Chapter Nine

I was serious, but she began to giggle anyway. I tried to frown at her, but she laughed all the more. I sighed in exasperation and rolled onto my back.
"Hey now, don't be lying around like that!" she said severely. "You'll psotively scandalise old Tante Marie should she walk past!"
I gave her a grudging smile.
"And don't be using language like that either!" she continued. "Imagine, a pure and sweet young woman like yourself knowing such words as "hell" and "pox"!!"
I finally gave a little laugh.
"Well, 'pure and sweet' is not far off," I said grouchily. "Though I'm not sure they're altogether accurate. Perhaps frigid and prudish are more on the mark."
She looked at me in bewildered amazement for a moment, before laying her needlework aside and grasping my hands.
"This I have to hear!" she said "Come in, the Court has ears everywhere."
"And eyes and teeth and fur too!" I said. It made me laugh but she just shook her head.
"You're a very strange person, Herli," she said as she pushed me down on the cushions. I took Chester's head in my lap and scratched his ear. "But that's why I love you."
With a wink, she closed the tent flap. Colombine's tent was small and she liked it kept dark, but she had a great deal of possessions, due to her inability to resist what took her fancy. There was always a smell of sandalwood, not from incence, but from the many little carved figures she kept scattered around. She liked color, but the hues of her furnishings were barely visible in the dim light. I knew if she had more candles around we'd look like we were inside a rainbow of sorts. A mound of her black-and-white costumes covered her bed. I often wondered where she slept at night.
"Now, tell me what's troubling you," she said, sitting before me and taking my hands in her own. She often did that when she was trying to get me to open up to her. "Why would you, Miss Passion Incarnate, call yourself prudish and frigid? Has that brute Clopin been bullying you?"
I paused for a moment. Should I confide in Colombine this shameful secret? Would she laugh? Would she tell anyone? In the two odd weeks since meeting her I'd grown to trust her more than a good many people I'd known in my life. I'd looked into her eyes often and held her hand many times, and my perception of people following these actions was rarely wrong. (And before you bring Clopin into it, at that point I was unsure, for he mostly wore gloves and I hardly ever looked into his eyes). I looked at her a moment longer and decided to take the chance.
"First off, my "passion" manifests itself mainly in my temper."
She grinned "Noted. But there's a fire of sensuality in you somewhere, I've seen it!!"
I raised my eyebrows. "Maybe. Or maybe once. I thought so too. I don't know anymore. Coming here has played havoc with me, I'm not altogether sure who I am anymore!"
"Well, it just means you're changing. You're young yet, you can't expect to be everything you will be. I have to say, I've noted a few changes in you, and they're for the better. You were a cold distant little fish when you first got here. The ice is melting now."
"Gee, thanks," I said wryly. She laughed.
"Here now, don't be cranky! This is what I mean - you're always on defence. But you're starting to relax. Note - I said starting. Now, what's Clopin been saying to you? Can't he bend you every way he wants to? And I don't mean to his will!"
"He's been saying nothing he hasn't a right to say," I said and then I told her how we had not yet been together as man and woman. Her eyes widened till I thought they would fall out as I told her of the wedding night, and the nights after, and also of the events in the Puppet Cart today.
"You're joking with me!" she breathed when finished. I shook my head, and bit my lip.
"Good God, Herli, no wonder he's been walking around as tense as a coiled spring!"
"You're not helping," I told her through gritted teeth.
"To be honest, I wasn't even sure if you were a virgin or not!" she told me. "I'm not, not many of the girls here are. But to keep on even after being married to him - Lord almighty!! Why are you so afraid??"
"I don't know!" I told her helplessly, and felt tears prick behind my eyes. I forced them back down again. Silly to cry over this. She squeezed my hands tight.
"Here now, don't be too upset. At least he hasn't forced himself all over you, and I tell you Herli, most men would've in his situation."
"I know," I gulped.
