Once I felt I was recovered and composed and after I had thoroughly answered all the inquiries as to my wellbeing I suggested that it had been a long day for me and that I was ready to call it a night. Though the others protested, Gavin and my mother united and encouraged me to say goodnight. They soon prevailed and after many assurances of my looking forward to seeing them all in the morning I turned and left the parlor.
"Why don't you walk her up to her room, Gavin?" I heard Claire call out as I neared the foyer. "She is clearly exhausted after that last reel. Lend her your arm lest she earn a similar fate climbing the stairs."
"No, no," my mind cried out but my wish was not granted and a moment later he was at my side. He offered me his arm, "I'm quite alright, Gavin, really."
"Please," he softly begged.
I relented and together we made our way up. Neither of us spoke until we reached my room then there was a rather long, awkward silence. I was looking at my feet, wondering what to say. Though I didn't want to believe it something had happened between us, I was sure of it. His voice at dinner, then during the dancing; I couldn't have imagined the same thing happening twice and so distinctly each time.
I wanted to confront him about it, "Gavin?" I looked up.
He looked odd, not at all like he had a few short moments ago. My father's original description came to mind; pasty, washed-out, hair like straw. Gavin looked fatigued, disheveled and even somewhat frightening. He must have seen the brief look of surprise that flashed in my eyes.
"I'm sorry, Vivienne," he said nervously, "I am sorry for everything that went so poorly this evening."
"Oh, that voice!" I nearly gasped. He spoke in that anxious, desperate voice that had been plaguing me from the previous night. "It was you!" I said stunned.
"Non, non," he whispered fretfully and moved towards me. He tucked me under his chin, "Ssh, ssh, don't remember, please don't remember."
My eyelids grew heavy, my legs weakened and my breathing relaxed. A minute ticked by, two minutes; I couldn't move, couldn't think. That hazy veil was wrapping itself around my mind; my memories. Gavin stepped back. He took my face in his hands and I closed my eyes. I felt his lips against mine and, oh, I could taste…I could taste something in his kiss. I fell into oblivion; a deep, resounding sleep.
The next morning I was the first to wake. It didn't surprise me since I remembered saying goodnight to everyone and I imagined I went to bed long before they did. After dressing and arranging my hair I went downstairs. The house seemed so empty and quiet as I wound my way through the dining room into the kitchen. Cook was busy in the pantry tallying up his stores but other than that there were no signs of breakfast being prepared.
I was terribly hungry, and thirsty, and decided I'd rather not wait and eat with everyone else. I began helping myself to some bread and cheese and fruit.
"There is coffee, Mademoiselle," Cook nodded toward the pot he had prepared, "if you would pour me a cup, too."
I poured two mugs and left his on the edge of the table as I sat down and devoured what I had managed to scrape together for a meal. When he was done with his inventory Cook surveyed my scanty breakfast and offered to make me something more substantial. I vigorously thanked him and gulped down what was left of my coffee before refilling my mug with water and draining that off as well.
"A bit too much of the fine wine your father brought up from the cellars n'est ce pas?"
I rolled my eyes, "Oui, I must have. I cannot remember anything after climbing into bed last night!"
Cook chuckled, "Well, at least the wine didn't go to waste. Your guests must have very peculiar palates; they hardly tasted anything I prepared for them. And to think, Mr. Delacroix made so special a request for his cousins dinner," his voice full of offense.
I hadn't noticed it at the time but now that Cook had put the idea in my head, I couldn't remember seeing Gavin or Claire eating anything at all. I tried to envision our meal; pictured Gavin with his silverware poised, the forkfuls of food, the swaying of his knife as he sliced his meat, but I didn't remember a bite ever passing his lips.
"Huh," I frowned and wondered if what I was envisioning was truly what had happened or if Cook had put the idea in my head and my mind was running away with it.
It looked to be a beautiful day outside and as I finished Cook's offering and noticed the time I decided to chance taking an hour to myself that morning.
"I think I need some fresh air. Would you let anyone who asks know that I have gone to visit Isolde and that I will be back soon?"
"Of course," he gave me a sly glance. "She wouldn't happen to be with the handsome boy who left the recipe yesterday?"
