as a member of the highest aristocracy, the marquise annette de normand had been trained from birth in the twin arts of diplomacy and duplicity.
so it was with no visible trepidation that she accompanied her captors to the carriage they had brought for her arrest. the younger, and apparently better bred of the two men in gray, opened the door of the carriage for her, waited until she was seated, and then, to her mild but unexpressed surprise, followed her in and seated himself across from her. one of the two blue-uniformed guards put his pistol in his belt and jumped up beside the coachman.
the other guard joined the coachman on top of the second carriage. the door of the second carriage opened from within and the older man in gray entered it unassisted.
the guard on top of the first carriage glanced back and signaled to the second coachman. he tapped the coachman beside him on the arm and in seconds they were off down the hill.
annette could not forbear looking out the window at the castle. but the carriage gained speed so quickly that she had no opportunity to see if anyone was at the front window, or to wave to them even if she had.
she leaned back. the carriage was surprisingly comfortable. she looked around the interior. it was also surprisingly clean. suddenly she lurched forward, as the carriage raced around a bend in the road, but she quickly recovered without falling all the way forward into the young man's arms.
leaning back again, she favored her companion with her most dazzling smile. "are we in a hurry?"
"i am afraid so, mademoiselle. the revolution is in a great hurry." he smiled at her. "i, myself, not so much. but i am only a servant of the revolution."
"yes, you mentioned that before. if it is not too impolite, might i inquire your name?"
"manfred. citizen manfred."
"manfred! rather a romantic name, for a humble servant of the revolution."
"yes, it is. you are quite perspicacious. as a matter of fact, i have petitioned to have it changed to something more suitable - like citizen jacques."
"ah. so your name is not - suitable. how interesting, that the brethren of the revolution should concern themselves with such niceties."
the young man flushed slightly. "not so much as all that. but you, mademoiselle, no doubt you are more concerned with your own situation than with my humble one."
"no doubt. and are you, in your capacity as a humble servant, privy to the disposition of my fate, and are you then empowered to advise me of it?"
"not exactly, no. i can only repeat what i intimated before - the general policy of the central committee toward women of your class."
"which is - "
"to use them as bargaining chips in our dealings with the barbarian nations who threaten us."
"oh, yes. these barbarians - so different from your civilized selves, of course, put what value on such as myself? a small province, perhaps? a few hundred acres of farmland? surely not so much as a lootable castle or cathedral?"
the young man laughed. "oh, nothing so specific as that. you are simply part - of -of - a general softening of manners that they aspire to."
"ah. no doubt to be delivered along with a few jars of lotion to soften their sunburned and battle-scarred skins."
"i am happy to see that mademoiselle is able to find humor in her situation."
annette leaned back in her seat and looked out the window. the carriage had reached the bottom of the hill and was now passing flat farmland.
"tell me about yourself, sir. i can feel that you are bursting to do so."
he blushed slightly again. "what is there to tell? the revolution is rushing forward, obliterating the histories of us all. what can we do, but allow ourselves to be hurled onward, and not be lost in the foam."
"ah. somehow that statement seems a bit lacking in true revolutionary zeal."
"do you think so?" he stared at her, with eyes she now noticed were very dark, and with a more confident smile than before.
"tell me, then - what is this about changing your name? i thought that - and given my present situation, now have every reason to be convinced - that all the zeal is directed against us unfortunate women. are the menfellows not then all brothers - or will that happy day only arrive when we have been properly disposed of?"
"i suspect that mademoiselle's experience of the world has heretofore been confined to members of her own class, to the politest tradesmen, and to the most well-trained servants."
"and to a few poets and philosophers."
"but what do they amount to? alas, the rest of the human race is one unhappily buzzing hive of resentment, recrimination and jockeying and jostling for even the meanest position. it may be a while before even the brightest revolutionary sun sheds its beneficial rays into its dark hollows and recesses."
"and you, sir, find yourself the target of these resentments from your previously less favored brethren? how sad. how very sad."
"not so sad. a shadow, perhaps. a shadow quickly walked through, into the sunlight."
"and what were the cause of these resentments? that you dressed in silk? that you had latin and greek drilled into you at school?"
"well, mademoiselle, i will tell you. strange as it may seem, one of the chief complaints was the supposed treatment of the women and girls of the lower classes by the menfolk of the higher."
