Exclusive Look Inside: Crimson Petticoats

Hope Springs

In 1855, the world was changing. The cities of France were being rebuilt to the grand design of the new, self-appointed emperor; the fields that had long lain fallow or fallen to ruin were being revived with new methods and technologies. The long hunger that had plagued France throughout its kingless years was coming to an end, and with fresh food had come new hungers.

To be a simple peasant working the same patch of dirt for all of time had lost its appeal to many of the common folk, especially now that the reforms were demanding they learn the lower reaches of science to scrape that living from the earth. But what work was there for a young woman of humble means, who came from a single-room cottage out in the rustic back end of nowhere? The girl could sew, certainly, but she was no match for any of the seamstresses working in the grand cities. She could cook, too, but she was no chef, knowing only what her mother had passed down to her by the hearth. The tending of beasts and crops only led back to farming life, the very thing she had fled home to escape. Even her simple talent for keeping things clean would not take her far. She had neither the strength nor the stamina required for the vast operations that she now undertook, like the cleaning of clothes, and lacked the lofty manner normally required of a maid. She was a jack of all trades and master of none, and it left her wandering France in search of anywhere that might have her and pay her well enough to make all the familiarity and family she had given up a fair trade.

Had she been a boy, there would have been the army, abroad and enmeshed in a dozen wars of expansion and politicking well beyond her understanding. Crimea, Asia, the Pacific, and Africa, distant lands that a peasant girl had barely even heard of, all needed loyal men to man their guns and defend what this new-born Napoleonic Empire meant to hold onto for the future of France. As a girl, there was no recruitment officer to hold her hand, and no kindly tradesman to take pity and offer apprenticeship. She was alone in the world.

For her the great reforms to education had come too late, she had not seen the inside of a classroom any more than she’d seen the back end of a horse-drawn plough, and she was not liable to join others of her sex in finally pushing open the doors of higher education in Paris either. As it always had been, the benefits of every great change in society provided for those in the highest stations first before trickling down to the masses. Having an empire meant nothing to the man herding sheep, and higher education meant little to a girl who could barely write her own name.

So it was with all of this burden that our girl came to Lyon, in search of some prospect by which she might avoid the awful fate of turning tail and returning to the inevitable head shaking of her judgmental mother and father.

Despite her worries, she was entranced by the City of Lights. It was a bustling metropolis by any standard of the day, home to trade and banking, overwhelming with its luxuries so openly displayed. Here was most of the silk production in France; here was cuisine elevated to new heights by the finest chefs and culinary schools in the world. The streets were full to the brim of ladies and gentlemen garbed in the very latest of fashions, going about their business with nary a horse in sight. There was no need of such beasts of burden in Lyon, except for the hauling of bulk goods by the lowliest of merchants, for if you wished to cross the city or even to simply surmount the steepness of its streets, there was a network of funicular railways in place. Such a thing, such an extravagance of industry, left our girl entranced and amazed. She rode on the great cable cars as much to experience the ride as out of any desire to move swiftly about the town.

Come night, she learned why the city had earned its title ‘la Ville des Lumières’ (the City of Lights), as all the gas lamps lit up the streets as bright as they’d been at midday. Her feet ached from wandering the cobblestones for so long in the hunt for work, and exhaustion would soon take her whether she found a bed or not. There were flophouses aplenty in the less savoury parts of the city, but her hunt for work had kept her far from there, knocking on factory doors and pleading her case a dozen times over. It seemed that such pleading would do no good. In the hustle and bustle of the city, there was no time to pause and train someone who had never even handled silk before in her life, nor would any man tarnish his good name by passing her off to one of his compatriots. The workers in the various silk mills did not compete as their masters might have wished—they were a fraternal order, knowing as they did that the freedom to pass from one mill to the next at the first sign of ill-treatment was the stick with which they could threaten their employers into rightful care.

Wandering the streets with but a few francs in her pocket, she was found by a kindly matron who was more than happy to offer a spare room in her apartments for a pittance.  This struck her as an echo of the kindness her own mother would have shown her had she not fled home in the dead of night and that thought was almost enough to bring a tear to her eye.

As dawn broke over the city, our girl was stirred from her shallow rest by the machinery of the factories lurching back into motion, sending vibrations out through the very earth itself. It was a giant marching in place, or so her troubled dreams had warned her. She did not know, as she dressed herself at the invitation of breakfast, if she would ever be used to all the noise of the city. If she could ever truly sleep with the rattle of tram cars passing outside the window, or the chatter of the neighbours loud enough to be heard through the floor beneath her and the roof above.

