Chapter Twenty-One

Pulling Isabelle mercilessly by her chestnut hair as she shrieked, and Jean-Luc by his collar, he pulled them to the front of the stage and threw them both down. Then he addressed his people.
"For some time now, friends, we have suspected each other of the worst kind of treachery. You'll be glad to know that these spies have been caught and will now be justly punished. You can see them before me now, one of our own, and one we took into our care!!"
An angry murmur arose from the crowd as they glared at Isabelle and Jean-Luc. Isabelle was weeping angrily, screaming curses at those who insulted her, but Jean-Luc remained silent. I would've felt some sympathy for him had I not known it was his fault my oldest friend had died. I could only stare at him hatefully now.
"Now, the very "noble" Jean-Luc," Clopin said with much sarcasm, "came gallantly forward to tell me the truth." Isabelle hissed at Jean-Luc with venom. "Furthermore, he pledged much regret and humble apologies at his folly and told us he would gladly accept the punishment he has so rightly earned himself."
The crowd cheered, incensed and hungry for their blood. Clopin held up a hand, and I could see the old flamboyance had come back for a while. His voice was dangerously lighthearted and righteous as he continued.
"I, however, saw through this false regret. Jean-Luc was a coward as a gadje, he is still a coward now he is Romany. Jean-Luc told me the truth in an effort to save his immortal soul, and hopes we will now kill him quickly so he doesn't have to live with his crime. I have decided therefore, that we will allow Jean-Luc to live and warn all our people that he is a treacherous coward. This way he shall be outcast wherever he goes.
"Furthermore!" Here Clopin leapt lightly to the side of the woman who held Isabelle's child. He plucked it gently from her arms, then carried it over to Jean-Luc and thrust it into his. "He will be given the charge of this bastard, who you'll all be pleased to know bears no blood of mine nor any other Romany!"
They gave a great cheer at that, very pleased indeed.
"If it ever falls upon the ears of any Romany that this child dies, then we shall hunt Jean-Luc down like a dog and punish him accordingly - as we will if he ever shows his face in France again - and the punishment won't include death!" he said with menacing mirth, leaning down to leer in Jean-Luc's face, who looked back at him in terror. "Now go!!"
Jean-Luc obeyed hastily, running down from the stage, clutching the baby to him, followed by the hateful glare of hundreds of Romani, to pack his things and leave.
Clopin then turned to Isabelle menacingly,and she gazed back at him fearfully. The only thing Isabelle held sacred was her own life, it was the one thing she wanted to keep. And Clopin knew it. Grabbing her again by the hair, he turned her face to the crowd.
"This one, who has always lived amongst us as one of our own, not only has she been conspiring with soldiers against her own people, but she has taken as a lover none other than our worst adversary - Judge Claude Frollo!"
The crowd roared in outrage and glared at her in hatred. She spat at them but was not above pleading for a punishment similar to Jean-Luc's. But Clopin ignored her.
"For years now she has been the poison in our wine. The only way to rid ourselves from it is to tip the bottle out. Completely. Come now, my dear," he continued as she struggled with him. "Do you know, your neck is not long enough for all those pretty baubles the Judge bribed you with! Let's see if we can't remedy that."
So Isabelle was hauled to the noose, shrieking for mercy all the way, but Clopin's face was indifferent to it, and the anger of the crowd could not be pacified. The lever was pulled, and she fell through the trapdoor, her neck breaking, her legs twitching, her face turning red then purple from the blood. I watched dispassionately, feeling nothing, then turned and went back to my tent.

After that things lightened considerably within the Court. The immediate threat to our people was lifted, and no doubt Frollo guessed what had happened to his evil mistress. As Jean-Luc had not been one of us, and Isabelle was never truly considered to be, the sense of betrayal was not so great as it would've been had it been others.
Clopin cheered up a great deal, and relaxed now that the problem had been fixed. Of course we still had to fear from the guards, but there was no-one to tip them off anymore. But we were still distanced from each other, and I wondered if we would ever be able to go back to where we had been. I thought always of my babies and of Chester, and my absent family. Once again I wept bitterly for them and wished I had never left India.
In late December Clopin and some of the men began to prepare for the Feast of Fools. They spent a great deal of time looking for the last Festival's King of Fools.
"Didn't anyone write his name down?" Clopin asked in exasperation, and the others shrugged. Few of them could write. Apparantly this happened every year. Everyone was so busy getting drunk and making merry the King was crowned and then lost.
