“Are you certain, sir, that you want to pursue this matter? The streets are extremely dangerous in Paris right now.”
The young man’s pleasant countenance grew serious, causing Richard de Briers to turn a sharp eye at him. “What is it that you are saying, Jake? Are the streets barred? Bridges over the Seine destroyed, maybe?”
Jake Davies had been acting as Richard’s business man in Paris for the last four years. He began his life as a London street urchin, who tried to steal Robert de Briers’ handkerchief on a rainy night but got caught. Richard’s father, seeing the sorry state the starving boy was in, took him into his London household, and gave him a home, responsibilities, and seeing a potential, eventually an education. Jake started his career as a clerk to Mr. Donby, Robert de Briers’ secretary. His childhood in the London rookeries made him the perfect man to tackle post-revolutionary Paris. He had made possible many successful business transactions for Richard and his father before him. So, when Jake found it necessary to warn him, Richard listened and pondered.
“I am saying, sir, that we must go unnoticed, which implies we have to go after dark. The darkness will add a definite danger to our journey. There are two liabilities, as I see it. We could get held up by the troops of the Terror, and arrested if they have a mood to it. In that case, we are as good as dead, being foreigners, and English to boot. They will think us spies. On the other hand, we could be caught by cutthroats, and be robbed and murdered. No one would be surprised by one or two corpses floating in the Seine, these days.”
“Or, Jake, we could be clever and pick our way to the Rue Saint-Jacques cautiously. We could bring my relatives back to the inn in Auteuil and from there set off to the coast. Once we reach Boulogne, we could hire a boat to bring us back to England.
Jake bowed his head at the resolute tone of his master’s voice. “Yes, sir, we could do all that. Well, no better time like tonight, then.”
“My good man!” Richard grinned. “Let us prepare ourselves!”
The riots were still raging through Paris’ streets, therefore Manon and Jéhan had sensibly stayed indoors. They had, however, finished their last bits of food, the night before, so Manon realised she could not stay at the house for much longer. Jéhan was frightened, with reason, and she had done all she could to keep him quiet and comfort him as best as she was able to. After four days of hiding, Manon told her brother that their father might have been arrested. She kept silent about the real situation. Jéhan was too young to understand. Better to let him think their father was in prison, and therefore unreachable. No one was allowed to visit prisoners these days, and Jéhan, young though he was, knew that. She would explain what transpired when the time was right.
For now, she would make up a plan to escape from Paris. Her mind was diligently considering her options, while she was picking up eggs in the back garden. By some miracle, the plunderers had overlooked a single chicken, hidden under a pile of straw.
A large hand covered her mouth and a steely arm sneaked around her body, effectively pinning her arms in a tight hold. Manon struggled, fought, kicked her heels against her assailant’s shins but it was like kicking a brick wall. A warm whiff of breath caressed her ear, and a deep baritone voice whispered, “Do not fight me. Are you Manon Favier, daughter of Lily de Briers and Thibaut Favier?”
The tall, incredibly strong man had spoken in heavily accented French, and Manon had to strain her ears, just to be able to understand what he said. She nodded as well as she could do, given the fact that his hand was still on her mouth.
“I am your uncle Richard de Briers,” the man said. “I will release you now, and you must not make a sound. I have come to take you and your brother to England with me.”
Manon heaved a deep sigh and turned to look at her uncle, as soon as he set her back on her feet. It was early dusk and she could see him clearly in the light of the setting sun.
Richard de Briers was tall and broad-shouldered, with a figure that seemed to be hewn out of granite. Although he was dressed in the drab, coarsely woven clothes of a commoner, his stance and the expression on his face immediately gave him away as an aristocrat. A face as handsome as the devil’s, Manon registered, clean-cut, with wide-set eyes the colour of a winter sky, a long blade of a nose and a wide, thin-lipped mouth. A full head of pitch-black hair completed the image of a devil, yet what troubled Manon the most, was the cold, steely gaze in those grey eyes.
She shivered but straightened to her full height, which only allowed her to bring the top of her head halfway to his chest. Mon Dieu, but the man was a giant!
