Chapter Twenty

"Maybe so. But it is true what I said you know. It's fortunate you gave in when you did. I know you wondered how I knew about the situation. Well,I'll tell you. I used no magik. Clopin himself told me."
I swallowed hard around the crusty bread. The sun was hot on my head. "Clopin wouldn't do that."
"Oh, wouldn't he? He told me, my dear. Told me he was going mad with a frigid wife. That he didn't know how much longer he could stand it."
She was watching me careful, but keeping her voice expressionless. I finished my food, and then dusted my hands free of the crumbs.
"Why should I believe you?"
"Because I'm telling you the truth. I told him right then and there I'd be happy to relieve his tension. He said he couldn't do that to you, betray you like that. I said no betrayal as such was necessary, there are other ways to get around it. And he let me do just that."
I narrowed my eyes, my heart thudding within my chest, and I tried desperately to keep a hold on my emotions. "Did he now? What did you do, sing him a lullaby?"
She laughed nastily. "No, my methods are a little more advanced than that. I just got down on my knees, pulled his hose down, opened my mouth and - "
"You're a liar!" I snapped. "I don't believe you!"
"Fine. Why don't you ask that big husband of yours then? If it's any consolation, it was your name he called out. A blow to me, but what can you do? I was just happy to give him some satisfaction."
I looked at her, my heart racing out of control. It was impossible to tell if she was lying or not. It was all I could do to remain seated, and not fly at her. Telling myself her satisfaction over any attack I made was not enough, I had to remind myself of the babies in my belly. She grinned at me like the cat that got the cream, and I took a hasty sip of the wine. I swallowed hard, and got to my feet, wandering to the water's edge, clutching my new pendant in one hand.
She had to be lying. There's no way she could be telling the truth. How could I know? By asking Clopin. I turned to look back at her, and she was packing the things up quietly. She looked at me calmly. Surely no-one who lied could be quite so blasé about it. What if she told the truth?
While I wrestled with my inner confusion, an enraged roar grabbed both our attention. The shouts and screams of panicked Parisians rose in the air, followed by another all too familiar roar.
"Chester!" I cried in a panic, and heedless of my condition, started off at full pelt, running towards the noise, back the way we came. A crowd had gathered in the street near the exit we used, and I realised that the bitch must've left the latch unfastened, that he had followed us, that - 
Another roar, this one of pain. I continued running forward, struggling to see over the crowd. I saw that there were soldiers preparing their arrows and I gave a distraught cry, shoving people aside, getting shoved violently in the process. I glimpsed my oldest friend then, and saw to my horror that there were three arrows in him already, one in his leg, one in his back and the other in his belly. I screamed out in anguish, my despair drowned amidst the screams of the other panicked women. I knew for a fact that prior to being attacked Chester would not have been vicious. He was used to people! But now, in his pain and confusion, he was snarling viciously, on his guard and the soldiers were shoving the crowds back.
I backed into an alleyway and went over my options anxiously. My hesitation was all due to what I carried within me. If I ran out, I could subdue him, but what would happen then? Would I be arrested? Why would they arrest me? They couldn't harm me anyway I was a pregnant woman! I also couldn't let Chester die. They say your life flashes before your eyes as you die - my life with Chester flashed before me then. A lifetime of memories and shared adventures. I bit down hard on my finger, trying to hold back my screams, drawing blood. I heard the soldiers release their arrows and another cry of pain from my friend made my mind up for me. I ran forward, again trying to fight my way through the crowds, when suddenly I was yanked to the side. I was shocked to see Clopin, in performance dress, holding me firmly. I fought him viciously, kicking and biting down on the hand that held me, but he put both arms around me and dragged me to the side.
"You can't save him!" he gasped as another kick hit its mark.
"I can save him! Let me go, let me go you monster! Don't you dare do this!"
But he wouldn't let go. He held me tightly in the alley, trying to calm me. I screamed again and again.
"Think of your babies!" he whispered. "They'll arrest you, Herli. You're a gypsy with a wild beast. Herli, think please!"
