Chapter Four

It wasn't long afterwards that I turned fifteen. As the time for my departure grew nearer, my parents became less vigilant and allowed me more freedom than I had ever been allowed in my life. I believe this was so I would be able to say goodbye to all around me at my own pace, although at the time I wondered if they hoped I would befall an accident so I wouldn't have to go. Before I realised it the year was nearly over and I would be 16 in only four full moons more.
It was time to leave.
My mother had had my trunk all packed by the time I returned home one evening, Chester (now a fully grown and extremely handsome tiger gentleman) by my side and Divil (who was, alas, ageing intolerably) on my shoulder, a bundle of fish I had caught on that lazy day when I'd had nothing better to do strapped to my belt.
She frowned when she saw that.
"Herlikin-Elise, when you are a wife you will have to watch yourself - soiling your clothes does not make a good impression on others, and men are often judged by their wives."
It seems so unfair doesn't it, to be told to make a good impression for my husband? Actually we were far more relaxed than a lot of people. My father adored everything about my mother and would have burst with pride even if she had walked in with her head on backwards. A hearty and vibrant woman was the spice of life he claimed, and many of the men seconded this. My mother was merely being mindful that others may not be so accepting.
"I want to marry Clopin Trouillefou even less than I did eight years ago, mama!!! If he doesn't like my soiled dress he can go to hell!"
"Hush now, don't speak so strongly, wicked wicked child! If I were Clopin I'd have you over my lap and belt your bottom raw for that one!"
"What, like a child?"
"Exactly, little one. You behave like a child, I've no doubt he will punish you like one."
I didn't say it but I thought Clopin Trouillefou is a dead man the day he lays a hand on me.
"Now, little one. Your trunk is all packed with everything you will need for the journey and beyond, and your Chest of Treasures stands waiting. You leave India in a week, but you must leave us tomorrow for you need to travel to the Docks."
Tomorrow? I had no idea it would be so very soon! There had been some very large talk behind my back and no mistake!
"I'm so glad you made me aware of this mama!! And you've given me such time to prepare!! I don't feel rushed at all!!"
I was hurt and shocked. Tomorrow I would be bundled off to marry horrible stinking Clopin Trouillefou and bear his grotty children!!
"Shush and don't you dare speak to me with such sarcasm! You're not so old I can't take my belt to you!! Geraud, your father's dearest assistant, will accompany you the entire trip. He and Erik will drive you and your things to the docks tomorrow in the small cart. Erik will return to us, Geraud will continue on with you. He will leave you with your new family in Paris, however. They will have plenty to take care of you."
I thought she seemed so callous and matter-of-fact until I saw the glint in her eyes. She turned away hastily so I mayn't see her tears. Poor mama! I was her only daughter, and tomorrow I would be travelling far far away over the sea.
Suddenly, she began to pull off all her most precious jewellery - her heirlooms. She put them into a leather sack - her ruby ring, the emerald earring,the necklace set with sapphires, pearls, and diamonds. All in real gold. They were the only things of exquisite value we owned, apart from some handsome pieces of furniture. She placed the leather sack in a small carved chest which she then wrapped in several silk scarves, and placed in my trunk.
"Mama, what are you doing? Those are your heirlooms!"
"That's right, Herlikin-Elise. For me to pass onto you. You must have them now."
"Mama, you are supposed to wait until death! You - you're not dyin - "
"Don't be foolish, child! I'm in my prime! Better I give them to you now, than die knowing you will never get them!"
She bustled off then to finish preparing supper for my father (my brothers all having since moved into tents with their own wives), leaving me to think. Mama would not have given me her precious jewels unless she thought we woduln't meet again. I had never given it any consideration - it seemed impossible to think we wouldn't - but now - my parents were getting on in years. The trip to France was both long and expensive, and needed much preparation and organisation of the tribe. It hit me suddenly that this night was probably the last I would ever have with them. My insolence over being forced to go gave way to sorrow suddenly, and I wept miserably over the lovely carved jewel-box my father had given my mother as a wedding gift, which was now mine.
But that last evening I showed no unhappiness to distress my parents. We ate together the same as always. My father put in great effort to appear jolly and at his usual pace, but I noticed the change in him. There was a great sorrow underneath his smile and I knew I was the cause. I did not want to cause my beloved father any misery. For his sake I put in even extra effort to smile and appear well-at-ease, and I believe it helped him somewhat.
I slept not a wink that night, and was washed and dressed when my mother came in to awaken me. Geraud, and Erik, my darling brother, loaded my trunks onto the cart, and we were ready to go.
Then I turned to my parents. I tried so hard to bite back the tears, but they spilled over.
"Papa!" I cried, throwing myself into his arms.
He hugged me back, fiercely, and kissed the top of my head.
"Now now, Madam Sahib," he said hoarsely. "Be a good girl and do your papa proud."
I nodded tearfully, and he released me. My mother and I embraced just as fiercely.
"Be a good girl by him, Herli. He will be good to you if you are to him."
"Alright mama, I will do my best."
She pushed me back.
"You have to go now."
I wiped the tears from my face with the back of my hand and turned to find Erik waiting to lift me into the cart. He and Geraud got in beside me, and to my joy I found Chester there also, waiting for me. I would not be so alone then. Geraud clicked to our little donkey and we were off.
 

