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Madam Minister by celticbard
Chapter 24: Adieu, Adieu
Awesome graphic by laelia @ TDA
Disclaimer: I claim no ownership of Rowling’s work.
Chapter Twenty-Three Adieu, Adieu
‘Good night, sweet prince
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!’
--William Shakespeare, “Hamlet” Act V/Scene II
The sun was unwelcome. Sitting at one of the tables in the common room of the tavern near Maxime’s house, Artemisia stared out the open door. The landlady was hanging her laundry over the stone fence that separated her front yard from the road. The breeze was low and sweet and sounded like a child’s voice as it tickled the branches of the yew tree on the other side of the lane. A dog cantered in lazy circles around, scattering a flock of sparrows that had descended to feast on the few stale corn kernels the chickens had left behind after their breakfast. The landlady began to scold.
Artemisia felt a tear slide down her cheek. She could not admire the perfect placidity of the scene before her, repulsed as she was by the fresh morning air that reminded her more of spring than autumn. If she had been in London, she knew, the fog would be heavy on the Thames. It would rain until noon and when she left the Ministry in the evening, she would suppress the urge to take a cab and walk home with her shoes sloshing through the puddles in the gutter that never seemed to dry.
But it wasn’t sensible to miss the rain, Artemisia knew. Just as it wasn’t sensible for her to be there, sitting in a tavern in rural France while her father laid dead in her family’s ancestral home at Bath.
It must be a sin, she decided, to be such a wayward daughter.
Without thinking, Artemisia reached for the handkerchief she had stuffed into her coat pocket. It was a dainty piece of linen, the starchy whiteness of the cloth stained by more than a few guilty tears. Artemisia had been too young to remember her mother’s death and for that she was glad. It made no great difference in her life to have been deprived of the maternal succor all young girls cherished. In small ways she had missed her mother over the years, although the pain was usually mild and passed quickly. The same, of course, could not be said for her father. In the few short hours since learning of his death, Artemisia had experienced a deep, penetrating grief, an agony that left her tight-lipped and faint and unable to stand the sight of the buttery yellow sun.
She wanted it to rain. Desperately. She wanted the world to recognize what had happened and what she had lost. But Artemisia was beginning to understand, with the naivety of her youth laid aside, that the world almost never took notice of something as simple as death. She was alone in her sorrow. She was hopeless and helpless and heartbroken. She was a little girl again, the child that gladly climbed onto her father’s knee when she noticed that he had become too immersed in his botany books and needed her mischief to rouse him from his studies.
Artemisia’s mouth quivered and she squeezed her fingers over the handkerchief. The weight of her sadness had settled on her shoulders, her limp legs stretched out before her underneath the table. And she stayed seated like that, frozen, fearful that any quick or sharp movement might shake loose her howling grief and she would cry and cry and cry, the clarity of her sorrow heightened by the unforgiving light of the sun.
Artemisia fought the urge to bury her head in hands. She couldn’t let herself miss her father. Not yet.
Her view of the front yard was suddenly eclipsed by the appearance of a figure. Maxime stepped over the tavern threshold, clad in his traveling cloak and carrying a leather portmanteau in his right hand. He had a small tricorn jammed over his powdered hair. Artemisia guessed her husband looked much the same when he went about his lawyering, traveling the circuit in his province that he knew so well. He was all business now, smartly turned out in a dark green coat and a pair of tan breeches that his sister Charlotte had taken care to press yesterday evening.
Artemisia was surprised when she bristled at the thought of another woman handling her husband’s laundry. It was the wife and mistress of the household who held the keys to the linen cupboard and oversaw all the tedious domestic affairs that came with conjugal habitation. But she had never lived with Maxime during their marriage, and the notion provoked a fresh note of sourness within her. In so many ways, she had failed her husband and herself, the true role of wife eluding her even now, when she sought reconciliation.
Artemisia dropped her eyes to the table top as Maxime settled himself besides to her, storing his portmanteau carefully beneath his chair. She wasn’t certain how she should act just then, as her husband had never witnessed her in the depths of real grief before. True intimacy, it seemed, was not theirs…not yet, in any case.
Instinctively, Artemisia tightened her jaw, holding back the flood of tears that made her eyes burn. She ran her fingers along the rough grain of wood on the table’s surface. Her mind moved sluggishly and she tried to think of nothing, inviting an emptiness that would render her indifferent, if not numb.
