Dear Reader, since I have been unforgivably tardy with this latest installment, let me briefly summarize the most recent events of our story…
Having entered the Comte’s home in disguise, our young heroine Isabel was discovered, and then compelled by the Comte du Malfait to participate in a debauched ritual of the aristocrat’s so-called “Villa of Mysteries.” However, a spectre interrupted the proceedings, and before Isabel succumbed to a fit of swooning, she witnessed a meta-physical duel between the spectre and Malfait. When her senses returned, it seemed that Malfait had driven off the malevolent spirit. Having become convinced of the meta-physical danger she was in, Isabel agreed to marry the Comte so that the two could travel to The Chateau Malfait. It was only there, the Comte assured Isabel, that the danger she faced could be put finally to rest…
The day following the gathering in the Villa of Mysteries, the Comte du Malfait arrived at Isabel’s home in the uniform of his regiment. He spoke to her father alone, but Isabel crept to the door and listened at the key hole. The Comte painted a lurid picture of what the French army would do when – not if – it seized the city. Once out of their ordered ranks, the soldiers would fall back upon their basest instincts, and their taste for young ladies, such as Isabel, could not be satiated. He had seen these horrors with his own eyes. That is way he retired from his regiment. He never again wished to witness such evils.
There was but one hope. The Comte and Isabel would be married immediately. Presently, the soldiers were under the control of their officers. As a subject of the French crown and a former officer in one of the most prestigious regiments, he, Malfait, and his wife could easily pass through the battle lines and then on to safety in France.
Perceiving that the interview was nearing an end, Isabel retreated from the door. A few moments later, her ashen-faced father and the Comte emerged. Her father gathered the family together and announced that Isabel, his only daughter, and the Comte du Malfait would be married tomorrow, and that after the ceremony the couple would travel to France to visit the Comte’s ancestral home.
Isabel’s mother protested that it was all too sudden and declared her certainty that her pure daughter would end up befouled by French soldiers. When her words did not move her husband, she fanned herself vigorously and then proceeded to weep profusely.
Isabel’s cheeks burned. The Comte was always so self-possessed. What he must think of her parents. Instead of acting like notables of Villefranche they were acting like the silliest of servants.
Before Isabel could comfort her mother, the Comte, with the most graceful of movements, knelt before Isabel’s mother and produced a handkerchief. “My dear lady,” Malfait began, “I promise on my life that your daughter’s – and my wife’s – honor shall remain inviolate. I would forfeit my life before allowing one of Isabel’s hairs to be harmed.” Here the Comte paused and dabbed the tears from the woman’s cheeks. “And before long this silly argument among kings will be over and we shall return.”
Isabel’s mother ceased her sobbing and nodded silently.
* * *
The next morning Isabel awoke early and put on her finest dress. The Comte arrived promptly at the appointed hour. Jacques would act as one of the witnesses. And Signora Catarina, who had come unexpectedly to visit Isabel, was fortuitously able to act as the second witness.
While they waited for the priest, the signora took Isabel aside. “My dear Isabel, I was coming to give you these,” the Signora said, holding out a pair of slim volumes. “But I guess you shan’t be needing them. Or rather, the Comte shall take my place as your tutor.” Signora Catarina smile. Before Isabel could feign ignorance, their moment alone was ended by the arrival of the priest.
Now that all the necessary parties were present the ceremony commenced. In days to come, Isabel would remember it and the following meal only vaguely, much like an artist’s sketch, rather than a fully realized painting. Unaccountably, her journey to the Chateau Malfait was much more vivid in her memory. The ceremony and the wedding feast over, the Comte and Isabel climbed into his carriage and proceeded to his villa further up the mountainside. As they pulled into its courtyard overlooking the sea, the Comte ordered Jacques to load Isabel’s things as quickly as possible into the closed carriage. Isabel glanced across the wide courtyard and was greeted by a sight that made her unaccountably ill-at-ease.
