Rene stared at the lion-head crest of the garden gate. He ran his fingers over his father’s emblem, carved into every gate, and set in gold on every door.
Good God. Had it really been eight years since he’d passed through this very portal, on his way to exile? The manor was two stories of golden-hued stone, with numerous windows. Except for the smaller ones of the kitchen, each window was tall and narrow, set in carved archways and made of stained glass..a display of his father’s wealth. He felt a flood of emotion and memories wash over him as he searched out a particular window...one that had once been his own.
There, he thought. At that very spot. That is where I once looked out of a morning.
A footstep cracked the gravel behind him. He turned to find a young woman...a servant, judging from her clothing...who gasped at the sight of a stranger. Fearful she would cry out, he spoke softly and quickly.
“Do not fear. I mean no harm.”
Despite her size...she was slender and petite, and probably no older than twelve or thirteen...she was a bold girl. Picking up a branch, she held it defensively. Her eyes narrowed in anger. “How do I know you are not a madman or a criminal? Be gone, or I shall tell Master Louis to set the dogs upon you!”
He found her spirit amusing, and he couldn’t help but smile. To ease her mind, he gave a calm and gentle reply. “I know your master. I have come to see him.”
“If you know him, why do you not come to call at the front of the house?” she demanded. “Why do you take the garden path?”
“It was my favorite when I was a child. I suppose I was reminiscing.”
It seemed she was still uncertain, even though she lowered her weapon. She looked him over, as though she needed further convincing. She needed to be charmed. He stepped closer to her, a slight grin forming on his lips.
“You are quite the skeptic, my lady.” He leaned a hand on the garden wall. A knowing look shined in his eyes. “What if I were to tell you that your master, Louis...who has a long scar on his right cheek...received that mark as a child. It was given to him in a moment of carelessness with his younger brother, who was cast out at the tender age of eleven.”
Her eyes grew large with surprise. “How would you know of such a thing?”
He only smiled in reply. “Take me to his sitting room. I will wait there, for as long as necessary. And then, fetch your master. Tell him an old friend wishes to see him.”
Rene stared at the painting above the massive stone fireplace. It was a likeness of his mother and father. Oliver Jean-Bastien. Dark eyed and slender...pale-skinned and blond. The severity of his features had always been in contrast with those of his wife. Rene’s eye did not linger long on his father. But looking at the image of his mother...Madame Helene Jean-Bastien...he felt an ache in his breast.
In the portrait, her golden hair was twisted into ringlets. Unlike her husband, who wore a pinched and sober expression, Helene’s small mouth was slightly curved in a smile. Even through a portrait, she radiated warmth and graciousness, just as she always had in real life.
He heard the door open behind him. He rose to his feet...and turning, he looked upon his eldest brother. Louis had hardly changed at all. He had always favored their mother, having her hazel eyes and gentle features. But from their father, he had inherited height, and standing in the doorway now, he was quite imposing. He stared at Rene, with no hint of recognition.
“Who are you, sir? My servant said I was to meet a friend here. I see only a stranger. Explain yourself quickly.”
Rene felt a strange desire to laugh...or to cry. He was not sure which, as both emotions threatened to overwhelm him. It had been so long since he had seen a member of his own family. Somehow, he managed to speak. He held his arms slightly outward in display.
“Louis. Do you not know your little brother?”
A stunned expression flashed across Louis’ face. But it was brief. He eyed Rene with mistrust.
“You are not my brother.”
Rene took in a breath to calm himself. “I am Rene. I am your brother.”
Louis took a step forward, with a challenge in his manner. “If you are Rene, then tell me of our father. What secret did he harbor that only family and servants know of?”
The reply came instantly. “A deformity of his legs, caused by a fire nearly twenty years ago.”
Louis’ eyes flashed with astonishment. Their father’s scars had always been a matter of great secrecy. Few members of the household knew of them, except for his most personal attendants...and of course, his family. Louis came forward, embracing Rene in a firm hug. He spoke in a raspy voice.
“Good God, man. It is you.”
Rene’s words had a slight tremble. “I feared I would have no welcome.”
In the midst of the embrace, he felt Louis tense in a strange way. Rene felt a deep sense of foreboding...and his suspicions were confirmed by Louis’ words.
“I am all that remains, brother.”
Rene pulled back. He stared in disbelief. “Mama? She is...”
Louis nodded, and a look of deep sadness marked his features. “Two years ago. And Papa soon after.”
His mother and father...dead. It could not be. But the truth was there in Louis’ eyes. He felt his heart sink. He feared now to inquire about their brother...but he needed to know it all.
“What of Gustave?”
Louis hesitated for a moment...but at last, he answered. “Lost to smallpox, nearly four years gone.”
The shock fell hard and heavy on him. He groped for the chair, sinking into it. His words trembled. “I choose to return, only to find my family gone...save one.”
For many moments, he sat in silence. Then he felt Louis’ hand on his shoulder.
“Come,” he said. “I will take you to them...”