Author's Note: Drama, drama, drama! This is from 1999. I love melodrama, in case you can't tell.
You know what I'm gonna say – this one is a mess. It's full of imperfections, clumsy narration and cliches. But it still has a certain charm.
At least, I hope!
There was an hour yet to go, but already the crowd filled the Town Square. Each hot, eager body rubbing grottily up against the other, the harsh and filthy fabrics scraping, the stench of body odour overwhelming, the common sights of dirty bearded men, broken toothed women and each one coughing and laughing, drinking and talking and trying to push greasy hair out of their eyes, or cling to a black-footed child somehow repulsive.
I kept my gaze off them as much as possible, focusing instead on my companion who waded steadily through before me.
I walked as though a man in a dream - my head was swimming, as much from the smell and the heat as for the reason we were there. Every time I lifted my foot to place it in front of the other it was as though my boots were filling with water - getting more and more difficult to simply navigate my body through the sea of people suffocating us. Sweat trickled down my forehead, tickling my nostrils and getting caught up in my beard. I couldn't even lift my hands to wipe the filthy stuff from me, the position we were in right then. A wench with her breasts hanging half out her bodice which might have been once white but was now a washed out grey, much like her eyes and her miserable lined face, was thrust in front of us suddenly, her mouth falling open in a sharp, mirthless laugh, and I shuddered at the gaps in her teeth.
"Oh lah!" she said in a voice raspy from drink as she aspied us. "If isn't handsome old Clopin
Trouillefou slumming amongst the scummy 'gajo'"
My companion, who'd drawn back alertly, with hands out to catch her if she should fall, gave a small bow of acknowledgement. "Aye, Madame it is I, and I am slumming with the common rabble. Far more refreshing than languishing on silken pillows and being fed grapes and wine by a plethora of beautiful women non stop!"
Again her horrible, scratchy laugh, and I repressed a shiver. Let's move on quickly, Clopin.
"You could always make me laugh, Clopin!" she continued bawdily. "Here, you tell this smart one here, wasn't I a beautiful woman thirty odd years ago, gowan, tell him!" She'd grasped a rugged youth, handsome and drunk, and yanked him forward, directly into our path. Clopin's sharp black eyes swept over the boy once, and then back to the whore, a broken replica of a woman, the leery smile on her face belying the hope in her eyes.
Slowly, a smile crossed over my companion's angular brown face, and he gracefully lifted a long arm from beneath the folds of his cap and gently pulled the sleeve of her bodice up over her shoulder, covering her decently once more.
"Yes, Eleanor" he said softly in that voice no woman could resist yet, though he was sixty years of age. "Yes, you were a remarkably beautiful woman."
Her eyes were shiny as she smiled stupidly at my companion, bewitched by his pitch black eyes and his gentle words, before smacking the youth hard over the head with a triumphant. "Ha, there! What did I tell you, you all-assuming rotten little truant!"
The youth drunkenly lifted his head, drool dribbling over his cracked lips. "To look at you now, one would not of thought that Satan himself would take you for his bedfellow, Eleanor!" He said slurrily.
"Ah, what do you know?" she jeered good-naturedly, before whacking him once more and returning her attention to the Centre of the Square. "Wonder who's up for the pyre today?" she continued conversationally, straining to see over the heads and hats and hair which mingled and jammed together, all the way up to the three rows of guards who surrounded the platform, and the ugly sight of the stake with all it's kindling. Beside me my companion had tensed, the long lines of his face pulling into alignment with his long thin body, his eyes masking over. "Clopin, where's that smart-mouthed wife of yours? You're never without her abouts!"
My companion began once again to push his way hard through the crowd, shoving faceless body on faceless body with his wiry, muscular arms, pushing his way back and back, out of the stench of humanity, ignoring the wench's shouts of where he was going, and I made haste to follow, trying to shove as he had done effortlessly, and yet not touch anyone, struggling to keep up.
