That was the only warning the Chevauxes got before a windblown, red-cheeked and panting Joyce burst through their front door.
“Meg, ye gotta help me — Ma and Da, they’re gonna …” She stopped, staring at the scene and the table before her. “Oh … oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean ter interrupt yer breakfast …”
Two faces — Edmond’s and Meg’s — turned to face Joyce. “Yer not interruptin’ anything,” Edmond said with a smile. “Come and have a seat, lass. There’s plenty for everyone.”
“Aye,” Cerise added from the water-butt, “an’ when yer done ye can help with the washin’-up!”
“I — I — no, I’m not hungry, but thankee. I already ate, ye see.”
“Ye must have gotten up right early, if ye did,” Meg remarked, glancing out the window to gauge the sun’s progress. “What’s the matter, Joyce?”
“I … I …” She glanced at Edmond, then at Cerise’s back, biting her lower lip.
That glance told Meg everything she needed to know. “Papa Edmond, will ye be needin’ me outside right away, or can I have a chat with Joyce first?”
“Good heavens, lass, in yer condition, ye shouldn’t be out in the fields at all.”
“Don’t be such a worrywart, Edmond,” Cerise called from the water-butt, “she’s expectin’ a baby, not mortally ill!”
“Now, love, ye know I hate to disagree with you,” Edmond replied, “but I’m afraid I’ve got no choice. If Meg was jest expectin’ it would be one thing. However, she’s now at the point where every time she sneezes, I’m expectin’ me new grandchild to wind up on me lap …”
Catching Joyce’s eye, Meg nodded toward the small bedroom on the first floor, where she and Joyce proceeded with alacrity.
Since there was no place else to talk, the sister clambered onto the bed, Joyce somehow miraculously finding Pierre’s side while Meg waddled over to her own side. “Now,” she said as she fluffed the pillow — her back tended to ache if she didn’t give it enough support — “what seems to be the trouble, Joyce?”
“Ma an’ Da are gonna kick me out of the house as soon as I turn eighteen!”
Meg froze in the act of fluffing, then, with more speed than she had managed in the last few weeks, swung her legs onto the bed and spun to face her sister. “They what?”
“They’ll kick me right out o’ the house,” Joyce repeated. “The minute I turn eighteen — unless I want to marry Berach, then I guess they’ll let me stay until the wedding. But Meg, what am I gonna do?”
“They said that?” Meg asked.
“All but. Oh, Meg, ye gotta help me, I gotta think of something before I turn eighteen!”
“Sweetheart, I’ll help ye,” an’ I’ll have a nice, long chat with Ma to figure out what in heaven’s name is going on! “but it isn’t like ye’re gonna be turnin’ eighteen in the next five minutes, so let’s all jest calm down a bit, an’ try to approach this calmly and logically. Now take a deep breath.”
“Good girl. Now try another.”
Joyce took another deep breath and let it out slowly.
“I still don’t know what –”
“Never mind, jest keep breathin’.”
Meg watched her sister take deep breaths until, almost in spite of themselves, Joyce’s tense muscles relaxed themselves and she sank into the embrace of the straw pallet and feather-stuffed pillow. “Better?”
“Good.” Meg made herself a bit more comfortable to match. “Now, sweetheart, can ye tell my why marryin’ Berach — since that seems to be yer best bet fer security at the moment — is out of the question?”
“He cheated on me!”
“The whole kingdom knows that by now — but think o’ how he cheated on ye, it ain’t any different from what most men do to their wives once or twice … and as far as cheatin’ goes, he could have done a lot worse, ye know that.”
“It’s one thing if a man cheats on his wife,” Joyce replied, “because she’s stuck with him in any case an’ has to make the best of it. But Meg, why would I want to be with someone who does that to me before we’re even married?”
“But who’s ter say it has anythin’ t’do with ye?” Meg pressed. “He had an — urge — he took care o’ it in the most discreet way he could. The best way he could, without breakin’ any hearts or really, any promises. There’s nought ter say he’d do it again after ye were wed.”
