Chapter Twelve

We walked in, and could see her almost immediately, as usual perched up on the bar, cheerfully engaging in banter with whatever young fool tried to take her on.
Clopin waved disinterestedly to his friends, Jehan and Co, already drunk. They gave a joyous shout at his appearance, and tried to fight their way through the crowd to come over, but Clopin weaved skilfully through the throng, avoiding them and instead taking us up to the bar where Colombine sat.
I had learned Clopin did not like these "friends". He had told me they fancied themsleves "truants", and for the gypsy people, but in reality they were nothing more than spoilt boys, intent on having as much fun as they could. I had laughed and said they sounded like him, but he had only shaken his head gravely. He told me they were very different, for any comradeship was pure fallacy. They cared nothing for no-one, and their supposed friendship with gypsies was just an act; they saw it as a means of access to the underworld, easy women,and debauchery. They would not defend us if we got into trouble and would deny any acquaintance with us, and furthermore, had no genuine respect for any of our people. As much as they denied it, their prejudiced upbringing was rooted within them. Clopin reminded me of how they would not apologise for insulting my appearance that time. For these reasons Clopin trusted nor liked no-one, and used them just as much as they used him.
They respected and feared him, as he represented the very pinnacle of underworld criminality (which was not true, but they were too stupid or drunk to see otherwise) They were pawns to whatever game he chose to play with them, happy to provide service if it would provide them with a swaggering tale to tell, and let them feel as though they were true protestors of the system, but Clopin would never entrust them with any of the gypsies' secrets. However, he had got them involved just enough so that they could be charged and hung, should anything ever go wrong with the gypsies - by both Frollo and Clopin.

I had noticed over the weeks that Clopin strongly disliked the Parisians. His only concession were the children, for children are innocent, but I knew he resented the townspeople's fear and prejudice of the gypsies. I could see it in the curl of his lip as they would leave after a performance, even after they had given him coins. I saw it in the coldness of his eyes as he watched women cross the street with their children to avoid some of our people. His indifference to them in general, to what went on in their worlds. 
On the whole, he disliked them all. He performed for them because he was born to do so, but the only audience he loved were the children and his own. I would sometimes feel disturbed as I saw him laugh, smile and shake hands with those boys, knowing it was feigned - for I saw him use the same smile, laughter and graciousness on the streets of Paris in his Puppetcart.
Colombine had told me that at festivals Clopin would do anything for the sake of fun - no matter how cruel - and because of the festivities he was able to get away with it, and as a consequence sometimes undesirable things happened. But it didn't disturb him, for he felt the Parisians deserved it for all the unjust perseuction of his people.
There was a cruel streak to Clopin, a definite air of coldness, the potential for great callousness. Perhaps what disturbed me most of all was that I could see it reflected in myself. I knew we made quite a pair. But what type, and what type might we become, two such similar beings leading an entire group of people?

But in the tavern that night I didn't think of these things, just embraced my friend and pulled myself up on the bar next to her. As usual there were several gypsies from the Court milling around, the regular clientele. There was little Cosette behind the bar, looking paler than usual, and extraordinarily anxious. Madame Paquette grinned and waved at us both and we returned the compliment, recieving our drinks from Cosette, who looked as though she were about to speak to Clopin before biting her lip and hurrying away.
I shook my head as I watched her. "She's strange, that little one," I said. "She always looks frightened of something."
"She's not that little," Colombine told me. "She's seventeen, older than you."
"You've got to be joking!" I exclaimed.
She shook her head. "No. Isn't she, Clopin?"
"She is indeed," Clopin said. "As for being frightened, I think she's just shy. She's very quiet, but well worth speaking to."
I didn't answer that. Clopin leaned on the bar and looked around the tavern. His eyes came to rest on something which evidently held his interest. I followed his gaze and found a group of women at the end of it, not gypsy, but young and pretty - and obviously easy. Truant women who spent their days pickpocketing and their nights seducing men so as to have a bed to sleep in. I knew men looked, and looked often, it was their way - but I had not seen Clopin look so steadily or so long since we had been married. But I turned away, masking my discomfort, to speak again with Colombine. She had noticed as well, and raised her eyebrows at me, before grabbing my hand.
