod, he commenced his lumbering passage back along the corridor.
The final lump of powder almost dissolved in the tumbler, chest heavy with emotion, Serenity watched as it now fizzed to oblivion – aware of the resemblance to her own situation – for she knew she’d too vanished without trace from her own life – her own existence – already no more than a memory to all those she loved and who loved her.
Without another thought, she raised the warm glass to her dry lips as she took the first sip, then another, conscious although remote to the detectable bitterness as she continued to drink the peculiar concoction. Now placing the empty glass on the bedside table, Serenity slumped back into the firm pillow, eyes squeezed closed as she rolled over away from the sunlight, uncertain as to whether the growing drowsiness was no more than a wishful fragment of her imagination or the powder taking effect.
In fact, so powerful was the sedative she was already at peace from the strange new world beyond the yellow chintz walls as the faraway tinkle of the quarter hour announced the approach of midday, unaware of the rumble of carriage wheels which passed to and fro beneath the billowing taffeta curtains, hour upon hour, as the heavy golden sun descended to meet the horizon.
Nor was she aware, much later, not long after midnight distantly chimed of the dark room around her fill with the gentle flicker of candlelight – or the three separate tears that dropped to the pillow only inches from the peaceful contours of her face, the soft dance of light illuminating the tenderness of the strong fingers as they caressed the smooth skin of her right cheek, the delicate lace of the trailing cuff concealing the damp patches of silk as the light now receded, its flickering now dim as the room once more returned to darkness.
Friday, 3rd September 1751
“Very well child. Since it is such a fine day.”
“Oh, thank you, Doctor!” squealed a euphoric voice from the landing.
Numb with the dawning reality of her situation as she took one more sip of the hot sweet tea, Serenity placed the fragile porcelain cup back on its saucer, the pert click of footsteps quicker as they drew near. Glancing in the direction of the sunlit room beyond the bedroom, she was surprised by the unexpected sight of a radiant young blonde scurrying past the two maids, neither of whom she’d seen before, who’d stood conversing in the window recess for the past ten minutes, their voices rapid, yet hushed, eyes darting every now and then at Serenity as she’d taken breakfast alone.
“Finally I get the opportunity to meet you!” rejoiced the girl, her lovely face incandescent with delight. “Sometimes they can be so unreasonable!”
Too dazed to respond, Serenity could only raise a half-hearted smile as the girl, almost slipping on the polished wooden floor, made straight for the tapestry chair.
“I heard what happened to you the other day,” she prattled, spreading the silken lavender and white stripes of her beautiful dress beneath her as she lowered herself into the wide chair, “and I’ve been so dreadfully worried” she went on, her elegant fingers fumbling with the large colourless crystal suspended from the length of pink ribbon she wore around her neck. “Please forgive me!” she continued, “I’m Suzette. Suzette de Lemoncy.”
“Hello, I’m Serenity, Serenity Shore. I’m not sure what happened exactly, but …”
“Oh, they told me all about it!” the girl enthused – the beauty of her straight, pearl-white teeth marred by a discoloured grey eye-tooth. Her small sapphire eyes sparkling with the clarity of the jewel she toyed with, the tiny freckles beneath her ash blonde hairline complemented her fresh-faced allure. “You were so brave!” she cooed, eyes wide and alert. “I fear I should have died withfright!”
“I really don’t remember the accident,” replied Serenity, “although one of the maids yesterday told me it happened …”
“There’s so much I want to tell you!” interrupted Suzette, hands pressed together as if in prayer. “But first my sister has arranged for you to take a bath. Your maids are waiting for you and I’ve managed to persuade Dr Pavier to let me take you out for a walk in the gardens. Oh, do say you will!”
“Yes … yes of course,” laughed Serenity, weakly.
“How wonderful!” gushed Suzette. “Listen! Finish your breakfast, take your bath and I’ll meet you outside in the garden. Now, I must dash!” she proclaimed, the castors of the chair screeching over the parquet floor as she bounded from it. “There’s so much to be done and so much to tell you,” she giggled. And with that, in a blur of lavender and white she was gone from the room, her rapid footsteps already nearing the landing, all that lingered in the warm air of her brief presence, the subtlest trace of violets.
