The dawn of my wickedness began on the hottest days of summer. It was a time replete with wet brows and weary bones, of drunkard foolishness and mud stained toes, of fat, whirring flies and clammy air.
It began with her laughter by the lakeshore, her dress billowing around her like a cloud, russet hair falling around her shoulders in whispering waves as if she had been born from the foam seeping between the lake stones.
I didn’t see the others, laughing and stumbling like wastrels. There was only her.
Nicolette. The name like sweet belladonna. Like the sound of blackness between dreams.
“Chevalier, come now! Don’t be a stranger!”
I couldn’t say who it was who greeted me. It came from my head for all I knew. I broke through the underbrush and she saw me with those blue eyes. No...they weren’t just blue. How could one describe the vastness of the sky mirrored in the wide, wicked sea?
“It’s hotter than brimstones,” said Emelie, sticking her toes in the water. She was so tall and sturdy she towered over me like the rustling sycamores as I stuck my toes in beside her, the cool water only curing one of my ails.
“If you see any pearls Benoit do fetch one for me!” I heard her say behind me, laughter blooming in her lilting voice..
“Ah yes,” Benoit called back, tossing a stone that leapt valiantly at seven counts. He was like any other stable lad: tanned and strong and rough around the edges. “You’ll be bejeweled like Cleopatra soon enough.”
I found myself standing in the water with little to say, watching as the ripples fell over my bare toes. I felt like a worm beside them all. Scrawny and small and insignificant.
“It’s no pearl,” said Benoit, handing her something he had found in the water.
“Oh I just adore it Benoit, thank you!” She mused, taking the glittering shard of crystal and holding it to the light.
Was that all it took? Taking a blasted rock from the mud?
It didn’t happen all at once. When I first saw her she was as momentous as a mayfly. It was my first day in the service of Madame Delafontaine and she came to me with a grocery list that I would take to town. Every day I would see her picking herbs in the garden or fetching water from the well. On one occasion I heard the most horrific shriek from the cellar and found her in hysterics over a hairy spider. When I dispatched the beast with frying pan she granted me a peck on the cheek in thanks.
I didn’t realize it was happening until it was too late. It was the fleeting moments: the friendly smiles, the good mornings, her mending the bee sting on my thumb. It wasn’t until I saw her with Benoit- the tall, strong brute- holding each other very close in the stables did I realize what had happened to me. Why my heart did that strange pattering in my chest.
What was it about Benoit that she favored so? Of course he was taller, and stronger and more square jawed than I, but his words were rough, his mind unhewn. Could she not see that his fancy was nothing more than savage instinct?
My love for her was lyrical. Like a sonnet. It could be painted in harmony among cherubs and roses and sunlight.
My plot to win her love illuminated in my mind, a picture as fine and delicate as an Italian Madonna.
As if faith had my favor, by the end of summer Benoit was shipped off to kill the British in America. Some squabble between Frederick and Maria Teresa. All that mattered was that there was a delightful good chance that he would eat a bullet by Christmas. And even if he did return from war torn and crippled, Nicolette would already be madly in love with me.
My plan began in Lady Josephine Delafontaine’s boudoir. Like always, I delivered her letters on a silvery tray. Mostly gossip from aunts and cousins or sonnets from lovesick suitors. She was sitting at her vanity, combing through a drawer in her jewelry box. She turned her head, the elegant line of her profile catching the sunlight from the window. “Oh Chevalier, I didn’t see you there. Come in.”
She tossed her letters aside on the table. She held two pairs of earrings, one in each palm. “Do you think the opals or pearls?” She sighed. “Bernadette has caught the chill, so I have to do everything on my own.”
I couldn’t hear what she was saying. The words melted in and out of my consciousness as if suspended in water. My eyes drifted to the two pearls gleaming in her palm: perfectly round, shiny and smooth.
“Chevalier? Did you hear me?”
“The opals, m’lady,” I said.
It was a good thing she didn’t look my way, for I was certain she would see it in my eyes: the seed of an idea.
I left Lady Josephine and performed the rest of the day’s duties: answered the door, served brunch and tea, greeted guests, set the table for dinner and retired for the tedium of tomorrow. But my mind was afire, my heart pounding quiet as thunder.
I waited a week to act. It was five days until Christmas and Madame Delafontaine, her children and Lord Bellamy were invited to the Viscount’s holiday soirée at his country manor. All the house maids and the kitchen girls went out to town to go the millinery shop and drank cocoa from the market, and though the head housekeeper Madame Berger stayed home, she near collapsed onto her bed half way through the day and was scarcely seen again. The gardeners and groundskeepers played cards in their cottage on the edge of the woods, and the other footmen and valets were sharing drinks at the tavern. And alas, the house and I were perfectly and utterly alone.
