Without opening her eyes, Clothilde-Oline Steiner knows that it is almost time to get up; for the day holds a pristine, untouched sort of silence that only exists in the hours before the cock crows. She attempts to keep from waking up any further by pulling the coverlet over her head, and then she puts her hands over her ears as a safeguard—but no such luck, for the earsplitting sound of the rooster breaks through all of her defenses as clearly as if none were there. Clothilde sighs, brushes her limp black hair out of her eyes, and stumbles out of bed to get dressed. Germany, France, twelve or seventeen—life is the same no matter what.
Her father Rutger is already at table when Clothilde arrives in the kitchen, with his thick straight eyebrows and frowning mouth suggesting annoyance at a piece of paper before him. It is probably due to the cost of iron nowadays, or something to do with the forge, or likely both. His assistant Etienne, the baker's son, is a very nice boy; but even Clothilde can see that he is unskilled at smith-work and would rather be somewhere far away.
After a moment, Clothilde sees her father is too engrossed in what he is reading to notice her, so she raises a hand to her mouth and clears her throat before passing through the doorway. "Guten Morgen, Vater." Rutger looks up and a smile comes across his face easily, so she gives a sigh of relief in her thoughts and takes a seat at the table with a light heart.
"Guten Morgen, Hilda." Rutger looks at the paper again and scratches something out, then writes something else while asking, "Are you going to market today, dear?"
"Oh yes, Vater. I had meant to go yesterday for bread, but I had been busy with chores..." Hilda takes the second-to-last roll of bread from the basket and looks around for butter, which Rutger passes to her from his side of the table. "And, Vater?"
"Do you think I could buy cloth to make a new dress for winter?"
"But of course you may, Hilda." Her father looks at her and smiles more directly when he sees her uncertain expression. "It was good of you to think of it now, before the snow and cold start to set in. Wait until after breakfast, and I will give you some money." So Clothilde smiles back and thanks him, as would any daughter who had been properly brought up.
As always, Clothilde is unnoticed while she meanders through the daily wave of people coming to and from the market, noisy from set up to clean up. After bidding the baker a good day and buying a length of some nice gray poplin for a new dress, she is suddenly caught in a mishmash of people who shift from going about their normal lives to pretending to go about their normal lives. Over the years, Clothilde recognized and even participated in this ritual of gawking at the strangers who had just moved to Molyneaux (though she tried to be as polite as possible about it).
However, she is at the back of the crowd and much too small to peer over the heads of all the young men shoving themselves to the front, so Clothilde tugs meekly at the seamstress' sleeve. "Madame Danielle?"
"Yes, dear?" The seamstress says this without looking at either Clothilde or the fabric she was sorting through not a minute before.
"What is happening?"
"Oh, there's a new family in town--a father and daughter, but no wife, they say." Danielle stands up on tiptoe to squint over the crowd. Though her height allows her to do easily what Clothilde cannot, her girth is wide from bearing three daughters and three sons so the maneuver is quick and not particularly useful. "Well, the girl has brown hair," the seamstress tells her. "But you'll have to see the rest of her for yourself, my dear."
"Ah... All right." Clothilde stares at the unyielding wall of apron strings and backs of men's coats. She cannot possibly slog her way through all that, so she sighs wearily. Beside her, Danielle begins to resume sorting fabric as usual so out of politeness she asks, "Do you need any help with that, Madame?"
"Oh no, I shall call one of my daughters... Justine?" the woman bellows into the crowd. "Idette? Good heavens, where are you all?" Idette's twin sister Henriette manages to squeeze past the crowd with the sharp, decisive grace of a waterbird diving for fish, and helps her mother. Clothilde attempts to push through but only manages a weak 'excuse me' to any person who would be likely to move, which results in her remaining mostly at the back by the time the strangers are done with their business and heading home.
The young men, however, are still at the front though the wall begins to crack somewhat. Etienne-the-baker's-son sighs lightly while Clothilde passes. "She is beautiful, that's for sure." His cousin Georges and Etienne-Danielle's-son both give dreamy nods as they stare into a distance. Clothilde looks sharply in that direction, but only sees a brown head of hair to top a blue and white smudge on the wagon that is rolling away.
