All the rumors were true.
Every last whisper she had heard about Étienne Bertillon, every unconscious grimace, every frown at the mere sound of the Bertillon name, even the almost invisible shake of the heads in contempt or driven by that other emotion no one wanted to admit out loud but they all shared: fear.
There was no other way to describe the lowered voices, the words turning into mumbles and the eyes drifting around as if to check... for what?
He'd rarely been down to the village. Fewer times than the fingers on one hand, and if his conduct had ever been disorderly that had been before her time. Four years was a long time, wasn't it? A whole life.
And even now, she was the one standing inside the Chateau Bertillon on the other side of the hill. Everything had been taken care for him by his man. He’d never had to set foot in the village. He didn't need to. And everyone was much happier thanks to the arrangement.
When the large, cold room had emptied of other people, she stood at a distance before him for quite a while. He sat in a chair at the only desk in the room; there was no fire in the fireplace. She waited silently, her palms damp with anxiety, until he finally lifted his eerie, heavy-lidded eyes from the papers before him with the air of having forgotten her existence altogether. He took a good look at her.
His upper lip lifted into a weird grimace. She couldn't tell if something disgusted him or he was ready to bare his teeth. Or was it a smile?
His eyes narrowed as his gaze moved slowly from head to toe, and she rushed to hide her battered shoes under her dress, the best she had.
His clothes were expensive but not new, nor festive either. They suited him well and he felt comfortable wearing them. It was obvious in the way he got up from his chair and stood before his desk, tall and bored.
For a moment, she frowned, almost angry at the offense. No matter how expensive and beautiful they were, he was wearing his everyday clothes, while she was wearing her best dress regardless of how plain and dull it looked. The feeling lasted less than a breath.
Despite the heavy fabric of his brocade waistcoat, the cloud-white of his shirt, the buttons, the cufflinks and the tall leather boots, Étienne Bertillon was an ugly man.
He had a hook nose that gave his face the semblance of a bird, two deep lines between his brows, that constant grimace of disgust that contorted his lips, and as if these were not enough, his eyes had a pale blue color that contrasted with his pupils, giving him an otherworldly aura.
Still, that was hardly a surprise. She had heard all the names they called him, some more fitting than others and had prepared herself for the ugliness. She knew he was much older than she, and deep down she counted on that but from that distance she saw no white in his thick dark hair and unconsciously her shoulders hunched in disappointment.
“Time is the only real luxury.” His voice was deep, bored, and had a disturbing quality. It reminded her of something she couldn’t recall and didn’t allow herself to think as she concentrated on his words.
“Estates, money, jewels, connections…they’re of value only when they can buy time. When they are time-consuming, they do more harm than good.”
Her eyes widened as her mind tried to grasp what he was saying.
“My morals are simple and clear: I care to do you neither harm nor good. Do not waste my time. Find something to occupy yourself with. In this house everyone works for the food he eats.”
She nodded her agreement.
He took one step towards her but then stood still and leaned back on his desk instead.
“I know what you’ve heard of me. Most of it is true.” His grimace of disgust became deeper, revealing a flash of white teeth. That must have been a smile.
“That was in the past. I have my books to read, my designs. I’m too old for anything else.” His eyes narrowed even more as they locked on her, full of meaning.
“No good or evil deeds for me anymore. They’re both a waste of time.”
Turning her face from his persistent stare, she focused on the wooden planks under her shoes, which were visible once more. Pretending she understood him was disheartening.
“Clotilde will show you your rooms. We’ll talk again tomorrow at noon,” he ordered, and like an obedient maid, she rushed to turn on her heel and leave.
Her rooms were more than she expected. More than she deserved. Clotilde believed that, too. She could read it in the older woman’s face, in the way she dragged the tour out by explaining things that didn’t need explanation. Clotilde didn’t think she was worthy of all this, but she didn’t dwell on the woman’s disapproval.
As soon as Clotilde left, she locked the door, and searching around the room, she located a heavy armchair. If she understood Étienne Bertillon right, she had nothing to worry about that night. All the same, she pushed the chair with all her might until it was set against the door. Panting, she sat on it and took in the canopy bed. It looked soft and inviting.
