A Hazy Shade of Winter
Despite the cold, Paris remains an active city. The annual fair opens at the Foire Saint-Germain, attracting artisans and merchants from across Europe to display their wares for the nobility and bourgeoisie of the French capital; the fair also attracts cutpurses and grifters who prey upong the moneyed crowd thronging the stalls of the Foire or watching the performances of a troupe of players.
Across town a new performance by the King’s Players opens at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, encouraging the nobility and the hoi polloi alike to brave the night chill for an evening’s entertainment.
Court gossip is all about the on-going negotiations with England for the marriage of madame de France to the Prince of Wales. The negotiations continue despite the failure of the Pope to agree to the terms of a dispensation permitting the Catholic princess to marry the Protestant prince. The English negotiators, the Earl of Carlisle and Lord Holland, continue to meet with their French counterparts, Villeauxclercs and the comte de Wardes, but the real curiosity at court is whether the dashing Duke of Buckingham will return to Paris soon.
Despite the winter the royal army is on campaign in Italy, led by the constable Lesdiguières, attacking the Republic of Genoa alongside the armies of the duke of Savoy; a Franco-Dutch squadron under the duc de Guise is readied to join them.
But news of the Italian campaign is eclipsed by word that the duc de Soubise, younger brother of the duc de Rohan, captured a French squadron in Bretagne and sailed the prizes to the Protestant stronghold of La Rochelle. The six galleons seized by the Huguenot privateer were leased by the admiral of France from the duc de Nevers’ Order of the Christian Militia, and there are rumors that both Montmorency and Nevers plan to take action against Soubise and the Rochellais.
Ensign Adrian Sannom hears these rumors, and more. The junior officer of a company of pikemen in the Picardy Regiment, Adrian hears the regiment may be marching on La Rochelle or Montauban, to battle Huguenot rebels, or perhaps joining the campaign in Italy, to fight the Spanish on the plains of Piedmont, or possibly even Flanders or the Empire. But while the rumors fly around the soldiers’ bivouac, no one knows with any certainty what the spring and summer will bring.
Adrian finds himself assigned to carry dispatches to Paris on behalf of the colonel, which he delivers dutifully to the Louvre; he is told to remain in Paris and to check in each day for return messages to his commander.
With time to himself in the glittering capital, the young ensign decides to pay a visit to the fair. Strolling among the artisans, treading on the wooden planks set above the ground to keep the ladies’ dresses from dragging in the mud, stopping to watch perfomers busking for the crowd, Adrian hears a woman’s gasp from behind an empty stall. He warily approaches, and spies a strange tableaux. Three men, bourgeoisie by their attire, confront a fourth man, older and more simply dressed in dark colors; one of the three holds the fourth man by the front of his coat as he presses a dagger against his throat. A pretty young woman stands nearby in mute horror.
Adrian steps forward and gently asks if he can be of assistance. The man with the dagger releases the older man, dropping him to the muddy ground, and turns to face the interloper, sneeringly ordering the young officer to stay out of a private affair. Both of the man’s companions glance about nervously, however. Adrian reminds them that guards patrol the grounds of the fair, but the sneering man is undeterred, drawing his rapier and again ordering the ensign away. The soldier holds his ground, however, and encouraged by his companions, the sneering man returns his sword and dagger to their scabbards, then purposefully walks over Adrian as the trio disappear into the throng.
Adrian approaches the older man as he picks himself up off the ground. Amid profuse thanks from the young woman, whom Adrian takes to be the older man’s daughter, the gentleman refuses further assistance in French heavily laden with what the soldier takes to be a Spanish accent. Twice rebuffed in his offers of assistance, Adrian watches as the pair quickly leave the grounds of the fair.
Asking around after lodgings, Ensign Adrian is referred to the auberge de Cheval-Blanc; he’s told it’s a ‘soldiers’ lodging,’ and arriving he learns that the inn was accurately represented. He’s immediately braced by the matronly bartender, a rough-looking woman who nonetheless gives him a warm greeting. She’s addressed as caporal-mère – ‘Corporal Mother’ – by the men, and offered the deference given to one of their own; Adrian learns that she served as a soldier for many years, disguising her gender until she was wounded severely enough to be treated by the barber-surgeon.
Reporting to the Louvre the next morning, Ensign Sannom learns that there are no dispatches to carry to his regiment, but he ia asked to carry a message to the hôtel de Sully, residence of the grand master of artillery. Adrian is received by an aide, who receives the dispatches. After inquiring a bit about Adrian, the aide asks if the ensign would mind carrying a personal message, an inquiry “on behalf of a friend,” to a woman he identifies as ‘madame de Bois-Tracy.’ Adrian agrees and attempts to deliver the message to an elegant townhouse in the Marais, but he it told by a liveried servant that madame is visting an estate in the country. Adrian returns and reports the servant’s claim; in gratitude the aide arranges for the young ensign to attend the play at the Hôtel de Bourgogne that evening.
