Manon d’Epinay is on her way to Paris to wed one of the most powerful nobles in France, an adviser to King Louis. But en route, her coach is attacked by marauding revolutionaries. To save her family, Manon strikes a devil’s bargain with a seductive highwayman that will seal her fate. For revolution is about to tear France apart—and transform her life forever.
The French Passion is the vibrant story of three ardent people at a momentous turning point in history: Manon, a daring, impoverished aristocrat caught between two charismatic men, who does what she must to survive; Andre, whose past is cloaked in mystery and who risks his life to protect the woman he loves as he fights to bring justice and equality to his countrymen; and the Comte de Crequi, bound by the age-old laws of nobility and class, whose passions for his country and for Manon run deeper than anyone could have imagined.
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About the Author
Briskin was born in London, England, the granddaughter of the chief rabbi of Dublin, Ireland. Her family moved to Beverly Hills, California, to escape Adolf Hitler and religious orthodoxy. A few years later, she married her best friend and the love of her life, Bert, whose family was deeply embedded in Hollywood and the movie business. When Briskin’s three children were little more than toddlers, she attended a class at UCLA entitled “The Craft of Fiction.” To her surprise, it was a class about writing fiction rather than reading fiction. And so her career began.
Over the next forty years, many of Briskin’s books topped the New York Times bestseller list. Her adoptive home of Los Angeles and her husband’s old stomping ground of Hollywood often play a prominent role in her meticulously researched books.
Read an Excerpt
The French Passion
By Jacqueline Briskin
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 Jacqueline Briskin
All rights reserved.
"We never should be on the road, not in the dark," wailed Aunt Thérèse, twining her plump, gloved fingers. "We were meant to be at the Hôtel de la Poste two hours ago."
"Two hours," I said. "By an odd coincidence, Auntie, that's how long we had to wait for the horse to be shod."
My effort to calm her with a joke didn't work. Aunt Thérèse went on, her voice trembling. "These days there are so many rough people about. Highway robbers."
This was true. One heard of lawlessness, particularly on the Paris-Rheims road. Aunt Thérèse, as if to catch a glimpse of (supposed) highwaymen, peered out the small window of our old coach, and Jean-Pierre and I both turned involuntarily. Several miles back, when we left the smithy, our carriage lanterns had been lit. This smoky light, veiled by hard rain, was all we could see.
The horses floundered into a mudhole. We jounced in unison, Aunt Thérèse fell against me, and Jean-Pierre, who sat opposite, reached out to steady her.
"What was that?" she panted in terror. "What?"
"Nothing, Auntie," I said. "The peasants aren't doing their road duty, that's all."
"Sometimes robbers dig a pit to slow travelers—or so they say."
Aunt Thérèse, our great-aunt, was very kindhearted. And very old-fashioned. She was forever quoting they and them.
"You tell me, Auntie," I asked, "what sane criminal would brave this storm to rob so dilapidated a coach?"
"Manon," she reproved, "you mustn't joke about serious matters always. Soon you'll be married."
At the word married, I gave a small involuntary shiver.
And my brother, far better at soothing than I, said in his musical tenor, "There've been dragoons on this road."
"Jean-Pierre, that's exactly what I mean!" she cried. "They're patrolling because of the lawlessness! At our last stop they told of a terrible case that happened just the other day. The people, a baron, and his wife and sister, were robbed of everything. The baron was killed. The ladies were"—she stopped, glancing at me before she went on in a low voice—"they were mistreated."
"How much sadder," I said, "for the dead Baron than his mistreated ladies."
"You're too young to understand what I'm talking about, Manon." And the dear, stout old spinster, her corsets laced so tight she was breathless, held a hand over her traveling cloak where her heart was. Aunt Thérèse firmly believed that I, living among farm animals all my sixteen years, was innocent of what the male did to the female.
In the gloom I caught Jean-Pierre's eye. My brother winked. It was all I could do not to burst into laughter.
Dear, dear Jean-Pierre. Brother, friend, only kinsman. I would do anything for him. When I was three and he four, our parents had died of the cholera on the same day, and being orphaned made us closer than most brothers and sisters. Jean-Pierre might be the elder, yet always I mothered him. His health was delicate. Often he grew feverish, with coughing spells and head pains, and during these illnesses I stayed in his dark room, nursing him. Because of the head pains he often skipped his lessons, and I would hide him in my bed curtains, protecting him from the almost blind tutor's cane. To be honest, illness wasn't the only reason Jean-Pierre left his books. Both of us had inherited the d'Epinay fun-loving streak. Together we would wade in streams and slide down haystacks, ride fat farm horses, race our dogs through the woods. Jean-Pierre would sing. He had a lovely voice and I could listen to him for hours.
