Chapter Eight

The other women were as yet distant - though more friendly than when I had first arrived. I was determined to show them up, and learnt all their names and greeted them with much friendliness and civility, so that they were ever so slightly shame-faced by their nasty treatment, and became more civil still. They were not horrible girls, despite what their coldness would suggest, they simply resented me, an outsider, coming in and marrying one of the best men there. On the whole they were rather sweet and full of life and fun,with a few exceptions, but I never grew very close with many of them, though as years passed and they fell in love with others, old rivalries were forgotten and we would sit in a circle and talk. I met the other girls who were able to resist Clopin's charms, who had great loves of their own, or simply enjoyed their independance, and became quite friendly with several of them. But my closest friend remained Colombine, and she was still the one I liked best out of them all.

Although friendly and full of life, until I arrived she had been something of a loner herself. Direct and to the point is the way of gypsy women, but it seemed Colombine had been rather more direct and to the point than the others. She wasn't disliked as I had been,being too good-natured for that, but the others were wary of her sharp tongue, and she thought many of them far too silly to be with anyway. She was an orphan in the court, who had given herself the title of "Grand Duchess", a quirk I found entertaining. She spoke Romany and Italian (being of mostly Italian heritage) very well, but spoke French barely at all, so as a way of making her keep she performed pantomime in the streets above. That intrigued me, for mask work involved a lot of pantomime,and I wondered how passionate she was about it. I noticed quickly that she was also something of a compulsive thief - she couldn't help herself, if she saw something she wanted she had to pick it up. It made me laugh, because she didn't hold with stealing at all! She always kept her head, too,I noticed, remaining very cool and calm, and although she was far more friendly than I, I soon recognised many similar traits between us. For example - she was always willing to help people, but won't volunteer her service. One had to ask.

There were days of course when Colombine didn't visit - she was above in the streets of Paris, doing her pantomime or shopping as the case may be. I envied her greatly and more than once expressed my restlessness and desire to see the above world. As much as I loved the Court, I was getting very sick of stone walls.

I thought several times about sneaking out - but then, what if I got lost? I considered taking Chester with me, but then - what if they were unused to such beasts and attacked him? But the restlessness was building up in me with each passing day, and Colombine was urging me to go with her, and it was becoming more than I could bear.
I mentioned as such to Clopin one evening two weeks after our marriage, after he had told me of the day's events, and the children who had watched his puppet show with glee. He said nothing then, but the next day when he had finished his breakfast he told me to put on a dress suitable for the chilly Paris weather, and to come along with him.
Thrilled to the very core, I wrapped myself up warmly,and sensibly put shoes on. I checked several times in my glass to make sure I was presentable and he laughed at my vanity.
"Here, you look fine!!" he said. "With that silly pale skin of yours, no-one will mistake you for a gypsy!"
"My skin isn't silly!" I said petulantly. "I can't help it, it's all my mother's fault!!"
"Aw, poor baby!" he said mockingly. "What a wicked mother you had, giving you pale skin that people will trust, as opposed to dark Romany skin people will throw insults at!"
I sulked and told him, "I've never met a man who thought my color skin is attractive!!! There were many who were curious, but none who considered it pretty!"
He just bellowed laughter. "And I bet that was a hard knock for your vain little head, eh? Well you're in France now, and though the gypsy men mightn't find you so very beautiful, the Parisians will on the whole admire you. Though maybe they won't!" he added, thoughtfully. "Though they'd die as opposed to admit it, a lot of the French men find the exotic gypsy skin very bewitching!"
I grumbled. "Rub it in, why don't you?", but he laughed all the more.
"Mind, my little wife," he said, taking me by the arm and leading me from the tent "I don't mind at all if other men don't find you attractive!! Though I think you'll find they do. It's just that haughty air of yours that makes them all stay away. They're afraid you'll bite their heads off if they get too close!!"
I didn't like this conversation at all, it was painful for my ego, and I stuck my lower lip out and pouted.
"Hey now" he chuckled, guiding me around the tents. "Don't look so sorry for yourself. Admittedly fair women aren't normally my type, but you're intriguing enough to hold my attention."
