Chapter Six

He hoisted up my first trunk, my Chest of Treasures, and carried it out of the tent. I followed him as he wound his way around the tents and through to the one where we'd be making our home. It was larger than the other, though not especially ornate or elaborate. I was surprised to find the interior spotlessly tidy. It was covered with many beautiful trappings, and some essential pieces of furniture, again nothing especially superior to what everyone else had. He placed my trunk down carefully in a corner next to some of his own, and then told me to stay whilst he fetched the other. I gazed around the tent where I was to make my new life beginning tomorrow. Certain things needed a woman's touch, and I was confident with what I and my mother had been collecting over the years I could make the place a truly beautiful home.
There was a large bed in one corner, comfortably dressed. There were a few chairs, and a table where Clopin evidently worked his puppets. Apart from that and his chests the tent was relatively bare, but comfortable. He returned then with my other trunk and placed it down next to the other. He straightened and smiled amiably at me.
"You can unpack now, if you like," he told me. "It'll save you time later, when you're busy with other things."
"Like what?" I questioned, images of him bidding me slave darting non-stop around my head.
"Well, you'll be getting to know the others, and your way around Paris, I imagine," he said, eyeing me quizzically. "You surely don't intend to hole yourself up inside this tent forever?"
"No, of course not," I muttered, and whilst the idea of following one of his suggestions did not exactly appeal to me, I decided it was good sense, and moved over to unpack my trunks. Besides which, keeping all my pretty things inside them had been driving me mad the last few days. I wanted to get them out and arrange them and make this place my home!!
On his part he pulled his tunic off over his head, preparing to change for his work. This simple action which I'd seen performed by so many of the men back in India - indeed where many men wore barely anything except a loincloth at times - aroused in me a slight discomfort. Perhaps because we were alone in the tent, and everything was so new - I didn't like it. I cast a quick glance over his lithe form before returning my attention to the trunks, a blush arising in my cheeks. As he pulled out his multi-colored garb he glanced at me, grinning.
"Of course, we must not forget you'll be very busy cooking and cleaning for me. I don't take such great care of my clothes either, you'll need to mend those. And if you don't become pregnant within a week I'll have to cut back your meal size and - " He broke off laughing suddenly as I turned to him, my eyes flashing, a sharp retort on my lips. I realised then he was only teasing me, and embarrassed, I turned back to my trunks, biting down hard on my mouth in an attempt to regain control of my temper.
"Very funny," I said through gritted teeth "I'm laughing."
He laughed only harder at that and I wondered savagely if there was anything that didn't send him into fits.
From my Chest of Treasures I pulled out some lengths of beautiful linen and embroidered bedsheets. I remembered working these with my mother on a beautiful hot day once, and growing restless under her watchful eye. I rubbed my face affectionately on them, and again felt homesick.I decided I would arrange those when Clopin had left me to my womanly peace, the same with the lovely crockery and ornamental heirlooms. As I neared the bottom of my treasures I found the small carved jewellery box my mother had crammed with her most precious valuables on that fateful night before I left.
I picked it up and traced tenderly the image of a unicorn dancing on the sea shore that was carved into the scented wood. The unicorn had been my mother's token animal and she had passed that on to me. Many of my childhood, and adult, possessions had been carved or painted with the image of one,there was nothing unusual about that, but this one - this one had been my mother's, given to her by my father as a symbol of his love. I remembered my big strong papa and my small soft mama and the way one would throw me into the air, laughing and kissing me, and how the other would scold and brush the hair from my eyes as she gazed at me with love. My image blurred and I realised I was crying. Hastily I wiped the tears from my eyes and cursed myself for being the fool.
"Now now, Herli," I heard Clopin's merry voice from behind. "You've been staring into that chest some time now - perhaps you've found a little duplicate of yourself to marry me and let you go home, eh?"
It was the worst possible thing he could've said then.
"Leave me alone, you brute!" I snapped childishly, before giving into my sobs.
But he was by my side in an instant, his strong skinny arms lifting me and guiding me to the bed where he sat me down.
"Come now," he whispered, gazing anxiously into my face, "you surely don't take my jokes so seriously, cherie?"
"Don't flatter yourself," I gulped. He looked down at the box I was still clutching in my hands, and realised the cause of my emotion.
