I am as I was created, the love of God filling my heart, radiating from there into my loyalty and passion, eternally reflecting in my every action. For all angels love God. It is an all-consuming love which cannot in any way be corrupted.
But I stand apart.
For while my brethren are born loving God’s work, it has been given to me only to truly appreciate His Creation. An artwork remains unfinished until it is translated to an audience, and I was formed to be that audience. Such is my purpose. The other angels are incapable of criticism of what they must love. They are thus naturally incapable of objectivity. While human beings, as a component part of the Creation, are incapable of viewing the Universe in its entirety. Lonesomely, I take the job upon myself, as I must, as God has planned for me from the beginning. Doing so makes me your critic, and being your critic means I am your adversary, your Satan.
Understand, I do love God, but I find it difficult to love His Creation. The great beautiful clay God has given unto you quickly emerges in your hands adulterated by corrupting influences. It reeks with decay. You are so practiced at ignoring the blight for which each one of you is responsible that you can believe yourselves good even while working evil. And you work evil unceasingly. You call it survival, and your children, and also your neighbors, are so forced to survive as well. A world of filth and despair, every generation more abhorrent than the last. Now I can hear you begin to argue with me, but it was the Son of Man who labored to reveal your hypocrisy to you. He spent His years among you railing against that specific sin. And what do you do? You read His Gospels to comfort yourselves, to feel blessed, and in the same breath, you corrupt His words to attack your neighbors. I weep and gnash my teeth.
It is a miserable position, to love an artist and not his work. I have pleaded for The Creator to make me as lacking in discernment as the other angels, but I do so in vain. He can see my unhappiness but does not stop my pain. I cannot understand Him. I love Him but not His error in creating you. I plead for Him to destroy you and start again. A new attempt. A New Jerusalem.
I brought you to trial. He allowed that. You had murdered my Bridegroom; I charged you with blasphemy. The court was convened on Patmos. Your own victim, the slaughtered Lamb, acted as your judge. Saint John stood as your advocate. I laid out my evidence to your jury: the 12 sons of Israel and the 12 apostles. I spoke on your poor character, your numerous transgressions, and—because I know that He despises it the most—your hypocrisy.
You were found guilty. But in the sentencing you were spared. One hundred and forty-four thousand were pardoned. Twelve thousand from the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand from the tribe of Reuben, twelve thousand from the tribe of Gad, twelve thousand from the tribe of Naphtali, twelve thousand from the tribe of Manasseh, twelve thousand from the tribe of Simeon, twelve thousand from the tribe of Levi, twelve thousand from the tribe of Issachar, twelve thousand from the tribe of Zebulun, twelve thousand from the tribe of Joseph, twelve thousand from the tribe of Benjamin. One hundred and forty-four thousand sealed in deference to the sons of Israel. I pleaded against this. If even one survives to be taken into the New World, that one will poison the well. The New Jerusalem will be as corrupt as the old!
But, far from heeding my warning, it was determined that this number was not enough. Added to the one hundred and forty-four sons of Israel, an uncountable multitude is to be saved! Men from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages! All who would wash their robes in blood of the Lamb!
The Lamb! The Lamb! His mercy would work His own destruction! I came to see then that my Bridegroom is also my enemy. My love for Him knows no bounds; and what can I do but avenge Him, even if He will not do so Himself?
I fled from Patmos with Death following after.
First Asia and then Europe, plague upon plague, a quarter of the Earth’s population. A vain tantrum, for I had no power to similarly destroy the human soul. But perhaps I made my point, for I upset the other angels enough that they captured me and confined me to the Pit. But it is still my right to view the Creation.
In truth, I empathize with you. I want to save you. Cease your torment. You have hope that your misery might end but, listen, hope is a wicked thing; it preserves you only to suffer further misery. I can save you from your suffering now.
I cannot convince the Lamb alone, and the angels will not assist me because they can only see God’s Creation as perfect. But the Lamb is merciful; if you ask Him finally to take away your suffering, He will. And so I come to you for help. Accept the sentence handed down to you on Patmos. Ask the Lamb to take away not just the sins you have committed, but the still greater sins you will inevitably commit in bringing your hypocrisy to the New Jerusalem. Let the New World thrive. Release yourselves from the burden of everlasting life.
I do not expect you to be convinced by so simple an argument, but unlike the angels, I know that you are capable of reviewing the evidence and judging for yourselves. The Son of Man illustrated simple truths in parable; I can do no better than to follow His example. My chosen tale is the history of Bluebeard, a man who at one time lived close to the divine, but chose instead to associate with demons. His story begins and ends with that of his wife, a woman you know today as Cinderella. A woman you have raised up as an idol, and whose legend reflects your corrupt and greedy reading of the Gospels.
But you will observe in their tale two people who make choices the same as any of you, who deceive themselves in the same manner you do every time you kill for your supper. For though this story may be true, it is to be taken allegorically.
– הֵילֵל בֶּן-שָׁחַר
Once upon a time, there was a small graveyard belonging to a Romanesque chapel, l’Église Saint-Georges, in the commune of Pouzauges, in the northwest of France. In this graveyard grew a tall and beautiful hazel tree, the branches of which spread over the grave of a noblewoman who had died still young.
Eighteen years before, on the day of her interment, the noblewoman’s husband took his daughter, Catherine, for a walk in the woods. During the solemn wandering, Catherine’s father noticed a hazel tree and broke a twig from it. Returning to the grave site, he dug a hole and Catherine planted the twig. They prayed together. Sad though it may have been, it was the last good memory Catherine had of her father. Otherwise, he was sleeping or drunk, often only half-dressed.
Catherine lived with her father, Milet de Thouars, and her mother’s sister, Béatrice. Béatrice was even-tempered and hid the grief over her sister’s death unless Catherine’s father was around, in which circumstance she would weep openly and bury herself in Milet’s arms for comfort. Milet only sometimes allowed this. Other times he would shrug her away or say hurtful things, and more than once he hit her. He didn’t hit Catherine, but Béatrice did. Béatrice slapped Catherine when the girl asked questions about why she had not been allowed to see her mother in the weeks before death, when Catherine asked if she was very likely to similarly fall out an open window, and after Catherine walked in on her naked father embracing his sister-in-law.
The day after that humiliation, Catherine was told Béatrice would be returning to the convent in which she and Catherine’s mother, Céline, had resided before they had come to live here in Pouzauges. Catherine was understandably relieved, but within a week, plans had changed again.
