Chapter Fifteen

Chester finished finally, and I brushed and combed him, and then led him to the front of the tent. My foot was still very sore, but I could walk on it more easily now, and with far less assistance. I wondered where we could possibly be going and why Chester would be invited along.
Shortly after Clopin came walking towards us, a huge smile on his face. He even smiled at Chester, who only grunted in return, and then he took my arm and we walked off quickly. Much of the Court was still asleep, and everything was very quiet and peaceful, only a dim light from strategically placed lamps casting a faint glow over our path.
We reached the Center square and continued on, past the stage (where the gallows had been recently been set up as a deterrent to any spies who might be lurking amongst us) and to the main entrance. I was slightly astonished, realising we would be leaving our underground Haven totally, and then more than a little grateful Clopin carried me through the dirty catacombs. We reached the rough hewn stone steps which would lead the way through the old sarcophagus masking the entrance, and moved up them quickly. Then we were out and in the dark grey of early morning, the sun only just beginning to rise far in the distance.
I saw that Jean-Luc awaited us with a small carriage which Clopin, Chester and I got quickly into, and with a crack of the whip we were off.
I was thrilled that we were evidently travelling somewhere, and leaned out the window, despite Clopin's insistence I stay hidden. I was further thrilled when we left the city and travelled out into the countryside. By now the sun had risen completely, and the spring day was clear and fresh, the countryside blooming with life. Greens and yellows, blues browns and reds tickled my eyeballs, and Chester too could smell the change of atmosphere, and sat up, his tail twitching in anticipation.
Finally, we reached our destination - a sun dappled field with a stream and some nearby woods. Clopin leapt down, and took the basket I offered him, then lifted me down. Chester hesitated at the door of the carriage, but then jumped down joyously, sniffing eagerly at the dirt, and chewing on the grass. Jean-Luc turned to us from the driver's seat.
"You'll be alright here, boss?" he asked Clopin, and Clopin nodded.
"Yes, Jean-Luc. Go and say hello to that pretty sister of yours. And thank you."
Jean-Luc grinned. "No problem. I'll be back this afternoon. Have fun, Herlikin."
"Bye," I said, waving to him, and already turning away I began to follow Chester, running in the fields and shouting with pleasure.
Clopin watched me and laughed, before filling his pipe and settling down beneath a tree, pulling his hat over his eyes. I ran up to him and yanked on his arm.
"Come on now, you can't sit under a tree. Come and run with me." 
He shrugged me off. "No. Go play your little child's games. I want to sit here and be lazy." I sighed, then undid my cloak, watching him carefully as I did so. Underneath I wore the two-piece dress he had forbidden me from wearing outside of the tent that day. He raised his hat a little way and his eyes widened in surprise. Before he could say anything I stopped him with:
"There's no-one here about, and I wore my cloak before. You can't complain, so there!"
With that I ran off in joyous pursuit of Chester, who was rolling in the grass. We splashed in the stream a little while and I felt stronger and bigger than I had done before and fancied Chester did too. So it went on for hours, with the two of us enjoying the kind of land we had not felt for many, many months. I could feel Clopin watching me, although whenever I turned towards him it appeared his hat was pulled down. I was conscious of how the dress looked however, showing off my legs as I ran, my bare midriff and shoulders, and the low sweeping neckline, with the lace up back.
Finally he called us over for lunch, and we went reluctantly, for he claimed he wouldn't wait any longer.
Our food seemed to taste better out here in the fresh air beneath the beautiful blue sky, and after lunch I lay next to Clopin lazily, while Chester went to drink from the stream, and find his own tree to lay under and nap.
I was light-hearted from the wine, and feeling very happily affectionate, and far too drowsy to move, so I snuggled up to Clopin and smiled at him broadly. He had stirred barely a muscle all day, content to lie with his pipe and his hat over his face, and lying this way still he asked me "So did you like your surprise?"
I squeezed him tightly. "It's the nicest surprise I have ever been given, I swear it." I kissed his hands rapturously, then cupped his face and kissed his mouth. That woke him up a little and he sat up, pushing his hat back and smiling at me.
