It was near eleven when I, nearly asleep on my horse, looked around me and became aware that the woods were becoming more familiar, and a few moments more brought the elegant Blakeney home into my sight, meaning my own home was very near...and my own Suzanne...
Fatigue gone, my heart beating fast at the thought of her, and imagining her face..she did not expect me home...I rode faster, pushing on my horse, eager to be home. Home.
But, when I drew near to the house, I nearly ran down a young woman and her swain who were, ah, otherwise engaged than in watching where they were going, and there were far more horses in my stables than my own could account for, and several carriages, and there were voices and lights filling the whole house...
I made a quick calculation in my head and clapped a hand to my brow in frustration at my own stupidity. Of course...it was December 24th, 1793. It was so easy to lose track of time in France, with constant travel, days that blurred together, and of course the ridiculous new calendar...the conversion of which to our own no one, not even Blakeney, had yet mastered. It was not surprising that, her first Christmas in her new home -- my home, I thought, feeling again that warm swell of joyous disbelief, that it was her home and my home, our home, that she had married me -- little Suzanne should host a celebration...indeed, now that I thought of it, it seemed I could remember something of that sort...she had told me, had suggested we hold a party, subtly asking, with her downcast eyes and nervous fingers, if I would be home for Christmas. I had been too occupied with trying to imagine how to gently tell her that no, I would not -- Blakeney would have need of most of us, for in some perverse way the executions seemed to increase around Christmas-- to remark the idea. And so now she had guests, and must play the hostess for another hour or so at least, and I...
I will not pretend there weren't other things I could have done. I had a letter for Marguerite that I could have delivered, although I hoped against hope that she was asleep, or perhaps even here at the party, rather than sitting up...and I must put the letter into her own hands, both to prevent any curious servant from reading more than they should and so that, after reading Percy's cheerful descriptions of Paris and soft endearments, she might raise her swimming eyes to me and ask, frantically, how he *really* was, what risks he was *truly* running, and how far her poor, bruised heart might dare to hope. There were many chores I might have accomplished...I might, after all, have crept in, made my way to my own room where no guests would be, and caught up on a fortnight or so of sleep...but some demon had hold of me, a little bit of mischief, and also a tired longing for my wife. Besides, Percy had ribbed me rather unmercifully about my lack of disguise skills after last week, and it would be a fine story to tell him..
Mud, hay and a horse blanket, all readily available in the stables, completed my disguise, and leaving my fine coat neatly folded in Dawnbright's stall I was slinking, like any noisome old tramp, toward the kitchen door. Once there, I rapped sharply -- old Martha opened the door, not recognizing me, and snapped that if I'd come back in an hour or so, they'd have a bit of something for me, but if I wanted more than food I'd best vacate immediately.
The hardest thing for all of us was the attempt to equal Blakeney's almost uncanny ability to alter his voice and adopt any accent, any inflection, of anyone at all...I struggled to make my voice old, weak, and above all French.
"Ees ze lady Foolkes at home?"
Good, dear Martha had known where I went, what I did, and half-guessed who Percy was for at least a year and a half..she considered this some kind of intrinsic betrayal on her part, although I verily believe she would not have revealed this information anymore than any of us would have, and thus went about with a perpetual air of having her eyes deliberately closed. Her eyes widened now on the recognition of my accent, and with a quick glance over her shoulder to ascertain the other servants were still occupied she stepped a little outside and lowered her voice to a harsh whisper.
I shook my head, waggling my finger.
"Not for all to know, cit'yenne, not for all to know...but you weel go and fetch 'er, yes? I must speak with her. Urgent message from France."
Martha opened her mouth, closed it, went ashen pale, and waddled swiftly away, leaving me rather remorseful for my little joke.
I idled a few moments, ducking out of the view of guests and sniffing wistfully, like any genuine tramp, at what smelled like the remains of a rather good supper...I had not eaten since leaving France early this morning. Then there were sudden soft footsteps, and my wife appeared round the corner of the house.
She was in a gorgeous ballgown, her hair dressed high, her cheeks delicately flushed with the heat of the ballroom and now the bite of the frigid air...it was December, snow dusting the ground, a bitter chill in the air, and she had not even put on a cloak before running outside to speak with the man who must have brought news of her husband...news that, judging from her face, she thought to be bad. I was now feeling *very* guilty.
I saw her so rarely in her own element, as the wife of a baronet and the daughter of a Comte...there was a delicate hauteur in her bearing now as she came forward, a wisp of pride and arrogance. She advanced with slow, steady steps, although from the swift rise and fall of her breath and her slight disarray I guessed she had run to the corner and then paused a moment, gathering herself, before coming into my realm of vision.
"You wished to see me, sir?" Her voice was steady, and she kept her distance so she need not look up to me too much. I loved her intensely.
"Indeed, I did, citoyenne," I creaked in reply, careful to keep up the accent, although I could hear the tremor in my own voice engendered by her nearness, her closeness. I was so happy to be home.
"My woman said you had news for me. News from," she faltered, only the slightest, "from France."
"Where your husband is, n'est-ce pas, little citoyenne?"
She drew herself up.
"That is not your affair, sir. If you have news, tell it..else, you may go to the kitchens for a meal, spend the night in the stables and be on your way."
With relief I at last dropped the accent, taking a step toward her so suddenly that she drew back in initial alarm, before she could comprehend what her husband's voice issuing from this strange apparition meant.
"I had hoped to sleep in my own bed, after near a week away from it..," I was conscious of a sudden warm flush on my face as I continued, "and the stables are lonely.."
Her mouth opened, closed, and with a sudden half smothered scream of delight she leapt into my arms, twining hers round my neck till I was half smothered, and I covered her hair with kisses.
The kisses were cut abruptly short when her tiny fist plunged into my stomach.
"Andrew, that was CRUEL! I thought...bad news from France, I thought..."
I tried to kiss her repentantly...she knew what I wanted and so danced just out of reach, meandering about as I followed her in vain, she denouncing me in an enchanting tirade.
"It was VERY unkind of you. And poor Martha's heart will never recover, and now I have come out here in the cold...I will catch my death, you know, Andrew, I really shall...look! Goosepimples!"
She gestured accusingly to the tiny bumps running along her half-bare shoulders, and I placed my hands on them to warm them, and she looked up at me suddenly defenseless again.
"Is Percy home too, Andrew?"
I shook my head, sobering abruptly, and she dropped her gaze.
"Ma pauvre Margot.."
She broke away suddenly, indignant again, and I watched her in amused bewilderment...my wife was rarely this playful, and this, ah, changeable.
"I am still very unhappy with you, you know. And now I must be rude to my guests and, and.."
I was still attempting to steal a kiss, and still being ruthlessly repelled, when she abruptly spun around and leapt into my arms, pressing her lips to mine.
"I am so, so happy you're home, Andrew, I am.."
I smoothed her hair, kissing the top of her head.
"Happy Christmas, darling."
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