They had been walking all day in the late summer heat with nothing in their stomachs. There was no time to look for other Protestants to help them: if they could get to Belgium as soon as possible, perhaps they could begin to rebuild their lives. But it is a long way from the border with Spain to the border with Belgium, and the little band had walked for two weeks without even reaching Tours. Night was falling fast, and the late August nights had begun to grow cold. One of the children was in danger of becoming ill if he spent another damp, cold night outdoors. It was imperative that they find the shelter of a barn soon, else they would have to keep walking all night to stay warm. One more night, they all thought. Just one more night. One night at a time.
Finally, the leader spoke. “Look, there is a light up ahead. A person of means, for a peasant would not have so much as a smokey candle lit at dark. Surely they will have a barn for the children to sleep in.”
“But André, what do we tell them? That we’re Protestants fleeing persecution? That we’re Catholics who are in fear of their lives? What if they are of the wrong religion? Then we are lost!”
“Then let Bertrande speak. With the child in her arms, she cannot be refused. She will not lie, for that would be to betray God, but she will not betray us through her words.”
“Bertrande, will you do it?” Catherine asked her best friend.
“Of course.” They walked in silence until they reached the courtyard of the rather large farmhouse. Bertrande stepped forward and tapped on the door. It was answered by an elderly woman wearing a red shawl over her head. The brightness of the colour appeared very angry, and the woman said nothing, but Bertrande pressed her case. “Bon soir, madame. My friends and I have been walking all day, and we are sorely in need of rest. The nights have grown cold, and I wondered if you might, in your generosity, allow the children to take refuge in your barn tonight.”
“Who are you?” the woman asked suspiciously.
“Our village was burned because of the war. We are refugees seeking peace in the north.”
“What side are you on?”
“The side of God,” Bertrande answered honestly.
“How many are you?”
“Seven adults, two young children, and two babes. Please, madame, just enough room for the children and babies. We have been walking since dawn, and the night grows cold as we speak.”
“The barn opens around the side. You may all sleep there if you wish. Have you eaten today?”
“Adrienne!” the old woman called into the house. “Can we feed ten more people?”
“If I water the soup,” a girl’s voice called back.
“Come in. You must eat. All of you. It won’t be much, but I can at least give you a little soup and some bread. I can’t allow good God-fearing people to go hungry. Come in,” she called out to the people who, fearing the worst, held back.
Bertrande made a slight motion to beckon her friends. At that sign, they silently followed the old woman into her house. Bertrande was the last to enter. The house was large but simply furnished. It could not have been more than thirty years old, perhaps replacing an earlier structure which had burned. On one side of the hall that went all the way to a back door was a room that appeared ready for a banquet. There was a long table surrounded by chairs, enough for twenty people. On the other side was a sort of parlour/workroom so that visitors would not have to sit in the kitchen. The kitchen stood behind it, warming the room, and on the other side, backing up to the barn, were two small bedrooms and a staircase to the first floor. The old woman led the group into the parlour, then went back to the kitchen. Restless, Bertrande left to find the girl whose voice she had heard.
A girl not much younger than she was searching a cabinet in the banquet hall for extra trenchers for the guests. Hearing Bertrande’s footsteps, she turned around, and Bertrande could see that one side of her face was horribly scarred, likely from a fire. “Bon soir, madame. I am Adrienne.”
“Bon soir. Are you a servant here?”
“Oh, my faith, no. That’s my mother in the kitchen. Kind of a big house for the just the two of us. That’s what happens when children die off or get married or up and leave.” Despite the depressing nature of the subject of conversation, Adrienne was bright and cheerful. She may have been burned, but it had not taken away her brilliant personality. She smiled constantly and her voice was always cheerful and excited.
“What happened to --” Bertrande touched her own cheek, not knowing quite how to ask.
“I was caught in a fire at my brother’s house. He had a small farm for a while, but his house burned so he left and joined the war.” Adrienne did not seem at all upset by the turn of events in her life.
“Adrienne,” her mother called, wandering across the hall, “you got enough trenchers?”
“I can only find six extra. We’ve never had quite this many men to feed.”
“The children can share with their parents, or themselves, and we’ve got the four in the kitchen.” Bertrande followed the old woman back to the kitchen.
“Madame, how can we repay you?”
“For what, child?”
“For your kindness.”
“Child, how could I not help you? You look so thin and scared, and with that baby in your arms, I had to take you in, and I couldn’t very well let the rest of them sit in the cold, now could I? Why don’t you go sit down, rest a bit?”
“I’ll have plenty of time to rest when I get where I’m going.”
“Too true, too true. What is your name, child?” Bertrande paused a moment to think. Which name to give? Her judgement said to give her maiden name, but her heart said that it would betray Arnaud. She could never give Martin's name. Finally, she answered, “Bertrande du Thil.”
The old woman gasped. “It cannot be true. Who is your husband?” she hissed.
Bertrande jumped back. “He is dead. How is it your business?”
“Who was your husband?”
“Arnaud du Thil,” Bertrande answered in fear.
“It cannot be! Oh, my daughter!” The old woman embraced her.
“I do not understand, madame,” Bertrande said, trying to push away.
