“I’m getting wet!” The sound of the little boy’s whining set the Enzo Bousquet on edge. Why he agreed to look after the little brats, he didn’t know. Well, he mused as he opened his umbrella to shelter the boy, he knew quite well. The family’s fortune was in decline. Tastes in fashion were changing, and though his father was once renowned for his skill in dressing the elites in the city, fashion left him behind. The rich moved on to more fashionable tailors, while his father was left scrounging for business. Once, when Enzo was a child, his father commanded a hefty fee for his work. Now, well Enzo was reduced to babysitting.
“Under here, boy,” Enzo commanded with a strained smile. The girl followed her brother, but Enzo didn’t notice. She was a peculiar child, especially for a girl. She didn’t say much, but Enzo suspected there was more to her than just a shy disposition. She had a knowing look to her. She noticed everything, which made him feel uneasy.
“I thought you were taking us to the theater,” the boy growled. “Mama told us you were taking us to the theater.”
“And so I shall, young Rene” Enzo replied through gritted teeth, “but first we must get you settled in. You will be staying with me until your parents return from London. I have one room for each of you. You will find your lodging satisfactory.”
“Humph!” The boy stomped down the street, making sure to jump into every puddle, clearly enjoying the annoyance he was causing his temporary caretaker. The girl followed behind, almost a shadow to the man. She said nothing, did nothing, except clutch a porcelain doll with hollow eyes. The chill morning did nothing to dampen her spirits. She didn’t complain. There seemed to be no emotions from the girl.
“Come!” Enzo commanded the boy, who turned with a look of annoyance, but obeyed nonetheless. “First, we will put your things away, then have a quick bite to eat. Then we shall go to the theater. I have a friend who will act in the production this afternoon. He really is a sight to behold.”
“You have a friend who’s an actor?” Rene scoffed, thinking the association a bad recommendation on his caretaker’s reputation. He made a mental note to tell that to his father, that this man associates with the dregs of society.
“I consider many people to be my friend,” Enzo replied, knowing what the younger was thinking. In my line of work, I deal with many people, from the lowly servants to those in the highest echelons of power. What do I care so long as they can pay for my services?”
“And what is it that you do?” Rene asked in his sniveling tone.
“I do what I must,” he responded. “A jack of all trades, I suppose. My father was a tailor, formerly a soldier in the war. My mother came from nobility, though her family fell on hard times, and she took to tutoring the children of the president, until she married my father. I learned from the best, though I apprenticed with none. I joined the army, became a sous-lieutenant before an injury left me unable to continue. I’ve acted, cooked, become a banker. I worked for your father for a time, years before you were born. As much as there can be friendship between us, I consider him such.”
“I think you’re a buffoon,” Rene scorned. “A sad little clown without a circus. You’re almost as useless as a woman. Worse than that thing following us.”
“That’s a horrible thing to say,” the girl spoke up. “Useless as a woman? You’re the one who’s useless. What a terrible thing to say to our friend.”
“Thank you,” Enzo said, startled at her quiet defense. Until now, he was unsure if she could even speak. She only murmured unintelligibly at the doll, stroking its silk hair. That she should speak up defiantly against her brother struck him as ominous, though he couldn’t figure out why.
“Oh, letting little girls defend you now? You’re pathetic.”
“In here,” Enzo ignored the jibe, instead opening an ornate iron door. The dwelling was small, at least to what the children were accustomed to. Rene looked around and sneered, but Mathilde looked around dreamily, her eyes alight with excitement and expectation.
“This place is smaller than our servant’s quarters.” Rene spat maliciously. “I demand you take us somewhere better. Take us home.”
“You’re father left you in my care,” Enzo sighed, regretting that he agreed to watch the brats for what amounted to nearly a years wage. “You are to remain here for the next two months, or until your parent’s return from London.”
“This place is wonderful,” Mathilde mused in a singsong tone. “Isn’t it Celia?”
“Celia?” Enzo asked
“That stupid doll,” Rene growled. “Give me that!” He made to tear the doll out of his sister’s arms, but Mathilde parried his attempt with a swipe of her arm. Rene tried again, but this time Mathilde grabbed her brother’s arm, twisted it, and shoved him into the wall. “Let go of me!”
“Not until you apologize to Celia,” Mathilde informed her brother harshly. “I won’t tolerate that kind of disrespect, and neither will Celia.”
