Chapter 7 – A Rose as Red as Blood
12–20 November 1788
In November, the starlings flew from the cold north.
Viviane leant her chin in her hands and gazed out at the twilight sky. This year there seemed to be more than ever before. Swirling and eddying and spiralling against the rose-coloured clouds, black sparks in a rising wind.
Viviane felt she could not bear to be confined indoors anymore. ‘Pardon me, Madame. I must take Luna out for a moment.’
‘Must you always be so restless?’ her great-aunt complained. ‘Sit still and finish your embroidery.’
‘Of course, Madame. As long as you do not mind Luna piddling on the rug.’
‘Do not be so vulgar!’
‘A thousand pardons, Madame. I will not be long. Shall I order you up some hot chocolate?’
‘And some more sweetmeats,’ her aunt sighed, dusting the sugar from her plump fingers.
Viviane went out demurely, Luna trotting behind, then gave her aunt’s order to Agathe. She caught up her coat and muff and hat, and ran down the stairs and across the bridge. David was overseeing the paving of the avenue of linden trees. She halted momentarily, then walked swiftly past him, pretending not to see him. He leant on his shovel and gazed at her with bleak eyes.
Viviane walked slowly, feeling the pain of their separation deep within her, like some kind of internal wound. She had not realised how much she had come to rely on him for comfort and companionship. Each day seemed leached of colour and vitality. Even the pastimes that had once brought her joy – her garden, her stillroom, her books – were now nothing but chores to fill in the dead hours of her days.
The fields stretched out, ashy under the twilight sky, fringed with skeletal trees. It was cold. Viviane burrowed her hands into her ermine muff.
The sound of David’s voice like a bolt of lightning to a metal key. She began to walk faster. He called again. She said, without turning, ‘No … you must not … he will find out.’
‘Monsieur le Marquis, my father.’
He caught her by the arm and drew her to face him. ‘Is that why? Your father? But there is no-one here to see …’
‘They will have seen you follow me.’
‘No. I was discreet. I promise you.’
She allowed herself to look up at him. The strong jaw, a little bristled this late in the day. The thick disobedient hair, the colour of old bronze. His eyes, grey as the sky.
‘He will dismiss you without pay.’
‘Only if someone sees us.’ He caught her gloved hand and drew her fast across the fields, away from the château. Viviane gripped his hand tightly. She felt like running, or dancing, or weeping.
A distant rushing and roaring sound. Viviane pointed up into the sky.
‘What is it? A fire?’ David gazed at the dark billows swirling above his head.
‘No, it’s birds. Thousands and thousands of birds.’
A torrent of starlings, pouring through the sky like a vast shape-shifting whirlwind. A swift elusive ballet, birds swooping and swerving and soaring as if they thought and responded with a single mind. For a moment, a spinning vortex was formed, then a shape like a leaping fish, then a parabolic curve, and then a great dragon with wings of shadows. David and Viviane watched, mesmerised, as the birds flashed overhead, so free and jubilant it made her chest ache.
‘Sacré bleu,’ she whispered. ‘What would I give to be so free?’
At last the sun sank away, and stars began to prick out. The birds sank away. Silence dropped.
‘Why do they fly like that?’ Viviane wondered.
‘A hawk must have been threatening them,’ David said. ‘It’s an evasive manoeuvre, a feint.’
‘I think they do it for the joy of it. I feel it in my bones.’
‘Perhaps it is both. A flight for life and freedom, made more urgent by the threat of danger.’
How she loved him. No-one else spoke to her the way David did. He seemed to know her own thoughts before she did herself.
Viviane felt a sudden rocking of the ground beneath her feet. It is true, she thought. I do love him. I have loved him all this time and not known it. It is like I have found the missing piece of myself.
Her first feeling was one of pure joy.
Slowly they began to walk back to the château, Luna frisking away after the scent of rabbits. Viviane’s hand was still on David’s arm, keeping her steady on the rough ground. She could feel the strength of his muscles, the warmth of his body so near to hers. It was so dark now she could only see the shape of him against the luminous sky. He drew her closer, and she did not resist. She would have liked to have stepped closer still, into his embrace.
‘Is your father cruel to you?’ David asked suddenly and unexpectedly.
Viviane did not know how to answer. The words were a little lash of pain, the remembrance of the world in which they lived.