Finally we broke free of the crowd altogether, clambering up onto a small stonewall on the far
side of the Square, almost directly opposite Notre Dame Cathedral, and the pyre which stood
before it. People milled directly below us, the crowd filling every inch of the Square and
threatening to spill over. We crouched on this small wall, behind us the rickety houses of the
Parisians stretching on for an age, comfortable and small and bright and pretty, before us it's
occupants, dirty and sweating and swearing and foul. I felt ill.
Beside me I noticed my companion was shaking, despite the rigidness of his back, despite the tightness of his jaw, and hesitatingly, I placed a hand on his arm, concealed by the cape.
"The whore didn't know, Clopin." I said softly, and he shrugged me off in irritation.
"I know that, Jean. And Eleanor is no whore."
I sat back and was silent. It was better not to talk to him now. But I stole a worried glance at
the man who was threatening to break beside me at that instant, though he had not broken once before in all his sixty years.
I envied him his looks, for he was still handsome, barely lined, still a wonderful head of hair.
He was still so strong after a lifetime of acrobatics, the slenderness of his body belying it's
wiry strength. The thick black cape he wore made him seem even taller, even darker, his face
shadowed by his battered old blue hat. With a smile he could charm any woman within reach, with a few words he could entrance children and adults from near and far. With a few clever flips he could dazzle us all. He was the Gypsy King, the leader of the Rom, the man who guided us and entertained us and fought for us.
And he sat beside me now and he was breaking.
She'd let them capture her. As the other rom broke into frightened little pieces and scurried back away to the Court of Miracles, she'd stood up with her chest out and her chin high as they approached her and spat on them when they'd caught her, scratching and kicking.
But she was fifty three, and was not so strong nor so fast as she once was, and even more stubborn and opinionated than she had been before. She'd aged well, the body that had once been jeered at as runtish, envied now because it did not run to fat as others her age did. Her hair was long and still a brilliant red. One long streak of grey ran through it, but it seemed to only add to the charm. Her eyes were as sharp as ever, and saw as deep, her pointed little face had never been much one for smiling and so her lines were minimal.
She'd never looked the part of a middle-aged grandmother, but then she'd never looked like anything she'd been throughout her life.
Her name was Herlikin Trouillefou, she was Clopin's wife of over thirty years, she'd borne five children by him, put him through the greatest pain he'd ever known and made up for it double and more by giving him the greatest joy, and a day ago she had been arrested because she and some of the other rom had got it into their stubborn heads that it was wrong they should be forbidden from shopping down the Rue Saint-Denis and had sat themselves all in a row on the street and had refused to move until the soldiers came.
It was such a stupid thing, such an insignificant, unimportant little thing.
And today Herlikin would be burned for it.
Clopin had tried, had tried until midday today to save her. We'd broken into the dungeons, him, myself and some of the other men, armed to the teeth the night previous. But she hadn't been there. God help us, she wasn't there. He'd tried. He sent out scouts, he didn't sleep once, he had Guards followed. But she was nowhere. What had they done with her? I could not forget the way Clopin's body had sagged visibly upon finding the torture chambers empty, the way the colour had drained from his face in one long surge as though it had been sucked out of him. It was relief. He would not of been able to handle seeing her in there.
But worse still, eventually, had been unable to find any trace of her at all. It was as though
they had simply vanished her.
But for one thing. One bright glittering item, so close in colour to the straw it had laid unnoticed until the sharp eyes of Clopin had caught it as we'd turned to leave. I'd followed his gaze and caught the sparkle, but the dimness of my vision prevented me from seeing what it was.
But I'd seen the expression on his face. A strange moment of lost control, flickering painfully
over his face. Then one of the men had whispered we should go, bending swiftly Clopin had scooped the object up. I saw him put it around his neck, tucking it beneath his tunic. But he hadn't said anything. Clopin had been frightened. He had kept control, his face was tight and serious, an alien expression to that jongleur, he had remained calm, barking out orders one by one, even as their youngest daughter wept in his arms. But he had been frightened. There were shadows in his eyes.