So, when she settled herself at the kitchen table with her adoptive host, she was in no fit state to think when the woman presented her with an opportunity. It seemed there was a servant in Lyon searching for new staff for his master’s chateau. The work would be light, cleaning, and the keeping of a few animals, and the pay was well above the expected rate for such things. It was a miracle that our girl did not bite the hand off the motherly figure who had proffered such a thing to her. Arrangements were made for her to find this seeking servant in the market where he had been offering such terms to any girls he thought likely. While there was some initial panic on our girl’s part as she was confronted with the thought of trying to find a specific man in all of the massing throngs of the city streets, her worries were soon assuaged. She would have no trouble spotting this man as he bore a thick mop of wiry black hair which seamlessly melded into a horse-strap beard around his chin, a misshapen lip suggesting a cleft lip or palate at birth and, to top off the poor fellow’s misfortune, a pronounced hunch in his back. It was a miracle he had found employment in some wealthy man’s home and not in a travelling fair with looks such as those.

Needless to say, it took her little of the morning to find this man, listen to his offer, and overwhelm him with the promises of her competency in every possible task that he described for her. Truth be told it was as though the job had been made for her. Light cleaning, light garden work, some cooking, but only to the simple tastes of the staff as the owner had his own chef, nothing that she could not handle, and nothing that she could not see herself managing with scarcely a thought required. It was what she had been seeking since she first left home, and there was not a chance that she would look such a gift horse in the mouth.

Back at her matron’s abode, she gathered up all of her scant belongings and brought them down to the street, where the hunchback loaded them into a small chest that he chivalrously promised to carry all the way to her new home. She bid her farewells to Lyon, and they set off on the road to Dagneux and the estates that his master had purchased after the revolution.

Before long, they parted from the crowds pressing into the city from the countryside, and our girl realised with a fright that she was entirely alone in the company of a strange man. It was the very situation she had been warned all of her life to avoid, yet here she now walked, all of her worldly belongings boxed up and slung across his shoulders, so that even were she to turn tail and run, it would be so costly she’d never survive it.

They trudged along in awkward silence for a time as the fields about the city gave way to forested paths and the booming sound of industry faded from memory. Despite herself and her situation, our girl found the tension she had been carrying all through her time in Lyon begin to fade. She found in that new peace the courage to attempt conversation, at which point her dread of the hunchback withered and died. He was dim-witted in the extreme—so slow on the uptake that she had to repeat questions several times before receiving any kind of answer.  Direct discourse eluded him as he tripped over his words repeatedly without making a recognizable point.

 She had come across his like in her life, men who’d been struck hard in the head by a kicking horse, or who’d been born without the reasoning that God granted all mankind. He had enough strength in his arms that carting about that chest seemed to be no struggle, but that vital muscle between his ears seemed atrophied away to naught. She could readily understand now how he had found his way into some wealthy man’s employ: charity.

Just as all her village would have seen to it that those without a field to till had flour enough for bread, so too would the people of whatever backwater community birthed this odd unfortunate have sought for him a place in the world where his malformation of both appearance and mind would not hamper him or lead him to ridicule.

Perhaps in the days to come, she might learn what brought him into his kind master’s service. She had no doubt there would be gossip of it among the other servants, and perhaps even in the villages that she’d have to visit in the performance of her duties. His was no doubt a sad story, but at least it came to this happy ending.

Despite her own recently flagging fortunes, now feeling more optimistic, she too found within herself some measure of sympathy and kindness toward this messenger who had delivered her from fates too unseemly to dwell upon. Even as he plodded along beside her, staring off into the distance as though he could see through the hedgerows and to the horizon, she felt a smile come upon her face at the sight of him. In years to come, she knew she would still feel this same warmth toward the man who had rescued her from ignominy. She wondered for a moment if that were the purpose in sending him out to perform recruitment, to ensure that those who followed him off along these roads would always feel such sentiment and treat him well.

As the day drew on, he shared with her a meal of dry bread and cheese by the roadside, generously offering what little he had to keep her belly full. Afterwards, his tongue seemed somewhat loosened, and she couldn’t help but wonder if he had been feeling as awkward as she had when they first left Lyon, only now finding the confidence to speak freely.