Well it was something, and I gave him a smile as we reached the main exit of the Court. He continued:
"Also, you're far far too thin for my liking, but so long as I keep feeding you, you should plump up a little. Then I'll feel like I have a real woman under me!!"
He had to spoil it.As he laughed, I grimaced, very unamused. In India slim, petite women were the fashion. Over here, despite much tightening of corsets, a woman wasn't a woman unless she had many curves and bumps.
I turned around to find Chester following me - poor Chester! He hadn't had exactly a wonderful time since coming here, and I spent many long hours each day combing his fur and spoiling him to make up for it. I couldn't let him out on the streets just yet, not until I got to know it better myself.
"Go back to the tent, Chester, go on now!" I said firmly. He looked at me so sadly, but I'm sure he knew I did it for his own good.
He went back, clearly sulking, and Clopin grinned at me. Chester more or less tolerated Clopin, but they certainly weren't great friends. Chester was jealous of Clopin and would get a look of extreme irritation if Clopin so much as stroked my hair. Clopin for his part was always yelling out in frustration to find Chester on his bed, or sneaking away his supper, or just glaring at him as he went about his business.
"Thank Heavens I don't have to force civility with that kingly beast whilst we're on the streets!!! It's hard enough when we're back in our tent!" he said jokingly.
I laughed "Chester will grow to lov - er - Chester will grow to lik - hmm...Chester will grow to - er - accept you, dear!"
He shot me a look of gentle reproach. "Very funny, cherie." He took my hand and guided me along the narrow hewn stone passageway. "I did not intend to keep you locked away in the Court so long, sweet. But I thought it might be better if you settled in first, instead of bombarding your frazzled nerves with the streets of Paris!!" he said with a grin.
"Hmmm... Appreciated, I guess" I said uncertainly.
"You're going to find it very cold after India, you know."
"Yes, I remember," I said, with a shiver at the memory.
We'd reached the end of the passageway. Above was a trap-door, leading into a tavern where the publican was friendly with gypsies. He turned and looked at me with an eager smile.
"Here we are, ma petite!"
Throwing open the trap-door, he let in a variety of sounds and smells. The sweep of a broom, the filling of a tankard, the noisy rumble of men's voices, and the smell of beer and tobacco. He climbed up before me, his lithe body swinging up easily, then he turned and held out his hands. I took them and he hauled me up effortlessly.
We were clearly in a backroom of the tavern, barrels of beer and wine lining the walls. He shut the trapdoor and I saw it had been so carefully and cleverly made that you would't be able to see it against the floor unless you were looking for it.
My heart was beginning to beat hard in excitement, and I squeezed his hand eagerly. He smiled at me and kissed my hand affectionately, before leading me through the backroom, into another plain room, and from there into the main body of the tavern.
I was amazed to see so many there so early in the day, many having sought a moment's warmth from the chilly February streets of Paris. I realised it was probably nothing compared to how it would be tonight. Now, patrons were still calm, sitting around tables playing cards and talking quietly, as the Barmaid and the Publican (also a woman) busily cleaned and poured drinks.
Although the tavern itself was nothing spectatular or unusual, I felt a little shy, and already a little overawed. As in the Court, everyone seemed to know each other, and the room itself was huge. Clopin grasped my hand and took me over to the bar, smiling at the older woman, who was evidently the owner, or at least the boss, as she told the others what to do and handled all the money - she also had that general air of being in charge and important here. She caught sight of the two of us approaching and beamed at Clopin before giving a shout of welcome.
"Hi Clopin, bit early in the day, even for you, don't you think? What's this you've brought with you, she looks far too fine for you my boy!"
Clopin feigned insult and put his hand on his chest.
"Madame Paquette, you wound me!" he said mockingly. "I was always under the impression you held me in the highest regard!"
She gave a snort. "Oh yes, the highest, especially when you can't even walk home by yourself, and start calling me your darling Paquie!!" she said with much irony, before turning to me.
"Here, girl, what are you doing with rubbish like this one? You look as though you've far too much sense!"
Before I could reply Clopin dove in. "Madame Paquette, most honorable of all publicans, surely you've heard that Clopin Trouillefou is no longer a single man? The woman you see before you is none other than my wife, Herlikin-Elise Trouillefou!!"
