May 1865 – Montagrier, France
“Oh,” I rubbed my shoulder as I ran. “I hate them! I hate them!” I could barely see where I was going through my tears but I kept running and running. I could hear my brothers and their hounds gaining on me and anxiously glanced back.
The moment it took me to look behind was just enough to bring me to a sudden slope. I tried to stop short but my foot caught a loose stone and I nearly tumbled the entire way down. Somehow I managed to catch myself midway and without thinking rose to my feet and continued to run frantic to get away from my pursuers. My head, my throat, my lungs and legs all were aching with the exertion but I knew I couldn’t stop and risk them catching me.
I was approaching the first of the farms that dotted our property and tried to imagine if there was some place safe where I could hide on it. I headed towards one of the barns and as I rounded the corner to duck inside I ran straight into the stable boy as he was heading out. The impact propelled me backwards a foot or two and if it weren’t for his quick reflexes I would have fallen firmly on my backside.
“Whoa,” he smiled for half a moment but as he studied my appearance during those few short seconds he realized that I was in some kind of trouble. “Are you alright mademoiselle? Is there something wrong?”
“My brothers,” I panted and couldn’t say anything more.
He tilted his head and listened. We could hear the hounds and how close they were getting, “Here,” he seemed instantly to understand and pulled me into the barn. He hurried me up into the loft and raced back down to face my brothers.
I saw him plant his feet and square his shoulders as the boys and their dogs burst into the barn. The dogs charged him and he kicked first one then the other to the side. Each of the hounds gave a dreadful yelp as my brothers watched in shocking disbelief. The three of them, my two brothers and the stable boy, stood several feet apart studying one another. They all appeared to be about the same age. The stable boy gave up an inch or so to my oldest brother, Philippe, but was visibly much stronger from the rigors of working on the farm.
“Move aside boy!”
“Huh, and why would I do that, little boy?” he threw back.
Philippe wasn’t used to being disobeyed and momentarily was caught off guard by the stable boy’s insolence. He looked to my other brother, Jean, and nodded, “Because we said so!” he insisted and took a step forward.
The stable boy changed his stance, “I hope by we, you mean more than you two, because I am not going anywhere.”
“Is that so?” Philippe nudged Jean and they both charged the boy.
A moment later they were both lying on their backs; each covering one of their eyes.
“I think you had best gather your dogs and go home now,” the boy stood over them, “and if I ever see you in my barn again I’ll make sure that you leave with more than sore eyes.”
My brothers scampered back, “We’re not leaving without our sister.”
“Is that so?” the boy challenged Philippe.
“Vivienne, Mother wants you home now.”
I shook my head from where I stood peering over the edge of the loft. The stable boy looked up and could clearly see the fear written in my eyes.
“I’ll see that she gets there,” the boy replied for me, “run along now,” and he chased them out the door with the dogs close on their heels. When he came back he looked up at me, “It’s safe Vivienne you can come down now,” he smiled encouragingly.
I slowly descended and approached the boy with my hand outstretched, “Oh, merci…” I didn’t know what to call him.
“Gabriel,” he took my hand and gave a silly bow, “at your service, mademoiselle.”
I smiled for the first time that day.
“Well, let’s get you home,” he sighed seemingly to release all the tension he felt from confronting my brothers.
I was absolutely awestruck and my tongue was tied so I stood idly aside and watched as he dexterously saddled and bridled one of the horses. He threw himself up onto its back and held his hand out to me. Having only my brothers for examples it was easy to imagine that he was the nicest boy in the world as he swept me up and positioned me in the saddle in front of him.
I was nearly 15 years old and had just fallen in love for the very first time.
He kept his arms loosely wrapped around me and urged the horse out of the barn and towards the path that led to my family’s house. He talked the entire way and though I desperately wished to take part in the conversation the most I could do was nod or shake my head or mumble a yes or no as he rode us home.
“So Vivienne, your brothers are bullies, I see.”
“Do you know what we do to bullies on the farm?”
“Non,” I shook my head.
“We wallop them and if that doesn’t work, well, we turn them from boys into girls.”
I gasped in shock that he would say such a thing and to a girl as well but I couldn’t help giggling. I covered my mouth with my hands to try and keep it in.
“Yes, I have made you laugh,” I could hear the triumph in his voice. “Why were you running from your brothers anyway? What were they doing to you?”
I was reluctant to confess but Gabriel seemed sincerely concerned so I told him in the simplest terms that my father had just come home and gifted them each with slingshots. When they tired of practicing on the targets that came with them they decided to find something more challenging. I was gathering wildflowers in the field and they set their dogs on me to get me moving. One of them caught me in the shoulder before I realized what was happening but most of their missiles had fortunately gone wide. I urged my sleeve down to show him the mark that was left.
