Tender the Storm(2)

By: Elizabeth Thornton


Leon was never present when these conversations took place. Sometimes the girls surmised that their father must be the source of information for his son as their mother was for her daughters. At other times, they deduced that the male of the species was born knowing everything there was to know about relations between the sexes. It had never occurred to Claire and Zoë that this act of intimacy could take place between a man and woman who were not husband and wife. Their mother had never hinted at such a thing until Zoë had asked her bald question. Leon, the youngest of the Devereux children, had known it long before.

Zoë's thoughts came back to the present. She sighed again and looked over at her companion. She judged Marie Roussillon to be about fourteen years. Certainly old enough to begin to learn something of the ways of a man with a woman. Drawing on what she remembered from her mother's conversation, she embarked on an explanation.

"Some women sell their beauty and bodies for money. Not respectable women, you understand. Not the kind of women gentlemen marry, but the other sort."

"Oh," said Marie, and lapsed into a reflective silence. After a moment, she said, "Do you think any gentleman will ever offer us carte blanche when we are grown up?"

"No," answered Zoë emphatically. "We are good girls. We have been raised and educated to be wives and mothers."

There was no immediate response to this gem of wisdom. But Marie had by no means exhausted the subject of conversation as her next question was to prove. "Do . . . do ladies ever offer carte blanche to gentlemen? What I mean to say is —do gentlemen ever sell themselves to women for money?"

"Not to my knowledge," answered Zoë truthfully, and she wondered why she had never thought to ask her mother that question.

"Fleur?"

"Mmm?"

"Mademoiselle is beautiful, isn't she?"

"Yes." It was a circumstance which had been of grave concern to their parents, particularly Madame Devereux. Manners and mores had been changing so rapidly in Revolutionary France that it was no longer possible for a father to examine too closely the background and credentials of the gentlemen who came to his house and who must be introduced to his daughters, especially to his beautiful elder daughter.

"And . . . and do you think Mademoiselle is a good woman or the other sort?"

Zoë did not have to deliberate before answering, "Mademoiselle is a good woman, naturally."

"But if she has accepted a gentleman's carte blanche . . ."

Zoë snorted. "I won't believe it unless I hear the words from her own lips."

"Then where is she? Why did Madame Lambert send Clothilde and not Mademoiselle to douse the candles?"

Zoë was troubled by the selfsame question. No answer came to her. "Go to sleep, Marie," she said quietly. "I'm sure everything will be explained at assembly tomorrow morning."

But her own advice was easier to offer than to follow. Sleep evaded her. It seemed that every small sound in that Spartan dormitory became magnified to a disturbing pitch. Anxious and restless, Zoë groped in her mind for answers. As time passed, her thoughts lost focus. Memories crept up on her and she gave up the struggle to suppress them.

They had come for their parents on a wet and blustery night at the end of October—was it only two months ago? Her father's only crime was that he was a rich man and formerly a friend of the aristocrats. Leon Devereux was a banker and financier with international influence. It was enough to doom him and his whole family.

Zoë would never forget the scene. They were in the salle, a room she could never remember without thinking of sunshine. It had been done over in her mother's favorite color, from pale primrose yellow to deep tones of gold. As she did every evening, Zoë seated herself at the piano, at her father's request, and played a selection from Mozart, his favorite composer. She knew the pieces by memory, and could let her thoughts wander as her fingers moved effortlessly over the keyboard.

This was to be their last night together in the house in St. Germain. Leon Devereux had come to see, more and more, that his days were numbered. Of the gravest concern to him was the fate of his family if ever anything should happen to him. It was a familiar tale. Executions of whole families, except for very young children, followed quickly upon one another. He had determined it would not happen to his. Under assumed names and identities, with forged papers, they were to hide out in Rouen.

The family was to be scattered, but not for long, Leon Devereux had friends. He had put things in motion. When everything was in place, they would sail for America or England. He had no preference. It was enough to escape the terrors of France.

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