Le Diable et Sa Poupée
By: The Lady Lin
To my dearest Armande,
It has been a while, hasn't it?
I hope you are doing well wherever you've ended up and above all, I wish you to be happy.
I am twenty now and living quite contentedly in Nice and though we haven't seen each other for a year's time, I believe it is at the point where you should understand what you have done to me. I suppose I should have told you clearly before, but the circumstances have changed as we both are aware given our time together. And, yet, after all the pain, I still forgive you, Armande.
Below are my memories- every account of my past strife. Please, take them to heart and judge if I am too lenient with my amnesty of your actions. I leave your fate in your own hands for I could never condemn you. We set our own destiny.
Farewell, with love,
I. Le Comte
In 1838, I was born in Paris as Hedea Elyssa Bristow and lived the beginning of my life as a white slave with only one code:
Never cross the nobility.
It was a simple rule to abide by and for eight years alongside my mother, I had obeyed. She was my whole existence and saved me multiple times from the harsh hands of our master while we carried out servitude in the Lefevre estate. She was my only buffer from the dangers of this world and the small community we occupied within the manor. So is it any wonder that her death destroyed me? Her sudden absence from my life left me in shock, a nearly complete deadening of all emotion aside from the incredible emptiness her departure left in my heart. They all said she had no will to go on. They told me she took her life out of shame.
But I knew that was a lie.
For even at a young age, I knew my mother had been murdered. Though other memories may have faded with time and lost their potency, that night's events were forever inscribed in my mind.
I don't believe I ever fully recovered from her passing. A death in the aristocracy caused deep grieving from across a nation for months, but no one mourned my mother. Not a single tear shed except my own and I slowly broke down inside. My workload tripled without her and no one was willing to risk their own lives to offer the least bit of help. Perhaps anyone who had not witnessed my mother's end would believe that I was cast away from the Lefevre estate due to my weak attempts to keep up with the other servants. However, I was awoken one night by Lefevre's dutiful wife and it became clear that my leave was to be as covert as possible.
She clasped her hand over my mouth and waited for me to recognize her frantic whispers to "keep quiet" before picking me up and dashing silently down the servant's steps towards the back entrance. I saw the hem of her dressing robe flitter in and out of my sight as the door drew into view. Once I felt the brisk night air across my face, I knew there was no returning. I heard the nearby whinny of a horse as a silhouette of a tall man came into view and before I knew it, Madame Lefevre set me on the ground as the man took my arm in his hand. He ushered me out into the lawn with a sharp jerk where a horse-drawn wagon waited. A blanket was placed over my head as he shoved me into the back of the attached wagon. He had me lay down on the wooden bed where he covered me with a thicker, woolen fabric and hooked the detachable board back into place. The horse started up as I watched the crinkles in the fabric move with the brisk pace of the quadrupeds every trot. My mind could only pull together the image of my mother's desperate calls for me the night I lost her. I was petrified, but had no true idea of my impending fate.
Once parked outside a new location, I remained cloaked as I was taken up an incline. The air was saturated with the scent of salt but I couldn't see anything aside from the light of the candles my attendants held that managed to be discerned through the coarse cloth covering. Even as they unveiled my new quarters, I saw very little in the dark, but could make out a few rustles of life as the original men who had placed me here locked the door behind them as they left. My eyes adjusted poorly from the light of a small window and I found myself surrounded by approximately thirty individuals in various states of health and dress. For two weeks we waited in that dank cell in the hull of a ship for any indication of our circumstance or what would become of us. Mothers cried for their lost children throughout the nights. The elderly shook from what appeared to be early onset of consumption as they rested nearly motionless on the hay-strewn floor, only to stir in a fit of coughs. Soon we all could not wake up without the smell of death permeating throughout the cell and I feared we had been locked away in our tomb but we had been stolen from our families and familiar surroundings for another cause.
The fourth day in dock at our destination, we were escorted one by one from our confines, a large ship on some port I would soon understand to be located on mainland Greece. It was here that I was subjected to the auction line.
You cannot imagine the humiliation to be inspected like livestock, stripped before a physician while twenty or so others watched from behind, awaiting their own examination. Then, with nothing more than a push in the right direction, I was on the platform with others thrice my age. I, merely a child, trembled beneath my night frock while the various aristocrats scrutinized our muscles and appeal with disdainful grins.
This is where I met le Comte de Badeau, informally known to me now by "the Count". He was the last bidder to enter the house that night and moved passed the line apathetically before he reached me. I remember that I had to strain my neck upwards to see him clearly as he peered down at my eight year-old form. I had never seen anyone quite like him: tall, poised, and covered neck to toe in the finest suit which contrasted drastically to the other attendees' attire. I recognized him to be of western European decent and as most of the bidders were eastern in heritage and spoke in such a quick, exotic tongue, I was able to catch a few breaths to calm my nerves at his presence.