David stopped and turned her to face him. ‘Viviane, tell me. Is he cruel to you? Does he hurt you?’
‘He is my father. It is his duty to chastise me,’ she said at last.
‘Is that why you ran away?’ he asked. ‘When you tried to go to Saint-Malo and become a corsair?’
She saw the white plume of his breath. Luna came to her, sensing her distress, pressing her body against Viviane’s leg.
‘I … did not wish to marry as my father ordered,’ she answered at last.
David’s jaw tensed. ‘Who did he want you to marry?’
‘The Duc de Montmaront. He is much older than my father, but very rich.’
‘So you ran away?’
She shrugged. ‘Oui. I stole some of Pierrick’s clothes and some food. I made it nearly all the way, sleeping in haystacks and under trees at night. Oh, my feet, they were so sore and blistered! But my father found me and brought me back. He was most displeased.’
‘But he relented? He said you did not need to marry the duke anymore?’
‘Oh no,’ she answered matter-of-factly. ‘He beat me till I could not stand, and then he took me to Versailles. I was to be presented at court, and then married. This was last spring, a few months before you came to Belisima.’
‘So what happened?’
Viviane looked up at him, trying to see his face in the darkness. ‘My father and the king spend every day hunting. They like to see how many poor defenceless animals they can kill. Me, I do not like killing. One day I rode out into the forest on my horse. I made the sound of a hunting horn, like so.’ She put both hands to her mouth and gave a startlingly good rendition of a hunting horn being blown.
Luna began to bark in her deep voice.
Viviane laughed and soothed her with loving strokes. ‘All the hounds ran after me, as you can imagine, and the hunters too. Oh, I led them a merry chase! Not one stag did they shoot that day, not one sparrow. My father, he was most angry, and the Duc de Montmaront, he said that he would not marry a girl with so little decorum.
‘So you were sent back here in disgrace?’
‘Oui. My father, he thinks to punish me by keeping me from court, but me, I do not like court and I do not wish to marry anyway. So! He is happy thinking I am being punished and I am happy because I am home. It is only poor Madame who is miserable. She misses court very much. Even though all she ever did there was sleep and eat and play cards, just as she does here.’
‘You do not wish to be married? I thought all girls did.’
‘Yes, but you are an imbécile who knows nothing about women,’ she answered, turning away from him and beginning to walk once more across the fields, slashing at the thistles with a stick she seized from the ground.
‘Well, yes, so my sisters tell me,’ he answered, falling in beside her.
‘They are right.’
‘But will you not explain to me, then?’
‘Why would I wish to marry? I would have to leave Belisima and go away to court, and wear clothes of the most uncomfortable kind, and be bored to tears, while my husband gambled away my dowry and forced himself upon me, regardless of what I wished, all while flaunting his mistresses in front of me and ruining all that I hold dear to buy silk stockings and velvet coats and silver snuffboxes …’ Tears stung her eyes, and angrily she rubbed them away.
David was appalled. ‘But … it doesn’t have to be like that, does it? What about love? What if you married for love?’
‘Those of my kind do not marry for love,’ Viviane answered.
They walked along in silence. David had pushed both hands into his coat pocket, and his head was bent.
After a long while Viviane said, a note of pleading in her voice, ‘I wish it were not so. Miss Hayward and I used to read novels together, like La Vie de Marianne or Julie, and I used to dream that one day I too would find a love like that, even if it was to end most tragically. But I know it is impossible. My father would never permit.’ She looked up at him, trying to smile. ‘So you see, it is better I do not marry at all. I would rather grow old and die than marry someone I do not love.’
‘That would be a crying shame,’ David said with some difficulty.
Viviane coloured and looked away. ‘I must go in,’ she said. ‘I must not stay out here.’ Yet she lingered a moment longer, biting her lip. At last she looked up at him again and whispered, very low. ‘Pardon. Je suis désolée.'
Only then did she turn to run across the fields towards the château. Luna bounded beside her, whining in distress.
At last Viviane reached her room and flung herself down on the bed, hiding her face in the crook of her arm.
Imbécile, she told herself. He is a gardener. And a Welshman. And a Protestant. Such a thing is impossible.
But Viviane was tired of being told that all the things she wanted were impossible.