"This reminds me - I have something to speak of to you later on. Don't forget!" she whispered. I nodded and we resumed conversation.
Meanwhile the group of women were beginning to break up as several of them gradually found men to hold their arms. Two wandered over to the bar to get another drink,and Clopin took advantage of it to move over and speak with them. They smiled at him welcomingly, and within a minute all three were laughing and talking like they had known each other all their lives. Clopin had never once stopped being charming and friendly with all the ladies he met with, and it never bothered me, but this night I felt it was something different. I felt a hand squeeze my knee.
"Don't worry about it," Colombine whispered to me. "Nothing will happen."
"I wasn't worried!" I snapped at her. She laughed.
"You're staring absolute daggers at those girls. If you're going to be jealous, make it less obvious."
"I am not jealous!" I hissed at her. "I just think it's extremely rude of him to talk to them when he's with us."
She giggled. "You're right, it is. Let's drop the roof on his head."
I laughed. At that moment little Cosette again appeared near us, the look of anxiety doubled on her face.
"Clopin!" she whispered in her meek little voice. "Clopin, I must speak with you!"
Clopin of course could not hear her, and she tried in vain to gain his attention. Colombine and I watched her with interest, but Clopin just continued speaking to the two ladies, unaware of her.
"Oh for goodness sake," I muttered. "CLOPIN!!!"
Both Cosette and Clopin jumped, startled, and Clopin turned around to face me, his look questioning. I gestured with my head to Cosette and he excused himself from the women and leaned over to her.
"What is it, cherie?" he asked, and Colombine and I leaned in closer to hear.
"I hear this when I take their drinks over to them. They're two soldiers in here." I saw Clopin tense. "You can't see it, because they're wearing cloaks. I heard them, they're angry because there are gypsies in here. I passed by them again a few minutes ago, and I heard them speak of making arrests. I think they may do something terrible. You have to get your people out of here."
Her eyes had filled with tears and her face was flushed red. Clopin nodded, his expression intense, and he turned away from the bar and motioned for me and Colombine to get down. Clopin finished his drink, keeping his expression casual, but I saw his eyes flitting around carefully. I surveyed the tavern too, and caught sight of a glint of silver over in one corner. By the window two men were seated, their cloaks wrapped around them from the cold, but one had stretched out his leg and I could see the gleam of armor on it. Their faces were ugly with the expression of anger and hatred on them, and I could see that they were chomping for a fight.
"There!" I said to Clopin "Over by the window." 
He looked and nodded. "Alright," he muttered. "They've had a few drinks, by the looks of them. This could get ugly. No sense in getting in a fight in such a public place. We're going to do the smart thing."
He grabbed hold of a nearby gypsy by the name of Renault and whispered to him. "Tell all you see there are soldiers here abouts and to leave immediately. But make sure they DON'T go through the trapdoor in the backroom."
Renault nodded and passed the message on. Within a few minutes gypsies were beginning to make a stealthy exit.
Clopin turned to me and Colombine. "Come on," he said. "We're leaving now. Move towards the back exit. Look normal about it."
Colombine led the way, and I felt my heart beginning to pound. Stupidly, a grin crossed over my face. It was possible this could be a truly dangerous situation, but I seemed unable to find excitement in it. I began to giggle, my shoulders shaking with the effort to contain my laughter, although it could hardly be heard over the din of the tavern. Clopin poked me in the back, and I swallowed and got hold of myself.
The soldiers must have noticed the rapid disappearance of their chosen prey, however, for just as we neared the exit they leapt up and threw off their cloaks, drawing their swords.
The women nearby gave a shriek and the men jumped up in alarm.
"Keep moving!" Clopin hissed.
One of the soldiers called out then.
"Everyone stay where you are! We're looking for gypsy jewellery thieves who frequent the markets, and we have reason to believe they're in this tavern tonight!"
Although they probably used this as an excuse to merit the attack on the tavern, I felt my cheeks go red. Colombine glanced behind her to me, and I could see a flush on hers as well.
"All gypsies are to stay where they are for questioning. Anyone who tries to escape will be considered guilty and treated accordingly!"