In this dim light I could make out the delicate arch of his forehead, the proud angle of his head. He looked, and was, an aristocrat. In olden times we d'Epinays had been wealthy and powerful, but various generations had sold off farms and manor houses to pay for fine clothes, a night of gambling—the d'Epinays, people said, never spared themselves a pleasure. Now, in 1785, Jean-Pierre's legacy was a mortgaged ramshackle house with a leaking slate roof. And I had the d'Epinay opals, a necklace currently hidden in the secret drawer under the bench below Aunt Thérèse's voluminous skirts.
Our poverty never disturbed me.
Jean-Pierre, however, often spoke wistfully of a miraculous future when somehow the d'Epinay fortunes would be reversed, and we would again be of France's great nobility. Our house, our shabby clothes, embittered him. Odd. Usually it was Jean-Pierre who blocked out unpleasantness. He saw the bright side of everything. Even thrashing with the pain of a fever bout, he would say, At least I don't have to do my rotten lessons! These two things, his hatred of our poverty and his ability to see the good side, were why Jean-Pierre approved of my marriage to the Comte de Créqui.
It might have been Aunt Thérèe who had gathered us, a pair of bewildered, weeping orphans, to her soft vanilla-scented bosom and raised us, but it was the Comte de Créqui who was our guardian.
The Comte de Créqui was one of the great nobles who surrounded King Louis. He hunted with the King, he rode in the King's coach, he advised the King. The Comte had visited us once, when our parents died, and I remembered him as a tall, black-glittery figure with a snow cloud of a wig.
This May, for my sixteenth birthday celebration, he had visited again. A three-year-old's sense of height isn't reliable. The Comte de Créqui's imposing bulk of chest and shoulder was feebly supported by short, thin legs. Quick raisin-dark eyes were set in the face of a clever monkey. Despite this ugliness, though, he exuded breeding and presence. His black satin frock coat glittered with diamond-paved buttons. His neck moved easily in his high lace-trimmed white stock. He had the almost brutal politeness of a man who knows he can have whatever he wishes—mansions, fine horses, loose women. He was a widower.
My mother's green silk dress had been cut down to fit me. My hair, so fair as to appear powdered, I'd let fall in silky curls behind my neck. Aunt Thérèse, inspecting me before the dinner, exclaimed over my delicate figure, silver-blond hair, high forehead, white skin, rosy cheeks, the green of my eyes, adding that I should tuck a fichu in my low neckline. Oh, Auntie! I'd cried. Don't be so old-fashioned!
The Comte de Créqui told amusing tales of Court life. He was an old man, six years older than our father had been. Yet such was the strength of his personality that I found myself responding flirtatiously to his wit. He smiled at me so intently across the smoking candelabrum that before the lamb was carved I was wishing I had tucked that fichu in my low-cut bodice to hide the rounded tops of my breasts. Yet ... wasn't there a faint twinge of pleasure in having this great noble who passed his days and nights with the celebrated beauties of Versailles Palace gaze at me?
That night the Comte announced to Aunt Thérèse he would marry me. Not a proposal. An order. She knew me better than to tell me before his coach pulled out of our muddy yard. I'm high-spirited, impetuous, and—everyone says—too willful for a girl. She knew my answer. No, no, no, I shouted through low, water-stained rooms.
Aunt Thérèse panted after me, saying that this house was mortgaged, and we owned nothing except the hand-me-down clothes we wore. A poor, dowryless girl should be overjoyed by such a great match.
Never! I cried, locking myself in my room, flinging myself on my bed, whispering never, never. Call me a romantic, but I wanted a love match. I sobbed through two days.
It was Jean-Pierre who brought me around. The next few weeks he spoke of the Comte de Créqui's good points. He was amusing. He was immensely powerful. Créqui was an ancient and honorable name, and the Comte, close to King Louis, was welcome in every great mansion in France. Think Manon, you'll be a Comtesse, Jean-Pierre said with his lilting charm. When you're presented to the Court, you'll outshine every lady, including Queen Marie Antoinette. You'll give elegant card parties and dances. At your midnight buffets you'll serve the best wines and pheasant pastries. And as for me, I'll woo and win a beautiful heiress and we d'Epinays will again be respected.