I sat in the library all morning, book curled in my lap, but the words might as well have been ashes on the page. My fingers twitched at my sides, always finding a strand of hair to tuck away from my face or a button to toy with. I paced a hole into the carpet, dizzy with anticipation. I dusted some shelves, caught some flies, checked the flowers for water, and once I had swallowed my fear, I began my heist. Alone, without all the perfect chaos of lunches and dinners, the house was cold. Too white. Too bright. The snowflakes patting on the windows like a million white fingers.
The moment I walked into Lady Josephine’s room I was assaulted by a breath of frigid air, the roses by the bed looking as starched as the bed sheets. I drifted toward the vanity. My hand shook as I reached for the jewelry box, dozens and dozens of earrings nestled in black velvet cushions. My eyes darted between the gems and gold and silver gleaming in the winter sunlight. All but one pair caught my eye. The pearls.
She can’t possibly miss them… She has a hundred pairs, probably more tucked away in another box. Lady Josephine is a fine and reasonable woman; she will understand the virtue in my pursuit of celestial love...
So I took the pearls and put them in my pocket.
When I went into to town to receive Madame Delafontaine’s wig order from the barber shop, I went to the paper store for a sheet of brown paper with a floral pattern etched in ink, a small wooden box and yard of blue ribbon. I left the package on Nicolette’s window when all the house maids were occupied with the commotion of Christmas morning. I was useless all day, my mind floating in and out like a lost ship, the images of those glossy pearls shining against the blackness of my eyelids. Tossing and turning, sleep eluded me. Had she seen it yet? Had she opened it? Does she think of me now? Imagining me in my bed? Does she whisper my name?
I couldn’t remember falling asleep nor waking up, only my rush to toss on my clothes so I could march down stairs to the kitchens to see her. Madame LaRoux was preparing breakfast, slicing fruit into neat arrangements, sticky buns warming in the oven. “My, Chavalier. Whatever can I do for you?”
“Have you seen Nicollette, Madame?”
“Is everything alright?”
“Oh yes. It’s nothing really.”
“She’s out in the gardens on a morning walk with Emilie, my dear.”
I left Madame LaRoux to her fruit and her toast and marched into the brisk air. It hadn’t snowed hard in a few days, but the ground was hard as granite, the sky white as a sheet. I didn’t think to wear a coat.
I found them by the old sycamore tree wrapped in their cloaks, running rosy fingers over the bark, elegant as wood nymphs.
I lurked feet away, crouching beneath the thicket.
“Do you suppose the war is going well then?”
“Britain is but a tiny island wishing to rule the world. Their end is was a long time coming.”
“Do you suppose he found them in the New World? Perhaps washed up on the beaches? Or perhaps he traded with a savage in exchange for gunpowder? It’s a wonder they made it all the way here unharmed.”
I could scarcely remember how to breathe, my lips blue, my veins crystallized in ice. She couldn’t possibly think they were from that oaf? I smothered the carnal urge to roar into the frigid air: “You foolish wench! Can you not see what has been in front of you all along?”
In that moment, I hated her, hated her with every last drop of blood rushing through my veins.
“How do you know they came from him? Benoit is too occupied with the killing of Englishmen to worry about a pair of earrings.”
“But he loves me, doesn’t he?” She held her hands out in front of her, the pearls rolling in her palms. “He wouldn’t want me to forget him.”
Emelie put a hand on her shoulder, Nicolette’s gaze still fixed on those shining globes. “You are being foolish Nicolette. Those earrings couldn’t have traveled one road in Paris without being nabbed, let alone traveling across a continent and an ocean. Don’t you see? You have another admirer.”
Her profile softened, pink lips expelling a plume of white breath, eyelashes fluttering like sparrow’s wings. “An admirer?” She said, her voice dancing with wonder. “Do you really think so?”
And everything faded. There was only her, and how my heart thundered soft as first snowfall.
Yes. Oh sweet Venus, know that you do...
Emelie looked at the earrings again and shot Nicolette a knowing smile. Uncovering her hood, Nicolette slipped the pearls into her ears, and all at once, every mystery of the universe was revealed to me in a flood of perfect clarity.
I don’t know what they said next. I couldn’t have cared. All I knew was that I loved her, and she loved the possibility of me. And they were there beneath the sycamore tree one moment, and gone the next.
I rose from my hiding place, the wind whistling through the bare, paralyzed branches and the gray grasses fanfaring my triumph. I made my retreat back to the house, mulling over my tasks for the day. Breakfast would be starting and Madame LaRoux assigned him to the odious task of assembling the tea service. I reached for the back door of the kitchen when someone called my name.
“Chavalier! What are you doing in this weather without a jacket?”
I turned to Emelie’s skeptical visage, her solid form castinf a long, cold shadow over me.
“Oh.” I glanced past Emelie’s broad shoulders to the figure floating along the path behind her, pearls gleaming. I glanced back to Emelie, feeling as though I had just been caught in a murder. “I quite like the cold.”