She looked at him, unimpressed, for a moment before saying, "Ho, really, and what happened with the other one, then?"
Clopin's jaw tightened just a little.
"We no longer speak of that other one, Madame," he said stiffly. She gave another quiet snort before finally giving me a smile.
"You watch out for him, he's trouble if ever I saw it!"
I smiled stiffly back. I wasn't sure if I liked this woman or not yet. I observed her a few moments more - she must've been at least forty, though she was as yet unlined. She was plump, but not fat - only a little bigger than what was currently fashionable. Her hands were rough, and her mouth was hard, but her eyes were kind, and very pale blue. Her hair was a dirty blond color, very long, and wound up into an enormous bun on the top of her head. Her apron was dirty, but I could see the dress she wore beneath it was spotless, and well made.
She was hard to read as well. I couldn't tell if what she said about Clopin was gentle teasing, or genuine disapproval. So my answer consisted of a tight smile and a "I'm sure I can handle him, Madame."
She stared openly, though not unpleasantly, at me for a few minutes before turning back to Clopin.
"What are you having then, King?"
"The biggest mug of beer you have, Madame!"
"For you, Queen?" She was the first one to call me 'Queen', and it was said with irony!! I definitely didn't know how to take this woman. "Nothing, thank you," was my firm reply.
Clopin gave a shout. "Rubbish, nothing! You'll need something to warm your belly for when we go outside, little one. A glass of red wine, Madame Paquette, the best you can get your hands on in this rathole." She gave him a playful swat for that. "But make it just a little one, mind," he added with a wink at me, "the lovely lady is not altogether good at holding her drink yet!!"
It was not considered a marvellous talent for a woman to be able to drink like a man, but my cheeks still burned when he said it. When the wine came I sipped it slowly and didn't look or talk to him, although he kept up the cheery banter with Madame Paquette. He'd reached his third beer by the time I'd finished my first glass, but was no worse for it. When he saw my glass was empty he motioned for it to be refilled. I protested but he seemed not to hear it. I was beginning to wonder exactly when we'd be leaving and seeing what Paris looked like outside of the tavern. But my growing restlessness went unnoticed as Clopin drank and talked.
One of the little barmaids approached us then, and Clopin stood up, making her a very solemn bow.
"Good day to you, Mademoiselle Cosette!" he said formally, taking her hand and kissing it. She blushed and smiled shyly as I raised an inquistive eyebrow to Madame Paquette, who merely shook her head and rolled her eyes.
"Good day, Your Majesty," she said softly, through lowered eyelids. Clopin laughed at that.
"Your Majesty! I love it! No-one ever calls me that!" His laughter made the girl Cosette forget her shyness, for she raised her head more and smiled more broadly. Clopin resumed his seat, and motioned for Cosette to come closer. He brought me forward and spoke.
"Dear mademoiselle, it's an honor for me to introduce you to my wife, Herlikin-Elise!"
The young girl's eyes widened and she gazed at me in shock. All I could do was inwardly groan, for it was obviously another member of his harem. But I nodded and smiled at her and said, "A pleasure to meet you, mademoiselle."
She bobbed me a little curtsy. "And you too, Madame." Her voice was like a tinkle of little bells, sweet and pure. Her skin was paler even than mine, and her large blue eyes made her look like a frightened lamb. The little wisps of hair poking out from under her bonnet were extremely fair, and her eyebrows were almost invisible against her skin. Typically, I was comparing myself to her, and thought with pleasure of my own eyebrows which were perfectly shaped and arched finely over my eyes.
It was impossible to guess her age, although she was obviously not a child. Clopin all the while was watching me while I sized the girl up. His eyes were faintly amused, and his eyebrows raised, expression inquistive. I realised suddenly I had probably a very imperious expression on my face, both by the way he was looking at me, and the hot flush of color that was beginning to burn the girl's cheeks. I smiled hastily and turned back to my wine. She gave us another curtsy, and with one last longing look at Clopin, turned back to her work. He chuckled to me.
"Next time, try not to frighten her so. You looked like you were about to order her head cut off!!"