I never could resist Jean-Pierre's enthusiasm.
One hot August afternoon that smelled of ripening pears, I wrote a formal acceptance letter to the Comte de Créqui. To be honest, it was more the thought of Jean-Pierre's hoped-for marriage to an heiress than my own that prompted my acceptance. As I said, I'm a romantic, and I wanted to marry for love. Foolish, yes. In this modern day and age, as everyone knows, a girl looks for love anyplace but in marriage.
But what other choice did I have?
Now, jolting through the stormy night, every mashing turn of the wheels bringing me closer to Paris and the Comte de Créqui, I felt my stomach grow tighter and tighter with apprehension. I dreaded spending the rest of my life under those cynical raisin-dark eyes.
Jean-Pierre, to soothe Aunt Thérèse, was humming old children's tunes. "Frère Jacques ..."
I forgot the rainy night, forgot my approaching marriage. Lulled by the jolting and by my brother's singing, I drowsed.
I jerked awake.
It took me a moment to realize the eternal rumble of wheels had stopped and we were no longer jolting. Outside, loud over the rain, were men's shouts. My heart began to pound. Aunt Thérèse had fallen toward me, her weight pressing me against the coach wall. She breathed in gasping moans.
The door burst open. Wind and rain swept in the men's voices. Yet this silhouette wasn't human. It was a monster drawn from the dripping depths of the woods, a great amorphous blackness with one distinguishable feature: a dull gleam, like a claw.
Aunt Thérèse crossed herself. Instinctively, I put a protective arm about her soft, quivering shoulders.
"Wh—what are you?" Jean-Pierre asked, his tone for once unmusical, quavering to a boyish falsetto. "What do you want?"
The old coach shuddered and trembled as the creature hauled itself aboard.CHAPTER 2
It wasn't a monster but a man. A tall man wrapped in a tiered cape, which gave him his odd, unearthly outline. The gleaming claw was the muzzle of a pistol. Terrifying enough, but at least human. I let out a small sigh of relief.
From outside a loud peasant voice bawled, "What's we got?"
And another peasant out there called, "Is it more of them fine folk, on the way to Versailles Palace?"
By the dim light of carriage lamps, I got the impression of a wolf pack, gleaming eyes and teeth, outside the coach.
The man inside spoke. "A fair young gentleman," he called in educated tones. Bending, he thrust his head toward Aunt Thérèse. She gasped louder. I squeezed her shoulder. "An old lady."
He turned, peering at me. Even in my terror, I noted every detail of his rain-wet face. He had a small scar just above his bold hawk nose. His full lips were well formed, his eyes deep set and dark, his bared head dripping with locks of black hair. But to describe his features is meaningless. It was his expression that entrapped me. Brooding, intense, yet oddly kind.
In that heartbeat as we gazed at each other, I thought: He's a poet.
"Another woman," he called.
"Looks like a pretty little pullet to me," one of the men shouted.
There was a burst of laughter and crude remarks.
"Throw her out!"
"Let's pluck her feathers."
And then someone shouted, "Take care of the cockerel first."
I began to shiver, remembering Aunt Thérèse's words. The Baron was killed. ... What if they killed Jean-Pierre? Oh my God, I thought, my mind dizzy with fear. Death comes in an instant and is as long as eternity. My brother ... And below the dizziness I felt my brain clench like a fist. I knew without doubt I would do anything, anything, to save Jean-Pierre.
Pushing aside Aunt Thérèse's soft weight, I sat up. "Monsieur," I said, surprised at the coldness I'd mustered, "we have nothing of value, but choose what you wish, then we must be on our way."
"You're not in any position to give orders, mademoiselle," said the highwayman, equally cold.
"Don't talk to my sister!" Jean-Pierre snapped.
"Jean-Pierre," I said, "he's right. We are his prisoners."
Out of the darkness came a shout. "Give us both hens, old and young, we ain't fussy. And get to work on that young rooster."
My shivering increased. My voice stayed level. I said, "Use your pistol on me before him."
Said the highwayman, "Just keep silent!"
