The Last Offence
Scores of flickering flames on tables and shelves illuminated the darkened room. Mamie had pulled the curtains shut against the afternoon sun, against prying eyes. She set the matches aside, and with a gesture, invited Rosalie and Regina to sit at the table.
Regina began to protest, but Mamie interrupted her. “Your loyalty to Charlotte cannot be questioned. You have need of this news as well, I’m sure.”
Without another word, they took their place. Madeleine fidgeted in her chair, no less confused, and twice as anxious. She could smell ill news in the air, like a grand chateau slowly burning to the ground.
“I have news from London,” Mamie disclosed, “though this kind of news would have likely reached us without the letter, anyway.” She then set a piece of paper before Madeleine: a newspaper clipping.
The Daily Courant: December 21, 1840
Owner of The Lady’s Playhouse Missing, Husband Suspected of Murder
by George Walker
London police confirmed on Thursday, December 18, that Charlotte Moreau is missing. Her husband, Basile Dubois-Moreau, was taken into police custody on December 19, under suspicion of foul play, and likely, murder.
Workers at The Lady’s Playhouse became suspicious when Lady Moreau did not appear on time for work. On checking her apartments in the city, they discovered Lord Dubois-Moreau fleeing a bloody scene.
Upon searching the house, police discovered the weapon, and a letter penned and signed by Lady Moreau herself. Police say in the letter, Lady Moreau expressed fear for her life at the hands of her husband, who she claims has been violent with her before.
With no body found, police have not confirmed Lady Moreau’s death. However, the local physician, John Arthur, has told The Daily Courant that it would not be possible for Lady Moreau to survive such heavy loss of blood.
Lord Dubois-Moreau remains in custody, while the search for his wife continues.
“You might remember George,” Mamie broke the silence. “The only journalist who bothers to write honest reviews about her plays in London. He says Charlotte left him a copy of the letter police found, and he plans to publish it.”
Madeleine stared at Mamie in blatant horror, while hot, angry tears filled her eyes. “How can you be so calm?! Your daughter – my mother- is…” She couldn’t say the word. A tremor rolled through her: anger and despair.
“I have not dreamed your mother’s death,” Mamie said, unmoved. “I do not believe her dead, but Basile will likely rot in prison, regardless.”
“I’m glad one of us can be so sure.” Madeleine then left the room in a flurry of skirts, punctuated by the harsh slam of a door.
Regina and Rosalie remained behind, unsure if they had leave to follow their mistress, or not.
“She will be angry over the next few days,” Mamie said as though already exhausted by the thought. “She has a fiery temper that one. Do try not to offend her.”
Regina and Rosalie nodded in unison, then bowed, and left the room.
A day later, when George published Charlotte’s letter, madness erupted in England and France. There was pity for Charlotte, mixed with some feeling that she had deserved her fate. A woman such as her, who did not know her place, would have angered and disgraced any husband.
Yet, whatever the underlying feeling about Charlotte and her actions, the public considered Basile a guilty man.
“He could have divorced her,” were the whispers in the streets.
Condolences came from letters and familiar faces at Mamie’s house, and all the while Madeleine hid in her room, speaking to no one.
“I fear she’s gone mad,” Rosalie confessed to Mamie one morning. “She mutters to herself a lot, cries out in her sleep, and will not touch food.”
Mamie walked to the window and looked out into the courtyard. “Keep an eye on her. A mad Moreau she may very well be, but a Moreau nonetheless.”
After some hesitance, Rosalie added, “I am worried about Eli, as well, Mamie. We have not heard from him at all.”
“Me too, child,” Mamie admitted, “but I have not seen his death, either. I believe he is safe.”
Her words gave Rosalie comfort, but Madeleine’s alleged madness continued. The final blow followed a letter from George, informing the family that The Lady Anglais had called on friends in court to see to Basile’s release.
Soon enough, a new lawyer came to Basile’s defense, reminding the court that there was no body and thus no crime; and that there was no reason to believe Charlotte’s letter bore truth.
And so, against the court’s better judgement, Basile was released once more into society, albeit a dishonoured man.
Madeleine disappeared from the Moreau Estate the following morning.
Sir Andrews had called at the Moreau household in Barfleur several times, in hopes of speaking with the Lady of the house; and just as many, the household had turned him away with apologies and red-rimmed eyes. The fate of all other visitors was the same.
There was murder in the family, and the murderer had gone free. The proud Moreaus and their equally proud household would not suffer Barfleur’s pity, not even from him.
Yet, he could not help feeling slighted. It was eating away at him that the woman he hoped to marry should be locked in her room with naught but tears and sorrow, and he could not comfort her. Had he not earned greater trust from her than that, even now?