This is where she would spend her first night as Madame Bertillon.
Chapter 2 A mouse
A mouse. Madame Bertillon was a beautiful mouse afraid of the air surrounding her.
Étienne trapped the inner side of his lower lip between his teeth and corrected himself:
Madame Bertillon was afraid of him. It was evident in the way she avoided looking at him, in the way she had tensed while taking that tiny step back when he had risen from his chair, in her words or rather in the absence of them.
She was frightened, but regardless of her fright, she was surprisingly beautiful. Her blond hair suited her green eyes, wide and attentive when she thought he wasn’t looking.
Étienne smiled at the image and entered his study. This morning with the marriage he had let everything get behind and he had to make up for it now.
Time. That was what she needed. Time to realize he was not the brute she thought him to be. Time to relax, to realize that in truth she had been granted her freedom.
Her eyes and some stray curls escaping her thick braid came to mind.
Eliane. It was a fitting name. The sounds of the sea were silenced as the heavy door of the study closed behind him and he prepared to do the same with the thoughts of his young, lovely bride.
Romain Simonot had been a lucky man to have gained her affections. She had waited more than any other woman would have waited. Étienne had to acknowledge that.
And if he wanted to be honest, what woman wouldn’t be afraid to be married to a convicted murderer?
Étienne stretched and grabbed a book from a higher shelf as his teeth sucked the inner side of his lip and instantly let it be, annoyed at the taste of blood that filled his mouth.
Chapter 3Selecting a husband
Despite what people thought of her at first sight, Eliane was more than what her petite frame and her pleasant features revealed.
Orphaned at a young age and having to move from the city to the village where her aunt's house was, Eliane had realized that every man, but especially every woman, had to be practical to survive. Practical and thoughtful, with good reasoning skills and a sharp grasp of reality.
That said, by no means was Eliane Ménard, now Bertillon, a heartless woman. On the contrary. When she had first laid eyes on Romain Simonot, it was her heart that started pounding in her chest loud enough for him to hear, for Romain was not only beautiful and charming but also gentle in his ways and everything a woman would want in a man. And if that was not enough, that man had noticed her. Her heart, young and drowned in grief and loneliness, had been warmed by his attention, the cloud of affection he had spread around her, and was filled with hope.
Now, if that cloud had dissolved and spread to the winds, that was not his fault and Eliane could see that. She was not blinded by her heart and her disappointment. Perhaps if she had been bolder, more daring, he would have stayed or he would have taken her with him, or he would have sent for her….
But daring and bold Eliane Ménard was not and she knew it. She was full of fears and as if her own fears were not enough, she sometimes adopted the fears of others: her cousin’s, her aunt’s, Romain‘s.
But as anyone accustomed even to the smallest of fears may know, the only thing able to push you forward when you stare immobilized at the abyss is a terror darker than the abyss itself and more intense. That is when the greatest courage is mustered, when one takes the extra step, jumps and learns the limits of the soul.
Embracing that reasoning, Elaine navigated through life with the fabricated illusion of choices when in reality she was ruled by her fears:
When her father died and even though she was afraid of the sea, Eliane chose to live with her widowed aunt and her cousin at the fishing village of her summer vacations, embracing her father's fear of what would happen to her if she didn't.
When Romain left the village and her behind and weeks passed with no letter coming for her, Eliane lifted her chin, straightened her shoulders and walked across the market proudly and defiantly, refusing all the marriage proposals that came for her during the months that followed. She was perfectly aware that that way she had confirmed the rumors of the loss of her virtue to all those who saw her as one more young woman fallen from grace, but her fear of marriage was worse by far at the time and the opportunity to escape it altogether felt a relief, a real balsam to her heartbreak.
That fear had been built and nourished by her cousin, Francine, who freshly-married to her husband, one of the numerous seamen the village produced by the dozens, had filled her sixteen year old mind with ugly images of painful and embarrassing couplings.
Eliane didn’t know whether Romain would have taken her with him to the city– the only resort for a man who despised the sea to make a fortune for himself– if she had been bolder and not timid and nervous every time he tried to go further than a kiss with her.
But what Eliane did know without a doubt now was that marriage was far more complicated than what her sixteen year old self naively believed and Francine's fate was the sad proof of that.