"It's just getting slightly wearying to be introduced to every moon-faced child who holds you in their sky, dear", I said sarcastically.
He clutched his chest in shock. "Don't tell me you're jealous, Herli!" he laughed.
"Please - " I began, when Clopin leapt from his chair, clapping his hands together.
"Right! Finished, ma cherie? It's time we were off!"
I glared at him. No, I wasn't finished, which he well knew, but I boldly drained my glass, and stood up, my challenging look meeting his own. Then with a nod to Madame Paquette, and taking my arm we moved towards the door.
As we got closer, I breathed harder, feeling a rush of excitement. My memories of Paris were dim, to say the least,and I had never seen snow before in my life. Clopin moved in front of me to gallantly hold the door open, and agust of icy wind met me as I stepped out into the city.
I gaped in amazement as I looked around. Paris is a fine city in the summer, but in winter it looks like a world of crystal. Everything blanketed in a fine layer of soft cold snow. Even here, in one of the simple trade streets, it seemed grand and imposing to me - everything black and white, even those who hurried about their business swathed in dark garments as snow speckled white kisses on their shoulders and heads.
Clopin moved to join me by my side, and I could see he was pleased at my amazement.
"Beautiful, no?" He said. I could only nod.
I looked down to my feet, already sinking in the white, and lifted them cautiously, admiring the way the snow fell apart.He moved in front of me, and took my hand to help me down the steps.
"Mind, love, it's slippery," he warned. I stepped carefully down,and then looked around again, finally smiling.
"It's incredible," I breathed. Even the sky seemed to glitter as the snow continued to fall.
He laughed softly. "Yes, I suppose it is," he agreed, taking my arm once more and beginning to guide me toward the end of the street.
I stumbled a little through this strange ground, but I barely noticed. The snow and wind made everything seem so quiet and still. Unreal. There were so few people about in this weather, the streets seemed so lifeless.
Clopin frowned as he looked around him. "The weather's worse than I expected, cherie. We won't stay out long, you'll catch your death.
" "I can handle it!" I protested.
"You say that now, cherie, just wait a little longer. I won't be peforming today - there'll be no-one to see it. I'll check my cart and make sure it isn't stuck in the snow, but I'm afraid a more detailed tour of Paris will have to wait until the temperature's more agreeable."
I had begun to notice just how very cold it was, and I pulled my cape tighter around me. The wind still teased my face mercilessly though, and I had to admit Clopin was right. I would have to wait.
But I wouldn't have missed even this brief visit for the world. I bent over to scoop the snow up in my hands and shivered at its biting cold, but it was so beautiful!
"Is it good to eat?" I asked him. He looked at me strangely.
"You have the most bizarre eating habits, love," he said, bemused, "but yes, I suppose it is all right to eat. I don't see it could hurt you."
I stuck my tongue out cautiously and tasted a little. It was freezing, but tasted just like water. I offered my hand to Clopin.
"Want some?" I asked him. He gave me another strange look, and shook his head.
I prepared to toss the handful back to the ground, but he grabbed my hand suddenly, so I was forced to face him, and looking directly into my eyes, he licked some of the snow from my hand.
He pulled a face. "It tastes like water!" He said "What a swindle!"
I laughed at him, and he shook his head again.
"Come on, we're practically in the town square now!" He grabbed my hand again and forced me to run with him.
Running in snow is not easy. "Clopin, stop!" I laughed.
"I'm just trying to make sure you stay warm, Herli!! Is that a crime?"
"It will be if I trip and fall face down in the cold!" I said. He laughed, and slowed down. We entered the square, and I'm sure he planned it very carefully. We entered so that the first thing I saw was the enormous Cathedral of Notre Dame - Our Lady.
If I was in awe before, I was dumbstruck now. There were many beautiful and elaborate buildings in India, but I had never been so close to one as I had been to this Cathedral. I moved forward automatically, gaping upwards in complete amazement. The Cathedral was elaborate and beautifully executed, reaching straight up for the heavens. Covered in snow, glimmers of stone peeked out from under the white. An amazingly imposing and powerful building, it none the less had grace and an air of serenity. I kept moving forward, unaware of anything around me, able only to look up the pillars and carvings, the windows winking at me like many eyes.
