An Unwelcome Surprise
Long after the lawyer had gone, Charlotte sat, staring at the door without seeing.
She had always been a woman bent on completing things: on completing her plays, her studies, her role as a mother in Madeleine’s life.
There was still so much to witness, and so many lessons to teach; so many unpredictable tales that had not yet played out.
Madeleine was as fiercely strong-willed as Mamie, who claimed to marry only to pass on her legacy in a child. She had then quickly dispatched of her husband with ten thousand pounds in thanks, and a free trip to Haiti on the family’s last remaining ship.
Charlotte had hoped to rebuild the Moreau fleet, when finally she tired of her poetry and rhymes, and songs, and plays. It would have been her last gift to the matriarchy, before passing the torch to Madeleine.
Recognising her helplessness and dashed dreams, she burst into tears.
“Madame!” Eli had just entered the room with a tray of tea and pastries. He set them down on an end table by the archway, and hurried towards her. “Are you not well, Madame? What did the lawyer say?”
Eli looked and sounded every bit a Frenchman, if only a shade darker. He had dark, curling hair, which a ribbon held back from his freckled face, and watchful hazel-green eyes.
The only telltale signs of the mulatto that had been his mother was his high cheekbones and the fullness of his lips. Yet, they only served to make him more handsome, and devilishly so.
“The marriage settlement holds,” Charlotte assured him. It was not the first time she would be grateful for her mother’s wisdom.
“He’s only marrying you for your money. I’ve seen it,” Mamie had warned her, while she brewed one of her strange teas of honey and herbs. “You’ll do well not to marry this one.”
But Charlotte had loved Basile once. And much to her relief, the five thousand pounds Mamie offered in place of inheritance had pleased him and his family easily; they had come from so much less.
She had believed a man of little means might prove less haughty than her other suitors, but time had proven that notion wrong.
“Madeleine will inherit all,” she told Eli. “And you will be provided for as well. You and Betha.”
“You are kind, Madame. But you should think of yourself,” Eli reminded her.
It had been some days since Charlotte had read him Madeleine’s letter, and longer still, since he had delivered it. There was no doubt in their minds that Basile had finally hatched some plan to dispatch of her, which would not include ten thousand pounds and a trip to the Caribbean.
“We could go to Haiti,” Eli suggested. “You renounced your claim, but I am next in line: by right, that plantation belongs to me. The wife would not dare risk the charges of bigamy by contesting it.” He added, “You could write Madeleine in secret and explain. I would bring the letter myself, once you were settled.”
“And give up my dreams? My work? My art?” Charlotte said, stubbornly.
“Would you rather give up your life?!” Eli was growing impatient. He had made this suggestion before, and her answer had been no different.
“I have no life without my work. Without it I’m just another babbling woman, whose education has made her too far-reaching for her sex. Men will trample over me as they have always wanted to do – as my husband has always wanted to do!”
Eli stared at her for a moment, and then calmly crossed the room to fetch her tea and biscuits. “I would kill him if you ask it,” he said in a low whisper. “You need only say the word.”
“I will not have my brother hang,” she said, defiantly.
Eli met her eyes as he sauntered towards her, and then looked away. A long search for her father had found him dead, but he had left behind half brothers and sisters and a new wife, newly widowed. Eli, however, had not come from this second wife, and she had been only too glad to be rid of him.
“What will you do then?” he asked, quietly.
“I’m sending you back to France to protect Madeleine. I cannot have you anywhere near here. You and Betha must go. Should something happen to me… or him… they will suspect you first.
“Make a show of your leaving. Tarry on the streets and say goodbye to your friends in the bars tonight. Let everyone know you are leaving for London in the morning. That gives two days for Basile to arrive.”
“And what will you do?”
“What mothers do best in times of grief; I’ll cry,” she answered. “And I’ll sing and work, and finish the last play I’m like to write.” After a moment’s pause, she added. “I’ll give you a letter to bring to Madeleine. She will blame herself for this.”
“We both shall,” Eli replied.
Charlotte ignored that. “Go out and drink, Eli. I shall be busy writing and you’ll only get in the way. Tell Betha to meet me in the study.”
She sipped a bit of her tea, had a bite of biscuit and then swept from the anteroom and into the study she used for writing. The desk was a mess of pages from her most recent play, about a young woman overcoming a wicked betrayal from her betrothed. How fitting.
Betha came in quickly to light the candles, and brought the unfinished tea and biscuits with her. She then helped to clear a writing space on the desk.
“Are you really sending us back to Barfleur, Miss?” she asked. “I’d sooner be here.”
Charlotte sighed, deeply. “Betha, I’m flattered by your loyalty, and Eli’s – truly. But I would not die peacefully, if I accepted it. You are… not the right colour for justice. You would hang, just like Eli. No trial. No truth.”
Betha’s eyes watered with twenty years of memories between them. She had first been Madeleine’s nanny, before becoming Charlotte’s assistant, and maid. “You will hire someone else then, to protect you, when Eli and I are gone?”
“I will think on it.”
Betha hesitated for a moment, and then reluctantly left the room.
Finally alone with her thoughts, Charlotte let the tears come again. There was misery at the sudden end to what felt like the very prime of her life, and regret for having not married one of the many wealthy suitors her mother had suggested instead.
For a moment, she even let herself think of the life she might have had, if she had never borne Basile a child. But no, Madeleine was perhaps the only good thing to come from her mistake, and she would have wanted no other child but the fierce feline she had birthed.
Finding her resolve, she dried her eyes, and penned her parting words to her only child. As she wrote, she felt herself grow stronger, calmer. She would defy Basile as she had always done, and she would win, as she had always done.
She would make plans; perhaps set traps. But she mentioned none of this to her daughter, nothing that would alarm her, or beg her help.
Suddenly, the sound of silver trays and spoons colliding with china and hardwood floors reverberated through the house; swiftly followed by the sound of a man and woman shouting.
Charlotte grabbed a letter opener and ran to the door to see what mischief was afoot. It was not like Eli to raise his voice, not even after a night of drinking. He had barely been gone an hour.
“Get off me, woman!” the man barked as he threw Betha aside and strolled into the anteroom. Behind him, he left a mess of cheeses, vegetable broth, wine, and broken glass.
He was richly dressed, though no one of high-birth would wear such ostentatious clothing this early, and without proper occasion. His hair was neatly groomed, though thinning, and a course black beard fought valiantly to reclaim ownership of his cheeks and chin.
Betha curtsied. “Miss,” she began nervously, “I tried to warn him you were busy, and should not be disturbed.”
“Basile,” Charlotte said, with wide eyes. “I had not expected you for another two days. You said you would come on Thursday.”
She casually slid the letter opener into her hair. I could stab him with it, she thought to herself. Once in the neck or the heart, and I could be done with him forever.
He closed the distance between them, and smiled, suddenly charming. “So I did, but I thought you might enjoy a surprise. Did you miss me, Love? Come. Give your dear husband a kiss.”
To be continued…