"You know, Herli," he said, reaching out a hand to trace the embroidery on my neckline, "it's really a very lovely dress."
I smiled and rearranged myself so I was sitting up also, the dress falling apart to show off a good deal of thigh.
"You really think so?" I asked, pleased. He nodded and leaned closer.
"I do, I truly do. That's why I don't want anyone else to see you in it. Only I should know just how gorgeous you really are."
"Here now, you don't mean that," I said, swatting him.
"I do. I look at you sometimes and think how lucky I am to have such a lovely creature for a wife. Don't blush, it's true."
But I did blush, and smiled at him shyly. I hadn't had a man praise me so lavishly before, and Clopin had a way of making you believe everything he said was God's truth itself. Besides which I had to admit to myself that the man was gorgeous. He reached out a hand and stroked my hair, and I could feel my heart begin to speed up as a slight change came over his face. Acting on a sudden impulse I leaned forward and kissed him affectionately.
When I broke the kiss and moved to lean away he caught me by the waist and held me. We looked into each other's eyes for a moment, and I felt his hand move up my leg. He watched me carefully, and I knew it was a test to see what I would do. I hesitated, from uncertainty not reluctance, and then put my hand around his waist. He kissed me and I kissed him back, and then we fell into an embrace. As his kisses grew more passionate so did mine, and I flung my arms around him in a wild abandon, seeming even more eager than he did, and we rolled around in the grass beneath the tree. I lost all track of time, but as my confidence grew my hands roamed, and so did his. When he moved on top of me I happily wrapped my legs around his back and pulled him down closer. He'd pulled the top half of my dress down a little way and the lower part had been pushed aside at the split, but we were both still fully dressed, and I was very glad for it a moment later when Jean-Luc stumbled upon us. We were both startled by him, and Clopin not a little angry.
"Whoops," Jean-Luc said, blushing, eyes darting from side to side. "I'm sorry, I didn't realise - "
"Damnit, Jean-Luc!!" Clopin snapped. "What do you mean by arriving now??"
"Sorry boss," he said, embarrassed. "But we have to get back before dark, remember? I didn't know or I would have waited." He'd turned away from us, and I pushed Clopin up hastily, and rearranged my dress to his facial protestations. I silenced anything he was about to say with a finger pressed to his lips and whispered "Tonight" to him.
"To hell with tonight," he replied, "try as soon as we get back!"
I laughed, breathless and thrilled. "If not, in the back of the carriage."
His eyes lit up "Say now there's an idea!" and I squealed and whacked him. "No. Absolutely not. Chester!" I called to my beastly friend, who joined us reluctantly. "We'll come back here, my friend" I promised him. And with that we made our way back to Paris.

We arrived as the sun was setting and made our way through Madame Paquette's tavern, there being too many people about for us to safely go through the graveyard. We kept our cloaks wound tightly around us and rushed Chester through quickly. It was still too early for the tavern to be very full, and those who were there paid us no mind, at least it seemed they did not, and I hoped it were so. Although tired from our day out, there had been a lot of kissing and cuddling in the carriage (much to Chester's disgust) and both Clopin and myself were very much looking forward to getting back to our tent.
We hurried through the Court, just barely greeting those we passed, and we were both very much annoyed when a white-faced Colombine stopped us both. My annoyance changed to concern when I saw the grim expression on her face and I asked her anxiously what was wrong. She squeezed my hand tight but did not answer me. Instead she said to Clopin, "Some gypsies arrived here from the countryside today."
Clopin shrugged. "So? That happens all the time. I'll see them in the morning Right now I'm busy." Grabbing hold of me he moved to go, but she pulled him back.
"Clopin, I really think you should come and see. You may not want a few of these particular gypsies to stay. Herli should see too. You should make this decision together."
Clopin kept shaking his head. "No, Colombs. They can wait until the morning. I don't see why I shouldn't want them to stay here. Just go and tell them the King is busy making heirs."
Colombine glanced at me in interest with that remark, but she didn't loosen her hold on him.
"Clopin, this is important!" she insisted. "And I for one think there's one who should be booted entirely out of Europe. Now come ON."
