A Warning from a Witch
A woman of letters, Madeleine prided herself on being rational and logical. But this was a difficult position to hold, as the youngest member of a matriarchy of clairvoyant women.
Her grandmother oft’ filled the countryside with news, good and bad, she learned in her dreams. Likewise, Madeleine had perhaps more often than was normal predicted an incident for family and friends.
Those who knew the family well, claimed their foresight came from a great-great-grandmother who had once belonged to a roaming Gypsy tribe, before love and religion made a civilised Frenchwoman out of her.
They claimed she had practiced her old rituals in secret, and had passed her skills down the genetic line.
“This one’s a witch,” Madeleine’s cousins would joke, when she visited them in the country, but she ignored them.
She was a lady, after all, and educated besides. Instead, she believed in science and logic and the natural order of the world. A few coincidences would not change that.
Or would it?
“Are you sure you don’t want to come?” she could hear the disappointment in her mother’s voice, even as she read the letter. Madeleine had not seen her since the summer, and had written to tell her she would not be joining her in London.
“I know your father lied to me,” Charlotte wrote. “I know you don’t have classes with Monsieur Rámon for Christmas. He cannot stop you from coming. He cannot stop me from seeing my child. You need only say you will come. I miss you, terribly.”
Yet, a feeling of foreboding kept her in Barfleur. She had been plagued by grave thoughts since her father’s threats, and had suffered a dream that worried her horribly; so much so that she was willing to cast her scholarly pride aside to share it.
“Dear Mama,” she wrote back. “I will not be joining you and Papa in London. You are right; Papa lied. I do not have classes this winter. He has also threatened me, but it is not his threats that frighten me. It is his ease in delivering them. Something must have emboldened him recently, and I should like to stay and find out what it is.”
There, she stopped. She was the logical one; schooled in an era when education seemed all but lost on women. What favours did she offer her sex by then indulging in feminine fancies and fears? Yet, she felt she had to share the rest.
“There’s something else,” she added with shaking hands. “I had a dream the other night. I was standing at the door of Mamie’s kitchen, looking out to where we bury the garbage and make the compost.
“Then, I noticed two puppies, beautiful puppies, with light golden fur and bright brown eyes. One was male and the other female. They played happily together for a time, but the female was stronger, and the male did not like it. He became aggressive and attacked the female and ripped her to shreds.”
She paused to collect herself. Even now, the dream at once made her sick at heart and sick in the stomach. “I believe Papa is up to something. This is what the dream means. The lying about my classes, and the threats for me to stay in France is all part of some sinister plan he’s hatching.
“There is more. I found letters in the study with pictures mailed from a London address. Pictures of you with Eli. Papa must have hired someone to follow you.”
The door to the study burst open. She was so startled, she spilled drops of ink all over the desk, and peppered her paper with black.
“Women and their bloody letters,” he bellowed, but he would not read it. He could not read it. Besides, her letter was in old Romany, a heirloom in the Moreau family.
Basile had argued long and loud with his wife, when she insisted their only child learned her letters; and it only grew worse when Madeleine’s love for knowledge compelled her mother to consider a college education.
“Education is for boys, and men!” Basile had shouted, though he had himself married an educated woman.
Charlotte had not taken well to the slight. “Perchance, is that why you went, Husband?” she had shot back at him, angrily.
That had struck a nerve, and then he had struck her, and then she had left for London to find new pupils, and write new plays without a belligerent husband by her side.
Basile glanced over Madeleine’s letter without recognition, and then provided her with his verbal list of domestic duties. He could have easily told the maids, but considered himself too high a Frenchman to speak with the women of colour Charlotte had hired.
When she said nothing, he asked, “Have you spoken with your grandmother yet about going to visit her in the country, while I’m gone? Is she who the letter is for?”
“The letter is for Sir Andrews,” she replied, which was more sarcasm than a lie.
Basile wanted his daughter married and out of the house as soon as possible, but she had no interest in romance and being either mother or wife.
The idea of washing and cooking and popping out babes for the rest of her life seemed like the kind of hell they should preach about in church. Even fire and brimstone seemed more pleasant.
He did not catch her sarcasm, and drew himself up with a pleased and proud look. “Very good,” he commended her, and then he was almost pleasant.
“It is good that you marry,” he told her, though his own marriage provided no such evidence.
“If you were married, you would not need to go to your grandmother’s house. You would not even be here. You would be with Sir Andrews – a soldier, and knighted! You know the only reason he is still in Barfleur, is for you.”
“I don’t doubt it, Father.” She put the letter aside. “But… I’m not going to see Mamie. I’m staying here.”
He was angry and annoyed all over again. “You cannot stay here,” he insisted. “It’s… improper for a young woman to be at home alone. People will talk.”
Madeleine feigned confusion. “But you leave me here alone for days at a time while you visit with Madame Anglais up the street. It did not seem so improper for those four nights last week. Why now?”
At the mention of his latest affair, and with a married woman no less, his mood darkened. He clenched his fist, and worked his jaw, but knew better than to lay his hands on her.
Madeleine always fought back, and last time, had threatened to promise her hand in marriage to Sir Andrews in exchange for his head.
It was not a threat he had taken lightly. So instead, he slammed the door shut, and stalked off to his room to seethe and drink.
Madeleine pulled out the soiled letter, quickly rewrote it and added the final lines, “Be careful when he comes to London, Mother. He means you harm.”
After some thought, she closed the letter with, “I miss you too, Mother. I will visit in the spring when work grounds him here. Affectionately Yours – Madeleine.”
She then slipped down the stairs, into the kitchen, and asked Rosalie to bring the letter to the ships. There, Eli waited to spirit it off to London.
Last month, her father had opened her mail, and asked one of his lovers to read it. The woman had not been able to understand Romany, but it was too close for comfort. Now, Madeleine no longer trusted the regular post.
She watched through the kitchen window as Rosalie crept across the yard under the cover of dusk, tip-toed through the gardens, and then stole over the fence. She loved no other maid in the household half as much as Rosalie, and kept no dearer friend.
But even as the last of her confidant’s shadow disappeared into the coming night to do her bidding, that feeling of foreboding took hold of her again. It was almost as though something deep, dark and sinister was watching and waiting… and plotting.
“You okay, Miss?” one of the other maids asked her in Creole French. She took hold of her arm. “Some water? Maybe some tea, Miss?” she inquired with a look of great concern.
“No, thank you, Regina,” Madeleine answered.
Regina cocked an eyebrow at her. “Did the witch spy something in the future?” the old maid teased. “Maybe a nice, big, strong man, eh? Like Mister Andrews?” She winked. “Or maybe just Eli, ruffling Rosie’s skirts tonight.”
Madeleine forced a smile, always grateful for her offbeat and often inappropriate humour.
“Get you upstairs, Miss,” Regina advised. “We’ll bring you some dinner. Wine and cheese too, yes, Miss?”
Madeleine nodded and started up the stairs to her room. The old floors creaked beneath her as she climbed. She scoffed to herself, and remembered Regina’s joke earlier that day, regarding the disrepair of the house.
“I could have almost sworn your mother had married a carpenter,” she had said with mock innocence, while she put the clean laundry away. “With the state of this house, I might think she married a sheep herder instead.”
Virtually every shilling her mother sent home to pay for repairs, bought pretty bonnets and satin underclothes for other women, while Madeleine’s floors, and women’s beds, creaked on.
“I’ve done what I can,” she reassured herself as she looked from her window into the garden, waiting for some sign of Rosalie’s safe return.
But had her dreams provided better foresight of the dangers ahead, perhaps Madeleine would have sent more than mere words to protect her mother from harm.
To be continued…