"There there, now," he soothed, prising it gently from my grip. "You miss your mama and papa, it's all right. Clopin will take care of you now. He will be very good to you, I promise." He pushed the hair from my eyes gently. It was a trick I'd learnt to hide my face when I cried. Let the hair fall in your eyes, no-one will see. I felt embarrassed at having my emotions exposed again like that, but at the same time I was greatful for his attention and compassion. I wondered briefly how much experience he'd had in soothing broken-hearted women, making them believe everything would be all right, but it was only a passing thought.
"I'll take care of you too, and I'll be much better at it!" a small voice piped up. I looked to see Puppet had appeared artfully out of nowhere and was grinning his silly smile at me.
"Pah! You wouldn't know how to soothe a woman!" Clopin said disdainfully.
"I do too!" Puppet shrilled. "Just watch...er...uh...um..." He darted down, and grabbing the edge of Clopin's belled yellow cowl, wiped away my tears with it, much to Clopin's indignation.
You had to giggle at something like that, and I did. I saw Clopin's face relax somewhat and he smiled, relieved, down at me.
"As lovely as it to sit here and make a beautiful lady smile, cherie, I have to go," he said apologetically, "or else I will earn no money and you will force me to sleep outside!"
"I will be anyway, tonight certainly," I said.
He laughed softly. "Well tonight I may tolerate, mademoiselle. Do not think so much on your sorrows. I know you are unhappy, but things will become easier." 
I didn't answer that, only sat with my hands in my lap, staring at nothing.He appeared not to notice my coldness, but leaned forward and kissed me warmly on my forhead. His goatee tickled my chin, but it was a nice tickle and a nice kiss. I felt something slither along my neck and jumped in alarm, then saw it was only Puppet, begging for a kiss. I obliged him, kissing his little painted mouth, and he sighed and fell back in faint.
"Perhaps I should stay here and comfort the lady further?" he suggested hopefully to Clopin.
"Absolutely not!" Clopin scolded. "As if I would trust you with a woman!! You're coming out to earn me some money!"
"Dang," the little puppet said dolefully.
I laughed and then he was standing up and Puppet and he were bowing themselves out and leaving me once again on my own.

I sighed to myself, but drawing on strength and pride, pulled myself together and set about arranging my pretty things inside my tent. I pulled Clopin's bedclothes off his bed and prepared to put a set of my own on. I hesitated as I thought of the wedding night and how these beautiful sheets would become stained then. I did not want that - but it would be improper to not use them, what my mother and I had worked so hard on. I placed all my linen with Clopin's, and again I marvelled at how clean and tidy everything was. I knew for a fact no man could keep himself in such immaculate surroundings and I wondered how Clopin had managed it. I would find out soon enough, I imagined, and continued my work.There wasn't much after that. The crockery and jewellery I left in the chest, as they would only be used when needed. The rest were mainly other useful things like utensils, good-luck charms and icons. A few decorative cloths and ornaments and I was done. The tent was 100% improved since before I came and I stood back, proud, surveying my handiwork.
So now with nothing to do I went off to visit my adopted aunt, Tante Marie. She was sitting with her three friends, embroidering today instead of cooking, and gave me a shout of welcome as they saw me approach.
"Here she comes then!! Hello little princess!! Welcome!!"
They laughed and made room for me, drawing me into their group.
"We saw Clopin moving you in today," Sophie informed me. "He certainly wasted no time!!! You'd have thought he could wait one more night to share your bed, after eight years!!!"
"He *will* be waiting one more night," I said decidedly. They smiled at that, and laughed amongst themselves. Though they all had several children each, only Josephina and Maguerite were married.
"You've never been with a man then before, little one?" Tante Marie said incredulously.
I shook my head no. "Though it's not prudishness, mind," I hastened to add, "simply disinterest. Finding no-one I like well enough."
They nodded understandingly at that.
"Yes women aren't like men in that respect. It's not enough for a man to look good." Josephina stated. "We want - no, we need - so much more."
"We demand it!" Sophie declared and they all laughed again.
Marguerite leaned over to me conspiratorially. "Well from what I hear from my one and her friends, that young man of yours will take you to new levels of experience!!" They clucked over this scandalous talk, but I merely raised an eyebrow. The thought of being with Clopin still didn't sit well in my stomach - indeed it made me very nervous, although I wasn't sure why.
"Your one?" Tante Marie demanded. "She's not been with him, has she?"
"Oh yes, but only very briefly, and many years ago now. She was quite cut up about it then, but they get over these things very quickly at that age."