“What a funny boy you are Chavalier,” Nicolette mused.
My cheeks flushed with heat, my eyes fidgeting between the two girls before landing on Nicolette. “What splendid earrings, Mademoiselle.”
“Why thank you Chevalier. Emelie says they’re from a secret admirer. Though, I still think they’re Benoit’s doing. Perhaps it means he is on his way home.”
My ears rang, vision blurring as if my head were jarred by cannon fire. “No Mademoiselle,” I said, so quick it was as if I were warning her of bullets flying over her head, “they’re not from Benoit. They’re from me… I am your admirer.”
There was an unearthly quiet between the two girls as they shared a glance, and in the vast span of that small, terrible moment, the desire to die and rot into a deep, dark, muddy hole ate me alive, only me to be flung from my grave at the sound of their laughter.
“Oh you truly are a funny boy,” Nicolette said, patting me on the head like I was a dog that had just done a splendid trick.
“Get inside, now Chavalier,” Emelie urged, “breakfast is starting.”
I floated behind them, pale and as quiet as a phantom. She had laughed at me! Laughed! Oh the nerve of her! What a despicable wench, strutting about in those whorish pearls as if she were the Queen Consort! I was so entrenched in my colorful fury as I prepared the tea service I slammed a cup so hard it shattered into a porcelain ruin. Madame LaRoux gave me fresh hell for it and asked me what devil possessed me.
Breakfast came and went. I had decided to lock myself in my quarters and wallow in self pity when the commotion began in the parlor.
“Are you sure of sister?” Asked Lord Bellamy, pale eyebrows raising to the scalp of his wig.
“Quite sure,” said Lady Josephine, slumped on the settee with her arms crossed, lovely face twisted into a snarl.
“We’ll get to the bottom of this, my darling,” Madame Delafontaine said, floating across the room to greet me. “Good Chavalier,” she said, flicking her fan with a furious abandon, “tell Madame Berger to gather every servant to the parlor this instant.”
I found Head Housemaid in her office, squinting at a pile of ledgers, spectacles shining on her nose. She made short order of Madame Delafontaine’s request; every chambermaid, foot man, cook, stableboy and gardener was rushed into the parlor posthaste.
“Missing all but one, Madame,” said Madame Berger, “Emelie is visiting her sister in town who has just given birth.”
“No matter,” their mistress said, fan slicing through the air. “I should like to end this unhappy affair as soon as possible. I regret to announce that my daughter reports a theft.”
The word lingered in the room like a miasma. The very air seemed to leak through the windows, the walls slowly inching inward.
“My daughter claims to be short a pair of pearl earrings,” Madame Delafontaine said, her eyes drifting across the pale faces, slow as a glacier before landing on the petite and pretty maid. “Earrings much like the ones you wear now Nicolette.”
“Oh no, Madame,” Nicolette assured, the words not coming from her lips fast enough, her fingers flying to her ears as if she had just been bitten, “I assure you. They were a gift from Benoit. They were left on my window sill on Christmas Day.”
Lord Bellamy let out a bark of laughter. “Do ghosts leave gifts now? Benoit died of flux halfway across the Atlantic.”
Nicolette’s mouth bobbed, all the blood draining from her face. “I swear it, Madame. The earrings were left by my window-“
“By whom?” Josephine said, voice chilly as the winter wind. “The elves and the fairies?”
I stepped forward. One, two. I didn’t know it then, but I had leapt the distance of the universe in a single second. “I attest, Madame, Nicolette has often spoken of her desires to own a pair of pearl earrings. Just this summer, when the lot of us were swimming in the lake, she told Benoit to search for pearls for her.”
I didn’t look at her. Even I know, I don’t think I would have had the courage.
“Please Madame. I swear. This is a mistake-“
Madame Delafontaine dismissed her with a scoff. “I’ve heard enough. Madame Berger, I want her out of this house by nightfall. The girl is lucky. If she weren’t so young and fresh I’d have her thrown into the Bastille
“Certainly, Madame,” the housemaid bid with a bow, the rest of the servants departing behind. Nicolette stood frozen, eyes wide as moons as Josephine rose from her seat, floated over in flurry of skirts and stretched out her hand.
Nicolette removed the earrings, hands shivering as Josephine snatched them, quick as talons.
“Come now, girl,” Madame Berger clipped, snagging Nicolette by the arm, “let’s gather your things.”
Seeing her face drained of color, eyes in a lifeless glaze, tears wetting her cheeks, I realized how ugly she could be, how pathetic. Like a worm squirming in the mud. Madame Berger tugged her along, but for only the slightest moment, she glanced back, and her eyes met mine, shining with the same light of an unexpecting candle just moments before it’s blown out.
“Oh my dear Chavalier,” said Madame Delafontaine, sweeping her fan through the air, true as a headsman's axe, “Who knew how greed breeds devils so.”
Oh, if only I knew how right she was.