Using all her strength she dragged both me and Clopin to the Court Center, where I could see the new gypsies chatting with others of the Court. I had not seen these people before, but they were clearly known here, and Clopin obviously knew them also, for he smiled and greeted heartily many of the men, winking at the few women who pretending to scold him. Finally he turned to Colombine and frowned at her.
"Well? Who's the terrible evil one who doesn't belong in Europe? I see no such here - in fact - " he continued on complaining good-naturedly to Colombine, who tried helplessly to interrupt at intervals, and while he was talking I saw a strange woman move from one of the tents and into the center.
She was clearly one of the new gypsies. Quite tall, she was extraordinarily curvy, with large breasts and hips. Her skin was very dark but her hair was a deep chestnut brown, not black. It was curly and fell halfway down her back. Her eyes were a deep blue, her mouth full and seductive, her eyebrows very dark and arched sharply. Despite her great beauty, there was something sly on her face, a cunning in her eyes I did not like. She was older than us, about thirty by my reckoning, and elaborately dressed in rich fabrics, and even more jewellery than I wore. I quick glance at it told me a good deal of it was made with expensive stuff - gold and real jewels, and I looked at her with a renewed interest - how did she get her hands on that? She walked slowly towards us, a large smug smile breaking across her exquisite features. She stopped in front of us, and put her hand on her hips.
"Hello Clopin," she said in a soft, rich voice.
Clopin started at the sound of it, and turned to look at her, his eyes wide in astonishment, his mouth dropping open, his shoulders sagging in his shock. Colombine meanwhile, looked at her in open dislike, and then at me and Clopin in dismay.
"Isabelle!" Clopin said softly, his voice hoarse with surprise.
At the sound of that I shot an alarmed glance at the woman, everything suddenly becoming clear. So this was the woman who'd left my husband with a broken heart some two months before. Here she was, back in the Court, looking very pleased with herself, whilst Clopin stood helplessly at my side, gazing at her, a variety of emotions flickering on his face. She spoke again.
"I'm back darling. Aren't you going to say hello?"

A short while later we were all sitting in the Center, the new gypsies whole-heartedly being welcomed and fed happily as old acquaintances were renewed. Clopin had managed to break his silence and greet Isabelle in a civil fashion and she'd embraced him fiercely, drawing him close to her. I had been irritated by the sight of it, more so that he did not protest, and even after a moment put his arms around her, hugging her back.
"You remember Colombine of course?" he said, making a gesture towards her.
"Humph," Colombine had said, and stormed away. Isabelle had been undeterred and had moved slyly towards me, exclaiming that I must be Clopin's bride and wasn't a pretty child. I could feel my face growing cold and hard with every word, and my body remained stiff when she had placed her hands familiarly on my shoulders.
But Clopin did not do as Colombine had evidently wanted him to - he did not ask Isabelle to leave, nor did he treat her coldly. Instead, he'd invited her to sit with us and to eat, she must be tired from her journey. All the while he looked at her in a kind of dazed wonderment, as I grew increasingly short-tempered.
In the meanwhile, she laughed and flashed her teeth, pretty white ones, and I grew jealous although mine were just as good. It was her sparkle, the easy confidence and sensuality she conducted herself with that got to me, and the obvious way Clopin enjoyed it. It was only a small satisfaction that I noticed many of the Romani looking askance at her, some with open hostility, others with annoyance. It was only a couple of the nastiest girls in the Court who appeared happy to see her. She was indifferent to it all, expressing interest only in Clopin. To begin with she had feigned some in me, asking me about my life, my interests, how I occupied myself, etc., etc., but my short, indifferent answers finally deterred her, and after a while addressed her enquiries to my husband only. As the night wore on, musical instruments were picked up, singing commenced and with it dancing, and gradually Clopin and Isabelle were talking only with each other, having closed off everyone else entirely. I was extremely put out by this and contemplated going back to the tent alone when Colombine sat down next to me.
"I'm sorry, Herli. I really thought he'd react a little differently."
I shrugged. "It's all right. You weren't to know. Let's just hope the roof caves in on them both."
