The company set off at dawn, as was agreed, in a cart drawn by a large horse, one that de Briers had purchased from a brewer. He had paid handsomely for the horse, as well as for the cart, and had asked the brewer and the landlady to keep quiet about himself and his charges. As a precaution, he had let slip that their destination was Le Havre, instead of Boulogne. It was an insurance that meant whoever followed them would take the wrong road, heading due west instead of north.
Jake and Manon sat on the bench, with Jake holding the reins, while Jéhan and de Briers were in the cart. The latter was dressed as drably as was possible, with a large cap shielding his face. Manon was extremely curious to see how he would behave if they encountered a checkpoint.
They crossed the Bois de Boulogne and reached the village of Suresnes where they crossed the river Seine. From there they followed the riverbank, travelling east for a while, until they reached the small village of Clichy. Travelling northwest, they next set off on the road to Calais. Eventually, the horse had to be rested and fed. That left the travellers time to have their luncheon.
As soon as the foursome sat down on the Seine’s grassy sloping bank, Jéhan chose de Briers’ company, barely glancing at his sister when she handed him a piece of bread and an apple.
“Uncle, tell me about England. I want to become an Englishman, like you,” the boy said in rapid French.
De Briers laughed, a sound so joyful it made Manon’s heart leap.
“Well, first of all, Jéhan, you must learn to speak English! Once you have mastered that, I can hire a private tutor for you so that you can be properly educated.”
“I do not speak English,” the boy moped. “Is it difficult to learn?”
“Not to me,” de Briers smiled, “and I am certain that a clever lad like you will learn it very quickly.”
Manon kept her mouth shut about her ability to speak the language. Up until now, the travellers had always spoken in French. However, Manon’s mother had insisted on Manon learning English from a very tender age. Manon spoke it fluently, albeit with a slight accent. She was reluctant for de Briers to learn of this – it was convenient to be able to overhear conversations between the two men when they discussed matters they did not want her to hear.
After the meal, de Briers ordered Jéhan and Manon to take a nap, given the fact that their early rising had left the boy sleepy. Brother and sister stretched out on the cool grass, basking in the warm June sun. De Briers waited a quarter of an hour before he challenged Jake.
“What exactly were you blabbering about last night, Jake? I overheard your comment about the Dowager Baronetess, and I was displeased with it.”
“I apologize once again, master, but the girl was asking eager questions about you. I saw no harm in telling her facts that are common knowledge.”
“Enlighten me, Jake,” de Briers said, his tone becoming rather implacable. “What exactly was my niece asking after?”
“Well, she wanted to know …” Jake hesitated, then continued, “… about the women in your life.”
Manon felt heat flaring up her cheeks and neck. She pinched her eyes closed more firmly, afraid that they might think her awake.
“Did she now?” de Briers drawled. “And have you managed to satisfy her curiosity?”
“No! What do I know about that subject, sir? I am merely your Parisian man of business.”
“Good,” de Briers grunted. “I would very much appreciate it, Jake, if you did not venture to proffer personal details of my life to anyone in the future.”
“No, master, I won’t. You have my word.”
They stayed at the riverside for two hours to make sure the horse was properly rested. Their survival might well depend on the animal’s ability to bring them all the way to Boulogne, which was one hundred and sixty miles from Paris. That distance was but a bit shorter than what they would have to travel once they reached England.
Eventually, Jake mounted the bench while de Briers lifted Jéhan into the cart. Manon hesitated.
“I … could you just wait a moment, Uncle?”
De Briers turned in surprise upon hearing the name she had given him. Finally, he reflected, his niece was letting her guard down. “What is it, Manon?”
“I … I have … to go,” she mumbled, and began to head off for a small copse some twenty yards from the road.
Of course, De Briers realised a tad too late. She was female and did not have the luxury to go and do her business in the river, like the rest of their little band. Stupid of him, not to have anticipated that. However, he did not like the notion that she should stray into the woods all by herself and followed her. When she turned and saw him, Manon put her hands on her waist in the universal gesture of annoyance. “You do not need to come with me,” she challenged. “I will be only a moment.”
“No,” her uncle stated curtly, “times are too uncertain. There are lots of fugitives in France, nowadays, and desperate people do not shy away from violence. Let me take a look first.”
Manon had not thought about that, and she realised her uncle was not only intelligent and careful, but also sweet and caring.
“Thank you, Uncle,” she said, and waited patiently until he signalled her to come nearer.
“Here,” he said, “this is a safe place. I will be waiting just a few yards away. Be quick about it, Manon. I want us to reach Fraconville before nightfall. There is a decent auberge where we can spend the night. I do not like the look of those clouds in the west.”
Unfortunately, de Briers was right. The clouds became large, black, and ominous, and the group was soaked to the bone by a deluge right after they crossed the Seine outside Clichy. The river meandered through the countryside repeatedly on its way to the North Sea, so they would encounter it again and again before they reached Boulogne.
Fortunately, while the passengers of the cart sat hunched under their soaked cloaks, feeling miserable, the placid, sturdy horse kept on plodding along, oblivious to the pelting rain. There was one large benefit to the situation, de Briers mused. At least they would not encounter guards or checkpoints now.
Their progress through the lush countryside was slow but steady, and eventually, the rain subsided. The warm sun that followed the torrent was a welcome change to the bone-cold travellers, who basked in the warmth it provided. Yet, when they reached the Auberge du Coquelicot in the tiny village of Fraconville, clouds had come drifting in again.
