Master of Fate
Convincing my mother to leave would be yet another matter, one that needed clarity. She would equate leaving with having been forced from her home and my mother’s nature was not one of frailty or belittlement. Maman was the zebra — the matriarch holding-tight to familial bonds, if only because it was the one realm where she could exercise her dominance. If there was one thing I knew about her, it was that if I was ever going to know peace again, the choice to leave would have to be her’s. That she had to leave, I already decided. I wouldn’t leave her behind, there would be no peace in that either. If something were to happen to her, I would never forgive myself. Paul’s reputation as a healer would protect him, but I wasn’t fool enough to believe that it enough to extend to my property when it came to envy. My mother would never agree go to Lucien in Strasbourg, she had still to forgive him for perceived abandonment. And although she would have gone to Claude in Emberménil, boredom would have her home within the fortnight. Claude was much too biddable not to permit my mother’s departure. That something would happen once I was gone was certain, my presence no longer guaranteed protection. I couldn’t even count on loyal contingents kept warm last winter. There’s a well-known saying in France that is said among frenchmen, accompanied by a whimsical hand gesture. Seulement un imbécile dérangerait les passions des Français! I was no fool, but I often felt one for being the only one who could see that protection based on social order was giving-way. And if, despite knowing this, my mother still insisted on staying, she was prepared to end her life for final victory between us. She knew I’d be forced to surrender in forcing her to leave. Then, anytime anything would happen to thwart an improvement in our future, the fault would forever be mine for having left our inheritance unprotected.
I let myself in quietly, believing I could return to my chamber without anyone being the wiser. Then, in the morning well-rested, I would begin my plan of attack with regard to convincing my mother. I’d have the entire day to watch her for signs of perfect timing. As soon as I walked in the door though, I could hear them-up talking. That kind of heightened clatter carries easily over parquet floors, through stone walls into servant halls where ears, no doubt, are tacked to walls. I took a deep breath before heading in their direction.
I found all three of them gathered around one end of the long, dining room table, my mother at its head. She sat stiffly, mouth gaping in mid-sentence with her grey curls seemingly squeezing her head in a vise. Claude, my brother, sat to her right not in his traditional black cassock, but rather wearing the tan habit and dark scapular of his Carmelite Order. This reminded me of the importance of contemplation! I quickly surmised that now was the time to begin the assault. My mother already knew about the letter! One look at Paul’s face could have told me this. He was flushed all over next to my brother where he sat. As soon as he saw me he softened noticeably in relief. In all my contemplating, this was something I failed to consider — that my mother already knew of the letter. Clearly he’d been raked over the coals for it, he hadn’t even touched the food on his plate. And the dish was our favorite — rable de lièvre à la crème.
“Ah, Claude, you arrived,” I said, bending to kiss my mother’s taut cheek. She pulled away scolding me for missing my supper, and for not rushing home immediately upon receiving the letter.
“Letter?” I repeated in my need for a delay and finding one in my chair at the table’s opposite end. “I’m tired,” I said as an excuse for arms and so, moved my chair next to my mother’s on her left.
“Are you all right?” my mother asked with mothers’ concern.
“Yes maman, I’m only tired. It’s been quite a day.”
Paul looked to me as if to say we were only getting started when I left. “Contemplation is a wearisome task, much more so than physical exertion,” I explained and I meant it. There were so many scenarios to consider, rarely did I let my mind wander so far anymore, thanks to labor.
“Just as I thought,” my mother said, sitting back heavily in her chair, “it’s the letter. Paul would only tell me it had nothing to do with Émilie but that was it! Under your orders, no doubt! I could have died of an attack.”
“Maman, I’d have told you right away if it were from my sister,” I said to her, my mind racing with how to begin. I needed more time to assess the situation. “Paul, pass the potatoes would you?” I asked, trusting he would read my mind and begin the protest.
“Can you believe people still believe these are poisonous?” he asked.
“Just like the tomato,” my mother stated and Paul and I smiled secretly at each other.
“Maman!” I laughed, “Beatrix does not prepare them simply for decoration. They saved many an Irishman.”
“Further proof that kingdom knows nothing of cuisine!”