“There’s everythin’ ter say he would,” Joyce snapped. “Why should I believe him when he says he’ll be faithful this time?”
“Meg,” Joyce interrupted, “how would ye like it if it were Pierre seein’ a whore as soon as he was old enough that they wouldn’t throw him out of the whorehouse, while ye were goin’ about yer business thinkin’ he was as faithful as ye were?”
Meg was silent.
“See,” Joyce started, “ye wouldn’t –”
She blinked. “Eh?”
“If I tell ye somethin’, ye have to promise it won’t leave this room.”
Joyce blinked again. “Aye — aye, I promise, sis.”
Meg took a deep breath of her own. “I think he did.”
“Ye — ye mean ye think …” Joyce’s voice trailed off. “Oh, Meg! Why didn’t yet go at him with the clippin’ shears?! The bastard! If ye don’t –”
“Joyce, shush yer mouth an’ let me explain,” Meg snapped.
“Explain what? Why ye didn’t call off the weddin’?”
“I didn’t call off the weddin’ because I didn’t start ter think he’d been with someone else until after.”
“Why? Don’t tell me told ye — or he called ye by someone else’s name when ye were — ye were — well, ye know, because if he did I’ll –”
“JOYCE!” Meg hissed, smacking her sister’s arm. “Shut it! Goodness gracious, I know Pierre’s heart belongs ter me. It’s jest … well …”
“On — on our weddin’ night,” Meg said, flushing a little, “he, well, he knew what he was doin’. Exactly what he was doin’. Which led me to believe that he’d — well — he’d done it before.”
Joyce’s eyes went wide. “Oh, Meg, poor Meg …”
“Don’t ye ‘poor Meg,’ me, I have a feelin’ that that night was a lot more pleasant fer me since he had a clue,” Meg retorted.
“But how can ye trust him, knowin’ what ye know?”
Meg was quiet for a moment. “I — I guess I jest choose to.”
“Hush a moment an’ listen. My best guess is that the woman he saw was — well — a whore, ter put it plain. Anyone else an’ I’d have heard about it. Now, what’s true about whores that ain’t true fer other women?” Meg decided not to wait for Joyce to answer that, continuing, “They cost money. Now, how can Pierre keep seein’ whores if he brings most of his pay right home where it belongs?”
“Every now an’ then he’ll go to the pub fer a drink with his friends, an’ naturally he’ll need spendin’ money for that.”
“So when he goes, how do ye know that he’s really at the pub, an’ not with a woman?”
Meg opened her mouth and shut it again, furrowing her brow in thought. “Well — on the one hand, I guess I can’t ever know.”
Joyce straightened in triumph.
“But on the other … well, he’s never gone enough, for one. He comes home an’ hour or two after he’d usually be expected. Two, he only spends enough fer a drink or two at the pub, jest like he says he would.”
“See! Ye don’t trust him! Ye’re checkin’ up on him!”
“No, I’m not.”
“Ye jest said –”
“Joyce, I don’t have ter check up on him. His ma makes him account fer every clipped copper out o’ his pay.”
Joyce abruptly deflated. “Oh.”
“An’ as fer the rest …” Meg sighed and stared into the distance. “I don’t know, Joyce. I guess the way I see it is — I can either be suspicious an’ ragin’ an’ burnin’ with jealousy until it eats me up from the inside out, or I can let it go, an’ trust me man, an’ know, even if I don’t trust him, that between work wearin’ him out and his ma watchin’ his every last move, the poor man doesn’t have the time or energy ter be chasin’ whores.”
Meg turned to Joyce. “Do ye?”
“I see that ye can do that — an’ I can see that it makes sense fer ye …” Joyce sighed. “But I can’t do that, Meg. I can’t listen to me head, like ye do, when me heart’s cryin’ out an’ bleedin’ inside. I’m not you.”
