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A Child of France

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Marguerite and Armand had grown up near the castle, in a little cottage on the grounds. Monsieur and Madame would have let their family live inside the castle, if they wished, but Papa would say that he had already lived in that castle enough for one lifetime, during the curse. Maman would argue that he hadn’t been a normal person then, so this was different, but Papa insisted she wasn’t there so she couldn’t understand.

Marguerite didn’t care. No matter where she lived, she thought she would spend as little time there as possible. She preferred to be outside, in the sunshine and warm breezes. She was allowed to play wherever she pleased on the castle grounds, and she could even borrow books from the castle library if she was very careful. She mostly borrowed scripts for plays; she would hide away in the hedge maze to read them over and over, and once she was certain she knew her role, she would practice it in front of the horses. They were the best listeners, and never once argued when she insisted that no other ten-year-old could surpass her Dorine. Armand was more inclined to argue, but then that was how brothers were.

Sometimes Chip let them play with him even though he was so much older. And sometimes the little princesses came out from the castle, and then they had enough to play blind man’s buff.

It was all very happy, until the pox came. Marguerite and Armand were in the village, visiting Monsieur and Madame Cogsworth. The first they knew that anything was wrong was when M. Cogsworth did not let them return home that night...nor the next night, nor the next. It was nearly a week before they saw their cottage again, and by that time Maman and Papa were both dead, and many of their belongings had been burnt to prevent the pox from spreading.

Marguerite wanted no part in that place. She packed the few things they had remaining, and when Armand returned to the cottage—he had been helping with chores at the castle in exchange for a few sous—she met him at the door and insisted they leave for Paris at once.

Armand didn’t argue. “Madame la Princesse sent this for us,” he said, proffering a basket. “She said she’s very sorry, and that we may come live in the castle if we wish.”

“I don’t wish that,” Marguerite said firmly. “I wish to go to Paris. This is a time for action!” She switched to a declamatory pose. “Je ne compatis point à qui dit des fornettes. You see? I can act. I’ll support us both!”

Paris was bigger than Marguerite expected, but she and Armand found a welcome for themselves. Maman’s cousin Louis-Antoine took them in for a time, and advised them to take his name, as it was more well-known than “Chapeau”, which he said sounded rather provincial. Marguerite was annoyed at the slight to her father, but she let it pass. Paris was so far away from home, of course people did things differently here.

She threw herself into acting. Things were tight at first, and Armand had to do odd jobs so they could get by. But less than a month after her eighteenth birthday, Marguerite was asked to join the Comédie-Française, and then all their troubles were over. She could forget about money, forget about cozying up to cousin Louis-Antoine while dodging his marriage proposals, forget everything except her next role and increasing her status as a salonnière. Already many politicians were interested in her salon. Some of them had not been asked to return, but others, like the Marquis de Chauvelin, were invited regularly.

Life was perfect. And then Marguerite accepted the marriage proposal of one Sir Percy Blakeney, Baronet, and threw everything she had away as far as anyone in France was concerned. But she ignored all their protestations, as she always did, and left France before the impassioned political conversations she had so loved turned into full-blown revolution.

There was much for Marguerite in England, not all of it happy; but enough that sometimes she even forgot about Paris and her recent life there, much less the castle in the middle of nowhere that she had left so precipitately and unhappily.

There were other times when she thought very much about Paris—times when she donned wig and grease paint and played the farmer’s wife in Paris’ very streets—and in those times, she nearly forgot about England; but her birthplace was still far from her mind.

But when she and Percy were holed up in the attic room of a little inn near the Alsace–Lorraine border, and he was reading a list of endangered aristos nearby, it all came flooding back. “Did you say the Princesse and Prince de Villeneuve?” she exclaimed. “They were friends of my parents. They were kind to everyone. I first learned to act by reading plays in their castle library.”

Percy set down the list and looked at her. “There would seem to be no question of whom we should rescue next, then, m’dear.”

“If you would,” Marguerite said.

The Prince and Princesse were being held with their children in Strasbourg Prison, awaiting transport to Paris. With the Catholic Church having been abolished, Percy was no longer able to obtain access to the prisoners in the guise of a priest; but fortunately one of the coal-heavers was amenable to bribery.

“They are in good health and reasonable spirits,” he reported to Marguerite. “They seem only concerned about their staff back at the castle; they particularly mentioned a family named Potts.”

“I used to play with Chip Potts when we were young,” Marguerite said. “He’d be a grown man now, older than you.” She sighed. “Are you sure Madame la Princesse wasn’t just putting on a brave face? Perhaps I ought to go visit her.”