"You save him then!!" I demanded and at that moment we heard the sound of more arrows rushing through the air and another roar. I screamed again, and renewed my struggles, sobbing violently.
"Save him, you must save him!" I punched at his face with my one free arm.
"I can't" he whispered to me sadly. "It's too late by now. They'll kill him and then arrest me for trying to help."
"No! Save him, go and save him now!!"
But already there was silence descending over the crowd as the soldiers held their fire. I struggled with Clopin so I could run out and look, see what had happened, but still the bastard held me back.
"Herli, you shouldn't see that," he said, sounding for all the world like he was sorry. "Please, my love, come now. They'll destroy what's left. There's nothing we can do."
I pushed him away, trying to break his grip, but he hauled me away. I fought as we went, sobbing and trying to run back. Finally, exhausted from my efforts, I could do nothing more but slump against him.
Then we were back in the Court, and me heart was a cold weight within my chest. I knew there was no hope now. Clopin carried my weary body back to the tent undressed me for bed, leaving me in my chemise. His face was sorrowful as he leaned over me, but I shoved him away, hitting him and crying.
"I'll never forgive you this!" I screamed at him. I tore the pendant from my neck, cutting the skin and not noticing, and threw it at him savagely. "NEVER!"
I buried my head beneath the pillows and knew nothing more for many hours.

For days I was inconsolable,spending all my time crying. I couldn't sleep and I felt ill at the thought of food. Tante Marie and Colombine urged me to eat, reminding me of my babies, but I couldn't keep it down. I didn't speak either, unless it was to Clopin, and then only to curse him or throw insults at him. Always the thought that went around my head was that I hesitated too long, and in doing so, had killed my oldest friend.
I was quite willing to lay blame on Clopin as well, for holding me back, and not trying to do anything. I didn't let him touch me, and would scream if he came too near. His face became dejected and miserable as I continued to assault him with everything I had, but so wound up in my grief was I that I could not bring myself to forgive him.
"He was my oldest friend, my one link to India and the people I loved there!" I lamented to Clopin after he had once again tried to console me. He buried his head in my lap and sighed.
"And you killed him! You let him die, you monster! You didn't even try!"
He sighed again and didn't reply. He had already told me a dozen times why he hadn't tried, but for me it would never be good enough.
"I'm so sorry, cherie. I know how much you loved him - "
"Don't call me cherie!" I shrieked, pushing his head away "Don't call me anything! Don't touch me, don't look at me!!"
And I cried again as he left the tent sadly.
I didn't even have Chester's body to mourn. The one thing that had made the transition of life with me was gone, gone forever, like my parents and brothers. They were all no more. I was once again entirely on my own,too unhappy to take comfort from my husband and friends here.
After a couple of weeks I was able to hold food down again and I ate a little at Abigail's pleading. I had lost much weight and she feared that damage had been done to my babies. At that point I didn't care much. I thought of them as worms Clopin had implanted in my belly, and told him as much as he looked at me with a stricken expression.
I was only partly aware of how much I was hurting his feelings with my constant insults. It seemed as though I had rejected him, his friendship and love, entirely, and it wounded him to the quick. The change of attitude to him was so abrupt and violent he barely knew how to take it, and mindful of both my pregnancy and grief he was reluctant to fight back.
They all tried to get me to forgive him. Tante Marie scolded and bullied me, but I threw pillows at her until she left. Colombine reminded me of the fun we'd had before, but it only made me cry. Abigail reminded me of the way I had adored him and then of my dream.
"I know what the dream means now!" I snapped at her."I saw it happen as the soldiers butchered him."
She shook her head. "No, no child. That was only part of it. Now the real choice begins - what are you going to do? Let your children wither within you because of a dead tiger, or are you going to nourish them as he would've done? Chester would've mourned your death, but had he young of his own he would have returned all his attention to them. He would know that the dead are dead, and while you may have grief, it should not be at the expense of the others you love."
I sniffed miserably to myself. It was August now, and as yet my pregnancy was not noticeable. I laid a hand on my stomach and cried more as I thought of my children and my tiger. I admitted to myself I did not want to lose my babies. Abigail smiled at me, knowing what I was thinking.