Then this morning, the execution was announced. For anyone else they'd be thrown in jail for a few months. But for Herlikin - - The announcement was that the evil witch leader of the heathen gypsies had been captured, even as she had tried to exert a wicked magic over both the good citizens of Paris, and her own kind, rooting them to the spot, until the soldiers of justice had broken the spell. The plague she had set upon the city for thirty seven years would be burned to ashes at sunset.
Oh yes, they knew who she was. Herlikin Trouillefou, Queen of the Rom, Gypsy Joker, a plague of decadence and whim.
More importantly, they knew who her husband was, and what it would mean to him to have his pretty wife burned as a witch in front of the gaje he hated so much.
As midday arrived, he'd been closed to internal hysteria, I could see it. They'd lived most of their lives together, they adored each other, worshipped even, how could they go on without the other? How could they stand to not say goodbye? How could Clopin not feel as though he had failed her by not rescuing her from this terrible fate? How could he live with the guilt?
But when midday had passed and melted into afternoon, so had his anxiety. He had calmed, visibly calmed. His strong brown colour had come back, his eyes no longer seemed such shadowed pits. He moved easier, spoke easier. Had he a plan, I wondered? He had not said, just looked at me with something unfathomable in those deep black eyes, and given his orders for the evening. We had insisted someone accompany him, and finally, he had allowed me. I was one of the eldest, most of the others from our youth being long since dead. Abigail, Tante Marie, Christophe, Renault - all long since become dust. So it was I he allowed.
Minister de Saint-Antoine was taking no chances. The Palace of Justice had been ridiculously
guarded all day long. Three rows of guards surrounded the platform on which the pyre had been set. Each guard was heavily armed and heavily armoured. There was no chance the rom could break through, rescue Herli and win the day, not unless we could incite the gajo to join us. And when had the gajo ever wanted to help the likes of us?
I could see, from our view upon the wall, as the shadows grew longer and my body cooled down now it was out of the crowd, the various rom who milled amongst the gaje. There would be few in the Court tonight. You could not say that Herlikin was adored and beloved by all, but most were fond of her. All appreciated what she was to Clopin. I shielded my eyes with one hand, and squinted hard, my eyes were old, much older than my companion's, and not so sharp as they once were. I could see lovely old Colombine, closer to the pyre than anyone else, and shoving closer still, ignoring the burning bodies that pressed close around her, breathing their filthy air onto her, never once taking her gaze from the platform and the ugly mass of dark wood in the centre of it. Had Clopin then, managed to devise a plan after all? Was the inevitable to become vanquished?
But no - Colombine was alone. No other rom were nearby her. She was very small and very
insignificant in that crowd or pure blooded Parisians. I don't think even Clopin had noticed her
Besides me I heard Clopin let out a great, shuddering breath despite himself, squatting down low on the wall, and pulling his cape closer around him. Now that we were out of the pungent mess of bodies below, I too was noticing the cold, and was glad of the cape I had just moments before cursed. My companion was sweating, though, and his brow was creased as he stared at the tiny space of stained cobblestone that was not occupied by a gaje in the street below us. What could I say to him? He was about to lose his best friend, his life companion, his bedfellow and mother to his children, and could do nothing about it. I held my tongue. Below us in the crowd the noise was incessant, a cacophony of sounds all competing with each other, but above, on this wall, we were pocketed. The sound seemed distant, though it began only four feet below us and spread out fifty times that, but the cool wind and the feelings in our hearts isolated us from it all. It was silent where we were. And it was his voice that broke the silence.
"Jean, you made certain Serephine stayed below, as I instructed?" his voice was quiet, stony. He was fighting his feelings. I turned to look at him, his sharp, angular profile outlined by the
dark gold of the sun which was just beginning to make a slow descent into the horizon. I nodded.
"Oui." my voice was hoarse. "Lena stayed with her, with your grandchildren. I don't know about your boy's, or Lena's husband."
His brow puckered again, and a small smile twisted his lips as he continued to stare straight
ahead. "If only we could tell the men what to do as we do the women, eh?"