Enzo looked on, unsure of whether he should intervene, but the look on the girl’s face had morphed into something else. She no longer looked like the innocent little girl that had walked quietly behind him. Her face looked bestial, feral, almost demonic. Her eyes looked almost as hollow as the dolls eyes had been.
“Let go of me!” Rene said, this time pleading, his eyes tearing up. “You’re going to break my arm! Please stop!”
“Let him go,” Enzo said calmly, gently touching Mathilde on her shoulder. “And Rene, apologize.”
“I’m sorry,” Rene cried. “Please, I’m sorry!”
“That wasn’t all that hard, was it?” Mathilde gave a tinkling laugh, her face returning to normal as she released Rene. “Where’s my room, Monsieur Bousquet?”
“What? Oh, it’s up the stairs. Follow me. You too, Rene.”
Enzo climbed the flight up to the next floor. “You will sleep here, Rene,” Enzo pointed to the room on the left. “Mathilde, you will have this room here,” he pointed to the door on the right.
“Where do you sleep?” Mathilde inquired.
“At the end of the corridor,” Enzo replied, unnerved by the seemingly innocent question. “You’re things are already in your room. Change and we will leave in an hour.”
Enzo waited for the children to walk into their room before retiring to his. He sat at a small desk he had tucked away in the corner and waited. He tried to push the memory from his mind, but the look on Mathilde’s face seemed to be burned into his mind. There was something inhuman to her, and he wondered if….
He stood up and strode to a cabinet where he stashed his personal correspondences, ruffled through several folders, until he found what he was looking for, a letter from Monsieur Astier, the children’s father. He returned to his desk, sat down, and began to read.
We must depart at once, and with all due haste. Faustine is having nightmares, insisting that my sweet Mathilde is possessed by the devil. I have no use for that nonsense. Why did our fathers fight for over a century ago, to rid ourselves of the oppression of the crown and the subjugation to the papacy? No! Devils indeed!
I shall take my dear Faustine to London, to a colleague of mine who has begun to dabble with the study of the human mind. He believes he can help her. Perhaps the stresses of raising children is too much for her, or perhaps losing her father in that horrific fire last year has taken its toll. We inherited everything in his inventory, sold what could be salvaged, except for a doll that Mathilde has grown fond of. Maybe….
Enzo set the letter down, his brows furrowed in concentration. Possessed by the devil. That’s what she believed. Could it be? Could such a thing be possible? He didn’t believe in such things, but all the same, he was haunted with the belief in Mother Church, forced to take the sacraments by his overbearing mother until he was old enough to refuse to take part in that superstition.
But witnessing what he saw, what if it wasn’t superstition? What if the devil was real? Satan, Lucifer, the Morningstar? What if he was real? What if he could possess the body of mortals? What if Mathilde was being influenced by the Prince of Darkness?
He shook his head and laughed. Certainly it was a trick of the light, or else he was tired, or hungry. He had missed his morning respite in his haste to pick up the children. His mind was playing tricks on him. Perhaps he needed to see this colleague of Monsieur Astier.
There was a bloodcurdling scream out in the corridor. Enzo jumped from his chair, raced to the door, and threw it open. Rene was pinned to the wall again, his feet dangling a foot from the ground, Mathilde grabbing him with one hand by the neck. Again, her face was demonic, and a power radiated from her being, and it hit Enzo in waves, like heat from the furnace, except many times more powerful.
“What’s this?” Enzo demanded, terror clutching at his heart.
“He insulted Celia again,” Mathilde replied, her voice harsh, lower than it should be. “There shall be no forgiveness this time.”
“No! Wait!” Enzo cried, not daring to get closer, but inching forward all the same. “Please, you don’t have to do this. Let’s talk this through. Can you put him down? Will you at least look at me?”
Mathilde turned her head, and her eye sockets were empty causing Enzo to screech in terror. “Mon Dieu!”
Mathilde laughed as she threw Rene to the ground like a ragdoll, a cold, mirthless laugh. Enzo looked around, wishing he had a Crucifix or Holy Water, or anything. He caught sight of the porcelain doll on the ground, and what he saw made his heart falter for a moment.
Enzo fell back, unable to speak, mortally afraid for the first time in all his life, pleading to a God he didn’t believe in until now. Mathilde’s eyes were staring back at him from Celia’s porcelain face, pleading to him, begging to be released from her imprisonment.
“I know you’re heart’s desire, Enzo Bousquet. You fancy yourself a lady’s man? You love to bed with wives of those you call friends and patrons. Why don’t you show me what you can do!”