“How do I know that you are who you say you are, monsieur?” She challenged him, tossing back the red mane of her hair that had come undone from its pins. Her green eyes blazed at him with unmitigated defiance, as she lifted her face to look him straight in the eyes.
Richard de Briers stared at her in disbelief, unable, for a moment, to find the words that would convince her. Was this slip of a girl his doubting his word? If he was to act as her guardian, he had better make it clear to her from the beginning that he was the one giving the orders.
“Quit your whims, girl, and follow me. Do not fuss or there will be consequences. I have no qualms binding and gagging you.”
He gripped her arm and towed her along into the kitchen, where another man – slighter and shorter than de Briers – was waiting with her little brother, perched on his shoulder. Jéhan did not seem to be afraid of the strangers, and had his wooden horse tucked under his arm.
“We are travelling to England, Manon! Is that not wonderful?” The boy was smiling broadly.
“Keep quiet, little master,” Jake admonished in perfect Parisian French. “We do not want the guards to hear us.”
“Sorry,” Jéhan apologized. “I can be quiet as a mouse, monsieur, I promise!”
“Who are you, monsieur?” Manon challenged Jake. “Put my brother down, now!”
“His name is Jake Davies and he is my business man. You have nothing to fear from him,” Richard de Briers’ voice rumbled above her head. “Now, listen, mademoiselle. We will go to the river, where I have a small boat ready to take us to my rooms in Auteuil. That way, we will avoid the Barrière de Grenelle, and inspection by the guards at the barrier checkpoint. The surveillance is very thorough, these days.”
Manon humphed, which made the man raise an annoyed eyebrow.
“I know all too well how thorough the surveillance is, monsieur! I live here, remember?”
De Briers cut her short with a glare that could have set the place on fire, then continued, “From Auteuil, where I have horses ready, we ride to Boulogne, from where we sail to England. Can you ride?”
“No,” she sneered, “why would I have learned to ride a horse? There was no need to ride in Paris!”
“Great!” De Briers growled under his breath, but aloud he said, “It is of no consequence. Jake and I can take you behind us in the saddle in turn.”
Manon decided to give in, at least for now. This was as good a way as any other to escape Paris. Her ‘uncle’ seemed to have made his plan rather thoroughly. The toll barriers and the wall, called Murs des Fermiers Généraux’, were in place since 1788, a year before the storming of the Bastille.
The people had not approved of the tolls on all incoming goods, being levied to pay for the aristocrats’ extravagances. Since 1790, the barriers were checkpoints to control not only goods, but also the comings and goings of people, so avoiding them was paramount. Once they were in the countryside, Manon would find an opportunity to run away. Surely, in the Bois de Boulogne, an opportunity would present itself.
Manon did not trust this ‘uncle’ unconditionally. Father had told her about her so-called English family often enough, and what she learned about these people had not inclined her to feel generous towards them, but these were desperate times.
Manon’s mother had been a child of her grandfather’s first marriage. After the death of his wife in child birth, her grandfather had not taken much notion of his baby daughter, so Maman had been raised by her nanny and later, by her governess. At fifteen, Maman had eloped with her father’s French valet, Thibaut Favier. To escape her father’s wrath, they had fled to Paris, where Papa had worked in his father’s apothecary shop and learned the trade. Manon was born and the couple stayed in Paris. Jéhan was born when Manon was fifteen, but this late pregnancy was too much for Maman’s frail body. She died after three days of horrible agony, even though Manon, who also learned the apothecary trade, and her father had tried everything that was humanly possible to heal her.
There had never been a word from England, as far as Manon knew. And now, this ‘uncle’ had shown up. Her grandfather must have remarried at some point.
“Have you gathered the necessities for your journey?”
De Briers slightly shook her arm, as if he had noticed her daydreaming.
“We have only the clothes on our backs, Jéhan and I. Our house was plundered a few days ago.”
He nodded. “I will provide you with clothes and toiletries, when we reach Auteuil. It might be useful if you had a cloak, however. The river can be damp at night.”
“I have no cloak,” Manon replied. “Nor does Jéhan.”
“We have to go, Master,” Jake urged. In another ten minutes, the night watch will be upon us.”
“Come on, then,” De Briers said, and took Jéhan from Jake, to settle the boy on his hip, before striding to the door.