Beau Brown by Nina Clare


France, 1794

Twelve-year-old boys are noteasy to wake at dawn, and Henri was no exception. He felt as though he was being pulled through a tunnel. At one end was some pleasant dream involving a flying horse, at the other end, the distant voice of his tutor calling his name.

‘Get up, get up,’ Monsieur Fortin urged, half dragging Henri from his bed. ‘We must leave. Now.’

A hammering noise sounded from somewhere in the manor – crashing sounds and raised voices.

‘What’s happening?’ Henri gasped, bewildered by this odd behaviour from his mild-mannered tutor.

‘Get dressed!’

His tutor was rummaging through the clothes press. He threw a pair of breeches at Henri, then his old woollen coat, the one he wore when fishing in the trout lake on the estate. His riding boots were tossed from across the room.

Henri was too astonished to do anything other than obey the blunt orders, but once he had dressed, he would not move until he got some answers.

‘What’s going on?’ He resisted his tutor’s grip as he tried to tug him across the room. ‘Where’s Papa?’

‘Delaying them,’ his tutor snapped, his usually mild eyes blazing in frustration. ‘So you can escape. Now quickly!’

‘Delaying who?’ A sick, twisty feeling began in Henri’s gut.

‘The Committee,’ his tutor hissed, his eyes reflecting Henri’s fear. It was the dreaded word – the word which had haunted their lives for the past five years.

Monsieur Fortin yanked wide the servants’ door in the panelling. It led down a flight of back stairs. Henri could hear footsteps pounding the stairs from the first floor. They were coming. He darted through the narrow door, his heart hammering.

It did not feel quite real – the panic, the hurry, the confusion. He was still sleeping. He would wake in a minute and feel that rush of relief when he realised it had only been a bad dream.

Papa had said the Committee would not come after him. He’d agreed to their demands. He’d done all that was ordered. They would be left alone.

‘Papa!’ His father was in the passageway at the bottom of the stairs. Henri pushed past his tutor, leaping down the last three steps.

‘Thank God your mother did not live to see this day,’ was Vicomte de Courtenay’s greeting. ‘They’re guarding the stables,’ Papa said, but not to Henri; he talked over his head to Monsieur Fortin. ‘Pieter rode over to warn us. You can take his horse. Take Henri somewhere safe.’

‘But it is you who should flee, my lord,’ Monsieur Fortin said.

Papa shook his head impatiently. ‘They would come after me and take Henri too. If I remain, I can delay them. Just take him somewhere safe,’ he groaned. ‘I beg you!’

‘I’ll take him to my cousins in Saint-Maria,’ Monsieur Fortin said resignedly. ‘He’ll be safe there.’

‘God bless you,’ the vicomte said, his voice cracked like dried leather.

‘Papa?’ Henri said, wanting to catch hold of his father round the waist and cling to him as though he were a small boy again. ‘Why have they come?’

His father put a hand to his neck and tugged something. There was a soft snap as the clasp of a chain broke. He crumpled the chain and its locket into Henri’s hands, closing Henri’s fist over it.

‘I won’t go without you,’ Henri said fiercely.

‘Get to England as soon as you can,’ his father said. ‘You have relatives still living. They may help you. They must help you.’

‘Mama said she had no family,’ Henri said, confused.

‘None that would own her. But surely they could not turn a child away.’

‘I’m not going without you!’

The angry voices grew louder. Someone screamed; it sounded like Madame Gigot, the housekeeper.

‘Go!’ the vicomte said, bundling Henri out into the courtyard and slamming the door on him and Monsieur Fortin. Henri heard the bolt being drawn on the other side.

Monsieur Fortin took Henri’s arm in a determined grip.

‘Papa, come with us!’ Henri cried, resisting his tutor as panic rose.

He was tugged from the doorway, across the yard and thrown up into the saddle; his tutor scrambled up behind him.

Henri strained his neck to look back at his home. Dawn had broken, and a furious sun had risen. The manor lake was to Henri’s right. The water turned red as the sun rose over it. Henri squeezed his eyes shut against the sight, still seeing that ball of fire and that blood-coloured lake behind his eyelids as the horse galloped away.

* * *

‘What amI supposed to do with him?’

Henri stood numbly in the shadowy hallway, being regarded by a man about the age of his father. He knew his name was Monsieur Bruneau, because his tutor had said so. He also knew that Monsieur Bruneau was not pleased to see him.

‘Just keep him safe,’ Monsieur Fortin said wearily. ‘It’s been a long journey. We left yesterday. We haven’t slept.’

‘Safe!’ hissed Monsieur Bruneau. The light from the lantern he held flickered wildly as he swung it between Monsieur Fortin and Henri. ‘Safe! We’re barely ten miles from Paris! What will happen to me if it’s discovered I’m harbouring the son of a vicomte? What will happen to my own boy if I’m dragged off by them?’

‘Who is it, Jean?’ said a woman’s voice. Monsieur Bruneau groaned. A tall matron in a frilled nightcap and a voluminous wrapper peered into the hall. ‘Adrien?’ she said doubtfully. ‘Is that you?’