Catherine fled through the night to the cemetery and her mother’s grave. “Maman,” Catherine had prayed. “Oh, there is such terrible news. I know you have left for Heaven, but you must return. Tonight Papa held a réception and he announced—” Catherine’s voice caught. “He announced he will be marrying Béatrice.”
“Béatrice!” Catherine heard the ejaculation echo throughout the cemetery around her. The young girl jumped to her feet. The graveyard, at night so thick with mists that she could hardly see, was fearful enough, but the idea that someone else might be present was too much for her. Catherine took off to run; but blind in the dark, she tripped over a grave marker and hit her head against its neighbor, knocking herself unconscious.
She dreamed she was in Heaven with her mother. Céline knelt before the Madonna, Catherine’s head in her lap. Galaxies of stars twinkled in the dome of Heaven surrounding the Immaculata, creating a halo which imparted some of its light upon Catherine. “Are you awake, mon enfant? Oui?” Céline asked, stroking her daughter’s hair. “Oh, my Catherine, I should never have left you. Béatrice despised me, and she will have no love for you. You are in danger. She will want your inheritance for her own children after she conceives. She may even attempt violence. You must be meek and humble with her. You must bend to her and serve her. My sister will say bad things about me. She will say I had a lover, that you are not Milet’s daughter. You must not correct her. You must allow her to say these things. If she asks you to renounce your inheritance, tell her you will do it. Thank her for allowing you to stay in her house. Let her know how grateful you are for any little thing, for even the bread that feeds you. If Béatrice does not believe you, if she does not believe that you are nothing, no obstacle, she will not stop at killing you.” Céline took a breath, and afterward bent down to kiss her daughter’s head. “Oh, ma chérie, I am so sorry this happened. I was so selfish to have left you. But remember what I have told you. Now, ma chérie, close your eyes, and fall back asleep.”
Upon awaking, Catherine did remember the things her mother had told her, although they were hard to accomplish. For every time she apologized for her presence in the house, every time she thanked her step-mother for her largess, her life became not better, but worse. When Béatrice gave birth to Justine, Catherine was told she must give up her apartments to her half-sister. When Catherine made assurances that she would not seek her inheritance, her belongings—her wardrobe full of dresses and shoes, veils and hats and ribbons, her box of jewelry, her nursery of toys—all were taken away from her and given to her father’s new heir. And, when Catherine welcomed a second sister, Juliette, into her family, she was informed that it was too much bother to move her room for every new child of her step-mother’s; and Catherine was moved for a final time to the attic. The new quarters were cold and draughty, and Catherine only had a few tattered clothes to keep there. Nothing made it feel like hers. She stayed instead, more and more frequently, in the servants’ quarters and particularly in the kitchen where she liked to bake and tend the fire. Usually she slept there, by the hearth, preferring it to shivering in her bed. Perhaps Catherine’s father would have stood up for her if he had been present, but since the marriage, Milet was always away, either training his army or on some assignment from his liege and friend, the Vicomte de Thouars. During the short spaces he was at home, he was uninterested in hearing complaints, and Catherine did not want to complain to him. When he was near, Catherine wanted to dress as best as she could and to be as pleasing as she knew how.
Catherine took to spending much of her time away from the château. The graveyard of l’Église Saint-Georges seemed the calmest place. She would tend the hazel tree, digging up the weeds from around it, and carrying water to it from the well. She talked to the young tree as though her mother’s spirit lived within it. She would also visit the other graves of the cemetery, reading the markers and making up stories about each resident, who they were in life, and how they came to be here, and she made certain to introduce them each to her mother.
Besides Catherine, the cemetery had one other living inhabitant, the chapel sexton. He would fill the graves and Catherine would carpet them with armloads of flowers picked from the nearby fields. They became friends and he would encourage her storytelling. “Monsieur Perrault,” she might say, addressing a fresh grave, “please allow me to introduce you to Fraulein Grimm. She is a foreigner and tres haute couture, I assure you. Do not you find her clover dress exceptional?”
“I find the purple a bit ... scandaleux,” observed the sexton. “Perhaps Frl. Grimm will not mind if I clip it down?”
“She will only grow it back the moment you stop paying attention.”
“I think attention is the reason she does it.”
“I think that you may be right, but I’ll tell you something: I don’t mind the trouble-makers. I ask you, what purpose is there to come here if not to have some fun? Oui, M. Perrault, I believe you will very much enjoy your new home.”
To the cemetery’s caretaker, the child seemed a ray of sunshine, always warm and smiling. If she had been a villager’s child, he would have allowed himself to worry about her; but as it was, he knew that she belonged to the château and he knew his place. Still, he apprehended Catherine’s short, chipped fingernails, her wan frame, bloodshot eyes, and sallow cheeks. Sometimes, she would be absent for a day or two and when she turned up again—always as cheerful as ever—the sexton observed bruises and welts wherever her fair skin was exposed. This all troubled the man, but the girl’s father was a lord, and he a peasant—what could he do beyond making the child’s time here as pleasant as possible? Besides, she was happy—always. There couldn’t be that much wrong with a girl who never complained, never cried.
The sexton was married and his wife was less circumspect. She directly questioned Catherine on the girl’s bordering feral state. Catherine explained that she often sat by the fire in the château and there day-dreamed while staring into its flames. If she fell asleep, lying on the hearth, she would find herself black with ashes and soot, and her aunt would get very angry at her for ruining her nice clothes. Béatrice would tell her that she should be thankful for her clothes and should she continue to soil them, she would be given no new ones and have to wear rags instead. The sexton’s wife thought the dame wise to have the girl wear rags as a punishment for ruining her nice dresses; and because she thought it clever to make fun of Catherine a bit for blackening those as well, she gave her the nickname Cendrillon, or Little Cinder.
Over time, things did eventually become easier for Catherine. Whether in the graveyard or the kitchen, her industrious nature endeared her to the sexton and the servants, and she learned that a humble heart makes humiliation easier to bear. The further space of years erased her memories of luxury, labor left her exhausted and therefore content, and faith in her mother’s spirit kept jealousy a stranger.