I didn't like the way the conversation was heading. I really had no interest in discovering how many women Clopin had been with before me.
"Though mind, they're still fond of each other. Just friendly though. He looks out for her, and she'll do anything for him. He has a way of staying on good terms with all of them."
"All except one," Josephina muttered darkly, and Tante Marie glared at her, hush! The conversation lulled after that and we all sat together in silence, they with their embroidery and me with my thoughts.
"What do you think of your young man then, little one?" Josephina asked me after a fashion, casting me a sidewards glance.
I paused. "He is - he is nice enough I suppose," I said haltingly.
Tante Marie laid a hand on my arm. "Clopin and Herli have agreed to be friends," she told them. "For now we must be satisfied with that!!"
The other women looked thoughtful.
"Even just-friends might help him, though," Josephina said.
"Indeed it will, especially if she puts her mind to it!" Tante Marie said firmly. "I can see already the way they look at each other." News to me! "Things will be fine, you'll see."
It was time for me to put in. "Is this all about that Isabelle?" I said. They glanced at one another. "I don't like being left out of things that concern me. Tante, you told me all about her yesterday, there's no need to have these whispered comments and sidelong glances!!"
"I suppose you're right, child," Tante Marie admitted grudgingly.
"Of course I'm right!" I said crossly. "You're all expecting me to make this woman disappear somehow, without giving me any kind of information at all!!"
They exchanged small looks of disapproval.
"Mind your elders," Maguerite said placidly and I sighed, resigned.
Tante spoke up. "Isabelle is not in the court right now, little one. She left the same day you arrived. We're all hoping that while she's gone you'll move in and win Clopin's heart. That girl is bad news. She's never been fully accepted by anyone here, and while he was with her, things weren't the same."
"I don't really want to win his heart," I confessed sulkily.
They all gasped and shook their heads. I had to be careful of falling out of favor with them, and revealing my stubbornness would be the best way to do it.
"Honey, you might not want to, but it's not like you're gonna find love somewhere else. The only time gypsies get married is if they're prepared to commit to one another totally and fully. Now we know it's hard for you, having been placed in this situation of an arranged marriage, something which happens amongst us as often as being invited to a ball at the Palace, but gypsies expect marriage to be sacred. No-one looks kindly on a woman who cuckolds her husband. And he's a good man. He will be good to you," Tante told me.
"I'm getting very sick of hearing that," I muttered.
"Well, you should stop returning to where you began! You told me you'd made up your mind to make things work with him, and I took you to be a woman of your word!! Don't be so close-minded!!"
"I'm sorry Tante," I said sincerely. And I was. I had vowed to be friends with Clopin - but I had an older vow - one to never fall in love with him. How could I make him fall in love with me and not return the affections? "I am a woman of my word, and I will do my best to keep it. I'll be a good and loyal wife."
They all smiled at me again. "There now, you'll be fine, little one," Sophie said, patting my hand. I wasn't so sure myself.The conversation moved onto other things after that, in which I learned that several of the Court's women were only too happy to keep Clopin's tent clean and tidy, his clothes mended and his meals cooked for him. This irritated me and I declared that would change. This pleased them further and they chuckled to themselves.
"I take it none have been around to introduce themselves then?" Tante asked.
I *had* noticed the surprising absence of women my own age. My "humph" was her answer. They all chuckled again.
"Give them time, they'll come round. You've stolen their favourite treasure. They won't look on you with favor just yet. But they'll be friendly soon enough, if only to stay in Clopin's favor."
That wasn't exactly comforting. "I'd like my friends to be real ones," I said stiffly.
"There there. You can come sit with us old women any time you like," Marguerite said soothingly. "Those girls will run circles around you soon enough if you don't let them know who's boss. Don't be a snob, but don't give in to their bullying either. And if they do torment you - only run to Clopin if it's extreme."
"I would not run to him anyway!" I said proudly. "I can fight my own battles."
"Good girl. Be strong, you'll be fine. And mind - the sooner you bear a child, the sooner they will realise you're here to stay and give up any caprices entirely."
Again our talk headed down that path.I steered it away again.
"I thought meals were always served in the big circle, but I've noticed cooking utensils and the like in the tents," I said.
"Oh no no - meals are usually served in the tents, each family cooking for their own. It was only the gathering last night because you had arrived."
"The last meals I had here was served in the circle, too," I said with a puzzled frown.
