When Mademoiselle B_________ returned from her sojourn, not much was said, but considerably more was whispered. She had been absent for no more than six months, if that, but in her absence her sisters, not known for their discretion, had said not a word of her whereabouts, had greeted every mention of her name with either a light laugh, or a nonsensical or irrelevant reply. Her brothers had been equally close-lipped, even during their flirtations with curious women.
And every rose had vanished from their garden and home.
Most had been inclined to attribute this last detail to the general strangeness of the family themselves. After all—and this could hardly be put delicately, or spoken without a tiny cough—it could hardly be denied that Mademoiselle’s family, was, after all—well, most certainly not one of them. New money, to begin with, and although the mother’s blood was certainly excellent, the father’s—well. The less said the better. Unstable finances, too. And though all of this could be said of many families, none of the family—three brothers, three sisters—had ever been wed, although even Mademoiselle, the youngest, had been out in society for some time. Quite perplexing, especially since the sisters were always ranked among the beauties of the town.
And yet. Love had touched them not.
Perhaps, some suggested, potential suitors were dissuaded by the family gargoyles, of which, it must be admitted, the family home had quite many—over the roof, as was proper, and along every door, somewhat less properly, but also inside nearly every room of the house, not properly at all. Or perhaps, others suggested, they grew uncomfortable with Mademoiselle’s habit prior to her sojourn—held since she was quite a young girl—of leaving a trail of rose petals in her wake, although no one could ever quite see her drop them, or remember her ever holding a rose in her hands. Perhaps she disliked them, some suggested. Perhaps the roses sensed her dislike, and shivered and died in her wake.
Perhaps that was why, upon her return, the roses had vanished.
It did not take long for people to notice a few other—oddities—about Mademoiselle after she returned from her sojourn. The trick with the rose petals had, fortunately, quite, quite ended, but other tricks had taken its place. For one, Mademoiselle had taken to wearing, despite the summer heat, and in the most warm of rooms, a quite lovely fox fur, with the head still attached. This might have been tolerated—the fur unquestionably set off Mademoiselle’s dark red-brown hair—save that a few observant eyes noticed Mademoiselle frequently scratching the head of the fox, quite as if it were a pet, and a few more noticed Mademoiselle actually bending her head towards its ear, as if to whisper to it. This was, of course, absurd.
Second, she had gained a most heavy, and most unattractive ring, that she wore constantly on her right thumb: some form of worked silver, set with a great but poorly cut ruby gem, that she touched and twisted constantly. She was seen to bring the ring to her lips, several times, to kiss it passionately when she thought no one was looking, when of course everybody was. Almost as if, some murmured, she thought the ring a lover. Which was even more absurd.
And then—no one could question that at times, Mademoiselle seemed to be—how did one put this—not entirely there, as if, for a second, or even several seconds, she was listening and seeing other things. Or at the very least not paying entire attention. Which was, again, absurd, because who could fail to be intrigued by the gossip and conversation of the town?
Still. Mademoiselle was very beautiful. Very beautiful indeed.
She draped the fox fur around her shoulders over a number of beautiful dresses, each more lovely than the rest. With each new dress, Mademoiselle was seen to be wearing some new jewel which perfectly matched the dress. Quite fine, most of these jewels, and most certainly not paste—enough of the women had developed a certain eagle eye for that sort of thing. Her sisters, too, were suddenly wearing much finer clothing, and more jewels, if lesser than the ones worn by their sister. Clearly, wherever Mademoiselle had sojourned, she had come across money, or obtained a wealthy patron.
The whispers, at this juncture, grew still more intense.