He smiled at me, genuinely inviting, and as the auction commenced, he removed his top-hat in greeting. Dusting the brim off slightly and holding it to his chest, he knelt down to my level. This was unheard of from nobility! But even as I searched his face for some sort of answer, his narrowed eyes remained darkly fixed on me.
"Now what is your name, dear?" he asked kindly in French. A wave of relief washed over me.
I fumbled for my words and focused on my reflection in his pupils.
"Hedea," I squeaked.
He smiled again; many slender teeth perched on one another, and took up my hand in his. He was young, for a count. Amid his early thirties or so with lengths of black hair tied neatly at the back of his neck. He kept eye contact. I noticed his pallid skin, weathered with experience, but befitting of his general resigned countenance. He looked like any aristocrat I had known...but he refused to act the part.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Mademoiselle Hedea."
I did not trust his oddness. He was not supposed to act this way. He wasn't supposed to treat me like a lady in front of all the wealthy spectators. Yet, without so much as a glance back at them, he pressed a light kiss on my skin and stood to speak privately with the auctioneer in a new dialect. I stood in wide-eyed astonishment, glaring at my hand and back at the Count in distrust.
Several hushed words later, he signaled a tanned man, similarly dressed in a waistcoat and tails, to his side and indicated to the auctioneer. The Count placed his hat back atop his head. His companion remained behind as the statuesque count lightly touched my back in the direction of the exit. He personally escorted me out of the room, giving me a reassuring smile as he followed, despite the disgusted faces of his equals.
And that, Armande, is where it all began.
For ten years I was bound to the Count. Every so often we would move about, occupying one impressive manor after another, until we settled in Paris once I turned sixteen. But I couldn't say I was ever much of a luxury to him in all my life. A born servant I was, with a strict training, but no matter what small amount of work he happened to provide me, I couldn't help feeling a little more than useless when he sent me away without a single command. I had never really been needed, so why was I there?
Day after day, he isolated himself in his quarters, emerging occasionally for business and every year for Christmas in our estate. That time of the year was a somewhat family-esque affair where he'd speak so animatedly to the table that I was charmed into forgetting how little I knew about him. Even the immense staff of servants he kept employed who were normally fearful of him, would appear calmer. But that sensation would disappear in hours when he'd retreat to seclusion and I'd be left to wander the hollow corridors alone for most of my days. I had noticed immediately that Count was a vast collector of exotic accoutrements, ranging from portraits of the Italian renaissance to ornately carved and lacquered wood of some Asian port. But the corridors were all the same to me. Each elaborately decorated. Each as soulless as the next.
In the stead of work, I was allowed to live a life of leisure for the most part, something I hadn't been accustomed, but I quickly learned to despise the endless hours. The Count hadn't left me completely to my own devices. Since my arrival at eight, I was given various trinkets to occupy my time. Dolls that appeared as miniature children with porcelain faces magically appeared at my bedside and toy tea sets, crafted out of such delicate china they could have served as the real thing, were given to me every year. By the time I was nine, I was introduced to my instructors in such womanly practices as sewing and music, becoming well acquainted with the violin. By fifteen, per Count's request, I was not unfamiliar with recent findings in mathematics and science, unusual for females at the time. I knew to be grateful for the schooling I normally never would have experienced, but I was still restricted to the manor with no one my own age to share a conversation or a sparing glance. All the servants associated me with their master and avoided me. Consequently, I remained intensely lonely.
If it were not for Samson, I do believe I would have joined my mother long ago.
Samson was a thin agile man of Italian descent who had been present at the auction as well. Deeply bronzed from the sun and steely in the eyes, his features were sharp and not even the strongest fighters of the day would dare contend with him. He was skilled in the art of the rapier as I had witnessed his daily sparing matches in the courtyard with the servants, keeping up with his technique and perfecting every step calculable. However, he was usually silent and aside from his training, rarely ever broke his position guarding the Count's manor. Though he made the tiniest exception for me. Every lunch hour, when Count refused to leave his work, Samson came to my room with fresh fruits and tea cakes to keep me company while I ate. And though he hardly spoke, I secretly wished I could have returned the favor somehow.
"The Count is…well…a bit odd," I asked one afternoon while sipping carelessly on my tea and singed my tongue a tad. "Isn't he?"
Samson nonchalantly dropped his sandwich back onto the plate and looked up at me with indifference. "He is a respectable man."
"Yes, my friend. There is no doubt in my mind about that, but I do not know him and I don't understand him at all." I raked my fingers through the last crumbs of pastry on my plate.
"The Count gave you another life and I would advise you to take this opportunity seriously. He has been fair. What more can you ask for?"
I wanted my family back. "This is all true, Samson," I said. "But why is it that he is gone for days on end without an explanation when he does leave his room? Are we merely to eagerly await his return like trained dogs?"
"We do not question our authority, capretta. We do what is asked of us and perform to the best of our abilities."
