Augustine is a bitter-sweet romance set against the rolling landscape and hilltop villages of southern France in the late 19th century. This novella is a prequel to the Alouette Trilogy and is available on Amazon Kindle. Read Chapter 1 below.
Chapter 1: Ambagnac, Southwest France, August 1880
The man’s fingers bit hard into my upper arm. I tried to pull away, but he held me fast. His breath stank of alcohol, and his grim smile revealed ill-matched teeth that tumbled over one another, like rocks on a hillside. My heart thumped against my ribs.
A tall, broad fellow approached. His face was carved and hard, like a statue’s.
“Hey, you! Didn’t you hear? Mademoiselle doesn’t want to dance.”
The drunkard let go of my arm and turned his unfocused gaze on the other man. The music had stopped, and a hush fell on the gathering. I glanced over at Berthe, whose cheeks glowed crimson in the light from the lanterns.
He spat on the dusty earth.
“You can have the scrawny cow if you want, friend. I’ve had better.”
A fist shot past my face, and I gasped at the crack of knuckle on bone. The man crumpled to the ground, moaning, his hands cupped around his nose.
“You bastard! You’ve broken it…”
My rescuer massaged his fingers while he watched his victim writhe in the dust.
“Which you richly deserved – friend. We treat ladies with respect here. Now get out before I break something else.”
The man struggled upright, scrabbled for his cap in the grass and wiped the red stream from his chin. He cast me a glance that made my blood run cold and stumbled away into the summer dusk.
For a few seconds, silence reigned, and then people tutted and muttered and shook their heads. A few patted the big man on the shoulder and nodded approval, while looking sideways at me. I wasn’t known in their village. The heat rose up my neck.
The cornemuse and the fiddles struck up, and couples took to the dance again on the threshing floor. The coloured lanterns swung in a gentle breeze, painting their faces.
We stood still and looked at each other while the bal resumed around us. My breathing slowed.
“Thank you, Monsieur.” My voice came out all shaky.
He touched his cap. “Nothing to thank me for, Mademoiselle. I’m sorry you were bothered. He’s not from around here. We have better manners.”
I rubbed the tender skin under my sleeve.
He frowned. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, it’s nothing,” I said. The physical hurt, anyway. The damage to my pride was much deeper.
He nodded and turned away. I looked down, cheeks on fire. My stomach turned over at the thought of what Mère and Père would say if they heard about this.
A hand tugged at my sleeve. Berthe’s eyes were mean little slits. No good expecting any sympathy from that quarter. Henri hovered in the background, letting Berthe deal with the situation, as ever.
“Well, here’s a fine thing,” she hissed. “Henri and I bring my little sister to the bal, and as soon as our backs are turned, men are fighting over her. Who’d have believed it?”
Little? I was a head taller than my sister, but she never let me forget she was two years older.
“It’s not my fault, Berthe. The man was a nuisance. He was drunk. I don’t know why he fixed on me, but I suppose all the other girls were taken. That other man saw him and came over.”
I peered over her head, but he wasn’t in sight, and the dusk was gathering.
Berthe sniffed. “I can imagine what Mère and Père would say if they knew you’d made such a spectacle of yourself.”
“I don’t think you’ll be telling them, though, will you? Not with your little secret.”
Berthe’s jaw dropped. She and Henri had been walking out and were engaged a few weeks before. In an unusual moment of weakness, she told me they had already gone to bed together. I couldn’t consider doing that before marriage. Now that would have given Mère and Père a reason to be upset! Call me scheming if you like, but I learned from an early age to arm myself against Berthe, or she would have ruled me completely. I didn’t always win, though. Far from it.
“Can’t we go home now, Berthe? I’m tired, and I’m not enjoying this.”
She gave a heavy sigh. “You always want to go home. Well, Henri and I are enjoying it, so you can wait a bit.”
She turned towards Henri, a smile already lighting up her face, banishing the expression she never let him see, at least not before they were married. He returned her grin, his eyes drinking her in while he put his arm around her waist, and they re-joined the dance.
I went and sat on one of the hard benches. My muslin dress caught on the splinters. Was it always going to be like this? Sitting out the dance while everyone else had a good time. I wasn’t an oil painting: tall and thin with a flat chest and a pale face. Not the sort of girl a man looks at twice, unlike Berthe, who was plump and pretty. I was hardly a girl, either, at twenty-three. My parents were afraid they’d have une vieille fille on their hands. Mère was always telling me to smile, make more of myself.
Berthe, on the other hand, could have married much earlier, and the countryside was strewn with the suitors she’d thrown by the wayside. But she chose to wait for the “right one”, as she called him. I couldn’t see the attraction of Henri, though. Oh, he was handsome enough in a solid kind of way, and he worked in a bank in Villefranche. For our parents, that made him a cut above the farmers who’d courted my sister. But I never felt there was much to Henri. He was lazy and easy-going and did what Berthe told him. Why hadn’t she chosen someone with more fire in him? She didn’t like competition. Maybe that was it.
