Christine had warned her but Berthe did not believe it was possible. More accurately she rebelled against the very idea it was possible with every fibre of her being. Christine said so many things just behind the cotton spinning factory in the tiny lean-to in the inky darkness after daily work in the mill ended at 10pm or so and before exhaustion led to cold sleep. Berthe could not remember most of Christine’s mindless daily chatter, but what was said two nights ago cut Berthe to the quick.
“There is a boy out there, a flame, a sweetheart for everyone – even you Berthe Bovary. You do everything you can to repel male attention.”
“You have deliberately let yourself go and allow yourself to smell worse than a pig sty. I am the last person in the factory who can stand to be near you.”
“You put about those silly stories yourself that you have an infection in your female parts and of course because of your mother everyone in Yonville believes it to be true. Like mother, like daughter they all say and you revel in the rumour.”
“You do everything in your power to frighten away boys and men. Mark my words Berthe you will fail, there is a boy out there who will sweep you off your feet.”
Christine was so cruel, Berthe thought. She knew Berthe’s history, the sorry tale of her mother’s indiscretions, the suicide, the decline and death of her dear papa and her own descent to a living hell and slavery in this monstrous cotton spinning factory. All Berthe wanted in what passed for meagre existence over the past year was to ensure she never repeated the mistakes made by her mother. She wanted Yonville to forget that she even existed.
Christine’s notion that there was a temptation out there that could force Berthe to surrender her anonymity in a heart-beat and start to travel down her mother’s path utterly repelled her.
Yet this morning, while she was attempting to fix a snagged yarn beneath a whirring spinning jenny she saw just four metres away three pairs of black shining boots and six expensively stockinged legs. A view of who owned those legs was obscured by the mass of whirring, clanking machinery above her.
She could just hear male voices above the clanking din of the machinery. One voice she recognised was that of the much-hated owner of the spinning mill, Monsieur Dupain. Normally Dupain would be barking out orders, bullying all and sundry, total lord of his domain.
Berthe could make out a second male voice speaking with a curious accent. Surprisingly the second voice by its strength seemed to indicate that the man who owned it held power over Dupain.
Berthe could only make out occasional words. “bigger profit” and “in London not Paris” and “ship via St. Helier”. Curiosity got the better of her. She wanted to see who these men were who could cow Dupain into simpering agreement.
She worked her way on her belly across the black, greasy floor beneath the machinery to a point where she could just see and hoped the she herself could not be seen. The man who had been doing most of the talking was a richly-dressed large bull of a man. His companion was not so much a man, more a youth. There were some similarities in features between the two. Almost certainly he was the bigger man’s son. He was equally richly-dressed but was slighter in build. When Berthe gained a better view of his face she let out an involuntary gasp. She had never seen a more perfect, angelic male face.
The youth must have sensed he was being watched and he looked down to the base of the machinery nearby. His eyes locked with Berthe’s wide-eyed upward gaze. He smiled and winked and then looked away and pretended to be engaged in the conversation between his father and Dupain.
That night when Berthe returned to the lean-to, even though she was still angry with Christine, she related what she had seen and heard in the factory, although failed to mention that her heart had missed a beat or three in the encounter.
“Are you sure you heard St.Helier?” quizzed Christine. “St Helier is a town in Jersey just off the coast from Barneville-Cateret where I lived as a child”.
“Strange place Jersey, so near to Normandy but it is part of England. They all speak French too but with a funny accent”.
“We used to see many Jersey sailors in Barneville-Cateret. All up to no good, looking to take bargain-priced French goods to Jersey and on to England.”
“Do you think that is what Dupain is up to? Looking for a way to ship cheap cotton yarn to London and beat the English cotton mills at their own game?”
Berthe was barely listening. She was dreaming of her Jersey boy.
Christine was still seething as she walked through the square in the fading afternoon sun. It was their half-day off and she thought Berthe might have shown just a little gratitude that she’d forgone a picnic with her cousins to give Berthe a good tub. Admittedly, she’d taken her by surprise but that was no reason for her to act like a wildcat.
“Stupid, sullen, stubborn,” she muttered as she inspected her scratches and bruises. Well, she’d given as good as she got, and she’d left Berthe huddled naked on the wet floor sulking and shivering, as well as shiny pink from the rough scrubbing she’d received.
With all the splashing and flailing, the tin washtub had been almost emptied but, just for good measure, Christine had lifted it and poured the last of the water over the snivelling wretch, setting off a further round of wailing. “Just the final rinse,” Christine laughed as she handed Berthe a white linen bedsheet to dry herself off.
“Where did you get this?” Berthe scowled at the unaccustomed finery, but Christine’s reply was just a short laugh and a tap on the side of her nose.
Berthe hadn’t even smiled, she’d been determined to keep the bad mood going. “Who put you in charge anyway?” she sneered.