The loose muslin of her long skirt caught in the warm breeze, Serenity crunched her way over the gravelled terrace that fronted the central facade of the château, the parched white stones precarious beneath the smooth soles of her sandals.
What’s that? she wondered, noticing ahead two white peaks of a tent.
A cacophony of sawing and hammering from within, having now reached the pitted grey marble of a wide flight of stone steps, Serenity gaped at the enormous gazebo below pitched lengthways across the uppermost part of the immaculate formal gardens – the flawless carpet of grass running downhill fringed on both sides by two paths, each dotted with a succession of statues behind which dense groves of mature trees formed a high leafy wall. Several small boats moored at the far end of the grounds, upon running her gaze back along the far right path it was then Serenity spotted the solitary figure of a young woman alone on a bench, her face turned towards the river.
“Suzette!” she gasped, already hastening down the steps, “I’ve got to tell you the truth!”
The startled girl tapping closed her lace fan, she edged along the lichen-encrusted stone. “Forgive me,” she announced, voice wistful. “I’m afraid my mind was quite elsewhere. Please, take a seat.”
“Thanks, I spotted you from the stairs. It’s not very restful, is it?” replied Serenity, nodding towards the gazebo as she took her place. “Is there some kind of event taking place?”
“Yes,” responded Suzette, as she adjusted her dress beneath her, “they’re preparing for the festivities tomorrow. My sister’s been busy all morning and I’m due to help her later. I don’t suppose anyone has mentioned it to you, have they?”
“Oh, everyone is due tomorrow!” gushed Suzette, the twinkle now returning to her pretty blue eyes. “His Majesty and all our friends!”
“The King will be there?” exclaimed Serenity.
“Of course! And one very special friend,” laughed the blonde, nose wrinkling with delight. “That’s what I wanted to tell you. Oh Serenity, he’s simply adorable!” she squealed, unfurling her fan. “His family live just a little upstream, old friends of His Majesty, very well connected.” Here she broke off, her gaze drifting down the path towards the river from where the haunting cry of a peacock could be heard.
“Look at Mr Smith, not a care in the world,” she remarked dreamily, the bird now visible as it hopped onto the central carpet of grass, adjacent to the tall black railings of a closed gate set diagonally into the boundary hedge of the grove behind, its tail feathers shimmering as they quivered in full display.
“The peacock?” commented Serenity. “Why is he called Mr Smith?”
“Oh, a gift to His Majesty from an elderly British Ambassador of whom he was rather fond, although I wasn’t actually aware they had peacocks in London, but, yes … it was last summer,” blurted Suzette, again animated as she turned back, “at these very festivities we were first introduced. Oh, how I wish you could have seen him!”
“The festivities are held every year?”
“Indeed, it’s all so very exciting!”
The young Comtesse’s gaze lowering to her lap, as if lost in thought she began to stroke the broad lavender stripes of her skirt, the exuberance having drained from her face.
“You see,” she announced pensively, glancing in the direction of the château, “the celebrations are to commemorate the birthday of a young woman whom His Majesty once held much affection for, the daughter of a very old family, true and loyal friends, you understand. They found her murdered.” added the Comtesse with a frown. “I never actually met her, I was too young, but I heard she was extremely beautiful and kind, very kind. Are you married?” she enquired eagerly, sapphire eyes lustrous as they searched Serenity’s face.
“No,” uttered Serenity hesitantly, the jagged tips of her broken nails scratching against the roughly hewed underside of the bench. “Suzette, there’s something I’ve got to …”
“Oh, I was married,” interrupted the effervescent blonde as her fingers grasped and tugged at the large crystal suspended around her neck, “and not so very long ago, to the Comte de Lemoncy,” she went on. “It was my sister, the Duchesse de Valzac who introduced us, but it was all so very tragic, so sudden,” she continued, a vagueness clouding her lovely eyes as, distractedly, she gazed back towards the château. “I now live with her and her husband the Duc on the rue de la Surintendance in Versailles,” she sighed. “The Duc was allocated lodgings there, immediately next door to the Foreign Office when he became War Minister to the King many years ago.”