On the opposite side stood a large black carriage. Its windows were covered by crimson curtains. Harnessed to this carriage were two teams of black horses. One of the lead team pawed at the paving stones and its iron shoes gave off sparks.
Isabel looked back. The Comte who was striding toward the door of the villa. “My lord,” she called after him. Suddenly, Jacques was at the side of the open carriage offering his hand to help Isabel down. Thus interrupted, the Comte disappeared into the villa before Isabel could have her questions answered. She took Jacques’ hand and climbed down.
“This way my lady,” Jacques said pointing to the black carriage.
“I thought,” Isabel started but then stopped. “That is, the Comte intends to leave tonight?”
“Yes my lady,” Jacques said over his shoulder. “’tis too dangerous to stay.”
Without thought, Isabel rushed after Jacques who guided her into the carriage like a skilled dance partner. Isabel was barely aware of her feet moving from the courtyard’s flagstones, to the carriage’s steps, and finally onto the plush seat of the carriage.
Jacques let go of the door, and it swung back and forth. One moment Isabel could see the courtyard and then the next she could not. One moment the courtyard was empty and the next time the door swung open Malfait was there. Isabel started as the Comte leapt into the carriage.
In quick succession he pulled the door closed, secured the latch, and then gave a sharp rap on the roof of the carriage. Isabel heard the crack of a whip and the carriage jolted violently. Isabel reached out for something to steady herself.
“I am sorry for the haste my dear,” Malfait said. “But events are proceeding apace and we must proceed without the slightest delay.”
Isabel nodded. The violent swaying of the carriage and the curtains blocking the windows combined to make Isabel feel quite unwell.
Malfait produced a silver flask from somewhere in his voluminous coat. “Here my dear,” he said. “Have a sip of this. It shall help smooth out the ride.”
Isabel took the proffered flask and took a sip. The liquid burned, but after a few moments she did indeed feel better. She handed it back and the Comte returned the flask to its resting place.
Isabel sat silently. How oft had she slipped out of her bed and crept down the staircase so that she could listen to her father talk with captains who had just returned from a long voyage. They had braved storms and pirates, and had visited exotic lands. Holding her breath and listening, she had desperately wanted to go on one of these voyages. She had been thrilled by the dangers, and more than once shivered with fright.
And now she was finally on her own adventure.
Her reverie was dispelled by the sudden check of the carriage’s movement. From somewhere in the growing gloom, Isabel heard shouts. The voice spoke French but in an unfamiliar accent.
A small hatch opened in the roof of the carriage and Jacques called through the opening, “We’ve reached the French lines, my lord.”
But Malfait had already leaned forward, lifted up the seat opposite the one in which he and Isabel sat, and pulled out two bottles of wine from a compartment underneath the seat. In another moment, he had returned the seat cushions to their place, thrown open the carriage door, and then proceeded to leap to the ground. Isabel tried to moved so that she could peer out the carriage door, but once Malfait had leapt down, the carriage lurched and the door swung closed. Isabel could see nothing, but she could still hear the muffled voice of the Comte.
“Vive Le Roi!” he cried. “Thank God I have found you! Here! I have wine for my saviors!”
A conversation ensued. Malfait explained who he was and how he had escaped through the lines of the Savoyard soldiers. Isabel feared that she would hear suspicion in the voices of the French soldiers, but she did not. Indeed, Isabel heard more than one apologize for not recognizing Malfait’s uniform more quickly. For a moment, Isabel was relieved. The Comte’s plan appeared to be working. However, a fancy sprouted in Isabel’s mind that immediately returned her to a state of unease. Both the Comte and the soldiers possessed a French accent unlike any spoken in Villefranche. They had crossed the line of battle and would soon cross the frontier. After they did, and as soon as Isabel spoke, it would be clear that she was a foreigner. Indeed, the daughter of an enemy kingdom.
