"And that is all we can tell you of what happened," Gabriel's father was standing in the hallway, his hat in hand, explaining as best he could what had befallen my brothers.
They had been brought to their respective rooms and my mother was tending them while one of the servants went to fetch the médecin. I was standing on the stairs behind and a little to the left of my father with my eyes downcast. I had trouble following the conversation because I was filled with dread over the eventual retribution that I knew would be coming from Philippe.
"And this is your son, Gabriel, who found them?"
"I see." My father cocked his head at him curiously, "were you also the one who brought my daughter home, also injured, not but a day before?"
I hadn't told Gabriel about the lie I told to cover why I had ridden home with him the previous day. I looked up with fear and shame in my eyes. Gabriel reluctantly nodded, hoping it was the correct response.
My father took a deep breath, "Well, it seems I am in your debt young man," my father carefully looked Gabriel over then turned to his father. "Mr. Bergeron, why don't you join us for dinner tomorrow evening and we will discuss some form of compensation for your son's service to my family."
Gabriel's father shook his head, "Merci, Monsieur, but really it is unnecessary. We cannot accept…"
"Nonsense," there was a hint of repressed anger in my father's voice. "You will join us, and you as well, young man. Tomorrow at 5:00 pm." He abruptly turned away from the pair, "Vivienne," his voice full of surprise, "I did not know you were there. You need to get to bed young lady."
He looked hard at me waiting for me to take action. I wanted to say goodbye to Gabriel and apologize for involving him but knew I had no choice other than to head upstairs.
"Show them out please," my father called to one of the servants.
I watched as they were led to the front door then I started on my way up the stairs. I looked back over my shoulder when I heard the door close and saw that my father had begun pacing back and forth, back and forth at the foot of the stairs. He looked oddly absorbed in some private thought or other. It was a little unsettling to see him so disturbed. He looked unnaturally pale and worn and as I studied him closer there seemed to be little beads of sweat pooling on his forehead.
"Papa, are you not feeling well?" I moved back down the stairs toward him.
"I'm fine," he kissed me on the top of my head when I stopped a step or two from the landing. "You should worry about your brothers not me."
When he pulled back I noticed something very unusual about him. He had a strange expression on his face very similar to the one that my mother would get when her doctor hadn't been able to see her on their appointed day. I felt a little pang of panic and as I searched his features I noticed something else. He had what seemed a birthmark of sorts on his neck. I couldn't recall ever having seen it but it was quite prominent and I couldn't imagine how I had never noticed it before.
My father absently raised his hand to his neck and rubbed at the strange mark, "I should have left this morning," he mumbled as he ran his fingers over it.
"Are you sure you are well, Papa? You look…and there is something on your…"
"Vivienne, please! I'm fine," he took a deep breath and relaxed his tone, "It's late and you need to get to bed."
I nodded, turned and I sullenly trudged up the stairs.
I went to my room and after getting ready for bed crawled beneath the covers. In my mind I went over and over the day's events. It had seemed so perfect just a few short hours ago. The excitement of escaping my brothers, the pleasure of the picnic and getting to know Gabriel, his kiss, my heartfelt declaration, "Yes, Gabriel. I love you."
How quickly it had all turned dark and dismal; overshadowed by my brothers and their malicious natures. For half a moment I wished that I hadn't gone to Gabriel and sent him and his father and Deaglan after them. Unwarily, I began to imagine a life without Jean and Philippe and how peaceful it might be.
I started to cry, not just because of the misery I felt, but because of the guilt for wishing a greater harm had come to my brothers. "Forgive me," I whispered and pulled out my rosary. I prayed until my tears wore themselves out and I could no longer keep my eyes open.
The next morning I was the last to wake. I had slept surprisingly soundly for all the anxiety I felt when I went to bed. My parents were not in their rooms so I crept down the hallway and stopped first at Jean's room. I knocked softly and when there was no reply I carefully opened the door and peeked through the crack. Jean squinted and looked my way.
"I'm sorry Jean, did I wake you?"
"Non," he moaned, "I cannot sleep. It hurts too much."
I treaded softly towards him, "I'm so sorry Jean, really I am. I cannot imagine what you have been through," I gently took his hand and sat on the edge of the bed.
He smiled, "All night long I have been thinking, Viv. We…Philippe and I…we have never given you any reason to care for us have we?"
"Please Jean, don't say such things. You know that is not true."
"Oh, but it is…I'm sure of it. If you hadn't sent your friend; if they hadn't found us." This was a new and unexpected Jean, I looked away fearful I might begin to sob. "I'm sorry Vivienne, for all of it. For everything," he tried to sit up to emphasize what he was saying but feebly fell back on his pillow.
"It's ok Jean. You're not well; we can talk when you are feeling better," I smiled weakly and tried to stand up.
"Philippe and I…we deserved what happened to us," Jean clutched at my hand. "We came after you, you know. We saddled our horses and followed your tracks to the stream, but when we got there we couldn't decide which way to go; back towards the farms or further along towards the vineyards."