She laughed a little and then hugged me. "And you were doing so well with him too! But don't worry! Don't take my words the wrong way. He's not exactly happy to see her, he's more curious than anything else."
"Could've fooled me," I said wryly.
"Trust me, please. He won't just fall back into her arms. Try not to stress too much. Just for god's sakes, don't leave him alone with her! She'll manage to always be in your way, so you make sure you're always in hers!!"
"I'm not sure it's worth the effort" I said, gesturing towards the two. She scowled to look at them, and we must have been a pretty pair, the both of us scowling and grimacing.
"It is," she told me. "Don't give her the opportunity to wriggle back into his affections. Not only is it against fate, he'll be miserable. You don't want that handsome husband of yours to be miserable do you?"
"No," I said, choking back tears.
"Just play the game her way. She doesn't have many friends here. And you're closer to him than she ever was."
I squeezed her hand, and stood up proudly. I had been forced to keep my cloak wrapped around me, considering what I was wearing underneath, although I had to wonder bitterly if Clopin would even notice were I to take it off. I walked towards them and past them, and masked a sigh of relief when Clopin asked where I was going. At least he was still aware I existed.
"I'm going back to the tent," I told him. "My foot is aching badly. Besides which, I'm tired. Are you coming?"
He hesitated, indecision written on his face. Isabelle glanced at me sharply, and then lay an imploring hand on his.
"Aw, Clopie, darling. I wanted so much to catch up with you and all you've been doing."
He paused again and turned to me. "I'll only be a few minutes more."
I shrugged, trying to hide my hurt, as my heart beat painfully inside me. "Fine, you've made your decision," I said calmly, and I turned and walked to our tent, pretending not to hear him when he called out, "Herli!"
Once back, I undressed angrily, and then crawled into bed. He came in hardly five minutes after, evidently feeling guilty from what had just transpired, but I feigned sleep and did not answer when he asked if I was awake. He got in beside me and my tears finally fell when he did not put his arms around me.

The next few days were spent helping our newcomers to settle in, and Clopin did his best, although it was clear he was distracted. That did nothing to improve my mood, and I had to try many times to not snap sharply at him, mindful of what Colombine had said about keeping his affections with me. Colombine had been right - Isabelle always found a way to be in our presence. She flirted dangerously with Clopin, not even trying to hide it, but not going so far I could say anything about it. She was a dangerous woman, a loner, with only a few friends she milked for all they were worth. It was beyond me why Clopin had ever fallen in love with her, but she could be extremely seductive when she wanted to be. The first time I saw her dance I wondered how she had not been banned from the streets - she was a whirling, gyrating frenzy of sexuality, and there wasn't a man in the Court who didn't stop what he was doing to gape at her - my husband included.
Because she was Romani the others did not make an outcast of her - she did that herself. They would not openly reject her, but she cared not for them anyway. She liked being alone, using people as it suited her. I believe Clopin knew this - but he was still young, and she very persuasive. 
I watched the two of them together very closely. I fancied, though it may have been wishful thinking, that he did not seem as though he actually wanted to be with her - it was more a reluctance to offend her that made him follow her and help set up her tent, help move her possessions in, and anything else she wanted him to do. It was as though she'd cast a spell over him, though by all accounts she had no involvement in witchcraft, a spell of passion that made him want her always to be happy. He did not seem to enjoy her company, or her conversation, although he always paid close attention to it.
But as a result of this spell or whatever it was, our conversation suffered. Our relationship suffered. He tried hard to pay me the same attention he had done before, but I could see he was confused, and it hurt me terribly. I played Isabelle's "game", frequently just happening to be in the same place they were, or needing to visit Christophe or Jean-Luc or whoever it was she used as an excuse to drag Clopin along and get him away from me, and so would accompany them on the trip, Clopin giving me a look of relief, and she fuming to herself. I masked any anger or resentment I felt as best I could, although inside I boiled over with rage every time she brushed his cheek or caressed his arm, smiling her large feline smile. She was in a fine temper when she found out Clopin was confined underground for awhile, and couldn't accompany her when she wished to visit the city. I had a great satisfaction of slipping in slyly:
"Isabelle, my face is not so well known on the streets, I would be quite happy to accompany you wherever you wish to go," and she'd sneer at me viciously.
