I’ve found a measure of happiness this evening, sitting on the edge of the well, watching the Alpenglow paint the peaks across the valley in shades of rose and marigold. Once I wanted to drown myself in this same well. That was after my husband died and my father sold off all the books in the shop my husband had kept, and I saw my path to freedom disappear, just as the paths on our mountain sometimes vanish in the space of a few seconds from rockfalls, or from avalanches during the heavy snows.
The well-water below is black-green in the shadow of the encircling stones, and cold air rises from it like the breath of spirits passing to and from the underworld. I could have weighted my pockets with rocks, could have plunged into the icy water and freed myself from worry and care, taken my body back to myself once and for all. People thought I grieved the death of my husband, Guillaume Bergeret, a lay pastor of our Vaudois faith who’d kept the bookshop in Annecy to support us. But it wasn’t true. The pastor’s soul and mine were always strangers to each other, and I could never bring myself to call him by his Christian name or use thee and thou with him, even after our two children were born to us and grew into a pair of lovely, willful wood sprites.
Valentin’s shouts and Aimée’s giggles echo from the trail through the trees to Father’s house, where we’ve lived since the pastor died in his bed in Annecy. The pastor would have expected me to scold them, for clearly they’re building a fort instead of gathering kindling as I asked them to do. But I too have neglected my chores to savor the warm, clear, early-June evening, the cries of hawks and doves in the fragrant pines mingling with the children’s voices and the cattle bells clanging from the grassy slope beyond.
I catch a glimpse of our housekeeper, Edmée, hurrying up the path. She speaks to Valentin and Aimée, and they fall silent and scurry back down the hill to the house. I stand up quickly, dust off my skirt, fill my buckets, and hook them onto the yoke. But I set them down again when Edmée comes into sight around the bend in the path, panting, her face pink.
“Violaine! Your father’s returned. Here, I’ll take those buckets. You go.”
I leave the buckets and set off at a run. I’ve long since forgiven my father for selling the books. It simply never occurred to him that I would prefer taking over the bookshop to marrying again after the pastor died, or that I’d even be capable of running the shop on my own. He sold everything and packed the stock off to a buyer before I had any chance to lay out my plans to him. And he had no way of knowing about the poems I’d hidden in the pages of the Book of the Rose, which he sold along with the rest, or that it was the book I loved more than any other.
But now perhaps he’s brought the Book of the Rose back to me. It was the one thing I asked for when he left three months ago, after the snows melted. My older sister, Hortense, wasn’t shy about asking for a pearl brooch and earrings like those the fine Catholic ladies wear to church in Annecy, and brocade and lace to make a dress and collar that would be the envy of the other matrons in her village. Françoise-Angélique, my younger sister, would never think of such luxuries for herself, but since the midwife had told her she would give birth to twin girls in April, she asked for linens and lace for the christening dresses, and silver cups and spoons for the babies.
My Book of the Rose was an old, tattered volume, but the poems I hid in its pages were the tear-spattered outpourings of my heart. Its story of knights and roses and courtly love kept me company through many a desolate night, when I lived through the saga in my mind to forget the misery of my circumstances. My soul came to inhabit that book, and it’s been more than two years now since I lost it. But Father was hopeful that he could recover it, for he was going to stop in Annecy on the way home from his travels.
I reach the door of our house, out of breath, and find Father seated at the table with Aimée on his knee. His graying, mouse-colored hair is wind-blown, and his face has grown thinner. Valentin stands next to them, his dark curls hanging over his eyes, tall enough at ten to reach his grandfather’s shoulder, looking on as his little sister chatters. But when Father raises his eyes to meet mine, there’s a terrible expression in them, a hollowed-out, haunted look. He doesn’t return my smile but puts Aimée off his knee and rises to accept my embrace and kisses on each cheek.
“Father, are you well?” I ask. He looks away instead of answering. I try to fill the silence. “But you’re home at last. We missed you so much. How was the journey? Did you come all the way from Annecy today?”