I laughed a little and laid a hand on his shoulder.
It was such a bitter irony that all this would not be happening, that Herlikin would not even
have began the protest, had the ban not interfered with her shopping expeditions.
Suddenly, there was a surge of noise in the crowd. A long shout which washed over them, and both Clopin's and my head jerked up, and we scrambled to our feet, Clopin's breath becoming ragged, as she was led out, surrounded by guards, looking so small, so harmless between them and their armour and crossbows. Gone were her spangled gowns, and vibrant red skirts, her glittery jewellery and fancy headscarves. She was dressed in a tattered piece of white fabric, her hair scattered around her face, her thin little wrists manacled. But her head was up, and she stared defiantly ahead, as I knew she would. She looked scornfully out at the crowd which jeered and spat at her, as though this whole fiasco were not worth her time. She did not fight or struggle as they lashed her cruelly to the stake, as the Minister de Saint-Antoine stared at her stonily with a curled lip and a despising eye. She would not even grace him with a glance from her queenly little face. I caught, from the corner of my eye, Clopin searching her over desperately, searching for a mark of any kind, any sign that she might be in pain. But she stared straight ahead, as though she were not even there, gazing at the crowd but not seeing them. Once the Minister turned his back to her to address his audience, her head jerked up and she began to search, searching for us, I realised.
I could not hear the Minister's words, they were gobbled up by the crowd as soon as they left his mouth, but I did not care. She could not see us from so far away, surely, not with the setting sun in her vision and her poor eyesight. But Clopin's chin inclined forward, he lifted his hand a little and I caught the glint of something shiny in his grip, a small gold and silver pendant, and immediately her eyes arrested upon us - or more specifically, upon Clopin. I squinted harder, so hard my eyes burned, but I could see there was a small, relieved smile on her face. Tearing my gaze away from that tattered little figure I saw it mirrored on Clopin's own. They were smiling for each other, tiny loving smiles, and I knew they knew something the rest of us didn't. I laid an urgent hand on Clopin's, who took no notice of me.
"Clopin, if we're going to do something, we'd best do it fast! They'll light her in a moment!" I whispered savagely, sweat once again coursing down my cheeks, the setting sun behind and around us burning through the fabric of my cape and making me uncomfortable warm again. The sky was already becoming dark above us, and hanging over the Cathedral of Notre Dame was the pale outline of the moon, not yet ripened, but there and watching. Clopin did not look at me, but lifted my hand from his arm and gently gave it back to me. His voice was frighteningly calm.
"I am going to do something, Jean. I'm going to do what Herli wants me to do."
I was flabbergasted. "What are you talking about? How do you know? What does she want?"
The Minister had finished his speech and had turned to address Herlikin, blocking her from our view. I knew the routine - he was telling her to recant before she died, never mind she didn't believe in their empty God with his empty promises, so at least she could die with clear
conscience. I felt ill again. Clopin had turned his head away from me, and was fumbling beneath his cape.
"I know what she wants, Jean. I always know." his voice wasn't calm now, it was trembling, and I felt horror in my gut like ice when he turned around again, facing the crowd, and I saw tears on his cheeks. A man like Clopin never cried, why did he cry now?
Then I saw the crossbow he held close before him, and alarm filled my throat.
"Clopin, what is going on?"
But he did not hear me. He did not see me. He stared once more at his love, and she stared back at him, The Minister having finally moved to the side and addressing the crowd for the last time before he gave the executioner, clad in cold black, alien and silent, the signal. The sun had almost set, its warm rays still strong over the ground, and the moon had burst into full bloom, shining coldly in the sky.
"I love you more than life, Herli." he whispered. A pause and then, "I won't."
He raised the crossbow to his shoulder and whispered savagely to it. "Right, you great white
beast, you hated me when you lived, but guide this arrow, guide it for her sake."