A couple of the gypsies ran to make a move for the door then and the soldiers reacted. Swords drawn, they rushed forward and pandemonium ensued. Women screamed and men shouted, drawing whatever small weapons they had, and any gypsies who were left ran around, trying to hide amidst the confusion. Clopin pushed me and Colombine into one of the back rooms, the exit now entirely blocked off. A couple of the truant boys ran past screaming "the soldiers are coming!" and Clopin grabbed hold of me and pushed me down behind a barrel in the corner.
"Stay down!" he snapped. Then as the soldier approached, he grasped Colombine and pulled her into an embrace, kissing her vigorously, pushing her body down over the barrel I hid behind.
I heard a soldier pause at the doorway and give a snort of disgust before moving on. There was silence then, the only noise coming from the front of the tavern where the fight still raged. Clopin released Colombine and she sat up, gasping and laughing.
"Clopin, I never knew you felt this way!" she giggled. I, on the other hand, was not amused. Words were beyond me, feelings it seemed, were beyond me, for I didn't even know what I felt right then except I hadn't liked watching him kiss her.
"Shush!" he said "It's not over yet."
He again grabbed me roughly by the wrist, and led us both into the room where the trap door was. He opened it quickly and pushed us unceremoniously down. "Go straight back to the tents," he said. "Do not stop once, and do not dare turn back. I have to go make sure everyone is out alright."
And with that he let the trap door drop. We were left in darkness, and over the way I heard Colombine begin to giggle.
"Come on!" she said, groping for me and pulling me down the passage.
"But - Clopin - he went - " I stammered.
"He'll be fine" she said cheerfully. "He gets caught up in those kinds of things often. As long as he works with his body and doesn't run off at the mouth, he gets out fine. The problem is, he never can resist making some kind of infuriatingly witty remark. But he'll be fine."
I pulled my hand out from hers and didn't answer. For some reason I was still feeling edgy and disturbed. Colombine didn't appear to notice, however, and continued:
"Most of the times I join in, but I guess since you're here, he wanted me to get you back safely."
"I can fight!" I said angrily. "I can hold my own! I'm not afraid of those soldiers!!"
She laughed. "Don't take it like that!!! He's just watching out for you, you should be grateful!"
But I wasn't. I felt upset and unsettled. Colombine strode on ahead, laughing over the excitement, but I dragged behind, sulking and cranky.
"Oh yes!" she said. "I remember! I have to talk to you about your relationship with Clopin."
"That's the important thing you want to talk to me about?" I asked incredulously.
"Yes!! And it is important!! Very important!! Come on, we'll go sit in my tent for a change."
We arrived with her still giggling, and I still pouting. She poured us both a drink and we settled down on the cushions.
She took several deep breaths and calmed down a little.Then she focused her attention on me. "You still haven't had relations with him, have you?" she asked.
I blushed and shook my head. She shook hers also.
"Herli - you've been married for a month and a half. Don't you think it's getting slightly ridiculous?"
"I don't know!" I burst out, angry at this intrusion. "Things are going so well between us, I don't want to ruin it by forcing my body to do something. He's - I trust him. He's my friend. But I can't make myself do it."
She sighed and raised her eyebrows.
"Besides which - he hasn't even tried anything. He doesn't attempt to touch me like that anymore."
"I bet he doesn't!" she said dryly.
"What do you mean?"
She sighed again. "Look, Herli - surely you noticed the way he looked at those women tonight? Well, I've been noticing that for a couple of weeks now. Never mind him being charming and all kissy-handsy, Clopin's just like that and he always will be. But I'm sure you noticed that tonight it had a different feel about it. I used to watch him talk to women like that when he had a mind to bed them. Before he was making a concentrated effort to not flirt, to make it clear he was taken and no longer available. But slowly, that resistance is being worn down. You know Herli, if you only would, he'd never desire another woman again. I know the way you two talk to each other, I've seen how close you've grown. And I know he finds you maddeningly attractive. He told me himself he hasn't been stirred like that by a woman - "
"You spoke to him about this?" All through her speech my temper had been rising, but this last shocked me. She looked at me, surprised by the savagery in my voice.
"Yes, yes I did."
"When?"