"You see, it must mean he at least respects you a great deal to put up with it," she told me gently. "You should be grateful for that, but don't take it for granted. He won't put up with it forever."
"I know" I said. And I did know. His patience would run out, and even though I knew it would come, I just couldn't bring myself to do it yet.
"And I might add, forcing himself on you wouldn't be the worst thing. He might seek satisfaction elsewhere..." she told me warningly.
"Somehow I think that would be better than forcing himself on me," I told her. "At least in my view."
"You say that now," she said, and I remembered Tante Marie saying something similar a while back.
"You Parisian Gypsies have a funny way of thinking," I told her, finally relaxing a little and leaning back on the cushions. She smiled and shook her head at me.
"Not so funny as some," she retorted.
"Humph. Oh - and then there's the matter of him lying to me today. He told me he was going to speak with Jean-Luc, but I saw Jean-Luc and the Honorable King was nowhere to be seen."
"After you got back?"
"Yes."
"Forget it. He's probably gone off on his own to work his temper out. Go back and cook dinner up for him. He'll come back, his usual sweet self and you'll be teasing each other like usual."
"No. If I go back and do all that he'll think I'm ready for it."
"Herli, Herli, Herli. You have to go back at some stage. Better to be back before he is. You'll look like a good girl then."
"I don't want to be a good girl!!" I said in exasperation. "It's extremely boring!!"
She laughed. We sat in silence for a few minutes more, both of us lost in our own thoughts. My mind wandered over the last few weeks and the progress I'd seemed to be making with my husband. Today it appeared I'd taken us back to square one. I felt sulky again.
"He wasn't even there to meet me when I arrived," I said petulantly.
She glanced up. "He wasn't? Ah of course. That was the day he helped Isabelle out of Paris - oh!"
She didn't realise what she'd said until she'd said it, but I pounced on it straight away.
"So that's what happened, was it?" I asked crossly. "Helping his lost love!"
"That's right, Herli, helping her *leave*!!" she stressed to me. "She told him to go to Hell and she couldn't stand the sight of him anymore, and she demanded he help her out of Paris!"
"Lovely!" I snapped. "His future wife arrives cold and wet and sick and he's off helping some spoilt brat to escape into the country!"
She didn't say anything to that, just looked at me. I glared at her.
"I am not a spoilt brat! Not as much as she is anyway!"
"You don't even know her."
"I don't need to." I'd risen to my feet and was pacing angrily."I bet she knew that was the day I arrived as well!"
"I don't think it was an accident, no," she said softly.
"Tell me everything!" I demanded. She shook her head.
"I wasn't here then, remember? I only know what the others have told me. Herli, it doesn't matter, she's long gone now and Clopin will get over it. Besides which, I thought you didn't care!"
"I don't!" I stormed angrily. "I just don't like - it's just - well - "
"You like to be number one!" she told me with a grin. "Just like him. Herli, please, forget it. I know he's trying to. Go back to your tent, calm down and both of you be friends. You won't be able to keep your hands off each other soon enough, you'll see."
She turned away then, to look over her costumes. I knew it was my cue to go, and I pulled a terrible face at her back. 
"And don't pull faces at me!" she called out as I left. I grumbled all the way back to the tent.

Colombine was right. Clopin returned in a much better mood and smiled at me amiably as he came in. After a long and fierce debate with myself I had finally fixed dinner, and I saw he was very pleased. When I saw that, I decided it had been better to do so. It made everything much more pleasant. When I'd finished cleaning the dishes I asked him if we were going to the Court Center tonight.
"No," he said, filling his pipe. "Not tonight. Tonight I relax here. You can go if you like."
I looked at him in surprise.
"What?" he said. "it's not unusual for one partner to go without the other. It's not frowned upon."
"I wouldn't feel comfortable. I don't know anyone." I said. He snorted. "Just go sit with Colombine. You'll be fine."
"Do you want me to go?" I asked. He looked up, this time he was surprised.