I don't need to describe the journey. It took place through some countryside and the small seaside town. It was rough, but not terribly uncomfortable, and I was very sad throughout it.
While I said goodbye to Erik, Geraud loaded my trunks into our quarters.They were small, dank and dirty, for we weren't rich by any means. Erik embraced me hard and told me to be a good girl. I was getting pretty sick of being told to be a good girl, I can assure you.Then he left, with not even a glance back. It smarted, but I knew now it was the time to behave like the young woman I was and not a baby. So I bit down on my lip, and took Geraud's hand. Chester leaped in effortlessly beside me, and we three went below deck to settle ourselves in for the long and unpleasant journey.
I was comforted not just by the prescence of Chester, my dearest friend, but by Geraud. He was blindingly loyal to my father, and I knew he would kill for me, risk his own life, and not once leave my side until he had delivered me safely to Paris. Honor was so important to us all, and if I were to take ill with a sea fever he would lay his face next to mine and inhale every breath I exhaled, so that he too would become ill and die, to show all he had failed in his duty.
That kind of loyalty and friendship is greatly soothing, and whilst still sad to be leaving my home, probably forever, I did not despair as I might've had I been alone.
Just before they cast away, I climbed up on board and stood at the rail to watch my life grow slowly smaller and smaller.The warm orange shores resplendant with spices and glorious people drifting further and further beyond my reach. I stayed on deck I don't know how many hours, but when I finally turned to go below again I could no longer see India on the horizon. It wasn't even a speck in the distance. It was nothing. It was gone.

So I was resigned to thinking of France - France where the people wore tight, constraining clothes, where magik was forbidden and I couldn't dance to an intoxicating drum on the street if I felt like it. Where I would be an outcast, not the exotic bird I was back home. Where I would be expected to cook and clean and only speak when spoken to.
The actual gypsy life I would be living, the one I had observed eight years previously, seemed to have slipped my memory. I remembered only what the sgzany tutor had told me of the country, of its people. But then - though very optimistic, I was a dreamer whose romanticised view was not always close to the reality.
That night I wept once more, and it was Chester who came to comfort me, he who had always listened to my woes, whose eyes had always sparkled with humor at my tricks, and who had always secretly followed to protect me when I went on my adventures although I had told him to remain at home. I buried my face in his thick white fur, and he kissed me with his warm golden breath and purred to soothe me. He was better than a blanket, and I spent the night in a comfortable warmth, when I finally drifted off to sleep, exhausted from crying.

