Charles was sitting at his desk, his forehead propped on his hands, and looking at the wad of papers in front of him. He couldn’t see the letters now – the candle had almost completely burned down. Not that he was trying to read or anything.
He had planned to make a pleasant surprise for Madeleine. By sheer miracle he had managed to find the chocolate she liked so much, and tried to give it to her in a way that wouldn’t embarrass her. However, he had perfectly forgotten that there was no way he could have known about her preference for chocolate with thyme… unless he had watched her having breakfast.
Madeleine was quick to realize it. The horror and painful disappointment in her eyes reminded him of that dreadful night when she came to him to plead for André.
She wanted to try and forgive him, too!
In two days, she’ll come to her senses and tell me to never come near her again.
He took a sip from the cup at his side. The water had long grown cold and had a disgusting papery aftertaste.
Unwanted memories from the life at the de Coignys’ flashed before his eyes. Back then, Charles hadn’t even thought that watching Madeleine from dark corners and from behind curtains was improper, to say the least. Sooner or later, he had figured, she’d get married and leave, and he’d remain to open doors for her mother and to gather the dancers at balls for the rest of his life. Madeleine would have never suspected a thing.
While after the Revolution… when he had found her at all, he was so much beside himself with passion that he barely felt a prick of conscience when he sent the Incroyable after her.
I have never been able to express my feelings properly – not then, not now. If Madeleine and I had been equals… but, who knows, even then I probably would have messed up everything.
There was a quiet knock on the door.
“You owe me for the chocolate,” the Incroyable reminded him as he slipped into the room. Charles took his purse and gloomily counted out the money.
“Bad luck again, isn’t it?” asked the Incroyable, biting one of the francs. “Wasn’t your golden-haired beauty impressed by the treat?”
“Shut up, I don’t need more of that advice of yours.”
When it came to any news concerning Madeleine, the Incroyable was always very interested, most likely, because the whole situation amused him. Indeed, he seemed to be the only one in Paris (except for André and Madeleine herself) who knew that Charles Gérard was secretly tormented with love for a countess!
“You pulled her practically right from the guillotine,” said the Incroyable. “I’m astonished she isn’t at your feet yet.”
Charles instantly imagined Madeleine in a breezy nightgown, leaning against his knees. Her loosened curls would almost be reaching the floor, like a waterfall of gold, and her eyes would be shining with love and joy… She would reach for him when he leaned towards her, she would respond to his kiss, caressing his shoulders, she would breathe a shuddering sigh of delight when he pressed his lips to her tender neck…
I’ll run outside, shout my name, and death shall rescue me! Her trembling voice seemed real in his ears.
He came to his senses, shook his head to get rid of the alluring fantasy, and glared at the Incroyable. Thankfully, the latter decided not to tempt his luck, gave a courteous bow and vanished behind the door, silent as a cat on a hunt.
I’ve got to lie down if I don’t want to fully lose my mind… Madeleine, my love, if only I could turn back and correct everything I have done to you… or something, at least…
The sleep granted him nothing but a bit of physical rest. For the whole night, he was plagued by nightmares. In some of them, he was too late to save André and Madeleine and, petrified, watched their heads fall off. In some other ones, he wasn’t able to control his lust and took Madeleine by force, and she sank down in his arms like a lifeless doll, crying silently. In yet other ones, images from the past and the present were chaotically mixed together, Robespierre was somehow at the ball at the de Coignys’, André was reading his poems in front of the tribunal, Madeleine was dancing in the garden at her home, but she was dressed plainly and had dark circles under her eyes…
The morning was just dawning outside when Charles woke up in cold sweat. At first, he couldn’t even understand what had been a dream and what hadn’t. Taking deep breaths, he sat up on the bed to calm down.
I’ve got to act. If tomorrow Madeleine refuses to see me for good, I’ll leave. I’ll go anywhere away from Paris. It’s sheer torture, knowing she is so close and yet so far from me. If I stay, sooner or later, I’ll either really go mad or start some new intrigue to get her…
In the evening of the next day Charles appeared at the door of the small house in the city’s outskirts again. This time, though, he was met by another woman, whom he recognized easily. Bersi looked just the same as back at the estate – she even wore the bright clothes she had always preferred.
Her hands on her waist, she blocked his way:
“Don’t you even dare, Gérard! You have caused Madeleine enough suffering!”
“Let him in, Bersi,” Madeleine appeared behind her back.
"Listen," the former maid's face softened the moment she turned to Madeleine, "I've told you several times: you have lived through many horrors, and I don't want anything to happen now, when life has just barely grown stable. Gérard, get out of here!" she bellowed, turning back to him. "If you try and come even close to our house again... do you know what kind of friends I have?"
"Please, Bersi, stop it," Madeleine managed to slip past her. "I have also explained to you: I want to rebuild my former friendship with Charles..."
"Friendship? Don't make me laugh! He only wants to get you into his bed!"