Christine had shaken her head. “Well, while your dear family wrung their hands and sighed about their lack of money, my family always knew how to get what they needed. It’s time you started to think, my girl. You don’t know how lucky you are. You learned to read and write, you can play the piano a bit, you can draw a bit, you can stitch and embroider. You could make something of yourself. Do you want to be stuck in a cotton mill all your life?”
Berthe had never given any real thought to the future – what could she do about it after all? She wouldn’t know how to change things even if she thought she should. As a child she knew it was important to appear respectable and keep out of the way. After her father died she’d sometimes daydreamed that some unknown wealthy member of the family might turn up from nowhere and rescue her. Well, that never happened. And the last few days she’d frightened herself with fantasies about that handsome boy who’d winked at her at the mill. Huh, a boy smiles at her and the world turns upside-down. Is that how it was with her mother too? Stupid!
Berthe had tuned out as Christine’s voice shrilled on, but when she caught the words “And don’t go thinking some fairy-tale prince will come along and carry you off,” for a second she wondered if Christine could read her mind.
Tempers were short and Christine was at the end of her patience so, rather than risk another clash, she decided to take a walk to clear her head and let things cool off. The conversation Berthe had overheard in the mill had sparked all sorts of wild ideas and she needed a little peace to think them through. She’d wandered further than she’d intended and dusk was falling as she walked back along Rue Brulee. There were lights in some of the big farmhouses and she noted that washing was still hanging on the line in one far courtyard that backed onto the lane.
“Well, well, sweet little Yvette will be in for it when Madame Vache realises,” she grinned and her mood lightened. She never could stay angry for long, something fortuitous always came along to make her smile. And, she told herself with a nod of her head, I will not be angry even if Berthe is still draped in a wet towel when I get back. But that wasn’t the case. The sheet was hanging over the fence to dry and Berthe had combed her hair. Since Christine had torn Berthe’s filthy frock off her and thrown it away, and she didn’t have another one, she’d helped herself to Christine’s third-best frock, the one that would be her next work dress. It would serve Christine right.
“It is your lucky day,” Christine grinned as she handed Berthe a tightly folded fabric parcel. “Two new dresses in one day.”
Berthe’s eyes widened as she shook it out. “This looks like the dress Madame Vache was wearing at the fete last month,” she said hesitantly. “You take me for a fool, trying to make trouble for me with that old cow.”
“Well, she’ll never see you wearing it in Yonville,” laughed Christine. “You can say that this is your going-away dress. You will turn heads in it when we arrive in St Helier. Practise your farewells to Monsieur Dupain and the good gentry of Yonville, my girl. We’re heading to Jersey – but first we need to get our hands on a bit of money.”
When Monsieur Bovary had died and young Berthe had been sent to her grandmother’s house, Monsieur Rodolphe Boulanger of La Huchette had breathed a huge sigh of relief. He had grieved for the loss of his lover, Madame Bovary, and he had felt sorry for her husband, but Berthe was another matter.
Berthe had many a time seen her mother beating a path across the meadow to the door of Rodolphe’s house and then seen the lightness of her heart on her return – it seemed like her mother had been recharged during her visits. She had heard the servants whispering about “the ball” where it all started: a taste of the high life; a taste of the raw passion that a man like Rodolphe could deliver; and how that taste developed into a never-ending hunger.
As for Rodolphe, he always suspected a familiarity with young Berthe: the eyes; the hair; the shape of her nose…..was she or wasn’t she? He fondly remembered the chance encounter in the antechamber adjoining the ballroom in the Marquis d’Andervilliers’ residence, Vaubyessard. Rodolphe was there, alone, reflectively drawing on a cheroot, when a wild-eyed Emma Bovary entered the room with her bosom heaving from the exertion of dancing. The glistening sweat on her breasts accentuated her desirability and she, inexplicably, was drawn to him like a moth to a candle. Panting like animals, they de-panted only to the extent to allow conjugation. The thrusting through her rustling petticoats was brief but satisfying for both but the arrival in the room of another guest had them feigning a serious discussion and a parting of their ways.
Madame Bovary had never suggested anything but Rodolphe’s relief was palpable when he saw Berthe’s carriage leaving Yonville. Little did Rodolphe know that Emma had named Berthe after hearing the Marchioness at the Chateau of Vaubyessard call a young lady, Berthe.
On hearing Christine say “but first we need to get our hands on a bit of money”, Berthe immediately equated money with men and her natural thought was a man who owed; a man who had taken and not given; a man whose conscience was afflicted by a deep personal debt.
Opening the front door to the delicate knock, Rodolphe was taken aback. The young beauty before him stirred his innate want as so many who had come and gone before. But this one was different: he could see Madame Bovary in her but with more years under her belt, he could see himself. He hustled the two young ladies into the drawing room and sat them down calling for tea.