We finally arrived in Paris many weeks later, the three of us thoroughly sick of the water and the confines of the boat. At one point I was convinced death awaited us, as we battled it out in a storm, but no - we made it safely through. Unfortunately I had sworn that if we did, I would make Trouillefou a delicious meal each night - and blast it, honor, always honor!!
When we docked, none of us felt very well and we tottered unsteadily onto shore. It was our luck it should be raining. So now we were dirty, tired, cold AND wet through. Thankfully it took us only a few minutes to retrieve my trunks, and then a young man was walking up to us and introducing himself as Jean-Luc, our guide to the Court of Miracles.
Exhausted from our trip, my hackles were immediately raised.
"Guide? And where is Trouillefou? Did he fear his tunic to become soaked? Was his future wife not cause enough to leave the Court and guide her himself?"
Poor Jean-Luc. My unexpected assault caused him to stammeringly reply, "Clopin sends his deepest apologies Mam'zelle.He had intended to be here himself, unfortunately something unexpected rose, and he was forced to attend to the emergency."
He spoke very prettily for a gypsy boy, and drew an eyebrow from both me and Geraud.
He must've noticed our inquistiveness, but he said nothing. He simply assisted Geraud to load my trunks onto the small cart he'd brought with him and then to help me into it. He very considerately covered my soaking legs with a blanket, and I smiled at him, my early peevishness forgotten. He looked relieved and then alarmed as Chester forcefully pushed past him into the cart.
I turned to Geraud who stood silently outside.
"Are you not getting in, Geraud?"
He looked surprised, but hastened to answer. "Missy Sahib does not remember? I was only to lead you as far as Paris. It is your father's orders to leave you with your new people."
Instantly my heart sank again. "Geraud, no! You can't leave now!"
He shrugged, although his eyes showed sorrow. "I must, missy. The boat leaves again at dawn, I need to be on it."
My precious pride forgotten I wept hopelessly, clinging to his gnarled old hand. He was the last human link to my old life and I didn't want him to leave. I watched his eyes cloud over, but he gripped my hand tight just once before letting it go.
"Now now... Be a big brave girl. Show these Parisian Gypsies what the sgzany are made of!!! Dazzle them!"
It was the most original parting I had been given yet and I smiled then, feeling a little better.
"That's a girl. I go now. We'll meet again one day."
Then he was gone too. Chester stared balefully up at me, and I back at him, as Jean-Luc climbed up on the cart and bade the horses move.