"If it were the only reason, he wouldn't have needed a lot of effort," said Madeleine, soothingly taking Bersi's hand. "He could have just threatened you or André with arrest or something worse, and I would have agreed to anything."
Charles felt his face burn with shame. This was exactly what had nearly happened.
"But it's not like this. Truly. He has come today because I invited him."
"Silly girl, that is exactly what he's counting on! He knows how kind-hearted you are and wants to manipulate your pity!"
"Not at all!" Charles decided it was time to interrupt it. "When I organized Chénier's arrest – that was manipulation. But this time it isn't. I would be... would be happy to do everything and behave normally, but I... Bersi, you know I have never even had friends after Madeleine left to study at the convent."
Grunting something to herself, Bersi moved aside. Her threats didn’t frighten him: he knew that whatever shadowy friends she had, they wouldn’t dare to attack him just at her request.
"It won’t be easy to talk calmly after such a prelude,” he sighed when Madeleine invited him to the table and poured him water with a pinch of herbal tea.
"Oh, don't take it too hard," she said. "Bersi is simply very worried for me."
"And she has never liked me even at the estate."
"How do you kn... oh, sorry... I mean, she told me so as well."
"Well, there was nothing to like me for. Besides, Bersi had almost caught me by your room's door several times."
For a while, they were silently drinking tea, until Madeleine seemed to make up her mind and looked straight at him:
"Charles, let's be frank now. You know that I... before that evening, I had no idea about your feelings. I thought you hated me or maybe didn't particularly remember me. Wait, please, hear me out. I'm still disgusted that you spied on me like this, and I will need a lot of time to forget your behavior after André's arrest. You see, I used to wonder whether this was possible... to forgive but not to forget... and now I know."
She took another sip and continued:
"But I will also always remember how you defended André at the trial... how you brought me to the prison... how you ran to us with the pardon in hand. I see what you're trying to say – no, I'm not talking now about my gratitude. There's a different matter. All of this... it makes me hope that there is still something remaining of the Charles I knew in my childhood."
"You see only good in others," he murmured. Despite Madeleine's smile and her gentle tone, he felt horrible.
"I haven't changed my decision. I want... if we can... to continue our friendship. If you have nothing against it..."
"Of course not! After what I've done, I'm amazed you want to have any dealings with me at all."
"I remember you said that you still... still love me," Madeleine blushed. "Er, Charles, you've got to understand... André and I – we... we had that feeling in the face of death. We have since realized we can't live after the same roof, but back then, especially when he was sentenced, naturally, we weren't thinking of any sort of a future together. What future was there? We hardly had any present to speak of. But now that life has grown somewhat calmer, I... I don't want to fall in love in a rush, to cling to it like a drowning man to a straw..."
Charles's breath caught in his throat, and his mouth grew dry.
Is she really hinting that a bit later she might... but no, fiddlesticks, she just want to put it politely so that I won't be offended...
There was a knock on the door.
"Bersi?" he asked.
"No, Bersi left soon after you came here and said she won't be back until tomorrow, and she's got a key anyway."
Madeleine went to answer, and Charles felt the pistol at his belt. Just in case.
Luckily, there turned out to be no need for a pistol.
"Afternoon, Madeleine... oh," André came in and saw Charles. "Am I interrupting something?"
Charles and Madeleine replied almost in unison:
"Not in the least."
"I won't bother you, then," Charles started to get up to leave.
"Nonsense," said Madeleine. "Bersi sometimes invites two dozen friends here at the same time. André, you want some tea?"
André nodded reflexively and took the cup, but his thoughts were clearly full of something much less prosaic.
"Let me guess: you've written a new sonnet," Madeleine smiled.
"A large poem," he corrected her, radiant. "In a single night! I've already given it to the publisher."
"Will you let me read it?" asked Charles. André's poems seemed a bit boring to him, to tell the truth, but he felt acutely guilty when it came to his friend, so he carefully bought and read everything the latter published.
"When it's printed, certainly," said André. "I'm afraid I'll have to do many revisions. At six in the morning, without a single grain of coffee, you begin to think that red rhymes with black. Oh, by the way!" he exclaimed. "Some admirers from Spain gave it to me. Just enough for the two of you, you know I hate this stuff."
He put a big bag on the table, and a tangy, nose-tickling smell spread across the room.
"Madeleine, I remember you love spiced chocolate, right?"
Charles choked on his tea and went into a coughing fit.
"André, thank you ever so much," said Madeleine, but her cheeks grew red. "I'm not very thirsty for now, after the tea, and you, Charles?" as he nodded, she smiled and looked back at André:
"You'd better tell us a bit more about your poem. I'd love to hear about it!"
"I would as well," Charles added, who finally managed to clear his throat.
André was a bit surprised at Madeleine's indifferent reaction to her favorite treat, but (as he later said) he attributed it to the awkwardness the girl felt in the company of both Gérard and himself. As for the poem, he didn't need to be asked twice and happily started to explain it in full detail.