For if Mademoiselle had gained a wealthy patron—well. That could be taken in many ways. The more pure minded would insist, of course, that she be barred from the entrance of all of the finer homes, and nearly all of the lesser. Fortunately enough, and not unexpectedly, most were not overly pure minded. The slightly less pure minded wondered avidly about the patron: who could he be (it was, all agreed, looking at Mademoiselle’s beauty, and the jewels, almost certainly a he, although a she would be even more intriguing, and many watched Mademoiselle avidly for any hints in that direction), and where possibly could Mademoiselle have met him? (Or, as a few hoped, her.) On this sojourn, most certainly, but where could she have gone, to be met and showered with this much wealth in such short a time? And those with no pure thoughts at all wondered if Mademoiselle had obtained a patron—and she must have; those uncertain family finances, so known to all, could not have supported such jewels—would she not, perhaps, be interested in taking another? After all, she must be as aware as any that patronage, like love, was a most fleeting commodity.
To the surprise of no one, it did not take too long for more unsavory types to approach Mademoiselle. Eagle eyes noticed the Marquis d’_________, a man no one of sense allowed near a sister, daughter or friend, but a man dripping with wealth, allowing him to near the many without such sense, and the Baron d’_________, and the Chevalier d’__________ (the last, apparently, in the hopes that Mademoiselle would no longer list money as a requirement for her patrons). It did not, of course, end there, and the first three were soon followed by admirers of the worst sort, including some whom not even the not at all pure minded wished to know. (Not entirely, you understand, for reasons of exclusivity—they had concerns about the smells.) Nonetheless, it was noticed with a certain relief from some quarters, and a disappointment in others, that Mademoiselle did not appear to respond to these initial, almost clumsy overtures.
Until, that is, the Chevalier d’_____________ showed up with a bouquet of twelve perfect roses.
It had been, until that moment, a most delightful evening, all agreed, despite the unfortunate decision of Madame T________ to stain the champagne an appalling shade of purple, the mishap with the violinist and the finger food, and the near duel between two young men over the appropriate shade of green for a pocket handkerchief. But these were, aside from the champagne, quite understandable incidents that might have happened anywhere, until the Chevalier d’________ presented his roses.
Much later, a few claimed that one of Mademoiselle’s sisters—perhaps both—had attempted to halt the poor Chevalier as he passed them, although others, more doubtful of the love of sisterhood, told the story rather differently, that both sisters smiled when they saw the roses, and urged the Chevalier to proceed. Regardless of the truth of this, what is certain is that Mademoiselle was standing near an astonishing stained glass window, surrounded by several of those questionable admirers, as the Chevalier approached, bowed, and held out his roses.
Mademoiselle fainted dead away, into the arms of the Marquis d’__________. Gasps and cries came from all around; the Marquis, to his credit, did not take the opportunity to explore Mademoiselle’s bosom, but instead helped to carry her to a chair; several people ran this way and that, shouting orders, and a servant actually brought chilled lemonade, which was used to revive Mademoiselle.
Not until that moment did anyone think to look at the Chevalier, who was standing, utterly still, with dead roses in his hands. Not just dead, indeed—but blackened, the petals falling all over the floor. Mademoiselle rose, saw the blackened petals, and shrieked. (Later, some even said that at her shriek, the fox head upon her shoulder raised its head and growled. The growling was, of course, impossible, and attributed more to the oddly purple champagne than anything else.) Then, she leaned her head against the Marquis d’___________ and begged to be taken home. The Marquis, not one to lose such an opportunity, most gladly offered to be her escort, and removed her promptly from the gathering, followed by her sisters. Those few who had claimed to see the fox head growling before claimed that as they left, the fox head actually attempted to snap at and bit the Marquis, before tightening itself around Mademoiselle’s shoulders. (Although again, this tale was blamed on that most unfortunate champagne.) Mademoiselle’s other followers scattered quickly, leaving the Chevalier standing there, surrounded by blackened rose petals.
The Chevalier was not one to give up so easily. He was, as you might have gathered, a somewhat romantic (if unoriginal) young man, but he was also a rather destitute one, and the gems that had been on Mademoiselle’s neck during the unfortunate affair had been most tempting indeed. Moreover, the Chevalier was convinced that the Marquis d’________, or perhaps even the Baron d’______, had played a trick on him with the roses. A quite clever trick, unquestionably, since the Chevalier could not imagine how it had been done—some slight of hand, perhaps? One of those odd chemicals that the alchemists played with, flung over the roses? However it had been done, the Chevalier did not mean to allow his rivals to gain Mademoiselle’s jewels by such a dirty trick. The very next day he arose, dressed most carefully in a suit of blue and green silk (slightly questionable colors, perhaps, but he felt they set off his eyes and skin) and strolled to Mademoiselle’s house to offer his apologies for the incident in person.
