"Did you love my father?"
"Well, I barely knew him. Go way, I'm tired."
Many years ago, Rodmilla de Courfeyrac had been the daughter of a lowly baronet who, out of sheer need for money, had struck a deal with a wealthy glassmaker in the process of purchasing fiefs, and had married his eldest daughter.
It was not a match that had brought her parents much pride or happiness, and it was not a union that kindled any fond memories in her mind, either. As long as she recalled her parents had been at each other's backs; her father, frequenting whorehouses and returning drunk in the morning, her mother overcompensating for her non-noble background by training Rodmilla (quite literally) with the rod. If the not so hushed sniping was not enough, there had been the broken cups, her mother's unevenly applied powder barely disguising the sleeping bruises beneath, the frosty silence that made winter outside seem warm.
No, her parents' union had not brought anything she looked upon with warmth. Except, perhaps, for her mother's genes.
She was glad she had inherited her mother's cheekbones. Her father's features were insipid. Baron. If the stories were true, he would have run the family name into the ground.
Needless to say, she had been eager to leave; when the Baron de Ghent had come calling at her parents' place more than twice, she was swift to show more affection than she felt she could muster. After all, Pierre de Ghent was wealthy, without a trace of trade blood in his family tree; he was not unkind, and if he was somewhat insipid in spirit, well, he had a fine nose and facial features. Their children would be handsome, and if she could not love him, perhaps she could love them.
Indeed, she had grown to be fond of him, and especially fond of their eldest daughter, with her lovely, sun-spun hair. The youngest had a predilection for food, but of course that could be trained, and at the very least, she had a shapely nose.
Of course, their life was quiet; quieter than she would have liked, but even so, it was pleasant. Pierre had taken her to Paris in the second year of their marriage, when she had carried the young Marguerite, and she had danced in the court, heard the whispers of that handsome young Baronness and her admirable husband. He was in the army, too, and oh but he had looked fine when in his regimental gear.
She did not like to think that it was in his regimental gear that he died.
Thirteen months since she had heard the news.
Staring out the window, she wrapped the robe slightly tighter, tried to ignore the tremble in her right arm. It was still cold in the mornings, of course she would shiver.
(And it was so cold, so empty in bed.)
Thirteen months of turning around, expecting to find someone, reaching out to a cold space. Thirteen months of waiting at home because what wife went out to court or to balls when her husband was at war? And what then, when he was dead?
Her father had sent her a letter about it; several letters, in fact. She had read the first three, then burned the rest in the fire. (Poor little Marguerite was terribly sensitive to the cold.) He was short of money, again, it seemed. And she was a widow.
I wonder what he would say if he knew my books, she thought ruefully, and eyed the dress her maid had laid out for her.
Plain, it was so plain.
At least it wasn't all black. She was lost, so lost without Pierre, but wearing black did nothing to help show her what she ought to do or where she could go. And besides, no man would go near her while she was wearing it. What was the point in having money in a world where only the merchants would glance at her, and then, only for business?
She heaved a sigh, closed her eyes, turned from the window.
If her maid heard the daggers she had coated in her words, she did not show it.
"Madame, there is no time, we must get you dressed now, the Baron de Barbarac has come to call again!" her maid panted, lifting up the gown and staring wildly at Rodmilla. "Madame!"
The Baron de Barbarac.
Who was he, again? Where had she met him? It must have been at Lucille's party the other night. But who had he been? She had met several men there (it seemed that barons were almost a dime a dozen nowadays; she wondered if her mother's father had succeeded in buying his way into the baronet yet, or if he had been unwilling to relinquish his foot in the trade). There had been the baron whose wife was with child, the itinerant baron who had some property in Berberac (and she had noticed him then, for it was known that the King and Queen often spent their summers in Dordogne), the baron who had clearly bought his way into the baronetcy and who thumped his goblet on the table when asking for more wine, the baron... well, there must have been others.
"Who is this Baron de Barbarac?" she asked, feigning boredom, as Sophie fiddled with the laces on her dress. "Why has he come to call?"
"Oh, Mistress, I don't know," said Sophie fretfully. "There, now, you look lovely, the finest lady I know; 'e said that you had indicated that you wouldn't be averse to 'im calling, but it is so early in the morning and Jacqueline 'asn't 'ad breakfast-"
"Thank you, Sophie," she half snarled, wrenching the brush from her maid. "If you will not brush my hair, I will do it."
He said that you had indicated that you wouldn't be averse to him calling.
Dear heavens, had she done that? Led a baron on? She had just married a baron! She had wealth (well, technically she had wealth)- surely she could aim higher than that!
Sophie was almost mewling in consternation by the time Rodmilla handed back the brush. Rodmilla cast one last withering look at the maid before sweeping out of her room and down the stairs.
That was one thing she could perhaps do if she married, and married far away; leave behind some of the workers in this godforsaken place. Sophie, in particular, was a thistle in her side, and the girl was always so eager to please that she ended up botching whatever task was set before her more often than not.
By the time she reached the room, at least twenty minutes had passed since Sophie's outburst. At least this baron, whomever he was, was only a baron.
"Baron de Barbarac," she said smoothly, sailing into the room, "how kind of you to come calling- and so soon after the dinner!"
He bowed, and as he bent forwards, her eyes adjusted, or the room fell into place, and she looked at his shoulders, his hair, his posture, and remembered.