"Non, non…he is just…he's the stable boy and we are friends. Isolde is with Deaglan the boy who raised her."
"Ah, I see…" but he didn't sound convinced.
Rather than argue the point I thanked him both for the breakfast and for delivering my message. I left through the kitchen and raced down the path until I was sure I was out of view then slackened my pace. It was fairly late and I figured Gabriel would already be hard at work so I passed his house and continued on toward the barn.
As I approached I heard a gravelly rumble coming from the doorway and when I looked up I saw Trista and Isolde bolting toward me.
"Oh, I've missed you!!" I bent down and hugged them both together, one on each shoulder.
Deaglan and Gabriel came to see what the commotion was all about and the dogs, wild with the excitement of my visit, bounded toward them. After circling them where they stood Trista and Isolde raced back to me demanding more hugs and kisses. Deaglan laughed out loud but Gabriel hurried over to take part in the affectionate exchange. He muscled the dogs away and wrapped himself around me.
"Save some of that for me," he chided and I obligingly covered him with kisses. "I did not think I would see you today. How did you get away?"
"Everyone is sleeping still and I couldn't resist. Oh, Gabriel, I love you so much. I can't tell you what it has been like. My mother and my father; they keep throwing us together! I kept wishing it were you by my side and dancing with me after dinner!"
"Dancing? You were dancing?" he sounded surprised and even a little jealous.
I took his hand and led him into the barn, "Come I will tell you everything that has happened!"
We all went up to the loft. Gabriel and I settled ourselves on one of the bales together and Deaglan on another across from us. I told them everything I could remember and the more I spoke the more vivid and detailed my story became. Gabriel listened quietly and near expressionless but Deaglan's face was a whirlwind of emotion. He seemed eager to hear everything I had to say. The only thing I left off was the one thing that I had completely forgotten; when Gavin had walked me to my room at the end of the night.
When I was done they both sat reflecting a moment on all that I had said. Gabriel's silence didn't bother me but there was something about Deaglan's that had me full of apprehension.
He shook his cloudy expression away then said, "They sound like interesting people," but there was very little sincerity in his tone. Gabriel looked at him wonderingly but Deaglan stood up indicating that he had nothing more to say; at least in front of me. "We should probably get back to work."
I looked sadly away, "Oui, I should be going, too, before I am missed."
Gabriel led me down from the loft and hugged and kissed me goodbye, "Has your father said anything to you?
I shook my head, "Non, not yet."
"When will you talk to him?" he wasn't angry, just disappointed that it hadn't happened yet.
"Soon; as soon as I can find a moment alone with him, I promise." I squeezed him one last time and said goodbye to Deaglan, Trista and Isolde.
When I got back to the house my mother, father and Philippe were the only ones that had gotten up since I left. They were breakfasting in the dining room and called to me when I closed the front door.
"Vivienne, is that you?
"Where have you been?" he asked as I kissed my mother's cheek and said good morning to her and Philippe.
"I went to see Isolde. I left a message with Cook so you wouldn't worry."
"I thought we talked about this already, Vivienne, I want you here at home. You are as much responsible for entertaining our guests as any of us."
"Oui, Papa, I was only gone a short while."
"Enough," he said closing the topic, "Have you eaten?"
"Well, sit with us anyway, and tell us how much you enjoyed your evening. What did you think of Claire? Is she as you had imagined she would be?"
I did as I was asked and took a seat at the table. There was so much I wanted to say, and so much that I knew I couldn't or shouldn't. I tried editing parts of what I had just told Gabriel and Deaglan but kept getting tongue-tied.
My father shook his head in exasperation, "You're so reserved, Vivienne. You venture nothing other than what common courtesy would demand."
"I'm sorry Papa, but I have only just met Mr. and Mademoiselle Delacroix and I am not familiar enough with either to say much more."
"Humph," my father groaned and sipped his coffee.
"Has Jean come down yet?"
The question took my father by surprise, "He…he is not feeling well this morning. I don't think he will be joining us."
It was odd the way he said it and I looked to my mother for further explanation. She seemed hesitant to meet my eye and Philippe was so absorbed in his breakfast that it would have been no use to ply him for information. I felt very uneasy as I glanced back at my father who had also resumed his breakfast.