I sat thinking to myself, Dear, dear maman, Ireland is not Great Britain! and, had I not been intent on my mission, I would have relished in telling her so. But, now was not the time to be arousing her defenses. I needed her happily off-guard and this was best achieved through complaining - it was her favorite thing to do. So, I mentioned the dining style I recently implemented — the one I loved and she hated. Not only did it reduce useless indoor staff but, no longer did I have to shout from across the dinning room table or wait on someone else to bring me my food. Paul made it easy for me to implement by ordering all able-bodied men to the fields to help bring-in the harvest. Things inside the house had to change. My mother was permitted to keep Herbert, due to his age, and thus kept the dinner traditional. For the sake of peace, I didn’t even complain when Herbert brought to me my cold soup. “Food’s cold,” I said to her and she smiled victoriously, just as I suspected. She swept her hand over the plated food, blaming the dining style for the food’s temperature. “Á l’ américaine!” she huffed. “What do a bunch of rebellious farmers know of propriety? It’s not proper, Adrien, not in a house such as ours. We should have footmen at the table!”
“Footmen?” I remarked with raised brows and a glance in Paul’s direction.
“Your father would never approve of this.”
“My father?” I said in suppressed humor, for I couldn’t recall him ever being the one to ring the bell. But everyone sitting at the table that night knew very-well, the bell always was the best indicator of my mother’s mood. This line of attack was no good, I didn’t want her angrily complaining, this would only worsen my chances. I quickly switched directions, appealing instead to her sense of vogue. “Of course you know, maman, this dinning style is popular in England. I don’t have to tell you how all things English are the rage.”
“They have horse races every Tuesday in the park now,” Paul chimed-in in assistance. “Have you seen M. Souflet’s new garden? Gone are his french formal hedges, his park resembles a pasture now.”
“It’s the style of the Englishmen, Mr. Capability Brown.”
My mother rolled her eyes. “It’s not the English gentlemen who are keen on this style of dining, Adrien. It’s the bourgeois!” she retorted.
“I don’t believe a man who works his land as I do is what the English mean by a gentleman, maman.”
She took-up the bell and rang it with such a fury that poor, young Agnés appeared all flustered from behind the painted screen.
“Where’s Herbert?” I asked in surprise.
“Driving!” my mother answered with a hard-click of the tongue. Then she pointed her finger accusingly at Paul, adding, “Thanks to him, we are served by a kitchen maid! What would your father say?”
Paul spoke out in his defense that it was only for few days. “He’s perfect for the mill runs,” he said to me in further explanation.
“I get it,” I said to him.
My mother turned to poor Agnés in anger, giving out the harsh command to bring hot coffee and my hot plate.
I waited for Agnés to leave before turning to my mother to tell her that, in my house, we could be served by women. There was all this talk of educating women, things were going to have to change! But thankfully, in the moments’ delay, I recalled my mission. Had I said this to my mother, my fifty-fifty chance of getting her to leave willingly would have gone straight to zero. Any reminder that the house was no longer her’s was, for her, the harshest of realities. That I was new master, marked her greatest retreat. And then, if and when I should get married, no longer would she even be mistress and this marked final defeat. It baffled me, then, that she hounded me about getting married. She went so far as to arrange rendezvouses with this young lady or that. Then I figured out that, as opponents, we knew each other’s look of resolve. My mother knew when I wouldn’t budge any further, and vice versa. And I learned long ago that whatever direction I leaned-in, my mother counter swayed.
My mother’s response was to say to Claude, before ever turning to him, “You see what I must put-up with?” When she did turn to him, she saw that he was helping himself to his fourth slice of torte.
“I do, maman,” I answered. “There’s a certain proclivity to the sin of gluttony in this American style of dining, the food sits right before you just begging to be eaten.”
She looked again at Claude who frowned in obligingly sympathy. “What maman?” he said while chewing.
“Maman,” I said, “we are three every day for dinner, you haven’t invited anyone over in years.”
“I can’t entertain in this room!” she declared, taking me aback as I looked about the room. The paneling was well oiled and recently metal plates were installed behind the sconces so as to hide the stains. These were all still shinny and new.
“What’s wrong with our room?” I asked her.
“Shall I start with the drapes?”
I looked to the windows and noted that the blues and golds were perhaps a bit faded. But the stripes had been ahead of their time. Suddenly I realized what to me were only trivial things were to her added reminders that the house was no longer her’s. “Improvements in decor are expensive,” I repeatedly told her in response to her requests, proving to her that a son is not as lenient with his mother as a husband with his wife. I had other improvements in mind, the kind that come with years of legal expenses.
“Mme Sanger,” my mother recounted in exaggerated admiration, “she has a proper dining room! She has toile de jouy on her walls, you remember? The Acropolis!” she said, nudging Claude for his obligatory agreement.
His fork stopped mid-lap between plate and mouth. “That was a year ago, for the Feast of the Assumption.”
“I remember too, maman,” I said with a chuckle, “Mme Sanger is not so easily forgotten. Every time she sees me it’s an opportunity for persuasion.”