Maxime shifted in his chair. Fussily, he plucked his gloves from his fingertips and laid them on his knee. “You don’t have to worry,” he said in a voice Artemisia assumed was meant to be reassuring. “I have seen to everything. I sent an owl off to my brother at school this morning. He knows to delay his holiday and not come home. Charlotte will tend to the house in my absence…as she always does. And I’ve told my clients not to expect me back for at least two weeks. Longer, if need be. I’m not concerned about time, Artemisia, though I suppose, hmm, I suppose timing is everything, isn’t it?”
His clean pragmatism came across as ghoulish to her, but then she remembered that Maxime himself was an orphan. Like her, he had had lost his mother first when he was child and his father only a few years later. Since adolescence, he had shouldered the responsibilities of the Rondelet household, relying on the charity of relatives to look after his younger siblings when he went off to study law at the college in Paris. Maxime was a veteran of melancholic drama. He was acquainted with grief, not frightened, not cowed by the awful power of sorrow that could lay waste to both body and mind. His immunity, however, was no comfort to Artemisia. She envied his ease, even as she searched for some method to mute her grief. Artemisia disliked careless emotion and she wanted to be rid of her sadness. But there was a paradox to it yet, her state of mourning. The longer she indulged her grief, the closer, perhaps, she would be to her father.
Maxime shifted again in his chair, agitated. He removed his spectacles and searched the glass for smudges.
“This is not what I was expecting,” Artemisia said suddenly, incensed at the fickleness of fortune, “this is not what I intended.”
Maxime frowned. For the first time, it appeared as though he did not know what to say.
“I wanted things to be different,” she continued to protest. In her mind, she imagined the first meeting between her husband and her family. Tarquin would be civil, cheerful even. He and Maxime would talk about lawyer’s work and find some common ground in their shared profession. Soon they would become very good friends, taking walks after dinner around the Lufkin estate, pipe smoke accompanying their youthful intellect. And her father, old Markham Lufkin, he would show his suspicions outright, judging the worth of his son-in-law like a piece of horseflesh, testing both his grip and his sincerity through a single handshake. It would take time before they all became a proper family. Comprises would be necessary, along with a fair bit of travel between Maxime’s home province in France and Artemisia’s estate in Bath. But they would set up house somewhere eventually, in England, she hoped. Children might follow and she would make her father a grandsire. And he would spoil the little ones, even though they were half-French. Tarquin would be godfather and the name of Rondelet would happily be listed on the Lufkin family tree, right beneath her parent’s branch…
Artemisia clenched her fingers into a fist. Outside on the road, the landlady’s dog was barking at a gaggle of geese. And there, right next to her, sat Maxime, turned out not for a homecoming, but a funeral.
There were so many ways for Artemisia to miss her father. It frightened her when she realized she had only tried a few of them.
“Here,” Maxime said, thrusting his lace-lined handkerchief under her nose.
Artemisia took it, minding how fresh the linen looked next to her own and admiring the embroidered monogram. Charlotte’s work, most likely.
“I am not going to weep,” she said, although she found it difficult to keep her lips pressed together and a certain heat had begun to build up behind her eyes. “I…I simply cannot abide the wait. It’s insensitive.”
She stood, pushing back her chair, the legs grinding against the stone floor which had been smoothed by the tread of so many feet and darkened by years of grime. The large fireplace in the common room was bare and cold. Artemisia looked longingly at the jar of Floo Powder sitting on the mantle.
Maxime followed our gaze. “You seem to forget that England is at war,” he noted. “Arranging for an international connection between your estate and my home province is very inconvenient at the moment. We are lucky you have friends in the British Ministry who could make quick work of all the tiresome details. But this will be a legal journey, I trust.” He tilted his head in her direction, his spectacles slipping down his nose.
Artemisia was surprised when she blushed. Her initial trip to visit Maxime had been slightly clandestine, as she had failed to log her sojourn to France in the Ministry’s international transportation records. Fortunately, she was not a spy and being an Auror allowed her a little more freedom of movement. It would not be quite so easy, however, to return to England with her French husband in tow. That required a bit of diplomatic maneuvering and Artemisia’s superior, Dick Hart, had been most obliging, considering the pressing circumstances.