Mme du Thil released her. “Arnaud is my son, my first born. You were his wife. He never told me he had married. I haven’t seen him since the fire, that would have been twelve years ago. Yes, Adrienne was just a child. Tell me, was he the same man knew?”
“I do not know, madame. He had been a mercenary in the war.”
“A mercenary! He did not support the king out of loyalty? He killed for money?”
“But he wasn’t really like that. He was so kind and gentle, I could hardly believe it was true. He was so kind when he told me of my first husband’s death.”
“Yes. He had not been home for several years, and when Arnaud came with news of his death, the village encouraged me to remarry. They did not like it that I had chosen a stranger, but he was Catholic and a good man, so they deigned to approve. I loved him very much, and he loved me. I wish he could have seen Bernarde,” she finished, bouncing the baby a little in her arms. “I am sorry, madame. This must be hard for you, seeing his daughter and knowing that he will not be coming.”
“Knowing that he is dead, yes, that is difficult, but it is not hard at all to see you, child. Bertrande. You have no relations?” Bertrande shook her head. “Then you and the child must stay here with us.”
“Madame, I cannot. I have no blood family left, but my family is out there in your parlour. I must protect them.”
“But what of Adrienne and I? We are your family, too. Think about it. We will discuss the matter in the morning. Now you must eat. Adrienne!” she called. “Get this pot, will you?”
Adrienne limped in, and for the first time, Bertrande could see that she was a cripple like Benoit. “No, please, let me get it. Would you hold my baby, mademoiselle?” Adrienne was astonished that someone was helping her. She took the baby without a sound as Bertrande skillfully manipulated the pot hook so the heavy iron cauldron was off the fire and in easy reach. Without being asked, she started to ladle soup into trenchers. Adrienne carried them one at a time to the table, while her mother brought in several loaves of bread. It must have been Mme du Thil’s baking day. Thankful for the work and prospect of returning to her friends, for the evening had taken a strange turn, Bertrande hurried to finish. The meal was slow and quiet. After a few comments made for the sake of politeness, everyone turned their attention to the food and said nothing. “Madame, I thank you for your hospitality,” Bertrande said after the meal was concluded.
“How could I let you starve? Come, off to bed with you. Adrienne will show you the barn.”
Adrienne led the small party to the barn, where she expertly climbed the ladder to the loft and helped pull the littlest children up. “Well, it’s all yours for the night.”
“She treats you terribly, does she not?”
“Not terribly. She’s always treated me like this. If she didn’t love me, I’d have been turned out of the house, I’m sure.” Adrienne was not bothered by her mother’s conduct. She was accustomed to acting as a servant. “Have you thought about it?”
“I need tonight to think.”
“I’ll see you in the morning then. Goodnight!” Adrienne climbed back down the ladder. The party could hear her sabots as she limped across the wooden floor and closed the door with a bang.
“What was that about?” Catherine asked.
“The old woman is Arnaud’s mother.”
“She wishes that Bernarde and I stay here with her. I do not know what to do. I do not like the woman, and she is certainly Catholic, and I do not know if I could bear living here. But if I leave, I will desert Adrienne. Her mother treats her as a servant. Perhaps I could help her just a little. But if I stay, I desert you, and you need me as much as Adrienne.”
“Family is important.”
“But you are my family, too.”
“Then do what is in your heart.”
Morning crept over the sleeping barn. André was the first to wake, out of habit from years on the farm. He rolled over in the straw. The gently motion shook Bertrande out of her light and restless slumber. “André,” she whispered, “could you get along without me?”
“I’m not sure how, but we’d find a way. Don’t worry about us.” Catherine had told him about Bertrande’s dilemma.
“That’s what I thought. That you wouldn’t know how. We must wake the others. It is time for us all to move on.” She and André brushed the straw from their clothes and gently woke the other adults. “You are my family, Catherine,” Bertrande told her friend as she woke her.
“You will come with us?”
“As soon as I say goodbye to Adrienne.”
“Tell her we will always keep her in our prayers.”
“I will.” Bertrande smoothed her hair and climbed down the ladder. She found herself face to face with Adrienne, who was getting ready to do the milking. “Oh, good morning.”
“Good morning. You’re not staying, are you?” Adrienne could tell from the look on Bertrande’s face.
“I can’t. Too many other people need me. I must go. But you will always be in my prayers. It is the least I can do. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too.” Adrienne’s eyes filled with tears. “You are the closest thing to a friend I’ve ever had.”
“Take care of your mother. Don’t let her push you too hard. And tell her that I must go with my family. Arnaud would have wanted it.”
Adrienne nodded. “You are Protestants, aren’t you?”
“How did you know?”
“I hear rumours from the farmhands. The Royal Army burns Protestants out all the time, but the Protestants don’t burn the Catholics nearly as much. My mother doesn’t know. I promise, I won’t tell anyone. But you had better leave now. My brother became a Protestant, didn’t he?”
“Yes, he did.”
“Then I know that Protestants are good people. Must we say goodbye?”
“We must. Adieu.” Bertrande kissed Adrienne on both cheeks.
Sobbing, Adrienne returned the kisses. “Adieu. May God be with you, ma soeur.”
“May He be with you, la mienne.”
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