The many gargoyles (ten, all told) guarding the grounds might have seemed menacing to another man, but the Chevalier merely raised his cane (a most remarkable one, dyed to match his eyes) to pound on the door. After a rather long moment (the servants of the house, it had been noted, did not always display the best of training) the door swung open, to reveal a young maidservant and yet more gargoyles. The maidservant bobbed a curtsey; the Chevalier bowed and presented his card and his wishes to speak to Mademoiselle. Not one to deny entrance to such a fine looking man, whatever his character, she bobbed again and escorted him to the library to await, she said, Mademoiselle’s preferences.
A fine start, the Chevalier thought, and he even attempted to amuse himself by looking at some books.
Books, however, could only hold his interest for so long, so when he heard the murmur of voices along one wall, he dashed over to it to listen. The sounds, he realized, were coming through a door lined with books. Mademoiselle’s sisters, he thought, almost recognizing the voices, though they might have been the maids. No matter: the conversation was certainly of more use to him than anything in a book. He pressed his ear against the door. (He was not precisely, as noted, the most moral of men.)
The door, alas, muffled the sounds, but he could make out tidbits here and there, “. . .truly a beast. . . kiss another man. . . free of him—”
That certainly sounded promising.
“. . .she wants to save him. . . some men are not worth the saving. . . could get her to kiss. . . ”
Just at that most interesting moment, the other library door swung open. The Chevalier leaped back.
“Mademoiselle will see you now, in the gardens,” the maid said.
Thinking furiously, the Chevalier followed the maid there.
The gardens were, he had to admit, a bit overladen with gargoyles—one seemed to appear every two to three feet or so. Small gargoyles, large gargoyles, grinning gargoyles, sobbing gargoyles—it was all a bit much for the Chevalier, who, although romantic, preferred things in moderation. He noticed—how could he not?—that the garden was utterly free of roses, and berated himself for forgetting the simple step of determining Mademoiselle’s favorite flowers.
Mademoiselle herself was sitting on a small stone bench near a little fish pool, seemingly reading a book, her heavy ring pressed against her lips. She was dressed most charmingly, and the Chevalier noted hopefully that even within the confines of her own family garden, she also wore a necklace of very fine emeralds and matching earrings. She had perhaps chosen them to match the garden; the Chevalier cared only to note that she was careless enough with her jewels to wear them everywhere, which again suggested many of them. He sank on one knee before her. She did not lower her book. He coughed. She lowered her book and looked at him, although he had the uneasy feeling that she was looking elsewhere. Her lips did not leave the heavy ring.
“I came,” he said, “to offer my most profound—profound—apologies for the so disturbing incident last night.”
Her face remained utterly calm, unmoved.
“Had I the faintest thought that my small token would cause you such distress I would have slashed my own wrists first.” A bit excessive, perhaps. But some ladies liked that sort of thing.
Mademoiselle continued to watch him in the vaguest of fashions, her lips twisted around her ring. He began to feel an element of doubt. She was not without sense or conversation, the lady—he had seen her chattering away with other women and men. Remembering the reputation of the Marquis d’_______, he wondered uneasily if perhaps she was afraid to speak for fear of the Marquis’ anger. They were, after all, quite alone, and if the Marquis had become her new patron—
Nonsense. If the Marquis had become her new patron, the Chevalier would have been graciously escorted from the library to the streets. She was merely pondering her response, that was all. He rose to his feet—no sense in risking a further stain to the blue silk—and assembled his most dazzling smile. “You must allow me to make amends. Surely, you have some need I can assist you with? I cannot add to your perfections, of course, but surely you have some small or great desire that I can fulfill?”
She turned to look at him. “You are not serious.”
“But truly. You must know of some small way I can assist you, to make amends for such a shocking incident.”