“Naturally Adrien, she has four daughters and you still no wife!”
“I hardly need toile de jouy on my walls to be reminded of the ancient past. I need simply to walk outside my front door.”
This time when she looked to Claude, he frowned in genuine sympathy which, surprised me. Perhaps if he’d been wearing his traditional black cassock, he would have appeared more the devoted son and less the devout monk of contemplation. He was shepherd of a starving flock, no one knew better the sufferings that outweighed desires for modish decor. But from Claude my mother always sought comfort so that, he was obliged to provide it. She patted his hand on the table where it rested next to her’s saying, “I’m so proud of you,” her face softening into that look she reserved for him — one of genuine admiration. “It’s such a noble thing you’re doing. Burdensome I’m sure, teaching unpolished society but I have every faith in you. You’ll rid France of the dreaded patois yet.”
I sat back in my chair crossing my legs in the vulgar fashion she despised of. I just couldn’t believe that, in all that I’d done, it was never enough to warrant such admiration. The way I saw it, Claude was killing a language. I was simply trying to keep people from starving to death.
“It’s an honor to carry on my mentor’s work, I can’t take credit for it,” Claude said.
“You can and you must! He’s not here to do it!”
“No he’s not. Abbé Grégoire fulfilled a higher calling as delegate to the assembly.”
“Have you heard from him since his last letter? Perhaps you can tell us what is going on in Versailles?” I said just as Agnès made her reappearance. She pushed the door with inexperienced force so that it swung back and forth on its hinges, tipping the giant salver in her hands and sending a porcelain cruet to the floor in a spill of white that made my mother shriek, “What’s the matter with you girl? Paul, you must order Herbert back to the house!”
“Maman!” I now shouted while poor Agnès stood-by shaking, salver still tipped threatening further catastrophe.
“It’s Meissen, Adrien!” my mother said in explanation.
I made room on the table next to me for the salver before sending poor Agnès away in a tearful mess, with my mother calling-out after her, “M. Verlaine can serve himself!”
Gladly I did, it was my favorite. And while shredding my hare, I happily let Claude talk, he always loved telling stories. It’s what made him a good preacher. I prompted him, subtly, I knew it wouldn’t take much. “How is it again that you can eat meat?” I asked him. He explained how Pope Eugenius mitigated their abstinences in 1432 which, somehow, led to stories on the lottery system, which led to the story of his first orphan.
When he paused I asked him, “How’s Maria?” and he flushed a little red. We all knew Maria always loved Claude, including her brother Paul. And at one time it seemed certain they would marry. But Claude was pulled in another direction upon receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders. Maria talked of joining a convent. She never saved enough money though, and her father wouldn’t permit my father to front-it. As it was, the hardships of the last winter through summer brought to Maria arrived her opportunity to be Claude’s wife, in every which way but one. She cooked, cleaned and mended at Claude’s school full of boys that now included orphans. Since Maria arrived at his school we didn’t see Claude as often, and I suspected that, once again, he was being pulled in Maria’s direction. The last time I saw him he spoke with much animation regarding discussions to extend the sacrament of Holy Matrimony to the clergy. “Not for myself, mind you,” he said, upon noticing my expression. “The pope will never condone it.”
“Well, if abstinences can be mitigated . . ,” I said, letting my words trail in the way of mocked comfort. My mother could always sense Claude’s discomfort, and this was when she gave the traditional cue moved us into the salon.
The salon always was my favorite room in the chậteau and it wasn’t because it was the largest in the house. It had north-facing windows that were hung since the days of my youth with a deep red damask, it was familiar. It was the first room to grow dark, particularly in winter, but it was paneled in light oak and its ceilings were low-hung. The room’s decor, perhaps, told of earlier times and different tastes but, on hot afternoons the room stayed cool and cozy in winter.
Unlike in the dinning room, in the salon, seating was of our own choosing. We each had our habitual spots. Mine was the English chair next to the hearth, and not because it was fashionable. It had these enormous wings that blocked one from drafts when sitting. On the small round table next to it, was my tobacco box. I enjoyed filling my own pipe. I liked feeling the richness of the tobacco and taking-in its smell before burning. My mother sat on the sofa before me, rumbling through cushions where she kept her needlework hidden. Claude sat on the sofa across from her, book in-hand. It was comical watching him select one from the shelves. He’d reach for something serious and true while eyeing the novels. “Just read one,” I once suggested, recommending that he start with Pamela. “It’s about virtue rewarded,” I said with encouragement, trying not to smile. As soon as he saw it, he stormed-off with yet another book on religion. “Claude, how is it the clergy imagine they can do good in a world they refuse to live-in? Novels are simply old ideas reimagined,” I asked him. His response was that he was bound by oath to keep his mind pure. And then there was Paul who sat on the bench beneath the great window for the light. From there he played the role of our own private caller, reading to us what he found of interest in the latest issued Affiches.
