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It snowed. Snow, in fact, seemed to the travellers the beginning and the end. For a time it had blotted out everything; nothing existed but the whiteness, the frigidity.
As the snow deepened on the road and thickened in the sky, the postilion began to have a care for his horses. It had taken a generous glint of the realm's coin to convince him to undertake the journey, for the clouds had hung low and full.
He would have been quit of them yesterday if the lady had been able to hire a substitute, but none was available despite her liberal offers. He had not the heart to refuse her with the wee ones clinging to her. A base man must be hers for husband, to have to travel with just an abigail. Besides, the thought of the fat purse at the end blurred his doubts as to the wisdom of continuing into the regions of Northamptonshire which he had never travelled.
Shortly after midday he pulled his plodding team to a halt. The unexpectedness of it nearly unseated the lady and her abigail and brought forth a new burst of crying from the babe.
Knowing the postilion would not leave his team, Lady Juliane Perrill handed the babe to Cora and, pulling her cloak more firmly about her, stepped out. She sank to mid-calf as she came off the last step but the only notice she gave was to raise her skirts as she tramped tiredly to the postilion's side.
"What is it now?"
"The horses must rest--the snow is becoming too deep. 'Haps we might turn and go back toward sure lodgings?"
"That would be foolishness--we could not reach there by nightfall, which it almost is like now with this snowfall. I am certain we shall find an inn a short distance hence. Proceed as soon as the teamhas rested. It would be unwise to let them stand still for too long," she ended knowledgeably.
As if accustomed to instant obedience, she turned and plodded back to the coach. A spark of admiration for her stirred in the postilion, but did not ease his worry.
Back inside the coach, Lady Juliane took the babe and proceeded to quiet her.
"How much farther is it, Aunt Juliane?" a small voice piped from a mound of fur beside Cora.
"Not far, André, but remember, you are to call me 'Mama' for now. Are you warm enough?" she asked, anxiety creeping into her voice.
"Yes ... Mama. Do I have to sit on these bony bricks? They have no warmth left in them."
She sighed nodded for Cora to remove them. All of the warming bricks had long since lost any comfort. She shivered. Warmth, it seemed, was most difficult to find in England.
She cast a stern warning at Cora.
"I mean, my lady, hadn't we be better off to give this up? What good will come of all of us freezing to death? It is useless to go on."
Julianne pursed lips and gave a fierce dismissing nod.
Cora sighed inwardly and drew young André Renoit, Baron de la Croix closer to her for warmth.
Lady Juliane closed her eyes as she hugged the once again sleeping babe closer. She did not fear them freezing--far worse could happen--but she was concerned for the health of the children. André, at the young age of six, had been sturdy enough in their travels but the babe, Leora, was only nine and ten months and a far greater worry. The danger of either of them taking a chill was magnified dreadfully by the weather they had travelled through since leaving the children's home in Rouen.
The erratic forces of chance on life are always surprising, she thought.
When she had left her brother and his wife in India to travel to Rouen, she had resigned herself to the role of spinster aunt which she felt was what lay ahead of her as the years progressed. At her sister's home she would be expected to care for the children and to be a companion to Judith.
Her father had left a small competence that was not substantial enough for her to set up her own establishment, let alone hire a companion. Her brother and sister would not hear of her taking a paid position as governess or companion. Thus, for the five years since her father's death, she had acted as her widowed brother's hostess, Lord Perrill deciding to stay on in India with his regiment rather than return to the small, crumbling estate of Trewallen left him by his father. She had enjoyed life in India, free for the most part to do as she pleased; she had travelled with him as his duties took him from post to post.
Fascinated, she had watched him succumb to the snares and wiles of Lady Lowen, a recent widow just out of mourning, realizing too late what trend the alteration of her position would take after the marriage. Her brother and his new wife graciously plied her with invitations to remain with them but were hard put to feign sadness at her decision to visit Judith for a time.
Correspondence with Judith was erratic at best and, although no reply had been received from Juliane's letter telling of her intent to come, Lord Perrill decided that, because Judith was as flighty as a feather, Juliane should proceed to her despite the lack.
