Read an Excerpt
The Kent Family Chronicles (Book One)
By John Jakes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1975 John Jakes and Lyle Kenyon Engel
All rights reserved.
The woman's face burned, glowed as though illuminated by a shaft of sunlight falling from a high cathedral window. But the woman was no madonna, unanimated, beatific. Her face showed violent emotion.
He fought to turn away from the searing brilliance, but he could neither run nor move. The old, strangling dread began to tighten his throat—
The woman stared at him, accusing. Her black eyes shone nearly as bright as the highlights in her black hair where it crowned her forehead and cascaded on either side of her oval face. Behind her was darkness, nothing but darkness. It intensified the frightening radiance of her face, emphasized the whiteness of her teeth. Unlike most women of her years—she was three less than forty; he knew every dreadful detail—by some miracle of inherited health, her mouth was free of gaps and brown rot.
He struggled to hide from the face and could not even avert his head. The dread quickened. He heard his own strident breathing. It grew louder, because he knew she would speak to him—
And she did, the words frightening as always, frightening because he could never be certain whether she spoke from love or rage.
"Don't try to run. I told you—don't. You will listen."
Run. God, as if he could! He was held in that vast darkness where her face burned so fiercely; and her eyes—
"There will be no Latin. Do you hear? No Latin! You will study English. The reading and writing of your own language, and English. And how to figure sums—something I never learned. But I had no need of it, acting in Paris. You will. There's a different role for you, Phillipe. A great role, never forget that—"
Like coals on the hearth of a winter midnight, her eyes were fire, hypnotic. But they held no warmth. He was all cold sweat, terror, crippled immobility—
"I'll tell you what the role is when I feel the time is proper. Till then, you must obey me and learn English as your second tongue—and also such things as how much an English pound is worth. That way, you'll be ready to take what belongs to you. Let the fools around here chatter about the glory of France. The greatest empire the world's known since Rome lies across the water—where you must go one day, to claim what's yours. So let the little church boys learn their Latin from that bigot priest and his helper!"
Stabbing out, disembodied white things, white claws, her hands reached at him. Closed on his upper arms. She shook him, shaken herself with the ferocity of her passion.
Trying to deny her, negate her, he was able at last to turn his head from side to side. The effort required all his strength. But she would not release him. Her face floated closer, wrenching into the ugliness that brought the old, silent scream climbing into his throat.
"You will learn your English from Girard!" she cried. "From good, decent books—none of those filthy, blasphemous things he hides in his cupboard. Do you hear me, Phillipe?"
He tried to speak but his throat somehow remained clogged. Nothing but a feeble hiss of air came out between his teeth.
She shook him harder, then harder still, as a wind from the limitless dark tossed her lustrous hair. The wind added its keen to the rising shrillness of her voice; its blowing and buffeting seemed to shimmer the burning image of her face like a candle-flame in a gale—
"Do you hear what I say, Phillipe? Do you hear me?"
At last he brought forth sound: a howling, animal cry of fear and pain—
The wind-roar broke off like an interrupted thunderclap. He tore himself from the clutching hands, fled through the darkness. Away from the white claws. The face. The eyes—
But the darkness to which he fled was without substance. His legs churned on emptiness, as he fell, and fell, and fell—
This time the sound from his throat was a scream for mercy.
He awoke sweating. Sweating and—after a moment's realization that it was over—enraged.
The dream came on him from time to time. He should be used to it. But he wasn't. Always, the dream brought unaccountable terror.
In those first muzzy moments, his anger turned to shame. He rubbed his eyes to rid himself of sleepiness. The roughness of his knuckles against his eyelids was a reassurance.
His body was slick with sweat. Yet at the same time he was cold in the garret room above the inn. He knuckled his eyes harder. A little more of his drowsiness sloughed away. And more of the fear. He tried to laugh but made only a rough, croaking sound.
The dream's details were essentially the same on every occasion. Her face. Her eyes. Her hands. Her implied accusations, couched in the long, jumbled harangue. He'd heard bits of it before, often. In sleep. And awake too.
She always insisted that England was the rising star in the world's constellation of powers, and now he wondered again whether she said that because she had been treated so shabbily by her own people.
She always insisted that he was better—much better—than any of those among whom they lived.
But she refused to say precisely why. Whenever he pressed her for specifics, she would only smile—how haughtily she could smile!—and reply:
"In good time, Phillipe. In good time."
