A Night in the Forest

This is a sample chapter from my work-in-progress: Gédéon.

“Get out of sight, Madeleine!” Papa’s voice aroused her from her slumber. A cry escaped her lips as her head jerked up and struck the massive bureau that Maman had refused to leave behind. 

Huguenot refugees by Albert Anker
Huguenot refugees by Albert Anker

A terrified neigh. The cart jolted, then stopped. 

But the dull thud of horses’ hooves continued. Several horses. 

The last glow of the sun seeping between the trees revealed three shadowy shapes on horseback approaching. Or was it four? 

A voice barked, “Halt! And no heroics!” 

Were they highway robbers … or drunken louts looking for fun with a helpless girl? 

Maman’s rigid form blocked Madeleine’s view. Gédéon leant over his sister and whispered, “Run and hide. I’ll come for you.” She slipped down the rusty steps and fled. In the dimness, roots tried to trip her. Something grabbed her sleeve. She swung round, raising her arm. Brambles. She tugged. The briars held. In desperation, she struggled free, but ripped her new coat. 

“Let her run; she won’t get far.” The derisive cackle made her shudder.

She crouched among thick holly bushes. 

“What is the meaning of this assault?” Papa’s voice was tense but controlled. “By what right do you interfere with …?”

“Hold your tongue! We have orders to arrest you. The Magistrate will do the questioning.”

So, it was far worse than she had feared. Intendant Margot – that weasel – must have been tipped off about their flight. These were his henchmen, sent to ambush them. 

A dull thud. Gédéon uttered a distressed cry. Maman screamed. Then the clang of chains confirmed Madeleine’s fears. Papa was being dragged off. Might be beaten. Tortured to confess the names of their accomplices. Then sent off to the galleys. Or worse. Like poor Philippe Dufour.

What were they to do without Papa?

Panic drove her deeper and deeper into the forest until her lungs threatened to burst and her legs insisted she stop. A twig had hit her eye and scratched her face. The storm clouds threatened snow. She blundered into an uprooted tree and clambered under the overhanging roots; they would hide her and offer some slight shelter from the weather. Until Gédéon came. She pulled dead leaves over herself as best she could. Perhaps they would even keep her warm.

Between her shivers and the creaks and rustles that paralysed her, she prayed for safety. Once, when a moonbeam managed to peep between the branches, a pair of tiny eyes glinted at hers. Visions of demons loomed in her imagination. What was that verse they had had to learn? “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” But whatever it was scuttled off. 

###

Some night-time forest cry woke her with a start. Her throat was raw, her arm throbbed from having lain on it, curled up in the pit, and her hair – to say nothing of her coat and dress – was caked with mud. The snow had indeed started, and she was frozen to her bones. At least no one had found her. 

There it was again, that baleful groan, cut off by a sharp crack. Was it nearer this time? Her breathing froze. Another violent tremble ran through her skinny limbs and brought out a rash of goose bumps. She strained to peer between the overhanging, mud-encased roots, but could make out nothing but waving silhouettes against the murky sky. In the distance an owl hooted, and another answered from nearby. Something rustled among the fallen leaves. Her muscles locked rigid and it took all her strength not to scream when exploring whiskers tickled her hand. Her sodden feet had lost all feeling and the shivers continued. But the cold and wet were the least of her worries as she crouched in that dank hollow. Were those hirelings following her? Or had some wild creature picked up her scent? 

###

Were Maman and Gédéon safe? Why hadn’t he come looking for her? Or – she gasped at the thought – perhaps he had! Perhaps he had passed by while she was sleeping, and not found her!

###

Events of the recent months ran through her mind. Several of their friends had disappeared, starting with Pasteur de la Conseillère’s family. A grim tension had enveloped the whole community. From one day to the next they were forbidden to attend the cultes in the Temple. It was locked and a gendarme with a lance posted at the door. Everyone had been ordered to attend mass instead. And some of their friends had done just that. From then on, they hadn’t been able to look each other in the eye. 

Madeleine had been to the Church with her school friend Amelie on several occasions. She loved the gold ornaments, statues and pictures, but the prayers the priest recited were beyond her knowledge of Latin. Their own plain Temple, its only decoration the panels with the Ten Commandments, lacked such visual allure; but what could anyone find to object to about it? She didn’t miss it much, because many of their friends began to gather in one of their houses for an improvised culte on Sundays – early in the morning or after dark. Papa usually delivered a sermon as best he could and they all sang the well-known Psalms. On Wednesdays they often met in secret at the Berger’s home for prayer and Bible teaching. Those were her favourite times because Mme Ducroit accompanied them on the psaltery and they sang in four voices. That always revived her spirits.

###

“Dear God, You know I love You.” She raised her hands, palms upwards. “Please forgive Councillor Margot and the others for their nastiness.” Her head sank into her palms. “And keep Papa safe.” She shuddered. “Oh, and little Rachel!” – What was she going through? – “And please save me from wild beasts … and those ruffians.” A violent shiver ran through her. “I’m so cold. Will no one help me?” 

A voice inside her seemed to answer, “I also suffered at the hands of misguided fanatics. Through no fault of my own. I won’t let you go, my dear Madeleine.” 

“Oh, I know, Jesus. It’s such a comfort to know You’re here with me.”

