I went to my room and got my riding habit out for our trip to the cellars. As I held it up to inspect it there was a knock at my door. Claire smiled warmly when I opened it, “Good Morning, Vivienne, may I come in?”
I hesitated briefly, “Oui, of course,” then motioned her inside.
She was holding a small travel case that she placed on my bed before wandering around my room and taking it all in. “I thought it would be cold, dusty and dreary when your father told me your room was in the attic, but it is not that at all is it?”
“Non, it used to be our nursery when we were all very little and all the windows were put in to give it some warmth and light.”
“It’s lovely. Oh, here,” she strode back to the bed and opened the case. She reached in and pulled out a pair of breeches and a soft cotton top. “I thought you might use these today. I met your mother and father as they were finishing their breakfast and they told me you were riding to the cellars with Gavin and Philippe this afternoon.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t. Papa…Mama…it’s very inappropriate. Besides you are so much taller than I am; I’m sure they will not fit.”
“Nonsense, you can just cuff them if you must and cinch the waist a bit. Trust me they will be infinitely more comfortable than that,” she scoffed at my habit.
I looked longingly at the pants and top, “I don’t know…”
“Your father has seen me a dozen times in that very outfit. If he should say anything simply tell him that I lent them to you and insisted you wear them. At least try them on, Vivienne, for me.”
“You must,” an inner voice persisted. “I suppose there is no harm in trying them.”
“Well go on then.” Claire encouraged and didn’t make any effort to leave.
I stood gazing at her expectantly.
“Oh, really,” she laughed, “I knew you were shy, but a prude as well?!” her words stung me and I felt my face glowing with shame. “I want to see them once they’re on,” she called as she snatched her case off the bed and left me to myself.
It took me a minute or two to figure out how to wear the pants. I had never worn breeches before and at first I put them on backwards. Then I turned them around and though I had them on correctly decided I had been right the first time and switched them again. Eventually I realized how they should be worn and managed to get them on properly. It felt so odd, being able to move so freely. The pants were virtually weightless compared to what I was used to and I found it very liberating.
I tried the top and after tucking it in used an old scarf to cinch the waistline as Claire had suggested. The shirt was much too big and left too ample an opening above my breasts for me to feel comfortable with, so I used a broach and pinned the neckline closed. I thought about cuffing the pants but realized I could just tuck them into my boots to keep them from tripping me up.
Once the outfit was reasonably assembled I let Claire back in.
“Oh, aren’t you just adorable?! How do you feel? Is it comfortable?”
“Oui,” I brushed the folds from the front of the pants, “it is very comfortable; unlike anything I have ever worn before.”
Claire smiled delightedly, “Ah, thank goodness; there is hope for you yet,” and she affectionately kissed my cheeks.
When she pulled back Philippe was standing in the doorway. He rapped on the threshold once or twice to announce himself then stepped in.
“Are you ready?” he sounded aggravated, perhaps for having to come all the way up to the attic to fetch me. His irritated tone quickly vanished though and he laughed out loud when he saw me and what I was wearing. “You can’t be serious! You’re not planning on going out like that are you?”
I nearly cried from embarrassment and turned several shades of red but Claire quickly came to my defense. I had never heard a woman speak so violently to a man before and Philippe visibly cowered under her verbal assault. When she was done Philippe apologized and at Claire’s behest looked me over a second time. She made sure he did a thorough inspection and after his appraisal Philippe said that he had been mistaken in his first judgment. He had never seen me in anything other than my regular attire and actually thought I looked rather chic in Claire’s outfit.
“It certainly shows off your figure,” and the brief respite from my initial uneasiness about my appearance vengefully returned.
“Perhaps it is too unbecoming for me,” I stuttered, “I think I will change.”
“Non,” Claire shook her head, “you should learn to appreciate yourself and your appearance. It is only a small step, going out as you are, but it will help you feel better about yourself and make you more confident. I promise.”
Philippe then added, “It’s too late to change anyway. Gavin is out front waiting with the horses.”
I looked from Philippe to Claire, who handed me a pair of riding gloves and reluctantly gave in to their insistence. The three of us went downstairs to the foyer where we were met by my mother, father and Gavin. They all looked somewhat surprised, but no one said anything except for Gavin.
“I see Claire has been making you over,” he chuckled then took my hands and spread my arms wide. “You look like a true horsewoman!”
“Thank you,” I smiled at his compliment. Having his support gave me some relief from all the worry I was feeling and I wondered how he always managed to say the right thing to lift my spirits.
My mother and father wished us a good ride and suggested a time that we should be home by. Gavin bowed to each and held the door for me and Philippe before stepping out behind us. The horses were tethered to the porch and Philippe immediately gathered his reins and climbed into the saddle. Gavin loosened my horse and led her a few paces away before waving me over.
“Would you like a boost or dressed as you are, I bet you could swing up by yourself,” he raised his brows at me suggestively.
I grinned and reached for the horn then hoisted myself up. It was effortless and I was astounded at the difference - the surety I felt once I was in the saddle. Gavin made a slight adjustment to the stirrups and once I took the reins all my apprehension vanished; I couldn’t wait to be on the move. Gavin mounted and aligned his horse with mine then called to Philippe to lead the way.
We sauntered side by side as we rode and since it was an alternate route than the one we walked the previous day, I kept a consistent dialogue up with Gavin. I told him all the little bits of trivia I could remember about the things we saw along our way and shared some of the stories I had heard from Gabriel’s father from a long ago day that we had spent together. Philippe glanced over his shoulder from time to time and tried to engage Gavin but I had his complete attention. Once he even dropped back hoping to join in the conversation, but for an eldest son and one expected to inherit my father’s lands Philippe was brutally ignorant of not only their current events but their history as well.