Without any living relative left and with no source of income Eliane had no other choice but to get married. In a village where the men were either fishermen, sailors or farmers, she knew what was expected from her: to find a husband, produce an heir to the family name and as many working hands as possible while keeping the house clean and in order.
With her “affair” with Romain four years ago reluctantly forgotten, and since in the meantime her behavior had been that of an honest woman, Eliane was granted two marriage proposals one week after her aunt’s funeral. Madame Reynaud, the baker’s wife and the unofficial matchmaker of the village, had introduced them to her with a serene smile on her rosy face, proud and content to live in a world where providence ruled.
Because only divine intervention and extreme fortune could explain that kind of luck in a village where widows were a sight as common as seaweed stuck at the bottom of the shoes, mouths to be fed were a curse and there was no way for a woman to make a living even as a maid.
After having pointed that out thoroughly, Madame Reynaud mumbled something like “leaving a woman to starve was a sin” which in Eliane’s ears sounded more like “leaving a dog to starve was a sin” but kept the thought to herself.
Truth be told, even Madame Reynaud’s blissful smile faded a bit and lost some of its shine when she uttered the Bertillon name. Being wealthier than the rest of the villagers didn‘t compensate for his reputation as a cruel and uncaring man and even the murder he had committed was not on the top of the long list of deeds the villagers could not forgive or forget.
Since the crime had taken place in the city and the sentence had been served far away from the village, Eliane would have expected Étienne Bertillon’s story to work more as a cautionary tale rather than anything else but there was more than that: the Bertillon family had always inflicted fear among the villagers and the man himself had infuriated everyone when upon coming back he refused to restore the old shipyard– a great revenue source for the village– condemning them all to poverty.
Instead, he had bought the forest that spread around the Chateau and extended till the cliffs all the way down to the sea. That way along with the slope of the hill he’d inherited from his father– sent to an early grave by his son’s disgrace and his own black heart– Étienne Bertillon now owned the whole hill that loomed gravely over the village.
This was the first time Bertillon had shown interest in any woman of the village– rumor had it that he had lovers in the city and on the island– so all the old stories were resurrected in full force.
Sensing the vibes in the market, Eliane had felt for the first time in years that people were looking at her with newfound interest and mixed feelings– compassion, fear of his wrath in the case she refused him and a sweet sense of revenge in case that happened. Would she be the one who would teach that beast of a man a humbling lesson?
Trying to keep emotions aside, Eliane had weighed her options.
She didn’t even allow herself the easy arguments– that he was wealthy, one child may have been enough to inherit his fortune and with a little bit of luck she would give him a son right away….
No, these were fantasies and practical people were not driven by their fantasies.
On one side was Étienne Bertillon, a man with blood on his hands, despised and feared by his fellow-villagers for whom “justice was not yet fully served”– whatever that meant.
He was ugly, a lot older than she, with a short temper and a cruel, merciless character– almost crippling a man just because he had disobeyed his orders.
That and a lot more, none better than the rest, was Étienne Bertillon and Eliane knew, she had heard it all in every gory detail, even a bit spiced at times.
And yet– as always in her life– Eliane had compared her two fears, the abyss and the other, the even greater one, and she chose Bertillon.
Chapter 4 The first offer
Eliane was up before dawn. Claire found her sitting in the armchair that’d allowed her a good night’s sleep, now drawn up to the window. The village completely hidden behind the hill felt like a part of another, distant world, of a previous life. Eliane looked out over the deep, dark forest surrounding them and smiled at the thought.
The girl offered an awkward bow upon entrance, murmured a quick “Madame” and looked curiously at the bed Eliane had already made with care and precision.
“In this house everyone works for the food he eats.” His words were not the only cause of her diligent efforts. A furious blush spread over her cheeks at the girl’s inquisitive glances. It wasn’t difficult to read her thoughts, her conclusions. Suddenly, the village and the market whispers grew closer.