A knock at the door roused him from thought. With a sigh, he set aside the book he held, unread, and went to see who could be calling at such a late hour. Outside, the fury of hell pounded on his window with heavy drops of rain, flashes of lightning, and roaring thunder. Everyone should be home, and safe in their beds.
The landlady was standing in the corridor. “There is someone here to see you,” she said. “A girl – she did not give her name, but she is in such a poor state, I could not turn her away.”
“Send her in,” Sir Andrews conceded, and then he rushed to put on some semblance of decent clothing, to receive his visitor.
She walked in shyly, trembling from the cold. The landlady gave her a pitiful look, and then bowed out through the door, and locked it behind her.
“Come by the fire. You must be freezing,” he suggested, though he did not move to touch her.
Her hair hung before her like black serpents clinging to her face and skin. Her coat was soaked all the way through, and her shoes ruined.
“Would you like some tea?” he tried again.
She remained in the doorway, neither moving nor answering, though her eyes roamed his humble abode. The knighted second son of a baron, and nephew of a Marchioness, he was nonetheless a simple man with simple tastes. His apartment was scarcely furnished, but the shelves along the walls were almost overstuffed with books.
As he watched her, his heart quickened in his chest. He knew the proud dark eyes behind the black, wet hair. He knew that posture, that physique only barely hidden beneath the cloak.
“Madeleine?” he said, questioningly. He approached her then and cleared the black tendrils from her face. Her eyes were swollen and red; and where there had once been pride and determination, only grief and desperation remained.
“You promised me his head once,” she said, her voice shaking. “You promised me that if I asked… Were you only in jest?”
“I did,” he agreed, “and I meant it. It was no jest.”
Her body sighed in relief. “I know I ask a difficult thing of you,” she said, as tears mixed with drying rain on her cheeks. “I know I ask a selfish, devilish thing.”
“And yet, I’d do it anyway and willingly, because you ask it.”
She unbuttoned her coat then, and let the last barrier between him and her skin, slide to the floor between them. “I’m willing to risk dishonour,” she told him, “to be at your mercy. To marry you, if you should still want me when the deed is done.”
Her effect on him was immediate. Whether from the cold, or from fear, she trembled as his eyes washed over her. Such a beautiful thing. How simple it would be to have her now; how satisfying.
He bent to the floor and retrieved the coat she had let fall. He clothed her in it.
She stared at him, confused. “Will you not help me?” she asked, her eyes brimming with tears again. “Will you not avenge me, like you promised?”
“I’ll do as you ask,” he assured her, “but not at any risk to your honour, much as you tempt me to do otherwise.” He seemed to hesitate for a moment, almost as if he regretted his decision. He did not give himself time to reconsider. “I’ll escort you home.”
He turned away from her then, but a touch of her hand to his face stayed him. “I can stay the night if you like,” she offered.
He leaned in and kissed her briefly, more intimacy than had ever passed between them before. “I love you and respect you, but I am a man,” he told her. “If you spend the night, I can neither promise you your honour, nor mine.”
She managed a little laugh, then. “If you insist, Sir Andrews.”
“Jacob,” he replied, “or Jake, if you like.”
“Jake…” The word was a foreign sound coming from her lips.
“You do know… your father has fled to Italy with Anglais,” he told her, cautiously. “She divorced her husband – claims their marriage, after all these years, was never consummated. They have no children, so he was not in a place to disprove it. And now that your mother is presumed dead, Basile is a widow himself. They mean to marry.”
The news shocked Madeleine. Her only response was silence.
“I’ll find him,” he assured her. “I’ll do as you ask.”
It seemed eons passed, before she was standing in front of the Barfleur Moreau Estate, her secret safe, her honour spared, and his promise given. Yet, that old feeling of foreboding was creeping in, again.
“You will be careful…Jake?”
“Honourable men oft’ keep their honour through friendships with dishonourable men,” he returned. “Nothing will come back to you.”
“Me?” She had not even thought of herself. “I was thinking of you.”
Her concern surprised him, and for a moment he wasn’t sure how to respond. He was saved by the appearance of Betha in the doorway, at once relieved to see her mistress.
With a fleeting kiss on Sir Andrew’s cheek, she disappeared into the home with Betha babbling behind her.
A familiar face awaited her inside.
“Mother?” Madeleine truly believed she had finally gone mad. “Is that you?”
Charlotte had withered down to skin and bones. There was a scar on the left side of her face, and neck, and the puff of a bandage beneath her night gown. “I survived,” she assured Madeleine, “but Basile doesn’t know it; not yet.”