Arriving at the theatre, Adrian discovers an odd sight: another troupe is staging a play on the street outside the theatre as some of the King’s Players loudly heckle them and are hectored by their rivals in turn between delivering their lines to the audience. The cold night air eventually drives most of the audience inside, but before the performance can begin, a gentlement knocks a serving boy to the ground over a spilled drink of warmed wine. Another chastises the gentleman wo dealt the buffet to the boy and soon traded insults give way to pushing and blows. Adrian attempts to break up the burgeoning brawl but receives a slap to the face for his troubles. He attempts to trip the offender, but receives a weak punch to the ear for his trouble. The soldier then deals a blow to the brawler which sends the latter reeling; the brawler reaches for his sword and for moment it appears that the brawl may escalate to bloodshed, but the duc of Guise and his party shout down the proceedings and amid cheers and catcalls the brawlers settle in to watch the performance. Afterward Adrian is approached by a pair of King’s Musketeers; one of them compliments him on the punch, adding with a smile, “You cost me coin. I bet on your opponent!”
Once again there are no dispatches for the regiment, but Adrian is once again sent to the hôtel de Sully. Another aide receives the dispatch, scans it, and asks the ensign to ride on to Vincennes, the royal fortress, to deliver a message to the governor. The winter wind whips as the officer rides out of the Porte Saint-Antoine, under the looming walls of the Bastille, and heads east toward Vincennes. Beyond Charonne he spots a shabby cart with a broken wheel on the edge of the road, attended by a man dressed more like a merchant than a drover. The driver dismisses Adrian’s offer of assistance; asked about the contents of the cart by the officer, the driver replies nervously , “Printing materials.” Apprently satisfied, the stolid and incurious ensign rides on, leaving the man and his mysterious cart to the elements.
Arriving at Vincennes, Adrian delivers his dispatch to the governor of the fortress, who orders the ensign to wait as he fashions his reply, and it is after dark that the governor orders to immediately return to Paris with the dispatch. The wind drops the temperature precipitously, and afraid for his life, Adrian seeks shelter in a tavern in Charonne. The keeper of the tavern suspects Adrian of coveting his wife, and attempts to club the officer with a truncheon, but the ensign whips out his sword and blocks the blow, sending the tavern keeper to hide like a cur and leaving Adrian to see to himself for the night. Early the next morning, he rides on to Paris; concerned that he may have delayed delivery of an important dispatch, he informs the staff officer of his situation; after quickly scanning the reply, the staff officer shrugs and replies that it was simply an ordinance inventory, and no harm was done. Adrian is also handed a sheaf of dispatches to return to his regiment.
Like all of the standing regiments not on campaign, the Picardy Regiment is quartered for the winter not in a barracks or fortress but rather on towns and villages. The regiment is dispersed among the villages around Saint Quentin, reduced in strength, but nonetheless the demands of keeping a company of soliders fed is taxing the countryside, particularly given the harsh winter. A week or so after Adrian’s return, his captain informs him that he is to lead a foraging party to scavenge what supplies they can from the surrounding villages.
Dispatched with four of his pikemen and a string of three mules, Ensign Sannom follows the valley of the Somme River. Amid bare trees and empty fields, the young officer speaks with priests and churchwardens, asking them for whatever they can spare, followed by the not-so-subtly implied threat that if he can’t get the supplies he needs, he’ll simply move his company into the village. But the tillers are struggling, too, as the ensign can plainly see around him.
Except in Arthem.
There’s a prosperous look to Arthem – the villagers don’t share the haggard look of their neighbors and what livestock don’t appear malnourished, unlike the soldiers’ own mules. But the priest of the parish church insists that their situation is no less dire than that of the other communities along the Somme, and while he wishes he could offer help, neither he nor the villagers can spare much. Adrian is not convinced; there’s something about the priest’s manner which suggests he is witholding something, but what that something is he cannot be sure.
Frustrated again, Ensign Sannom continues to move from village to village, receiving a few offers of some meagre rations. As they approach the town of Ham, the road dips into a riverside copse, where a fallen tree blocks the road. Adrian detects movement from behind some trees on one side of the road, and quickly deploys his mean into a skirmish line. Figures can be seen moving away through the trees, possibly with bows or spears in hand, yet unwilling for force a combination with the pikemen. Once sure that the figures present no threat to him or his men, Adrian leads the party on to Ham.
The governor of the royal castle in Ham, a veteran campaigner himself, commiserates with Ensign Adrian’s task, and arranges for a small amount of supplies, and puts up the soldiers for the night. The next morning, Adrian learns that the governor has assembled a troop from his garrison and the local nobles to ride out after the presumed bandits. After obtaining the offered supplies – grain and a cow – the ensign leads his men back to their bivouac.