"Try not to be so hard on him, love. Your unhappiness is all the punishment he needs. Try to forgive him."
But that I still could not do. I saw he had had my pendant mended, but he did not try to give it to me. He continued to look at me sorrowfully, but he would not try to speak to me as I turned my face away from him. I blocked him off, telling him nothing of how I felt. I would now speak only to Colombine and Abigail, ignoring the others who left their sympathies with me. Chester's death was treated much as a mortal's would be, and the other Romani dropped around gifts of food, leaving their messages with Clopin who related them to me while I lay, pulling my hand from his and not speaking.
After a while, as my tears slowly froze on my cheeks and my eyes dried out, I remembered Isabelle and her part in that day's events.
"Is that witch still here?" I deigned to ask Clopin one day when he came in to get changed. He was rarely in the tent anymore, as I made it too difficult for him. I think he would like to have stayed with me, but I kept throwing him out, refusing to allow him to offer me any comfort. He looked over at me in surprise and asked softly who I meant.
"Isabelle, who do you think? It was she that caused it you know. He followed us because of her. And she left the latch off. She did it deliberately."
My voice had risen and finished on a hysterical note. He moved forward to hush me and I slapped him away.
"Well, aren't you going to punish me? After all, I left the Court without permission. Don't I get a spanking?" I asked him viciously, and he sat by my side helplessly and did not answer. "I know what you think, you think it's all my fault. That if I hadn't left it would never have happened!"
He sighed "Of course I don't think that, my love. It wasn't your fault. Yes, Isabelle is still here."
"I want her to go! I want her out today, now! I want her banned!"
He looked at me. "I can't send her away at the moment, Herli. It's a bit of a delicate time and - "
"What do you mean? Of course you can! I tell you I want her gone.Or do you need her to help relieve tension?" I asked him bitterly. He looked at me, confused, and I burst out, "she told me all about what you let her do to you before!! She told me how you told her about us!! She told me everything."
He stood up, looking unsettled and even more unhappy. But he denied nothing, and I started to cry again.
"So it's true then is it? I should've known."
He reached for me. "Herli - "
"Get out of my sight!" I sobbed and turned away from him.

The worst of my grief passed, and I became mindful of what I carried within me again. I got out of bed eventually and bathed thoroughly, changing for the first time in weeks. My legs were weak from lying around so much, and at first I hobbled around. My heart was still cold, and I felt no desire to smile or do much of anything in fact. I walked sullenly down to Colombine's tent, paying no heed to those I passed as they looked at me worriededly from the corners of their eyes. Colombine gave a gasp to see me, and ran out to meet me and bring me inside.
"Herli, you're up! Thank goodness!"
I didn't say anything, just pouted, as she brushed the hair from my face and looked at my sympathetically.
"You poor thing. Everything is all happening at once to you. Look, Tante Marie and I have been helping you," and she showed me proudly the baby clothes they had made. I cried as I looked at them and thanked her softly. She made a medicinal tea, and I drank it gratefully, although its taste was bitter and strong. It eased some of my inner discomfort, and I calmed down. She sat with me and filled me in on all the gossip that had happened while I had locked myself away. I could only listen, showing no emotion, unable to even smile.
I was told that Esmeralda had created a dance she called the Dance of the White Tiger in Chester's honor, and that the little girl was unhappy I stayed away; and, touched, I cried again. Colombine tried to stick to cheerier news after that, but little had happened. In fact things were bad once more. Frollo had apparently decided the white tiger had been sent from the gypsies to destroy him and things were worse than ever for the Romani on the streets of Paris. Completely disheartened, I got up and left her with no further words.
Clopin was awaiting me anxiously when I got back and rushed forward to clasp me in his arms, holding me tight. I didn't respond but I didn't push him way. I had not forgiven him as yet, but I was going to force myself to be somewhat civil. He told me he had worried and I replied dully that I had been with Colombine. He sat me down looking at me anxiously, then forced a smile.
