Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Adventure 08: Auxerre and the Black Riders: Chapter VI

Chapter VI: The Sorrowful Bride to Be

Claude woke up in daylight to the sound of his captors snapping leg irons and manacles on him. The leg irons allowed him to shuffle about, but not to run while the manacles on his hands were fastened in front of him and attached to a short chain of about six inches in length. His captors were dressed in black armor and wore strange, face covering blackened steel helms. Around him were the ruins of what appeared to be an old abbey.

The black helmed men refused to answer any of Claude’s questions. Instead, they gagged Claude then loaded him into a large black wagon, boxy in shape and closed on all sides including the roof. The only entrance was through a locked door at the rear though small grates on the two sides provided some ventilation. Despite this, the wagon had a fetid odor which seemed to partially emanate from the other four prisoners inside. The other prisoners were manacled and gagged just like Claude and the bed of the wagon was covered with straw – much of which was already filthy.

The others consisted of two men and two women. The nearest woman was young and somewhat pretty with light brown hair, and from her clothes, she looked to be the wife or daughter of a prosperous farmer. She sat weeping quietly. Next to her sat a striking looking woman in her thirties with dark hair, who, from her dress, appeared to be some kind of gentlewoman or even a minor noble. She sat very still and looked like she was in shock. Opposite the younger woman was a young man in the simple, dirty smock of a peasant. He looked frightened and confused. Next to him was an older male peasant who sat tiredly and with a dull, resigned expression on his face.

By straining against his bonds and hanging onto the side grates with his fingers Claude was able to peek out of the grate to catch an occasional glimpse of the passing countryside: fields, a farmhouse, a tree, some hilly and rough spots of countryside. Slowly, Claude realized that he had no idea where he was. Worse yet, he had no idea where his master was. Thinking of his master, he clutched the rosary he had been given by Father Signoret. Briefly he considered dropping it out the grate as a clue, but then decided that it was too valuable to risk being lost.

Instead he ripped a few rags off the hem of his breeches and dropped them out of the wagon at intervals. He also had some small pieces of brown paper in one pocket that had once held some fish heads and other snacks. Slowly he dropped the papers through the grate as well. As he did, he mumbled through his gag something about cleaning out his pockets.

Claude was too frightened to remove his gag, but he did loosen it slightly so he could exchange a few mumbled and encouraging words with his fellow prisoners. Too scared to try conversing with the fancy lady, he directed his comments to the older peasant, asking, “Where are you from, old man?”

Claude learned that the old peasant was named Alphonse and that he lived outside of Auxerre and worked on a vineyard owned by someone he called Master Trebouchard. Alphonse was attacked on a country road at night while he was walking home alone from a local tavern. He didn’t seem to know anything about the black-helmed men nor why he was made a prisoner, but he was resigned and fatalistic about his situation.

“These Black Riders are all in fancy armor and such, well I’spect like them knights of old they’ll be needing us like to do the hard work for ‘em. And I is used to hard work.”

The wagon traveled slowly on. Twice a day the wagon stopped so that the prisoners could be fed—either plain porridge or soup in a wooden bowl. No utensils were provided. The gentlewoman seemed scandalized or something and refused “to eat swill like a pig.” Claude ate his food and hers too and he noticed that despite the lady’s protest, no better food was provided to her.

The next morning, Saturday February the twenty-fifth, Guy and the others questioned Depardieu. When prompted, he admitted he was the agent of Bishop de Lomenie. While he was able to independently confirm some of their observations, he did not advance their knowledge as his inquiry had not proceeded as far as theirs before his capture.

Afterwards, Signoret went to the Town Hall to make contact with the girl, Genevive. His goal was to let Genevive know that help was near and to ensure that she didn’t do anything rash. At the hall, Signoret spoke to the girl’s step-mother, Madame Biatrisona Villelmeti-Benoit, who said that Genevive was “a scatterbrained young woman who didn’t know what was good for her.”

Father Signoret assumed an older manner as he said, “The young are often impulsive. Perhaps if I heard her confession I might be able to reconcile her to God’s will in the matter of her marriage.”

“Oh father, if only you could,” the step-mother replied.

“Why don’t you tell me about the groom?”

Madame Villelmeti-Benoit told the Jesuit that the prospective groom was her brother, Grimoart Villelmeti. Though originally from Languedoc, Villelmeti now lived in a fine mansion outside of Auxerre. In addition to his position as a tax collector in the Auxerre and Autun regions, Villelmeti also ran a profitable transport service that shipped goods, primarily Burgundy wine, by both river barge and wagon. Madame also confirmed that the wedding was scheduled for the next day, Sunday February the twenty-sixth in the Cathedral of Auxerre.

Deciding that Father Signoret was just the man to calm her step-daughter’s nerves and to persuade her to accept the marriage, Madame agreed to take him to see Genevive. She led him upstairs to the low-ceilinged third floor where she unlocked the door to a darkened room, the windows closed by wooden shutters. She told the girl, “I have brought a priest to speak with you and to hear your confession before the wedding. Now don’t give him any of your nonsense!”

As Madame Villelmeti-Benoit departed, she relocked the door behind her. The Jesuit listened and he noticed that Madame’s footsteps did not go away. Just as I thought, that woman is eavesdropping. I’ll have to keep this quiet.