"Am I trying to get rid of you, you mean? Don't be silly. I just want you to understand you're not chained to the tent."
"I move about a lot during the day!" I begun defensively. 
He interrupted me. "I know, Herlikin. I wasn't implying you didn't. Stop jumping to conclusions."
There was silence for a while after that, which got increasingly difficult to bear. He must've thought so too, for he looked at me and gave a short laugh.
"What?" I asked.
"Just us, love. Sitting here pulling faces at each other. Let's have a drink."
He hopped up, grabbed the wine and a couple of glasses and came to sit down next to me. He poured us each a glass and then raised his.
"No more fighting" he said. I looked at him for a minute and then smiled and clinked my cup against his.
"Alright then," I agreed. We drank and smiled at each other again.

So Clopin and I agreed - no more fighting!! But there were plenty of - let's call them "heated discussions". But we had our fun also. For several days it remained too cold in Clopin's opinion for me to go out, and indeed, many of the Court stayed under.Neither Clopin nor Colombine performed for several days, and it wasn't long before the three of us felt extremely claustrophobic.
"I don't know why you're so restless, Herli," Colombine grumbled two days later, as we three sat up on the stage, looking out over the Court. "You're here every day from beginning to end."
"Sure, rub it in" I replied. "Anyway,I'm restless because all these people are here in my Court and I don't have as much room to move around in as usual."
She turned to me with a grin.
"Oh no! They're so evil, aren't they, imagine the nerve! Staying in their homes during intolerable weather, and inconveniencing you!"
I sniffed. "Yes, you think I like the Court to be so full my skirts should brush against someone wherever I turn? It's unforgivable!"
Clopin laughed.
"And yet this weather seems to have had a good effect on your temper! I rather fancied you'd rip out poor Colombine's lungs after that little dig!" I poked my tongue out at him. He peered closely at my mouth.
"You know, Madame, there's a little pink bug who lives your mouth, and lately he's been appearing more and more frequently. I fancy he gets in the way of Madame's witty retorts."
Without meaning to I poked my tongue out again. Clopin pounced on me, and covering my face with his huge hands tried to wrest my mouth apart.
"Never fear Herli!" he said gallantly. "I shall pluck him from your mouth! He will torment you no longer!"
I grasped at his hands helplessly and tugged on Colombine's skirts to get her to assist - but she only laughed. Clopin and I wrestled for a few moments longer and he managed to open my mouth a little way, but I bit him as soon as a finger entered it.
"Ouch!" he exclaimed pulling his hands back. "You little savage!!"
I sat back panting, and laughed at him.
"Yes. Yes I am," I said agreeably. Colombine stood up, dusting off her skirts. "Come on you two zanies!" she said. "let's go to Paquette's Tavern - it's warm there and we won't be so bored."
"Sure - we'll move from one crowded space to a smaller crowded space. Brilliant, Col," Clopin said sarcastically, picking himself off the floor, and hauling me to my feet. She only slapped him and started to lead the way.
We went the way Clopin and I had done before - that is, through the floorboards. Clopin was right - the Tavern was very crowded and noisy, but I especially was glad of the change. I peeked at the new faces from under my cloak and watched Clopin greet his friends enthusiastically, a lot of young, drunken boys whose names I promptly forgot.
Colombine was quite comfortable here, and waved cheerfully to some of the other gypsies over in a corner. Several of Clopin's friends recognised Colombine from her performances, and within a few moments she had fought her way to the bar which she perched cheerfully on and let the boys buy her drinks and woo her in French, thinking she would be an easy victory, not knowing she understood little of what they said. She spoke to them in Romany, which they didn't understand, mimicking their affectionate tone and I laughed to hear what she said.
"You're so stupid," she crooned, caressing one boy's cheek. "I would like to spit on your head. But then I think, you are too stupid even for that. I will pity you and let you buy me drinks, you poor sad fool..."