“Mon Dieu! Cowards!” Gabriel spat, “I know their like. You must tell your father so he will punish them and take their slings away.”
I shook my head vehemently.
“Non, but why, Vivienne, surely your papa would…”
“Non, he would not understand. Boys will be boys, he would say, and more likely reward them than punish them.”
“And your mama?”
“Mama hates me. She would probably be grateful,” the words spilled out before I could stop them.
Gabriel leaned around to look in my face to see if what I had said was true.
“You believe that, don’t you?”
I started to cry.
“No, chérie, please, I am sorry. I should not have made you say that.” We were approaching the house then.
I wiped my tears, “Thank you Gabriel,” he helped me slide from the saddle, “you are a true gentleman,” I took his hand in both of mine.
He seemed hesitant to let me go after what I had told him, “You will come see me again?”
“Mais oui!” I beamed up at him.
“Vivienne, is that you?” my father was calling from the doorway.
“Demain!” Gabriel said again insistently.
“Oui, oui, demain,” I whispered and whirled away.
It was the best day of my life; the day I met Gabriel.
My family and I lived in France at the time. We owned a vineyard in the southwestern part of the country. There were a number of small farms dotted about our property which we also owned and in turn leased to the families of workers who tended our stables and livestock, grew crops or were the prendeurs who managed the vineyards.
My father was a selfish man dedicated to his own enjoyment who spent very little time at home. He would often travel to Paris for months at a time preferring to be in the midst of social variety rather than in the quiet comfort and privacy of the French countryside. He would leave at a moment’s notice and return suddenly and without warning under the guise of missing his family, but truthfully only for the purpose of resting and recovering from his indulgences abroad.
He was kind and generous during his convalescences and it was very easy to love him when he was home. Every time he came back he was so full of affection and I was so starved for the kind of love and attention a child needs that I would quickly forgive him for being away. During his visits I would often try to convince myself that he would stay but inevitably as soon as he felt well enough he would vanish again and my heart would fill with bitterness at the sudden loss. Eventually I grew to love him less and less. Over the years his visits grew further and further apart and each stay shorter and shorter. By the time I was 14 he seemed a virtual stranger to me and I often wondered if I were to see him anywhere but home if I would even recognize him.
My mother, too, was an absentee parent, though in a very different way.
She was often bedridden with some imagined ailment or other. Though I always suspected there was something more than illness it wasn’t until I was an adult and with a graver understanding of the world that I realized she was an addict and completely unable to shake her need for the opium that she took in the form of laudanum to help with all her complaints.
It started just after I was born when she was not as quick to recuperate as she was when she had my two brothers. Her pregnancy did not go well and the two days of labor that it took to bring me into the world left her longer abed than she would have liked. She was anxious to be up and around, and to regain her fresh figure and bloom. In her heart she must have known of my father’s tendency to stray even though it was never talked of openly. Her haste to be well and to keep him to herself led her to inquire of the local médecin for a means of speeding her recovery.
Unfortunately her plan backfired and the more dependent she became the faster her youth and beauty slipped away.
I felt like she blamed me somehow and hated me for coming into her happy world. She never showed me the same level of kindness and affection that she showered on my brothers. They were always first and foremost in her thoughts and if I ever expressed their faults or flaws in any way she would insist that I had exaggerated their exploits in a childish bid for attention. She never punished them and rather than curbing their misbehavior would close the conversation with, “I’ll talk to your father when he comes home and he will set them straight as he sees fit.”
So nothing ever came of my complaints. Either all was forgotten by the time my father came home or he was too much overcome by his travels that he, too, would brush their misdemeanors aside and tell us to settle it between ourselves. My parents pretty much gave my brothers license to tease and torture me at their will and I learned that it was best simply to avoid them whenever possible.
As I approached the house I looked over my shoulder and watched Gabriel disappear over the horizon, “Who was that?” my father asked curiously.
“The stable boy, Gabriel,” I paused wondering how much if any of the day’s events I should tell him. Just then my brothers rounded the side of the house and my mind was quickly made up. I raised my voice so that they would be sure to hear my explanation, “I was chasing butterflies and not watching where I was going. I tumbled down the hill and twisted my ankle. I could not walk, Papa, so Gabriel brought me home.” It was close enough to the truth to sound believable.
I prayed that the lie would protect both me and Gabriel for the time being from any repercussions. I knew my brothers would want revenge, but at least it wouldn’t be immediate. They eyed me suspiciously but I turned and held my head high as I limped up the stairs and into the house.
“I have a friend,” I thought to myself and smiled imagining my life forever changed now that I had an ally. I made my way to my room to clean up and ready myself for dinner.
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