The Crystal Rose
March 12, 1852
I received a letter today from my father, telling me that my mother had passed away… two weeks ago. The devastation I felt at her loss was great, but no more than the pain at not being told or the inability to go to her funeral.
My mother was one of the very few people in this world who actually cared for me. Once I was old enough to go to school, Father packed my bags and sent me. She loved me and wanted me when no one else in the world wanted to. Father didn't even want me, he still does not…
March 20, 1852
I received word from Father today. He wishes me home, post haste. No doubt he has found a suitable husband for me and wishes to be rid of me at his earliest convenience. No matter how much I have pleaded, I wish he would simply allow me to remain in the convent and join the sisters here. But he was never one to do anything the easy way…
Celeste stared at her reflection in the mirror, not believing the girl staring back at her was herself. Gone was her novice habit and dark concealing clothes. In their place was a royal blue satin gown, her tiny waist painfully corseted and her ample bosoms appearing like they were ready to burst forth from the gown.
It was all rather vulgar, in her opinion. Even with the modest clothes she wore at her convent school, the nuns still forced her to bind her breasts so they appeared smaller than they actually were.
The dress had belonged to her mother and the pain in Celeste's chest, knowing that she would never see her mother again, was almost too much for her to handle. She sank down onto the stool before the vanity, burying her face in her hands.
Dear God, she prayed, why am I here? Why did Father force me to come home, when he knows I despise it here so much? She wished desperately for the answers, but knew there were none.
Taking a deep breath, she smoothed back her mahogany hair, which hung in loose spirals down her back. She squared her shoulders and slowly rose to her feet. She would go downstairs and face her father; she would not hid out in her room like a coward.
He had not been home when she had arrived earlier in the day, much to Celeste's relief. However, he had left specific instructions for her in terms of dress and manner. None of this was new for Celeste, but she despised that he treated her like her own life didn't matter.
She grabbed a shawl, wrapping it around her slender shoulders, hoping to cover up a bit more as she headed to the family parlor on the first floor. Each step was agony, not knowing what to expect when she walked into the room.
She stopped before the heavy wooden door and stared at it. Voices could be heard from within and Celeste inched forward a bit to hear what was being said. Her heart jumped into her throat when she realized the language being spoken was English and not her native French.
"She really is quite pretty, madam. I would not steer your wrong," Celeste's father reasoned.
"I will be the judge of that, Mr. Delacroix," the woman said with an even tone. "Though if she is half as pretty as you claim her to be, than I will be well pleased."
"No doubt of it. Now, where is that girl?" her father grumbled.
Celeste took a step back, smoothing out the non-existent wrinkles in her skirt and raising her hand, knocked on the closed door. Upon hearing her father's loud resounding voice, she slipped into the room, keeping her back pressed against the door.
"Good evening, père," she said in French, as to not arise suspicion that she had been eavesdropping.
"There you are," he responded gruffly.
Pierre Delacroix was by no means an intellectual, but what he lacked in brains he made up in size. Standing at nearly six feet in height, with broad shoulders and a thick neck, he was an intimidating figure. His jet black hair has started to gray at the temples and thin wrinkles were forming around his eyes and mouth.
He surveyed his daughter, taking in her appearance with a calculated eye and frowned slightly when he saw the shawl around her shoulders. Without a word, he marched over to her and yanked it off of her. Balling it up, he tossed the flimsy piece of material into a discreet corner.
Celeste stared up at him, her steel-blue eyes wide and frightened. As used as she was to his violent behavior, it was never something she could accept. What right or reason did he have to be malicious to her, when she did her best to stay out of his way?
"What a cute little country mouse," crooned the woman as she rose from her place upon the sofa. "Now it seems like you scared the poor little thing."
Celeste snapped her eyes to glare at the woman, who only stared back.
Pierre grumbled under his breath as he took a firm grasp on Celeste's upper arm and dragged her before the woman. He gave her a shove in the back until Celeste stood close enough for his liking.
Celeste took in the woman's voluptuous figure wrapped tightly in a brilliant fuchsia dress and a large brimmed hat with an obnoxiously long purple feather was perched atop her head. Corn-silk hair fell in tight ringlets about her shoulders and bright red rogue coated her lips. Honestly, Celeste thought the whole display was rather vulgar.
"Madam Henrietta, I would like for you to meet Celeste." Pierre paused for a moment. "My wife's bastard."
Celeste gasp for breath and grabbed onto the chair next to her least her legs give out under her.