I was in a good mood and feeling very superior since there was so little Philippe could contribute. He obviously felt his inferiority and grew frustrated and impatient to be done with his duty. It should have been a 30 minute ride to the cellars but we were there in a little over 20 thanks to Philippe’s bruised ego and the pace it set for us.
One of the workers quickly greeted us and offered to take our horses once we dismounted. As they were led away the cellar master came forward and introduced himself all around. After a short explanation of what we were about to see he showed us into the closest of the cellars. Philippe was still somewhat embittered it seemed and opted to forego the activity. Instead he found a bit of shade nearby and stretched himself out to rest.
It took several minutes for my eyes to adjust and having never been to the cellars before I eagerly looked all around at the meticulous rows of casks. The cellar itself was not very tall, perhaps 7 or 8 feet at its greatest height and was more like an arching tunnel than a cellar. The barrels were arranged along the walls and raised off the floor by little platforms one after the other the entire length of the cellar.
Each cask was marked with a vintage year, variety of the wine and our family crest as well as the vintner responsible for the making of the wine itself. Some of the barrels had rolls of parchment tacked to them with historical notes about the weather, soil conditions and so forth. One note even mentioned that there was an exceptional number of bees that year and the harvest was so many tons more than it had been in previous years because of all the extra vines that had been pollinated. The cellar master told us that every little environmental concern no matter how minute can not only affect the amount of grapes harvested but also the flavor the grapes will produce as well.
Gavin asked a number of questions and seemed fascinated by everything the master had to tell us. Eventually our lesson required us to head back out and to a second nearby cellar where some of the bottling took place. The cellar was similar to the first except wider and taller. The casks were raised higher and there were taps that had been hammered into their faces. In front of each of the barrels was a worker perched on a stool with cases of bottles at their heels.
They were like little automatons; taking a bottle, bringing it to the tap, pulling the tap, filling the bottle, putting the bottle back in the case and when the case was full another worker whisked it away to have the bottles corked and labeled. Though they weren’t in exact sync with one another it was dizzying watching them all work, doing the same jobs at different times up and down the length of the cellar. I was amazed at their precision – I never saw a drop fall, and to my eye it looked as though every bottle was filled to exactly the same level as the last.
It was so mesmerizing that Gavin had to nudge me when it was time to head back out. I had missed most of the conversation between him and the cellar master but felt I had learned a great deal nonetheless. Gavin thanked the master for his time and patience and made sure to compliment him on his knowledge and skill before inquiring after our horses.
Philippe joined us as we reclaimed our mounts then the three of us set off on our way back home. We had been so busy talking the entire way to the cellars that I had forgotten to take advantage of Claire’s riding ensemble. I wasn’t really thinking anything of it but when we came to the crossroads between the vineyard and the cellars I noticed a fallen tree off to the side. I urged my horse to a hearty canter and smiling leapt over the obstacle.
“Enjoying your newfound mobility I see!” Gavin beamed as he trotted up beside me. “How would you really like to put it to the test?” he challenged and tossed a look to Philippe to see if he was game.
Philippe shrugged and before I knew it the three of us were racing towards the stables. I don’t know what came over me, but soon I was crouching down and gripping the reins and filled with a determination I had never felt before. Gavin was just a few strides ahead of me but Philippe was well advanced and seemed to be pulling further away.
I pulled level with Gavin, “Use your heels!” he called.
I gave a gentle but insistent kick and my mare responded with a furious burst that had me quickly gaining on Philippe. He looked back expecting to find Gavin as the one closing the distance and the good-humored expression he was carrying faded into downright disbelief when he realized it was me. He whipped his horse and he momentarily sped up but my mare was just as determined as I was and she seemed to double her efforts.
We caught up and then every stride brought us a little further and a little further ahead. I could see the stables and gave the mare another little nudge and that was the last I saw of Philippe until I reined her in at the barn. I patted her neck and cooed to her letting her know how proud I was of her efforts as Philippe pulled up and a few moments later Gavin. I was walking her in circles to cool her down and smiling with delight as I glanced their way.
Gavin was happily astounded but when I smiled at Philippe I knew I had made a huge mistake by beating him and the shame he felt was translated into a violent though carefully concealed anger towards me.
The commotion brought Gabriel to the barn doorway. I had completely forgotten he would be there and not only was I terrified for having upset Philippe, I was mortified for having Gabriel see me with Gavin.
“What’s all this?” he tried to keep a mask on his emotions and smiled warmly at each of us.
Gavin took the initiative and answered, “Vivienne here was just giving a lesson in horsemanship to her brother!” he laughed.
Philippe flushed with shame and anger for a split second but mastered his expression and with gleeful vindictiveness said, “More like I was letting Vivienne show off for her fiancé,” and he clapped Gavin on the shoulder with brotherly affection.
My heart fell to my feet.
Gabriel came and stood before me, “Congratulations, Ms. Rousseau. I did not know you were to be married!” he smiled happily but I could see the heartbreak in his eyes.
Gavin was watching us. I looked over Gabriel’s shoulder to where he stood. There was an expression in his eyes that I couldn’t read. “We were planning to announce it tonight over dinner,” he exuberantly exclaimed. “Why don’t you join us; such happy news shouldn’t be constrained to just a handful of souls. Come and help us celebrate this joyous occasion.”
“Yes,” I took Gabriel’s hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Then I looked him full in the eye, so that he would know there was more to my meaning when I said, “Please join us so we can make our engagement known!”
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