The garret smelled of straw, and his own sweat. He rolled on his side, toward the little round garret window that looked out onto the basalt hillside touched now with the glint of starlight. Under his left arm, the stiff corners of book spines jabbed him through the prickly wool of the knee-length shirt that he merely tucked into his breeches when it was time for the day's work to start.
Uncomfortable, he tugged the precious, carefully hidden books from under his body—the books whose contents he understood so poorly; the dangerous books Girard had been slipping to him for more than a year now, always with the caution that he keep them concealed.
One of the volumes, by an Englishman named Locke whom Girard much admired, had been helpful in Phillipe's study of the second language he had learned. But Two Treatises of Government also puzzled and confused him in many places. As did the other two books.
The first was a slim volume called Le Contract social. By a Swiss writer Girard called one of the philosophes, whenever he didn't refer to him with a wry smile as the mad Master Jean Jacques. The largest and bulkiest book was one of Girard's two most cherished possessions. The first volume of something called L'Encyclopedie—a compendium of the world's knowledge to date. Mind-numbing essays on everything from politics to the nature and construction of the heavens. Two more of those admired philosophes, a thinker named Diderot and a scientist named d'Alembert, had assembled the vast work, Girard said.
The first two volumes of the work had been suppressed the moment they went on sale because, as Girard put it, quoting with acerbity some official of the French government, the compendium "tended to destroy the royal authority, to encourage a spirit of independence and revolt and to erect the foundations of error, the corruption of manners, irreligion and impiety." Somehow a few copies had been privately circulated before the official suppression. Girard had been lucky enough to get hold of one of each of the initial volumes.
As Phillipe buried the books underneath the straw, his mind turned back to the dream. Perhaps he deserved it, as punishment. On every possible occasion when more legitimate works—safer works—were not under study, Girard patiently tried to explain some of the vast, hard-to-grasp ideas Phillipe could read but could not fully understand. Voltaire. Montesquieu. The mad Rousseau. They were all represented in that precious big book Phillipe slid on top of the other two and hid with straw. They were all, Girard maintained smugly, unarguably great. They were all rattling the world to its foundations—
And turning Phillipe into one corrupted by error?
If she only knew! How often would the dreams come then?
Probably never, he reflected with a small, weary smile. Very likely she wouldn't let him sleep but would lecture, lecture, lecture—
All three books safely out of sight, he relaxed a little. Breathed more slowly and deeply, for the first time since waking up. He sniffed the damp mist of fall drifting down from the Puy de Dome in the north. The tang of the autumn night was a kind of tonic, restoring his senses but shoving him hard into reality again—the reality in which he always doubted the dream and all it contained.
Another cold, difficult winter would soon wrap around the Velay plain and freeze the Allier, which flowed northward to join the Loire. The dreary days would pass, and he would shiver and work and sleep his life away at a moldering inn that no longer attracted many customers.
He stuck a straw between his teeth and chewed the end absently. He was supposed to believe there was some marvelous, shining future waiting for him? In England! The homeland of France's traditional enemies?
He bit on the straw and let the corners of his mouth wrench up in another sour smile.
The very idea was laughable.
But it was also an explanation of why he had no friends his own age. Though he hardly believed the shrilled promises of the dream and the daytime harangues that carried the same promises, he knew he sometime acted as if he believed them completely. Others sensed that unconscious arrogance—
God, he could make no sense of it. Especially not now. He was sleepy again, wanting to escape into dreamless rest. He was totally exhausted. He lay back on the straw, bumping the hidden books before he wriggled and got comfortable. He pulled up the ragged blanket that stank of smoke and age.
A splendid future? For him? Who was he, after all? A tavern boy, nothing more.
And yet, when her face came to him in the frequent dream—when she hectored him—he would wonder just a little, as he started wondering again now, whether there was something in what she said.
"In good time, Phillipe."
Was there something not yet revealed? Something waiting—as winter was waiting—to descend at its appointed moment? Something mysterious and exciting?
He didn't know. But of one thing he was utterly certain.
He feared and detested the dream. He hated being afraid of the savagery in the eyes of his own mother.