“So lovely to see you Berthe. You must introduce your friend.”
Hearing Berthe say Christine’s name, his upbringing and practised routine kicked in and he rose to stand before Christine and, with his left hand behind his back, he bowed forward seeking her hand and raised it to his lips. “Impressive indeed”, thought Christine, but it was the eyes that did it for her: he made eye contact across the top of her hand and a frisson of excitement ran up her spine. Rodolphe sensed her excitement and filed it away for another time, saying: “Ma plaisir Christine, enchanté”.
Having returned to his seat, he turned to Berthe. “So, my dear, how can I help you?”
“Christine and I are planning a little trip – an investment in our future you could call it”, explained Berthe with the hint of a smile.
“And where, might I ask, will you travel to?” enquired Rodolphe.
“Jersey is our destination, Sir. The thing is, it takes money to undertake such a trip and in that commodity we are lacking.”
“I see”, mused Rodolphe, beginning to see the advantage of Berthe being away from the prying eyes of all and sundry in Yonville.
“So, if you had the money, when would you plan on going?” enquired Rodolphe.
“We’re ready to leave almost immediately” enthused Berthe, “we must strike while the iron is hot, as the blacksmith would say.”
“And, the advantage for me parting with my money?” asked Rodolphe as one who was inured to the enjoyment of such an activity.
“Let’s just say it’s a down payment on your future prosperity” said Berthe as she warmed to the feeling of having the upper hand for a change.
Reaching for the drawer under his desk, Rodolphe slid an envelope across the table. “Here’s 200 francs to assist your venture” said Rodolphe looking directly at Berthe.
Holding Rodolphe’s gaze without blinking, Berthe said: “Your future is looking good but it could be better.”
Christine held her breath, looking back and forth at their faces. Then a smile creased her look of amazement as Rodolphe once again reached for the drawer.
Berthe and Christine were jolted as the stagecoach lurched along the rough gravel road, uneven and full of potholes. The boat trip from Barneville-Cateret to Jersey only takes two leisurely hours but the stagecoach ride from Yonville to Barneville-Cateret takes seven days of torturous travel. The two women were remarkably cheerful and chatted with the other four passengers, one elderly couple and two friendly middle-aged men.
Rodolphe had proved to be most generous and now the two women each had almost 200 francs hidden inside their petticoats in secret pockets. Christine was impressed with the temerity of Berthe asking Rodolphe for more money after his initial offer. It was audacious but it had worked and Christine knew at that moment that Berthe would never have the same problems that her mother had suffered from all those years – that of being taken advantage of by the opposite sex. Emma Bovary would have been proud of her daughter.
The elderly couple became quite protective of the two attractive young women and ensured that they were treated with respect by the hotel keepers at each overnight stop. There is obvious risk and danger for unaccompanied young women travelling long distances and staying in somewhat dubious accommodation along the way. On their second night of travel they stayed in an old hotel opposite the famous Rouen Cathedral which they could see from their bedroom window on the first floor. At midnight they were awakened by a drunk intruder who climbed into bed with Christine and started to grope at her night-dress. Berthe sprang out of bed, grabbed the empty chamber-pot and smashed it as hard as she could on the invader’s head knocking him completely unconscious. They unceremoniously dragged the unfortunate man to the open window, picked him up and dispatched him to the cobble stones below.
“Don’t mess with us” yelled Christine to anyone who happened to be in the near vicinity at that late hour, before locking the window securely and returning to bed, still shaking. The two women eventually got off to sleep but were rudely awakened at about 6am by the inn-keeper who banged on the door and said “Breakfast time. Coach leaves at 7.” Dragging themselves out of bed they changed into their clothes, packed up and were quickly downstairs ready to eat. There was unlimited crusty bread, strong black coffee and a few pieces of fruit – more than enough to satisfy their hunger. They were amused to hear people talking about a seriously injured drunk who had been found on the cobble stones outside the hotel and taken off to hospital in the early hours of the morning. “C’est la vie” said Christine to Bethe who started giggling and who whispered “Just as well the chamber pot was empty” before they both erupted in laughter.
For the next stage of their long journey they were disappointed to find that not only was there was a change of coach but also the passengers were completely new. There were two young priests and two cherub-faced choir boys who were all travelling to their new post at Caen Cathedral to stay in the nearby monastery. They were due to perform at high mass on Sunday and so they practiced their Gregorian chants and harmonious hymns along the way. Both Christine and Berthe did not like religion but were entranced by the beauty of the harmony and melodies from these four superb singers and the two travel days went in a flash. When they all bid their farewells upon arrival in Caen everyone was a bit sad before going their own way.