At this Jean-Pierre raised his arm toward me. A sudden movement. The highwayman, startled, hit out with his pistol. As the blow landed, the highwayman's mouth opened, as if in surprise. I could have sworn he meant my brother no harm. But accident or no, blood was gushing from Jean-Pierre's left eyebrow down the side of his cheek.
I dropped to my knees on the floorboard between the benches, cuddling his head in my arms. Nothing mattered except that small, angry wound.
"I'm all right," he mumbled shakily.
"Don't say one thing more," I whispered in his ear. "Please, Jean-Pierre, don't be brave. I couldn't bear it if anything happened to you. Nothing is worth that." And inwardly I made the prayer that I always made when Jean-Pierre was ill. Please, God, let my brother be all right, Mary, Mother of God, let my brother be all right.
From the rain came laughing and jeering approval of Jean-Pierre's wound.
"A cut, that's all," said the highwayman to me in a low voice. "He'll have a headache, no more. Do as I say, and I give you this oath. Tomorrow all three of you will be alive." His voice was deep with sincerity.
I raised my head. Even in that drenched cloak, his wet dark hair escaping its club, his fingers dangling a pistol, there was a sincerity to him, a brooding honesty. He compelled me.
"And our coachman, too?" I asked. The coachman was Old Lucien, cowherd to our three milch cows.
"Why would we harm him? He's one of the people."
And then I understood why he, educated, a gentleman, had aligned himself with those creatures outside. He was a revolutionary. Even in our remote village we'd heard of well-bred men who gave their sympathy to the peasants.
Jean-Pierre's wound flowed, and he'd turned pale. Reaching under my cloak, fumbling with the broach that held my fichu, I pulled out the linen scarf. I pressed fabric to the wound. Blood soaked through. I refolded the triangle and applied it again.
After a minute Jean-Pierre raised his hand, holding the bloodied linen himself. I helped him back to a sitting position.
"You could hang for this," I said.
"People around here are starving," the highwayman replied. "The gallows is a far more merciful end. Now, get outside."
With the wolf pack?
It was as if he'd punched me in the stomach. I could hear myself gasp. Beyond this coach was darkness. Nightmare country.
"Let us stay out of the rain," I said, and again my voice surprised me. Not a quaver. "Give us that much."
The highwayman examined me. The light was dim, and I couldn't tell whether, plumbing my fear, he pitied me, or if he simply were keeping his promise that we would remain alive. Did it matter? He was calling out, "They're coming down. Don't touch them. The man's tamed. And the girl is for me."
There was an urgency in his voice. Something stirred deep within me, an excitement at the pit of my stomach. Then it was gone. And a chill went down my spine as I understood the terms by which we would be spared. I must give myself to him. I had made a bargain with him and all that was binding in my life—honor, religion, family, pride in name, rebelled against the bargain.
Grumbles rose above the sough of wet branches.
"She's mine," the highwayman repeated.
A crude peasant voice shouted, "Must be even tastier up close, the little pullet. This be the first time you picked a woman."
"Then don't begrudge me." He bent to me, saying in a low voice, "There's trees for shelter."
I managed to pull Aunt Thérèse, quivering and moaning, to her feet. Jean-Pierre climbed unsteadily out. The dark crowd pulled back. There were no carriage steps, and it was a long way down. Jean-Pierre, still pressing my fichu to his wound, raised his free hand for me. Between us, we managed to get Aunt Thérèse to the muddy ground.
As we led her through cold, prickling rain to the protection of a great oak, men crowded about us. They exuded the smell of dirty wet clothing and unwashed bodies. It came as a shock to me that there were only five, one a gnarled old man, another a scrawny little boy. All were wrapped in ill-fitting capes that surely had been stolen. They carried an assortment of pistols and muskets. Jean-Pierre had taught me to shoot. I guessed from their awkward cradling of the weapons that none of these peasants had ever fired a shot.
A poor, sorry little band.
My pity dispersed as they clambered over the coach, opening our wooden trunks, gleefully holding up feminine undergarments, Aunt Thérèse's large ones, my beribboned ones.
Seeing Old Lucien tied to a nearby elm, I ran through the rain to him.
"Old Lucien. Did they hurt you?"
"I be fine."
My gloved fingers struggled with wet ropes.
"No! Stop!" His toothless mouth sputtered.
"But the knots are working loose."
Excerpted from The French Passion by Jacqueline Briskin. Copyright © 1977 Jacqueline Briskin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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