Paris in spring! Full of life, vibrating with optimism, crowded. The narrow streets, smelly with the litter that heaped up in the gutter, often worked oppressive. The rich aristocrats who had built their houses in Saint-Germain or Marais tried to avoid the town’s centre as much as possible. To them Paris was like an uncut diamond, whileVersailles was a sparkling brilliant with elegant facets. The poor, on the other hand, considered the capital as their ultimate hope for a better existence. Their hopes were often shattered, for in this town only one law reigned: that of survival.
The strongest could master everything, the weaker chanced to lose the littlest they possessed. Life itself was the most precious prize. Crime flourished. The villains organised themselves in structured band, like that of Cartouche, and grew more daring by the day. Especially the area around Saint-Denis was not safe for the late wanderer. The men and women who, in spite of the repeated warnings, risked themselves into the dark alleys, not only ran the risk of losing all their money or being raped, but also could face an unwanted death.The fair lady in the brand-new carriage with gilded arms, showing the weapon of a baron, apparently was not troubled with this knowledge. She appeared to be free of worries. The jewels around her neck and arms, together with the beautiful dapple-grey horses before the carriage, were witnesses of her wealth. Her husband held a high office in the legal system and her own family-tree could be traced back to Henri IV. No worries? Granted, she might have a few. For instance, it could not be very pleasant for a relatively young woman to be married to a man twice her age! Monsieur le baron was in his fifties, but it was also known that the old fool doted on her. How difficult could it be to wind him around her little finger? Would she, beautiful as she was, have problems in finding younger and more vital lovers? What else could she possibly want? Appearances can be deceptive. Most of the passers-by would find it hard to believe that the rich and beautiful baroness had troubles, and often felt desperate and unhappy.Marguérite de Laneuil, wife of the attorney-general of His Majesty King Louis XV, leant back against the smooth velvet cushions of the coach and started to play nervously with the rings on her fingers.
She did not quite cheer at the idea of having her brother Armand, comte de Vallencieux, over for a visit – even when it was only for a couple of days. In truth, she dreaded the long days in which she would have to make polite conversation. Why, in heaven’s name, had Etienne invited him in the first place? Did he think she was thrilled to see her brother? Armand, needless to say, had accepted the invitation without objection. He was only too glad to leave his nearly ruined castle in Burgundy and enjoy the luxuries his brother-in-law would provide him with. She and Armand had nothing in common, she had soon discovered. He was her eldest brother; the other one, René, had emigrated to Canada. The fact that they had the same parents, bothdead now, did not bring them closer together. It must have been like this since they were children…. But that was a feeling, rather than a certainty. The truth was that she simply could not remember. Some likes and preferences, as well as dislikes, must date back to her childhood which was lost to her – covered under a veil of oblivion. Her conscious life had started nine years ago, on the day that she had opened her eyes in an empty room. She had soon found out that she was staying in the convent of Sainte-Marie in Dijon, the old capital of the Dukes of Burgundy. She had been brought there by her family, at the age of seventeen, to recover from a long and mysterious illness. The nuns, when asked, had informed her that she had made a bad fall, which was responsible for the stiffness in her demeanour and the loss of all her memory. The rest of the days spent in the convent had been rather pleasant. The nuns had been most kind to her and had nursed her back to health. Day by day she had become stronger – but her memory remained a blank.And then, notified by the nuns of her recovery, her brother had come to see her. A stranger, who claimed to be the head of the family, and who had made her feel uneasy. He had returned several times, and as soon as she was well enough to travel, he had brought her back to the family home. The old castle with its past grandeur had frightened her. She had wandered through the cold and draughty corridors and huge rooms, and had found nothing familiar. She had met other people. One of them had been her old nurse, Marie, and even if she had not recognized her, she had felt an immediate sympathy for the woman. The few things she knew about the family and the chateau had come from conversations with her.