So much for making friends. Clothilde folds her poplin and smoothes out the wrinkles before heading in the other direction to her own home.
Her father Rutger is drawing water for his forge and for the house when she arrives home, and makes no comment on her being at least twenty minutes later than usual. "Good morning, dear," he calls from the well. "Did you know, Hilda--there's a new family in town?"
"Oh yes, Father. I had heard about it during market."
"Well, he stopped here to buy some parts from me not two hours ago. He's an inventor."
"Really?" Clothilde asks, hope rising. If that is correct, it means he will likely do business with her father very often and she will have a chance to meet the new girl herself. "What was his family like, Father?"
"His daughter stayed on the wagon... but she seemed nice enough. I think her name was Belle."
She is beautiful, that's for sure. "Oh."
About a week or two after the much talked about arrival of Belle, Clothilde is washing dishes while her father dries them. Before her mother died of fever seven years ago, this half-hour or so in the evening after dinner was usually spent talking. With Rutger speaking in German to her and Giselle speaking French while calling her Oline, Clothilde at times switching languages within the same sentence, newcomers in their old town often mistook the Steiner family for having two daughters and were often surprised to find that only one existed. Giselle found it hilarious.
These days, Rutger seldom asks her any questions as Giselle would have done. He merely takes a plate from her and dries it with the same concentration he gives to his work, and being too well-brought-up to speak up herself Clothilde finds it a duller time than before, dragging on for eternities on despite the fact that it takes less time to finish. On occasion, she also feels homesick, which is odd; but the silence both within and without the house is how they hear two pairs of footsteps heading up the path to their doorway.
"One moment, Hilda," Rutger says. They are his first words of the evening besides grace. Her father whisks his hands across the towel and shakes most of the water away, then adjusts his clothes in order to look presentable just in time for the knock.
"Salut, Rutger?" The voice is unfamiliar to Clothilde. She stands up straight in order to peer through the window and glimpses not only the inventor but the tall, feminine silhouette of his daughter, with head tilted down demurely.
"Bonsoir, Maurice," her father replies. "Je comment vous-aidez?"
Though Clothilde notices her father's mistake, Maurice does not and neither does his daughter--or, they are simply too polite to say anything about it. Maurice in particular seems preoccupied. "Say, Rutger, do you remember those parts I asked you for recently?"
"Yes. Was there something wrong with them?"
"No, not at all! But I'm going to need another one of every part as soon as possible, and... well, the problem is that I didn't make a list of exactly which ones I need."
Recognizing the situation, Rutger stands aside to let both of them pass through. "Please come in, both of you, and sit down. My daughter will bring you something--unless you'd rather go to my workshop first?" Maurice nods to the last one and enters quickly. His daughter remains, and as the light from the house falls on her Clothilde realizes she is not simply bowing her head but reading. Even with a half-covered face, Clothilde can clearly see Belle lives up to her name.
"Bonsoir," she says politely. Nothing happens; but then, Clothilde has a very soft voice so she is not often heard on the first try. Not to mention the brunette seems engrossed in whatever she is reading. "Bonsoir," she repeats, somewhat louder but also twice as timid as before.
"Oh!" Belle jumps a bit, snaps her book shut and laughs. "I'm sorry--I couldn't stop at that part." She smoothes her hair back and then resumes the niceties. "Bonsoir. May I come in?"
"Yes, of course." Thrilled at the chance to try and make friends in a place where she is actually comfortable, Clothilde leads Belle to the empty kitchen table and starts puttering around for something to pass the time. Her father and Maurice are likely to be in the smithy for a while. "Would you like a drink or something to eat? We have, ah... some Kreppel..."
"Well, I just had dinner. But water would be nice, thank you. My name is Belle."
Clothilde pours two cups of water while Belle rearranges her skirts at the table, then sits down to the left. "I am Clothilde-Oline, but you may call me Clothilde. It's very nice to meet you, Belle."