The door of the carriage swung open violently and Isabel was woken from her reverie. Malfait returned to his seat closing the door behind him, and as the latch clanked into place the carriage lurched forward.
Isabel was going to ask her husband what had transpired, but Malfait looked at the curtained window and sat silently. Something about his expression prevented Isabel from speaking. They rode this way for some time before finally the carriage slowed and Jacques once again spoke through the small hatch in the roof of the carriage.
“We have reached the main road, my lord,” he said. “It shouldn’t be long now.”
“Excellent,” Malfait said.
Isabel finally forced herself to speak. “Not long now? Does Jacques mean, not long to our first stop?” she said. “I thought we would travel through the night to get as far away as possible from the dangers of the French camp.” Her fingers kneaded the edge of her cloak. It was true that the hasty marriage had taken place so that Isabel could be made safe from that which hunted her. But Isabel felt it was also true that the Comte would surely desire to consummate the marriage whatever the motive for the nuptials. Isabel’s thoughts were cast back to the night in the Comte’s cave. The mass of bare, intertwined limbs. The multitude of hands playing the part of intrepid explorers landing upon unknown and uncharted shores. And then there was the man in the ante-chamber with two mistresses who – Surely the Comte would not indulge his peculiar appetites on their wedding night? But then, why would he not? Isabel, suddenly warm, loosened the cloak at her neck. Looking at her husband she realized he must not had heard her question.
With an uncertain hand, Isabel reached out and touched the Comte’s arm. “My lord,” she said.
Malfait started, and then took hold of Isabel’s hand. “I am sorry my dear,” he said, and then reached inside his coat. When his hand reappeared it held a neatly-folded piece of cloth. “Here you are my dearest,” the Comte said. “A wedding gift. The first of many.”
Isabel took the folded cloth, placed it on her lap and then gently opened it. The cloth contained an elaborate jeweled necklace. Isabel had been to several balls in her life and she had seen some great and important ladies in their finest attire wearing their splendid jewels. The necklace that now lay in her lap was just as splendid as any she had ever seen.
“Here, let me help you put it on.” The Comte unfastened Isabel’s cloak and pushed it off her shoulders. Picking up the ends of the necklace he deftly secured it around her white neck. Leaning in close to her, the Comte whispered, “Always keep it upon your neck. It shall keep you safe from all dangers.”
When she looked up into Malfait’s staring eyes, and she fancied the Comte was about to kiss her. Isabel looked down and waited.
The carriage slowed to a stop, and Malfait moved quickly once again lifting the seat opposite them. This time he pulled out a drab, weathered coat and an equally weathered tricorn hat. He unceremoniously tossed his blue uniform coat and his fur-trimmed grenadier hat into the small space under the seat.
Isabel looked on in utter amazement. Her husband had transformed from a member of the Maison du Roi to a common highwayman. “My lord, what is the meaning of this?” she said. “Why have you discarded your uniform?”
Malfait opened the door to the carriage and descended to the ground. “My dear,” Malfait began. “I must ride ahead to ensure that everything is properly prepared for your arrival. You would not want me to get my uniform covered in dirt would you?”
“Of course not, but,” Isabel said and moved to the open carriage door. She was about to press him further. Certainly some servant could attend to the details. She could not believe he was going to leave his bride alone on their wedding night. Further, she could not believe that he was going to leave her alone in the very country that was now at war with her homeland.
All these words and arguments left her when she caught sight of the man holding a large black horse a short distance away. In his hand, he held a lantern that cast a weak light on his unwholesome face. His shadowy features and the way he stood hunched over made Isabel recoil.
Malfait reached into the carriage, took Isabel’s hand, and kissed it. “Farewell my dearest,” he said. “Jacques shall look after you, and in a few days and we shall be together at the Chateau Malfait.”
Before Isabel could respond, Malfait closed the door. She sat in shocked silence. She heard Malfait call out a farewell to Jacques, and then there was a thunder of hooves which quickly faded away. Isabel was left alone listening to the rising wind.