The nightmare had continued. Not long after her return, Armand had introduced her – without any warning – to a man he had presented as her fiancé. She had burst out into tears and had fled to the safety of her room.She had been lucky in that respect, that Etienne had proved to be more tactful than Armand. He had demanded to talk to her privately and had tried to make her feel at ease. It did not takeher long to realize that Etienne de Laneuil was a very kind man, and that she far preferred his presence above that of her brother. So when he had proposed to break the engagement until she was her old self again, she had denied – whether it was appropriate or not. She had wanted so much to leave the castle! They had married six weeks later. At first she had not loved her husband – how could she? – but only shown him respect. But after a while she had become more comfortable with his presence and the marital duties, and had learnt to appreciate her choice. Etienne remained kind and was very good to her. He gave her everything she could wish for, most of all love. As the years went by, her respect for him grew stronger and stronger. He deserved it.Their marriage remained childless, and both of them regretted the fact. Etienne was honest enough not to blame his wife for it. He owned her too much. Although she was the daughter and the sister of an impoverished count, she still had powerful relatives on her mother’s side and thanks to these he had been able to secure the two things he had strived for: a noble title – that of baron – and the post of attorney-general in Paris. And most importantly, he had instantly fallen in love with her. At that time she was only a skinny girl with boyish manners, who had been the despair of her father and brother.Marguérite was the perfect wife for him. She was well-educated and proved to be a perfect hostess. The soirées they organized in their Marais mansion soon became famous in their circles. She received the guests with grace and dignity. With the years the girlishness about her disappeared and she flowered into a beauty. Even when he realized that she could not love him in the same degree as he did her – somehow, deeply hidden, she feared men – he was till prepared to do anything for her, in return for a smile or a gentle word.
“Madame la baronesse?” The driver’s mate jumped off the box and took off his cap.
“The coachman says we’re struck right here for at least one hour, madame. He asks to be forgiven and regrets the discomfort the delay may cause you. Perhaps madame wants me to fetch anything for her?”
“It doesn’t matter, Henri. I’m not in a hurry today.” She sighed nevertheless. An hour would be long enough, or could she…? The new idea became more and more attractive.
The servant returned at her call and waited obediently.
“I have decided to go for a walk” she told him. “It appears we are not far from the Pont Neuf, and I’d like to have a look around there. You can accompany and protect me. Come on, help me get out.”
He did as she ordered, but she could see him frowning.
have to point out to madame that the bridge is an unsafe place for wanderers”
he mentioned at last, while reaching for her hand. “Especially when
they are so richly dressed as madame. It’ll be an open invitation
to every pickpocket in the neighbourhood.”
“You’re exaggerating, Henri! Besides, you’re there to watch out over me! Don’t I notice a big gun between your belt?”
“I’ll keep my eyes open” he swore.
She instructed the driver as to where and when he could pick them up again, and chose a street that would bring them straight to the Pont Neuf. The servant followed her unwillingly. Ah! The smell of freshly baked bread entered her nostrils and made her realize how hungry she was. She ordered Henri to buy some croissants and ate them with taste, licking her fingers afterwards. Why did she not do this more often?Large crowds moved along the bridge whose shops offered nearly everything for sale. The coloured balls of a juggler described a perfect arch through the air, and high above their heads a man in a red outfit balanced on a tight rope that was tied between two rooftops. The barber stood on his platform and demonstrated his skill in pulling teeth. A bald man with impressive muscles rolled his biceps, the skin gleaming with oil, and pleated iron bars on his chest. A quack tried to sell a lotion that would increase the sexual desire…
“Hold the thief!”
This was the cry that always alarmed the crowd. Rather quickly two guards started to pursue the pickpockets, who ran as fast as their legs would carry them. People were brusquely pushed aside, stalls were overturned. Marguérite, who happened to linger a little further, would not avoid a collision with one of the accomplices – a boy not older than ten. The brad wanted to get away as soon as possible and wrested wildly when she grabbed him firmly by the wrist.
“Will you calm down, you little fool?” she hissed. “Would you rather have the guards arrest you?”
A dirty face was raised towards her. Thick black hair curled over his ears and collar, the eyes were dark and challenging, the mouth broad and ready to laugh. His bold stare told her something. She followed down his gaze and noticed the two fingers she kept crossed, as an obvious sign the boy had understood at once. She looked down at her crossed fingers with horror, and a feeling a deep confusion started to take possession of her. What had she done? What did it mean? Which urge had forced her to instinctively protect a thief? The approach of an officer of the guard left her with no time for further meditation. The man bowed politely, but his face stood grim.
Her smile was friendly, almost innocently. It did not make the least of impression on him, however.
“I believe you are giving protection to a notorious thief and street-robber” he state coldly. “The boy beside you is well known to us, and it is my duty to arrest him.”
“I’m sure there must be a mistake, officer” she reacted swiftly. Her raised eyebrows indicated an air of mischief. The lawman frowned, admitting that he was facing trouble.“Jean,’ Marguérite continued, ‘whom you see here, is the nephew of my valet. Henri can testify to that.”