A small fuss was raised when she espoused to travel alone but, as she was five and twenty and not known to draw male attention, this was permitted. Juliane had some years before faced her looking glass and acknowledged she sadly lacked the feminine traits which attracted males. It was not that her brown hair was unattractive; indeed with its hints of auburn it was none the worse by comparison except in its style. Juliana thought it a waste to do anything more than the easiest, hence severest style, and a maid had never been considered for her.
Her spice-brown eyes, sparkling with vivacity, were her best feature. Her complexion had been ruined by her failure to keep covered on her many walking and riding forays. Her lips were full and firm but maintained too stern a line to invite attendance.
She considered herself a large woman, being several inches above the average in height with neither the undernourished thinness nor the tight-laced shape of other beauties. She carried herself well, although with grace more manly than feminine. Managing everything she undertook with a calm competence, she caused women to jealously deride her in gossip and the men to maintain a posture of polite respect. The aloofness with which she responded to the latter assured no advances from an admiring male.
The voyage from Bombay to Portsmouth, although long, had not proven arduous to her. The matter of arranging transportation from Portsmouth to Le Havre and then by land to Rouen had been taken care of by her brother as Earl of Lewallen. He believed that such matters were of too complicated a nature to be dealt with by the feminine gender. Although glad to be free from dealing with strangers, Juliane was elated to be free from the tyranny of this prejudice. It had often made matters difficult for her in the past.
A shadow was cast over the enjoyment of her travels by the rumours, lightly whispered at Portsmouth. They became low warning rumbles as she neared Rouen. The servants and postilions at Le Havre bordered on the insolent. They openly jested that the king and his family's confinement would end most unpleasantly.
The early months of 1793 did not bode well for many and, although Lady Juliane was not ignorant of the cross currents sweeping France, none of her knowledge prepared her for the scene that greeted her at Rouen.
Baron de la Croix's small estate lay outside the city. As she neared it, Lady Juliane saw increasing signs of ill care and disrepair. As the post chaise drew through the gateway and up the path to the château there was ever-increasing evidence of violence. Recent violence. She bade the postilion to await her and with a brave set of the shoulders entered the house.
Not a single servant greeted her and the halls and rooms she went through had been terribly mauled. Proceeding to the second floor, Juliane found it in much the same state. With trembling spirits she continued to the nursery on the third floor. It too had been ravaged.
As she turned to leave the nursery, Lady Juliane heard a stifled whisper and then the whisper of leather on wood as if someone had shuffled. Standing absolutely still, she looked about. Perceiving the doors of the wardrobe noticeably closed in the disarray of the room, she strode to them without a thought to danger and jerked them open.
Who was the most shocked--Lady Juliane or the young woman who stared at her, wild-eyed-one would have been hard to determine. Both stood like statues until a childish voice brought them to life.
"Cora, you are standing on my foot," piped the voice indignantly. "Why must we hide here? You said mon père would come for us soon." Tousled gold curls popped into Juliane's view. "Who are you? Did mon père send you?"
"No, your papa did not send me but surely he taught you not to speak unless spoken to."
The small face assumed an abashed aspect but the eyes belied it.
Lady Juliane reached into the wardrobe and lifted the small boy out. Cora stooped to pick up a bundle which lay further back. Handing it to Juliane, she edged forward and stepped down to the floor.
"Cora, what has happened here? Where is your mistress? Where is everyone?"
"Oh, miss, I mean Lady Juliane, I never thought to see you again." Her voice trembled and tears brimmed. "You just wouldn't believe what we've been through. God be thanked the children did not see it. Oh, it was terrible." Cora burst into tears.
Lady Juliane set aside any hope of learning more until she quieted the abigail. She shook her head in wonder that it was Cora she would find with the children. Judith had insisted on bringing Cora with her as lady's maid when she married and went to live in France. One was as featherbrained as the other and Cora was regarded a sad choice, being much the same age as the younger Juliane.
How had she come to be the one with the children? Lady Juliane wondered.
Cora began babbling, but unintelligibly.
Lady Juliane would have wrung her hands in despair but for the babe in them. She glanced about for a safe place to bestow the infant. A tug on her skirt made her look down and encountered a very serious young face.