“You don’t live here?” responded Serenity, voice noticeably tremulous.
“Goodness no! Both my sister and I are guests!” insisted Suzette in a brittle laugh, letting the crystal fall to the smooth, creamy skin of her décolletage. “My sister was granted the position of lady in waiting to Mesdames, His Majesty’s daughters, soon after she returned from the frontiers.”
“The frontiers? I’m sorry, I don’t …”
“You see,” interjected Suzette, a nerve twitching in her eyelid, “during the military campaign against the Anglo-Dutch forces at Flanders, I myself being a child at the time, of course, the Duc who was then Marquis was posted to the frontiers. My sister was in the service of the King’s mistress, Madame la Duchesse de Chateauroux as lady-in-waiting, but upon her death in 1744 His Majesty saw fit for my sister to join her husband at the frontiers. I was taken too. Oh, Serenity, it was terrible!”
With a trembling hand, Suzette covered her mouth and nose.
“It was such a dreary little place, so isolated and my poor sister suffered most dreadfully with depression. Do you know,” she went on, turning to face Serenity, eyes laden with tears, “I used to lie awake at night and listen to her crying through the wall, sometimes uncontrollably. The poor Duc, he was quite unable to console her.”
“How awful,” replied Serenity.
“But that was not all,” continued Suzette, an explosion of laughter bursting from within one of the groves on the far side of the garden as she squeezed closed her eyes.
Pressing the colourless jewel to her lips, a single tear escaped the curve of her long black eyelashes, spilling its way over her raspberry pink rouged cheek.
“Not long before we returned to Paris in 1749, my sister contracted the smallpox. We really were not sure whether she’d survive, but by the grace of God she did, thankfully, but I know it affected her deeply, more profoundly than any of us were aware at the time.” Breaking off, she rolled the glimmering jewel in her fingertips. Sniffing softly, she gazed across the immaculate lawn. “For a long time she could not bring herself to look in a mirror, any mirror and on occasion, even in our present lodgings I could still hear her cry out in the night. Oh, there she is now!”
Following the direction of Suzette’s gaze, Serenity watched as the tall brunette made her way up the opposite path, having just exited the grove beyond the gazebo – her head high, spine erect, the voluptuous chocolate satin silk of her long dress trailing several feet behind her.
“I must go!” exclaimed Suzette gathering huge handfuls of her wide skirt in her hands as she quickly rose from the bench. “But we simply must talk again, there is so much more I want to tell you!”
“Yes, of course,” stammered Serenity, shooting a confused glance back across the lawn – the woman having vanished behind the white canvas.
“And please! Enjoy the gardens!” announced Suzette, already hastening up the path, her hem swishing in a wide circle over the gravel as she turned back to Serenity. “Goodbye my friend, I must leave you.”
“Yes, goodbye,” replied Serenity, voice hoarse with repressed emotion as she watched the girl skip over the taut string of a tent peg as she slipped from sight.
“I cannot believe this is happening!” she spat, stubbing the edge of her sandal heel into the gravel as another burst of raucous laughter erupted from the far grove. Fist clenched, she pounded it onto the warm stone as she too rose to her feet, where, beginning down the sunlit-dappled path, she again spotted the peacock ahead, its tail feathers now withdrawn, head tilted questioningly as it peered through the bars of the gate.
“Yes, not a care in the world, have you!”
The strands of viscous, deep emerald algae adhering at waterline to its whitewashed wooden panels, the large boat sat moored close to the riverbank, a length of thick grey rope securing it to a colossal black iron hoop set several feet back into the stone quay.