But they believed this wild beauty to be in earnest, so they continued to ply her with drinks, each attempting to outdo the other with stories and jokes. She gestured for me to join her on the bar, and I jumped up and sat beside her. They knew better than to try their tricks with me, Clopin being so close by, so after a few compliments they left me alone.
"It's a laugh, isn't it?" Colombine said to me in Romany. "I have no idea what they're saying and they have no idea what I'm saying."
"You needn't worry about what they're saying," I replied. "They're praising your beauty and your charm and grace and telling you all about how many Englishmen they've killed, and how many dragons they've fought, and how many mugs of beer they can drink in an hour."
She laughed. "Men are fools," she told me. "They'll be supplying my drinks until closing time and I won't be going home with any of them. Poor, deluded fools."
I accepted a drink, and took a large sip. I wrinkled my nose. It was beer. Still, Colombine was drinking away, and Clopin,leaning on the bar besides me, was happily quenching his thirst too, so I shrugged and took another drink.
"You know," Colombine said, leaning in close to me, "Clopin doesn't understand much Italian..." She winked and nudged me in the ribs. I understood what she was getting at and leaned forward to drape my arms around my husband, who turned to me in surprise.
"Big-nosed one," I said with affection in Italian, "you are knock-kneed and gangly and your goatee makes your chin look too long."
He raised an eyebrow.
"Oh really?" he asked me in Italian, and my mouth fell open in horror.
Colombine, meanwhile, was laughing heartily besides me, holding her sides. I whacked her hard.
"You brute!" I screamed. "How could you?"
She tried to answer through the tears of laughter pouring down her cheeks. "I didn't know, I swear, Herli," she cried. "He didn't know it before!!"
"No, I decided I should pick it up!" Clopin said dryly, turning to face her. "I had a suspicion that the expression in your face masked what you were truly saying, and I hate being made a fool of, you know."
She could only laugh, nearly falling off the bar in her merriment. I gave her a shove, feeling quite vicious. Clopin shook his head at me and stared at her, seemingly unamused.
"It's alright, Herli, you don't have to apologise, I know she set you up," he told me, dismissing her and focusing on me.
"I wasn't about to apologise!" I exclaimed. "It was only a joke!!"
He gave a little laugh. "Does it really make my chin look too long?" he said in mock dismay, stroking his goatee, but I thought I could see something else in his eyes. I realised he might have been genuinely hurt by what I said, so I put my hands on both his shoulders and looked straight at him.
"No it doesn't. None of what I said is true, it was just a joke, Clopie, really."
He pulled a face. "Don't call me 'Clopie'. Here, I'll get you another drink," and gestured to Madame Paquette who muttered something under her breath. She and her girls were being run off their feet with the number of customers there today, but within a few minutes Clopin and I had another tankard of beer each. The second didn't taste so bad as the first, and I got it down quite quickly. Clopin laughed at me.
"Another one?" he asked.
"Why not?" I said, feeling quite merry. "Everyone else is drinking drinking drinking away. I feel left out."
He chuckled and was about to say something when Colombine stuck her head in between us.
"Aww, please don't be cranky at me!!" she cried."It was all in good fun!" She toasted us with her glass and returned her attention to the young men gathered around her. It seemed several of them could speak Italian quite well, and pretence was dropped as they all chatted and tried to speak over one another. Clopin chuckled as he watched her.
"She's had too much to drink, again" he told me, leaning his arm on my lap and pulling his hat off his head.
"I better make sure I don't do the same!" I giggled over the top of my mug. He smiled at me.
"I think you already have," he whispered confidentially.
"No!!" I protested. "I can handle as much as you!"
His next look was incredulous. "Now I would like to see that!" he scoffed.
"I could do it" I said confidently.
Two of the young men whose linguistic skills were limited to French came over to join us.
"So Trouillefou, you've left the carefree days of bacherlorhood behind then, eh?" one asked jovially. I stuck my nose up at him.