"I wanted to go back, but Philippe insisted that that is what Gabriel would expect us to do and of course we had to go the other way. So we went on following the stream, Philippe on one side and me on the other hoping we would find your trail wherever you came out. I wanted to go home; we were wasting so much time and it was such a fine day. Philippe was getting frustrated, too, and nearly agreed but then we found some hoof prints. I didn't think they were yours; they didn't look fresh anyway. Phil wouldn't hear my arguments though, he was adamant that we go on. So we spread out and picked our way through the woods."
"Somehow we lost the trail and got turned around. We didn't have the dogs to help us find our way back so we stopped and Phil made me climb a tree to see if I could spot the stream. It looked sturdy enough but when I got to one of the higher branches, the tree, it started groaning and listing to the side then like a thunderclap it just snapped at the base. I was too high up to jump, and it happened so fast! Phil never even had a chance to get out of the way. The noise and commotion were too much for the horses. I saw them bolt as I landed and then the world..everything...it just went black."
Jean took a deep breath; he looked on the brink of tears. "God snapped that tree; he was punishing us for tormenting you, I'm sure of it!"
"No, Jean, God does not work like that. He does not punish or reward, he just gives us direction for the way we should live our lives. You made a bad a choice and something bad happened because of it, nothing more," I assured him. "God will forgive you."
"Do you believe that, Viv? Do you really believe that?"
"Yes, Jean, yes I do."
"Will you forgive me Viv?" I could see sincere regret in his eyes.
I kissed his knuckles, "Oh course I will, Jean. You are my brother and I love you."
"And Gabriel, do you think he will forgive me, too?"
"I know he will."
He sighed, "He must care for you a great deal to have taken so much trouble coming after us like that."
I blushed and smiled, "I think he does."
"I'm happy for you Viv," he sighed, "I hope someone will care for me like that someday."
"I hope that for you, too, Jean," I kissed his forehead. "Get some rest."
After leaving Jean and having such a remarkable conversation with him I felt happily optimistic as I made my way to Philippe's room. The door was open and I could see him standing at his window, leaning on Papa's ebony walking stick.
He visibly tensed but he didn't turn around or answer.
"How are you feeling?"
"How do you imagine?" he ground the question out.
"I'm sorry, Philippe. Jean told me what happened. It was very…unfortunate."
"Unfortunate?!" he rounded on me, "You call this unfortunate?" he raised his pant leg to reveal the mass of bandages and livid bruises that covered his leg. I gasped and covered my mouth. "Your boyfriend did this to me!"
"How can you say that Philippe? You were trying to hurt us; we did nothing to you."
"Oh, I seem to recall things differently. I'm sure I didn't slip in the barn and punch myself in the eye." I nearly giggled, but choked it back. "Are you laughing at me?!" he tried to lunge forward but cried out when he put too much weight on his injured leg. Instinctively, I moved to help him, "Don't touch me!" he screamed.
He hobbled to his nightstand and uncapped a bottle that looked all too familiar to me, "Philippe, no, you shouldn't. You know what it can do to you," I pleaded.
He looked defiantly at me and took a generous gulp, "Get out you little whore!" No one had ever spoken to me that way before. Teary-eyed I cowered and ran from the room.
I sat on the top of the stairs for several minutes trying to compose myself and my thoughts. Minutes later there was a knock at the front door and anxious for distraction I hurried to answer it.
"Gabriel!" I exclaimed; no one could have been more welcome at that moment.
"Good morning," he smiled; his voice was full of delight. I could feel a fire light my cheeks as he took my hands and gave me two quick pecks. "I have been up all night thinking about you. How are your brothers? I was just on my way to fetch Deaglan, but I couldn't wait a moment longer to see you and ended up here instead," he chuckled.
"My brothers are doing much better," I assured him. "Would you like to come in?" I asked.
"Actually, I cannot. Deaglan and I are going out to search for your brother's horses. I only have a minute."
"Vivienne," I heard my father call from the parlor, "is that you?" he rounded the corner and stepped into the hallway.
"Oui, Papa, look who's here." When I saw him I couldn't help noticing how very tired my father looked. He still had that odd, needy expression on his face, too, but there was something more reflecting in my father's eyes as well. It looked very much like fear. I opened my mouth to speak and again caught sight of the strange mark on his neck but before I could say anything he held his hand out to Gabriel.
"Good to see you again, Mr. Bergeron"
"Good to see you, sir," Gabriel took his hand and bowed his head nervously.
"Gabriel wanted to know how Jean and Philippe were doing. He is going out to look for their horses but stopped first to ask after them," I explained.
"That is very kind of you." There was a long pause; none of us seemed to know what to say. "Well, I'll let you get on your way," my father said conclusively.
"Oui, monsieur," Gabriel nodded, "good day."
My father pivoted and we were once again alone.
Gabriel started toward the door but with sudden inspiration turned back to me, "Come with us," he whispered. I glanced nervously over my shoulder. "We'll wait for you at the barn. If you can get away, we'll wait for you."