To her credit, Claire’s lively chatter was entertaining and educational. The house was run by Clotilde and her husband, Pierre. Claire was helping them, mostly in the kitchen and around the house but this was the first time she’d be anyone’s maid. She considered it a promotion. Eliane’s hair was beautiful and shiny– why didn’t she wear it down? She wouldn’t even need a net. Claire could braid two thin strands for her and wrap it around her hair to keep the curls in place. See? All she had to do was brush it well before bed. There were no other servants in the house because Monsieur Bertillon wanted it that way. No, it wasn’t a matter of money because he never minded the expenses when it came to his extravagant tastes– Claire didn‘t elaborate on that but if her rooms were an indication Bertillon was a rich man. Carriages came from the city once every couple of months, if the master didn’t go there himself. Would she like a bath? They had plenty of time. Monsieur Bertillon never came out of bed before noon, sometimes later, if he stayed in his study all night. They had hot water all day long as long as someone minded the kitchen fire– she and Clotilde did. Monsieur Bertillon’s father installed the system before she was born. They said that not even houses in the city had something like that but she didn‘t believe it. Was that true? She had heard Eliane lived in the city until she was fifteen– that was Claire’s age. Did she miss the city? Had she ever gone to the theater? Her dream was to go to the theater.
The few years that separated them seemed like eons. Eliane offered more smiles than answers but the girl didn’t mind and Eliane herself was grateful for the company.
The day seemed to drag until noon. Claire had just started a tour around the house when Clotilde called her to the kitchen. The girl’s smile withered but she obeyed the order. She didn’t think of asking Eliane if she needed her before she left and she couldn’t blame her. Clotilde was the mistress of the house.
* * *
This time there was a bright light in the room. And a chair before his desk. But he was nowhere to be found. The sun had warmed the windowsill and she laid her palm flat on the stone, knowing these were the last really warm autumn days.
The sound of his footsteps was heavy, thunderous on the stairs but also clipped and rhythmical as if he were climbing two steps at the time. Eliane winced and her stomach knotted: he didn’t need to voice his orders, his footsteps did it for him.
He didn’t apologize for being late, just took a good look at her as if her mere presence was a surprise for him again and slouched on the chair before his desk, dragging it away from the sunlight. A wave of his hand urged her to sit on the free chair and she self-consciously complied. There was no inspection this time, just the same unreadable expression contorting his face. He skimmed through the papers scattered on the mahogany desk, packed some of them in a pile, read a couple of letters and separated two, placing them in front of him.
His nose looked even more crooked now as the tall back of his chair cast dark shadows on his face, enhancing the bird resemblance. She tried to recall the illustrated pictures. Was it an eagle or a hawk? Eliane was certain she had seen birds looking that grim, their claws sharp and lethal, drawn in black or sepia ink on her books’ pages when she was nothing but a child in the safety of her room in the city. Her father had told her that people used to breed these birds but she couldn’t imagine it possible. Could they be tamed? Were they attached to their master like a dog or a horse would be? She doubted it. When one could fly, when he had tasted that kind of freedom, how could he live without?
She flushed, realizing he had caught her staring. His eyes were completely hidden under his brows in that scowl that nearly closed his left eye. He was almost baring his teeth in that sneer that seemed carved on his face. Was it repulsion? Scorn? Eliane stirred in her seat in discomfort but then straightened her shoulders.
“I bought your aunt’s house from Monsieur Fouquet. The rest of her debts are all taken care of so you may go down to the village whenever you want.”
She was stunned. Why had he done that?
“You can go back to your aunt’s house. You may live there now,” he uttered the words one by one as if talking to an imbecile.
Eliane jumped back on her seat and widened her eyes in disbelief. For a moment, she felt like an imbecile. She knew she had to say something but Clotilde’s entrance saved her.
“Your breakfast, Monsieur,” she announced clearly for Eliane’s sake as the man didn‘t even throw a glance in the woman's direction, “where shall I put it?”
Bertillon growled something incomprehensible and waved his hand at some point behind him– in the same bored and impatient way he had waved his hand at her a few minutes ago– and Clotilde opened a door on the opposite side of the room. The part of the wall Eliane saw before Clotilde shut the door behind her was covered with books from the floor to the ceiling. Heavy shelves filled with books and then some more on top of them, squeezed horizontally as if determined to cover every tiny empty space. Clotilde came out after a few seconds and left them without a glance.
