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"Whew, I'm glad that's over!" The tall youth emerged from the candlelit dimness of the small chapel and took a deep breath of fresh, incense-less air. Turning to his companion, he added, "Gaby, we must go to England now!"
"Don't call me Gaby!" said Gabrielle automatically, then sighed. "I wish we could have held the service in Notre Dame." She pulled her hood over her dark curls as they stepped out into the chilly April shower. "Marthe did so love it. Even in winter, she always struggled up the hill to Mass." She looked up the cobbled street at the castle of Neuchâtel and the ancient church beside it.
"A bit above the touch of a mere serving woman," snorted her brother.
"How can you say such a thing, Gerard! Marthe looked after us all our lives. She was much more than a mere servant to us, and well you know it."
A black-clad priest hurried out of the church behind them.
"Mademoiselle, Monsieur D'Arcy, permit that I offer my condolences. You will have, perhaps, need of another housekeeper, n'est-ce pas?"
Gerard was still gazing up the hill at the castle. Gabrielle knew by the tautness of his arm under her hand how his anger flared at the sight of the flaunting red, white and blue French flag on the battlements.
"Merci, mon père, but we have not yet decided what to do next." Gabrielle's French was pure Parisian, without the priest's faint Swiss accent. "Marthe was with us for many years, you understand."
"A good woman who is now in heaven," he said, crossing himself. "I have not seen you before in my humble church."
You are Protestants, perhaps?"
"Yes," she said briefly. "Come, Gerard, we must not keep lebon père out in the rain."
Obedient to her tug on his arm, her brother followed her down the narrow street, walking carefully on the slippery cobbles.
"Nosy old man," he growled.
"You are in a difficult mood today. He's not nosy, just mildly inquisitive. If it were not for our situation, we should not be so sensitive to such questions. I wish Papa would come home!"
"As do I! Seven months and never a word! I tell you, it is past time we left Switzerland."
"I begin to think you are right. He has never been gone so long before, and with Marthe gone, and the news from Paris..."
"A month has passed since that business, and they are still negotiating. It is hard to believe it meant anything serious." Gerard's boyish face was despondent.
"They are playing for time. Bonaparte insults and threatens the British ambassador in public, accuses England of breaking the Treaty of Amiens. It will surely lead to war."
"Gaby--sorry, Gabrielle--we must leave for England at once! If I do not soon join the army, I shall be too old to fight Boney."
"At nineteen? Come now! All the same, if we stay we must find another servant, and no one could be so discreet as Marthe. We will never be able to conceal that we are English, and we cannot afford gossip about that, or about Papa's absence."
"And he has been gone forever. He told us not to wait if he did not return by spring."
Gabrielle shivered. "You call this spring? The roads through the mountains are barely open. We must go by La Chaux to Nancy, I think, and across northern France. Papa said it is best to avoid Paris."
"We are going then? Huzzah!" Gerard seized his sister's fur-gloved hands and swung her around, then hugged her.
"Silly boy," she said indulgently.
"Watch who you're calling a boy," he retorted, grinning. "You are precisely one year and three days older than me, so don't try to come the high and mighty, miss! I daresay it will take you days to pack up all your things. How soon can we leave?"
"The sooner the better." Gabrielle had already considered all the difficulties before them, and having made her decision she was not one to dither. "We must leave things in order in case Papa returns, and leave him some money, too. We cannot afford to hire a carriage, so we will have to ride--the diligence is far too slow--and we can only take what a packhorse can carry. And Gerard, I think it will be safer if I dress as a boy. I could pass as your younger brother, do you not think?"
"Famous! Shall you really? I daresay Madame Aurore will be vastly shocked."
"I shall change back before we reach London. Do you think Papa is right when he says Madame will welcome us to her home?"
"Who knows?" said Gerard blithely. "We shall find out when we get there, shan't we?"
Nearly a week passed before Gabrielle locked the door of the yellow stone townhouse that had been home for ten years, and turned to survey the mounts Gerard had hired from the inn. The sun had not yet risen, and she hoped none of the neighbours was watching her departure, dressed in a hastily altered pair of her brother's breeches and riding astride.
The Seyon gorge was dark and mysterious in the early morning light, the spring-flooded river bellowing invisibly below wraiths of mist. As the path rose, they emerged into pale sunlight. They passed processions of slow amber cows heading for the high meadows, and the sound of cowbells followed them up the steep slopes. At Vue des Alpes they paused to rest, and gazed across the wide green vale at the towering snow-clad mass of Mont Blanc.
"Goodbye, Switzerland," whispered Gabrielle.
"Neuchâtel is part of France now," Gerard pointed out, "and before that it was Prussian, and anyway we are still in it. The old border is beyond La Chaux."
Gabrielle sighed. "I was being sentimental, not political," she explained. "We may never return. I wonder what it will be like to live in England?"
"Let's get moving, or you may never find out!"
By the time they reached La Chaux-de-Fonds, Gabrielle's thighs were sore and tired and she would gladly have never seen a horse again. Her spirits revived over luncheon at a small, cosy inn, especially as no one questioned her appearance in male attire. Her disguise was a success, it seemed.