"But I am of no use to him! He does not talk to me and he has not asked anything important of me!" I cried through clench teeth. "To think I still cannot get used to his lifestyle after ten years, but I don't believe I've conversed with him at any great length since he purchased me!"
He had seemed almost normal then.
"Temper, Hedea," he challenged with a monotonous voice.
"What is my purpose, then? Why am I here?"
Samson stood up, gathering the soiled dinnerware onto a silver platter. "The Count knows. That's all that is important."
And with that, he walked out to take up his post. I quickly sought my violin from under the bed and began playing a soothing melody to calm my nerves. However, I couldn't stop from thinking far too much.
Samson trusted Count, which was more than I could say. He was a clear example of blind faith and Samson, much like me, knew never to cross the Count even in speech, but I wasn't going to be dismissed so easily. For years I had been planning to enter His room and was so frightened at the thought, that midway down the hall I had always retreated. But to understand the workings of his mind, his occasional kindness and his frequent detachment, I needed to know him. He would never tell me, so once he left on an extensive stay, I enacted my plan. All my answers rested behind that door. I just knew it.
Once Samson retired his post for the night, I crept through the shadows towards the gilded handle. The metal caught the slight wisps of dying flames from the candelabras above as I turned it with a satisfying click to the right. My heart quickened at the sound.
Why would he leave it unlocked?
The door led into a small passageway, dank and barely big enough for two people to fit without bumping noses. I stayed close to the walls, feeling every crack and crevice with my fingers as the room before me materialized to its full grandeur. It was circular with a high ceiling, much higher than Samson's and mine combined, but held together by exposed rafters. Even though the room was relatively modest in width, it was empty. The only furniture being that of a bed and a desk cluttered with papers and blotted pens.
In fact, nothing much struck me about this room other than its scale. One window encased in stone without a single candle to light the corners. I let my fingers linger across the sorry array of parchment when I noticed a lofty frame hung just left of the bed. The picture, though covered with dust and darkness, was illuminated by the moonlight emanating from the window. And like a ghost of the past, the individual depicted glowed white and it took a moment to recognize the woman's face in all its iridescent splendor.
Her plump frame was as white as bone with the loveliest, red lips that would shame the brightest rose. Her eyes were painted and her amber irises blazed out warmly as if lighting the room. From the heaving breasts to the intricately plated hair, I felt inferior in her midst, but there was something I was sure of now. She was the secret. There was no doubt in my mind.
Her flawless form was the only soul in this room aside from the Count himself. Yet I couldn't link her significance. Was she a mother? A lover? A…
"Beautiful, is she not?"
Speak of the devil.
I didn't dare turn to meet my doom at those words. Although he had never clearly restricted his chambers, common sense told me to stay away. I had risked my skin by disobeying this hunch and would undoubtedly find out what punishment was in store. I had crossed him.
"I-I!" My breath wouldn't hush as I continued to restrain my unannounced fear.
"What are your thoughts, Hedea?" He positioned himself in my sight and I eyed him from out my peripheral vision with confusion. He had one hand on his desk chair and his voice was frozen, but he did not appear angry. He looked weak. "I suppose it's too late."
"Wha-what do you mean by that?" I stuttered.
Without warning, he grasped for his heart and beneath his kidskin gloves I could see the strain of his hands as they clutched at the impeccable button-down shirt. In a daze, I stood dumbfounded. I wasn't certain that I had witnessed correctly. The Count couldn't fall. But these insignificant notions wouldn't suppress the distress of seeing him doubled over in agony. Something didn't fit here. Had he ever known pain?
"Count?" I called, but no answer. The waves of his unkempt hair tumbled from out its tie and he crumbled to the floor in a matter of moments. "Count!"
I sprung forward, forgetting that I had defied him. I fell to my hands and knees, crouching low enough to see his face twisted in pain and drenched in sweat. "Bed," he panted and gritted his teeth over a low moan. "Over there!"
At his bark, my feet caught on themselves but I successfully crawled my way to the bedside, looking frantically for what he needed. One panicked look back illustrated his desperation as he pointed a shaking finger at the farthest side. Without delay, I climbed the high-raised oak base and across the crumpled covers to the pillows. I patted desperately around, throwing fabric over my shoulder in a frenzy before I finally hit a solid object.
Grasping it securely, I darted back to his form and gently pushed aside his hair. The object I had so readily received was a mahogany box and upon further inspection, it contained numerous rows of vials spaced equally apart from one another. Each vial was filled to the brim with a hay-colored liquid.
"Medicine?" I whispered and reached for the first vial, but before I could unhook the tiny glass, a gloved hand swatted mine away.
The Count's eyes were wide, outlined with veins and blood, as he stared me down through soaking locks. He inhaled deeply.
"You went behind my back." His voice was cracked and airy as his mouth drew into a thin line. My hand fell to my side at his accusation.
"No! Monsieur, I just…"
He held his hand up and I shut my mouth instantly. "It is done."
And at those words, he stole a vial, swigging the liquid down with a repulsed click of the tongue.