The gypsy men spent some time looking through the taverns for ugly drunk men. They eventually brought one back, so inebriated he barely knew where he was, and grinned at us all through bleary eyes.
"Excellent!" Clopin exclaimed. "Are you sure it's him?"
The others shrugged. So did Clopin. "Oh well, it doesn't really matter. Just make sure you don't lose him before the day. Whack a crown on him in the morning. No-one will remember the face from last January anyway."
When they left Clopin turned to me, smiling his large toothy smile which had become a considerably rarer sight in recent months.
"I'm sorry you'll be missng the Festival. It's one of the best times of the year."
I shrugged. Once I would've been furious I could not go above and watch Clopin performing, and the streets of Paris filled with people merrymaking, but right then I couldn't care. The smile fell from his face when he saw my indifference, and he left the tent silently to go to the tavern.
Many times I worried I did not feel closer to the babies I carried within me. I wondered how I would cope when it eventually came time for them to be born. But I did not voice my concerns to anyone, not even Abigail and Colombine, who still cared for me as though I were a child.
The Festival came and went, and I was practically the only one left in the Court on that day. I had stubbornly refused to allow anyone to watch over me and Clopin had buried his head in my lap and apologised that he couldn't stay. But I knew he had to lead the ceremonies. I just shrugged and said it didn't matter. Nonetheless he returned earlier than anyone else and earlier than ever before, as he usually spent the next two days after the festival drinking in the tavern with the other men.
I couldn't help but appreciate the consideration, and I let him hold my hand. I almost wished then to forgive him and let things go back to the old way, but I hastily reminded myself it would come to no good and turned away again.
The weeks passed, and then it was our birthday and first wedding anniversary. I was not even aware it had happened, and I blearily wondered why Clopin presented me proudly with a beautiful silk dress and then told him I couldn't accept it as I had nothing for him. He'd laughed and said I certainly did, weren't they growing in my belly right at that moment? He put the dress away in my new chest,which I often spent hours looking at from the bed, and then lay down beside me, putting his hands on my big stomach, caressing it gently, and I let him, falling asleep quickly.
I grew rounder and rounder and more and more uncomfortable, barely able to leave the confines of the tent. My emotions were highly unstable, and changed constantly. Often I cried over whether all this discomfort would be worth it. Clopin, Abigail and Colombine told me pregnancy suited me very well, my skin was glowing and my hair was strong, my eyes bright. But I never looked in the glass now, and did not truly care either.
The last two months passed quickly, and the babies were due any day. Tante Marie and Abigail kept constant vigil by my side, and when my water broke they were ready for me.
Cushions and rugs were quickly laid out on the floor of the tent, and I was stripped and laid down. Water was put on to boil, and Colombine was fetched to wipe my forehead as the contractions grew closer together, and more painful. Clopin was firmly told to stay outside the tent, although he had tried to exert a Kingly order to be allowed to stay inside. It was to no avail. Tante Marie and he argued fiercely while Abigail checked my dilation, Tante saying it was not a man's place and Clopin arguing it was very much his place. Another contraction gripped me then and I screamed that he get out. He backed out, startled and even Tante looked at me in susprise at the ferocity of my voice.
My labour was mercifully quick, lasting no longer than two hours.I remembered my mother had told me she'd been in labour with me for only a half-hour.She often quipped it had been as "easy as shelling a pea". Mine may have been short, but it was exceedingly painful. I screamed, unable to hold it back, my body drenched in sweat, blood pouring from me, as they urged me to push.
Abigail exclaimed she could see a head, and with my entire body shuddering with the next push, the first of my children emerged. There was a pause, it opened it's mouth, took it's first breath of air and began to cry. I was vaguely aware of Clopin jumping up and down outside, shouting with mixed glee and concern. The cord was severed with a clean knife, and Abigail shouted triumphantly, "It's a boy!"
I fell back on the cushions, gasping for air. Tante Marie hastened the baby away to wash it in the tub of water nearby, and wrap it up. Abigail urged me to continue pushing.
"There's still another one to go, child, come on now!"
I turned my head fitfully on the pillows. "I've given him his damn boy, now why don't you leave me alone!! Let me here in peace!"
"Come on, keep pushing!"
"No, let me alone!"
"NOW, PUSH!"
I did so reluctantly, and within a few minutes I had pushed the second child from me. This one was a girl, I was told, and it too was hastened away to be cleaned and made ready for me.