"What?" she demanded, gaping at the man, she believed her entire life was her father.
"You heard me, wretch," he growled, stepping closer and lowering his face to her level. "As she lay dying, she finally told me the truth, something I had suspected since the day of your birth. A month before our marriage she lay with another and tried to pass you off as mine, but I knew your birth was too early. You are not mine, you were never mine. And now, after seventeen years, I shall finally be rid of you."
Crystal tears streamed down her cheek. She shut her eyes, not wanting to believe a single word of it. Her heart pounded against her breast as if ready to burst forth. First her mother passes and now this? It was more than Celeste thought she could handle.
She had come home thinking her father, or the man she thought was her father, had found someone for her to marry. She had not suspected this. And who this woman?
"It's alright, little mouse," Henrietta said, lightly patting Celeste shoulder.
Celeste's entire body went rigid at the contact.
"Do not touch me, madam," Celeste hissed through her teeth.
"You will not disrespect her," Pierre barked, once again pulling Celeste to her feet, pulling so hard on her arm, she was convinced he would pull it clean from the socket.
"What does she want with me?" she whispered.
Henrietta clicked her tongue slightly and circled around Celeste, who stood with her back stiff. After a long moment, Henrietta paused and turned to Pierre.
"I will give you ten," Henrietta said firmly.
Pierre frowned. "Fifteen."
"You are a shrewd business man, Mr. Delacroix. Twelve." Henrietta smiled with her ruby red lips.
"We are in agreement," he said. "Celeste, you will go upstairs this instant and pack your things."
"I am not going anywhere, especially not with her," Celeste replied, inching away from the scheming pair. "Please! Can you not simply send me back to the convent?"
Pierre sneered. "What am I going to get by sending you back to the convent? Are you stupid, girl? For twelve thousand francs, you belong to her now."
"No!" Celeste shouted, fresh tears rolling down her cheeks. "You cannot sell me like one of your horses!"
"He already has, mouse," Henrietta said evenly as she casually adjusted the hat on her head. "Now, I suggest you do as he says and pack your things. You get one bag and we leave in an hour."
Celeste laid in the little bed in her cabin, staring up at the ceiling. She had hardly said four whole sentences to Henrietta since they had left her home the day before. She still couldn't quite wrap her mind around the fact that her "father" had sold her to an English woman… and a rather garish one at that.
Henrietta had been kind to her since they left, trying to engage her in conversation during their carriage ride from Paris to Calais. Celeste said very little, answering Henrietta's questions politely. The rest of the time, she stared out of the carriage window at the brilliant scenery. She didn't know when she would see France ever again.
Celeste sighed and sat up, running her hands over her face. She pulled her small bag from under the bed. Digging through what little clothes she had brought with her, she found the small black velvet bag she was looking for. Sitting back on the bed, she dropped the contents into her palms.
She lightly fingered the tiny purple glass beads and heavy gold crucifix. The rosary had belonged to her mother, which she had sent to her in the convent several months before for Celeste's seventeenth birthday. Celeste couldn't believe her mother had sent her her most prized possession. She had kept its presence a secret from everyone so no one could take it away from her. The nuns would think it to extravagant and suggest that she donate it to the poor.
She started at the bottom, grasping one small bead between her thumb and forefinger. Making the sign of the cross, she began:
"Pater noster qui es in coelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum; adveniat regnum tuum, fiat voluntas tua, sicut in coelo et in terra. Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie, et dimitte nobis debita nostra, sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. et ne nos inducas in tentationem sed libera nos a malo. Amen."
She sat for a while in the quiet of her room, praying softly, hoping the God would help her get through this. She was on the three Our Father, when she heard the key turn in the lock. Frantically she tucked the rosary under her pillow to hide it.
Henrietta sauntered into the room and sat down on a chair by the window. Celeste watched her gapping as she reached under her dress and pulled out a small bottle. Using two glasses on the table, she poured a generous drink in each. Taking a glass for herself, she handed the other to Celeste.
Celeste stared down at the glass and tentatively stiffed the clear liquid. The scent of pine tree and juniper filled her nostrils and burned slightly from the alcohol.
Henrietta downed her drink and set the glass aside.
"Drink up, mouse. It will warm you up and do you good," Henrietta remarked.
Heaving a heavy sigh, Celeste brought the glass to her lips. Figuring that one drink wasn't going to kill her and the sisters weren't there to condemn her. Besides, her situation couldn't possibly get any worse.