He nods and sits down again. Dust from the road has gathered in the folds of his stockings, and his fingers twitch nervously in his lap. “I had some business to finish in the city this morning, and then I came straight on.”
I hurry to fetch him some water and the soup Edmée has made for our supper. She returns from the well with the buckets, and I fill the kettle and set it on the fire so that I can brew a tea of verbena and balm. “You must have made good time,” I say.
He frowns and prods at the thin soup, which contains mostly vegetables. “Not bad. The roads were clear, and I had a fresh horse.”
Valentin’s eyes snap wide open. “What about Claudette?” he asks. He and Father’s old mare, Claudette, have been great friends ever since Valentin could walk.
Father smiles, though his eyes are tired. “Never fear, she’s coming along with the buggy tomorrow. I stayed overnight with a gentleman who lent me a faster steed.”
“That was kind of him.” I light candles for the table from the fire. “Was it a friend of yours? Another Vaudois?”
Father shakes his head. “Not one of us, no. Though I think he might become a friend.”
I wrinkle my brow and bustle around the table, making sure the children have taken their share of soup from the pot before I serve myself.
“Violaine,” Father says, “sit down. Let Edmée do it.”
I can’t remember that he’s ever spoken to me like this before—telling me to sit and rest. Usually he expects the women around him to stay busy. He must have terrible news indeed. I hope that whatever it is has only to do with money and isn’t something worse.
I take a seat and push around the onions in my soup with a piece of hard black bread while the children and Edmée eat theirs quickly. Father speaks of the weather and the places he visited; he journeyed south to Chambéry, Grenoble, the Dauphiné valleys, and Montpellier, then back up north through Briançon and the province of Piemonte, to Genève and at last Annecy before coming home.
When the soup has all been eaten, Edmée takes the children to put them to bed in the back room, and I wash up. Father still hasn’t found the nerve to tell me what’s troubling him. My heart pounds a little. We sit with our tea, and I pour him a glass of génépi as well; perhaps this will loosen his tongue.
He takes the liquor gratefully, drinks it down in one swallow, and pours himself another. I blow on my tea to cool it.
“It was all a failure,” he admits at last. “I haven’t made a single wise decision since your mother passed away. God is punishing me for my sins and foolishness.”
I think that by this talk of sins he means Edmée. At first I didn’t want to see that he’d taken up with her after our mother died. She still has a husband, a worthless drunkard who lives near my sister Hortense in the hamlet of Nant-Pierre, a league away. But the reading I did in the bookshop in Annecy has changed my thinking, and I don’t judge her and Father anymore for finding comfort in one another.
“I’d thought my investment in the trading company was lost, but I got word in Briançon that the ships hadn’t been wrecked as we’d feared and were on their way into the harbor. So I extended myself further than I would have otherwise, with new letters of credit, expecting that I’d be able to negotiate settlements on the old debts and pay off the new ones quickly. When I got to Montpellier, though, I discovered that my creditors had anticipated me. They’d devoured the lion’s share of the profits without my being able to negotiate anything. So I owe more now than when I started, with worse rates and shorter terms. Or at least so I thought, until I got to Annecy. Now I don’t know what to do. It could be our salvation, or it could be a disaster worse than all the others put together.”
“The gentleman in Annecy had some proposal?”
Father lets out a long sigh, and tears well up in the corners of his eyes. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to bring Hortense her pearls or Françoise her silver. But I thought I could still try to get your book back. The gentleman who bought up most of the stock from the pastor’s shop, we’d corresponded about the payments, so I had his name and address in Annecy. It was a Monsieur du Herle, and he bought the books on behalf of a marquis.”
“A marquis bought the books? All for himself?”
“The Marquis de Boisaulne. Yes, for his own private library.”
I prop my chin on my hand and sigh. “Wouldn’t it be nice, to be so rich?”
