by Graham B.
A tavern owner struggles amid political upheaval in 17th-century France.
|Voices raised in heated argument still echoed outside in the twilight even after Luc dragged the last of the brawlers out of the tavern. Anton shook his balding head as he righted the chairs and tables and set about cleaning up the broken crockery and scattered silverware. In all, it could have been worse. One of the bloody Huguenots could have been killed in Anton’s tavern, all because he was too drunk to notice the company he was in when he opened his stupid mouth!
A hulking brute of a man entered the front door. It was Luc, brushing his hands together.
“Any more troubles, Luc?”
“No. Everything’s fine.” Luc began helping the old man with the mess, immensely speeding up the process. For the thousandth time, Anton wondered what he ever would have done without Luc.
“We cannot afford any more of these fights here,” Anton said, trying to salvage some undamaged dishes. “Times are hard since those wars. Why can’t those damned religious zealots leave each other alone?”
It was Luc’s turn to shake his head, looking irritated at Anton’s words. He casually righted a heavy oak table with a flick of his left arm.
“I don’t know, boss. They feel strongly about such things. I guess it is difficult to hold back their passions.”
“I’ve been seeing more and more of these Protestants, heading toward the coast. The country no longer tolerates them, eh?”
Luc didn’t answer. He began cleaning the table tops. Anton would not close the tavern, for it needed every hour of patronage it could draw to make ends meet
Despite, everything, the old man welcomed the traffic passing through Nantes. Soldiers moving to the ports for overseas troop movements, merchants plying their trade up and down the Loire, and increasingly, Huguenots, displaced by civil wars and political upheavals fleeing to the coast increasingly made up his clientele. Anton welcomed them all, for their francs, despite their Catholic images and inscriptions, cared not a whit how they were spent.
The two men finished cleaning up, leaving Elise to continue preparing the kitchen for the next round of customers. As the light faded, Anton lit more tallow candles, which sent plumes of smoke into the already blackened rafters. Whale oil had become scarce of late. Luc opened some windows to let in the cool night air.
Anton was setting the tables when a tall man, dressed in rich, deep blue entered the tavern.
“Bonsoir. Ca va?”
“Eh, bien. Are you open for business?”
“Mais si! Come in, monsieur. Have a seat. What can I get you?”
As the man sat, Anton took in the man’s appearance. He was tall, almost lanky but with an air of gravity about him which seemed to command deference. His hair was black going to gray, and he looked to be about fifty. His blue eyes twinkled as he kicked an ornate and rather old sword from behind his legs and sat facing the front door. Anton noticed that he wore a white sash across the expensive-looking fabric of his blouse. Odd.
“A good house white will do nicely for a start,” the man said amiably. He rested a hand on the pommel of his sword and leaned the chair back.
“Of course! Right away.”
Anton headed toward the cellar for the wine, thoroughly intrigued by the stranger. When he returned, bottle in hand, he was somewhat surprised to see Luc towering over the man as they chatted. They both laughed heartily at a joke Anton didn’t hear.
Anton intercepted him on his way to the kitchen.
“Do you know that man?”
Luc shook his head.
“We only just met, but he wears the sash of an officer who fought at Montpellier – on the Protestant side.”
Anton almost spat, and remembered that he was standing inside his establishment. Luc read his expression and regarded him sourly.
“The Protestants fought bravely, monsieur. They were forced into the treaty by necessity."
“Or sheer cowardice,” Anton retorted. He turned and stepped quickly toward the waiting customer’s table before Luc could reply.
“Your wine, monsieur,” Anton said cordially, if a bit coldly. Despite his distaste for the Huguenot, he could not break his code of hospitality, and he poured the wine.
The man seemed to read Anton’s mood, and looked at him almost sadly. “Thank you, sir. I’m sure it is a fine vintage.”
Anton didn’t answer, but stalked away, joining the pensive Luc in the kitchen.
“Look at how smug that bloody heretic is! I am sure he is insulting us behind his polite platitudes. Luc, keep an eye on him. He may start trouble.”
“He does not strike me as a trouble-maker, boss.
“That’s what they all are! Damned heretics! Mierde!”
Anton’s eyes widened in outrage. For a few seconds, he looked like he would strike the much larger and younger man. Elise watched the two men anxiously from behind a mixing bowl.
“Don’t you dare talk to me about Marie!” Anton growled. “She was beguiled, led astray! How can you compare her to the likes of-“
“Yet, it took you by surprise, did it not?”
Anton bared his teeth.
“I knew her! Someone beguiled her! She would never – "
“You did not know her as well as you think. And why was her conversion such an evil thing? Even after it happened, she was the same woman she was before you drove her from your home with your brutal words!”
Anton looked bleak.
“I – I loved her. More than my own life. Worse than losing her was losing her in that way. But I did know her, more than you know.”
“Like you know me?”
Anton’s eyes narrowed in puzzlement.
“Would it surprise you to know that I am also a Protestant?” Luc went on, a mixture of anxiety and relief playing across his broad features.
Anton looked like he had been struck by lightning.