What he said did little to change her impression of him as a man of little learning or thought, but at least the rumble of his voice filled the silence of this long trek they now took across the country. He spoke more of the duties she’d have, the good nature of the two cows she’d attend to, and the kindness of the man who’d give them both employ. Of the other servants he spoke little, but she supposed that beyond knowing of them, such a man would probably have little in the way of social interaction. She could not see such a creature receiving a heartfelt welcome to share stories and gossip any more than she could imagine his two beloved cows being invited to do the same. Even she, with no other company, was finding herself wondering if silence might not have been preferable after his third or fourth retelling of the same stories.

With some prying, she learned more of the estate, of the twin castles that made up the buildings and the lay of the land about Dagneux. It sounded a hospitable enough place, though her guide warned her that there were rumors of bandits afoot in the wild places bordering the property.

Such a thought gave her chills, and once more she came to feel some strange comfort in her broad-shouldered companion’s presence. A woman travelling alone would have made easy pickings for such wolves in human clothing, but with a stocky man by her side, she barely felt the prickle of unease each time they passed by a dark copse that could have been hiding any number of waiting brigands.

They broke free of the woods before long, passing out into a wide-open space along which the same game track still ran. The ground here was rocky and the going slow, but her guide’s pace never faltered. He flowed across the rough ground as though he were a mountain goat, with a grace she found almost startling. At the periphery of her vision, she could see farmhouses about, not the places she’d known in her youth, but the big modern-built things that would house the new generation of farmers who had learned the science of tending land even if they did not yet know the toil of it.

It was not so pretty a slice of pastoral beauty as she might have hoped. Overgrown in places and burnt back in others, it seemed a stretch not yet fully recovered from the conflicts of the recent past. A place where the emperor’s reforms were still being enacted rather than one that had already been remade to his design. Despite the distant fields swaying in the early evening breeze, she could not help but feel that the place had an air of desolation about it. Like no man had tread this path in many a year and those farmhouses would be home to naught but cobwebs and dust.

She mentioned the isolation that she felt to the hunchback, and he said nothing much of it, bobbing his head in agreement, but no longer even attempting to meet her eye. Perhaps the day had worn at him as it had her. Perhaps all he could think of was the warmth of hearth and home at the end of their trek across the countryside.

When he stopped by the side of the road and unceremoniously dumped her chest on the ground, she was shocked—though she could readily excuse it as the actions of a man whose chivalry had waned in the face of exhaustion. Yet still he moved, no longer pacing along the barren stretch of nowhere, but drifting about at the side of the track with some purpose to his movements. She asked him what he was looking for, and in answer saw him seizing a large stick from amidst the weeds and overgrowth, thick and solid as a fire poker. He tested its weight in his hands before glancing back to her.

The blankness of his expression before had unsettled her. Now it was the sudden influx of intelligence shining from behind his dark eyes that gave her pause. He reached down to the road itself and plucked loose a rock the size of a cobblestone, testing its weight in his hands. She asked him again what he was about, but instead of the bumbling answers she’d come to expect from him, he did not trouble himself to say anything at all. Instead, he gave his answer by stalking down towards her, beating stick against stone.

The same rational fear that had struck her as they left Lyon’s maddening crowds came flooding back. If he meant her harm, there was nothing that she could do to stop him. There was no world in which she might overcome a man of his stature, nor hope to retain her abandoned belongings if she did so. Still, he came onwards, and giving up on speech, she turned tail and ran back down the path.

It was like some monstrous fairy tale come to life: the hideous beast and the innocent maid, the trickery and the promise of a place in a palace.

The farmhouses would be her salvation. She could find sanctuary there with people of her own kind. Simple, kind folk who would not allow some great evil to unfold on their very doorstep. The medieval ogre lumbering downhill towards her would not dare pursue her into the light of civilisation.

Utterly exhausted from her long day on the road, limbs already rubbery and weak, she stumbled and tripped down the rocky path, fleeing for her life in a body that sought to betray her with every step. Up in the twilight sky, she thought that she could see a plume of dark smoke rising—a chimney letting loose a signal to her that there were still people in this world, and not only the monster at her heels, gliding smoothly down the road with the same lopsided gate that had swallowed all the miles from Lyon.

That pillar of smoke was getting close now, close enough that she might cry out and be heard. Close enough that help might come, or that the very threat of help coming might be enough to scare her pursuer off. She drew in a deep lungful of the chill night air and opened her mouth, but suddenly the air was knocked from her.

The rock that the ogre had dug from the path had flown true, missing the back of her head where he’d aimed it but hammering between her shoulder blades, knocking all the air from her lungs.