A thrill ran through me, "Oui..oui…I'll be right there."
Suddenly his lips were against mine and just as suddenly he was gone.
I stood trembling in the hallway then smiling I ran for my room. I collected my shawl and within minutes was outside and on my way to the farmhouses. It was somewhat cool and dreary so I kept a brisk pace. When I got to the barn Gabriel met me in the doorway and crushed me in a happy embrace.
"I've missed you," he lifted me off my feet and spun me around.
Laughing, "You just left me not 20 minutes ago!" I buried my face in his neck.
I caught sight of Deaglan as he put me back down. He was holding the reins to two horses and watching us with an affectionate grin. "Take your time, don't mind me!" he teased.
I smoothed the folds from my dress and held my hand out to greet him, "It's good to see you again, Deaglan."
"Et vous mademoiselle."
"Tres bien! You have a fine accent," I looked at Gabriel, "and don't let him tell you otherwise."
"Merci," Deaglan handed a pair of reins to Gabriel. "Are you ready?"
Gabriel lofted himself into the saddle and made some room before hoisting me up in front of him. Deaglan hopped astride his mare and led the way. As we walked through the doorway he gave a sharp whistle and an instant later I heard an eager rumble quickly approaching us. I peered around Gabriel and saw two massive hounds, tongues lolling and tails wagging come running from the fields.
I gasped, "Oh, my!"
I could feel Gabriel's smile against my cheek, "Deaglan's girls," he chuckled, "Trista and Isolde."
"They're so big. I've never seen such big dogs!"
Deaglan dropped back upon hearing my exclamation, "They are wolfhounds from Ireland. I bred them myself and raised them from pups." They were so tall that he could reach down from his saddle and scratch their backs.
"They are magnifique!" I exclaimed.
Deaglan smiled with pride, "Merci."
They vaulted ahead of us toward the vineyards moving surprising fast and surefooted. I did a mental comparison of them to my brother's Gascony hounds and imagined how fearful they would be if they were ever confronted by one of Deaglan's girls.
We followed them at an easy pace; Gabriel held the reins with his left hand and played with my fingers with his right. The sun was burning off the morning air and there were wisps of fog streaming up from the folds of grass towards the sky. It was cool and fresh and the further away we got the less and less burdensome all my worries seemed to feel.
I closed my eyes and savored the closeness of Gabriel, the sensation of his fingers running over mine; he kissed my neck and it sent shivers down my spine.
"Je t'aime," he whispered in my ear.
"I love you, too," I whispered back and brought his wrist to my lips.
We were near the stream before long. The hounds leapt across in a single bound and started snuffling through the leaves and underbrush on the opposite bank. They began heading back towards the farmhouses and we followed in their wake. Minutes later they glided further into the woods and led us to the little clearing Gabriel and I had had our picnic in the day before. The horses were grazing at the opposite edge of the clearing but looked up when they heard our approach.
Gabriel had me stay in the saddle as he and Deaglan went to inspect them. I could see that they were a little disheveled and had bits of twigs, leaves and other debris caught in their manes and tails. I watched the boys inspect their hooves and pick out anything that was lodged in them. The saddles were askew as well as their bridles and the reins had a number of new notches but other than that there didn't seem to be any injuries or anything else amiss with them.
"Well, this is a relief," Gabriel said as he settled back in behind me and looped the reins over the horn. "Did your brothers ever tell you what happened to them?"
"Oui," I nodded. Deaglan called to his dogs and we started back towards the farmhouses.
I told them everything that Jean had told me and by the time I finished we had reached the barn. It was nearly midday and I hadn't had any breakfast. My stomach was rumbling and Gabriel had been teasing me for the last few minutes by tickling my belly every time it protested.
"Mon Dieu, it's relentless!"
I squirmed against his touch, "Non, please, non!" I begged unable to control my fits of laughter.
"Then stay; stay and have lunch with us."
"Promise," he tickled me one last time.
"Oui, yes, I promise."
He hopped down and eased me out of the saddle.
Gabriel's father had known that the boys were going out for the horses and expected them in time for lunch. He had made a generous meal knowing they would be hungry when they got back and when Gabriel asked if I could join them he graciously set another place for me. During the meal I told him everything I had told Gabriel and Deaglan about my brothers' misadventure.
Mr. Bergeron just shook his head sadly, "C'est la vie, they will learn. Sooner or later they will learn or…well, let's just hope that they will learn."
He turned the conversation and began telling little anecdotes about himself and the troubles he had caused; stories from his youth and life on the farm. Soon we were all smiling and contributing what we could to the conversation. I was surprised by how comfortable and at ease I felt with them. Everyone was so carefree and it felt so natural as we sat together laughing and enjoying each other's company. Mr. Bergeron steeped some coffee after we had eaten extending our lunch well beyond what I had planned to stay, but for the first time in ages I didn't feel any fear of my brothers, or worry about my mother or miss my father. I never wanted to leave.