"Oh, Rodmilla, this is one of Eric's dearest friends; Baron de Barabarac, let me introduce you to the Baroness de Ghent!"
There was not anything particularly special about him. There had not been last night, and there was not today. He had not the fine features that Pierre had had, lacked the bone structure that she valued (bones lasted, even if other features did not). And yet, as he looked at her briefly, there was something about his gaze that made her breath catch, ever so slightly. Something about his eyes.
"My name is Auguste, Baroness," he said quietly, and she wondered at his strange manners.
Calling himself Auguste! Why, as if he was a free farming peasant!
"My name is Rodmilla," she said, feeling as though she were smashing dozens of unwritten laws of etiquette. "What occasion brings you here so early?"
The Baron - Auguste- smiled a little at that, let out a hesitant laugh.
"I hope you do not think me presumptuous," he began.
I already do.
"- I could not help but recall the way you spoke of your daughters. Your eldest daughter, she is eight this summer, am I right?"
"Marguerite," she supplied, almost before she could help it, and she thought of her daughter's poise, her smile, her beautiful hair, and smiled. "Indeed. Thank you for remembering."
He looked at her, really looked, and smiled.
His eyes, his eyes!
"I see you are very fond of your daughter," he said, and there was a level of excitement in his voice that trembled, almost physically, in each word. "It is a beautiful thing to witness."
Beautiful to witness.
And he wasn't merely talking about her appearance (something she was somewhat used to)- and somehow it meant something, something she had not felt in so long she was not sure if she had felt it before.
"You see," he continued, looking at her earnestly, "my own daughter, Danielle, is to be eight this spring, and I should like to bring her a present when I next return home. It is my custom to bring a book, but I do not know what to buy a young girl- and I did not know whom to ask, but then I remembered meeting you. I thought to myself what a distinguished lady you are, but to learn that you are a mother!- and an affectionate mother!" He stopped, paused. "But I have spoken too much. I apologise."
Rodmilla was not entirely certain what to make of him. He was looking at her with such warmth, such earnestness, and in his voice there was such feeling as she had not heard any man express! And he had come calling first thing in the morning, having met her last night- and yet here he was, speaking of his daughter?
- ah, but of course!
"I find that whatever I find, if Marguerite knows I chose only the best for her, she will like it," she said smoothly, hoping to hide her smile.
(For what man did come calling on a woman whom he had but recently met to speak of daughters?)
"And she knows that I look," she added, smiling coyly at him, "I do not settle for what is inferior."
Somewhere in the back of her mind she had the vague suspicion that an argument was brewing, and it had something to do with settling, barons, and inferiority.
But then the Baron- Auguste- smiled at her, and his eyes were so warm and kind (and Pierre had never looked at her like that in their seven years of marriage) that she batted the voice away.
"So you find- anything," he said, a smile quirking at the side of his mouth.
"Oh, not anything," she said, "Abomination, to find simply anything! No; it has to be something that I think she will like. For Marguerite, it is often jewellery."
"Jewellery," he laughed, and fingered his hat. "I fear that Danielle would lose a necklace in a haystack or break a string of pearls while climbing the fence to avoid the pigs."
And somehow they spent nearly an hour together talking; her, dropping hints, him seeming to miss them- and yet always looking at her,looking at her.
(Nobody really looked at her.)
She was not a kind woman, she knew. It was not even something that had bothered her, and she had not needed kindness. If she had purposely ruined the opportunities and hopes of several (more noble) ladies in pursuing Pierre- well, what of them? Niceness was not a quality she had been raised to appreciate.
And yet, when he smiled and took her hand, when he mounted his horse and rode away, she saw how courteous he was to the servants, hownice he was, and she could not help feel but something stir inside.
Auguste, she thought.
Baroness de Barbarac.
It was not such a horrible title.
Auguste, do not leave me here.
A/N: Because I have a soft spot in my heart for hardened, bitter women.
According to my initial maths, this story would have taken place in the spring of 1712. The Brothers Grimm published their first set of fairytales in 1812, and when they visit Danielle and Henri's great-great granddaughter, she looks fairly old; it is thus safe to assume that 4.5 generations have passed since the story took place. A generation is around 20-ish years, so if we subtract 90 years from 1812 we end up with 1722. If, then, as the unnamed great-great granddaughter informs us, Danielle was 8 when her father died and 18 when she met Henri, her father would have met Rodmilla de Ghent sometime around 1712. During that time, France was involved in the War of the Spanish Succession (incidentally they lost, which likely factored into their later, brief alliance with England against Spain in the War of the Quadruple Alliances).
The process of purchasing fiefs (and then evading taxation and avoiding trade) was a way in which many non-nobles usurped/claimed titles of nobility during the Renaissance in France. Figure that the Baroness has to have something of a not-brilliant past, she always seems to be overcompensating something dreadful. Also, she married a baron. Not exactly top of the social ladder...
Anyway. As multiple reviewers have since pointed out, the film clearly takes place in the 1500s, although it is in a hazy alternate sixteenth century with strange overlapping dates and lives. Sooo shift this back. I still think Danielle's father must have been some sort of noble, because his name is "de Barbarac" and not merely "Barbarac"; beyond that I am not sure anymore! if anyone has any other views on this, please feel free to leave a review and say so ;)