She managed but a few more stumbling steps then collapsed to her knees. The blow of the rock had not only stolen the air from her, but it seemed to stop her drawing in more. She gasped and strained against her winding, but it was of no use. She could not breathe, so she could not scream.

At any moment she expected her death to come—a sharp hard rap with the stick across the back of her head, sending her down into darkness—but for some reason she could not muster a guess at, that strike did not come.

Clawing her way forward, still she struggled for safety, her skirts dragging to tatters beneath her and her knees letting loose a free flow of blood as she scraped them raw. There were jagged pebbles lodged in her palms, too, but her fear overcame any pain. The ogre was still coming. She could hear him. Those unsteady steps. The ragged breathing. Why had he not struck? Was this a game to him? Was she to be his sport of the evening, and he the huntsman?

When he looped the rope around her neck and pulled it tight, her fate became all too clear: at once a garrotte, fashioned with a simple slipknot, and at the same time a leash by which to lead her off to her doom somewhere up on that moonlit hillside. What had been her road to salvation now led to a perdition she could not even bring herself to contemplate. This bestial man, if he could even be called a man, led her off up the road, dragging her when she slowed, crooning softly in that awful gravelly voice of his when she followed after him submissively.

Her panicked flight had subsumed into the terror of not being able to breathe so seamlessly that she had not even noticed it until air trickled its way back down into her lungs, but now that initial shock had passed, and pain returned with a vengeance. Her hands were a bloodied mess, her knees and shins the same. Where the stone had struck her in the back throbbed with a pain she feared to even consider too seriously, for it seemed more than a mere bruise was in the offing. There was a cold knot at the heart of that wound that might very well suggest she had been dealt something far worse than she had imagined.

Whatever reprieve she might have had from asphyxiation soon passed, along with any hope of a last-minute rescue. Once she had been hauled back the length of distance that she had run, our girl was purple-faced and dying all over again. Every jerk on her leash had drawn the knot tighter. Every moment she was not keeping pace with the grown man moving as he did in a lopsided jog, the noose around her throat tightened. She could not say if night had fallen through all of this or if the encroaching darkness was the lack of air. Nor could she say if the stars she was seeing were the result of the setting sun or heralds of her impending demise. Finally, they stopped, and it seemed that her monstrous captor would finally deal a killing blow to her with the stick that he still carried in his other hand, but she was not so lucky.

With her still on a short leash, he cracked open the chest of all her worldly belongings and began to dig through it, searching for anything of value. When he did not seem satisfied with what he had found, he lumbered over to search her himself. His leathery hands raked over her flesh, digging under her clothes in her most private places to search for any hidden trinkets or coins. Finally, still thoroughly dissatisfied with his takings, he reached down and began to strip her. Horrified at the thought of what she was sure would follow, his victim finally put up a fight, wrestling away from his grasping hands with all her remaining strength, wheezing in air through her constricted throat and trying to scream as she flung herself away from him.

All her desperation was for nothing. In fact, her flailing away actually helped her assailant as he dragged her clothes from her body, leaving her bare and freezing. She looked to him, expecting nothing more than the next awful act, and was stunned into silence. He had no interest in her naked body at all. He was examining her clothes, discarding her ruined skirts into a bush by the roadside, but taking care not to let any of that blood stain the rest. It was the clothing he wanted, not the woman within.

He was too simple to consider the most heinous of crimes man could commit on a maiden. He was too simple even to realise the wickedness of his act. This buffoon had come wandering the city with some story prepared, looking for a girl to rob, and now his work was done, he was sure to set her loose. There would be awful shame in her when she fled through the night in no clothing. But there could be no doubt any farmer’s wife would see her in such a fallen state and take pity on her. This was not the end. She would live, and she would call upon the Sheriff of Lyon in short order to see this dangerous imbecile destroyed so he could not enact this same ploy on any other unfortunate girl. She could not breathe to sigh in relief, and even if she could have, that relief would have been short-lived.

With one final glance over her to check for any untaken goods, the monstrous hunchback finally hefted his stick over her and brought it down. Whatever skill or planning he had brought to bear in the rest of this grand charade disappeared into ferocity. He did not put her swiftly out of her misery with a blow to the head—it seemed almost as if he could not even understand that such a thing was an option. Rather, he rained blow after blow down on her, his heavy breathing coming as much from excitement as exertion. On and on the blows fell, wet slaps echoing out into the night. She died, unseen and unknown, and her name was never written in any book of history. So to us at least, she is lost.

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