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La Belle Christiane
2011 Copyright Lyn Cote
All rights reserved
Chapter Seventeen Scene 2
“Of course not, Why would he tell her about them?” Alfred answered reproachfully. “Come now and I’ll give you a hand. I won’t be needed here for a few hours.” The door closed behind them. For several seconds Christiane was too stunned to feel anything. Then she became aware of the sensation of suffocation. She gasped for breath and realized that, in fact, she had stopped breathing for those few moments. A wife? A daughter? She must have misunderstood them. Must have.
Painstakingly she reviewed the conversation she had heard. Try as hard as she could, she could not devise a different interpretation. If they had been talking about some other major, some other lordship, why had Alfred said he was most pleased? From Alfred’s manner toward her, she knew that her liaison with John had pleased Alfred immensely. He would not care about any other officer’s love interest, only his own lord’s.
She stepped out from the screen and, clenching and unclenching her hand, she paced tensely. If only John were here, but he was in his important meeting on the floor above. How could she broach this subject to him? And whatever his answer, how would she verify it? Just moments before she had been so secure in her trust of him. Now she was staggered. She had to know if this were true. She could go nowhere with him till she knew the truth.
Who could she ask? Not Alfred. He would only want to protect his master. Lord Hazelton? It would put him in an awkward position if it were true. And he might lie to cover another man’s indiscretion or to preserve her feelings. Anyway Hazelton was in the meeting also.
Mrs. Loring? Yes. That woman knew every bit of gossip worth knowing and she had been with General Howe since Boston. Christiane did not wait. Within moments she was rapping at the general’s door.
Mrs. Loring, upon hearing Christiane’s voice, invited her in. “Christiane dear, I did not expect such an early call from you this morning,” the blonde said languidly. Indeed the Sultana was still abed in a luxurious cream, satin negligee. Her long flaxen hair still hung freely around her shoulders. It occurred forcefully to Christiane that, though she knew exactly what she wanted to find out, she had not taken any thought of how to achieve it. The direct approach here was completely out of the question.
“Good morning,” Christiane began, her mind racing ahead trying to form a plan. “I was just out on my way for a ride and I thought I would stop in for a minute. I keep hoping it might warm up a bit more.”
“Dream on, my dear. Winter. I hate it. How you can enjoy riding in the cold. Not for me. Is your major at that dreary meeting, so hush-hush?”
“Yes,” Christiane answered, still groping. She would have to be bold. Sitting down on the bed beside Mrs. Loring, she turned and said conspiratorially, “May I confide in you?”
A light flashed in the blonde’s eyes. “Of course, my dear, who would you confide in but me?”
“John, Major Eastham, has asked me to go away with him.”
“Really?” Mrs. Loring probed with interest, “Where?”
“The West Indies.”
“The tropics! What a delightful place to spend the winter. If only William could get away. Eastham will resign his commission then?”
“Yes, if I consent.”
“Well, what’s hindering you?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Christiane stood up and turning her back to her companion, walked casually over to the vanity. “I mean–” she kept her voice light, “–a man, with a wife and a child, how generous can he be?” It had come out just right. She had betrayed no concern, not natural to a mistress.
Mrs. Loring chuckled. “Oh, them. William told me all about that in New York. Quite a model of faithfulness was the major till you came along.” The blond turned to flattery. “But how could a man let a woman like you just pass by?”
The blonde’s voice took on a dreamy quality. “That’s what William said to me in Boston when he asked me to come with him. How could a man let a woman like you just pass by?”
While the vain woman lost herself in romantic reverie, Christiane fought for control. She gripped the back of the gilded vanity chair while alternate waves of frost and fire inundated her body. She must get away and think.
She mastered herself. “Then you think I should go?” she asked coolly, surprising herself with her own performance.
“Oh, yes, he is fabulously wealthy. The situation would only be to your advantage. After a while in the Indies, you could always persuade him to take you back to England or better yet France. And he is such an amusing man, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he is. I thank you for your advice. Now I must be off for my ride. I will see you later then?” Christiane continued automatically while her heart still raced.
“Of course, my dear. Good day.”
Christiane let herself out. Her feet took her back to the empty room. Tossing aside her cape, she paced in agitation. Her mind taunted her with the accusation of John’s deception while her heart cried out that it could not be true.
Why hadn’t Lord Hazelton told her the truth? But why would he? He would assume that she was like her mother. Mistresses did not care about wives and children. Hazelton would not suspect that she had desired marriage and that John had promised it. She had heard of sham weddings where a man paid someone to perform a bogus ceremony, but was the major really capable of that? Or had he intended somehow to promise marriage, but to postpone it? Would he have let her teach her son to call him father, only to leave them when he decided to return home? Or had he convinced himself that since she would never be in England with him that an invalid marriage was as good as a valid one in spirit and that he would provide for her in any case?
How did a wife and daughter fit into his life? Why had he been at the fort those years before he came down to enter these hostilities? Did a man with a wife and a child stay away from home for years? A man might if he were desirous to be away from that wife. She knew that most noble marriages were arranged for considerations of money and family connections.
Had any of his story at the inn been true? Had he substituted a dead wife for a very live one that he could not tolerate? Her head hurt from thinking. Her heart was pained by being forced to feel these thoughts. When would the meeting be over and what would she do when it was? She wandered over to her place by the window and stared down. A feeling of being in limbo clutched her. Their carefully laid plans, what would become of them now?
How long she stood there was uncertain. The outdoor scene below her moved through its daily routine while she watched in a trance. Till suddenly something unusual caught her eye. A stranger, tall in the saddle, wearing a brown greatcoat galloped into the yard.