"Well - a couple of days ago, it - "
"Where?"
"Well in his Puppet Cart of course. I went to visit him."
I took a deep breath. "You were in his cart?"
She looked more surprised still. "Yes. I often go there. We eat together."
"And you discussed this, the two of you? Discussed what goes on behind our closed doors?"
She looked shocked. "Well, Herli, it wasn't intrusion. He wanted someone to talk to, and I thought he needed to talk."
"Tell me everything."
She looked exasperated now. "That's what I'm trying to do, dear. If you'll stop interrupting me, I can!"
"Alright, alright," I grumbled.
"Thank you! Anyway! He says he cares about you too much to force himself on you, and he doesn't particularly want to fool around with other women, but he thinks he's going to burst! That little display in the tavern wasn't deliberate. It wasn't an attempt to make you jealous. It was just Clopin smelling other women and being too frustrated to ignore it. I told you his patience would wear out. It's wearing out now. Soon he will, and it won't be you and then he won't be able to stop."
"And much joy to him too!" I snapped, feeling very sorry for myself.
"Herli, you have to understand we're talking about a man who hasn't been without a woman longer than a week since he was fourteen. He thinks you're divine, and I know you think he is, but all this pushing him away is just making him more receptive to the charms of other women. The worst of it would be if it was with one of the girls from the Court. Or more of them."
"Look, I appreciate your concern, but to be honest I couldn't care less," I snapped, pretending to turn my attention to the embroidery on the pillows next to me. "I really don't care if he sleeps with all the women of the Court, it's nothing to me."
She put her hand on mine. "It will be. Not only will it ruin any future chance the two of you have, the women won't respect you. They know Clopin has a staunch heart, and for you to not have held it will make you less than a woman to them. They won't listen to you and they'll make life difficult for you. Trust me, in this situation it's not enough to just be friends."
I wiped away the tears which had sprung into my eyes. "And what about the kiss the two of you shared? Was that deliberate or was it just male instinct?"
"Alright, I was a little surprised by that too. Maybe he wanted you to see it, but I think more than anything it was just to dissuade the soldiers. I've told you, he and I share no interest in each other, apart from being friends."
I couldn't think of anything to say. The truth is, I didn't want Clopin to sleep around either, but I also wasn't sure I could sleep with him myself. I knew I cared about him very deeply, but I wasn't sure how.I'd changed so much since coming to Paris my feelings were in a whirl and I needed more time to sort them out.
Colombine squeezed my hand sympathetically. "Look, Clopin told me he's going to give you a few weeks more, and I think that's more than fair. I really think you should try hard, Herli. I also think you should go and visit Abigail. You know who she is, right?"
I nodded. Abigail was the Court's resident "wise woman". Ancient and wizened, she sat in her tent and the gypsies would go and seek her counsel in times of trouble. I had at first thought she was a bad cliche, but apparantly everything she predicted came true, and all the advice she gave was good.
"Take Clopin with you. You won't have to explain anything to her, she'll know. But do it, Herli. And do it soon."
I gulped and nodded again, wiping my eyes. Colombine gave me a hug.
"There now, everything will be alright, you'll see. I wasn't sure at first, but I am now. You two are meant to be together."
"Hmmmmm."
There was noise from outside the tent and we looked to see what it was. It was Clopin, grinning and a mess. He burst into the tent and raised his hands above his head.
"Clopin Triumphant!!!" He exclaimed, and threw himself onto the cushions beside us.
"Ahhh" he sighed, stretching his legs out. Colombine jumped up, and giggled, pulling on the front of his tunic.
"Come on, tell me everything, Clopie!! What happened??"
He pushed her hands away. "My dear Colombs, let me tell you that your Clopin was dazzling!! Right into the middle of it I leapt, and I kicked and punched and fought, and it was a glorious mess!"
"What about the soldiers?"
"What about them? They were long gone by then. It was a free for all."
I looked at him in surprise. "You mean you just went in and joined in the fight? For no reason?"
He sat up, mopping sweat from his brow.
"Yes! Well - they were there, I was there, what else could I do?"
I shrugged. "Men. They're beyond me."
Colombine, meanwhile, was still giggling. She put her hand on his upper arm, feeling his muscle.