“I’ll admit, I hoped that asking about your book might give me an opening for a business proposal.” Father drums his fingers on the table, frowning at the memory. “The Marquis wasn’t at home, but Monsieur du Herle received me and invited me to stay for dinner. He remembered the shop of Pastor Bergeret very well, and buying up the stock for the Marquis’s library. He even remembered the Book of the Rose being among them.” Father looks me in the eye. “I’m sorry to tell you, but it’s far more valuable and rare a book than I think you realized. The most precious of the whole collection, in fact. He thought it quite a bargain at the time; he said he might easily have paid as much for that one book alone as for the whole library.”
My mouth droops in disappointment. I can readily believe that my old book was, after all, a rare find, with its beautiful capitals and illustrations, its antiquated spellings and obsolete words. “So you couldn’t afford to buy it back.”
“Well…I’m getting to that.” Father hesitates, then continues more slowly, his mouth set like that of a man stepping barefoot into a pile of burning coals. “Monsieur du Herle also remembered you. Perhaps you’d know his face if you saw him again. It seems that for a time he was a frequent visitor at the shop.”
I nod, feeling chilled. “I don’t remember the name, but the pastor used to hold gatherings in the evenings for gentlemen who came to talk about religion and political philosophy. Women weren’t allowed, of course, but I’d come in to serve drinks after the children were in bed, and sometimes”—I lower my eyes to the table—“I’d linger in the room or listen at the door. Monsieur du Herle was probably among them.”
Father wraps his hands around his still-warm cup of tea. “I suppose the pastor meant to do his part to spread tolerance. I’d expect no less. He was a brave man and courageous for our faith, even when it put him in danger.”
“It’s strange, though, to think any of his guests would have remembered me. That was so long ago.”
Father looks at me sternly, as if I’ve told a lie, pretending to be unaware of the effect my face and figure have on men. And perhaps I have. I feel sick to my stomach, for I think I know where this conversation is going.
“Monsieur du Herle asked after you,” Father says. “He asked if you’d remarried. I told him you hadn’t. He paid me extravagant compliments about you and said he well recalled how lovely and charming you were, how quiet and decorous in your manner.”
I search my memory for some recollection of M. du Herle. Were any of the men at the pastor’s philosophical gatherings handsome? I remember being too shy to look at them directly. I can recall only dark coats and hats, a set of whiskers here, a pair of spectacles there, a dress sword laid to the side, the occasional colorful waistcoat, wigs of many shapes and sizes, some powdered, some plain. Had a pair of gray-blue eyes followed me around the table once or twice as I poured out coffee? Had they belonged to M. du Herle?
Mostly I remembered the gentlemen’s voices through the keyhole, and the ideas that tantalized me, hovering at the edge of my understanding in fragments I tried to piece together. I would imagine sitting at the table to hear all that was said, finally speaking the thoughts that were always brimming up in me.
“I was beginning to think he meant to ask me for your hand,” Father continues, “but he didn’t. He said he thought you’d please his master, the Marquis. And not,” he adds as I rise from my chair in astonishment, “not as a wife.”
He falls silent for a moment, and his words sink in. I feel as though someone has thrust a shovelful of manure under my nose. “But…”
Father presses on. “He said his master, the Marquis, sought the companionship of a young woman. I said it seemed to me there must be no shortage of young ladies in Annecy, and that surely if he knew the pastor, he must know we’re God-fearing people. I said you would never consent to such a thing, and that, frankly, I was deeply offended by the suggestion.”
I breathe out a sigh of relief and sit down. “Was he angry with you?”
Father shakes his head. “He understood perfectly. He explained the Marquis’s circumstances. He’s been estranged from his wife for many years. He married young, not realizing her character. He’s not free to marry again so long as she still lives. But he would wish to make as honorable an arrangement with us as possible under the circumstances. You and the children would be provided for, even if you separated from him at some later time. There would be a signed contract. Monsieur du Herle visited the Marquis’s lawyer this morning and had it drawn up, and I’ve brought it back with me.”