"I've brought you a present," he told me. "I saw it and knew it was for you, so I had to get it for you."
I remembered with an aching heart how I had said such similar words to him often, only a short while ago when I had been earning all my money. It seemed like a dream now, unreal, as though it had never really happened in our world.
He gestured to a new large carved chest I had not yet noticed in one corner of the tent. He pulled me gently to my feet and led me over. When I got coser I saw that it was carved with unicorns, beautiful inlays of wood and mother of pearl highlighting it strategically. It was exquisite and as I looked at it I began to cry again, for seeing it made me realise I still loved Clopin as much as I ever did. He pulled me fretfully into his arms, trying to soothe me, and I let him, but still I did not respond. I made my heart remain cold within me as he told me I could move my things into the new chest and use the other for the babies' things. That is, he added falteringly, if I wanted to.
I just nodded and pulled myself away from him.
That evening I followed him to the Court Center, and when he realised this he turned back and made me let him take my hand, asking me if I was sure I wanted to come. I just nodded again and kept walking.
I was greeted heartily when I got there, the other Romani being very glad to see me out and about again. I just nodded to them all, beginning to feel like a jack in the box, and sat down, as Clopin put a protective arm around me. I was oblivious to the jokes and music of those gathered there, my mind wandering down my path of memories. But I was roused by a familiar perfume and looked up to the evil Isabelle, she being very careful to not look at me.
My eyes wandered hatefully over her body, and I noticed her stomach bulged larger than ever. I realised with my heart in my throat just then that she was pregnant, and heavily into it as well. Could it be Clopin's? But the last they lay together was January. She'd be almost into her ninth month now - unless - unless when she'd rejoined us in March she'd done more with Clopin than she said she had. My eyes widened looking at her, and then I glanced sharply at Clopin who was staring at me in dismay. I got unsteadily to my feet and walked quietly back to the tent. He came with me of course, but we didn't speak until we got back. Once there, the feeling of numbness that had washed over me washed off again and with an agonized scream I shoved at him angrily. He caught my hands and said to me desperately:
"Herli, it's from January I swear! I'm not even sure it's mine, truly! She only claims that it is."
"Well, we'll know soon enough, won't we?" I snapped at him.
He sighed and released me.
"That's why I can't ask her to leave. I can't throw her out while she's pregnant!! We don't need to match her for heartlessness."
"And what if it isn't from you in January? What if, say it's from you in March?"
He knelt down before me and looked into my eyes. "I swear it's not. I never lay with her after we married. You have to believe me. I would tell you if we had. I made a mistake confiding in her then, but she made me remember how she'd been before when she could comfort me."
"By getting down on her knees?" I snapped, crying again.
He shook his head. "No, no, it wasn't just that. It was a mistake. I didn't make it again. I don't even like her anymore. I want her to leave too, but I can't make her just yet. Please believe me."
I did believe him then, but I didn't forgive him. I couldn't allow myself to now. My heart had already been broken twice in my short life, and was in serious danger of becoming so again at that moment. I realised then that if I were to get through the next months I would have to keep him locked out from me. So my cold attitude continued towards him, although I began to leave the tent more and socialised a little. I didn't feel like it one little bit, but I was determined to keep up with Isabelle's going-ons. She wisely did not gloat over her state, for it wasn't just I who bore her greater resentment than ever.
I moved my things from my old chest and into my new, which was beautifully fitted with compartments and locking drawers. I put my pendant into one of these, crying as I did so for a reason I could not altogether place.
I put all of the baby clothes into my old chest, and found some small solace in their delicateness. My stomach was just beginning to bulge when Isabelle had her child.
The women of the Court helped her out of concern for the child, although they did not wish to. I sat in my tent the whole time and listened to her screams with satisfaction. I hoped she would die giving birth, but I did not have the luck. When Colombine told me she had borne a girl I released my breath in a long sigh of relief I had not realised I was holding.
The baby was fairly dark-skinned with black hair. Like all babies its eyes were blue at birth, Colombine told me. It remained to be seen what color they would be, so it was as yet not entirely possible to tell the child's father.