Clopin whispered in my ear and his breath was warm on my cheek. I savoured it as he said:
"I will tell you stories about the Great Cathedral of Notre Dame one day.It is said, not three years ago, Judge Claude Frollo took a devil and ordered him to ring the bells."
Although I have belief in the supernatural, I'm not of the Christian faith. Yet in the presence of this magnificent building, I felt a little shiver go through me.
"A devil?" I repeated in a whisper. He took advantage of my awe to snake his arm around my waist, his body pressing into me from behind. His voice took on a deeper timbre as he continued.
"A devil. A hideous deformed creature who possessed the body of a small boy. Frollo ordered he ring the Cathedral bells as penance for his sins. When the night is very still and quiet you can hear the screech of his unholy voice ride on the wind with the bells, as they do battle against one another - the earthly voice of God and the mortal form of the devil, clamouring against one another in a supernatural symphony."
His voice was bewitching and I listened rapturously.
"That is what is said. I, however, know the true story!"
"What is it?" I asked eagerly. He broke his hold on me and moved away.
"Another time, cherie. I'll tell you the whole story." His voice resumed its usual tone and he looked at me slyly. I knew he had enthralled me deliberately with the intention to leave me hanging and I shoved him crossly.
"That depends on whether or not you're a good story-teller!" 
He laughed. "I'm the best in Paris, cherie, you'll not find that disputed anywhere!"
"I'll bet," I grumbled. He laughed again.
"I remember a little girl who told all she was the best at everything. It was never proven, of course."
Hmmmm....
"Who was she?" I grumbled, thinking I knew.
"Oh you knew her too, you knew her very well. Though you might not recognise her today. She's all grown-up. But you need only speak with her to realise she is the same!" He smiled at me,and took my hand. I wrested it from him.
"I've barely associated with you, sir, I find it hard to believe we both knew this girl."
"Alright, alright, you're not in the mood to play games. Come on, I'll show you my cart."
I let him take my hand this time, and he took me into a small side street where he stored his cart when not in use. It was rather large, and although painted and decorated to look like a puppet cart, I thought it had once been a caravan.
"There was a time when I was a nomad," he told me, as he unlocked the door. "I used this to get around in. But when my - when it was time for me to take over the Court, I had no use for it anymore. So now I perform from here."
I'd noticed the catch in his voice when he'd been about to say "when my father died" and I felt sorry for Clopin. At least my parents were still alive.
The cold had beginning to bite me very hard, and I was feeling grateful we were going indoors until I discovered the interior was about as cold as the outside had been. Clopin lit a few candles on the small table, and I gasped in delight to see all the little puppets and painted sceneries.
"You like it, then?" he asked. I smiled and squeezed his hand in response and he moved to show me the various puppets. I noticed a door in the wall and moved over to investigate. "Yes - I put a petition in. That's why it's so small here. On the other side is where I perform from. I cut a large window in the other wall. I set up before a show, through this door here, and then when it's time, I just go on the other side and raise the curtain in the window."
"It's very clever," I told him truthfully, and he looked pleased. He'd created all his players very carefully, the attention to detail was beautiful, though I didn't recognise any of the characters. There was one in a judge's clothes, various indiscriminate soldiers and gypsy types, a priest, some shop-keepers and women. I supposed he had based some of these on people within the city.I moved to another table, and found the characters here more recognisable.
There were devils and angels, a mermaid and a sea monster, a wolf and girl with a red cape - in short, characters from faery tales.
All the while he watched me carefully from a stool, but I pretended not to notice as I gently touched the little figures. I looked up at him finally and smiled.
"They're beautiful," I told him.
He nodded. "Thank you, madame."
I looked around again before moving towards him. "Is this all you do?" I asked.
"No no. I am Master of Ceremonies at all festivals! I am the leader and champion in the pursuit of fun and entertainment!!"
"I'm sure!" I grinned. With a swift momevment he pulled me onto his lap. "It's true!!! Without me,those festivals would be dull and lifeless!!!"
