Isabel tried, but could not concentrate on the words on the page, and so she shut her book with a sigh. She was very tired but was loath to shut her eyes, for whenever she did so, she saw the phantom of black mist advancing upon her and then the half-man, half-beast looming over her with its slavering tongue. Just as she decided to make another attempt at reading, Isabel heard footsteps coming towards her on the garden path.
Hurriedly, Isabel concealed the book she had been trying to read in the folds of her dress. She then looked towards the nearing footsteps. Presently, a figure appeared around the corner. “Signora Catarina!” Isabel exclaimed, stood up and embraced the woman. In doing so, the hidden book fell to the ground. Isabel released her friend and before she could reach down to pick up the book, Signora Catarina bent down and took hold of it.
“Ah! I see you are reading the book I gave you,” said Signora Catarina.
Isabel looked at the ground. “Actually, I was reading it for a second time,” she said.
“Well then, I guess you enjoyed Ovid’s Ars Amatoria,” she said with a laugh.
“Yes, I do confess that it was very instructive,” Isabel replied.
The older woman handed the book back to Isabel. “If you were reading it for a second time, you must be a poor student of Ovid’s lessons.”
Isabel feeling the heat of embarrassment upon her cheeks and bosom looked up and said, “My dear friend, please do not make sport of me this morning. I barely slept last night.”
Signora Catarina took Isabel’s hands into her own. “Indeed! I am a poor friend. Your mother told me of the tree falling through your window. You must have been terrified beyond words.”
“Yes,” Isabel nodded. “And I was besieged by horrid dreams.”
“I have come at an inopportune time. You should be resting,” Signora Catarina said and rose. “I shall take my leave.”
Quickly taking hold of her friend’s hand, Isabel said, “No, please stay a while. I would be grateful of your company.” Isabel paused and then continued, “And there is a matter of importance I wish to discuss with you.”
Sitting back down, Signora Catarina said, “Certainly! You know you can speak with me about anything. What is troubling you my dear?”
Isabel took a moment to compose herself. “I had an interview with the Comte du Malfait last night.”
“Ah, your fiancé.”
“Yes. My fiancé.” Isabel was silent for a moment so that she could regain mastery over her thoughts. “I have grave misgivings about him. My father – all he sees are ledgers and account books. My happiness and well being…” Isabel’s voice trailed off. She could not describe how the Comte admitted to committing a multitude of sins and claimed to possess forbidden knowledge. Signora Catarina was her closest confidant. But the Comte’s words were so wild that she could not bring herself to repeat them. Either he was the worst kind of libertine, or he was mad. Her friend was sophisticated and worldly. Isabel was certain she would sound like a silly child who had fallen prey to her own fancies. Isabel was afraid her friend might laugh at her, or at the very least, wonder if Isabel had the necessary qualities to enter into the Signora’s intimate circle.
Perhaps the Comte was neither a libertine nor mad. Perhaps he was simply cruel.
Signora Catarina nodded and clutched Isabel’s hand. “I have met the Comte on several occasions. And I have said to you before that his wealth and status in Villefranche will make him a peerless husband.” Here Signora Catarina paused.
“Yes?” Isabel eyes pleaded.
“Now, now my dear, I think I know what troubles your heart,” Signora Catarina said. “You have told me much of the attentions of the poor unfortunate Philippe paid you. But you have not revealed all I think. Did Philippe take from you certain favors that –“
“Oh no!” Isabel interrupted her friend. Isabel glanced down upon the copy of Ovid’s instructions on love. “I must confess that there were moments when, if he had asked, I would have happily surrendered any favor he requested.” Isabel looked up at her friend. “Do you think ill of me?”
“Not at all my dear,” Signora Catarina said. “You know my husband is much older than I. Long ago the fires of passion died in him. And there have been moments when the attentions of a young officer have caused me to feel the same.”
Isabel smiled, relieved she was not alone in having this feeling.
Her friend continued. “But I thought from the devotion you described that you had…”
“No,” Isabel said. “His passions were very chaste. He would hold my hand at length, look upon my face, and describe how beautiful he found every aspect of it. Until I felt he was speaking of some painting or statue. In the end, it left me cold.” Isabel sighed. “I feel sorry that he suffered such a horrid fate, but I doubt I could have been happy with him.”
Signora Catarina gently stroked Isabel’s cheek. “My dear, as your physick of love I shall pronounce the cause of your ailments. You suffer from a common aliment that women of our class suffer. It is almost impossible to be married to a man who is both a good husband and a good lover.”
Isabel looked at her friend silently asking her to say more.
“Philippe – if his fortunes had been better – would have made a fine husband for his evident devotion to you indicates that he would never say no to any request you made. You would not have wanted for any physical comfort. The Comte du Malfait on the other hand…”
“Yes? You have told me of his wealth and status on more than one occasion, but…”
“You are a clever and observant young woman. While I have only hinted at them, I am sure less discrete tongues have wagged about bacchanalian feasts being held at the Comte’s villa.”
Isabel nodded. “Yes, I have heard the tales.” And now perhaps she would discover the truth.
“And tales are all they are my dear. Nothing more.” Isabel opened her month to speak, but the Signora held up her hand and continued. “Wicked tongues belonging to people who have never been invited to the Comte’s villa.” Signora Catarina shook her head. “It is true that the Comte has hosted masked balls where much wine was consumed. But there are countless balls in Villefranche where there is dancing and drinking. Put your mind at ease. Your future husband is no villain.” The Signora took hold of Isabel’s chin. “And when the Comte has such a beautiful young bride, I am certain he will have no desire to dance with anyone but you.”
Isabel smiled. “I will let your advise be my guide. After all, you have attended the parties?”
“Oh no my dear, I have never attended a party at the Comte’s villa,” Signora Catarina said.
“But I thought by your certainty…”
Signora Catarina shook her head. “All I have told you has come from my dearest friend Signora – Oh! It would be indiscreet for me to mention her name. But rest assured, it is the most reliable information.” The older woman laughed a little.
“What is it?” Isabel asked.
“You are a clever girl – as I’ve said before. I thinking that you probably want to see with your own eyes how innocent these revels are, and that you have the opportunity to do so. The Comte is having a party three days hence.”
“Truly. If you had a disguise you could creep into the Comte’s villa and spy upon the bacchanalian festivities – for going without a disguise and before you are married would be most indiscreet. You would be like that figure from antiquity who spied upon a ritual to the god Bacchus. What was his name?”
“Pentheus. He spied on the Maenads, the nymphs, the followers of Bacchus.”
“Yes! That’s the one,” Signora Catarina said. “Oh, but, that is a poor example. Did the nymphs not tear him apart?”
“Yes, they did,” Isabel said gloomily.
Signora Catarina took Isabel’s hands once more. “Well, even if you were to do such an unnecessary thing as to spy upon the Comte’s party, I am sure that you would be much too clever to get caught.” The older woman stood up. “Now I must go, my dear.” The two women embraced and Signora Catarina said, “I will come again soon, and I will bring you another book to read.”
Isabel thanked her friend and watched her leave the garden. Then Isabel looked up at her bedroom window. Workmen were still cutting apart the tree that crashed through it, and it would be several more days until the window would be replaced. In the meantime, Isabel was staying in her brother’s room, he being away with his regiment.
A smile grew on Isabel’s face. “The night of the party I shall dress in some of my brother’s old clothes and sneak into the Comte’s party,” she said to herself. “Then I shall know the truth!”