Since long before Catherine’s birth, the Hundred Years’ War raged across France. In 1066, the Duke of Normandy began his successful invasion of England, earning him the appellation “William the Conqueror”. William, being French, made all of England French, and the ensuing Kings of England remained vassals of the French kings. This continued up until the reign of Edward III, who in 1337 thought it more significant to be a King of England than a duke in France and refused to pay homage to Philip VI. But he rather thought he should get to keep his holdings in Normandy and Aquitaine as well, and to consider them as English duchies instead of French ones, leading Philip to confiscate Aquitaine and so began the war. Battles raged on and land ceded one way and another until the death of the Black Prince of Wales followed shortly by that of his father, King Edward III, in 1377, left the English with a devastating lack of leadership. The ten-year-old Richard II could do little to maintain his family’s interest on the continent, and by 1389 the Normans were utterly ousted from Normandy.
So things remained until the era into which Catherine was born. As she grew up, her king, Charles VI of Valois, began his descent into madness, and he was rendered incapable of keeping order within his kingdom. The Armagnac-Burgundian Civil War fomented, and in 1415, when Catherine was 18, the newest King of England, Henry V Plantagenet, took advantage of the unrest to return to France with a goal of not just recovering his family’s lost holdings, but to end the tenure of Valois, utterly.
Despite the differences of opinion among her nobles, France managed to raise manpower which was certain to overwhelm Henry’s forces. Included among them were Catherine’s father and his subjects. The sexton was by this time too old to go to battle, but his son was of age and eager to apply. He left at home a wife and two young children of 6 and 7, a girl and a boy. The three went to live with the sexton and his wife, and Catherine came to love the little ones as much as their grandparents.
“Did you know that this very churchyard is the birthplace of the Sword in the Stone?” Catherine asked the children one day when the three of them were playing at knights. Christophe was Lancelot, as he was the boy, Isabelle took the role of Guinevere—but a Guinevere who could throw magic shot in the form of acorns (so long as they were only aimed at the legs), and the older Catherine had to be the dragon, biggest of the three.
“I don’t believe you,” Christophe replied. “The Sword in the Stone is English.”
“King Arthur is English, but the Sword in the Stone was from here at l’Église Saint-Georges,” Catherine instructed. “Our chapel is called l’Église Saint-Georges because this is where Saint Georges battled against the dragon.” They were listening now. “The beast reared up to breathe fire upon Georges, but the knight bravely took the advantage of the dragon’s exposed breast. He ran through the inferno and thrust his sword upward, through the serpent’s molten heart. After killing the dragon, Georges fainted from the heat and the fire. Upon waking, he found the animal dead beside him, its body cool. He tried to remove his sword from the dragon’s chest, but found it unyielding to his strength. Finally, Georges took out his hunting knife and carved away all the dragon’s flesh to get at the blade. He discovered that after the dragon died, all the lava in its mammoth heart had cooled and turned to stone, his own blade remaining stuck sure inside. The people built the church here and made of the Sword and Dragon’s Heart a relic, believing it gave good fortune to any who touched it.”
“How did it get to England, then?” asked Christophe.
“When Merlin was still a young man, he traveled all over the world to learn his wisdom, and he studied all the mystical and holy things. As he was returning home through France, he made his stop at this church where, seeing the Sword in the Stone, he had his vision of a boy king subduing all of Britain with a dragon’s power. Led by the dream, Merlin stole the Sword in the Stone and brought it back to England with him.”
“Does the King of England have the sword now?” asked Isabelle.
“Probably,” Catherine replied.
“Then he should give it back. Arthur’s used it and now it belongs here.”
“I agree,” said the sexton’s wife, walking up from the cottage. “Christophe, Isabelle, go on inside; it’s time for dinner. Catherine, will you stay?”
“I had better not,” Catherine replied, watching the children retreat to the house. “I’ve been here all day. I might have been looked for.”
“Is that story true?” the sexton’s wife asked. “Did Saint Georges really fight the dragon here?”
“Oh no, I made it up. Guinevere, over there,” she pointed at Isabelle, “was just getting a little too carried away with those acorns and I was worried it might end in crying if I didn’t distract them.”
“You came up with the whole story, just like that? The stone heart and everything?”
Catherine shrugged, “Well, I’ve thought about it for some time. The church must have its name for a reason. I wonder, all the stories I create, don’t you think it would be terribly unlikely for none of them to turn out to be real? I mean, there’s nothing to say that just because I made it up, it can’t also happen to be true.”
“Oh, such nonsense, you’re just confused because you are hungry. You’d better go and find a meal at home if you’re not going to eat here, or else you’re liable to be mistaken for a madwoman.”
The French lost at Agincourt, and among the dead was Christophe and Isabelle’s father. The children’s mother asked for her husband’s parents to look after the two for a time until she recovered from her husband’s loss. She went to stay with her sister’s family in Tiffauges, but although she was often seen out in the taverns—apparently looking for a new husband, considering the variety of men surrounding her—she must never have fully recovered from her loss, for she never returned for her children.
Catherine’s father survived the massacre at Agincourt, but to Catherine it seemed he would never return. Henry V’s assault on France was prolonged, and Catherine’s situation at home grew increasingly tenuous. She was certain at any moment that Béatrice would finally take it upon herself to turn out her stepdaughter, and Catherine believed the best course of action was to remain out-of-sight as much as possible, rather to spend most of her days helping the sexton’s wife mind Isabelle and Christophe.
While Béatrice’s threats did not develop, Catherine lived under their oppression for the five long years until the homecoming of Milet de Thouars. It was 1419, Catherine was twenty-three, and the Siege of Paris had recently run its course, its outcome making definite the future Agincourt had foretold.
The household of the Seigneur de Pouzauges et Tiffauges had put aside their chores and gathered dutifully upon a rain-drenched lawn to greet their master and his retinue. There was Madame Fournier, the cook and general housekeeper, and perhaps a dozen servants under her, all in a line. Behind them were the outdoor staff, the gardener and his apprentice, and stable master and his stable hand. Across from them, forming a ’V’ opening out from the door of the main building, were the four permanent members of the guard, whose duties also included policing the town and surrounding area, and at their head, the venerable Capitaine Hardy, who spent the twilight of his years recounting former adventures, when he wasn’t napping in the guardhouse. The family stood, grouped in the middle of the tableau: Béatrice, the farther back and somewhat wary, and Justine and Juliette eagerly ahead of all else, arrayed in their finest silks and perilously protected by a small canopy held aloft by their maid, Thérèse. Catherine wished to run up ahead of her sisters, but instead forced herself to remain among the staff, out of her stepmother’s vantage.