"ah. the same women they now seek to rid themselves of?"
"how very odd." annette looked out the window again. she pondered her companion's words. the " supposed treatment of the women and girls of the lower classes by the menfolk of the higher," was not a subject she had ever considered before, or been invited to consider.
they were now passing through a forest of sorts, actually the very well kept up hunting preserve of the duc de montardon.
they both fell silent.
after a while, annette asked, "are you to accompany me all the way to - my destination?"
"not at all. in fact, i will leave you when we arrive in the village." the village was now only a mile away.
"and will i have a new companion?"
"only the coachman, and the guards accompanying us now."
like many of his fellow humans in this distressed and distressing modern age, georges groy, second clerk at m hobart's fine foods wholesale business, suffered most terribly from ennui.
on this particular morning his unfortunate condition was more pronounced than usual, and is often the case, for no particular reason. had there been a particular reason his anguish might have been eased, with the prospect of the particular reason being overcome or dealt with. but as the brotherhood and sisterhood of this dreadful malady know only too well, its very nebulousness is its most pitiless attribute.
under the circumstances the comtesse d'a...............'s bill, which m hobart had thrust upon him when he entered, was something of a blessing to him, as it would occupy at least a small portion of his mind.
it would also provide him with an excuse - not that he needed one - to ignore the murmurings and soft complaints of little paradin, the third and lowest ranking clerk in m hobart's establishment. that is, when paradin arrived, for he had not yet done so.
groy took his place upon his high stool and placed the comtesse's bill on the wide wooden counter before him. groy was somewhat above the average height, and forced to stoop uncomfortably over the counter, said counter being unfortunately too high to allow of his working standing up, as he had done in some of his previous clerkly employments.
the long counter he shared with the not yet arrived paradin was surmounted by two shelves divided into compartments of varying sizes, and from one of the centermost compartments he extracted a sheaf of papers on which were recorded the most recent entries to the accounts of the regular customers. after a period of two or three months, if these entries had been paid up and not challenged, they would be entered into the formidable main account book by m due, the chief clerk.
m due had, of course, already arrived and was working away placidly at his desk in the corner, a desk which, though of generous enough size, did not seem able to accomodate his considerable bulk in the comfort befitting his station. but he never complained, either of that or of anything else, thereby setting an example to which groy seemed to adhere but not paradin.
m due had ignored groy's entrance not from rudeness - for he was the mildest and most polite of men - but from the absorption - whether in dreams or in his ledgers, who could say? - which was his most pronounced characteristic.
at last he looked up, "ah, there you are, groy. a pleasant day. at least it promised to be when i arrived."
"it is indeed, monsieur. a very fine day indeed."
and with that, both turned back to their assigned tasks.
groy expected the establishment's copy of the comtesse de a-----------'s bill to be third from the top of the sheaf he had taken from the central compartment, beneath the bills for m alcide and madame andrus. and it indeed proved to be the bill third from the top, beneath those of m alcide and madame andrus. he put the remaining papers back into the compartment.
he now took the two copies of the bill - the copy he had just seized upon and the copy of the comtesse's copy which m hobart had bestowed upon him - and spread them side by side in front of him on the counter.
at this point in the proceedings he had one fearful thought - that the comtesse - actually of course the comtesse's major domo or factotum - might be disputing the receipt of an order of truffles.
his first glance at the company bill showed no truffles! a pang shot through him. but a quick perusal of the comtesse's bill also showed no truffles, and his beating heart subsided. truffles had not been ordered at all, whether the comtesse's establishment had intended to or not. the worst outcome - that they had been paid for but somehow lost in the procurement and delivery - was not to be visited upon him. he had been spared. all this - the paralysis of fear, the flood of relief - had transpired in a matter of a few seconds.
with his breathing and pulse back to normal, he studied the two bills in a rapid but calm manner. if truffles were not involved, things could not be too bad. he looked at the bottom of the comtesse's bill - the total had been struck through and a new total - lower by ten francs - had been inscribed in a small, neat hand. the head housekeeper's? no matter.
no doubt some item worth ten francs had not been delivered, or not been recorded as delivered. it would be replaced with m hobart's apologies. the delivery man, or boy, would be questioned. it was one of groy's duties to go down to the stock room, find, and question him. he would then report the result of his investigation to m due, who would issue a final and irrevocable judgment on the unfortunate porter - a docking of his pay, banishment, or if his stars were in perfect alignment, a stern warning.