"The last time you were here was when your tribe visited, yes?"
I nodded.
"Then that is why. Special occasions, guests, all that."
"So I will be expected to cook for Clopin," I said dolefully.
"Oooh yes," they laughed. "And he's a regular gourmet! I hope you can cook!"
"Very well!" I said defensively. "I suppose I should head back and prepare his dinner for tonight, in that case."
"You're not expected to until you're married, but it would certainly earn points in your favor, little one," Tante Marie said. The others nodded approvingly.
"Very well then," I sighed, getting to my feet. "Besides, my Chester will be getting hungry. He slept in, so he was left behind today. Is there a place in the Court I can acquire meat?"
They told me of Christophe, the man who provided all the gypsies with meat if they weren't able to leave the Court for whatever reason. After acquiring a large mutton leg for Chester and two chickens (I marvelled at his resourcefulness in acquiring so much fresh meat) with a "complimentary for the new Queen" from Christophe I made my way back to Clopin's tent.
 

Chester (who was very petulant at being left behind) gnawed happily on his chunk of meat. I had started the small fire under the stove out the front of the tent, and had begun to roast the chickens in a garlic and chilli sauce as I prepared the vegetables when I heard a "helllloooooo there!!!"
I looked up in some astonishment to see the owner of this bellowed greeting, and beheld a young woman, about my own age, approaching. The very first thing I noticed about her were her eyes, which like mine, were oddly colored.Then her very long and thick black hair. She was taller than me, and dressed in a very pretty green dress with a laced-up bodice. I was again made aware of my odd looks in this place, for her skin was very dark. Her face was very open and her eyes twinkled with mischief and friendliness.
She walked up to me with a huge beam of a smile crossing her face.
"Are you speaking to me?" I asked, hardly daring to believe it.
"No-one else around!!" she said, still smiling.
I returned her smile. "Won't you sit down with me?" I asked, so relieved that a woman my own age had made contact I didn't care if she turned out to be the Court Loony!
She took up my offer, and then turned to me.
"My name's Colombine." she said.
"Hello, Colombine, I'm Herlikin."
"Ahhhh, so you are! I should've realised the new face could only be you!! I wasn't here when you arrived you see, so I'm a little behind in all the gossip!!"
I laughed and then said with a rueful smile "well, Colombine, apart from satisfying any curiosity on what I look like, I'm afraid I can't supply you with any gossip other than that! I've only been here a couple of days myself."
"And I'll bet the other women haven't been exactly friendly?" she said with a knowing grin.
"No, not exactly." I agreed, and we smiled at each other.
"Eh, don't worry about them. They'll all fall in love with other fellows and your children will play together."
"I certainly hope so" was on the tip of my tongue, but I held it back. I hardly knew this girl, after all, and there was no need for her to know that quite atypical of me, I was beginning to grow lonely.
"I, on the other hand, have never once been enamoured of our King, so I am pleased to be friendly with you!!"
"And I with you," I said gravely. "So you're not like the other girls who swoon at his approach?"
She laughed " No no! I'm not the only one who's been able to resist it either, though we *are* a rare lot. I personally think it's quite sickening how they all need to fan themselves as he walks past!"
I was rapidly warming to this girl. "So do I!" I said strongly.
She grinned. "Good! He needs his head pulled out of the clouds, that one! We shall do it together, you and I!!"
"Do you like him at all?" I questioned.
"OH yes, I'm very fond of Clopin. He's loads of fun, but gets his way far too easily. Are you looking forward to marrying him?"
"Not really," I told her truthfully. "He seemed very sweet and sincere yesterday, when I had a little tantrum, but today when my perceptions are a little clearer - well - it was all very nice and friendly, but it really seemed as though he just wanted me to be quiet so he could get on with other things." I hadn't thought of that until then, but I remembered the relieved look on his face that morning when I stopped my tears.
She nodded sympathetically. "It doesn't matter. He will always be sweet to you, and we will be friends, you and I."
At first I felt a little suspicious - being the kind of person I was and had been, it wasn't in my nature to offer friendship so readily and easily, and I didn't expect it to be that way with others. Even the agreement between Clopin and I had been just that - an agreement. A wild thought passed through my head that she was a spy from the other women. But that was ridiculous, and I quickly forgot it, especially when I looked at Colombine and saw the openness and friendliness on her face.
"You may not want to be friends with me," I told her.
She frowned. "Why ever not?"