Late-summer evening were always the best in this room. Once the light faded, wayward cuckoos would begin their calls in the pines just outside the window. I say wayward because it was late in the season to be mating but then, years of mild winters before the last affected more than just humans. I loved listening to their songs, I found them quite soothing. The male would sing-out gayly, goo-ko, goo-ko, to which many females responded. But he only ever choose one, always the same if possible. It was in this enjoyment that included watching my smoke rings expand and fade before my eyes, that I began to relax with the thought that my mother had forgotten about the letter. This thought, in-turn, reminded me of the letter and not a few seconds later my mother broke through the avian melody to ask, “And so, Adrien, what of that letter?”
There was nothing left for me to do but tell her. “The Marquis de Lafayette,” I replied, watching carefully for her reaction.
Her eyes went wide in a long, exhaled, “Oooooh. What did he want?”
“He wants me to come to Paris, just as soon as I can manage.”
“Paris?” she said sitting-up straight, “Whatever for?” Her hands were shaking ever so slightly, anyone else would have missed it. Her eyes followed my hands to the letter tucked inside my waistcoat. She listened as I read his words regarding the sad state of affairs in France. Her features hardened in anger — it was the valiant face for which she was known. Then she fiddled with her bun so as to break eye-contact “Well, you cannot refuse a man of his consequence. That leaves Paul and I here to manage alone without you.”
I found relief in hearing my mother’s tone oddly etched with fear, fear is something to be worked to the advantage. I could hear her gathering of strength loud and clear — it was her habitual nature. As my father’s wife, she lived life in a constant state of preparation for battle. But her pitch told me something else, something new. That, after a lifetime of battles, my mother was tired of mustering-up defenses. This was something else to be worked to my advantage. She would sit back and give-out the orders and truth be told, she was good at that. After all, she had the experience. But only a few weeks ago Thibaut’s chậteau was burned to the ground, my mother knew what could happen.
“I may run in to Thibaut,” I said to her next, still watching her for signs. Just the thought of Thibaut in charge of an armed posse was enough to threaten anyone’s resolve, not just his enemies. She looked at me with eyes softened and rarely did she look at me like that! I was just about to succumb to a bad habit of mine in speaking to fast and thus risk losing the advantage. Fortunately Paul sensed this. “I hear Thibaut has risen in the army,” he said, “now that more and more noble nobles are leaving France.” His comment gave me a moment to think. It was too early in the attack — my mother would only reload. I had to change the subject without ceasing fire. Stunned is just the state you want your opponent in, before you hit them with the full-on attack.
“I believe we’ll have a bounty this year Paul, don’t you?” I asked and he looked at me and nodded. He recognized well the game I was playing. It was similar to the game we played with Beatrix only with my mother it was to keep her reasonable.
“Yes,” he answered. “We need to decide what we’ll do with it while we still have a say. Already the king’s men are in Verdun, I heard it early this morning.”
“The king is no fool, he won’t be taking any chances on keeping Paris fed this winter.”
“Not for a hundred louis could I find a man willing to drive a loaded carriage away from town . . ,” Paul said in continuation. I was suddenly struck by his devotion. He knew that I was leaving and that I was taking her with me. That meant he’d be left here alone in protecting my property — my steward. And, should something happen to me, who knew what would become of him. But the thing was, I knew his reputation as a healer would protect him. If he came with me to Paris, he’d become unknown. I knew not what fate had in-store for me. I felt an urgent need to remind him that he not put himself in danger on my behalf. “Things can be replaced easily enough, I insist on your promise. And I’ll rush back just as soon as I’m able which hopefully won’t be long.”
My mother sat back in her chair silent, which told me to continue firing.
“Michaelmas is almost upon us,” I said, as this was when payments were due. “Will we be able to cover all expenses?”
“That depends upon how many fall short again,” Paul answered.
“And still we must pay. What would you do, if I weren’t here?” I asked because I genuinely wanted to know.
“I’d take the surplus to Metz and let the chandlers arrange it as they will. No one here can blame us for wanting to keep the garrison loyal. With what they pay, we would cover expenses.”