In the study, Charlotte related what the household now already knew. Basile had indeed tried to kill her, but had drunken too much in the hours before and missed the mark.
Charlotte had known he would strike, though not when, and kept a sleep aid handy. One prick, and he had fallen out like a light, while she bled in and out of consciousness.
It was Eli and her lawyer who found her. Together, they had smeared blood she had saved over the course of weeks for that exact purpose all over the floors and sheets.
“I had the same dream you did, Madeleine – months ago,” she admitted, “though not as vividly. I don’t have your power, or my mother’s, but I prepared.”
The attorney had then hidden her in his apartments, until such time as he could smuggle her away to Barfleur. Her injuries had been terrible and Eli had feared to move her. She only just arrived a few days prior, shortly after Madeleine escaped her grandmother’s watchful eye in the countryside.
“I had hoped for justice, but it failed me as it has failed so many women before us,” Charlotte finished.
“It was a woman who caused that,” Madeleine pointed out. “Not a man.” After a pause, she said, “Mother I have done a terrible thing, you may never forgive me for. I asked Sir Andrews to dispose of him. I know it is a ghastly thing I ask, and yet even with you here, I don’t regret it.”
“Madeleine…” Charlotte could find no other words.
“I offered my hand in marriage to Sir Andrews – to Jacob – in exchange.”
For a time Charlotte was quiet. She wanted to tell Madeleine that it was indeed a ghastly thing to wish her father dead. And yet she too had thought of taking Basile’s life when she woke to find him still sleeping soundly in her blood.
“I wish you had not taken such a decision in your own hands. It will weigh heavily on your conscience. You are too young for such burdens.”
“I have carried greater in the past few weeks, when I believed I had lost my mother.”
Charlotte could not prevent the tears from escaping her, then. “Do you love him at least Madeleine. Truly, love him?”
“Yes,” she admitted, “always – though I would have preferred to die a spinster, even so.”
Charlotte could not help but laugh at that. “You are your grandmother’s child. She loved my father, you know? Perhaps even more than he loved her. But Mamie resented the feeling of being ‘owned’.
“I was three years old when she sent him away, but I remember how much she cried. It was not an easy decision, but it was one she felt she had to make. Mamie always does things her own way.”
She took Madeleine’s hands. “I hope you will find a marriage neither like Mamie’s, nor my own. Sir Andrews is a liberal man, I think, and may understand that ours is a bid for equality and not superiority, however much it might look otherwise from the outside.”
In the weeks that followed, Charlotte gave numerous interviews in London, Paris, and Barfleur. George Walker was the first to get her story, and everything afterwards was more of the same. Yet, the public couldn’t get enough.
Her plays attracted much more publicity, and larger theaters suddenly wanted them on their stages.
But Charlotte never returned to London to stay. She gave up her apartment, sold her theater, and started a production company right there in Barfleur.
Mamie then came to visit with Eli, Rosalie, and Regina in tow. “Betrothed,” she said happily, when she heard the news. “It is time for another daughter, for sure, but perhaps time for another ship as well?”
Madeleine laughed. “I would like to hope I won’t be needing one.”
A month from the date of Sir Andrew’s promise, news came to Barfleur that Basile had met an unfortunate end; he had taken his life. Those close to him and his new wife reported that he had gone mad.
He had been running from things only he could see, muttering to himself in the dark. He would often sleepwalk in the hedge mazes outside, only to wake up lost, and confused, and shouting.
“Poor fool,” Mamie said over her knitting, when the news came. She seemed neither surprised nor relieved. There was no sadness in her, either.
“Did you do it?” Madeleine asked her.
Mamie looked up at her, then. “Me?” she replied with mock innocence. “Why, I’ve been in France the whole time. And after all, did you not tell me that ‘magic’ is not real?”
A week later, Sir Andrews returned to France. “I see the news has reached you, and that your mother is well,” he said when Madeleine invited him into the gardens behind the house. “I meant to do as you asked, but your father got to himself, before my man.”
“Perhaps for the best.”
Her words stung. “So I suppose you no longer mean to marry me, then,” he concluded. “You’ve been spared the atrocity.”
Madeleine turned to look at him. “Not marry the man who I’ve already let gaze upon my naked body?” She laughed. “How absurd! I gave you my hand, and you shall have it, as I said.”
He stopped then, and slipping an arm around her waist. “I love you, Madeleine, and I mean to be your husband, and make you my wife. But not because you believe you must.
“I would never breathe a word of what transpired between us; I have not. But if this isn’t what you truly want, then I would sooner return to pursuing you in the fashion I always have. I am a proud man from a proud family, same as yours.”