"Well - I'm - I'm a little weird. And I'm not terribly nice all the time."
She grinned again. "I have a secret to tell you." She beckoned me closer. I leant forward and she whispered loudly, "Me too!!!!!"
I could only gaze at her. She sat back laughing.
"It's true I swear it! We'll get along fine."
"I hope so."
"Sure, it'll be fun, you'll see." She leaned back and looked knowingly at me. I grinned back at her as I put the vegetables on to cook.I could see wickedness in her, and it had been a long time since I was wicked. Perhaps we would have fun.
"Hmmm... here's trouble." It was Clopin who spoke, greeting us as he saw Colombine sitting close by me.
"Hello Trouillefou, so lovely to see you too," was her merry response, as they kissed each other on both cheeks. Clopin kissed my forehead in greeting too, and passed a hand gently over my hair, but the gesture seemed patronising, and I ducked away, feeling irritated.
"Trouillefou, I have wonderful news for you!" Colombine said happily, stretching luxuriously.
"I'm sure you do," he responded wryly, taking off his hat and unfolding his long graceful body down next to us.
"Your little wife and I have become friends, and intend to share everything together always!!" with a twinkle in her eye. He groaned.
"Just what I need! You exerting influence over the woman who'll be cooking my food and mending my clothes! I'll be dead with a week I know it!"
"Ah maybe not dead, but probably very hungry, and quite naked as a popinjay!!!"
"Scandulous woman!" Clopin said in mock scold.
"You'll have to learn to take care of yourself. Herlikin and I will be far too busy with more important things."
"What, like putting mud in your mother's shoes, or tripping up soldiers as they pass by?" he said with sarcasm, filling his pipe.
"Exactly!" Colombine and I said at once, I by this time having caught her mood. We had a giggle over that, whilst Clopin rolled his eyes and shook his head.
"Call me Herli," I told Colombine as I stirred my vegetables. "All my friends do." It was actually the first time I'd ever told anybody they could.
"Sure thing, Herli. Call me Colombs!!" and we both began to giggle again. Clopin groaned again and in an effort to change the subject sat up and blew smoke all over me. I coughed and waved at him with disdain.
"Take that filthy thing away from my food" I said crossly.
"Ah the food, exactly what I was about to talk about!!" Clopin said, rubbing his hands together gleefully. "This is food for me, yes?"
We both looked at him seriously.
"No" said Colombine "You must be joking."
So serious were our faces that the smile fell slowly from his face as he looked at us in half-belief.
"Surely *YOU* must be joking, mam'zelles?" he said, looking first at her and then me in an appealing way.
I shook my head somberly.
"No indeed, sir. This is for myself and Colombine. She is guest to our tent tonight after all, and you were nowhere to be found!"
He stared at us again for several minutes more, before making a dismissive gesture. "Haha, noooo, you joke!" he said confidently.
"Haha, noooo, we don't!!" Colombine said, mimicking him.
He tried another tack. "But what will I eat tonight?" he said mournfully. "I am so painfully thin, look!" He held up an arm to show us. "Would you be so heartless?"
"You will have to beg," I informed him. He played along, tugging sorrowfully at his goatee.
"Is there no other way?" He queried. I looked at him thoughtfully. "How much money did you make today?" I asked to a shout of approval from Columbine.
"Gracious!" he moaned. "Already I'm in for a taste of married life. Here," he continued, pulling out a full purse and placing it near my feet. "I made much money, and left them begging for more."
"Then you may have some dinner," I said graciously. "It is just ready now.You must sit outside to eat it though."
"Oh really?" he said huffily, putting his hands on his hips.
"Yes, really!!" I responded as huffily, placing his serving on one of the plates I had brought out ready. He'd brought wine with him and I filled his glass with that. He took the plate gratefully from me, and resuming his seat spoke conspiratorially to Colombine.
"I wait only until after we are married, then she shall feel the buckle end of my belt!"
Colombine snorted at that, but I merely raised an eyebrow.
"We shall see, m'sieu, we shall see."
He made a face of pretended fear as I gave a serving of our food to Colombine, and fixed my own. Our little play thus having been acted to its end, we fell to eating our meal. The chicken was rather good, I was quite pleased it had turned out better than I thought it would. Clopin evidently thought so, for he ate every bit and licked all his fingers, his of course being the largest portion. He asked if there was any more, and, secretly pleased, I gave him the rest of the chicken. 

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

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