‘Morning, Cousin Marie,’ said Monsieur Fortin with a hasty bow. ‘Sorry to wake you at such an hour.’

Madame Bruneau caught sight of Henri. She looked sharply back at Monsieur Fortin. ‘This is your young pupil,’ she stated. ‘The vicomte’s son.’

Monsieur Fortin nodded. ‘TheCommittee,’ he whispered.

‘He wants us to hide the boy,’ Monsieur Bruneau said to his sister with a shrug of helplessness.

‘There’s no one else I can trust,’ Monsieur Fortin said, looking at Madame Bruneau as though she would be the one to decide the matter. ‘He has no mother,’ he added. ‘No other family, and his father…’ His words trailed away.

‘My father will come for me,’ said Henri, gripping the locket and chain in his fist. His voice sounded brittle, and he spoke through chattering teeth.

There was a heavy pause. Both men looked at Madame Bruneau. ‘He’s half frozen,’ she said. ‘You brought him fifty miles in this weather in such a poor coat?’

‘We fled in haste,’ said Monsieur Fortin. ‘There was no time for anything.’

‘What is your name, young man?’ Madame Bruneau asked.

Henri met her eyes. There was no softness in them, but there was no unkindness either. ‘Henri de Courtenay, ma’am.’

‘You will be Henri Bruneau while you are in this house,’ said Madame Bruneau. ‘You are the son of a relative come from Epernay to begin your apprenticeship. You will earn your keep. There is no idleness here. You will never betray your true name or class to anyone.’

Henri stared mutely back at her.

‘We’ll all lose our heads,’ Monsieur Bruneau groaned, rubbing his neck.

‘He’s a child, Jean,’ his sister said.

‘Thank you, Marie.’ Monsieur Fortin’s voice was full of relief. ‘He’s a good lad.’ He threw Henri a sad look. ‘He learns quickly. Has a gift for drawing. A good artist’s eye. I must go before it gets light. No one must see me here.’

‘Yes, go,’ Madame Bruneau agreed, gesturing him away.

Monsieur Fortin darted forward to kiss Madame Bruneau’s cheek. He put a hand out to shake Monsieur Bruneau’s hand, but catching sight of the resentment on his cousin’s face, he dropped his arm and only bowed to him. He squeezed Henri’s shoulder. ‘You’re safe here,’ he said.

‘Will my father know where to find me?’ Henri asked, searching his tutor’s eyes for some reassurance, feeling that the last cord to his life was being cut.

‘He will know where to find you,’ his tutor said. But his expression said something altogether different. He squeezed Henri’s shoulder one last time. ‘Be brave.’

‘Come into the kitchen,’ Madame Bruneau was saying briskly. ‘Hot milk and brandy, and then to bed, though what bed I will put you in I do not know.’

Monsieur Bruneau groaned again.

* * *

Monsieur Bruneau was a tailor,and his sister, known as Madame Bruneau, though she was a spinster, was a seamstress. Their house tall and thin, like Madame Bruneau, was three stories high, four if the tiny attic rooms for the two maids were counted. The shop front, the fitting room, and the workrooms were on the ground floor.

Monsieur Bruneau was a widower, his son Paul left motherless from birth. Paul Bruneau was now a pimply youth of fifteen, three years older than Henri. Paul liked to arrange his hair in the new à la Titus style. He had his own bedroom on the third floor and howled with protest when told he must share it with the mournful-eyed newcomer who had turned up one morning in a nightshirt and breeches.

After a week of disharmony in the house, Paul got his way, and Henri was removed from his bedroom into the kitchen alcove, to sleep on a pallet next to Thomas the general manservant.

Henri preferred Thomas to Paul Bruneau, even if Thomas snored. Snores were preferable to snide insults and secret pinches and whispered threats.

‘He’s not coming,’sneered Paul Bruneau, coming up behind Henri, who was peering out of the shop window at the street outside. It was a wet, grey day and the heavy showers were keeping customers away that morning. ‘He’s never coming,’ said Paul, standing close enough for Henry to smell the cologne Paul had purloined from his father. ‘Papa saw his name in the lists. He didn’t want to tell you. He’s dead like the rest of the greedy aristos.’ Henri turned slowly to see Paul make a chopping action at his neck, bulging his eyes and lolling his tongue.

Henri had spoken very little in the two weeks since his arrival at the Bruneau house. He’d ignored Paul’s sly comments; he had not even cared, for it seemed a small grief to bear compared to the one he bore for his father. But now he turned his pinched, haunted face to Paul’s. He looked at those mocking eyes and that sneering mouth and something hot and blinding that he had never felt before surged up.

He sprang so quickly at Paul Bruneau that Paul did not see the fist hurtling at his nose. Paul’s howls brought the adults rushing in. It took Monsieur and Madame Bruneau and Thomas the manservant to pull Henri away.

He’s not dead! He’s not dead!He’s not dead!’ Henri yelled as they dragged him away, thrashing and shrieking. Paul Bruneau stared after him with his nose bloodied and his foppish hairstyle ruined. He never spoke a word about Henri’s father again.