- Author: Helen Fripp
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The French HouseGripping and heartbreaking French historical fiction
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The French House
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‘Why should we build our happiness on the opinions of others, when we can find it in our own hearts?’
Reims, 21 July 1789
Nicole stopped at the crossroads on this glorious morning and considered her choices. Should she take the rue des Filles Dieu, a shaded, godly alleyway for obedient girls leading straight to her convent school, or a forbidden detour across the open square, where the sunlight quivered in a haze above the cobbles?
She flipped a coin, caught it on the back of her hand and shut her eyes. Pile ou face, heads or tails. It didn’t matter – the forbidden square was always going to win, especially on market day. It was the only real choice, brimming with promise, and she ran towards the sunlit square.
At King Louis XVI’s statue, she stopped to pat the stone horse’s weathered muzzle for luck, dipped a mock-curtsey to the king and froze… A noose was slung around the king’s neck. And someone had daubed droplets of red paint under his regal eyes. The king was crying blood! Surely this wasn’t Xavier’s work? He sometimes gave the king a charcoal moustache or stuck a geranium under the horse’s saddle to protrude from his arse, but never anything this macabre.
So it must be true then, about the news from Paris. The whole town was simmering with it. Quatorze Juillet, the day France turned upside down. The king discredited. The people’s republic, the revolution. Loud arguments on street corners and endless gossip, all about something miles away. The noose and blood was the kind of thing that happened in Paris, not here in safe, sleepy Reims.
Defacing an image of the king was a serious offence – one the Comte’s soldiers would be sure to punish. They were an undisciplined gaggle of bored thugs who regularly patrolled the streets for someone to beat, including truants, even rich ones like her.
Nicole walked as fast as suspicion allowed to the safety of the square. On market days, the place was usually teeming with champenois farmers setting out their bright stalls like sacrifices to the tall cathedral that guarded the square. But not today. The old widow from Aÿ stood disconsolately by a couple of fraying baskets. Her straggly parsley had bolted and the meagre handful of mouldy onions should have been pickled long ago.
The haggard jam lady from Allers-Villerand was there, as always. Nicole might only be eleven, but she prided herself on noticing and that jam hadn’t sold for the last three markets. She knew because the lady had spelt strawberry wrong on this batch and anyone who could read was too polite to say.
She didn’t recognise the man from the butcher’s stall selling skinned rabbits on the other side of the square. Their raw bodies were topped and tailed, with furry heads and paws, bloated flies drooping over them like drunks.
‘Xavier!’ Nicole had spotted her friend standing next to the rabbit stall chatting with a gaggle of mates. She’d know him a mile off, with his compact frame and wiry black hair and she had hoped she would see him here. He would love the treasure she had in her pocket, a shiny green beetle, iridescent like a jewel.
He pretended not to hear her and arced a gob of glistening spit onto the cobbles. She was impressed.
He had been her playmate until her body made her different from him. She missed him now she was at school and he had to work. So why wasn’t he at her papa’s wool mills today?
‘Xavier, look what I found!’
He ignored her, so she marched closer, hand outstretched to show him the beetle.
‘It was on the rose bush in Monsieur Moët’s vineyard.’
Xavier smiled, but then remembered he was with a crowd of mates.
‘So what?’ he sneered. ‘What the hell is it anyway?’
‘Everyone knows it’s a rose beetle, you stupid grape-eater,’ she countered, smarting at his betrayal.
Xavier pretended not to care, but Nicole could tell he did by the way he sniffed and tossed his head. Grape-eater was the worst insult anyone could give in a wine-grower’s town, what they called workers from the Marne Vallée who didn’t know anything about vines, and ate the profits.
‘Aristocrate,’ shouted one of his friends, like it was a dirty word.
‘Leave her. She’s just a kid.’ Xavier jerked his head at Nicole. ‘Get lost, laide.’
Xavier had always been kind and he probably meant to be now. But the ugly – laide – stung. He constantly teased her that she was so petite she’d snap, and that her grey eyes were like a wolf’s rather than a girl’s and her reddish blonde hair looked like it was going rusty.
‘You don’t own this square,’ she snapped.
‘We do now. Va te faire foutre, aristocrate,’ the mate shouted. Fuck off, aristocrat.
‘I am the same as you,’ she protested, holding up her fists, flashing her pale eyes in fury. She might be small, but she was fast and strong and equal to any shouty boy. Damn that her mother had twisted her hair into stupid girly ringlets for school, today of all days.
Xavier pushed her. ‘Are you stupid? He’d crush you like a bloody ant.’
‘Fighting little girls, young man?’
It was the Comte d’Etoges looming over them, all the way from the château! His red silk coat blazed in the sun in stark contrast to the drab workers in the square, who glowered menacingly at him.
The Comte twisted Xavier’s arm behind his