Within two days of her arriving Clopin was stuck in a terrible game of tug-of-war between us. If she needed help moving her table, then I needed help moving our bed. If she had a headache, then I had a bellyache. Likewise, if I wanted Clopin to fetch me some fresh fruit, then she wanted him to get her some meat. If I wanted Clopin to hold my arm as we talked with the others in the Center, then she wanted to dance with him. In the beginning he was reluctant to disappoint either of us, and his face held an almost permanent expression of confusion and indecision. But quickly he began to duck masterfully out of our way, if he was with one of us and saw the other coming, he'd make his excuses and dart away. I didn't mind. So long as she wasn't getting her claws stuck into him and he came home to bed every night I was fine with that. I was rather less fine about the exercise we had begun in the fields that day being abandoned. Clopin and I still spent the night sleeping, and not much else.
But I did get praise from Tante Marie for the battle I was putting up, and several other of the previously unfriendly women began putting their heads in and doing the same. It seemed they much preferred me to be with Clopin as opposed to Isabelle, whom they called the ever-hungry cat.
But I was quickly losing heart. Clopin may not have even really wanted to be near her, but he no longer seemed to want to be with me either. It was as though he were on auto-pilot, and he spent as much time as he could busying himself with the affairs of his people, and he spent nearly a solid week in the Court Center, organising a massive re-arrangement. His brilliant new scheme was to make the Court more self-sufficient. Gypsy traders who were spending in the Court for the summer were offered a permanent place. Clopin wanted a bakery, a butcher (Christophe of course), and Bethan agreed to become the Court's cloth trader and provider of linen as well as getting a few of the girls to assist her and create a laundry of sorts. That week Clopin procured the permanent services of a wondering gypsy physician and doctor who also decided it would be fun to take up dentistry. They were miscellaneous stores as well - curiosities, jewellery and the like. Caravans were brought down and recreated to serve as these stores. We could pay with money, or trade with services or goods. Two tents were joined to create a larger "bath house", and he even had some of the men tap a spring and dig out a small stream for us to use. He insisted we all move our tents back further and so widen the Court Center, so it was now more of a square. The stores were set up here, framing the square, and looked very raggle-taggle and bizarre, the brightly painted caravans and the strange goods they sold, the gypsies frequently leaving their stores as the fancy took them, fights breaking out, and huge encampments in the Square of an evening when the merry-making commenced. Children played in the square, and the stage was set up as a permanent gallows. Clopin found his mockery of the city of Paris very amusing and was proud of his work. But as I said, I was rapidly losing heart. I hardly saw him now, and Isabelle and I were just barely remaining civil to one another.
I bemoaned the situation to Colombine, demanding she tell me everything of Clopin and Isabelle's past. We were sitting in her tent, she on her chair, sewing patches on one of her costumes, I on the cushions, working on my plan. She shrugged, raising an eyebrow.
"It was messy, let's say that. I guess you've realised what she's like - a loner, she travels around, causing trouble. She came back last year for the first time since she was twenty, and thought Clopin was handsome, sweet - and very powerful within the Court. He of course, didn't really know anything about her. She keeps to herself and only really joins up with us when she wants something, so it was easy for her to seduce him. She just put on a sweet and sensual front, and he was hooked."
I grimaced. "It was as easy as that?"
"Yes - back then. It wasn't long before she was practically running the place. Badly. Clopin wouldn't listen to anyone. He was madly and passionately in love with her. She aroused him like he's never been before, and he wasn't thinking with his brains. If someone said something bad about her, all doubt would vanish with one moist look from those blue eyes, and a few hurt - or hurtful - words, and he'd be right back in her arms again.
"But Isabelle isn't exactly known for her chastity, and gradually his passion began to ease, so frequently was it gratified. Isabelle is not a woman who can inspire lasting passion with her personality - she relies purely on her looks. In fact, it's a rare woman indeed who can keep a man's heart forever with looks alone. It doesn't matter how beautiful you are, if you haven't got something behind it, than anyone's passion will begin to wane. A gypsy man lusts after beautiful women, he does not actively seek them as companions, unlike the gadjes who look mainly for a show or functional wife. The reason so many gypsy marriages are disgustingly blissful is because it's based on more than being attracted to someone's looks. It's why the old men and women around here are still sneaking off to indulge in their wicked passions.