Clopin was a little more settled now that I had stopped attacking him at every approach, but he was still unhappy I shrugged away from his touch and did not seek his company like I had used to. Apart from that, so fierce had the soldier's attack been on renegade Romani that many of the men within the Court were making sure they were armed at all times. Tension was running high.
The greater majority of the Romani believed Clopin should not have anything to do with Isabelle and her child. They told me he should only worry about me and the children we were to have, and there was no way Isabelle could prove the baby's paternity. But Clopin had a greater responsibility than that, and held the child in his arms when she bade him to, looking down at it in confusion. He told me that once he would not have cared had she had a dozen of his children, but now he was mindful of how he would want a man to treat me if I were ever in her situation. I just raised my eyebrow at him and was quietly insulted that he had ever considered I could be in her position. She was now openly isolated from the rest of us, but did not seem to care. She guarded her baby carefully, looking at me smugly as I went about my duties woodenly.
I ignored her, indeed I more or less ignored everyone. Time passed and my belly swelled painfully. I let Colombine and Abigail do with me as they wished, feeding me and forcing various medicines down my throat. I didn't speak much, just sat and listened quietly, sewing or painting, something new I had taken up. Clopin wanted to indulge me and procured paints and white sheets for me to paint on, but I was closed off to him still. In the beginning it was difficult, especially when he looked at me so sadly and wishfully, but as time passed I was numb all over and it didn't seem to matter what happened.
I never left the Court anymore, not only due to my grief, but also because of my delicate situation. My lower back ached painfully, and so did my feet. I wanted to continue sleeping on Chester's pillows of a night, but Clopin made me take the bed, indulgently arranging the pillows for me until I was comfortable every night, and still I wouldn't kiss him. I knew Abigail had told him my emotions were in a turmoil because I was with child, and I knew also he was trying to believe that was all it was.
Colombine brought me news of how the weather had changed and it was getting on to winter. I had a passing regret I had missed autumn, but it left me as quickly as it came. The Court was warm and comfortable always, I had no idea what the weather was like above us.
I did notice however, that Jean-Luc's continuously strange attitude had grown. I never saw him without a look of anxiety on his face, but did not feel the old curiosity about it. Colombine brought me the news that he had befriended Isabelle, and somehow, I wasn't surprised. Five gypsies were hung in November, the guard on the Palace of Justice having so been increased that it was impossible for Clopin and his men to free them.
Many of the Romani were convinced there were spies amongst us now - but who they were no-one could say. Everyone seemed to know everyone so well it was practically impossible to point at anyone and say that this one or that was a traitor.
Clopin came in one evening and sat down at the table, sighing heavily and burying his face in his hands. In a moment of clarity I knew he felt he had failed his people and failed me. I wanted to comfort him, but instead I rolled over on the bed and turned my face to the wall. He had grown thinner and paler, fine lines appearing on his face. He was no longer full of the boundless energy that had suffused him with life before, now he seemed weary and older than he really was. He was no longer the Clopin we all knew, and even in my self-absorbed state, I worried about him with the others.

It was in December when a great many things were explained. In the previous weeks I had observed Jean-Luc watching mine and Clopin's estrangement from each other with misery, and his face was in a state of confusion and stress at all times. By now I was fed up with the attitude and couldn't even arouse mild concern for him, so I was greatly surprised when he came to our tent on evening, the hat I had given him in his hands, his expression more certain and determined than I had seen in a long time. I saw that Clopin, who had been painting a new puppet at his table, was surprised to see him also. He rose, and invited the young man in, offering him a chair, as I watched them both coldly from the bed.
Jean-Luc refused the seat, shaking his head. "I'm only stopping for a moment. You will not want me here when I have told you, but I have made up my mind to deal with whatever comes. There is something you must know."
I was interested now, and so was my husband, looking at Jean-Luc suspiciously. I realised from his look that Clopin had been uncertain of Jean-Luc's loyalties. The young man took a deep breath and looked from one to the other of us.