"Dull AND lifeless? My Goodness, the citizens of Paris must thank their lucky stars for you!"
He raised his hand modestly. "It's true. But I don't like to brag!"
I laughed and whacked him in the chest. He pretended to be confused.
"I don't understand why the lovely lady laughs!" he said, wrinkling his brow. "Is it possible I am so brilliant I entertain her even when sitting down?"
I giggled, and, taking his face in both hands, I kissed his nose. He responded with a kiss on the lips and with the thought that a little kiss couldn't hurt, I sat placidly on his knee still. He saw that and kissed me again, his hands now reaching beneath my cape to hold me around me waist.I felt something stir beneath me and when I realised what it was I knew what his intentions were. I pushed his hands away and leapt off his knee, apprehension and anger thudding in my blood.
"Absolutely not on the street!" I shouted wildly at him before running out of the puppet cart, and through the snow, back the way we came. I was half way across the square when he caught up with me. By that time I'd slowed to a walk, but I didn't look at him.
"We weren't on the street, Herlikin," he said stiffly.
"We practically were!" I threw at him.
He sighed and grimaced. "What the hell am I supposed to do with you?" he asked grimly. I glanced at him then, and though he stared straight ahead I saw his jaw was clenched tight, and so were his fists. He was genuinely angry, and I felt a little flutter go through me.
"It was also stupid of you to run off like that. How did you expect to find your way back, especially in this weather?"
I pointed to the ground.
"Following our foot-prints, of course!" I snapped.
"The prints are being covered with snow right now, smarty!" he snapped back.
We walked the rest of the way back in silence. Madame Paquette raised an eyebrow as we both stomped through the tavern, and in a moment of lost control I poked my tongue out fiercely at her. She looked surprised before turning away again, with a disinterested shrug.
 

By the time we reached our tent, he'd calmed down somewhat and so had I. We still weren't in the humor to talk with one another, though, and he made a feeble excuse about needing to speak to Jean-Luc for a while, before storming away.
I flounced into the tent and plonked myself down on the cushions burying my face in Chester's fur, who raised his head to give me a warm and comforting kiss.
"Men are all brutes!" I told him. "Except for you."
I stroked his head gently and wondered what the time was. I knew that Colombine had stayed in the Court today, and I thought I would go and visit with her.
"Come on Chester, let's go my love," I said, pulling myself to my feet and guiding him out with me.
It was late afternoon I decided, as I observed what activity was happening within the Court. I nodded and smiled to a few I passed including Jean-Luc, I was interested to note, with no sight of Clopin anywhere nearby.
Jean-Luc's cultured accent intrigued me. Having observed him in better light than my first day, I realised he wasn't Romany. I wondered how he'd come to be here and why the others accepted him, but he didn't intrigue me enough that I ever remembered to ask. And at that moment I was far more interested in the fact that Clopin had lied. But I didn't say anything, only waved and smiled as I passed by.
"You see Chester?" I said to the great tiger. "Lying brutes!"
People had become accustomed to Chester's prescence within the Court, and he did not warrant as many stares as he had previously. But few had courage to pet him or approach him as yet. I knew the circumstances unsettled him, both being constantly undergound,and bein constantly sidled around. Those in India had healthy respect for him, but they did not fear him. That people were so palpably wary of him disturbed him, for he was not sure why. As a result his temper was flighty, and he treated others with the same wariness they treated him. For this reason I was glad no-one made too great an effort to come close to him. A tiger on his defences is an unpredictable animal and I didn't need Romanies with big tiger holes in them on my conscience. Nor did I need the inevitable execution of my oldest friend as a result. I was regretful that he was forced to live this way, and many times I wondered if I should've left him in India, where he'd been happy and comfortable.
Colombine was sitting outside her tent,embroidering one of her pantomime costumes and she saw me coming. She greeted me with a big smile until she saw the dark frown on my face.
"Uh oh. I have a feeling that a certain skinny goateed king has been - well, breathing in your general area."
"Don't talk to me about skinny goateed kings," I exclaimed, throwing myself down beside her. "A pox on them all! They can all go to Hell! Furthermore, they can all go to Hell and die!"
 

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

BACKNEXT