Discreetly, Pierre pulled a linen handkerchief from his vest pocket. The vaporous morning mist obscured this movement which, Pierre knew, would infuriate his master. Mon Dieu, why did the man keep getting himself into these situations? Were there not enough maidens that he had to pursue the wife of –
‘Pierre, viens ici!” came the imperious command.
The young man hurried to the ancient oak where his master stood, pulling on soft calfskin gloves – his lucky pair. The velvet feather-trimmed hat he wore was askew. Pierre resisted the urge to straighten it.
The Comte was an old hand at this gentleman’s game, masquerading as honour. Pierre had thought, on more than one occasion, that the Madame who inspired this early morning misadventure should be witness to it. Then she and her kind might reconsider their casual flirtations. Still, Pierre had seen the bloodlust in a woman’s eyes at the guillotine. Perhaps among the aristocracy, this was the feminine expression of that emotion. A woman could not draw blood, but could cause blood to be let. Did it satisfy an inner craving for retribution against all injustices suffered by her sex?
Ah Pierre, you fool. You should have listened to Maman and gone into the priesthood, to enjoy the solitude of monks living peaceably within dark stone walls lit by sunshine filtering through coloured glass windows. Yes, that vision of tranquility drew him now, but in his youth, adventure had beckoned. Pierre had wanted to travel and see the world.
And, for a time, he did. Pierre worked the docks of Marseilles, and sailed thrice to the Far East as a mate on the ships dispatched by the king, in search of treasure and the spoils of wars he was too timid to fight himself. Le bon Dieu only knew how long Pierre could have lived such a life, had he not met M. le Comte on his third voyage.
When his manservant took ill and died on the voyage, the Comte was at loose ends. His pain was such that everyone knew his valet had been more friend than attendant, and the Comte felt weak and joyless without him.
One morning, Pierre was mopping the decks and spied the Comte, sitting in a sunny corner, reading.
“Ah, Les Miserables,” Pierre had exclaimed, upon recognizing the familiar black cover and white lettering.
“You there, mate, have you read this book?” the surprised gentleman came forward.
“Oui, monsieur, I have read the works of M. Hugo many years ago.”
“How extraordinary!” exclaimed the Comte, walking alongside Pierre, as he mopped the decks.
Each day, the Comte sought Pierre out, accompanying him on his rounds, asking questions and talking freely. Irritated by this, Pierre wanted to say, “If you are so at leisure, why do you not lend me a hand?” But, of course, he would not dare.
At journey’s end, Pierre distributed the baggage to the disembarking passengers. M. le Comte took his valise, then handed Pierre his calling card. “Come see me when you take shore leave. I wish to speak with you on a matter of some urgency. Do not stand on formality. Come soon.”
So it came to pass that Pierre became valet to M. le Comte. And thus it was that he had heard these challenges many times before, his fear lessening each time the scene played out triumphantly.
This morning, as le Duc d’Iny approached, Pierre’s heart lurched then thumped apace. M. le Comte was slowly pacing to a count of 10, for luck and for warmth. Le Duc’s second shivered, his eyes fixed upon his master as he walked along the grassy copse. Pierre crossed himself and prayed.
The signal flared. Two shots were fired. Morning mist and pistol smoke made it hard to see who remained standing, so Pierre and the other man drew close to the scene.
Mon Dieu, this is one challenge M. le Comte should not have accepted. And yet, perhaps, this would be his choice – to bid adieu to a world that had not been as kind to him as he had expected it to be.
Attending to the corpse of his beloved benefactor brought no tears. Only wistful thoughts of the life he had lived. Pierre had sailed the high seas and seen far off lands. Lived in the lap of luxury with M. le Comte. People both high born and low, at their best and their worst, had passed before him. Alas, there was no more of life he wished to see.
Biens. Perhaps I will go to the Abbe and make enquiries, he whispered to himself, as the coach carried them away.