Tender the StormBy: Elizabeth Thornton
Carte blanche. The shock of the words left Zoë speechless. It was not so with the other girls. Mademoiselle had taken a lover, and the whole school buzzed with the scandal of it. The babble in the dormitory had faded to whispers when Madame's maid called for silence as she doused the candles on her rounds. But schoolgirls being schoolgirls, they pursued the topic of conversation beneath the bedclothes in hushed tones and intermittent bursts of suppressed girlish giggles.
Zoë pulled the bedcovers up to her chin and let the words revolve in her mind. Carte blanche. She could not, would not believe that Mademoiselle would sink to such a level. Mademoiselle was everything that was good. Her virtue was unquestionable. And she, Zoë, had the best reason in the world for her convictions. Though none of the girls knew it, Mademoiselle was her sister. Claire would no more accept carte blanche from any man than she would betray her family to the commissioners who had set up the guillotine in Rouen's market square. They were Devereux, and though bereft of their parents' guiding hand for the moment, to shake off the tenets by which they had been raised was unthinkable.
"Fleur? Are you awake?"
It took a moment for Zoë to realize that the question was addressed to her. Fleur was the name she went by now, and had been for the last several weeks, since she had been placed in Madame Lambert's Boarding School for Girls. Fleur Guery, her papers said, an orphan of fourteen years. Maman had told her that she must forget the name Zoë Devereux. She must forget that she was a young lady who had just celebrated her seventeenth birthday. She must dress and act the part of a silly schoolgirl until they could escape from France. One day, when the madness was over, they would return. But for the present, the name of Devereux was anathema to enrages such as Robespierre and St. Just.
"Are you awake?"
"Mmm," murmured Zoë discouragingly.
The girl in the next cot raised on one elbow. "Fleur," she whispered, "what does carte blanche mean?"
Zoë rolled to her side, facing the shadowy form of the girl in the next bed. The question was a serious one and deserved a serious answer. Softly, deliberately, she said, "Carte blanche is what a man offers a woman when he wants all the pleasures of marriage but none of the responsibilities."
There was a pause. "I don't think I understand."
Zoë sighed inaudibly. The exchange was extraordinarily reminiscent of the one she had had with her own mother when she, too, had heard the words carte blanche for the first time. Her thoughts drifted to that day, three years before, in the early days of the Revolution, when there was still a semblance of order in the world.
The Devereux house in the Faubourg, St. Germain was a happy place. Happy, carefree, and, most of all, cloistered behind its monumental iron gates and walled courtyard. Leon Devereux had removed his family to this more secluded setting on the other side of the Seine to protect the innocence of his daughters from the growing depravity which was evident everywhere in the streets of Paris. He was to learn that depravity, like an insidious fog, could not be kept out by locked doors and stone walls.
"Maman? What does carte blanche mean?" Zoë could hear the sound of her own voice, as if she had just uttered the words.
She'd heard them first on the lips of her younger brother, Leon, named for his father, when he had been in conversation with his tutor. There was something about the way Leon had smiled, something about the way the tutor had frowned when they had caught sight of her which had instantly aroused her curiosity. And that Leon, later, refused to explain the words to her when they were in private was not to be borne. She was older than he by a good twelve months.
"Maman? What does carte blanche mean?"
The ladies were in the morning room which overlooked the sweep of lawns and the river. Madame Devereux was planning the week's menus. Her daughters were occupied with mending sheets and table linen. Though there were maids who could just as easily have done this menial task, Madame Devereux firmly believed that there was no aspect of household management to which her daughters should not be able to turn their hand. In this she was following her own mother's precepts.
After Zoë voiced her question, there was a protracted silence. Claire paused in mid-stitch and looked up questioningly. When their mother's cheeks began to glow with color, both girls became alert.
As a mother, Madame Devereux was out of step with her generation. Her daughters knew it. Unlike their friends' mothers, Elise Devereux never shrank from answering her daughters' questions, however delicate or improper others might judge them. Claire and Zoë had no misapprehensions about what awaited them on their respective wedding nights. They knew how babies were conceived and how they were born. Through hints and innuendo they understood that their mother wished to spare them some of the anguish she had suffered, through ignorance, when she had first become a bride. Marital relations were not something a wife was to endure, Madame Devereux had carefully pointed out. The act of love was the supreme expression of everything a husband and wife felt for each other.