“This is the deed of the house. Take it. No one will force you out of that house.” He pushed the papers he had before him to her side of the desk. Eliane noticed the smudges of ink on the fingers of his right hand. Her eyes fixed on the paper in terror. She was petrified.
“I don’t want to live there.” Her voice was thin.
The silence that followed was awkward, almost painful. She fidgeted with her dress under his scrutinizing, narrowing eyes without finding the courage to face him.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw him taking out the silver watch from his waistcoat pocket. She was wasting his time– the one thing he had instructed her not to do.
She imagined his breakfast getting cold in the room on the other side of the wall and every tick of the watch brought her closer to the village.
“I don’t want to live there,” she repeated miserably, not finding anything better to say, wishing she could make time stand still.
“So, for the time being you’ll stay here,” he growled and abruptly stood up.
Eliane took a deep breath at his words and watched him head to the library.
“What do you want me to do?” she rushed to ask before he left. He turned to her side, his eyes fixed on her for a while with an intensity that forced her to wince.
His hand stilled on the brass doorknob, before he let it fall by his side, clenching his fist. Avoiding his long fingers, which betrayed annoyance and impatience, she focused away from his eerie light blue eyes, and instead on his forehead and the thick, black hair streaked with white over his temples.
“I don’t know–” His hand found the doorknob again. “Your aunt died recently, and your cousin a few weeks before her. Why don’t you mourn them?”
Chapter 5 The sea
Eliane walked down the lane that led to the cliffs with long, angry strides. The house was a long way behind her and the forest was getting thinner. The soft breeze cooled her flushed cheeks and muffled her heartbeat, drumming hard against her ears.
Clotilde was a mean, cruel woman. She had turned down all her attempts to help her and even when she had reluctantly agreed, Eliane’s efforts only met criticism and ridicule. “Is that the way you waxed the floors at your aunt’s house?” “You must have had many servants in the city. There’s no other explanation for lacking such basic knowledge.” “You’ll ruin the silver that way. Didn’t Claire show you how to do it?”
She was an unkind witch in the unkind home of the most unkind and rude man she had ever met in her life. It had been almost two weeks since the day he had so callously instructed her to mourn her relatives and this was the last she had seen of Étienne Bertillon.
Apparently, he was the ghost of the Chateau. She could see Clotilde preparing his breakfast at noon and his lunch when everyone had finished their dinner, but she had never seen him. He had never asked to see her again or at least share a meal with her but Eliane could hear his footsteps climbing the stair, passing outside her door every dawn. The sound of his boots was heavier, more tired at that time, as if he was dragging his feet but he had never missed a step outside her door, never slowed his pace, just moved on and closed the door of his bedroom with a thud as the rest of the house began to wake up.
In a house where the master slept at dawn there was no need for early risers but Eliane could hear Clotilde two floors below and if she tried hard enough she could even pick up a word or two from Pierre or Claire through the open window.
Was Eliane upset by Bertillon’s indifference? His disinterest in her? The armchair dragged against the door every night was sign enough that she wasn’t. But at the same time she wasn’t relieved either.
A part of her– the part that woke up just before dawn every day and counted the steps until he passed by her door– could not believe in her good luck.
Only then did Eliane allow herself to release the breath she held and start her day with a wide smile on her face. The house was beautiful, full of interesting little treasures, the forest even better with all kinds of mushrooms and herbs. Claire was always ready for a talk or a new coiffure with which to experiment between her chores, and Pierre usually had a good story to share. And even if the sole purpose of Clotilde’s existence seemed to focus on shaking the grin off her face, Eliane felt safe.
Yet, there was another, smaller part of herself, the one that started to take over as the sun set and she retreated into her room to eat her lonely dinner that wanted to get over with certain elements of married life and move on. And then the questions started.
If Bertillon was not interested in a wife why had he married? Did he find her so repulsive he could not even stand her company?
Was it possible that he saw her the way she saw Claire? As someone too young, too naïve?
In a way she was worse than Claire, because the girl could be amusing while she was more of an annoyance than anything else. But why had he married her?
Perhaps the villagers were right and all this was part of a sadistic, ruthless game on his part. But what end would that serve? Was breaking her spirit so much of a thrill for him? Could he be so bored, so cruel and disgusting?