"Indeed I have, Jehan, to join the even more carefree days of marriage!"
"Bah!" the one called Jehan spat, a dirty scrap with long blonde hair. "There's nothing carefree about marriage. It's all nagging, and handing out money, and giving everything to only one lady, only to have her grow old and fat and ugly!"
Needless to say, I wasn't taking to Jehan.
"On the contrary," Clopin said, smiling at him. "You get all your meals cooked, your clothes attended to, and this ravishing creature to share your bed every night!" He gave me a wink, and put his arm around my waist.
"Aye, she's pretty enough," the other said, looking me over. "A little undernourished, but she'll plump up."
"I thought you didn't like wives to get fat," I snapped at him and Clopin laughed.
"That's my little firefly!" he said warmly in Romany.
The other shrugged over my remarks. "When men and women are fat they all look alike," he told me. "Same as when they're too thin. A thin woman looks like a young boy!"
I flushed deep scarlet, although he was wrong to say this. My curves were there for any to see, but he'd clearly resented my retort and repaid me in kind. For that reason I held my temper.
"I can assure you that Herli has everything a woman needs," Clopin told his companions. Jehan gave him a knowing nod.
"She's very pale for a Romany, Trouillefou. I didn't think she'd be the type you'd take for a wife."
Clopin stood back a little to look at me. "She's very fair-skinned, yes. More so than when she arrived here. It's because she's been confined underground so long. Don't worry," he said to me "when spring arrives you can go out and play in the sun again."
"In the meantime she looks like a fish's belly!" Jehan exclaimed and the other laughed so hard he snorted drink out his nose. I'd had enough by this point and tried to jump down from the bar. Clopin tried to hold me back.
"They've drunk too much," he said in my ear. "They dont' know what they're saying."
"It doesn't matter!!" I hissed back and scratched his hands with my nails till he let me go. I jumped down and stormed away to a corner and sat down in a recently vacated seat. I turned back and saw that Clopin was speaking savagely to his two companions, and flattered myself he was defending me. It brought me a little satisfaction, but I still did not feel any inclination to return.
It didn't matter. While I sulked over my drink, he came up to join me. "Those two silly boys send their apologies" he said, grinning.
"Humph" was my only response and he knelt down before me. "Come on, cherie, you hardly think two drunk young men are going to come up to a Romany girl and apologise? They're not close friends of mine, and whilst they cheerfully drink with us and take advantage of our women, they're not going to suffer themselves to say sorry."
I only pouted and he shook his head.
"Now now, little one. They won't do it again. I gave them a fair warning, and all gypsy men are scoundrels, don't you know? I'm the King of Thunes. They're too afraid of my wicked temper and my little dagger to insult my lovely wife again." He grinned at me and pinched my cheeks and won a little smile.
"Come on," he said, taking hold of my hands. "Let's go. I want to show you something."
"What about Colombine?" I said as he led me to the back room.
"She'll be alright. If she isn't back by the evening, we'll come and look for her. I promise."
We went down into the Court again and I felt sorely disappointed. Clopin's eagerness and easy, graceful movements had led me to think we might be going somewhere special, but of course, such energy was typical of him.
"I hate to disappoint you, darling," I said sarcastically, "but I walk through here every day."
"It's not this, smarty!" he said, giving me a shove. "It's something else.And it is special."
We smiled and said hello to Christophe, he who provided the whole court with meat, and his wife Miriam. We stealthily bypassed Tante Marie's tent, neither of us wanting to get coerced into conversation with her, and then we waved to "La Chantefleurie" and her daughter Esmeralda, who was just five years old. We'd reached the Court Center, and the large wooden stage. Clopin looked around with exaggerated surreptiousness to make sure we weren't watched and I laughed and told him to stop. He smiled at me, and motioned to me to move to the back of the stage.
"Alright, so I make a joke, but it's true, little one. I haven't shown this to anyone before. Others probably know about it, but I only ever find myself there."