“It shouldn’t take this long,” she muttered under her breath, using her boot heel to kick at the little tufts of ash that littered the hearth. She felt an uneasy weakness about the knees and leaned back against the table. Surprisingly enough, Maxime was on his feet, slinging an arm around her shoulders.
“I will not preach the virtues of patience to you,” he said with a wise nod that still managed to convey sympathy.
Artemisia frowned, all too aware of a new soreness that had settled deep into her chest like a bad bout of pneumonia. The English Channel, she knew, wasn’t the only barrier separating her from her father, and she wondered if she could ever truly go home again, or had her youth and childhood security at last been wrenched from her grasp? She was emerging onto the stage of adulthood to a cold audience and the world was all the more sharper for it now, the blunt edges of her naïve, younger years exposed to unkind reality. Somehow, she believed that Maxime had outstripped her maturity and had been waiting rather patiently for her to match strides with him over the course of their unstable marriage. But things had changed, in a small matter of time, and Artemisia found herself altered.
She was going home again, not as a child on holiday from Hogwarts, but as a married woman. An orphan. And an heiress to her parents’ better fortunes, which would have to be enough to sustain her in the coming years, when their memories alone couldn’t.
“I’m not impatient,” Artemisia admitted with a growing sense of dread. There was very little of her heart or spirit that wished to support her new existence, even if Maxime seemed fixed by her side.
Unconsciously, she leaned her head on his shoulder, the smooth fabric of his country lawyer’s coat soothing away the terrible ache in her head. She felt hot tears beneath her lids and the pressure to burst out weeping was potent, causing her lips to wobble. But she was saved the humiliation of sobbing outright when a fire burst to life in the dead hearth. The flames were green-hued and Artemisia’s heart soared for a brief instant, only to plummet back into her boots.
She was truly going home.
“A little belated, I’d say,” Maxime sniffed. He dropped his arm from around her shoulders and picked up his portmanteau. “I suppose you’ll want to go through first. Whoever is waiting on the other side might not expect to see me,” he added, pretending to arrange the cuffs of his coat.
For the first time, Artemisia heard a bit of anxiety creep into her husband’s voice. This journey, she knew, must be quite intimidating to him. It was one thing for him to meet her family in pleasant times, but all the constrained grief and sorrow of her situation put a bleak cast on the affair. She wondered how he managed to hold up under the tension and reminded herself to thank him once things were settled. There was more to being husband and wife than fickle love, she realized. Responsibility was also shackled to marriage, something Maxime had always been aware of, even when Artemisia was remiss.
“Fine,” she said, willing to agree to almost anything if it would get her back on English soil. Artemisia took a minute to gather herself, a fresh wave of hesitance seeping deep into her bones when she considered the sad scene she would most likely encounter on the other side of the grate. Pulling her luggage behind her, she stepped into the flames and announced her destination in a trembling voice.
“Lufkin Estate, Bath.”
The ensuing whirlwind was enough to knock her headache about between the temples. Half-blind, Artemisia groped through the chaotic darkness until she fell out of a familiar fireplace, the one in her father’s upstairs study.
She nearly tripped over the fire screen, which hadn’t been moved out of the way in time.
“Oh Miss Artemisia!”
She recognized the squeaky, watery voice at once. Sissy the house elf wrapped her small arms around Artemisia’s knees, hobbling her in a tight hug. Artemisia could feel Sissy’s tears through the fabric of her breeches and she annoyed by this sudden outburst of emotion. It sat ill with her own quiet grief.
“There now,” she said as she pried the house elf’s arms from around her legs. Fortunately, Sissy was soon distracted by the sound of Maxime arriving in the fireplace behind them. He stepped out of the hearth with surprising grace and brushed the Floo Powder from his coat.
Artemisia gaped when she caught sight of her husband standing in the midst of her father’s herbology books and the plant specimens he had hanging in frames at odd intervals along the walls. The spectacle seemed incongruent and surreal. Maxime didn’t belong in her fine English home. And in her heart of hearts, she knew and recognized that he was only just visiting.
The moment was awkward for both of them and Maxime sidled over to the window, the shutters half-closed and drawn against the panes.
“At least it isn’t raining,” he remarked drolly as a shaft of sunlight fell across his nose.
Artemisia’s her hands were shaking, so she put them to work, giving the weeping Sissy an affectionate but authoritative pat on her back.