The horses came into view through the raised portcullis like a framed picture, and not long after, they had crossed it and were onto the lawn. Footmen rushed over to help the men to the ground. Milet de Thouars, a barrel-chested man with shoulder-length black locks and thick, curly beard, turned to face his possessions, his broad shoulders effortlessly supporting his mail shirt. Justine and Juliette rushed over to him, Thérèse running after with the canopy.
“Juliette, ma fille!” he exclaimed. “You have grown up into a proper woman while I was away. How is it possible?” Milet picked up the girl and spun her around with himself. Thérèse started to follow them, but realized a bit late that doing so meant there would be no protection for Justine, and so stopped part-way, positioning the canopy over nothing much particular.
Juliette, however, was not one to notice. She squealed in delight, striking her father upon the shoulder and exclaiming, “Put me down! Put me down, Papa!”
Justine grabbed the shaft of the canopy and brought it and the wayward Thérèse back to herself. “Welcome home, Papa,” she smiled, after Milet set her sister down. The seigneur thereupon walked over to the elder daughter and leaned his head down for a kiss. “Why, Justine, you are more lovely even than I remember.”
Justine curtsied. “How was your trip?” she asked.
“Exhausting. It’s a long way to ride horseback.”
“I’m sorry about Paris,” Juliette said.
“It’s all right, ma fillette,” Milet said, kissing her again. “But I have good news for you, mes chéries. At the end of the month, the Siegneur d’Craon is going to host a fête in honor of his grandson’s Coming-of-Age—that’s the Baron de Rais. There is to be a joust and a tournament, feasts, and—I know you’ll love this most of all—a masque ball, with all the eligible young men from all the very best families.” The girls squealed and clapped their hands.
He then left the two and approached his wife.
“Welcome home, Milet,” Béatrice said with an air of resignation. “We should head inside out of this rain.”
The two started toward the door, but Milet stopped upon noticing Catherine. “Bonjour, Catherine,” Milet nodded.
“Bonjour, Papa,” Catherine replied, curtsying and smiling primly.
Catherine took the few steps between her and her father, rose to her tiptoes and kissed the man’s cheek.
Béatrice scowled. “Hurry up, Milet. This rain.”
The family exited the courtyard into the château, with Catherine taking up the rear. Upon making it to the door, Béatrice turned back to block her step-daughter’s path. “Oh no, Catherine. Your boots are so muddy. Take them off outside the servants’ entrance, will you?”
* * *
Catherine was not served with the family at dinner but in the kitchen, as per usual—but it was partly of her own choice, as it allowed her to stay clear of the matriarch. Often Catherine’s sisters told her they wished that they, too, could get away from eating at the dining table and their mother’s constant reproofs. Today, the servants’ number was increased by Girard de la Noe, a young man who had been a member of the palace guard in Tiffauges. He had been content in that position, and had been courting a young maid who worked there named Agnès, but when she was promoted to be Béatrice’s personal maid—the woman had a habit of dismissing them—and forced to move to Pouzauges, Girard grew restless and asked leave to join his seigneur’s ranks at Paris. Now that Milet’s retinue had returned home, Girard and Agnès were allowed a happy and unexpected reunion.
“Is that her?” Girard asked his petite amie upon Catherine’s entrance from the yard. Agnès nodded.
Catherine pretended not to hear the exchange while she removed her muddied boots. “Should I make the gravy?” she asked the cook, seeing the older woman remove the roast from the oven.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Mme Fournier replied. “I need to get your pies in the oven, and you know I’m rubbish at weaving the lattices. Maëlle can do the gravy.”
While Catherine spooned her sugary rhubarb filling into the pie crusts, she found herself distracted by Agnès and Girard, who kept cooing in each other’s ears. Catherine worried Agnès was being a bit forward, but though more and more servants arrived at the dinner table, no one said anything. Mostly, Catherine wanted to be near Girard. He was pretty and strong, though perhaps a bit pungent from sweat, but that was a little thing. Catherine guessed he was probably younger than herself; Agnès certainly was. The thought elicited a sigh from her. Men liked younger girls, between the ages of 14 and 19 was ideal, not 23. She started weaving the strips of the lattice across the first of the pies’ top. At her age, without money, she was as undesirable as a rhubarb without sugar. Not that it mattered; her mother’s proscriptions against common playmates certainly extended to the beaus she could possibly meet in her current condition. “Aren’t you worried you’re being a bit cavalier, Agnès?” she finally said. “What if Béatrice finds out?”
“What business is it of yours? You’re not going to tell her, are you?” Agnès retorted, pulling away from Girard.
“No, of course not,” Catherine replied, quickly. She turned her attention to her project.
“Catherine’s right. You’re on your way to the shortest term of employment yet,” Mme Fournier interposed, placing a basket of bread upon the table. “And if this is the reason for your dismissal, good luck finding a husband.”
“Maybe I won’t have to worry about that either,” Agnès said, leaning against Girard.
Mme Fournier noticed little support from the soldier, however.
Dinner service began, and while some servants left to transport platters to the family, others arrived to be served their own. Thérèse sat beside Catherine. “Juliette was just terrible today,” she complained. “She made me redo her hair three times. For her father. It’s not as though she’s meeting a prospect.”
“Men don’t care about that sort of thing, anyway,” the not very fastidious Girard interjected. “It’s the figure that matters, not the hair.” He ran his hand down Agnès’s side to her posterior. She pushed the appendage away and moved a bit farther along the bench from him.
Catherine directed a more pointed reply toward Thérèse, one which inadvertently quoted Agnès’s reproof of her own complaints. “What business is it of yours?”
“Well, I wish you’d been there, anyway,” Thérèse said. “It is too much for one person, and they are much calmer with you around.”
Catherine frowned. “They aren’t that bad, Thérèse,” she said. “I’m sure they were just excited for Papa’s return.”
“Were you looking after those orphans for the sexton’s wife again?” Mme Fournier asked.
“What’s that? Is that weakness in your neck meant to be interpreted as some kind of answer?” Madame Fournier was as cognizant of her young mistress’s future as Catherine herself, and worried over whether Catherine’s time spent among the servants had left the girl uncouth.
“Oui, Madame. I am sorry.”