###

One morning there had been no bread; the local baker had gone. No one knew if he’d moved away or been arrested. 

A few days later the whole school had been squeezed into M. Laurent’s room; her teacher had disappeared. – Not M. Bonneville! she’d thought at the time. What about his family? – He was so kind, a godly man who treated them all, boys and girls alike, with respect. She had loved his Latin and history lessons but had much more trouble with algebra. How can one add or multiply x’s and y’s when they could be anything? He’d taken time to explain how to simplify those equations. Another teacher might have shouted at her and kept her in after school to do extra work. 

People had begun to whisper to each other in the streets and pass leaflets around. Groups of soldiers in flashy uniforms, carrying swords and muskets, had ridden through town, accompanied by drums and pipes. Dragoons, they called them. They were often drunk and would shout at the locals in a funny dialect. Gédéon said they helped themselves to drinks in the inn without paying, and then smashed their gobelets in the road. She had hardly dared to walk along the main street any more.

###

Another violent trembling came over her and her chest felt as if a millstone was pressing on it. She needed to cough but struggled to suppress it, for fear of being found. The heavens were still dark and the heavy snow threatened to bury her. 

###

In recent weeks Papa had been tense and tired. He was often out late at night and dark rings had formed under his eyes. Sometimes she had overheard heated exchanges between him and Maman – about the family furniture, of all things. That had frightened her, because they were a close, happy family; they always had to ask forgiveness if they ever said something out of place. Of course, she and her brothers did squabble at times or complain about whose turn it was to collect eggs, feed Fidel or help with the cooking. But they had no doubt they were loved, and Papa’s faith in God was so infectious they always felt safe and confident.

Then – Can it only have been six weeks earlier? – tragedy had struck. Tears welled up in her eyes. – Why did I have to stay at home with a fever? – Little Rachel, who always walked with her to and from school, disappeared. As soon as Gédéon got back from work, he went to look for her. No one had seen her. Had she been molested by the dragoons? We older girls had learned to keep well away from them when they made passes at us. But who would assail a ten-year-old? When Papa heard, he abandoned his clients and went out day after day searching throughout the town and the neighbouring villages. 

After some days we heard the ominous news that other children had also disappeared. The rumour spread that an évêque from Caen had been seen in town with a group of monks; they had rounded up young boys and girls who weren’t wearing crucifixes and taken them off to be taught the true faith in a monastery or convent somewhere in Orléanais. 

Maman broke down. She wept for days and didn’t speak at all. Then she just sat by the hearth, absentmindedly embroidering one of Rachel’s dresses. She couldn’t even prepare food for us.

###

“Oh, God, please look after dear Rachel and let her know You are with her, wherever she is.” A deep sigh shook Madeleine. “And give Maman new courage to face life.”

###

Should she try to find her way back to the others? Gédéon said I should wait for him.

What can we do without Papa? Going home wasn’t possible, not since the dragoons had taken up residence. Their bridges were well and truly burned. They’d even had to leave Fidel behind with the Le Grands. But could Maman, Gédéon and she – if they ever find me – make the journey without Papa? Had he even told the others where they were heading and who was supposed to help them on the way?

###

She turned to a sitting position. The sky was getting lighter. It had stopped snowing and here and there the white carpet glistened magically between the trees. But her clothes were a mess and violent shivers shook her. Try as she would, she could no longer suppress her coughing. 

The immediate after-effect terrified her. A desperate howl issued from horribly near. M. Bonneville had taught them about the louvetiers appointed by the King. Could that be a wolf? In desperation, she stood and searched for a sturdy stick. The first one was so rotten, it fell apart as she lifted it. At last she found a satisfactory hazel shoot. But there was no way she could fight off a hungry wolf. 

The howl came again, but was no nearer. If she ran, she’d have no defence. But to approach the beast was out of the question. It had heard her cough so it knew where she was. And no doubt it was her scent that had attracted it in the first place.

“Oh God, save me!”

The brute must have heard her voice, but its reaction astonished her. It began to whimper, almost bleating, as if begging for mercy. 

Can wolves bleat?

###

She had heard that sound once before, long ago, when she was still a little girl. They had been staying with friends on a farm, and Gédéon and she had gone to the woods with the Dantin children to collect mushrooms. Madame D had warned them to be careful but they had Fidel with them, so they weren’t afraid. They had split up, each with a basket at their elbow, trying to outdo one another. Fidel galloped between them, yapping with pleasure, until all of a sudden his barking changed – to a bleating whimper. They had dropped their baskets and run to see what was wrong with their massive hound. He had caught his leg between some rocks, and was trapped.

###

That pleading whine came again – from some distance away, behind a thicket. How could be Fidel out there? He was tied up at the Le Grands’ house. 

“Fi-del,” she stammered. Then, again, more loudly: “Fidel!” 

A joyful yapping answered her. 

She stomped toward it. At each step she sank to her knees, so her progress was slow, hindered by having to push saplings aside and free herself from hidden brambles. As she brushed against the heavy branches of a pine, a shower of snow doused her. She didn’t care. 

There he was: faithful Fidel. He must have broken free but his rope had become entangled in the branches of a fallen tree. 

“Oh, Fidel, did you come after us?” His tail wagged wildly. “You’re wonderful!”

All fear left her. She managed to release him and he jumped all over her. She revelled in his excited licking.

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