We slipped behind one of the large drapes covering the stone wall at the back of the stage, and climbed up into a little space in the rock. It was dark until Clopin struck some flint he evidently kept there and lit a small candle. I looked at him with interest.
"So why am I special enough to see this secret place, Your Majesty?"
He shrugged. "I don't know, little Queen. I just felt like it. Look," - he showed me childish chalk drawings on the walls - "I've hidden up here ever since I was a child. Whenever I got annoyed or bored I would come up here and tell myself stories. I made my first puppet here and planned my first real tale to tell. I also watched how all of my tricks played out. Look!"
The little space was close to a corner of the drapes which hung in front of it, and he pushed it aside a little way. I gasped when I realised I could see the entire court from this place. The Court Center was simply a title for it, for it was actually beyond all the tents, with only stone behind it. The main entrance (from the graveyard) was off to the side of the stage. Then in front of the stage was the large open space where the gypsies gathered of an evening, or for special occasions. The Tents, which were personal tents and ones where people gathered for baths and trade, were arranged in "streets" fanning out to the back of the Court. The hundreds of fires and candles gave the whole place a very warm glow, and of course it was entirely sheltered from the outside world. Gypsies love color and beautiful fabric, so what I beheld was a dazzling sight.
"I've never seen it from this angle before," I told him, and he smiled, stretching out his long, lean body beside me.
"Once," he said, "Bethan, the one who provides us with most of our fabrics and who does alot of the embroidery and dying, you've met her?" I nodded. "Well once, I put some purple dye in with her white linen. I came up here to watch how she reacted! I swear to you, some of the stones in the roof were loosened by her screaming." I giggled. "Then another time I told my younger sister Aloise to tell her little friend Henriette that your good Tante Marie's bosom confidante Josephina was fooling around with the honorable Mistress Marguerite's husband (Josephina at that time being still unmarried). Anyway little Henriette went and told her little friend Agnes, who told her mother Guillemette who told Sophie who told Marguerite! My Goodness!!! The ears that were boxed and the hair that was pulled!!! I thought I'd covered my tracks so well, but no! It was all traced back to me, and my excellent mother gave me the whipping of my life!"
I laughed outright then. "I didn't know you had a younger sister."
"Oh no. She probably wasn't here when you were. She's nomad, travels around, comes back when she feels like it. Same with those younger brothers of mine. You'll meet them, though I couldn't tell you when."
He continued telling me the stunts he'd pulled as a young boy, keeping me thoroughly entertained. At one point I wondered how long we'd been up here, but Clopin's storytelling distracted me and I listened, paying little heed to anything else. He came to the end of one and fell silent. I followed his lead by stretching out beside him.
"Now, lovely madame!" he said, turning to me with a smile. "Tell me tales of your devilment! And don't shake your head for I know there was some!!"
"No no!" I protested. "I have nothing to tell. Truly, my tales are not so much fun as yours, you don't want to hear them!!"
"I disagree, cherie, I most certainly do! Now, I have bared my soul to you, you must do the same!"
"Really, Clopin," I said, growing uncomfortable, "what I did was not so fun as you!"
"All right," he relented, opening his palms in resignation. "But you must tell me one day!" he shot back, waggling a finger at me.
"Maybe," I said, and we smiled together. "So," I said, turning to look at his little chalk pictures, "you've been coming here all your life?"
"Mm-hmm - just about. Since I was about eight years old. It is my place of retreat and rest. As a boy I loved learning my acrobatics, but it wasn't all I wanted to do. So I came up here and created my stories."
"Stories you are now famous all over Paris for!" I joked, and he nodded seriously.
"You will see, little one. You will see. It is also-" - here he hesitated before continuing - "it is also the place I come when I am sad or need to think."
I burst out laughing. "You? Sad? I believe a smile has been chiselled onto your face. As for thinking - your body is far too much in action to allow your brain much time to think!"
 

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

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