She had dressed in all her finery, had greeted the Regent and had done what was expected of her. But right now, she wanted to be on her own for a while. She thought for a moment, considering the risks then sent a lackey for her cape. Soon afterwards she left the interior of the palace. Outside, the cold was intense, but she did not feel it. At the deserted courtyard of the Palais Royal she found the peace she craved. She studied the twinkling stars in the firmament and wondered what the next year might bring to her. She did not startle at the sound of nearing footsteps – somehow, she had been expecting them.
“You seem to appreciate the festivities as much as I do, Madame,” spoke Lord Newton.
She turned around to look at him. “I’ll never feel at ease here,” she answered. “I really don’t belong at the court. My husband would not understand those sentiments. He wants me to shine on every occasion and win the Regent’s favor. Yet I feel out of place in such a role. It just isn’t me!”
She smiled apologetically. “Here I go again! I don’t know what makes me say all those things to you – nor what you must be thinking of me now.”
He avoided an answer by asking if she cared for a stroll. He offered her his arm and led her away from the courtyard, into the surrounding gardens. For a long time the rustle of her satin dress was the only noise that could be heard.
At last Lord Newton broke the silence. “Someone told me what happened to you this afternoon. Nevertheless you came to the ball, looking better than ever and were able to face the curiosity. I admire your courage, Madame!”
It sounded like a compliment, and it meant more to her than the sympathy Hilaire had shown. “I’m not so brave,” she however denied, sensing honesty was at its place here. “I came to the ball because I did not want to stay home with my husband.”
He let the last remark go, although he seemed to register it. “You won’t deny it was a scaring experience,” he said instead. “There may be danger for you here. Perhaps you should have stayed home.”
“That would not solve anything,” she replied. “You know, fear is a fierce emotion. It reaches a point where you are so scared that nothing seems to bother anymore – and then you become half as careful as you ought to be.”
He nodded to show he appreciated her sharp psychological insight. “I repeat: you are a brave woman. And know you are quite safe with me. Nobody will try to rob you of your jewels or money in my presence.”
She snorted. “Those scoundrels were not out for my possessions. They meant to kill me.”
He accepted her statement without apparent surprise, but because of the close contact of their arms, she sensed how his muscles tightened. Suddenly she felt a strong urge to take him further into her confidence.
“I need to talk to somebody,” she addressed him frankly. “Please hear me out.”
She told him the entire story without exaggeration, and he listened without any comment. By the time she finished talking, they had reached a frozen fountain where he let go of her arm. He did this so she could not feel how his hands trembled. He still was not prepared to trust her entirely, nor his own feelings.
“Why me?” he wanted to know when she stopped speaking. “Why not share this with your husband? He’s the one who ought to help you in your troubles.”
She did not need to think. “I am not very close to him,” she replied. “We only married because it was… convenient. I feel he’s more of a stranger to me than you are.”
He made an irritated movement which she did not catch immediately. Instead she went on: “I’ve had this feeling from the day we first met. Since then I became more and more convinced that destiny brought us together.”
“I’m afraid destiny had little to do with it,” he said hoarsely. “I saw you and wanted to possess you. Sometimes I indulge in my evil ways.”
“I don’t believe you,” she stated with inner certainty. “Not after last time. You said other things then. I thought we had become friends, so why can’t you be straightforward too?”
Now his tone was rude and had the intention to hurt. He succeeded easily in this. Marguerite came to an abrupt standstill and a look of profound pain manifested itself on her face.
“Is this the way you treat friends?” she cried out. “What are you trying to prove?”
“Nothing!” he responded. “Didn’t they warn you about me, Madame? I am an outcast – and do you know why society shuns me? Because I was convicted for having murdered my wife.”
His revelation shocked her, but did not reach the objected goal. She did not turn away from him in horror.
She waved aside any possible doubt and said: “I can’t believe you’re capable of murder. There must have been a mistake.”
When she tried to lay her hand on his arm, he shook it off, with a violent gesture. “You’re wrong!” he shouted, undergoing the old hurt once more. “I could easily have killed her! I used to imagine how I’d lay my hand around her slender neck and press…press… so that she could scorn me never again. Only – I didn’t. Someone crossed my plans and was clever enough to put the blame on me. I was condemned to be beheaded, but my stepfather used his influence with the old king and got me a pardon. The sentence was changed into lifelong banishment. I had to leave
and I shall never forget those years. The humiliation, the anger, the pain…” France
“It has passed now,” she dared to remark.
He laughed unpleasantly. “Oh yes, it all turned out so nicely! My uncle, whom I never heard of since my father became estranged from his family, died of typhoid fever and shortly afterwards his two sons succumbed to the disease as well. Luck! Now I happen to be the sole heir of the Duke of Shrevenport… and because of that, the Regent restored me to my rights and allowed me to return to
And what did I gain? Entrance to the court, and the openly displayed contempt
of those who did not give me a chance to prove my innocence in the first
Now she was no longer offended by his harsh words. His outburst gave her the chance to better understand how bitterness had turned him into the person he was now, and why he found it so easy to use irony and sarcasm. She realized she gained field in winning his total confidence.
“I believe you are not guilty,” she said. “Have you never tried to find out who killed your wife?”
He looked away and did not answer straight away. He appeared to be brooding over something.
“Can’t you tell me?” she urged him.
He looked into those beautiful eyes and realized she really wanted to know all. He bit his lip and pressed his nails deep into his skin, until pearls of blood appeared. Still he did not speak.
“You shut yourself off from those who care for you,” she concluded. “And I do care… You simply won’t give me a chance.”
“Marguerite, please!” It was a tortured man who spoke, a man who did not make it easy on himself. He was determined to continue on the path he had chosen. She had enough worries on her mind already. Why burden her with his guilt? “How can you understand?” he went on. “You don’t know half of the truth!”
“Not when you keep throwing such high barriers,” she stammered, losing courage at last. She swallowed through the tears that welled in her throat. Then she decided.
“I am sorry,” she said. “I won’t bother you any longer. I suppose I went too far with my curiosity. Goodbye.”
Decidedly she turned her back on him and headed back to the palace. One step, two steps, …
He felt as if his heart was being ripped out. The pain became too severe, too unbearable.
“Marguerite, don’t leave,” he whispered, finally giving up the battle with his self-discipline and needing to give in to the overwhelming desire to take her into his arms.
She stiffened in her stride and looked behind. Then everything seemed like a dream come true. He swept her into his embrace and ravished her mouth with hungry kisses which she eagerly returned.
He felt how his heart leaped up in pure joy, when he sensed her response. She completely surrendered to him, without the least bit of restraint. If it were not so deadly cold, he would have made love to her there and then. Now he lifted her into his arms and hastened to find his carriage.