"Working out some of that male aggression, eh, Clopin?"
"I have a lot to work out, Madame!" he sniffed. And he flexed his muscles for us. His eye was beginning to puff up and his mouth was swollen. His tunic was torn in several places and I could see blood seeping through his sleeve.
"Look at that!" I scolded, coming closer to have a look at the wound.
"Oh yes, I seem to recall falling on something sharp," he smiled.
I made him pull off his tunic, and used it to wipe away the blood. We looked at it carefully and decided it was only a flesh wound, but I still wanted to get it cleaned up.
Clopin leapt to his feet, his blood still racing from the excitement of the fight, his energy seemingly boundless. We bade goodnight to Colombine who was still laughing over the events of the evening, and turned to go. But at the tent flap Clopin suddenly turned around again.
"Oh by the way, my lovely ladies," he said in a tone of forboding. "I had some time to make a few enquiries. You two frequent the markets, don't you? You wouldn't know anything about these 'gypsy jewel thieves' plaguing the stalls?"
I could feel my cheeks turn red and I looked at the floor. Colombine did the same, and with Clopin standing in the doorway, a silhouetted figure with his hands on his hips, we didn't have the nerve to even giggle.
He shook his head and groaned. "Just please don't get caught, you female fools!"
I was yanked from where I stood and with his now useless tunic wrapped around his arm, we made our way back to the tent.
"You're an absolute mess," I told him disapprovingly. "Look at you, all bloodied and beaten."
He laughed. "You needn't worry about me, cherie. I gave as good as I got, I assure you! There are boys going home with a lot more than a black eye and a cut arm!"
"Well I should hope so, otherwise you've nothing to justify ruining a perfectly good tunic."
He picked a loose and blood-soaked flap of it up from his arm and examined it closely. "Do you really think it's ruined? It can't be fixed?" I whacked him and he winked at me.
"Here, let's go past the Center," he said.
"But it's right out of our way!" I exclaimed.
"Yes I know, but many will still be up, and this is a good opportunity to show all the girls my muscles, while I have no tunic on!!"
"Oooh!" I marched him to the tent. Once there I dressed his wound with herbs and wrapped a fresh piece of linen around it.
"We'll have to change it every day, and clean it too," I told him. "Otherwise it will become infected, and will have to be chopped off!!"
He made a pretended face of fear.
"By the way..." I began casually as I tied the dressing. "Colombine suggested we go and speak with Abigail tomorrow."
"Oh did she?" he asked me, just as casually. "What did you say?"
"I said I'd speak to you."
"Well you've spoken to me." I stopped what I was doing and we looked at each other.
"So?"
"So?"
"So, let's go and speak with her." I made the decision.
He kept looking at me as he said, "Alright. We will."

The next day we parted in the square, agreeing we would speak with Abigail that evening. My thoughts wandered as to what the old woman would say, as I went into a fabric store and admired the pretty cloths there. Perhaps she would give us both advice that would miraculously cure the situation - and perhaps she wouldn't.
I'd like to stress that on this day I had done no stealing whatsoever. My pockets were entirely empty, and I wandered the store with a clear conscience. What happened next was entirely due to the prejudice of the Parisian woman.
I had stopped to admire a beautiful length of red velvet and ran my hands over it lovingly. I would loved to have owned just one gown made out of this fabric. It didn't even have to be a whole gown. It could be a bodice. Or even a pair of gloves. But I wanted it. The next thing I knew my hands were being slapped away, and a heavily powdered and scornful face was thrusting itself into mine.
"Take your hands off that, you little thief!!" she screeched, and I backed away in surprise. It was the storekeeper, whose eyes I had noticed watching me sharply as I'd wandered the store.
Foolish pride came to my defence and I drew up and glared at the woman in the eye, though she was taller than me.
"Excuse me, Madame, but I am no thief!! And what have I done to deserve that title in any case? I came into your shop with the sole intention of purchasing this fabric. However, due to your unnecessarily cruel treatment of me, I have changed my mind and will now bid you good-day."

© Harley Quinn 1999
(harley_quinn@cheerful.com)
May not be reproduced without permission
 

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