Her eyes turned to look at him directly, and this time, he was a bit taken aback by the intensity that he saw there. He saw her reach up, to scratch the fox head upon her shoulders. “You truly wish to help me?”
“But of course,” he said, in the most gallant manner. After a second, he even remembered to give a little bow, and a toss of his elegant hat with the single feather.
“I need to flee this house,” she said.
This too sounded promising, if a bit dangerous. “Flee?” he asked, taking the opportunity to sit next to her, where he could place an arm about her shoulders, if she needed to weep, which might allow him more opportunities later.
She shook her head. “No,” she said. “My sisters and brothers are most kind. But they do not understand—they do not see—”
“I am not entirely certain,” said the Chevalier, with an air of frankness, “that I see either. Perhaps, a better explanation?”
“I must leave,” she said. “It isn’t merely that I want to—although I do, you understand. It is that I must leave. I must head to the north. An errand of the strictest urgency.”
Where, no doubt, the patron was. Well, that could be dealt with. The Chevalier knew men, he fancied, and had drawn his own conclusions regarding an absent patron who allowed his darling to parade herself about so decadently unescorted save for sisters. And even if he were wrong about said patron, the Chevalier could think of ways to reduce the patron’s interest.
“A journey to the north, you say?” he asked.
She nodded. “Quite a long journey, I fear,” she said. “But once I leave this house, I have money for the journey.”
“And what is to prevent you from leaving?” he asked.
She flushed; the stain made her, he thought, look more beautiful than ever, and also brought a new light to her emeralds. “From this house? I have no horse, no carriage of my own, and I cannot just walk out on the streets. My sisters would—” She paused, perhaps realizing that she was perhaps saying too much. “No, without transportation, I must remain here. And yet, as said, my errand is of the greatest urgency. I must flee.” She wrung her hands, as if in emphasis.
The Chevalier smiled. It was not quite his most charming smile, since he had not had a chance to build it, but he smiled. “Well, if that it all that is needed, nothing could be simpler.”
“I have a carriage, and horses, ready to sweep you away at will.”
Her mouth opened a trifle.
“But, you hardly—”
“I have grown to know you better than you think, Mademoiselle, over these past few weeks.” It was not true, but would, he hoped, silence any objections she might have over joining a strange man in a carriage. “Should it comfort you, we can have your maid join us, to silence any voices.” He spent a pleasant moment contemplating certain entertainments where the maid might join him and Mademoiselle. So pleasant was that moment that he added, “Or I can provide one, a young maid from my father’s estates.” And he allowed his mind to wander again while Mademoiselle wrung her hands together.
“It might serve,” she said. “Yes, yes. It might serve. You could bring me to the town of N_____?”
“Anywhere Mademoiselle desires,” he said, with another bow, which conveniently gave him a better look at Mademoiselle’s cleavage and the gems so brilliantly displayed there.
“How soon could you come?”
“In three days, perhaps? Your family is hosting a party, is it not? What better time for me to announce that I am taking you—and your maid, or my maid—on a little airing, to leave you more refreshed for the party and the dancing? Have your maid bring what jewels you might have—” he realized, too late, that he ought to have added clothes to that phrase, but in truth, his mind had been merrily dancing with the thought of Mademoiselle quite without clothing, and that was not a mental image he cared to lose. “And we shall be off to town of N_____, with no one the wiser.”
She brought her heavy ring to her lips and kissed it passionately. The sight made him a little uneasy, and he looked elsewhere. It seemed to him that the garden contained, if anything, even more gargoyles than it had just a moment ago. He returned his gaze to the much more pleasant prospect of Mademoiselle’s bosom and her green eyes.
“Yes,” she whispered. “Oh yes.”
Something in that second yes caused him to pause.
“I shall, however, claim the smallest of payments for this service.”
A wary look entered her eyes. “I thought this was in recompense for the events of last night?”