another day at hobart's , wholesaler of fine foods.
suddenly a dark cloud settled on groy's brain. he waited for it to pass, but it did not pass.
as was his practice, he tried to think of something more pleasant. with the alacrity of a fly settling on a piece of fruit, his brain fixed on the scene he had briefly witnessed in the street outside the office, before entering.
the two drabs squabbling in the dust under the mildly amused stares of the eternal morning idlers - one of them he had probably passed a dozen times, but the other - so young, so young! and she had looked him in the eye - only for a second, true, but she had looked him in the eye. and what an eye she had had!
groy's experience of the fair sex was not commensurate with his fascination with it.
the young woman's green eye - surely it had been green, "purest cat's green" - swelled in his mind, driving away the black cloud, and leaving him on an even greener lawn, in front of a magnificent chateau, under a cloudless blue sky, with the young woman, now in a long white dress, with a fresh unpainted face, twirling a single red flower in her slender fingers and looking up at him with limitless gratitude for saving her from - from - -. here the fantasy faltered a bit, and groy's eye fell on the word's - "2 dozen english biscuits",and "1 lb corsican olives" in the center of the comtesse's copy of the bill.
he would continue the fantasy at his brief lunch period, or even later, in his clean little furnished room. a sidelong glance at m due's desk reassured him that he had not been caught in his daydream.
for what would m due, or m hobart, or his colleague paradin think, if they knew of the thoughts that drove through his brain like rain-laden clouds all day? little did he realize that all three - but especially "little paradin" - spent the large part of their days in similar reveries, but of a decidedly more savagely masculine nature.
"ah," he heard the voice of m due "there you are, paradin. i was beginning to worry about you."
this was m due's little joke. for paradin arrived exactly on time every day. the ability to do so seemed, to his fellows, to be his only distinguishing feature.
eugenie took a sip of the tea which the comtesse had poured for her. she found it excellent, though a little hot for her liking.
"before we go on, aunt, let me say that although you may find the details of my story to be of little interest to you, the upshot of it may be."
"oh? and what might that be?"
"that i am being hunted by the police of eight continents."
"oh, the police never come here. nobody comes here."
"but what if they did?"
the comtesse shrugged. "i suppose we will find out when they come. and find out how much they want. i assume you have enough for a reasonable bribe."
"actually i do not. i do not have anything - except the proverbial clothes on my back. and besides, if bribes were all it took, i would not be here."
"why?" the comtesse took a sip of her tea.
"why? because i am being hunted by police who can not be bribed."
"pooh! in that case, why were they hired in the first place?"
"i did not hire them myself."
"but surely you have connections to the people who did."
eugenie smiled politely. although she was wanted by the police of eight continents for her activities as a bomb-tossing anarchist, she never forgot her good breeding. she chose her words carefully.
"i am not sure that i do. i am not sure that anybody has connections to inspector macgougal of the special squad. except perhaps the crowned heads of europe and asia. in any case he has a reputation for being quite above bribes."
the comtesse did not reply, but turned and looked out the window. the day was darkening. after a while she said, "how long did you plan on staying here?"
"as long as i am not intruding, dear aunt."
"oh in that case, stay as long as you like."
"that is very generous, dear aunt. i don't know how to thank you."
the comtesse looked out the window again and suppressed a yawn. "you can thank me by amusing me. did you say something about telling me a story?"
"of course. i would be happy to tell you a story. what kind of story would you like?"
"i am not some kind of monster, i like the kind of stories everybody likes - stories about beautiful young princesss who live happily ever after."
the comtesse looked up as jeanette, the maid, entered the room.
"is everything satisfactory, madame?"
"more or less. you have come at an opportune time, jeanette, mademoiselle here is going to tell a story. you enjoy stories."
"oh, yes, madame, very much."
"then make yourself comfortable. i trust you are not too busy to do so."
"oh no, madame. thank you, madame, you are too kind."
"and what sort of stories do you like?", eugenie asked jeanette.
"oh, i am not a monster, i like stories about beautiful and bold young heroines who live happily ever after."
"very well, then." eugenie fortified herself with another swallow of the hot tea. "let us begin then. " she put the teacup down.