"I know who the spy in the Court is. I've not betrayed any of you, but I suppose that doesn't matter much now. I still let her get away with it for far too long."
"Isabelle." Clopin said coldly and Jean-Luc nodded.
"Yes, but there's more than even you think. You know she walks on the border, she's not a gadje, but she's not truly one of us either. Her loyalities lie only with herself. That is what has allowed her to do as she has done, and she became determined to destroy you, or at least ruin your life.
"The baby she has is not yours. After she left the Court the last time she followed down her usual path and ingratiated herself with one of the wealthy men in Paris. The baby is his. You've probably noticed she keeps the baby hidden from us at all times. That is because it's parentage is clearly written on its face. She took a drug to induce her labour and so make you believe the child truly is yours. She could've claimed she became pregnant by you after returning to the Court, and ruined your marriage that way, but she knew that you would know the truth of it."
Clopin's face had become a deeply-etched mask of anger, his fists clenched shut on the table as he looked at Jean-Luc intently.
"She's determined to make you suffer before she hands you over to the soldiers. She wants to see your life fall apart for being the one man to completely reject her."
"And what part have you played in all this, Jean-Luc?"
"Like I said, I never betrayed anyone to the soldiers. But I have been guilty of being an accessory to her plans. I did not want to, but I felt trapped. She knew somehow about the man I had killed by accident before in my old life - I suppose it doesn't matter who knows it now. Also it was as though she put a spell over me. I felt hopelessly attracted to her. I couldn't resist her. It was I who started the rumors of the child being yours, Clopin, and I passed encoded messages on. If I had known what the messages truly said I wouldn't have done it. Also - Herlikin - I'm sorry - it was I who let your tiger out."
"NO!" I screamed and tried to jump off the bed to lunge for him. Clopin swiftly leapt to my side to hold me back. Throughout his little speech I had listened in astonishment, but this last was too much. Weakened and sluggish from the swollen belly, my struggles with Clopin were ineffectual and I gave way to tears. Clopin glared at the traitor who gulped, but continued:
"I didn't think he would be killed."
"Well, what did you think would happen?" Clopin asked him dryly.
He trembled. "I don't know. I didn't know. I just did it."
"Because you were under a spell, of course." Clopin's voice was full of sarcasm. "But however did you break this spell to come and tell us all this?"
Jean-Luc's lip quivered and he shook his head helplessly. "I couldn't stand it any longer. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I was weak. I couldn't stand to see you and Herli so unhappy - your people took me in and accepted me when I was a wanted man. I couldn't keep betraying you. I'll accept punishment gladly. But before it happens, there's more you should know."
"More?" Clopin said bitterly."Could it get any worse?"
Jean-Luc nodded. "The wealthy man who Isabelle remains a mistress to - it is Frollo."
The two of us stared at him in shock; neither of us could believe what he had said. Clopin stood up slowly, his expression grim, releasing me, as Jean-Luc took a nervous step back. Clopin strode forward and punched him hard. Jean-Luc fell, and Clopin grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and pulled him out with him. I rolled off the bed and followed clumsily. Clopin was shouting for the others to fetch Isabelle and the child and bring it to the Center. Intrigued, the Romani who didn't run to do this followed us as we went to the Center, watching Clopin in some astonishment as he dragged Jean-Luc up on the stage. Jean-Luc's face was the very picture of misery.
Clopin turned to him angrily and asked if there were anyone else in the Court who was a traitor. Jean-Luc shook his head, his shoulders sagging in defeat, and then some of the men were dragging Isabelle up between them, she fighting all the way, screaming, knowing she had been caught. One of the women carried her child with her, and brought it up on the stage to show Clopin. He looked at it for a moment, closely and then nodded. I found out later that the baby's eyes were brown and not blue, or black as Clopin's were. Had the eyes been blue, then perhaps he could've believed it was his, as Isabelle had blue eyes. But more than that, the baby's skin was pale, and the hair which had been black at first, as babies' hair commonly was, had now become a very light brown. There was very little of the Romani on the baby's face, and Clopin's Romany blood was so strong it would surely have shown itelf.

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

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