“So it is, so it is,” he said, taking the tiniest of steps forward, to place his hand in her soft hair, noting dispassionately how the sunlight set off its red highlights—really, he should consider locating a red headed maid for them later. “But a carriage ride to N______, in return for a few blackened roses?” Her eyes darkened, and she stepped back. A tactical mistake, but he continued, allowing his hand to fall to his side. “It is, as I said, but the smallest of payments. No more than a token. A single kiss, no more.”
She stood utterly still.
“I cannot,” she whispered.
“A single kiss,” he said. “And your freedom, and the north.”
She twisted the heavy ring on her hand. For a moment, he half fancied that he saw the fox fur move—but no, that was nonsense. As was his impression—an impression, no more—that still more gargoyles had entered the garden. A trick of the eye, or the wind, no more.
Best to leave her to consider. “I shall return in three days,” he declared passionately. Three days, he thought, would increase her desperation, and had the added advantage of being the traditional time, as well. He was, as others had noted, a most unoriginal man. “And then—then—I shall beg you to allow me to rescue you!”
She kissed her ring passionately in response.
Discouraging. Still, he had the gems to consider, and it might be easier to remove them from a madwoman. He strode off, whistling, paying no attention to the gargoyles gathering behind him.
On that third night, the family of Mademoiselle gave a party at their home in honor of the second brother, who had just written a series of sonnets about hunting. The sonnets were, all agreed, of quite poor quality and not worthy of celebration, and smacked of a desperate excuse for a party. Nonetheless, no one wished to miss the evening, the first public appearance of Mademoiselle and her family since the Incident. All showed up, none carrying roses.
The house was filled with gargoyles, light, and the finest in food and wine. (Whatever their unfortunate background, the family was at least not foolish enough to attempt to serve purple champagne.) The older sisters were brilliant, sparkling, witty, bedecked with jewels; some whispered that love would not long continue to evade them. Or if not love, marriage. About the brothers they were less certain: the sonnets of the second brother were held to be a distinct deficiency.
The Chevalier arrived precisely two hours after the party had begun, leaving his carriage in a most convenient location, adjusting his hat (which had, the observant noted, four fine feathers, rather than the usual two, but did not quite match his elegant jacket) as he entered the house. It did not take him long to discover Mademoiselle, who was standing in a small alcove off the ballroom, twisting at her ring, listening with all the appearance of attention to the jests of the Baron d’_______. The Chevalier was not so unwise as to stride up to her. Rather, he ambled through the room, laughing and jesting, and if he noticed the way attentive mothers removed their daughters from his path, he did not speak of it.
He gave his most elegant bow when he approached Mademoiselle.
“You look most heated,” he said, after the initial pleasantries. “A look that most becomes you,” he hastily added, realizing that some women might take offense to the remark, “but surely, you would wish a turn in your most delightful gardens? I did not get a close enough look at the gargoyles on my last visit.”
“I can obtain a glass of lemonade for Mademoiselle,” exclaimed the Baron d’________.
“Most splendid,” said the Chevalier. “She will appreciate it upon her return.”
And with that, he took Mademoiselle by the arm, and swept her out into the gardens as she placed another passionate kiss on her ring.
He took her, so he imagined, to a most private place in the garden, guarded by three gargoyles. In truth, the place was not quite as private as the Chevalier might have imagined, or hoped: quite within earshot sat another couple, who had entered the garden with the most benign intentions of discussing art, and on the opposite side rested Monsieur F_______, attempting to recover from something that had been dropped into his wine. Naturally, they could not help but note the approach of Mademoiselle and the Chevalier, and it is to them that we are indebted for the rest of the story.
“My carriage awaits,” the Chevalier told Mademoiselle, with a dramatic flourish.
“I did not believe you were serious,” she said.
“But I was,” he said, gesturing towards the small, rusted garden gate. “All it needs is one gesture—one token—from you—and then, we leave this house, for safety and your freedom. Although we should perhaps stop by your chamber for your jewels first,” he added.
Mademoiselle was seen to swallow. “My sisters, my brothers,” she whispered.
“You said yourself that this errand was of the greatest urgency.”
She brought the ring up to her lips and kissed it again. “Oh, it is,” she declared.