The Jesuit loudly spoke to Genevive suggesting that they pray together before he heard her confession. Then quietly he whispered, “I bring you a message from your friend.” He passed over a note that Etienne Deveraux had written. As she read, she wept silently.

Next, Father Signoret quietly spoke to her about rescue as he examined the room. He noted that the shutters were nailed shut, keeping the room in dimness despite the daylight. Madame had locked the door to the room with what looked to the Jesuit like a standard key which she kept on a large ring of keys.

Genevive complained to the Jesuit that, “My cruel step-mother wants to marry me to her brother the tax gatherer, but he is fat, old, and ugly! Dear Father, I do not want to marry an ugly, old fat man.”

Signoret told her not to despair. “You should write a note to Etienne to let him know that you are safe and that you have not given up hope.”

Genevive readily agreed. She wrote her message on the back of Etienne’s note as she said, “I cannot keep this dear note as my wicked step-mother searches my room daily. So I shall send it back to my dear friend…Etienne Deveraux. And you shall give it to him for me, dear, dear Father Signoret.” She kissed the note before handing it to the Jesuit.

Signoret asked Genevive about the staff and any guards at the Town Hall. He learned that since Noel Meunier Baron de Fressain, the Lieutenant Governor of the Province lived in a mansion outside of town, there were no guards in the Town Hall at night. But that her uncle, Auxerre’s Town Governor, slept in a room on the floor below as did her step-mother. Her father’s three clerks slept on the third floor in the room next to hers.

As Genevive wondered how Etienne and the dear Father would rescue her, she speculated aloud, “Father, perhaps you could officiate at the wedding?”

“My child, I am just a simple priest.”

Genevive kissed the Jesuit on the cheek, “Father, you come from God in answer to my prayers.”

Signoret serenely replied, “I do.”

As Signoret left the Town Hall he reassured Genevive’s step-mother that “Genevive is resigned now to God’s will.” And he quietly accepted Madame Villelmeti-Benoit fervent thanks.

Back at the Blue Bottle Inn, Father Signoret gave Etienne the note from Genevive which he read several times, then he carefully folded the note and placed it inside his doublet, next to his heart. While he did this, the others discussed plans for the rescue. Bertin observed that “The nailed shutters and the third floor location will make the room difficult and noisy to enter from the outside, Monsieurs and people above and next to the room are likely to hear any noise.”

“Then we must make sure they do not hear us,” Guy said as he suggested a plan that he thought might work.

Afterwards, Signoret again argued that they should search for his missing servant, “I promised my father on his deathbed that I would look after Claude. I must find him.” He suggested that they go to the ruined abbey to look for any sign of Claude. The others agreed; so with the Jesuit in the lead, they carefully made their way cross country through a light rain.

At the ruined abbey, Signoret found ash from campfires, rubbish, bits of broken and cast off equipment, piles of horse dung both old and new, and deep wagon ruts that indicated the abbey had been used for months as a way station by the Black Riders. There were signs that as many as twenty men may have camped here at one time with an equal number of horses picketed here. Although there was no sign of tents or huts, the abbey ruins would have provided some shelter. In one corner of the ruins, the searchers found a supply cache of powder, shot, and dried food concealed beneath a flagstone.

Well worn ruts led from the abbey to a nearby farm lane. On the farm road, Signoret spotted a piece of torn cloth lying some distance to the right down the farm road. The cloth was on top of the wheel ruts and it looked like the same begrimed material as Claude’s trousers. As he continued to follow the farm road to the right and out to the main highway, the Jesuit was reassured by the additional pieces of torn cloth and the greasy papers smelling of fish that he found in or on the side of the road. These confirmed that Claude was still alive and the wagon’s direction of travel was south along the main road towards Lyon. By that time the sun had set and the group had to stop and return to Auxerre, but Father Signoret now knew that on horseback they could easily outpace the wagon and catch up with Claude later.

When the group returned to the Blue Bottle, Guy’s valet, Fabré, handed him a glass of good wine and a warm, scented cloth with which to refresh himself. As his master relaxed, Fabré reported that at noon he had delivered a barrel of wine to the town hall for the residents and staff, “with the compliments of the groom-to-be.” And as they had previously planned, the wine was heavily laced with a soporific that Fabré had concocted from the herbs and simples in his apothecary case. Anyone who drank that wine would sleep deeply this night, Guy thought.

They waited to give the residents of the hall time to drink and fall asleep, then they stealthily went to the Town Hall to rescue Genevive. Bertin picked the lock on a side door. Inside, the kitchen staff sat with cups of wine before them, passed out asleep in their seats. Signoret led the way for Bertin and Etienne. From the clerks’ room on the third floor, they could hear the sound of snores as Bertin picked the lock on the chamber where Genevive was imprisoned. Etienne picked up the sleeping girl and carried her out of the Town Hall. Behind him, Bertin carefully used his picks to relock the doors he had opened. Genevive’s disappearance would be a mystery.

With the girl rescued, the group departed Auxerre. Guy went out the main gate with the sleeping Genevive, while the others departed separately from the other town gates so as not to attract suspicion. Outside of town they rejoined then together they set out for Trebouchard Manor.

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