"And Clopin likes a woman he can talk to, whom he can be friends with. He can't do that with Isabelle, which he began to realise when she could no longer smooth away any enquiries by wrapping her legs around his waist. Gradually he began to see what kind of a person she really was, although I think he was still physically attracted to her. But he couldn't find a way to break free of her. She is so insistent, and so demanding, and clearly she hadn't got everything she wanted out of him yet. And then even his physical attraction to her ceased as her cruelty and manipulation continued. But he still thought he was in love with her. He wasn't - but he tried to believe there was something there he could love. 
"When he told her about you, she practically hit the roof and went right through it. She began to demand he stop it. That he come with her. He wouldn't, claiming it would dishonour his father, and she realised she no longer had a hold on him. So she made his life hell. I think, out of memory of his old affection for her, he tried to be patient, tried to soothe her, but she wouldn't have it. Finally she informed him she was leaving and demanded that he help her go. And he felt heartbroken. Then you arrived. That, my dear, is the whole story."
I sat quietly when she finished, thinking deeply.
"You think he still has some feelings for her? I think he does - or he's confused."
She shook her head. "He doesn't love her. She may still be able to stir some desire in him, but she does that to all the men. You could inspire far more and much longer lasting passion in him. You have all the right ingredients for Clopin Trouillefou. I think - yes, I think he may be a little confused, because he's being assaulted with memories of how he felt. She probably still smells good to him and he's not sure how to reconcile it with his feelings for you. That's why he's doing such a brilliant job of avoiding you both," she added with a laugh.
I tried to smile, but found I couldn't.
"Don't give in. She's very bad news. She likes to make a mistress of herself to old wealthy men. That's where she gets all her pretty things from. And god knows how many illegitimate children she's had and abandoned. Clopin may be confused now, but you keep making him compare you to her, and he wont be any longer. She won't even have an effect on his loins soon enough."
"I don't know, Colombs," I leaned my head on her knee, and pulled a sad face. "He just seems so distracted. I don't know how to reach him anymore."
She pinched my nose. "Don't worry about him for the moment. Just keep working on deterring her."
I felt a great wave of emotion rush through me. Since Isabelle's arrival I had become aware of a few feelings I would rather not have the distress of dealing with. They'd snuck up on me unexpectedly, and unused to such strong emotion, I hadn't dealt with it well. It had all been building up to a breaking point, and this was it. Suddenly hysterical, I burst into tears and clung to my friend's knee.
"Good Lord! What's all this about?" she exclaimed, hugging me.
"Colombine, I do love him," I sobbed. "I thought I didn't, but I do now. Why do I have to love him now? I love him so much it hurts. I just want him to be with me, and it hurts so much when I think of the two of them. I can't even tell him how I feel, he doesn't listen to me anymore."
"Shhh," she said. "It'll be alright. But you have to keep fighting. Don't you think he's worth the effort?"
"Yes" I said tearfully. "But am I?"
"Of course you are. He'd kill anyone who tried it on with you. Now look, dry your eyes, go back to your tent and fight for your man" she squeezed my shoulders tight and wiped away my tears. I took a few deep breaths to calm myself, and collecting up my fabrics and thread, walked sedately back to my home.
Once there I allowed myself to think as I cooked dinner. I thought over all of Isabelle's flirtations and snide remarks with a cool indifference, allowing it to hurt my pride more than my feelings, and with that attitude I calmed down further and was better equipped to deal with her.
I finished cooking dinner and scrubbed the greasy pans. As I approached the end of this task I heard Clopin's low sweet voice, and the higher, rich one of that "ever-hungry cat". I stopped what I was doing and listened carefully. Isabelle laughed softly.
"Oh Clopie. You're the same as always, so handsome, so charming. It's no wonder no woman can resist falling in love with you."

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

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