No, ye’re not, Meg silently agreed, an’ worse fer both of us — Berach ain’t Pierre. An’ while it doesn’t take much to keep Pierre faithful, Berach takes to skirt-chasin’ like a duck to water — an’ I’ve never heard of a reliable way to keep a duck from water, unless ye count killin’ an’ eatin’ it.
An’ I am so not about ter suggest that to Joyce.
“I know that, Joyce, I really do,” Meg replied aloud. “Which leads me to me next question.”
Joyce looked inquiring.
“Have ye given any thought to yer dancin’?”
“I still don’t see,” Cerise muttered as she attacked the weeds around the pole bean plant as if they were the sole source of all her trouble and worry, “what those girls had to talk about that had ter be so private. We’re family, fer Wright’s sake!”
Edmond had no idea what was actually bothering Cerise, but if there was one thing over thirty years of marriage to her had taught him, it was not to ask. He supposed it might have been something to do with Rosette, that was what was usually bothering Cerise these days … but he couldn’t, wouldn’t think about his little girl, not now, and how badly he was failing her.
Instead he tried, as he had been doing for the past thirty years, to respond to Cerise’s griping with logic. “Meg’s our family, but Joyce isn’t, an’ there’s no reason that Joyce should feel comfortable sayin’ jest what’s on her mind to us — maybe it’s private-like.” Before Cerise could have some sort of biting reply to make to that, Edmond added, “Fer heaven’s sake, Cerise, would ye feel that Simon was insultin’ Meg or Betsy if he had somethin’ he wanted to talk about, private-like, with Pierre?”
“Well, maybe not,” Cerise agreed, and Edmond almost fell backward into the mud — he never won arguments this easily! Before the world could end, however, Cerise added, “But Simon wouldn’t jest rush into the house an’ demand ter talk to Pierre an’ ignore everyone else!”
“Joyce didn’t do that,” Edmond pointed out, not that she had a chance, with ye in the room, “an’ let’s not forget that Simon’s a grown man, while Joyce is a growin’ girl. Simon has … a bit more perspective, let’s say, than Joyce could be expected ter have.”
Cerise snorted, and Edmond waited for the rejoinder. “I will agree our Simon is a bit more … well-mannered than Joyce.”
Only in yer mind, me love, but damned if ye’ll catch me sayin’ that out loud. He heard the door open and close, but, assuming it was just Meg come to help, or maybe to grab something that she needed from outside, he ignored it.
Thus his surprise, as he was harvesting the ripe beans from the vine, can be imagined, as his work was interrupted by Joyce’s voice: “Mr. Chevaux? Can I have a word?”
He almost jumped, but luckily recovered himself in time to slowly rise and smile at the young lady. “Of course, Joyce. Is there something I can do for ye?” Sensing Cerise’s curiosity in the background, he added, “Do ye want ter speak in private?”
“No, no, sir, that won’t be necessary.” She gulped. “I — I was jest wonderin’ — do ye still have a connection with that dance troupe? Ye know, the one you helped to bring to Albion?”
He didn’t look at Cerise; she always got rankled when the dance troupe came up. She swore it was one thing for young folk to amuse themselves with village dances from time to time, but to dance for money — to entertain your betters, or even, worse, to entertain your peers! — smacked of licentiousness, and immorality. Respectable folk ought to have no part in such nonsense.
Well, he’d had a part, and kept a part, when he was younger, even if he didn’t have much to do with it now. He was too old, to tell the truth. But he still had friends in the troupe, and he still flipped a copper into their open hats whenever he had one to spare. “Yes, yes, I do. Is there somethin’ ye need from them?”
Joyce nodded. “Yes. Yes, there is.”
Edmond’s eyebrows went up.
“I was wonderin’ … Mr. Chevaux, do ye know someone who could get me an audition with the troupe, for when I’m old enough to join it full-time?”