“You! No, it couldn’t be!”
“Anton, it’s me! You have known me for fifteen years! How have things changed, now that you know?”
Anton was shaking his head.
“You! A heretic!”
“I am a Christian man, a follower of the Lord Jesus, just like you, Anton. You must not . . .”
“Get out!” Anton roared. “Out!”
He grabbed a meat cleaver from a nearby rack. Luc stared back at him, more in surprise than fear. After a moment, he turned and left the kitchen.
Shaking with anger, Anton slowly lowered the cleaver back to the chopping block and stood there, memories flooding over him like the tide. They were a jumble: a destitute Luc entering the tavern with his wife in tow; the rising string of fights broken up in his establishment as the Catholics and Protestants went increasingly at each other’s throats; Marie, casting her crucifix away and walking out the door.
Elise crept up to Anton, imploring him with her wide blue eyes.
“Monsieur? Are you all right?”
Anton pulled himself out of the trance. He realized that his breathing had returned to normal, and his rage had subsided, leaving only hollowness inside. He looked sadly back at Elise and nodded.
“Oui, d’accord. Go get more wine for the tables. I hear more customers.”
Elise scurried away to the cellar.
Anton wearily headed back to the dining room to see to his clientele.
The noise in the tavern had grown raucous as the customers filled the place up and drank the night away. It was just past midnight when a small group of musketeers in rather dirty scarlet uniforms entered the tavern, their swords clanking noisily as they staggered inside. It was obvious that they had already come from another tavern, and had probably been thrown out. Anton wished for Luc.
The shortest musketeer, probably the leader of the group, grabbed a tankard from the nearest table and raised it high.
“Attention, tout! I have brought with me a dispatch from the Royal Guard in Paris!” he slurred. The man paused while the tavern’s patrons quieted and looked on in curiosity. Anton noticed the man in blue who had entered earlier eyeing the musketeers. The Huguenot’s eyes glittered with something Anton did not like.
The inebriated musketeer continued.
“We are officially in mourning! The Chief Minister, our beloved holy man, and protector of France, his eminence Cardinal Richelieu has passed, and is now with God!”
The room immediately broke out in whispers, and Anton’s head spun. Was it true? Was the King’s right hand and the head of the Catholic Church in France really dead? The whispers rose to mutterings, and the musketeer brayed again.
“We are to mourn his passing, but also celebrate a life of service to the crown, and to France!”
He raised the tankard again.
“To his Eminence!”
“Indeed, I will drink to the passing of the Puppet Master!"
Startled, the musketeer looked around.
“Who said that? Who dares –“
The tall Huguenot stood, wine glass in hand, his eyes blazing.
“It was I! And I merely referred to the Cardinal by a more accurate title!”
“You dare to speak so of his Eminence!” sputtered the soldier. He took a step forward, and the patrons near him edged away as far as their chairs would allow. The other musketeers looked on, nonplussed.
“I dare to speak in way befitting a murderer and an usurper! And you, who scuttle beneath his robes and lick his boots deserve no better!”
The musketeer’s face whitened as the blood drained from it. The tankard crashed to the floor as he reached for his sword.
A massive paw engulfed the enraged musketeer’s sword hand. He whirled about, and stared almost straight up into Luc’s glowering face.
“You will sit down and be nice, eh monsieur?” Luc rumbled. He squeezed the musketeer’s hand for emphasis, and the man went even whiter before nodding in assent, the fight gone from him. The musketeers quickly took a table, far from the man in the white sash. Luc glared at him as well, and the Huguenot sat, quietly hiding his amusement.
Anton met Luc at the entrance to the kitchen, a tray of baguettes propped onto his left shoulder. At first, Luc said nothing.
“You came back.”
“Oui. How could I not?”
There was a pause as Anton searched his feelings and found and them churning in confusion.
“I figured that you would need to cool off, come to terms with what you know,” Luc said. His eyes searched Anton’s face for any expression at all and found only the same love of an old friend.
“About the cleaver,” Anton muttered.
“You could never hurt me, and I know it. I accept your apology.”
“I have so many things to say to you. . .”
“We must talk another time,” Anton continued, almost choking on his emotions. “As you just saw, the night is getting interesting.”
The men went back to work serving the patrons, with Elise cooking furiously in the kitchen.
There were no more incidents. Sometime during the night, the Protestant disappeared, leaving several francs on his table. Just before dawn, the customers began to thin, and the first rays painted the sky pink as the last client left staggering into the damp morning air.
Luc hauled a mountain of dirty crockery into the kitchen. Anton was cleaning the tables when a figure appeared in the door.
It was a woman, advanced in years with silver hair and careworn lines on her face, but her brown eyes were lively and bright.
“Anton,” she said.
Anton’s wiping rag fluttered to the floor.
Marie stepped toward him, a tentative smile on her face, and Anton’s heart leaped. For the first time in over a year, he felt joy coursing through him. He stepped toward her. That she wasn’t wearing her crucifix fleetingly registered in his consciousness and was quickly forgotten.
Anton stepped forward and took Marie into his arms.
Word count: 1991