“Indeed, madame. I am prepared to swear upon it” her man vowed. As he had been serving the de Laneuils for a long time already, he knew where his fidelity lay. Madame was a generous mistress, but she wanted to have her way in most thins and the servants could better obey without dispute.
“I’m helping my uncle to carry madame’s purchases” the boy said, unasked. His feeling of self-confidence, which had left him for a short moment of panic, had soon returned and he was getting to appreciate his new situation. What a woman! He grinned whole-heartedly.The officer sighed softly, but saluted anyway. He knew when he was beaten. This time he had to leave without prisoner. His opponent was a lady of quality, more precisely the wife of his highest chief. One had to deal very carefully with people in such high places.
“My apologies for the inconvenience I may have caused, madame. I won’t bother you any longer.”
“But officer! I have no complaints at all!” she exclaimed. “On the contrary, I admire the way in which you pursue your duty” she added friendly.
As soon as the guard had moved out of sight, the boy tried to get away as well. The game was over now. He started to run, but almost immediately felt Henri’s hand come down on his shoulder. The servant led him back to where Marguérite was waiting.“You will thank the baroness properly for saving your miserable hide” Henri said. The boy wriggled under his hand, still trying to free himself. Desperately he looked around, hoping to spot some familiar faces. But his mates had vanished from the earth already. He was alone in this and should have to solve his own problems. For the moment he felt it better to do as the man ordered.
“Thank you, madame. Can I leave now?”
“Why the hurry?” she liked to know.
“I have to catch up with my mates” he answered. “They must be wondering what is keeping me.”
“My guess is that they’ve seen that officer right behind you, and now they’re thinking that you are his prisoner. And what have they done? Have they come back to rescue you?”
“My uncle will come and fetch me – for sure!” he tried to reassure not so much her, but himself. His tone did not seem all too convinced.
Marguérite gazed at him and studied him more carefully. She suddenly realized that she was addressing a child – a child who was beginning to become afraid and unsure. The brutality he had shown before was only a pose, a necessity in these environs. And influenced by something she could not explain, she took a decision that would change her life.
“Granted that your uncle hasn’t given up on you, he’d better try and find out where you are, because I’m taking you home with me” she said decisively. “There’s always room for a little page in an large household as ours.”
“Madame! You must be out of your wits!” Henri called out, sooner than he knew. This was really going too far; he felt it his duty to protest in his master’s name.
“I won’t tolerate such behaviour, Henri” she admonished him sharply.
“But madame! Don’t you realize you’re taking an enormous risk? This brad will steal everything that is not too big or too heavy to carry, and pass on information to all of his accomplices. One night they will come and cut our throats.”
She burst out into laughter. The boy was watching her intensely. He too did not understand what was happening here. The baroness was certainly no ordinary lady of fashion. He could not quite figure out what was driving her.
“Don’t be so dramatic! None such thing will happen – I will personally see to that. The boy will promise me to be honest. If he should take anything away, just like this…,” she held up a pocket-watch on a golden chain, and dangled it before Henri’s nose, “…then I would feel obliged to notify the law!”
The astonished expression on both the valet’s and the boy’s faces was worth a lot to her. She kept on laughing, until it slowly dawned to her that she had just given a masterful demonstration of how to rob a man’s pocket.The little rogue discretely put a hand in his own pocket, and – less surprised than Henri – stated that it only held a dirty handkerchief. Now he was really at a loss. Who had ever heard of a noblewoman who mastered their own special skills? Perhaps he could learn more about her during his stay in her house. His uncle would find this intriguing.
“All right, madame, I’ll stay with you” he admitted. “As I think the street will be a bit unsafe for me in the days coming, it wouldn’t harm if I accepted your offer. May I remark, madame, that you are very good? I honestly didn’t feel anything when you took the watch away. Only my uncle could do better!”