He stepped forward, to place what he imagined to be a masterful arm about her. “Then one kiss, and your freedom is won; your errand is begun. One kiss.”
She stepped back, away from his arm. The watching men thought her bosom heaved; the watching lady thought her cold. “I cannot,” she said.
“Think of the north. Your errand.”
And she was, all there could see it. Her lips trembled; she stared at the ring upon her finger. The Chevalier took advantage of her silence to step forward again. “You do wish to escape, do you not?” he said, reaching up to place a hand upon her cheek, allowing it to wander most temptingly down her neck. Oh, he had certain skills, did this Chevalier.
“Why. . . yes.”
“Then kiss me,” he said, moving closer.
Monsieur F________, regrettably still under the influence of that mysterious substance dropped into his wine, later claimed that at this moment, the fox fur about Mademoiselle’s neck raised its head and gave a short bark, but this tale was later discredited.
“Kiss me,” the Chevalier repeated. And then, lower, “I swear, he will never know.”
Her hands crept up and about his neck; her lips ever so gently touched his.
Opinions vary greatly as to what occurred next. The lady declared, and could not be shaken from this, that Mademoiselle had indeed melted in the Chevalier’s arms after this, had twisted and groaned under his lips, had pulled him ever closer to her, just as rose vines began to creep out of her hands and arms, twisting around the Chevalier, forcing the elegant young man to the ground, where he began to scream. (It was her addition of the scream that lent doubt to the tale—none of the others, and none of the dancers in the ballroom, could remember a scream.) Monsieur F_______, still shaken from that mysterious substance, and his drink, quite agreed about the vines and the roses that had sprung from Mademoiselle’s arms, but argued that, on the contrary, Mademoiselle had found the Chevalier’s kiss quite distasteful, and had indeed been fighting him off when the first rose stems pushed through the Chevalier’s body. The transformation had taken some time, both agreed, but as the rose stems had pushed through—or strangled—the Chevalier’s body, slowly it had changed, to become not the Chevalier, but a single rosebush, wavering under the moonlight.
While the final young man declared that it had been nothing of the sort, a mere poof! and the Chevalier was gone, with only a rose bush in his place. Impossible, he agreed, but that had been what had happened. More likely, the Chevalier, having stolen a gem or two from Mademoiselle, had snuck off to try his wiles in another town, and had done so as Mademoiselle had become so unfortunately entangled in the vines of the garden, distracting the observers around her. From Mademoiselle, they heard not a word. Mademoiselle was not to be disturbed, her sisters said firmly; not for anyone, not even—this after a gold coin of dubious authenticity was waved in their faces—for servants of the Marquis. It was all quite disturbing, all inexplicable, all wrong, and after a final look at the rosebush, the guests departed to their own homes, where roses stayed properly in the places where they were planted, or in the bouquets that they formed.
But the young lady who had entered the garden with those so benign intentions of discussing art lingered just a little longer in the garden after the other guests all left. She was upset, she explained, she would be along later, she did not live far. Eventually, with some fussing, her friends left her kneeling before the rosebush. It was, she realized with a chill, the precise height of the Chevalier, and was shaped a little like him as well.
As she knelt, a flicker of gold caught her eye, and she reached for it, then began scrambling for more. Five pieces, all told, from Mademoiselle’s beloved, heavy ring, now shattered and left at the base of the rosebush.
The young lady gathered the pieces to her breast, preparing to take them home, or perhaps gift them to Mademoiselle. But then, for no reason that she could think of, she found herself digging in the dirt, ruining her fine pale green gloves, to plant the ring in the roots of the rosebush.
Shortly after this Mademoiselle left the town, followed by her brothers and sisters. She was observed to be pale and weeping and thin, and the more observant noted through the distorted view of the carriage windows that she was wearing the simplest and plainest of black dresses, without a touch of jewelry. (Although others noted that the carriage most certainly had extensive room for jewel boxes and trunks.) The house was quite shut up, and the gargoyles all removed. Untended, the house slowly crumbled into ruin, until only a silent rosebush remained, to warn of the dangers of both roses and beasts.