 The trip to the Court of Miracles was not so long nor so tedious as the last time I had been here, but the main entrance through which we entered was just as dark and frightening. There were people below to meet us, who took my trunks and carried them forth, long years of practice guiding their steps. A huge monster of a gypsy stepped forward, and spoke with surprising gentleness.
"Here, madam. Let me carry you on my back so you don't get your little feet soiled in this muck."
I was far too exhausted and depressed to give a reply of wit; I merely nodded and thanked him hoarsely, as he hoisted me up and carried me through the sewage.
The trip could not have been that long, but I believe I must of dozed, for the next thing I was being placed inside a warm tent. I looked dazedly about for Chester and sighed in relief when I saw him settling down in a corner, after first checking to see me awaken.
Then suddenly the strange gypsies were gone and I was left all alone. Exhausted as I was, I feared sleeping - I was in a strange place, with strange people. I did not want to make myself vulnerable. I checked my trunks to make sure all was intact after the boat trip, and once I had satisfied myself all was well, I settled back into the cushioned chair I had been placed in.
I was soaking wet and chilled through and through, but I could see nowhere near something to dry myself with, nor anything to wash in. Cautiously, I peeked outside the tent - but there was nothing out there either. I could see tents placed all around me, but nowhere linen or washtubs.
I saw Jean-Luc exit from a tent away down from where I was, and I thought about asking him for assistance - but after my breakdown in the cart I wanted to regain my injured pride, and foolishly, I withdrew back inside. Again I sat on the chair, and took to counting the circles woven into the elaborate embroidery of the covers I was nestled on. My head drooped with weariness but I kept it up.
"I can't bear this much longer," I thought "I can't stand it!"
I thought myself then weak and pathetic, and was ashamed, and hastened to wipe away the hot tears which sprang from my eyes. I was beginning to feel unwell besides, and hated the feeling of sea grime that seemed to be all over me.
Suddenly there was a burst of life from outside the tent, a shout of voices which rose above the soft murmurs of the Court's regular activity. Some masculine laughter, and then the approach of footsteps.
A voice spoke then, and although I had not heard it in eight years, I knew it instantly.
"Well, Jean-Luc, where is she then?"
A voice resplendent with strength and merriment, and I flushed scarlet to think of myself sitting here, wet, dirty and tired. Please do NOT let him come in and see me like this!
"She's in the tent you had us put up for her, 'boss'," was Jean-Luc's easy reply. "Though go easy, she was practically dropping from fatigue!"
He only laughed in reply, and while I fidgeted in agitation, the tent flap was flung aside and a tall, thin man entered, excuding a masculine confidence from even his very fingertips. It was Clopin. My future husband.
He'd grown even more handsome in the last eight years, his face now matured and very well defined. His hair was still long and the same jet-black, and he now sported a brilliant black goatee on his chin. He'd grown taller as I knew he would, and though painfully thin you could the strength from years of exertion.He stood before me glorious and splendid, beaming his great smile, his teeth whiter than I could believe, his eyes just as dazzling as before.
And there I sat, like a pathetic drowned rat.
He gazed at me for a moment, arms folded across his body, before turning to the outside.
"Hey Jean-Luc! You've made some sort of mistake here! I find no future wife, only a drowned rat!"
He'd said it with humor, no cruelty, but is so very much mirrored what I had been thinking, and I was so completely at my wits end, that I took in an outraged breath and, not being able to think of a retort, burst into tears, the second of that day.
His face expressed his astonishment at my emotion, but he was quick to kneel by my side, his gestures suddenly uncertain, as he made an attempt to soothe back my hair.
"Now now then, ma petite, it was said only in jest, no need to be so emotional!"
I could only weep further. What a first impression to make! Mortified by my tears I knew Clopin now feared he had a spoilt and highly-strung woman on his hands, and I was neither of these!!! But I was too distressed to take a hold of myself just then. I batted his hands away. Not only could I not bear the thought of him touching me, but my hair was filthy and in desperate need of a wash.
He stared at me in confusion for some moments before again turning to the open flap.
"JEAN-LUC!" he bellowed, and I was startled to silence by the ferocity of his tone.
Jean-Luc appeared within an instant, his face also bearing apprehensiveness. "Yes,Clopin?"
"Are you blind as well as stupid?" Clopin snapped "Can't you see this young lady is wet and cold and tired? She's been at sea for weeks, she arrives in the rain, she is brought and dumped by a bumbling fool who then leaves her in an exhausted state in dirty clothes!"
Jean-Luc had paled, poor boy. But his mistake was simply the result of no forethought, he was not truly callous. Or so my vulnerable heart told me then - for I had been so touched by Clopin's immediate understanding of my overly-emotional state, I was willing to forgive even Jean-Luc's failure to bring me clean linen. He hastened now to get a tub for a bath and direct others to fetch hot water for it. Clopin himself went to fetch me linen, I think he did this deliberately so that I might compose myself in private. After Chester came up to me and kissed me tenderly I managed to do this, so by the time he returned I was once again calm and in control of my emotions.
Even though we both were normally the boisterous, gregarious types, when he returned with soft towelling to dry me after my bath, we both skittered around each other. Neither of us spoke, only glanced in each other's general direction. I was mindful of my vow, and despite his kindness I was determined to keep it, so I sat with my back ramrod straight and my chin high in the air, observing him with a look I'm sure he remembered from many years ago. He for his part, was just as casual. He made no effort to touch me, he simply placed the linen where I could reach them, and leaned causally, his arms folded, his face at ease and relaxed.
He chuckled suddenly, causing a slight stir from me.
"You know," he said, "When you broke down a moment ago I thought perhaps a pixie had possessed that little body of yours, so different a reaction was it to one you'd of given eight years ago. But now, watching you here I see you are just the same as always."
"Not so, m'sieu," I said stiffly. "I've changed a great deal. You have just yet to witness it."
"Is that a fact then, Madam?" he said humorously. "I certainly hope so. I've no time to keep you in check otherwise!"
"If you take my meaning to be that I will sit silent and demure day by day doing nothing but take care of your whims, then you are also mistaken!" I retorted. 
He chuckled again and would've replied, but at that moment Jean-Luc and some others arrived with my bath and steaming hot water. My heart rose at that sight and they left once they had set it up. I couldn't wait to get in and scrub myself clean, but Clopin stayed on, watching me with some interest.
"If you'll excuse me, m'sieu," I said crankily, "I would like to take my bath now."
He nodded affably. "Yes I know." He stood there for some minutes more, returning my gaze before exclaiming, in mock-sudden realisation, "OH, you mean you'd like me to leave you be?"
My eyes narrowed at his "joke" and I nodded curtly.
"Well Madam, you had only to say so. Just like you had only to say to Jean-Luc you wished for a bath. Then your desire would be fulfilled!"
The implication of what he said - that my continuing discomfort was my own fault - was clear, and I rose angrily to reply, but he bowed swiftly out of my tent and left me in privacy.
The bath was an exquisite luxury, and I soaped myself thoroughly, completely enjoying the experience of being clean. Once done, I rubbed myself dry with the fresh linen, and massaged my long hair until it was only slightly damp. Then I opened my trunk to put on one of my new gowns.
My mother and myself had worked long and hard on them, for we were aware that my saris would not place well in Paris. We'd remembered the style worn by the gypsies from or last visit, and we worked some lovely gowns in that fashion. I hadn't realised it then, but I saw it now - the loving care my mother had put in to every stitch, for every garment was a work of art, and every one unique. They all also had a touch of individuality, so that I would feel like myself, not just one of the crew. There were many red garments in there, being mindful of my love of red, and it did not take me long to select a beautiful full-skirted red dress, its hem lavishly embroidered in small black beads, teaming it with a black lace-up bodice. I pulled on my little golden slippers and decorated my arms with my brass jewellry I so adored. I pulled a comb through my thick hair, and then tied a black scarf through it, so that it still hung loose and lovely. Checking my reflection in the small glass I had brought with me, I was well satisfied, and after giving Chester a vigorous brush and rub down, I was ready to explore. At least, so I thought.