“That may be true Paul, if only it took fodder to keep the cavalry loyal. Take it to Metz and everyone along the way will protest. Grain barges are no more safe from attack than transportation on the kingdom’s roads.” I looked over at my brother who had a vested stake in this business, we were discussing his inheritance. He was licking his plate clean as if it were the communion plate at high mass upon which crumbs fell from the Holy Ghost. “Claude,” I prompted him, “what do you think?” He stopped, looking at me in question. “The surplus? What should we do with it?”
“Give it to those who suffer,” he easily responded.
“Spoken like a true clergyman,” I said, shaking my head at Paul. “If only I had that much to give. We can’t keep this up, can we Paul?”
He shook his head in agreement that no we could not. “Even with the income from the forges,” he added, not only for effect but because it was true. If not for my grandfather’s investments, I too would be selling-off land. As it was he came to these investments by error in having been at the right the place at the right time, for the industry was the nobility’s. Metallurgy profited from land, it didn’t taint noble heritage like trade did. Our greatest profits were reaped in wartime which, unfortunately, disturbed my grandfather’s morality. But when his son, my father, spent the money, it was peacetime and he spent it on hopeful innovation.
“I know times are difficult, Adrien, for everyone,” Claude said in continuation. “If there’s war as it seems there will be, it will be good for our furnaces.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” I said soberly.
“What do I know?” he said defensively. “You ask an unfair question. You know what I am as I sit here before you in full disclosure. Neither I nor Lucien had any inclinations for carrying on here, you know that. We’re both grateful you came back to do it.”
“Fine,” I said, feeling the weight of every attention. “For insurance, first cuts go to the village.” I went on to tell them what we would do without any guarantee of its success. The only success I had was in seeing my mother sit back in her chair with apparent relief at my having made a decision. This told me that she could begin to sway in my direction.
“Don’t worry maman, I’ve never left you and I never will,” I said to reassure her.
“Oh Adrien, you cannot refuse a personal request from the marquis,” she countered.
“I don’t intend to, but we won’t leave until the harvest is complete.”
“We?” she asked in surprise, her expression priceless to forget.
“That’s right. We. It’s been a while since you’ve seen Émilie and the children, and you’re always talking of seeing them again. Now is the perfect opportunity.”
“You know what’s going on on the kingdom’s roads, you’d have me out there? There couldn’t be a worse time to plan such a journey.”
“We’ll be fine, we just need to wear these for protection,” I said, holding-up the new, striped cockades Lafayette sent me with the letter. “He said whenever we are halted we need only show them and declare for the third estate and that will be our protection.”
“France does not have estates anymore, we have a National Assembly,” Claude said in confusion.
“France will always have estates Claude, it’s tradition,” my mother responded.
“I come and go from Émbernil, maman, without the slightest encounter.”
“You’re a clergyman! What person of sound mind would attack a priest?”
“Well, maman?” I asked her and she didn’t answer right away. She was clearly thinking it over as flints of irritation and delight crossed over her face. “We won’t be gone too long,” I prompted to encourage her before she had too much time to carefully think it over. She looked over to Claude.
“He’s right, maman,” he told her. “It can’t be much longer now. The Rights of Man is set to pass and the constitution is hard on the heels of it. Once it’s complete everyone will be coming home.”
My mother sprang from the sofa startling us all as she bounced over to the petit writing desk. “I’ll write to Émilie directly, informing her of our arrival. I can’t wait to see her house in Paris, I imagine it is quite grand.”
“I’m sure it is,” I responded, thinking of my sister’s dowry. “But I’m not staying there.”
The room was suddenly still and quiet with all eyes, again, on me. “Adrien!” she reprimanded. “You cannot go to Paris and not stay in your sister’s house, it would be an affront!”
“I’ll not stay in his house,” I answered, “you stay there, if you like.”
“I will stay there,” she retorted, “and I will stay there with you. Otherwise, I refuse to go!”
I could tell by her stance, it was her look of resolve. “I don’t understand why you despise him so, you only met him on two occasions. He didn’t even begin to court your sister until after you were gone. Or, have you grown too much like your brother, Lucien, and find union with a noble reprehensible?”
I winced at her words. “Of course not, maman, I’ve done my fair share for liberty, equality and fraternity in this revolution. But what attracted Yves to Émilie was her fortune.”
“And so, what of it? Many have made a success of such a union. And even if it was such a transaction, Émilie won by the bargain. She’s a marquise now, and still in-love, I read it in her letters. If you refuse to stay in her house, I will refuse to go!”
Here my mother had me, for the sake of peace, I would have to concede. “Write your letter then,” I said to her without removing my gaze from the window where dark clouds were gathering.