My sweaty body was rubbed down, and the bloodied sheets removed and replaced. I tried to push them all away from me, but they wouldn't go.I was covered over and wrapped up, now that the hard work was over, my body feeling chilly. I gazed down at my shrunken stomach, so used had I become to the bulging one. Abigail asked me if I was ready to see the children and I cried out "no" and turned my head away. I wasn't sure yet how I felt. I was aware of a curiously empty feeling. Tante Marie and Colombine were sent away, I was barely aware of them, what they had done and said throughout the whole ordeal, and then Clopin bounded in, refusing to stay back any longer.
Abigail gave him the good news and he whooped for joy and quickly fell silent, aware of my exhausted state. I didn't look at him, just continued to stare at the wall, fingering the sheets wrapped around me, as I lay on the mound of cushions, still on the floor. Clopin went to the cradle the two had been placed in, looking down at them wonderingly. I saw him put a hand in to touch them, his face alight with love and joy, and I stifled a sob with my fist.
Abigail tugged at him and told him to help move me into the bed. When he reached down to pick him up I lashed out at him.
"Go away, don't you touch me!"
He jumped back, looking at me with a wounded expression. Abigail laid a hand on his and told him I was just feeling confused right then. I protested it, but he picked me up gently, and took me to the bed, kissing my forehead lovingly though I tried to push him away. He pulled the old sheets from around me, I stupidly trying to hide my naked body from him, and wrapped me up in more clean and comfortable linen. Then he went with Abigail to the tent flap, she spoke to him quietly for a few minutes, then she blew me a loving kiss and left us alone.
Clopin went eagerly to the cradle, picking up both tiny bodies in his great arms,easily holding them carefully, but I still felt a maternal leap of concern. He looked down at the two happily,from one to the other with more happiness than he'd shown in a long time. His eyes shone with love when he looked at me and I thought bitterly that if I had to have children before he could love me, then I didn't want to love him.
He sat down on the bed and cooed at our children. The worst of my temper had passed and I now had a curious desire to hold what I had nursed inside of me for nine months in my arms, so I sat up a little and tried to see their tiny faces.He looked from them to me again, his great beam of a smile reaching even my numbed heart.
"I made these?" he asked me. His wonderment touched me, and I wasn't so snappy when I answered.
"Not all by yourself, you didn't."
He chuckled and leaned over to kiss me. I let him, closing my eyes, and his lips seemed softer than I remembered them. It had been so long since our lips touched it reached in deeper than I meant it too, and I pulled back gently. He peered at me discerningly, trying to see what I was feeling, something he never used to have to expend effort to find out. Then he spoke to me.
"Abigail said they needed to be fed straight away. Do you think you're up to it?"
I hesitated, then nodded, and held out my arms. He hesitated as well and looked down at the children, the boy distinguished by a green blanket, the girl by a red one.
"Which would you like first?" he asked hopefully. I knew what he wanted, and thought I might as well oblige him.
"Oh hell, give me the boy," I said in a gentle grumble. He smiled and handed him over. I felt a surge of love I couldn't stop rush over me as I took the baby into my arms, my eyes filling with tears as I looked down at his perfect tiny little body, his tightly squeezed shut eyes. He smelt the scent of woman, and instinctively recognised the curves and bumps of the female figure, and opened and shut his mouth, his beautiful tiny fingers waggling. I pulled the sheet down, with a shy glance at my husband who hadn't seen me naked in eight months, and brought the babe's mouth to my breast. As he suckled I smiled and cried on him, rocking him gently in my arms, letting myself fill with all the love I could bear.
I'd just like to mention now that it wasn't preference for the boy child that made Clopin want me to suckle him first. I knew always he would adore them both equally, but men have such strange ideas. To Clopin's way of thinking, our little girl would grow up protected lavishly by us, and then she would marry a man who would look after and protect her. The boy on the other hand, would have to be strong enough to look after himself and his own wife and children. Clopin erroneously believed that feeding the boy first would give him extra strength. I humoured him, seeing as he carefully kissed our little girl lavishly all over her tiny face that she would never suffer rejection because of her sex. Clopin watched me as I fed the boy, his eyes wide in fascination and love, and he moved to sit next to me closer. He bent his head tenderly to my other breast, kissing me, and I closed my eyes and tried to fight back my feelings.
When the boy had finished, Clopin took him from me, wiping his mouth, and I brought the girl to me.
"What are we going to call them?" he asked me softly as I fed her. I shrugged, pretending I had not given it much thought, although I had.
"How about Harlan for him and Harlena for her?" I suggested. "In honour of your father." 