As I strode purposefully toward the tent flap which would lead me out into my new world, I noticed how soft and inviting the downy pillows looked. They were also covered with beautiful fabrics. I knelt down to admire the embroidery, and doing so thought it couldn't hurt to lay down and have a few minutes rest.It had been a long journey after all, and I would feel better after a short nap.
So thinking, I sank gratefully down onto the bed, drawing the soft covers around and over me. It was a heavenly bliss after months of sea, and stringy little canvas hammocks, and my entire body relaxed immediately. Within a minute I was sound asleep.

 I slept the rest of that day and the whole night through without stirring once, but when I awoke the next morning, I realised someone had been in whilst I was dead to the world. My trunks had been rearranged, more clean linen placed nearby, and just within my reach were a few red roses. I had never forgotten the taste of the roses, and I gratefully grabbed one and munched on it, enjoying the flavor all over again.
I felt thoroughly refreshed after my long sleep, and I bathed and changed quickly. Then, Chester by my side, I ventured out into my new world.
The Court of Miracles, through well rested eyes, was a pleasing place. It always had been. But I noticed that tents were no so shabby, possessions not so meagre and clothes not so tattered as they had been eight years ago. I doubted many of the gypsies had taken to stealing, so it could only mean their situation had begun to improve. Most of the gypsies had been up since daybreak, and I felt more than a little shamefaced at my laziness. But still - I would have the rest of my life to make up for it.

© 1999 Harley Quinn
(harley_quinn@cheerful.com)
 

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