He raised his head, "Weren't you and Jean supposed to take Gavin to the cellars today?" he asked Philippe.
"Oui, but surely he will forgive us since Jean is unwell."
"There's no need to put it off for Jean, Vivienne can go instead."
"But I don't know anything about the cellars," I interjected.
"Well, then you and Gavin will both learn something today," his expression dared me to challenge him but I didn't have the courage.
"Oui, Papa. I will go and get changed. Would you send somebody to let me know when they are ready?"
He nodded and excused me. I sulked up the stairs and rather than going straight to my room I paused by Jean's door. I was still angry with him for repealing his support of my relationship with Gabriel but I was concerned at his sudden illness. He had been the picture of health at dinner the previous night and I couldn't imagine what he could have come down with.
I knocked lightly so that I wouldn't disturb him if he were asleep. I heard him say, "I'm awake," through the closed door so I eased it halfway open and edged myself inside before pulling it shut. "Vivienne," he gave me a weak smile when he realized who it was, "I'm surprised to see you," he said guiltily.
"How are you feeling?" I asked as I moved closer to where he lay.
"Ugh," he moaned, "I don't know what's wrong with me. I feel so weak and empty. I tried to sit up this morning and could barely move. My body feels like a giant bruise, if that makes any sense."
I tried to imagine what he meant; it sounded very unpleasant. "Have you been sick at all?"
"Non, but I'm terribly thirsty. Would you pour me another glass of water?"
I did as he asked and held it to his lips. When my fingers brushed his cheek I noticed how cold, and colorless it was. After he had nearly drained the glass he flopped back down and briefly closed his eyes.
"Why are you so good to me, Viv? After all I have done to you, to make you unhappy."
"I don't know," I laughed trying to make light of the moment.
"I'm sorry. I know you are disappointed in me. I know you thought I would support you and…" he sighed without saying his name. "I thought it would be for the best, though, I only thought about what would be best for you."
I got a little heated with my reply, "I should get to decide what is best for me; not you, not Papa, not anybody!"
He squirmed, "I know, Viv, I know. But try and understand. Gabriel is a stable boy, Gabriel will always be a stable boy. You are a gentleman's daughter; you have no idea how to be anything else. You know how to walk and talk and dress; you have no idea how hard it would be to degrade yourself to Gabriel's level. You have no idea what you would have to sacrifice. Gavin could have given you a better life."
"I don't care!" I shook my head violently, "I would give up anything, sacrifice anything for him. I love Gabriel and I will never love anyone else."
"I know, Viv, I know. Why do you think I said could have? I don't want you to marry Gavin, I don't want you to be unhappy. Truly, I don't! When I learned of Papa's plan though, I got caught up in everything he said, everything he believed. He made it sound as though you would have an unimaginable life together - that Gavin would give you everything you ever wanted. That you would travel the world and live in such splendor and never want for anything. When I imagined you with Gabriel, living in one of the farmhouses, mucking stalls or slopping pigs or whatever other menial task was at hand…I just couldn't bear it. I thought it my duty to support Papa's decision; that if anyone could convince you to marry Gavin, I could."
"I will never!" I interjected.
"There is something…something…not right about him and Claire, too. Claire especially, I think. I don't trust them. Everything about them is duplicitous." I was dumbfounded and didn't know what to say. "I will support you, Viv. When you turn down Gavin's engagement, I will support you." I tried to speak but no words would come out. "We can talk more later, when I am feeling better. We will go somewhere together, just you and I and we will figure this all out, I know we will!"
I started to cry, "Jean?"
"Don't cry, Viv, please, don't cry," he smiled and when he did I realized how much our conversation had cost him. Though I didn't think it was possible he looked even more pallid than he had when I first came in and his fingers were trembling where they lay on top of the covers.
"I love you, Jean. Thank you," I bent down and kissed his forehead, "get some rest."
I tucked his hands under the blankets and pulled them up to his chin. When I did I thought I caught a glimpse of something very similar to the marks I had so often seen on my father and once on my mother. I started to ask Jean about them, but he was more exhausted than I imagined and had drifted off while I tucked him in. I studied him a moment and he looked so relaxed and peaceful that I checked my desire to wake and question him about the strange blemishes and instead snuck away.