He smiled pleasurably and kissed me again. "Yes I like that. I think it will do very well."

The next few weeks were very busy for me. Newborns require constant care and love, and I lavished it on them unstintingly. Clopin was the joyous indulgent father, and it took him a few days to realise my attitude to him remained cold.
"Why do you have to repeatedly break my heart?" he whispered to me sadly over the sweet-smelling heads of our babes.
"Don't you speak to me of broken hearts," I whispered back coldly. "I know plenty of them."
But instead of letting me treat him badly as he had throughout my term, he repeatedly tried to break down my barriers.
I pushed everything I had into the children, dressing them and undressing them like they were dolls. They had large black eyes, like their father, and dark, very dark, red hair.They were beautiful, and one by one the Romani came to visit and coo over the heirs to the Gypsy Throne.
Bethan made me lavish gifts of linen for them, and I discovered that the beautiful carved cradle had been a gift from Pierre, the Court's carpenter. Clopin himself created toys for them that they were as yet too small to play with. Despite my continued bad attitude, the children caused him a lot more joy, and he never ceased to try and win me back. My heart of stone having been cracked by their birth, I was quite aware I loved him still, but I was determined to keep it away. I convinced myself no good could come of showing my feelings for him, and slowly this attitude began to develop towards those others close to me.
In the first few weeks it was not apparent, as I was so busy with the children and tired all the time. But Colombine began to notice I was constantly pushing her away and making excuses to not see her. I told Tante Marie I wanted to be the only one ot care for my children and sent her away. Even my attitude to Abigail was colder, but unlike the others she addressed me on it.
"I know why you're locking everyone out," she said to me, as she cooked supper for me one evening. "You think you'll be happier that way. You won't be, you know."
"How can you be so sure?" I said snappishly and she grinned at me.
"You'll just get lonely, you silly thing. You've managed to convince yourself that by blocking people out it won't hurt when they go, but that will catch up with you. Can you imagine how miserable you'd be if something should happen to Clopin now while you're treating him as you are?"
I took a deep breath. "I may not be happier, but it's certainly easier. I don't need to go through the grief I did when Chester died."
She shook her head at me "You be careful. You be very careful. It's that kind of attitude that makes women like Isabelle."
That angered me too much for me to answer. We sat in silence for a while and then she asked me, "How are your powers?"
"I don't have them anymore. I lost them."
She chuckled. "You haven't lost them, girl. They're just in hiding. Try opening that stubborn heart of yours back up."
Clopin came home then, smiling at me, pleading with his eyes for a kiss,and under Abigail's watchful eye I let him. He went to the cradle and cuddled both of the babies before placing them back carefully. It was spring yet again, and Clopin was performing on the streets once more. Invigorated by both this and his children, his mood was better than I could bear, and as Abigail made her farewells and left us, I turned violently from him.
He wisely let me be, although the pain on his face was clear. I hid my own as emotion gripped me.

I practised my powers again, and sure enough I had them still. But instead of improving my attitude, I grew worse. In fact, I went through a personality relapse. I was openly hostile to anyone foolish enough to enquire after me. People were confused by this change, and even I wasn't entirely sure what had made it so violent.
Little Esmeralda ran home in tears after I shouted at her once for touching the babies. Colombine put on a cheerful good humor through all my snappish retorts until finally I made one too many, and she jumped up, angry.
"I don't know what's wrong with you, Herli, but you're not the girl I was friends with, that's certain."
"Maybe I'm possessed by Isabelle," I said, for want of a better retort.
She picked her cloak up hastily. "I damn well wouldn't be surprised."
I knew she wasn't going to come back. If the other Romani dropped by I would tell them I was busy and couldn't speak. Gradually they realised I was putting them off. I spoke to no-one as I moved through the Court, getting my business done quickly so I could return to the confines of my tent.
Clopin quickly found out about me isolating myself from the others and spoke to me about it.
"Colombine and Esmeralda both are very hurt and upset. I thought you loved them both? Tante Marie strongly advised me to take my belt to you today. I told her where to go, of course, but I understand her distress. Herli, is there anything more that's wrong? Can I do anything to help?"
"You can go to Hell!" I snapped at him, and he jumped back as though I had bitten him.
Little Harlan ran a fever for a couple of days and I worriedly tended to him non-stop. Unfortunately, when it passed my attitude began to extend itself to my beloved children. Abigail now practically lived in our tent, as I hardly lifted a finger to look after them, clean the place, or make food. I knew she understand better than most, and better than me, what I was going through and why, but she also did it so the others wouldn't call me a bad wife and mother. She told them she simply helped me as the birth had been hard on me and I was weak. I appreciated her tact, but did not tell her so.
