It was past midnight and the streets of Paris were wreathed in fog. Elegant town homes lined the streets, windows dark and deaf to the clop-clopping of hooves echoing in the night. Gas lamps stood at attention at each intersection, their magnesium mantles rendering hazy islands of greenish-yellow light in a darkness so thick that it might have been tangible. Into one of these tenuous pools of light drifted a carriage.
The driver was hunched over, his arms held close and his coat wrapped tight so as to protect him from the damp curtain of the night through which he rode. He paused in the ghoulish illumination and peered vainly into the darkness. As he turned to look down the bisecting street in the opposite direction, he thought he caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye; a pale wisp of … something. Was someone following the carriage? He turned around in his seat, surveying the murky blackness for any sign of movement. A moment passed, then two. Nothing.
A creak from below signaled the opening of a window. “Gauche, monsieur Gaspard.”
“Oui, mademmoiselle.” Returning to his seat, the driver shook the reigns and the carriage floated back into the inky darkness.
A few moments later, in the quiet, swirling murk just outside the perimeter of the light, a slight grey form drifted silently through the night.
Inside the carriage, Wendell and Mr. Baine listened as Patrice continued her tale.
“Father narrowly escaped Sedan only to be felled by Prussian artillery when they attacked the city. After selling nearly everything we owned to settle our debts, my mother and I - being just a few years old - were left with no means of supporting ourselves. Uncle Henri was not overly fond of his step-sister, as the scandal of her very existence had thrown my grandfather’s house into turmoil, upsetting what he swears was a happy and peaceful childhood until she arrived, though no Benoite has ever been described as ‘peaceful’ or ‘content.’ ” The young woman rolled her eyes, “It took grandfather, on his death-bed no less, to extract a half-hearted promise from Henri to take us in.”
“In the years since, Camille and I grew up as sisters. However, there was a wild streak in her that somehow always ended with me - not her - being chastised by Uncle Henri. Apparently, some aspect of my ancestry was a bad influence, or some such nonsense, despite my best efforts to keep her out of trouble and in God’s good graces. And now, we find ourselves in the present situation.” Patrice sighed and rested her head against the side of the carriage. “I cannot help but wonder how different things might have turned out, had father lived.”
Wendell sat quietly, listening to the girl’s story and was surprised at how much he sympathized; his heart went out to her. He thought briefly about sharing with her some of his own history, to identify with her on some level, but decided to hold his tongue. A sudden, unexpected explosion, and then the quiet of the grave. If only he could have granted such an end to ... He cut short the line of thought. There could be no commiserating over the untimely departure of loved ones. Not for him.
A brief moment of silence passed before Mr. Baine spoke up, “Given your relationship with your uncle, is it wise to expect hospitality from him? Especially considering that his own daughter is not yet accounted for?” Ever the pragmatist, thought Wendell.
Patrice nodded, “He may not care for mother and me in his house, but he is a gentleman and a gracious host … usually.” this last she added with a wry, uncertain smirk. Wendell wondered if she was doing it consciously. “Besides, you did save my life, it is the least he can do. As for Camille, it will not be the first time I have had to explain her absence.”
The carriage rounded a final bend and began to slow. Up ahead stood a final streetlamp, marking the end of the row. The light etched the face of the large townhouse next to it in hard-edged chiaroscuro. Unlike all the other houses they had ridden past, the lower windows of this particular house had lights on in them. Behind the hopeful glow moved an indistinct and restless figure; someone was pacing through the lower floor. Occasionally, the figure would stop and hover by one of the windows. It was to this house that Mr. Gaspard drew his carriage to a halt.
Clad in Wendell’s traveling cloak, Patrice moved towards the door, “Wait by the carriage. I will explain everything, and then introduce you.”
No sooner had she set her foot on the ground than the door to the house flew open and someone rushed out; a woman, clad in a nightgown and robe. She was older than Patrice, but had the same delicate profile of the younger woman. In the wavering light of the lamp she carried, curls of dark chestnut similar to Patrice’s, though peppered with strands of grey, peaked out from beneath her nightcap.
The woman, oblivious to the two men exiting the carriage, swept Patrice up in a hug before pulling back to berate her angrily in French. Patrice made several attempts to speak, but the older woman would hear none of it. Emotions flit across her face like a small flock of birds, each determined to land on the same place, only to be rousted by the others - anger, panic, fear, relief, joy. Just when it appeared that she was about to finish, she caught sight of the tattered dress Patrice had been keeping out of sight beneath Wendell’s cloak and began anew.
A cough from above, measured and deliberate, finally brought her to a halt and drew the attention of those assembled on the street to the open doorway above. There, standing in the arch was stout man of middle age, the shortest of those assembled, clad in silken nightclothes and wrapped in a robe so plush, it threatened to swallow the wearer whole. Wendell noted that there was something about the eyes that he shared with both Patrice and the woman who had run out to greet her, but the family resemblance seemed to end there. He wore a look of concern, but it was clearly mingled with annoyance. The thin woman at his elbow had a sharp look about her. She glanced over the individuals standing before the house, and seemed disappointed in what she found - or perhaps didn’t find? - standing there.
Patrice used the distraction to extricate herself from the other woman and took a step forward, she spoke briefly in French, gesturing to the two men standing awkwardly by the carriage. Wendell, noticing how the gaze of the three strangers moved to them as their names were mentioned, bowed slightly.
Turning now to Wendell and Mr. Baine, Patrice spoke again, raising her arm to the man and woman standing in the doorway, “Gentlemen, I present to you my uncle and his wife, Henri Clotaire and Marie Dupuis Benoite,” Henri offered a formal nod to the men while his wife stood impassively beside him, unaware of the skepticism she so plainly wore. Patrice then turned to indicate the woman standing next to her, “and my mother, Juliet Benoite d’Chartres.” At this her mother appeared to become self-conscious of her attire. She curtsied awkwardly, drew her robe close about her and ascended the steps to stand on the landing, opposite Henri and Marie, who whispered sharply in her husband’s ear. Henri nodded and addressed the two companions.
“Thank you for escorting Patrice home,” he spoke carefully, with a heavy accent, “We would speak with her privately. You are welcome to wait in the kitchen. It is warm and there is food. Have your driver bring the carriage around back.” With that he turned and entered the house, his wife following closely behind. Juliet moved to the edge of the steps and extended her hand to her daughter.
“Do come in,” Patrice offered a tight-lipped smile to the two men before mounting the stairs to take her mother’s hand, “I will tell them of our adventure this evening,” and walked with her mother into the house.
As they followed her up the steps, Wendell leaned over to Mr. Baine and quietly asked, “Do you think she will tell them all that happened in the forest?”
“Hardly,” came the muttered reply, “She has yet to tell us everything, and we saved her life.”