Eliane was standing at the edge of the cliffs now and closed her eyes against the breeze. For someone who was afraid of the sea, the sound of it soothed her soul in an unparalleled way. The sound of the water crashing hard against the rocks underneath was wild, demanding her full attention and respect but if she could shush it down, the sound of the shy waves licking the beach in ripples was a caress, sighing against her ears, possessing her senses. Her nostrils filled with the scent of the sea and Eliane’s troubled soul was calm again.
A short, low bark brought her back to reality and her eyes searched for the culprit. Argos, one of Bertillon’s dogs, was barking at the sea, his eyes and pointy ears unwavering as he looked at a black dot inside. Eliane turned to the dot and then back to the dog, taking in the pair of boots and the bundle of clothes beside it. Turning on her heel she walked back the path as far away from the cliffs as possible, for some reason hoping he hadn’t seen her even though she knew she had done nothing wrong. Only when the path reached a fork, leading either to the beach or to the house, did Eliane muster the courage to cast a last glance towards the water. Argos had stopped barking and he stood as close as he could to the sea, meticulously diligent not to wet his feet. Each time the waves forced him to step back, he made a funny twirl around himself but as soon as the water retreated the dog took the extra steps forwards and chased the wave, wagging his tail in a frenzied state. Argos was performing his peculiar dance with the sea, safe and dry on the sand, when suddenly a splash of water landed right on him. Eliane and Argos were equally surprised as Bertillon rose up from the water to ambush his dog with a new splash. The smile on his face had momentarily eased the lines of his grimace but soon he placed his palm over his eyes as if the sun that had almost set was blinding him. That was when he turned towards her. That was when he caught her staring. Again.
Eliane stood still while an insolent voice whispered inside her that she wouldn’t be staring if she had seen the man she married more than twice in a fortnight.
Lifting her chin, she felt daring and challenging as she refused to make a move towards or away from him. She just stood there and watched him pull his shirt on over the wet pants he wore for the swim and then slowly walk barefoot to her side with Argos on his heels.
Her boldness was short-lived. His hair was dripping on his neck, the shirt clung to his torso and he somehow looked taller, broader than she remembered him.
And even if he stood several feet away, he was closer than she would have liked him to be. Her eyes fixed on the black tattoo she had caught sight of just before. It was on his arm, still visible under the thin fabric of his wet shirt. A man's fist clenched around a dagger. The dagger's handle was a skull, and a few drops of blood were dripping from the inked hand on the blade. Living for years in a fishing village, Eliane was used to the sailors’ tattoos, the usual mermaids, crosses or anchors, but this had something different. The skull wasn’t anything like the grotesque skull images she had seen. It looked real. The fist, much like the skull, was drawn in detail. The fingers closing around the blade were strong, their grip so strong she felt they were about to break the dagger rather than anything else. The image was fierce and powerful and scary. Eliane shivered and locked her eyes on Argos who came to her side. She eagerly stroked him behind the ears, grateful she had something to do with her hands.
“Would you care for a swim? The sea is at its warmest this time of the year,” he added, narrowing his eyes, and for the first time his tone had an almost friendly quality.
“Oh, no I couldn’t–” she said, kneeling before the dog, who had shamelessly rolled on his back urging her to rub his belly– unwise decision as Bertillon looked even taller now, towering over her. “I’m afraid of the sea,” she said with a frown, avoiding his face. She didn’t care to elaborate or share more with someone who was practically a stranger.
“Argos–” It wasn’t a clear order but both she and the dog found themselves standing before him. Eliane winced at her response. He was even closer now and she could smell the sea on him. Demanding, possessing and dangerous.
“Then coffee in an hour?”
It was hardly the time for coffee but Eliane took a step back, nodded her agreement and turned to leave with hasty and a bit wobbly steps for which she blamed the pebbles under her feet. Stealing a glance over her shoulder she saw his back as he removed his shirt and walked into the waves again. Argos went back to watching him with his pointy ears erect and alert as Eliane walked back to the house, thinking that next time she had to find something witty to say or she would seriously start to doubt herself and her own intelligence.