"I can tell you what happened."
Turning from Cora, Juliane led him out of the room. She knelt before him and earnestly studied him. For one so young, he appeared mature far beyond his years. "I am your aunt, Juliane--your mama's sister. I have come from India."
He nodded, which she took to mean acceptance. "What happened here, André?"
The small face hardened, reminding Juliane distastefully of his father. "It was only a day or two ago--I forget, when they came. No one tried to stop them." Contempt thickened his young voice. "They ran through the house, yelling, 'liberté!' and destroying everything.
"Then I saw them shouting at ma mere. She sent Cora to get old Gurie and take us," he pointed at the babe, "away. We hid till all were gone."
Cora lumbered into the hall her blubbering under control. Juliane looked to her to finish the tale.
"They weren't even peasants from our estate, my lady, but ruffians and all manner of rabble. They said the king was dead; that the baron's wealth was to be theirs. Madame de la Croix tried to stop them and they..." She threw her hands up to her reddened, swollen face and sobbed anew.
André took a firm hold on Juliane's hand and tugged. She followed reluctantly. A sense of dread about what he wanted to show her hovered close.
They came out through the double doors that opened onto a veranda at the rear of the house overlooking the gardens. Leading her down the steps, he went only a short distance further and stopped before a massive rose bed. In the centre was a fresh mound of earth.
"Cora says Mama will never wake up. Est-ce la vérite?"
Juliane looked from the stark mound to the questioning eyes of the boy-child.
She knelt and drew him close with her free arm. "No, André, your mama will not wake again." A tear rolled down her cheek; memories of their childhood danced before her. Judith, ever gay and carefree, laughing and dancing through life, did not belong here.
André pulled back and raised his small hand to brush her tears away.
"Why are you sad? Cora says Mama will be happy forever in heaven--dancing and going to parties like she loved."
Juliane stifled her grief. "Yes, yes she will." She rose, and they walked hand in hand back to the veranda where Cora now awaited them.
"I'm that sorry she had to be buried there, my lady, but it was the only place we were able to dig..." she faltered.
Juliane cut her off with a sharp nod and handed the babe to her. "When do you expect Baron de la Croix to return?"
Anger and terror flamed afresh on Cora's features. "They say he knew they were coming. That he left us so he could escape them," she spat.
"How true it is I can't say, but he left in a vast hurry the morning before they came and gave no word when to expect his return. Madame was very upset."
Juliane did not know her brother-in-law well, but she had never liked him. Her vague prejudice led her to believe Cora.
Back in the main salon, she asked, "What of the other servants? Has no one been here from Rouen?"
"The servants have all deserted us. Some believe the revolutionaries will come back. Others spout nonsense about each one getting a piece of the baron's land. The people from the town are struck with fear. What happened here can happen to them. No one will help us."
Juliane did some mental calculations. They all ended at the same point. It was doubtful the baron would return. She must see to the safety of the children. To whom could she turn; where could they go?
Racking her brain, Juliane grasped at a glimmer--her mother's brother, the one about whom they never spoke. Tedfore, no, Thedfar; no, it was Thedford. She smiled recalling the one time he was mentioned just before Judith's marriage.
A letter had been received from him for Judith. It had thrown her mother into hysterics. He had never married and as a wedding gift to Judith, was making his will to name her firstborn son as his heir. The sisters had gotten many girlish giggles from this but their parents were tight-lipped and unresponsive to questions. They even refused to allow Judith to reply to the letter.
Lord and Lady Lewallen would not welcome me back with two children while on their honeymoon, or ever, thought Juliane remembering Lady Edith's dislike of children. Uncle Thedford is my--our only other close relative. André would be his heir. I must take the children to him. Even if he has died, there will be a home, a safe haven awaiting us.
Having seized upon a solution, Juliane was thankful anew for the full purse Lord Lewallen had insisted she carry. It would be most useful. She ordered Cora to pack whatever of the children's clothing that was undamaged or repairable.
They would travel to Northamptonshire. They would ask until they found the Thedford estate. There was little choice open to them.
Lady Juliane's head snapped back smartly against the unpadded seat of the coach, bringing her quickly to the present. The cold engulfed her.