“And I am a stubborn woman, remember? I do as I like, and never otherwise. I said I would marry you, and I shall. Because I want to.”
The boyish smile returned to his face, as he leaned in and kissed her. Her reassurance was more than he had hoped for. “I visited my aunt in Italy, while I was there,” he said, suddenly.
“Yes, and told her I meant to marry the beautiful Lady at Barfleur. She admires your family, as I suppose all women do, and presented me with a gift to mark our engagement.”
He took from his pocket a small, velvet box, and from its depths, a ring certainly fit for a Marchioness in Italy.
“Shouldn’t you get on one knee then, and propose?” Madeleine teased.
“You said you wanted equality in a marriage,” he quipped, as he slid the ring onto her finger. “And don’t forget, you owe me some token of our marriage as well – fair is fair. I’m certain the Moreau family is not short of heirlooms.”
Madeleine laughed. “Equality,” she echoed the word. “You know I mean to continue my education, keep my name, and-“
“I am aware of your family’s customs, and respect them,” he assured her. “You shall keep your name, and I, mine. Our child can have both.
“And not that you need my permission, but you can keep your inheritance. I come from a family of means myself, and have no use for more – except for this wedding token you’ve promised, of course. That, I must have.”
“Of course,” Madeleine agreed. “Come, let’s tell the others. I’m sure Mother will want to see the ring – and Mamie.”
“She’s outside,” Betha said, when Madeleine came bursting in with Sir Andrews behind her.
Madeleine made for the door, but then paused in the doorway. Mamie was standing in the garden with clippers in her hand, while Charlotte stood at the gate. They were both looking across the street at a haggard woman, who was twice the scandal she had been just months before.
“I know what you did!” the woman shouted as loudly as she could, for everyone to hear. “You killed my husband! You and your mother and your daughter and all your witchcraft- you Moreau witches! He went mad, and it was you – you he kept running from, your name that he shouted out in fear, while he slept!”
She brandished a gun then, and pointed it at Charlotte.
Sir Andrews brandished his own. “Madame Anglais, put away the gun.”
“My name is Madame Dubois! And I will kill her!”
Mamie appeared beside Sir Andrews, and put a hand on his to stop him. Her eyes were shut, her lips muttering.
In her rage and determination, Madame Dubois stepped out into the streets without looking. With all eyes fixed on the drama unfolding, no one saw the carriage coming up the street, but they saw it collide with her – four horses, carriage man, empty carriage, and all.
Passersby and neighbours rushed into the street to see what had become of the carriage and the unfortunate Dubois. But Charlotte never budged from the gate, and Madeleine remained in the doorway. With trembling hands, Sir Andrews lowered his gun, happy he did not have to put a bullet in a woman’s chest.
Screams rang out, and calls for a doctor and help. And in the bushes behind them all, Mamie continued to snip, and snip, and snip at the hedges; unperturbed.
Madame Dubois did not recover from her injuries, and Charlotte found herself paying none other than Monsieur Anglais for his splintered carriage and wounded driver. All around Barfleur, there was talk of witchcraft and that old gypsy blood in the family, again.
But no one dared accuse them to their faces.
The Lady Madeleine Moreau married Sir Jacob Andrews a month later, in a small ceremony in the courtyard, with family and friends. Baron Peter Andrews had made the trip even in his old age to see his son safely wed, and the Marchioness had left Italy to meet the woman that could have so captured her nephew’s affection.
“I hope you enjoyed your gift,” the Marchioness told her in heavily accented French. “I never married, or had a son to give to a wife as beautiful as you, but I know Jacob has made a wonderful choice.”
There were many other gifts to open and give thanks for as the day unfolded – more jewelry, a white stallion, a small estate in Italy a five minute ride from the Marchioness.
And of course, the wedding token she had promised her husband: a silver ring that had once belonged to Pierre Moreau, who formed the Moreau Matriarchy when he defied custom by naming his daughter as his heir.
“I’ve saved my gift for last, child,” Mamie said, when Madeleine believed that surely, all the giving was over.
There were always old relics in Mamie’s countryside home that Madeleine had eyed since infancy. Now, she might have one, after all. “What did you bring me, Grandmother?”
“It’s not here, but yours to have all the same.”
Madeleine’s eagerness intensified. “Is it too big to bring here?”
“Indeed,” Mamie nodded. “Much too large.”
“You kill me with suspense, Mamie,” Madeleine replied. “What is it?”
Mamie only smiled.
And so, it was Charlotte who answered, “Madeleine, she’s bought you a ship…”