Clopin was no longer so cheerful: in fact he came home with a look of positive dread on his face, his hours getting later and later. We barely spoke, for I seemed unable to control the reflex to throw things at every other word he said. He still looked after the children, but he no longer tried to win back my affection with carressing hands and gentle offers of support and friendship. I, on the other hand, seemed to be oblivious to the fact that I had all but lost the friendship of those most dear to me. Wild suspicions ran through my head that Clopin was sleeping around, and I tried to convince Abigail to follow him and watch and see what he did. She told me this was ridiculous.
"God damn it, can't you see that poor man is miserable? All he wants is for you to smile at him again!!!"
But I had forgotten how to smile. Esmeralda was too frightened of my bad temper to speak to me anymore,and Colombine too angry I wouldn't apologise. Tante Marie I never saw, and the others took the hint and stayed away. Only Abigail and Clopin remained, and Clopin I hardly ever saw. Abigail would now and then urge me to change my outlook, but I just ignored her.
I took to wandering through the Court for hours on end, coming and going as I felt like it. Eventually I grew curious for the outside world, and started leaving and exploring as well. Cosette was delighted to see me until I snapped viciously at her, and went on my way. I ignored everyone around me, shoving children out of my way, wandering down and around the bridge.I idled my days away, doing nothing much of anything except exploring my surrounding terrain, and snapping at anyone who stupidly spoke to me.
I observed that Clopin was rapidly losing patience with me. Out of some loyalty he had more or less put up with my wickedness, but he was growing weary of it now. My spite, my deliberate attempts to hurt him were finally more than he could stand and we got into terrifically violent arguements, screaming at each other for all we were worth. 
I became like one of the Court's spies, lurking forever just beyond the sidelines, watching everyone but never really joining in. As I sat on the stage, a solitary and cold figure, and looked out over the cheerful goings on, I almost felt regret, but would swallow it hastily.
Clopin decided that he could play my hurtful game, and he flirted with the ladies of the Court excessively, complimenting them,and returning to his old charming self. In the few times Colombine had visited me after I gave birth, she told me any of them who might have still borne me ill will had given up altogether, and respected me for having a son the first time. Now they glanced at me from the corners of their eyes as my tall slender handsome husband came striding in to kiss their hands and ask which one wanted to fetch him a drink.
Several times I felt like telling him where he could stick his drinks, but I silenced myself, and instead just left to continue my wanderings.

It was on one of these wanderings that I met Remy.
Remy was a gypsy with dark red hair and flashing pale green eyes, a rough chiselled face,and huge muscular body, though he was not so tall nor charming as Clopin. Remy liked his freedom, so he had not come to stay with us in the Court. Instead he parked his caravan and performed illusion and magik tricks for the crowd, his handsome face drawing the girls who made up most of his audience, rather than his skill.
I was intrigued by him the first day I saw him, so handsome and mysterious, but not particularly talented. I stayed after to speak with him, almost having forgotten how to initate conversation.
"Interesting act you have there, my friend. Odd choice for someone like you," I said, with inquisitive eyes.
He glanced up at me and grinned. "Well, you have to make a living some way, don't you? Have I seen you around before?"
"It's possible. I've lived in Paris for over a year now. I've never seen you before."
He gave a short laugh. "No I come and go regularly. Try not to stay in any one place too long. I assume you live in the Court?"
"Yes. I do."
"I stayed there once. It's a good life, but it's not for me. Too many people around, even if they are my own."
He busied himself putting away his equipment as we spoke, and I leaned against his caravan to watch. 
"Tell me sir, have you ever met any of the Trouillefou family on your travels?"
He smiled. "Yes, I surely have. Aloise Trouillefou, she's a lovely girl. Jean, Mauro, they're good men. Clopin had to stop his wanderings when his parents died, but he was fantastic company. Always had something to do,something to say. I wonder how he is. I should stop and say hello. I imagine you know him, living in the Court?"
I smiled secretly. "Oh yes, I've seen him around."
"Why did you ask about the Trouillefou family? You have something to do with them?"
"A little. I just wondered where they all were, our royal blood intrigues me."
He grinned again, his hair in his eyes, arm muscles bulging as he put a crate in his caravan. I thought he was a very fine specimen of a man indeed.

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

BACKNEXT