I hesitated, my head screaming, my thoughts flying, before leaping forward to place a hand on the crossbow, trying to wrench it from his grip. He let out an agonized cry that shuddered in my ears, and pushed me off violently, so violently I almost fell from the wall. I backed up in fear, the man glaring at me did not seem to be the one I knew, his lips curled, his teeth clenched and his eyes crazed. I gulped back the lump in my throat as he turned once to raise the crossbow to his shoulder and I found my voice.
"Clopin! Are you insane? You can't slaughter the Minister!"
"Come no closer, Jean." his voice was a quiet warning full of danger. "Stay where you are."
"Clopin think, man! You can't kill him! Think what will happen to the rest of us!! They'll slaughter us like cattle." And again I leapt forward, my hands outstretched, my expression narrowed in determination, but I froze in my place as his head whipped around and his jewel like eyes glittered venomously at me. I'd never known fear of Clopin Trouillefou before, but I knew it of him now. When he spoke his voice was like breaking ice, cold and sharp.
"I'll slaughter you like a pig if you stop me from doing this, Jean. Do not doubt that of me.
Do you think me a fool? You will let me act."
I took a faltering step back, not fully realising what was about to happen, but knowing, knowing what was going on. Could I believe it? Not really. Certainly not in time. He spoke once more, and the ice had melted, it was just a rushing stream of pain, of love.
"I'll be with you soon, Lune." and released the arrow. It sang over the heads of the Crowd, just as the Executioner stepped forward with the torch in his hand, just as the Minister began to recite his Latin prayers, just as Herlikin threw back her head, and thrust her chest forward.
It hit it's mark, directly in her heart, as she lowered her head for the last time to look at her husband, before it slowly slumped forward on her chest, her hair falling around the arrow which stuck straight out, her body sagging limply against her bonds.
A silence swept the crowd, the Minister drew back with a pale and haggard face, the Executioner almost dropped the torch in shock. Then pandemonium ensued. The crowd rose up, foolishly, trying to fight with each other to get out of the Square, to get away from arrows which flew out of nowhere, to get away from the dead body of a poor old gypsy woman, and the triumph that had been snatched from under the Minister's nose. Frightened screams railed across the air, children sobbed, people shouted as they were trodden on, and crushed underfoot.
I could do nothing, but stare at my King in shock, even as he stood gazing still at his wife's
pale little body, could do nothing but take a few steps backward, not knowing what to say, not knowing what to think.
He dropped the crossbow with a sharp clatter into the streets below, before shrugging his cape from his shoulders, standing up straight with the last rays of the dying sun behind him, and
pulling his sharp dagger from out of its sheath, holding it up high.
Then in front of my old eyes, he slit his own throat.
I ran. Like a coward I ran, leaping down from the wall into the streets beyond the square, and
pelting forward, wanting nothing but to get home, wanting nothing but to forget what I had just
seen. Through the streets I ran and ran, passing one entrance to the Court after another and not even realising it. For a long time I ran, until finally my old bones gave way and I had to fling myself into the streets, my body drenched in sweat, my breath coming in great ragged gasps, my side full of a stabbing pain. I lay in the streets and savoured the coolness of the rank cobblestone. I might have cried a little. I don't know.
I did not return to the Court until the morning. Their five children, their spouses and their children were already isolated with their tent, in full mourning, the tent hung heavily with black. The Court was silent, the women cooking great scores of food for the bereaved family in silence, the men went about their work in silence. Even the children played silently. I stumbled through the Court drunkenly, not being able to get the images of what had happened the night before from my mind. They were imprinted there, like the mark of God.
And everywhere, throughout the Court, the silence was deafening.
Somehow, I found my way to a bench, where I fell down upon it. Somehow I found a tankard of beer, and I drank greedily, thirstily. Somehow I became aware that old Colombine had fallen down beside me, sobbing hopelessly, the strange sound of mourning so loud, too loud, in this silent cavern beneath the city of Paris.
Colombine clung to me desperately with claw-like hands, although we had never been close before. But I had been with Clopin when it all happened.
