Excerpt from Book Three-Bold Women of the 17th Century Series
Chapter One The Latin Quarter Paris, France 1680
For a woman alone, Paris after dark was a dangerous place. All manner of predators haunted the streets: cutthroats, pickpockets, grave robbers, and whores. Thieves would rob and beat their victims, leaving them for dead. Violent men would take a woman’s virtue without a thought or spirit them away to enslavement halfway around the world. The countryside was no better. Witches and supernatural creatures lurked in every shadow. The Dame Blanche waited under bridges, and the feu follet hovered over swamps. Swallowing hard, Véronique Barbeau stepped out of the apothecary shop, pulled up her hood, and walked down the steps. Fair-skinned with black hair and cobalt-blue eyes, the girl’s coloring and fine features were tangible evidence the Celts had once inhabited Gaul. At sixteen, her shape had rounded, but she was far from buxom with a lithe, willowy figure. A light mist was falling. The flambeau perched on the building shed a dim light on the slimy cobblestone street. Looking over her shoulder, she quickly turned the corner and almost collided with three student revelers. Well into their cups, they took little notice of her, and with her head down, she darted past them. Véronique’s father did not know she was out tonight, and if he knew, he would be furious. He had nagged her repeatedly to purchase malachite and copper resonate that afternoon, but as usual, she became distracted and forgot. The substances were needed to make pigments for his paintings, and there would be no work tonight without them. One of the most renowned artists in all of Paris, Monsieur Henri Frederik Barbeau delivered perfection to his patrons and expected the same from his daughter. A gifted artist herself, Véronique could only assist him though because of her gender. Painting professionally was her most ardent desire, but convention forbid it. Instead, she mixed Master Barbeau’s paints, arranged his subjects, and purchased his supplies. She made minor contributions to her father’s creations also, but only when his two apprentices were unavailable. “Regardez, Mademoiselle Barbeau!” someone barked. It was the chandler’s wife leaning out a second-story window. “Is that your young man?” Véronique looked up at her with surprise. “There,” Madame Moulin said, gesturing toward the other side of the street. “He comes from arguing with your father.” Véronique looked. Even though it was dark, there was no mistaking her lover, Rainier Laurent Delacroix. Tall with long hair the color of wheat, a firm build, and a confident bearing, the twenty-three-year-old cut a dashing figure. Not only his good looks, but his cavalier attitude attracted Véronique. Well known in the Quarter as a charming but irresponsible rogue he was forbidden fruit for the girl, and knowing her father would not approve made him all the more desirable. “Rainier!” Véronique called. “Rainier Delacroix!” The young man didn’t hear her as he stormed past and turned into a tavern, his cape fanning out behind him. “It is no surprise he is enraged,” Madame Moulin added with relish. “Your father struck him.” Véronique gasped and looked back toward the tavern. Why was Rainier at her home? They always met in secret.
“Bon chance!” Madame Moulin said with a smirk and closed the window. With a wildly beating heart, Véronique stuffed her purchase under her arm, picked up her skirts and dashed around the corner. Home was an older but well-kept plaster and wood structure with a cantilevered second story just across from the chandler’s shop. It housed an art studio on the street level and a family residence upstairs where Monsieur Barbeau lived with his wife and two daughters. Light was flickering in the back, so Véronique took the narrow walkway around the house to see if her father was building a fire outside. But as she drew closer, she realized the flames were not from a bonfire. They were inside the home. “Oh, dear God!” she screamed. Flames had engulfed the kitchen. “Mama! Papa!” she shrieked, looking up at the second story. “Fire! Fire!” she yelled, running to the front of the house. Within moments, neighbors dashed outside with buckets of water, yelling for help. Véronique ran from the back to the front of the house, calling to her family. Suddenly, glass shattered from above. Her mother had broken through the second-story window. Veronique gazed up in horror. Her shift was in flames, as well as her hair. Too stunned to speak, Véronique watched her step out onto the cantilever and jump. A living torch, Madame Barbeau sailed through the air and dropped to the street with a thud. “Mama!” Véronique screamed, running to her. “Sweet Mother of God, someone help me!” she cried, trying to slap the flames out with her hands. The tailor who lived next door dashed up, threw water on Madame Barbeau’s hair, and covered her with his cloak. Blood was pooling under her head, and her face was badly burned. She tried to speak. Words would not come. “Where is Papa?” Véronique asked frantically. “And Lilou?” Her mother could only move her lips. “I saw your father leave after the quarrel,” the tailor said. “And my sister?” “I know not.” “Inside,” Madame Barbeau murmured. “I could not..” Véronique knew then her mother must have been in the kitchen and caught fire on her way to Lilou. More neighbors joined the fight, running with water, shouting and barking orders. It was imperative the inferno not spread. Véronique stood up and looked at the blaze, the flames casting a ghastly light on her face. She knew she must hurry. The studio had not yet caught fire, but when it did, the oils and substances for mixing pigments were combustible. Perhaps the stairs were still clear. She took a step forward. “No!” the tailor commanded, grabbing her elbow. Véronique turned on him like a wild animal. “Release me!” she shrieked and bolted to the house. When she threw open the front door, flames in the kitchen leaped to the ceiling, and smoke belched out. Véronique dropped back, coughing. The heat was intense. Breathing through her sleeve, she stepped inside. The flames lit her way with a hellish flickering light. Pushing past easels and work tables, knocking over paints and supplies, she stumbled toward the stairs. The roar of the flames and the sound of wood splitting was deafening. She tried to take a breath to call for Lilou, but the smoke choked her. Stumbling over debris, she, at last, reached the stairs, but the fire had moved to the landing. Lilou was at the top of the steps clutching her blanket and crying. Her eyes were wide with terror. “I’m coming, little one!” Véronique cried. Gathering her skirts up to jump the flames, she took a step but was too late. The fire had found her gown. With a scream, she slapped the blaze with her hands, but the flames quickly licked up her legs. She raced back through the studio for help, but when she stepped outside, there was a blast. A fireball belched from the studio, soaring high into the air. The fire had found the oils. The back of Veronique’s gown erupted into a blaze. In a frenzy of terror, she bolted forward and started to run, but the tailor knocked her to the ground snuffing the flames. She was battered and burned but still alive. The fire spread to three more homes before it was at last contained. Monsieur Barbeau returned home horrified and grief-stricken. He immediately called for Rainier Laurent Delacroix’s head and was joined by three others, who had witnessed the angry young man setting the fire. All the while, Véronique Barbeau teetered between life and death.