"It's nice to meet you, too." With that, as well as a kind but distracted smile, Belle returns to perusing her book. Several moments pass by--an uncomfortable silence for Clothilde, yet of absolutely no visible importance to the brunette--before Clothilde gives in and clears her throat lightly.
"What are you reading?"
"This? Actually... I'm not sure yet! I borrowed it yesterday, and I'm only on the first chapter." Belle slides her chair around the corner of the table so she is now sitting next to Clothilde. The move is unexpected, but Clothilde manages to recover quickly and keep calm until the blue-clad girl asks, "Would you like to read with me?"
"Ah..." Normally she would be excited to have such a sociable girl for company, but a glance at the unfamiliar lettering reveals that the book is written in French. "W-well... I do know how to read German, to a point, but I have not had lessons in French for years..."
"Why can't you read French?" Belle asks. To her it seems a very grave injustice, and though she doesn't even sound angry at all Clothilde shrinks from the suddenly serious tone. "I'll teach you if you like--"
"Oh, nein--non!" The talk of Germany and Belle's fondness of reading is already starting to give Clothilde some fearful mixed feelings. "We moved here when I was twelve, but ever since Maman died, Father does not want me to learn to read French because… because he says it would remind him too much of her."
"But that's terrible, Clothilde!" Belle stands up and takes her by the wrist. She cannot be much older in terms of age, but with such an expression of indignance on her pretty face she looks like a protective older sister, one who will go perhaps to much greater lengths than the average young woman when her blood is up. "We're going to your father right away to say that he cannot keep being so selfish!"
"Please, Belle, don't speak so loudly! And please don't go to my father. What do you have to gain?"
"Nothing," Belle says, a clear sign she is used to getting her own way. "Except a clear conscience."
"Yes, that's right... Nothing." While the shift in tone attracts Belle's attention, the brunette tilts her head a bit, uncertain as to what point Clothilde is making. She sighs. "Your father, Belle--what is he doing here?"
"Getting parts... for his new invention."
"Right. And do you think you can burst in there and disturb one of their first business deals just because you learned my father will not allow me to learn to read French?" Belle's face sets stubbornly, but Clothilde goes on. "I've managed very well without that for my whole life up till now, but your father cannot work on his inventions and put bread on your table if the only smith in town will give him shoddy wares, or refuse to give him anything at all. My father is a good man, but he does not forgive things so easily."
The sudden outburst has no doubt surprised Belle, for she simply stares for a moment before taking a breath to speak. Then the door opens and the brunette closes her mouth quickly, sitting down with a swish of her blue and white skirts. Maurice is holding a large cloth-wrapped bundle and looks quite pleased while Rutger gives him a friendly clap on the back since they cannot shake hands. "There you are, Maurice. If you have need of anything else, feel free to come any time. Shall I lend you my horse for the night?"
"No, but thank you very much, Rutger!" The shorter man attempts to look over his package. "Belle?"
"I'm here, Papa."
"Ah, good. We'll just be on our way now, Rutger. Goodbye--and to you too, Clothilde."
"Bonsoir, Monsieur." Belle stands up and pushes her sleeves up in order to help her father. The movements are beautiful, like the rest of her, but Clothilde can see a flash of her guarded expression before it changes to pleasantness. Together, the pair makes their way out of the house side by side. While the homebound pair stands at the door, Rutger waves at them smiling; Clothilde merely clasps her hands behind him and waits.
Her father will be in a better mood than usual for days, surely, but she feels her part of the evening did not go so well at all. She wishes she had learned to read French from her mother, or accepted Belle's offer quietly (the brunette seems the sort who would not have taken no for an answer), or just sat there awkwardly watching Belle read without bringing anything up until their fathers had returned. To make herself feel better, Clothilde tries to plan out what her new dress will look like. But instead of gray poplin and her faded cream-colored shirts she sees blue and the clear white of fabric fresh from the tailor's.
She wonders if this was a mistake.