"once upon a time there was a beautiful young princess. she lived in a faraway castle on the edge of a faraway sea. but although the castle was far away , it was not far enough away to shield it from the intrigues and turmoils of the world.
some years before, the princess's mother, the queen, had had a spell placed on her by a wandering magician and been turned into a tarantula. a series of lord chamberlains had made every effort to apprehend the magician - or discover whose employ, if any, he had been in - but at the point at which our story begins, they had had no success.
the tarantula, meanwhile, was kept in a comfortable, airy and well lit room in a strategic part of the castle, where a specially trained retinue of servants kept it well fed and well groomed. the former servants and attendants of the queen had all been arrested on suspicion of complicity with the wandering magician, and were languishing in a dungeon deep beneath the castle.
the princess was permitted to visit the tarantula every day. she brought it little treats from the castle's excellent bakery, such as blueberry scones or strawberry cakes, of which it was especially fond.
one morning as the princess was returning to her chambers from a visit to the tarantula she was informed by one of the palace guards that the lord chamberlain wished to see her.
the princess had seen numerous lord chamberlains come and go and she had grown accustomed to their often whimsical and arbitrary ways. some were cold and dignified and concerned only with matters of grave import, others given to retailing little jokes and stories meant to amuse her, although the princess had a sensitive and romantic nature and was not so easily amused. one particularly jovial fellow had made a habit of pinching her cheeks - he was the only one she had personally had removed.
none of the lord chamberlains had ever changed the furniture or decor of the lord chamberlain's chambers - a spartan suite of rooms within easy distance of the dungeons.
'yet another one,' thought the princess without surprise as an unfamiliar face looked up at her from the divan in the innermost sanctum of the chambers. the new lord chamberlain - a self satisfied looking individual neither old nor young - rose with what she regarded as an unseemly lack of alacrity and bowed, none too deeply.
'we meet again, your highness.'
'again? i do not recall having had the honor.'
'your highness was but a child on our previous encounter. '
'then no doubt it passed pleasantly enough. please, be seated, sir.'
the princess seated herself in the high chair reserved for her use.
the lord chamberlain smiled. 'my name is b------. i am sure we will have a pleasant relationship. hopefully not too long as your parent will no doubt be restored to her former condition. the full resources of the kingdom are even now being tasked to bring about that happy conclusion. and - i am happy to say we have enlisted the cooperation of a number of other kingdoms and principalities in the effort.'
'the supposed cooperation.'
'of course. what else would you have?'
'thank you, my lord, for this information. had you anything else for me today?'
'oh, yes. more, much more. very important matters indeed - matters directly concerning your self.'
'and what might those be?'
the lord chamberlain rubbed his hands together. 'these are difficult and dangerous times. in times such as these it becomes imperative - imperative - that we forge strong alliances with such of our neighbors as - as we can forge strong alliances with. do you understand what i am saying?'
'get to the point, please , sir.'
'very well. negotiations have been begun to have you marry the prince of w---------.'
the princess laughed. "i am sorry, sir. perhaps you have not yet had time to read the memoranda i am sure your numerous predecessors have left behind. i have made it as clear as possible that i will not be party to any such proceedings.'
'i am aware that your highness has indeed made known her feelings on the subject. hitherto there has been no reason to press the point or to be so rude as to offer any contradiction. but now the time has come - the time has come.'
'i will marry whom i please - if at all.'
'no doubt this comes as a shock. but surely your royal highness has always known this day would come.'
' i have two younger sisters. i can not speak for them - but they might be more amenable to your plans.'
'the prince of w------- would regard it as an insult to be offered a younger sister. besides, it is you who are heir to the throne.'
'i have made it clear - i will renounce my claim to the throne, if necessary.'
'i am sorry but that is not an option. but there is no hurry. take an evening to think about it - in the morning all will be clearer.'
'i will tell you what i will take an evening to think about - having you thrown into the dungeon and replaced.'
'oh? i do not think so, mademoiselle. it is i who will have you put away, if it comes to that.'
'i will call the guard now. they will obey me.'
'do you think so? call them - we shall find out'. "
eugenie paused, and picked up her cup of tea.
the comtesse had fallen asleep. behind her the windows were washed with the returning rain.
jeanette was sitting up in her chair attentively. "shall i continue?'" eugenie asked her.
"oh, by all means, mademoiselle. if you please. would you like some more tea?"