The final leg of this long journey to Barneville-Cateret was in a smaller coach with only two horses instead of the usual four. There were only two other passengers who were well-dressed businessmen who talked non-stop about French wines and liquor, the prices, the supply, the storage, and transport. It turned out that they were also travelling to Jersey and Berthe thought to herself that this may somehow be fortuitous.
Suddenly the coach lurched, there was a loud crunching noise and the whole world turned upside down. One of the timber-spoked wheels had hit a huge pothole and smashed, tipping the top-heavy coach onto its side. The older of the businessmen banged his head on the side of the timber door and blood trickled down his face. Christine and Berthe were unharmed and quickly used one of their petticoats to wipe away the blood of the injured man. He did not look well and Christine cradled his head in her lap while the other businessman climbed out the other door to inspect the damage. The coach driver and horses were amazingly unharmed but visibly upset and shaking. An empty coach going in the opposite direction stopped to help and eventually took them all back to the small village of Bayeux to stay until their coach was repaired.
The time taken to repair the coach wheel was dragging on. The small cooper in Bayeux doubled as the town’s only wheelwright, but Henri the master cooper made it plain that making barrels would always occupy his attention before getting around to repairing broken wheels – if time permitted.
It seemed that time rarely permitted. Whenever Henri completed one of his cherished barrels the customer was usually one of the local cider or calvados producers who would pay Henri in kind. Henri would always need to sample the payment usually in friendly and increasingly drunken reverie with his customer.
Berthe, Christine and the two businessmen took it in turns to visit the cooper’s workshop each afternoon to check on progress fixing the wheel and were increasingly dismayed to find that there had been none. The wheel still reposed in shattered parts on the workshop floor while Henri by late afternoon was either singing drunkenly with a customer or passed out in a corner.
If Bayeux had been a lively town being forced to stay there would not have seemed so bad. Although on the face of it, Bayeux was a pretty medieval town with an imposing cathedral and an interesting and very long tapestry telling the tale of William of Normandy’s conquest of England, the townspeople were boringly provincial and like Henri were addicted to the locally fermented cider and worse the highly alcoholic apple calvados.
Christine and Berthe had been encouraged by everyone they met to see the tapestry in the cathedral, which they had three times for the want of anything better to do. On their third viewing Christine whispered to Berthe, “I will scream if another person comes up to us and regales us with the tale of William’s victory and how Normandy should still rule England and if not Normandy the Norman Channel Islands should rule England not the other way around. We have to get out of this town, Berthe, before we go mad”.
The two businessmen were not making the stay in Bayeux any easier to bare. They talked incessantly about the prices of wine in France and Jersey and how if they delayed any longer in Bayeux the big price gap between the low price in France and the much higher price in Jersey might already have closed if a large supply had arrived in St. Helier. Berthe was uninterested in most of the businessmen’s conversation except when it turned to profit and making money. If only her mother had plenty of money and no need of expensive loans possibly the lives of her mother, father and herself might have been better.
Berthe knew that money mattered. She cherished the small but diminishing stash of gold and silver coins hidden in her petticoats. She must find a way to replenish the stash. Better still she must find a way to make it grow until she was financially secure, an independent woman of means who could live her life as she saw fit. Although not too independent. Part of the way she wanted to live her life was with the gorgeous boy from Jersey she had barely glimpsed.
Berthe’s happy daydream of piles of money with herself and the boy from Jersey perched on top of it in a passionate embrace was rudely interrupted by Christine nudging her in the ribs and saying “Let’s get out of here, Berthe, and go and see if that drunken sot Henri has made any progress”.
It was not much past midday when Berthe and Christine arrived at Henri’s workshop. They thought they had a good chance of finding Henri sober at that time of day but were dismayed to see that Henri was already drinking with a customer.
“Henri” the customer shouted “introduce me to your two pretty friends”.
“They are not my friends” Henri slurred “they are customers pestering me for that”. Henri gesticulated at the broken pieces of the wheel on the floor.
Henri’s drinking companion eyed Berthe and Christine appreciatively. “Forgive my appalling manners, my name is Auguste, master calvados distiller, at your service”.
The conversation progressed warily at first between Berthe, Christine and Auguste. They were gaining too much experience of men seeking to take advantage. As the conversation progressed wariness was interrupted by opportunity. Auguste regularly shipped barrels of calvados to Barneville-Cateret and another cartload was due to leave tomorrow on the two-day trip.
“How big is your cart, monsieur”, asked Berthe? “Could it accommodate two passengers”?
Auguste eyed the two young women and stroked his stubbly chin with his hand as if in deep thought.
“It could” he said thoughtfully “perhaps for 10 francs each”.
“That is a lot to ask, monsieur”, responded Berthe.
“Then perhaps we could come to some other arrangement”, replied Auguste with a twinkle in his eye.