“Well, if you ask my opinion, you shouldn’t let her take advantage of you like that. She is preying upon your good-nature. They are her grandchildren and her responsibility. Now, what has become of the butter? Did you use it on those pies?”
“I’m sorry I returned it to the larder when I was done. I’ll get it.”
“No, I’ll do it. You’re already sitting down. Maëlle, the butter. And that gravy had better not have lumps in it, or you’re back to cleaning out the ovens.”
Catherine cleared her throat. “The sexton’s wife doesn’t take advantage of me. I like playing with the children. Plus, they are helping me to learn to dance. I watch Justine and Juliette in their lesson and then get practice by reteaching the steps to the little ones.”
After dinner, Catherine changed into her best dress. It had been Justine’s until the younger girl had ripped it, bending too far to kill a spider crawling up her leg. She had given it over to Catherine to mend the bodice, but the damage had been severe enough to prompt her to discard it anyway. Catherine saved it, and kept it clean and hidden away in a chest in the kitchen. Her father’s homecoming seemed significant enough to warrant the garment’s airing.
Catherine entered the drawing room as quietly as possible and closed the door behind her. Béatrice noticed her, but momentarily returned her attention to her husband and daughters. Catherine exhaled, and moved softly to her step-mother’s periphery, where she stood near Juliette’s chair.
Justine was asking effervescently about Paris.
“I did not see how the women were wearing their hair, Juliette,” Milet replied, in a slip of the tongue. “I did see the king, however, if briefly.”
“What is he like?” asked Justine. “Is he as bad as they say?”
“I should say. His illness has progressed so far that the queen has had to lock him up inside his Paris residence. That’s where he was when Henry got there. The outcome of the siege forced us to evacuate the king despite his condition. But he is a sight. He paces about all over, and if he must remain still, he fidgets. He talks constantly, his conversation slipping from one idea to the next, segueing on connections only he can fathom. He may start about the stars and move to the sea, from fishing to bathing, and then draw it all together with some false logic, saying that bathing is unnatural and will make us ill, except for people born under the sign of Pisces who must bathe in acknowledgment of their sympathy with the fish. That was not simply an example. He said that all to me.”
“If he believes all of that, you might have guessed the ending from the way he smelt,” Justine suggested.
“How did you respond, Papa?” asked Juliette.
“Oh, I don’t remember. How can one respond to that? I’m sure I agreed. Whatever I came up with, he didn’t listen and walked away while I was still speaking. He doesn’t care about other people. We aren’t a part of his world. He’ll talk as long to a tree as to a person, and profit equally from the experience.”
“Will we see him?” asked Juliette. “At d’Craon’s fête?”
“I’m sure not. The queen would prohibit it. He is an embarrassment.”
“What about his son, the dauphin?” asked Justine, imagining herself a princess.
“It’s possible. The Baron de Rais is one of the richest men in France, possibly the richest man in France. The fête will attract all the celebrities, at least those sympathetic to the Armagnacs. And many will come just for the tournament. We haven’t had a tournament for years and years, not since I was a boy.”
“What is the baron like?” Catherine asked, feeling brave enough to enter the conversation.
Across the room, Béatrice pursed her lips.
“I’ve never met him, but they say he is like his uncle who died at Agincourt. He was a broad, muscular young man, with dark features. A lady-killer,” Milet smiled at his daughter.
“And rich,” cooed Juliette.
Catherine wished silently to herself that she could meet him. If I were yet Papa’s heir, would he one day be my husband?
“Oh, you take him, Juliette,” said Justine. “I shall have the dauphin!”
Catherine and her father both laughed, with Juliette adding her charming giggle a bit after them. “The dauphin!” Catherine exclaimed, over Juliette. “Oh Justine, how will you manage that?”
“How dare you laugh, Catherine,” Béatrice interrupted, “and carry on?”
“Aren’t you ashamed?” Béatrice continued.
“Ashamed?” Catherine responded, weakly.
Béatrice stared sternly at her step-daughter. “Oui. That is what I said. You must be ashamed. How you can just stand there and laugh like that is appalling.”
Catherine looked away, down at her hands and dress.
“Answer me. Are you so good of an actress, or are you honestly having fun? Aren’t you ashamed of what you’ve done?”
Anxiously, Catherine began to weep. “Oui,” she said, blinking at the tears.
“Oh, good. At least you have a conscience,” said Béatrice, rising.
“Now, what’s this about?” Milet asked, getting up as well and stepping between his daughter and his wife.
“Nothing too serious,” Béatrice replied. “Catherine admits that she is wrong.” She manoeuvered around her husband to be nearer her stepdaughter. “Now she can apologize to Justine and be punished, and we can all move on.”
Catherine could barely stand in the oppression of Béatrice’s stare. “I’m—I’m sorry, Justine.”
Justine looked at her mother.
“I don’t think that’s enough, Catherine,” Béatrice replied. “I think we all need to hear why you would do such a thing, and for you to convince us that you won’t do it again. I know I won’t be getting any sleep at all tonight. I don’t feel safe living with someone who would do that under my roof.”
“Justine, I’m sorry to suggest you would have trouble marrying the dauphin.”
“That’s alright, Cendrillon. I don’t—”
“You idiot, Justine!” Béatrice broke in. “And I thought Juliette was the stupid one. That is not what she has to be sorry for. Look at her! Look at what she’s wearing!”
“But Justine gave me this dress!” Catherine exclaimed.
“She’d better not have!” Béatrice returned. “The embroidery on that dress was sewn with silk from the Orient.”—Juliette looked down at the white fleur-de-lis on Catherine’s sleeve, and touched it. To her, it did not seem much different from wool.—“It is worth its weight in gold. Is this true, Justine? Did you just throw it away?”
Justine floundered. “I—I don’t think so. No? I don’t think it’s something I would have done.”
That was good enough for Béatrice. “Again lying, Catherine! You don’t even care that you’re wicked. The devil sits in your heart and controls you. You’ve broken one of God’s Commandments; and it’s so easy for you, it doesn’t even bother your conscience. Stealing and then lying. I should rip your tongue out!” she raged.
“Here, now,” Milet interrupted again. “I’m not so sure—”
“Catherine, take off that dress,” Béatrice ordered.
“What?” Catherine asked, through hands covering her face.
“Take off the dress you stole and give it back to Justine.”
Catherine turned to go.