Ramshackle, its wood sign creaking in the ceaseless wind of Auvergne, Les Trois Chevres clung to a hillside above a narrow road some three kilometers below the hamlet of Chavaniac. Four persons lived at the inn, tending the common-room fire, sweeping the rooms and changing the bedding, cooking the meals and serving the wine. They drew a meager living from the occasional coachloads of gentry bound farther south or heading eastward, toward the dangerous Alpine passes to the sunshine of Italy, which he imagined, in his most realistic moods, that he would never see.
Such a mood was on Phillipe Charboneau in the misty dawn following the nightmare. He felt he would probably spend his whole lifetime in the rocky country that was the only homeland he could remember.
With eyes fully open and his mind turning to the cheese to be fetched for the coming week, he displayed no sign that he believed the promises his mother shrilled at him in the dream. No sign, that is, except a certain lift of the shoulders and a touch of a swagger when he walked.
Of course, a short but strongly built boy of seventeen could be expected to stretch and swagger some. There were wild, powerful juices flowing at that age.
Phillipe's mother, Marie, ran the inn. It had belonged to her now-dead father, who was buried, as befitted a good Catholic, in the churchyard at Chavaniac. Years ago, Marie had run away to Paris to act in the theaters, and found herself automatically excommunicated from the Mother Church.
Phillipe helped her with the place, as did the hired girl, Charlotte, a buxom wench with a ripe mouth and wide hips. Charlotte's people lived a kilometer farther south. Her father, a miller, had begotten seventeen children. Unable to keep them all, he'd sent some of the brood to find employment where they could. Under Marie's guidance, Charlotte did most of the cooking.
The fourth resident at Les Trois Chevres was Girard, the tall, thin, razor-nosed man who had wandered by some four years ago, a pack of precious books tied to a stick over his shoulder. He had been persuaded to stay on because, at that time, Marie needed an older, stronger male to help around the place. Coming downstairs to the common room this morning, Phillipe found Girard mopping up sticky wine stains from the one table that had been occupied the night before.
"Good day, Phillipe," Girard greeted, in French. "We don't exactly have a bustling trade again this morning. May I suggest another lesson?"
"All right," Phillipe answered. "But first I have to go buy more cheese."
"Our sole customer of last night ate it all, did he?"
"He was a scrawny sort for a traveling tinker," Girard observed. "On the other hand—" He clinked sous down in his greasy apron. "Who am I to question the man's choice of vocations? He paid."
"Is my mother up yet?" Phillipe asked, starting toward the old, smoke-blackened door to the kitchen. Beyond it, he smelled a fragrant pine log burning on the hearth. "I heard no sound from her room," he added.
"I imagine she's still sleeping—why not? Our tinker took the road early." Girard rolled his tongue in his cheek. "I believe the charming Mademoiselle Charlotte's back there, however. Take care that she doesn't attack you." One of his bright blue eyes closed in a huge wink. "It continues to be evident that she'd like nothing better."
Phillipe flushed. The subject Girard hinted at excited him. He understood what men and women did together. But in actual practice, it still remained a mystery. He stopped a pace from the kitchen door. Yes, he distinctly heard Charlotte humming. And for some reason— his ill-concealed excitement, or nervousness, or both—he didn't want to face her just now.
Girard perched on a corner of a table, amused. He was an oddly built man of about thirty. He reminded Phillipe of a long-legged bird. Origins unknown—destination and ambition in life, if any, also unknown—Girard seemed content to do menial work and teach Phillipe his lessons, orthodox and otherwise. Fortunately, master and pupil liked each other.
"Go on, go on!" Girard grinned, waving. "A warm bun and the ample charms of Mademoiselle Charlotte await. What else could a chap want on a nippy morning?"
But Phillipe shook his head. "I think I'll go after the cheese first. Give me the money, please."
Girard fished the coins from his leather apron, mocking him:
"Your virtue's admirable, my boy. Eschew temptations of the flesh! Cling to the joys of the soul and the intellect! After all, are we not privileged to be living in the greatest of all ages of man? The age of reason?"
"So you keep saying. I wouldn't know."
"Oh, we're grumpy this morning."
"Well—" Phillipe apologized with a smile. "I had a bad dream, that's all."
"Not because of Monsieur Diderot and company, I trust."
Phillipe shook his head. "But there are some more questions I want to ask you, Girard. Half of that business about politics, I just can't understand."
"But that's the purpose of education! To begin to understand! Then to want to understand!"
Excerpted from The Bastard by John Jakes. Copyright © 1975 John Jakes and Lyle Kenyon Engel. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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