An inch of mottled brown water swilling rhythmically around the base of the boat’s substantial interior, two oars lay widthways over its top, their wooden lengths secured just short of the bulbous, slimy paddles by a pair of rusted rungs which jutted out of the bobbing hull.
“There’s no-one around,” muttered Serenity anxiously, glancing over her shoulder as she surveyed the immense lawn, heart racing as she looked back to the padded peach velvet of the boat’s upholstered seats.
“Why don’t I just get in? I could be gone!”
Stepping forwards, she squatted at the quayside’s edge where, reaching out, she tugged at the thick rope, the boat juddering against the current as she pulled it towards her.
“But where would I go?” she sighed, rising unsteadily to her feet as her gaze ran the distance of the dense wooded shore opposite.
“I don’t even know where I am.”
A sudden grating from somewhere behind – the memory of the heavy iron padlock and chain she’d noticed strung around the bars of the gate whilst making her way down the path at once clear in her mind – the gate she’d earlier noticed the peacock peering through, Serenity stepped back from the water’s edge.
“Someone’s there!” she protested turning around, as, peeking in the direction of the metallic screech and clatter, she made her way towards the shady bench which nestled beneath the overhanging branches of a chestnut tree that faced the locked grove. Taking her seat on the cool marble, Serenity shot another furtive glance in the direction of the gate – the abundant foliage of a nearby bush obscuring her view of whoever it was entering or exiting. Her gaze lowering to the soft muslin that gently billowed around her ankles, a new thought at that moment entered her mind.
Wasn’t it odd that not a single person had mentioned her clothes? Not even the effervescent and skittish Suzette?
Glancing uphill, she observed the facade of the château visible beyond the gazebo. Upon meeting Suzette for the first time that morning, she’d had no idea the girl was indeed a Comtesse – a widowed one albeit. The magnificence of the building in which she’d found herself now spoke for itself.
As the overhead leaves rustled in the growing breeze, with a snigger of acknowledgement Serenity accepted the folly of her earlier impulsiveness. Certainly Suzette struck her as honest – if not a little flighty, but she now accepted with empty resignation there was no way she could have confided in her the terrible and implausible truth. Her long oval thumbnail scraping at the pale green lichen that marbled the bench, Serenity mumbled distractedly to herself. “You’ve just got to play it carefully, girl. Find out as much information from them as you can, where the accident happened, exactly where it happened and let’s just get back to the forest!”
A single tear escaping down her cheek, Serenity watched as it splashed onto the speckled surface of the mottled stone – aware in her blurred, lateral vision of a flutter from the far end of the bench.
“Maybe, just maybe, things might reverse,” she sniffed as another tear trickled to the corner of her mouth. “If it can happen one way, then … Oh! Hello there!” she laughed, a sparrow having hopped forwards only inches from her hand. Inclining its head, feathers appealingly dishevelled, the tiny bird took another small hop forward, its sparkling bead-like eye fixed directly on Serenity.
“I’m sorry little bird, but I don’t have anything to give you!” she said, the sparrow tilting its head further. “But what would you do?” she enquired softly, “If you were me?”
Its ruffled plumage catching in the breeze, for several moments the bird did not look away.
“Tell me,” she pouted at length, “I promise I won’t tell anyone!”
And then, just as unexpectedly as it had taken its place beside her, in a flutter it was gone.
A peculiar sensation of loss re-awakening in her, Serenity watched as it flew across the lawn and landed in the upper branches of a bush at the corner of the padlocked grove, whereupon all at once, it again took flight – this time darting straight through the boughs of the trees which lined the locked grove.
The melancholy heavy within, Serenity’s gaze strayed back to the bush from where the bird had only seconds before lifted, immediately thinking it strange to what extent the spindly twigs shook considering the diminutive frame of the bird – just then catching sight of something until now she’d failed to notice – the black leather boots and off-white breeches of a man, who, as if aware of being spotted standing there, having released the branches from his grasp had now turned as he retreated back along the shady passage, away from the open sunlight of the garden, the twigs now falling still.