Heat rises along the sides of my neck. “Father,” I say in horror, “what madness is this? You agreed that I’d become a…a prostitute?”
“Keep your voice down!” he says in a forceful whisper. “It’s nothing of the kind. You turned down every match Edmée and I tried to make for you. No suitor from our villages was good enough for you. You thought yourself above them all, just because your husband let you learn Latin and Greek and read all the books in his shop. You’ve shown not a scrap of gratitude.”
“But I— They weren’t—”
“How am I to find the money for an apprenticeship for Valentin, when I can barely even feed us now? Do you know that we’re in danger of losing the house and livestock? If I can’t find a way to hold on until my investments pay off, we’ll lose everything. We’ll be beholden to the charity of your sisters, whose husbands can hardly feed their own families.”
I gape at him. “You’re seriously considering this filthy proposal? You want me to agree to it? This Marquis, whoever he is, has never spoken one word to me, and you didn’t even meet him, did you? You have no idea of his character. Suppose he’s unkind to the children?”
Father slumps back in his chair. “You wouldn’t bring the children. He’d provide for their upbringing and education, but they’d go to live with Hortense, or Edmée could go on caring for them here. We could even send Valentin to a school in town. It’s quite a large monthly sum the Marquis is proposing. Hortense would be happy to have the help, I know.”
I shake my head. This can’t be anything but a terrible dream. I was just beginning to grow used to this life, where I can read only in secret, if at all. I’ve resigned myself to the loneliness of village society, to living among people who are good-hearted but unlettered, whose minds and speech are a foreign country to me. And now Father wants to sell me like the pastor’s books, to abandon me to the mercy of some dissolute nobleman, probably thirty years older than I am, buying me sight unseen on the word of his agent, who took a vague liking to my face nearly three years ago. And Valentin and Aimée! I’ve never been apart from them for more than a few weeks, when they went to stay with Hortense after the pastor became ill during his stay in prison. It’s unthinkable.
“Listen,” Father pleads, “I understand it sounds like madness to you. But Monsieur du Herle testified up, down, backwards, and forwards to the Marquis’s good and honorable character. And you’ll be living in luxury, the envy of every village girl. Besides, you won’t be so far away. You’ll live in the Marquis’s hunting lodge in the forest, where he spends most of his time. He has houses in Annecy and Paris too. But he doesn’t mix with society, Monsieur du Herle said. The Marquis means for the arrangement to be perfectly discreet, so that there’ll be no shame for our family or harm to our reputation.”
I raise my eyebrows. “You think the villagers won’t find out?”
He gives a weak shrug. “I don’t know how long we could truly keep it a secret. But the arrangement would keep us afloat until my investments start to pay off. If that doesn’t happen”—he leans back and squeezes his eyes shut—“it’s possible I might be called before a magistrate and end up in prison. And then we won’t just be shamed, we’ll be beggars.”
I close my eyes. “This is monstrous. I’m not some rare book you can sell to get out of debt.”
“There’s more, though. More than all I’ve told you so far. The Piedmont Easter…”
“What about it? That was a century ago. Surely you don’t think—”
My mind races. I remember winter nights before the fire when the pastor used to tell stories of the bloody massacres of the Piedmont Vaudois, making little Aimée weep and Valentin’s face turn sickly green. He conjured visions of infants skewered with spears, children torn to pieces in front of their parents, girls and women violated, the survivors driven into the upper valleys in midwinter, forced to build houses in the snow while more and more of them froze to death.
“I never knew this,” Father says, “but Monsieur du Herle showed me the documents, and it’s beyond dispute. All these years, our villages have bordered the domain of the Marquis’s family. We remained hidden and safe, while the southern Vaudois were tortured and pillaged and slaughtered, because we were under the old Marquis’s protection.”
“Do you mean to say that the Marquis helped us? This same Marquis?”