“I have a different plan for you, my darling,” Percy said. “I have an idea of how to get them out of the prison, but I fear they will not agree to accompany us to England unless you can assure them of their friends’ safety.”

“You want me to go to the castle?” Marguerite said.

“If it’s not too much to ask,” Percy said. “Both so we can satisfy the Prince and Princesse, and so that you and I can be certain whether they need assistance. You know right where the castle is and how to get there; better that you go than anybody else.”

Marguerite waited until it was dark to leave. She did not need the sun to know the way to the castle, and she trusted a fast horse and a sliver of a moon to keep her safe where travelling openly would not. As the woods became more and more familiar, she did not slack her speed, until nigh on midnight when the road forked one final time—and a woman stepped out into the road before her.

Marguerite clung to the neck of her horse as it reared in fright. She managed to stay mounted, which at least gave her the advantage of height over the cloaked stranger. “I have urgent business at the castle,” she said after regarding the woman for a moment. “Let me pass.”

“I am concerned with the castle as well,” the woman said. “Perhaps we can help each other.” She pulled back the hood of her cloak. “My name is Agathe.”

Agathe. Marguerite knew that name, from old stories that she had been told from childhood, but which she had never completely known whether to believe. “My name is Marguerite,” she said. “My father’s name was Chapeau. He told me that you—or someone else with your name—once hid the castle from outside eyes for years and years. Can you do that again?”

Agathe bowed her head. “Yes, that was me,” she said. “But I cannot do it again, while the castle is missing its master and mistress.”

“My husband is rescuing them tonight,” Marguerite said. “If we return them to the castle, can you protect it then?”

“Why should I?”

Frantically, Marguerite cast her mind back to the old stories. “Because long ago, when you placed the castle under a curse, you said it was because the Prince needed to learn to love another,” she said. “The Prince and Princesse would not have come together if it were not for your interference. If my husband and I can rescue innocents to whom we have no connection, surely the least you can do is to rescue innocents to whom your connection is so strong.”

Agathe regarded her calmly. “I can see you have no need to learn about love,” she said. “If anything, you care for too many people rather than too few—though none so much as you care for your husband, I believe.” She stepped aside, leaving Marguerite’s path open. But somehow, the road ahead looked different than it had before. “Send the Prince and his family home, and I will keep them safe. Go now, and your road will be shorter than was your journey here.” She stepped back again, further into the trees, and Marguerite almost immediately lost track of her.

Somehow, she was back on the edge of the forest. It was just as well; Percy had planned for them to rendezvous on the outskirts of Nancy, but if she caught up with them sooner there would be less distance to backtrack. She spurred her horse to a gallop once again.

As it happened, she was scarcely past Saverne when she spied the lightweight cart in which Percy had spirited the Prince and Princesse and their children out of Strasbourg. She hooted like an owl as she approached, although she rather thought Percy would have recognized her horse’s gait. And indeed, he was already drawing up. She reined her horse and stopped next to him.

Madame la Princesse was wearing the dress of a peasant with as much aplomb as she wore her finest gown. She jumped out of the cart and ran to hug Marguerite. “Merci,” she whispered. “Your husband has been telling us all about England and how we must go there. He said you would ascertain the safety of our friends. Are they well?”

“I haven’t seen them,” Marguerite said. “But I’ve seen Agathe.”

The Prince turned to stare at her. “She’s still around? It’s been so long and nobody’s seen her.”

“I don’t suppose she comes around except when she’s needed,” the Princesse said. “What did she say?”

“She agreed to keep the castle free from outside interference, but she can’t do it until you have gone home,” Marguerite said.

“It’s not safe,” Percy broke in.

“It will be all right,” Marguerite said. “Agathe is wise.”

“Our castle has a secret,” the Prince said. “With Agathe’s help, it will keep us safe.”

Percy frowned but didn’t argue. Jumping down from the cart, he unfastened his horse from where it had been tethered behind the cart. “If you’re sure that’s what you wish to do,” he said, “then my best wishes. Can you find your own way back or do you want our company?”

“I think we’ll be fine from here,” the Prince said. “And our endless gratitude to both of you.” The Princesse and their children echoed his thanks as the cart rolled back east.

With a shake of the reins, Marguerite and Percy were headed in the opposite direction, at much more comfortable pace than the one Marguerite had set earlier.

“Perhaps I should have pushed harder to go with them,” Percy said. “I wish I could have seen your childhood home.”

“It has painful memories as well as fond ones,” Marguerite replied. “I wish you could have seen it if that was what you wanted; but for my part I was equally happy to go without seeing it. And now when you think of my home, you’ll still only think of me at Blakeney Manor. Because that is my home.”

“And a demmed good home it is,” Percy agreed.