She nodded, not quite listening to what he was saying. Where had she learnt these dirty tricks? This question kept torturing her and carried her back to the state of unease she had experienced only half an hour ago. What had happened before she had woke up in the convent? She could hardly imagine that her youth had been anything but conventional. Marie had told her some things about her childhood, spent at the castle of Vallencieux. Theirs was a rural community; its inhabitants hard-working and honest people. Gipsies and tramps were barely spotted in these parts. And later on she had been sent to a school in Dijon, together with some of her cousins de Salanges. The nuns would certainly have kept their wards under a strict observance, she supposed.The conviction that something must be wrong with what they had told her about the accident and what had preceded it, grew stronger. It had to be like that – it was the only possible explanation she could think of. Whenever the mystery occupied her train of thought – and the moments she could put it completely aside were only too seldom – her armpits turned wet with cold sweat. Would she ever be able to free herself from this burden? Especially now she was frightened out of her wits. When she was right, it would mean that certain facts were kept hidden from her by Armand, her brother. And was there a connection with René’s sudden decision to emigrate to the New World; René who was only one year younger than herself and who, according to the old nurse, had been her closest friend and dear companion. There had been talk between the servants that Armand had been extremely generous with his money…Her headaches grew stronger and rang a sudden alarm. What she was doing was wrong, totally wrong, and could cause severe brain damage. What again had said the physician, whom she had visited a couple of years ago, said?
“Don’t force anything, madame! The brain can’t be force, that is my strongest conviction. My esteemed colleagues don’t share the same opinion however. You must take my word for it. Your mind has formed a natural blockade to protect you from things which were perhaps too horrible to face at that time. One day the reason for it will disappear, and your memory will return!”
Darkness had settled over the town. The big household of the de Laneuils had retired for the night: the fires had been extinguished, the candles snuffed. The baron and baroness had gone to their individual chambers, and so had their servants. Not even the dogs spotted the intruder who easily climbed the garden wall, dropped over it and crossed the deserted courtyard. With sure movements he then began to seek his way up against the front of the house. He seemed to know exactly where he was heading for; without the slightest hesitation he moved towards a certain window and kneeled down on the sill. He took out a penknife and slid the blade between the woodwork. A wring an the lock gave way to the pressure of his hand. He gently opened the window and silently put his feet on the ground. The curtains barely moved when he entered the bedroom and quietly approached the bed. Pure instinct awoke Marguérite. She was immediately alert and soon she discovered the dark figure near her bedside. However, before she could even open her mouth for a cry of warning, a rough hand was laid over it.
“Not a sound, madame” a not unfriendly voice whispered into her ear. “I mean you no harm, you must believe me on that. It is just that I couldn’t think of a better way of coming into contact with you.”
did not wholly understand him but slowly nodded her head. She could at
once breathe freely again. She tried to study the man’s face more
“You strongly disappoint me, madame! I thought everyone in Paris was familiar with the face of Cartouche!”
Her eyes suddenly shot fire and her breath escaped with a hiss. He clearly had pleasure over her astonishment. It appeared that he could read her thoughts.
“Yes, I know I have guts – entering the house of the attorney-general in person! I just hope that you are not going to give me away, madame la baronesse.”
She shook her head, taken aback by his words. How unreal the situation looked. She, Marguérite de Laneuil, eye to eye with a dangerous criminal, in her bedroom even… And she did nothing.
“I am here because you rescued a little boy out of the paws of justice this afternoon,” he explained mockingly, “Jeanot is my nephew, you see.”
“I wanted to thank you personally for your noble gesture, madame. As it is, I am very attached to the child.”
Without asking her permission he sat down on the bed, and she did not reproach him. The street-robber had a certain charm which attracted women. “In my opinion it is irresponsible to send a young child to prison, or worse” she declared.
“You have a kind heart” Cartouche acknowledged. “I have heard lots of good about you, baroness. That is why I dare make a further request.”
“Another request? You want my jewels after all?”
She frowned, and he had to smile over her gesture.
“I don’t want you jewels! My request concerns Jeanot.”
“You must know, madame, that I have tried to raise him as good as I could” he chuckled wryly. “I have taught him everything he should know in order to survive. He can steal, fight, run, … He’s really intelligent and he could be a leader later on. But that’s not what I want for my sister’s sole child. There’s no future in our profession, baroness, you know that too. The law is at our heels and one day we’ll get caught – fini! It’s my nightmare that the boy would share this fate! I wish he gets the opportunity of becoming of becoming of honest citizen, and that’s where you can help me, madame.”
He reached for her hand, which she did not pull back, and gently caressed her fingers. His strong hand was warm and comforting.“Won’t you give him a place in your household?” he went on, popping the question.
“I intended to do so when I took him with me” she answered, compelled by his intensive stare.
“And will you be his guardian, madame? Will you take full responsibility for him?”
© 2005 Nickie Fleming/Jansan