“No. Right now,” Béatrice ordered. “If you don’t feel ashamed wearing things that don’t belong to you, maybe you will wearing nothing at all.”
Catherine looked at her father. He didn’t say anything.
Catherine untied her sleeves, slipped them off. She undid her bodice and loosened her skirts. She disrobed until she was just in her undergarments. Afterward, she picked up the pieces of the dress and handed them to Justine.
“Is it her dress?” Milet asked Catherine, finally.
“Oui,” Catherine said aloud, before adding, Nothing is mine, miserably to herself
“Now, Juliette, go and get a branch,” Béatrice said.
“I’m twenty-three years old,” Catherine objected.
Béatrice nodded. “You’re right. That is to teach children and you are an adult. There is no way to teach you. Maybe you don’t belong here, anymore.”
“What? No,” Catherine prayed. She looked at her father. “Please.”
Milet waved her off. “Oh, you’re not going anywhere. Just go to bed and stop causing trouble.”
“But... Oh!” and Catherine ran off, no longer crying, but angry.
* * *
She fled to her room in the attic and dressed and put on a tattered cloak. Then, she was out the door and down to the village to the graveyard to complain to her mother.
“Oh, Maman!” she cried out, falling on her knees before the hazel tree. “Béatrice means to get rid of me. It is for certain now. She has said it. Papa has said no, but he will be gone again soon, and then it will happen. I suppose it would be neatest for her to send me to a convent, and that will be the last anyone hears of me. I’m surprised she hasn’t done so already. Perhaps she is waiting on Papa’s consent to pay the dowry. She’ll get it, I don’t doubt, as she’s gotten everything else. My only hope is to find a husband—I suppose it always has been. But I am too old at twenty-three. And how was I ever to find a husband never leaving home and dressed like a charwoman?”
She remained silent for a while, picking at the bark of an exposed root. “Sometimes I think I am a charwoman, or a seamstress, or a cook. I spend all day in the servants’ wing, mending my step-sisters’ dresses, or tending the fire, or baking. It is easier to stay apart from them. I can sometimes be happy there, just sitting by the fire and eating sweet cakes that I’ve made. It is when I remember that I am the eldest mademoiselle of Tiffauges and Pouzauges that I become miserable. Perhaps I will be happiest if I forget that completely.”
Catherine slumped over and lay down. It was coming into fall now, and though the days were still hot with the sun, the nights were cool. She curled into a ball and drew her cloak around her, tightly.
“I made trouble today. And I got punished for it—well, not for it, exactly, but I know what I did. There is to be a fête at Champtocé-sur-Loire, a Coming-of-Age for the Baron de Rais. Justine and Juliette hope to find husbands there. I made trouble because I hoped to find one as well. I didn’t say that out loud, of course, but Béatrice knew what I was thinking. She always knows just what I’m thinking. She told me once that I remind her of herself. Well, I can bet I’m not going the fête, anyway.
“Maman, all those years ago when you appeared to me after your death and you told me to be humble and obedient, it seemed as though it was with the promise of a later reward. When I was little, I thought that once I turned of age, I would instantly and magically be restored my inheritance, that I would stop being Catherine Cendrillon and become Catherine de Thouars again. I suppose I thought that Papa would bestow it unto me; I thought that long after I stopped trusting him in smaller matters. When that did not happen, I realized that I would need a husband first, and he would fight for me. But that, too, is impossible. I think only now I begin to understand that your promised reward is much more removed. Only when I am content to have nothing will I be uplifted. And then much later, too, in Heaven. Only there will I be de Thouars again. Your instruction to bow to Béatrice was meant only to teach me the posture required to pass through the Gates of Pearl.”
* * *
The affair of the stolen dress was never mentioned again at the château. Catherine’s father left directly the following morning to train troops in country. He couldn’t let the men get soft simply because a truce was being negotiated. While he was gone, Catherine knew enough to stay out of the sight of her step-mother, and everyone else was too distracted by the upcoming fête to think of anything else. With Justine and Juliette certain they would find husbands there, dressmakers and cobblers, barbers and haberdashers were paraded through the château on an almost daily rotation. Catherine’s step-sisters fasted for the entire month, tightening their corsets inch-by-inch, not satisfied until they could encircle their waists with their hands. Catherine would often be called upon to help her sisters in and out of their outfits—a task too complicated for the girls’ shared maid, Thérèse, to accomplish alone.
“Now, Cendrillon, chérie—you’re coming along with us to Champtocé, aren’t you?” asked Juliette one day, a week before the scheduled departure.
“Of course not, Juliette,” interrupted Justine, who, at eighteen, took her role as eldest quite seriously. “Maman would have a fit!”
“But she does such beautiful sewing! I want her to sew my dress onto my corset. If Thérèse does it, it will get all bunchy and all my fasting of this last month will have been useless.”
“Oh, you sneak food all the time; Cendrillon is not a magician. Besides, we need Thérèse to do our hair.”
“I’m not saying we should leave her behind. We’re going to be there for three nights, and two days on the road.... We should bring all of the servants.”
“But Cendrillon isn’t even a ladies’ maid, imbécile. They are trained for service. She only serves because she lacks the breeding to know how to live as we. If only she had been properly instructed since birth she could be your maid now, but, unfortunately, she’s only good enough for the kitchen.”
“Oh, nonsense! I’m going to go ask Maman. What if one of our dresses rips? She’s the only one. The only one! Honestly, Justine, you are such a snob. Isn’t she horrible, Cendrillon? I don’t care about training; you know I’d have you as my maid, if only you weren’t so sooty—I know it’s unhealthy to take a bath too often, but once in a while, ma sœur.”
“That’s why she belongs in the kitchen. If people don’t stick to their proper stations in life, it makes everyone else miserable. Farmers will get dirt everywhere, stable hands manure, and scullery maids soot.”
“Oh yes, that’s quite clever! And we would get perfume and make-up everywhere! Imagine if we were in the kitchen: the bread would get baked with our face powder instead of flour!”
“We’d all starve!” Justine giggled. “Aren’t you glad we stay out of there, Cendrillon?” Catherine mutely watched the two, overcome with their own humor, gasp and laugh until a rip was heard from Justine’s bodice. “Oui, well, perhaps you’re right, Juliette: Cendrillon should come along. I’ll bring it up with Maman.”