I pulled stalks out of the grass and squashed them between my fingernails, trying to look as if I wanted to be sitting there on my own. Someone stopped in front of me. The tall man from earlier smiled down. He wore a dark waistcoat over his shirt and a spotted neckerchief.
He took off his cap, revealing a shock of thick black hair.
“I wondered if you’d like to dance, Mademoiselle?” He raised a hand. “It’s all right. I won’t be offended if you don’t.”
He was taking pity on me, but it would have been rude to refuse, especially after he’d saved me earlier.
“Thank you, Monsieur. I would.”
The gentle pressure of his hand on my back guided me to the dance floor. We slotted into the line of couples who danced a bourrée. The warmth of his hands passed into mine, and a tingling feeling spread through me. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbow. I tried to keep my gaze away from his solid forearms, covered with fine black hairs.
The lively music didn’t allow for much talking, but he kept his eyes on me while we danced. He was light on his feet for a big man. Our clogs sent up the dust in clouds from the dry threshing floor.
Once the bourrée was finished, I expected him to escort me back to the benches and say a polite goodbye. But he didn’t. When the fiddles struck up again, he kept hold of my hand and swept me into a slow waltz.
“That’s better,” he said. “Now we can talk. I’m Joseph Vernhes, by the way. What’s your name?”
It was only then I noticed the reddened knuckles of his left hand. I loosened my grip a little.
“Oh, your poor hand! Is it from punching that man?”
He grinned. “It looks worse than it is. But it’s a good thing I know how to land a punch.”
I frowned. Did he make a habit of hitting people?
Joseph must have guessed my thoughts. “Don’t worry. It doesn’t happen often. But I wasn’t going to stand by and let a lady be pestered. Especially when I’d been planning to ask you to dance myself.”
“I wasn’t addressing anyone else.”
Maybe it wasn’t just kindness. My lips parted in a smile.
“You should do that more often,” he said. “It suits you.”
My cheeks burned. Not sure how to answer, I kept quiet.
Berthe scowled at me as she and Henri glided past. I turned my head away, a flare of pleasure warming my body.
“Something to drink?” Joseph said, once the dance had finished.
Jugs of rough wine and trays of fouace cake were set out on trestle tables. Joseph handed me a glass. At home, we drank it well watered down, but that night I didn’t care. Even so, I took only small sips. The memory of the drunkard’s winey breath made me shudder.
“You’re not from here.”
“No,” I said. “I live in Saint-Félix. I came with my sister, Berthe, and her fiancé. They wanted to come.”
“And you didn’t?”
“Not really. I don’t much care for dances, but Mère said I should go with Berthe and Henri.”
His dark brown eyes crinkled at the edges. “I’m glad you did.”
I took a mouthful of wine. I wasn’t used to this kind of attention.
“Where do you live?” I said, to cover my awkwardness.
“Oh, here in Ambagnac. Well, not in the village, but at Les Imberts, on the hill.”
“You’re a farmer?”
He grimaced. “After a fashion. I rent a smallholding. I’d like a place of my own, but my father held it before me, and then he died, so I had to take it over and keep my mother and brothers.”
I gave him a sympathetic smile. Fate had dealt him bad luck. He was a good man to give up his own plans for his family’s sake.
“And now it’s just me,” he said twisting his lips. “Mère died last year. Gaston went off to be a soldier. And Didier’s an apprentice stonemason in Rodez.”
“It must be hard running the place on your own.”
“It is.” A cloud passed across his face, but his features brightened again. “One day things will be different. That’s enough talk of me. What about you?”
“There’s not much to tell. Younger daughter of the village blacksmith. And Mère is a dressmaker. I help her with her work. Berthe’s going to be married, so I’ll be left on my parents’ hands.”
I could have bitten my tongue. I was giving too much away, looking like a desperate spinster. Joseph didn’t say anything, but his dark eyes seemed to see into the core of me. He made me feel respected but uneasy at the same time.
I was willing the evening not to end but, of course, Berthe chose that moment to come up to us.
“Are you ready?” she said. “Henri and I want to leave now.”
My stomach sank.
She gave Joseph an expectant look, and I introduced them. Berthe turned on the charm with a broad smile. Joseph simply touched his cap. “Mademoiselle.”
I shook hands with him. “Good night. Thank you for the dances and for…”
“Good night, Augustine.”
He gave my hand a brief squeeze and turned away into the press of people. Something in me died a little.
“Who was he, anyway?”
I shrugged. “A local farmer. He asked me to dance.”
Berthe gave one of her scornful sniffs. “Yes, I saw.”
I tightened the shawl around my shoulders against the gathering chill and followed my sister to where Henri waited for us.
I was burning to know more about Joseph. But what did it matter? I wasn’t going to see him again, and he hadn’t suggested it.
Even so, he did say he was glad I came.
Copyright © Vanessa Couchman 2020. All rights reserved.