Slim, of middling height, her curly hair cut short, Gabrielle presented the appearance of a youth of fifteen or sixteen summers. And a good-looking youth at that, with her smooth-skinned oval face, tip-tilted nose and merry brown eyes. The blond-pigtailed maid who served them flirted with Gerard, but had an admiring glance to spare for his little brother.
"Le petit frère will break a few hearts when he is grown!" she exclaimed.
Le petit frère groaned when faced with a fresh steed, but declined Gerard's help in mounting. Though the rest had turned her legs to lead and every movement was an effort, to accept assistance would be out of character. Gerard, at her apparent age, had always refused aid indignantly. One of those strange masculine traits that she must attempt to adopt temporarily, she thought, struggling into the saddle.
They crossed the old border and rode north into France.
It began to rain. The road was unfamiliar, and full of potholes hidden by deep grey mud. The charming inn at La Chaux had provided them with a pair of sorry nags, and a packhorse that seemed to be asleep on its feet. As night approached, they were miles short of Belfort, their goal, and just entering a dreary village. Half the cottages were in ruins, mute reminders of fourteen years of revolution and war.
Gabrielle was so weary that she made no protest when Gerard helped her dismount in the yard of a small hostelry, barely more than a tavern. She could summon up no appetite for cold pigeon pie, and so went fasting to bed.
After a night spent between damp sheets, it took all her resolution to descend the stairs in the morning.
"Stiff?" asked Gerard, grinning.
"I cannot ride today!"
"There is a cabriolet we can hire as far as Belfort. And from there, there is a diligence to Nancy that our host swears will take no more than two days. It is the fast diligence."
"Two days to Nancy! I had hoped we might be there tomorrow. Oh Gerard, at that rate it will take a month to reach England!"
"Hush! I fancy the people here are not overfond of Napoleon, but it is best that they do not know our destination. If you cannot ride, we have little choice, do we?"
"I shall be better presently. Let us take the gig to Belfort, and find an inn where I can take a hot bath!"
"An excellent idea. I could do with one myself," he said, grimacing.
A hot bath did help the stiffness, but Gabrielle's thighs had been rubbed raw in her unaccustomed breeches.
"I'm so sore!" she told Gerard, meeting him for luncheon in the coffee room of the Hôtel du Tricouleur.
"Perhaps you should go back to skirts," he suggested, helping himself to a large serving of a casserole from which rose a mouth-watering aroma. "The more I consider, the more I think Papa would be horrified that I have allowed you to gallivant about in male dress."
"Nonsense! Papa will not care a farthing. And besides, you have not 'allowed' me, I chose for myself. He knows very well that I do not do what you tell me, so he will not hold you to blame. And I shall not wear skirts again until we are safe in England. By the time we reach Nancy, I shall be well able to ride."
"And half dead again a few hours later. No, Gab, we had best stick with the diligence. A few more days on the road will make little difference, after all."
"I believe you are still stiff yourself! I own I shudder at the idea of a saddle. Very well, if you promise to remember that it was your notion, and not to sulk, we shall go with the diligence."
Grinning, he promised.
The promise was not easy to keep. The coach to Nancy was the only "fast" one they found. All roads, it seemed, led to Paris. As they did not wish to visit that great city, they were reduced at times to carrier's carts, moving at barely a walking pace. Often they did walk, alongside or ahead of their baggage; Gabrielle grew sun-browned, developed a boyish stride, and ceased to worry about curls out of place, dust on her boots or a rip in her jacket. Not one of the French soldiers or officials they met gave them a second glance.
Gerard fretted at their slow pace. Listening to gossip in taprooms, to the chatter of fellow-passengers, he heard that the crowds of English fashionables who had flocked to Paris after the signing of the Treaty of Amiens were in full retreat towards Calais and the Channel ferries. Lord Whitworth, the British ambassador, went with them.
"You must be right," Gerard said, "it will be war, and soon. Everyone says so. The Channel ports will be closed before we get there."
"Then we must head for Dunkerque. Do you not remember the man Papa told us of, the Flemish fisherman?"
"Willem Snieders, was not that the name? Though I doubt I pronounce it correctly. We say that 'Le Hibou' sent us, and he will take us across."
"Yes, that is the one."
"What do you suppose 'Le Hibou' means?" "Gerard asked. Papa was so mysterious about it, told us never to mention 'The Owl' unless in dire need."
"As I recall, we discussed it endlessly and uselessly when first he mentioned it! He never would explain. Best we do not even say the word unnecessarily."
They were descending from the diligence at an inn in Tourcoing, still some two score miles from the coast, when they learned that King George had declared war on France. The borders were closed and all British citizens who had not left in time were under arrest.
"We ride for Dunkerque," decided Gabrielle. "Better sore than in one of Boney's gaols. I am grown used to breeches now, so perhaps it will not be quite so bad, but do please try to find me an easy-paced mount! Gerard, I think we must abandon the baggage. We will arouse less suspicion, besides being able to ride faster. Just one saddlebag each, for I must at least keep by me a gown to change into."
"It is almost dark. Will it not draw attention if we leave tonight?"
In the street outside the inn yard, a detachment of brass-helmeted dragoons clattered by.
"First thing tomorrow. Have them call us at dawn. I hope Willem Snieders is at home and ready to sail!"