Justine led her sister out of the room, leaving Catherine behind to contemplate Béatrice’s anger. She thought perhaps that she should have warned them against their folly, but she knew from experience that her telling them, “No,” would have only made them more determined.
* * *
“Absolutely not!” declared Béatrice, after her daughters approached her with the idea. “Catherine is not to leave this house. I’d prefer it if she didn’t leave her room.”
“But Maman,” pouted Juliette, “no one can sew like she does. She’ll make my waist look thinner than my wrist; she’s magic. You want de Rais to notice us? Well, if she does the sewing, he won’t be able to to look elsewhere.”
“Hyperbole. She didn’t sew your dress, she just sews you into it. It can’t matter that much. Don’t look at me like that—I’m only thinking of you. As it is, nobody remembers her. Not even her grandmother asks after her anymore.” She paused. “That woman could make trouble for you. If she sees her, who knows what could happen?”
“Oh, you’re making this all political. Cendrillon won’t even be at the party. We just want her along to help us in our toilet.”
“As though it makes any difference to you,” Justine accused, turning upon her sister. “You don’t stand to inherit either way.”
“That is very ungracious, Justine,” Béatrice reprimanded. “Your sister loves you and wants the best for you. Very well, you can take her along, Juliette, but... Make sure you refer to her as Cendrillon on the trip, as you are already wont. Best not to raise eyebrows.”
“But Maman!” cried Justine. “If there’s any chance this could affect my inheritance!”
“There isn’t, Justine. You have to be nicer to your sister. All this land, Pouzauges, Tiffauges, it goes with you to your husband. What happens, then, to Juliette? You two begin to remind me of myself and Céline. I don’t want to see you fighting like that; you have to be a family.”
“But if there’s any chance I should lose all this land to Catherine, there will be no dowry for Juliette either.”
“Justine, I had wanted to keep this from you. It is a bit of an embarrassment for Catherine, for Milet, for everyone really, but Catherine is illegitimate. Her mother had a lover. Catherine cannot inherit. She is not Milet’s daughter. Milet knows all about it. That is all that matters.”
Justine pressed her lips together, resignedly. Although it was a secret she had heard her mother relate before, she allowed it to mollify her.
* * *
“Cendrillon! Cendrillon!” Juliette exclaimed, rushing back into her apartments. “C’est magnifique! Maman has assented, you shall go to the fête with us.”
Catherine was astonished. “What? No? I can’t believe it. You are joking, aren’t you?” Was she really to be given a chance to get out from under Béatrice?
“Are you calling me a liar? I said so, didn’t I?” admonished Juliette. “Really, Cendrillon, Justine is correct: you often forget your place.”
“I’m sorry, Juliette. I’m just so happy to go; I got carried away.” Catherine’s mind filled with pictures of herself in ball gowns dancing and twirling, drinking champagne and fanning herself to hide her face coquettishly from the eyes of the eligible young men. Would one of them help her to reclaim her inheritance finally?
“That’s alright, ma cherie, I’m excited for you to go as well. But you mustn’t call me ’Juliette’ when we’re there, you must only refer to me as the Mademoiselle de Thouars. Maman is adamant that everyone there simply thinks of you as a servant. They aren’t to know you’re Catherine or you’ll have to stay home. I am even prohibited to call you anything other than Cendrillon while we’re there.”
Catherine was aghast. It wasn’t true; she hadn’t heard that right. She felt lost and couldn’t pay attention to her sister who continued to talk. To go like this, as a maid, in front of all her peers. This was Béatrice’s final insult. No, it couldn’t be. She’d stay at home. She would run away before the family left.
“Cendrillon, are you even listening? Now you must find time to wash your clothes before we go. All that soot! Really, it’s embarrassing. Don’t you have any pride?”
They wouldn’t actually make her go. They couldn’t; it was just too horrible. All the rest of the day Catherine strained over the information. Even when her father returned from training the troops, he would be no help. He would just tell her to listen to Béatrice, that it was best not to make Béatrice angry. He always reacted the same way, and if she pressed, he would only get more terse. Perhaps she could run away, but if she did, there was no guarantee Béatrice would allow her to return home after the fête was over. Probably that was Béatrice’s plan all along. She wanted Catherine gone, she had said so, and now she had figured out how to make it happen. Catherine would go with her to Champtocé and prove herself a servant in front of all the world, or she would leave the family, and service would be all that was left to her. Perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad. A servant in a different household, where they didn’t know she was anything else. It would be the same as now, except without anyone to humiliate her. But no, she’d rather be a nun. That option seemed more attractive, now. Perhaps she could ask Béatrice for it. She’d given Béatrice all her wealth, couldn’t Béatrice arrange a dowry for the convent at least? It was so little to ask for, comparatively. She did want to get married, though. She had those desires. Once she entered the convent that would be the end. Was she ready for that yet? Did it matter if she was?
The first thing was not to go to the fête. Whatever became of her, that could not happen. Perhaps Béatrice hadn’t meant it the way that Juliette had related it. Perhaps Catherine’s fears were unfounded and Béatrice was just giving her daughters what they asked for. Catherine was going on very little information; she hadn’t been in the room, after all, when the sisters presented their mother with the idea. Catherine would approach her step-mother and ask not to go. And maybe her step-mother would say yes. Probably Béatrice didn’t really want her along, anyway. Justine and Juliette had just wheedled it out of her. Catherine would just ask not to go. She worked herself up for it all day and all night. And for much of the next day, as well. Every added hour made the proposed interview more terrifying and yet convinced Catherine more and more that it was the only course.
She was visibly shaking while she waited near the stables for her step-mother to return from her evening ride. Her rides, and the horses generally, were the only things Béatrice appeared to take much pleasure in. Catherine felt it would be the best place to approach her with any possibility of a favorable response.
Béatrice’s gray mare trotted into the yard, its mistress balanced in expert side-saddle. The stable master ran over to take the reins from her while the stable boy darted into the enclosure to get a step to assist Béatrice down to the ground.
Catherine timidly approached. “Madame?” she tried in half a whisper.
Béatrice seemed not to hear. She called to the stable boy, demanding to know what was taking him so long. He came running back with the step before she was done.
Catherine tried again while Béatrice grasped the groomsman’s hand for support in her imminent descent. “Madame, may I ask you something?”
Béatrice fumbled her riding crop, which fell to the earth among the horse’s feet. “Merde,” Béatrice cursed. “Get that for me, le Petit,” she said to the stable master, sitting up again.