The gin burned a hole down her throat and settled into the pit of her stomach. Her eyes watered and she coughed so hard she thought she might cough up a lung.
Henrietta patted her back. "It's alright. You will get used to it."
"Thank you," Celeste rasped as she plucked her handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed her mouth with it.
"Now," Henrietta started as she leaned back in her chair. "I am sure you have a lot of questions for me, but we will get to them in due course. I thought I would begin by making it quite clear, that you belong to me now, and you will do as I say without question, is that understood."
Celeste swallowed hard on the lump building in her throat.
"Yes, madam," she whispered.
"When we reach London I will take you to my house, where you will be given a room, clothes and food. I do believe you will be quite comfortable there. There are other girls with whom you can make friends. However, never forget that you work for me as a means of returning the extravagant about of money I have spent purchasing you and what it will cost for you to have your keep," Henrietta said, her voice growing slightly sharp.
Celeste nodded solemnly. At least this was something she understood or at least was beginning to understand. Even at the convent she had had to work in order to pay for her keep, since her father refused to pay for it. And in some ways this woman reminded Celeste of the Mother Superior, in the fact they were both shrewd and would do anything to get their way.
"What sort of work will you have me do, Madam?" Celeste asked softly. "I am quite handy with a needle and thread."
Henrietta burst out laughing as she clutched her sides.
"You really are innocent, aren't you, little mouse?" Henrietta wiped the tears from her eyes. "It seems I have gotten more than my monies worth out of you!"
"Madam?" Celeste cocked her head slightly to one side.
Henrietta grinned, her eyes sparkling with an intent that Celeste was not sure was a good thing. Henrietta slipped off her chair and sat down beside Celeste, who discreetly inched away from her.
"What do you know of men?" Henrietta asked in a straight forward fashion.
Celeste frowned as she pondered the question.
"The sisters always told me to stay away from men," she replied carefully.
"And what of coupling?"
"Coupling?" Celeste asked in her confused innocence.
"Foutre, mouse," Henrietta amended.
"Oh!" Celeste flushed a soft pink and buried her face in her hands. "Forgive me, Madam, but I do not understand how a discussion such as this pertains to how I will work for you."
Henrietta chuckled and lightly patted her hand. "This is how you will pay me back."
Celeste stared at Henrietta until it all started to sink in and when it did; she jumped to her feet and pressed herself against the door. Her pulse raced and her palms began to sweat. After everything that had happened… now this?"
"You… expect me to… be a… a…" Celeste struggled with the word. Saying it was going to make it all too real.
"I expect you to do as you're told!" Henrietta snapped as she rose to her feet and approached Celeste. She took her chin in her hand, forcing Celeste to look into her fierce brown eyes. "I paid a hefty sum for you and with everything I am going to give you, if I tell you to bed a gentleman in exchange for a few pounds, you will do so!"
Celeste shrunk back from the woman, defiance building in the pit of her stomach. She was not a thing this woman could take advantage of.
"What if I don't want to?" Celeste asked, straightening her back.
Henrietta smiled cruelly. "You no longer have a choice, mouse. Whether or not you can get your pretty little head around it, you belong to me, I bought you."
Celeste sputtered for a moment. "Where did he find you?"
Henrietta pulled back and retook her chair. She gazed thoughtfully at Celeste for a long moment.
"Your father frequents similar establishments like the one which I own. I had come to Paris to scope some of these places, since they have a certain reputation, to try and improve my own. When he noticed that I was not from the area, he approached me and we struck up a conversation. He told me of you and thought I might be interested in acquiring something special. No doubt he was right," Henrietta remarked as she took the bottle and refilled both of the glasses.
"You have to understand, mouse," she continued. "I am not of the nature of purchasing my girls. I usually find them destitute, walking the streets, trying to find a means to survive. I provide them with that, as I will provide for you. I do not ask for much in return."
Celeste stared at her, her knees finally giving way as she sank to the floor. Hugging her knees to her chest, she tried to fight back the tears that were threatening to fall once more.
"Will I ever be free?" Celeste asked barely above a whisper.
Henrietta picked up the glasses and held one out to Celeste, who took it with numb fingers. Henrietta clinked their glasses together before she drank hers down. Without so much as a second thought, Celeste downed her drink. Maybe the gin would go to her head, and help her to forget her current situation.
"Do not think on that, because you will find that your freedom will not be easily one. I suggest you learn to accept this for what it is and realize how fortunate you are to have someone like me to watch out for you."
TO BE CONTINUED...