“Please put Master Rondelet’s baggage in my room,” she directed. “And take my luggage as well.” She stopped short of asking the elf where her brother was…or her father, for that matter. It all seemed too dreadful to talk about, especially inside the silent space of her father’s study. The place was sacred now, very much like a memorial that she would walk past with bowed head and doffed hat. Artemisia knew that she was the Mistress of the House, but her confidence had been cracked by the insupportable weight of her sadness.
“Maxime, you had better go with Sissy,” she said out of the corner of her mouth, unable to open her lips too much for fear that she would let loose a sob. “I have to find Tarquin first. And we may have guests.”
“I suppose it would be improper for your French husband to run into any Lufkins without introduction,” Maxime said without a hint of malice or offense.
Artemisia nodded, her cheeks tinted with shame. “I only need a few minutes.”
“I’ll busy myself,” Maxime replied. He had taken hold of his portmanteau before Sissy could snatch it up. “Go ahead, I can find my way.”
Reluctantly, Artemisia took leave of her husband, creeping out into the corridor beyond her father’s study. The grand staircase ran perpendicular to the hallway and she stepped up to the railing, glancing over to the first floor foyer. Voices drifted up into rafters of Lufkin Estate, whispers that seemed magnified by the overwhelming stillness.
Artemisia spotted her brother Tarquin standing in the doorway of the parlor. He was dressed in black and speaking to her father’s solicitor and old friend, Octavius Greeley. She recognized Greeley’s conspicuous bald head and recounted his earlier denunciation of wigs as the most trifling objects. Her father had always appreciated Greeley’s homespun, sometimes earthy sensibilities. Both men were avid gardeners. Artemisia imagined that her father must have left his entire horticulture collection to him, and if he hadn’t, she would convince Tarquin to hand it over to him.
Today, Greeley was also dressed in black, although he had pinned a purple violet on his breast. Artemisia knew her father loved violets. He gave her a bouquet of the flowers tied together with a single yellow ribbon every year on her birthday. She had kept the ribbons in a bundle under her pillow as a child. She wondered if they were still there.
Artemisia decided to descend to the foyer to greet the men, but as she stepped down the stairs, her attention was captured by the arrangement of the drawing room on her right. Tarquin and Greeley had stepped into the parlor, their backs to her. Artemisia took one look at them and then walked into the drawing room. Her father’s casket was there, set up on a bier. There were flowers on the side tables. And the windows on the far side of the room had been opened, letting the sun shine on the closed lid of the coffin.
Artemisia started to cry.
Before she knew it, she was on her knees next to the casket, the blue silk skirt around the bier wrinkled as she knelt atop the carefully arranged folds. Memories of picnics were fresh in her mind, along with summers spent with dirty hands as she helped her father pot his plants. She remembered sitting on his lap when he comforted her after pet parakeet had escaped its cage and holding his hand as they made the trip down Diagon Alley to buy her first set of school robes. She recalled those twilit evenings spent on the veranda, when Artemisia snuck sips of claret out of his glass and he pretended not to notice. And she could still see, through the cloud of tears and memory, his familiar smile when she came home, when she grew up and grew away from him. The scent of violets had clung to him whenever she embraced him, her father loving his daugher, loving her always and now, even when she couldn’t stop loving him.
“Papa,” Artemisia muttered. She laid her hand flat against his casket. Her face was hot and sticky, the perfume of the flowers cloying. Dizzied, she tried to rise.
She saw Tarquin standing in the open door once she had gained her feet, Greeley behind him. Artemisia could have expected them, but she did not expect Maxime, who seemed to have followed her down from the second floor, unable to stay away, even though she had tried to push him from her.
Artemisia looked between her brother and her husband. She was lost for words. The two men were standing shoulder to shoulder, united by concern for her and oblivious to the strangeness of the situation.
Artemisia opened her mouth to try to explain. “Tarquin,” she began.
But her brother wouldn’t let her finish. He reached forward and took her hand in his, the smooth skin of his palm sliding over her sweaty, tear-drenched fingers and without a word, without a single word, he handed her over to Maxime.
Author’s Note: Yes, I’m back! I would like to thank all of my readers, for your patience and encouragement, and Beth especially, who inspired me to keep writing. Thank you all! I look forward to starting this journey again. Hope you’ll all come along for the ride! ^_^