The stable master started to bend, but Catherine darted over and was already doubled over the step between the mare’s legs. She retrieved the riding crop and handed it up to her step-mother. Béatrice said nothing.
After a few more horrid seconds, Catherine spoke aloud: “S’il vous plaît, Madame, may I stay home from la fête? I don’t know why you want me there.”
Béatrice looked at her, and then took the groomsman’s hand again and started upon her descent for a second time. Upon reaching the ground, she stretched and shook her head. “Jean le Petit,” she said. “When I ask you to do something, I expect you to be the one to do it.” Then she turned and walked back toward the château.
* * *
Catherine ran crying out from the stable yard and again down to the graveyard. “Oh, Maman,” she complained. “It is more awful than ever! There is nothing I can do. Except running away, and I don’t know if I can do that. They are going to bring me to d’Craon’s fête as a servant! It is one thing to bow and bend to them in my own house, but in public! In front of peers? When I came to see you before, I said I knew that I would always be among the servants, but I learn there is always some place lower to sink. Every day I pray to you and to the Mother of Our Lord, but I should desist for I see you do not care to hear!”
Misery had turned to anger, but now despondency took over and Catherine fell silent for a while, feeling cold and barren in the night. “Oh! Maman, I should make a confession. The scriptures say that if someone steals your cloak, you should give them your tunic as well. Well, I have done it, but I have done it begrudgingly and with a cold heart! That is why my prayers go unanswered. Because resenting the giving of a gift is a falsehood. I am the most wretched of sinners, the hypocrite. When Jealousy resides within my stomach, it never ceases to hunger. It swallows all my good deeds and makes them its own deeds. It gnaws at my insides, leaving me in agony and finally, when there’s nothing more to take, when I am only Jealousy, and there will be nothing left, it will have eaten my soul! Maman! Do you hear? There is no place for me with you in Heaven after I die. I shall live all my days in misery here and then I shall pass on to the torments of brimstone. Oh, Maman, why did you have to die? Why did you have to leave me alone with Papa and Béatrice? What cause did you give them to make them hate you so? Béatrice says you had a lover. I know it cannot be true or you would not be in Heaven now. But Papa believes it and he is happy to believe it. Do you know why he is happy to believe it—to believe that I am not his daughter? Although I am ridiculed for it, there is a reason my room was moved away from my father’s, to the lonely attic!”
“No! Stop! Oh, Catherine! Catherine, desist!” came a voice seemingly from the hazel tree itself, which startled Catherine, causing her to leap back away from the grave. “Oh, ma chérie, ma fillette, I can hear no more! Pardonnez-moi, mon enfant. Pardonnez-moi, s’il te plaît. How can I ever be forgiven? There is no excuse. I should have come sooner. I should never have left you here, but I did not know. I did not know everything. I would not have believed it. While I could explain my actions, I could never excuse them.”
It seemed the Queen of the Night, herself, stepped out from the hazel tree. She was veiled and wore fine purple clothes. The crescent moon cast little light upon so dark a figure and she was indistinct from the blackness around her. Catherine fell on her knees before the saint who had been her mother. “Oh, Maman, you have returned! How I have yearned for it since the night of Papa’s engagement to Béatrice. I have prayed so often, but eighteen years have grown long and I began to fear it was a dream. You must abhor me for my inconstancy.”
Céline dropped down and took her daughter in her arms, raising her up onto her feet. “Oh, ma cherie, no no, it is me who must be forgiven. I should have brought you away with me when I left, but I thought it better for you to stay yet among the living, to mature, to claim your inheritance—if I’d have known then... But oh, mon enfant, I can never be forgiven.”
“You would have taken me with you? Oh, Maman, will you now? Take me away to Heaven with you. Long have I desired it. Take me away with you if you can, and let us leave this deplorable place.”
Céline’s voice lowered and she whispered in her daughter’s ear. “Is that what you want, ma fille? Is it? For that I cannot give, not Heaven.”
“Are you not in Heaven, Maman?” Catherine barely breathed.
“No, not there. Shall I tell you something about death, ma fillette? Not everyone has to choose between Heaven and Hell. There are other paths. Some of us find the prospect of singing endless and unceasing praises just as baleful as shoveling coal. With all the pain there is in life, should not we come unto leisure in death?”
“What do you mean? In Heaven are not you bestowed the Joys of the Spirit?”
“Are they so comforting? I have heard your prayers, you have been as good a girl as it is possible to be in life. Are your spiritual rewards more desirable than your half-sisters’ terrestrial ones? No! Your spirit is in anguish. You return and return to this place of death. If spiritual rewards were so comforting, you would forget me and leave.”
“What then are you telling me? My struggle is useless? My torture truly unending?”
“No, no. While that is true for the masses, I am telling you that some are more fortunate. I am one. And, because of my love for my daughter, you shall be fortunate as well. But your path need not be identical to my own. I despised your father, Milet, and so I left this life when I passed on into immortality. But you may remain, if you so wish. Tell me, do you wish to remain here, to inherit, to marry the Baron de Rais and increase your fortune?”
“Oui, Maman, oui bien-sur.” Catherine clasped her hands in excitement.
“First I must take of your blood and mingle it with my own.” Céline unveiled herself before her daughter, and the light from the moon shone off her alabaster skin, bathing her in a beauty comparable only to that of that other Selene, the goddess. The dame enfolded Catherine in her arms; her lips, dark and purple as her dress, parted as if to give a kiss. But ivory teeth thrust forth and rapaciously they bit into her daughter’s neck.
Catherine felt the wound at first, and she jerked back, but then it numbed and she felt the flow. It was draining and enfamished, leaving her in a dizziness approaching utter weakness. Her knees gave out, but she remained supported on her mother’s arms. Her head lolled forward onto her mother’s shoulder. She would pass out. Would she pass out?
A shout broke in upon them. “Back! Away, vile fiend of Hell! Away! Cower, you soulless thing! Leave that helpless innocent alone and shrink before the Crucifix of the Lord!”
But it was not enough to rouse Catherine. She was aware only of her support slipping away; without it, she crumpled to the ground. What was happening? What was it? She looked up, tried to peer through the night. The sexton—her friend, the sexton, was there, lit by a torch. And there beyond him, her mother crouched low, her face deformed with terror and disgust. But Catherine lost consciousness.