“It appears the lords of Boisaulne have long had a tradition of tolerance, and they gave us sanctuary without our ever knowing of it. And the present Marquis—he’s never alerted the parish or the governor to the fact that we don’t pay tithes, or that our villages are more than just a few scattered farms. If it weren’t for him, we’d be burdened with the same wretched church taxes as the Vaudois in the south. Your husband was arrested for selling anti-clerical treatises and political pamphlets and helping to smuggle them across the borders of Savoy into France. And if I were called before a magistrate… It might take very little now to spark an inquiry and new persecutions. It’s not a good time to lose an influential neighbor’s favor.”
I feel faint. The hour is growing late, and my mind has become clouded with weariness. “Did Monsieur du Herle really threaten that our villages would lose the Marquis’s support if I didn’t agree to be his…his kept woman?”
“You’re twisting my words all out of proportion. He made no threats. He simply told me this history, as a way of explaining that the Marquis is trustworthy, that we have reason to be grateful to him and believe he’s acting in good faith.”
I’m so tired, I can’t hold back my tears any longer. As angry and wretched as I felt when I was sixteen, when Father told me I had to marry the pastor and live with him above the bookshop in Annecy, this betrayal is a thousand times worse. I know now what marriage is. It means one’s body is not one’s own. It means serving a husband who sees you as housemaid and mother and child all in one. It means hiding your feelings and thoughts and wishes, because everything you do and say must be guided by what will please your husband. And now, to bear those burdens again, to have my children taken from me, and be ruined as well…
Father is crying too. “I know it’s nothing like what you imagined for yourself. It’s not at all what I what wanted for you either. I just can’t see any other way. I leave the choice up to you, but consider all that depends on it. Won’t you at least meet the man? We still have some time to think it over before Monsieur du Herle arrives tomorrow to fetch you.”
“Shh, please! Just sleep on it for now, and we can talk more in the morning.”
Father gets up heavily from his chair and lumbers into his room at the front of the house. I go to the back room that I share with the children, but I don’t undress. I sit on the edge of the bed for a long time, waiting for Father to fall asleep next to Edmée in his bed. At last, in the darkness, I return to the main room and find a couple of empty sacks. Silently, feeling my way in the dark, I fill them with a kitchen knife and what food I can find—hard bread, cheese, some carrots and scallions—as well as a flint and candles. Then I go back to the children’s room and pack a few clothes. Finally, I wake Valentin and Aimée and tell them we’re running away.
The Prisoner of the Castle of Enlightenment is a gothic fairy tale for adults that weaves myth and folklore with the ideas and personalities of the French Enlightenment. In the Alps of Savoy in the mid-1700s, a bookseller’s young widow, Violaine Bergeret, longs for the return of the Book of the Rose, a precious medieval manuscript that her father sold by mistake to the reclusive Marquis de Boisaulne after her husband’s death. But the cost of the book is Violaine’s freedom and honor, for the Marquis has found her poems hidden in the book’s pages and strikes a bargain with her father: Violaine must come live at his hunting manor in the woods in exchange for the payment of her family’s debts.
The Marquis believes that he is the descendant of an ancient ogre of the forest, the Roi des Aulnes, and will meet with Violaine only in the dark. She and the Marquis fall in love without her ever seeing his face. When she complains of being lonely during the days, the Marquis brings artists, philosophers, and libertines from the salons of Paris to entertain her. But an aristocratic sadist among the guests exposes the Marquis’s true identity, threatening him with imprisonment and forcing Violaine to flee into the forest. To save both her new life as an intellectual among equals and her strange, tender lover, Violaine must try to gain the help of the legendary Roi des Aulnes himself.
Therese Doucet lives and works in Washington, DC. She studied cultural history in a Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago for four years and is a former Fulbright fellow as well as a resident fellow at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in literary magazines including Hotel Amerika, Jabberwock Review, and Bayou, and one of her essays was listed as a Notable Essay of the Year in Best American Essays 2011.
Embark, Issue 8, April 2019