“Remember,” de Briers warned, before they went in, “Jake is the head of our “family” and you, Manon are posing as his wife. I am a demented uncle and Jéhan is your son.”
“Actually,” Manon said, “that will not do. Jake and I, as man and wife, would be given one bedchamber. I will be his widowed sister and Jake can sleep with you. Jéhan sleeps in my room.”
“I want to be with the men,” Jéhan piped. “I am a man, too!”
But, as it turned out, there were no private rooms at the “Poppy Inn”. All guests had to sleep in the common room, but as times were uncertain, they were the only guests, that night.
Times were indeed uncertain, as Manon soon experienced. The landlord, a thickset, gloomy looking man with a head as bald as an egg, had little else to offer but a hard straw mattress and a thin blanket for a bed in the cold common room.
“I have no wood to burn, and besides, it is June,” he said sourly. “Be glad I have some rabbit stew ready for your supper. That and a tankard of wine will get you warm quickly enough.”
After their meal, Jéhan settled next to Jake, who spread his blanket over the both of them. The boy seemed to have formed a friendship with Jake, who welcomed him good-naturedly. De Briers put his pallet to Jéhan’s other side, almost automatically, and Manon envied the three males. She was banished to the far end of the room, where a curtain separated her from the rest.
Manon felt miserable. She was damp, cold and still hungry. She had not dared to drink wine, for fear she might be sick afterwards. Wine made by the common people could not always be trusted, her father had taught her. They added dubious extra ingredients to the mixture in order to increase the alcohol content more efficiently than was possible with grape fermentation alone, such as wood spirits, an alcohol produced by the distillation of wood and used as a diluent in cheap wines. It was poisonous and could kill or blind a person, if they were lucky enough to survive.
Her uncle, as it turned out, forbade all of them from drinking the drinking the landlord’s wine. Manon asked for a pitcher of hot water and made a mint tisane for them. She had the satisfaction of seeing her uncle’s eyes widen with surprise as she rummaged through her medicinal bag to retrieve the pouch with the dried mint leaves. She even produced a small pot of honey, which she used to sweeten the beverage. It was succulent but it did nothing to warm the body, especially hers, when she lay shivering on her lonely pallet. After a long time, she drifted into a fitful sleep, interrupted by her frequent coughs.
Richard de Briers listened to his niece’s coughs with growing unease. The girl had no spare clothing so she was forced to sleep in her damp dress, he knew. It must by sheer misery. He could barely get warm under the thin, mouldy blanket their host had provided, so he could only guess how Manon must feel. At least he had little Jéhan’s body to warm his back, while she had no one’s warmth to comfort her. Tired of wrestling with his worry for Manon, Richard rose and crept to the other end of the room.
His niece was sleeping like a child would do, one hand under her cheek and the other wrapped tightly over her small breasts. The blanket had slipped away to leave her trembling with cold. Without giving further thought to the matter, Richard curled up behind her and enveloped them both in his spare woollen cloak. This one was fairly dry since it had been stored inside his leather travel bag.
The moment he felt Manon’s soft, round body snuggle up against his, Richard realised his mistake. His treacherous male body immediately responded with the usual embarrassing reaction. He froze, not daring to move for fear Manon would wake. How was he, her uncle, to explain the very
non-avuncular behaviour he had just displayed by joining his virgin niece on her pallet?
However, with a sigh of well-being, Manon sank deeper into sleep, and was soon breathing, deeply and regularly. Gradually, Richard relaxed and his body with him. It felt … well, right, although he knew that it was not right, not at all. Manon was his niece – his ward, even. He was honour-bound to protect her, to offer her a home where she would feel loved and safe. His mind and heart knew her for what she was, his sister’s daughter, but his lascivious body only acknowledged her exquisite femininity.
Richard inwardly cursed himself for staying away from Madame Herodias’ London nunnery for far too long. Then, as their combined body heat started to relax him, he willed himself to rule out all inappropriate thoughts and go to sleep.
Manon woke as soon as de Briers gave the signal. She was surprised to see him already dressed and giving instructions, while Jéhan and Jake were still preparing, dizzy with sleep. She herself felt marvellously rested, which caused her to wonder, since she had had such a hard time falling asleep.
When they were on the road again, Manon reflected upon it. She had been cold and wet and shivering. Yet she must have fallen asleep sometime, and had a sound sleep as well, since she had not dreamt or tossed around on her pallet. She did, however, remember a wonderful warmth that had spread over her at some point. By that time, she had already been too soundly asleep to bother about trying to understand it.
The weather was bright and sunny again, and the group made excellent progress. Come nightfall, they had achieved their planned fifteen miles, and they reached the Abbaye Notre-Dame du Val.
The abbey had been sold to a draper from Paris a few years ago, when the Revolution dispersed the monks. It stood empty but people from the vicinity still worshipped our Lady in the ruined church, which was the only building that had been destroyed.
De Briers knew about the abbey because he had stayed there when accompanying his father to France during his boyhood. He was also acquainted with some of the farmers who lived nearby. His father had always showed an interest in how others gained their produce so that he could apply their methods at Bearsham Manor.
The four of them stopped at Thierry Dubois’ farmhouse and bought some food from him – at a very substantial price, of course. Afterwards, they took refuge inside the abbey for the night and restored themselves.