"She wasn't afraid, Jean!" her voice was wracked with grief, but there was pride there too. "She didn't cry, she didn't fear! And when she spoke - oh - it was as though she'd never fear again!!
I've never heard her speak with such emotion before, with such love, with such longing!"
My brow creased as I caught up her wrists at her words and shook her gently.
"What do you mean, when she spoke?" I questioned softly.
"She spoke!" Colombine beat upon my chest with her brown little hands. "She spoke before she died!"
It did not sink in straight away. Dazedly, my hands smoothed her unruly greying hair,
automatically I said shh shh and soothed her. Then I remembered Colombine had been close by to Herli.
"What did she say?" I asked her softly, hoarsely. We were making too much noise. The rom around us sidled by with sidewards glances.
Colombine sat up, wiping tears from her puckered eyes, the lines around her mouth more prominent in her unhappiness. "She said - " she took a shuddering breath and continued "she said - 'I love you more than life, Clopin. Please don't let them win'." She gasped again, and buried her head in her skirts, her shoulders shaking violently beneath her sobs. My heart stopped a second, I am sure of it, before continuing cold and hard, thudding loudly in my chest. I remembered the words Clopin had spoke before releasing the arrow. I remembered the way they had looked at each other. My throat was dry suddenly, I licked my lips, and wrenched Colombine's grief-stricken head from her skirts.
"Anything else?" I said urgently, as she stared at me from bloodshot eyes, sniffling to herself.
She gulped again, and nodded slowly. "One last thing. Just before he - just before - oh hell! She said, 'I'll wait for you there, Soleil'. Let me go, Jean, let me go."
I did, and she buried her head once more within her skirts, sobbing again, her black and grey
hair mingling prettily with her white and black dress. I rose to my feet, my heart now pounding
in my skull as well as my chest, and I left her there, left her to stride across the Court, my
thoughts racing wildly, sweating once more.
Their bodies had been amazingly recovered. The guards had lost control on the crowd, and the Minister had hastened away, fearing for his own miserable, cowardly life. Poor little Herli, the cause of all the whole affair, had been forgotten, but it had enabled two of the men to steal her body. Clopin's body had been overlooked, it had fallen from the wall we had sat upon, down onto the hard cobblestones below, lying there like one of his puppets. Both had been brought back during the night, cleaned and laid out. Both were of course, covered with sheets and flowers. They would be buried soon. The souls were long since gone, the bodies stayed only for the brief last respects.
They lay, stretched out, covered from head to toe, side by side on a table within the Court, a
table which would be later chopped up and burnt. Faceless now, I had no idea what damage had been done to their bodies in the streets above. They were blank and silent beings. I stood and stared at those stiff outstretched figures, the air around them dizzying with the scent of
flowers, the candles that burned quietly dripping wax steadily onto the stone floor, side by side in death as they had been in life. But no. They had been one in life. That is why Clopin could not go on without her, why she could not if their roles had been reversed. That is why he had been able to steady his hand to kill her so that the gaje could not, why he had gone then to join her.
They had made the greatest sacrifice they could for each other, and now they were one in death, just as they were in life.
For thirty-seven years they had led the Rom in Paris, laughing at the gaje, mocking the fools who were frightened to live, pitying those who let themselves be intimidated, daring to build a life and family and flaunt it for all to see. Just when the Parisians thought they had destroyed it, they claimed yet another victory, claimed it effortlessly - the greatest sacrifice? Yes. But it
was not an effort for them to do this for each other. It was natural.
More than any other leaders before them, they had shaped the Court and made it what it was today. More than any other leaders before them, they had placed themself in the public eye, they had dared to fight and speak up for themselves, dared to dazzle by being exactly what they were. They were not perfect, but they had never pretended to be. They had lived to live. Their story would live on, their legacy and legend. The story of their battles against the bastard gajo. The tales of their bizarre ideals and plans. The legends of their phenomenal fights, their stunning performances, all contrived to outdo the other. The story of how they would do anything to win.
Most of all, the legend of how they would do anything so that they might always be together.