Deeds of the Past (by Rona)

Summary:  What exactly did Marie have to endure in the years before she met and married Ben Cartwright?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:   8118


 

Marie D’Marigny looked at her reflection in the mirror and sighed heavily. Her blonde hair was spread over her shoulders, brushed and gleaming and waiting for her to coil it into the sophisticated chignon she wore every evening when she went out to work. She eyed her face in an abstract manner, seeing that her skin was still smooth and unlined, as it should be; after all, she was barely into her early twenties. But her eyes were dull and lifeless, weighed down by sorrow and shame.

Sighing, Marie took up her brush and began the transformation from lady of leisure to working girl. She was grateful to her cousin Eduard for giving her a job – he paid her well for being a ‘hostess’ at his gentleman’s gambling club and that allowed her to live comfortably and have the occasional treat, like the horse she had hired to ride that afternoon. The memory of the exhilaration she had felt at riding such a spirited beast made her smile and the dull eyes in the mirror sparkled with life.

But still… For someone so young, Marie’s past was littered with sorrow. At just sixteen, she had fallen head over heels in love with the dashing Jean D’Marigny. The feeling had been entirely mutual and their passion had quickly persuaded Jean that they should be married. However, his harridan of a mother did not think Marie – an orphan, although a lady – was suitable for Jean. There was no love lost on either side and Marie had been exultant when Jean proposed that they marry in secret. He arranged rooms for them and they were married, the solemn Catholic service sealing their love for each other.

Their wedding night was everything that Marie had dreamt it would be. They were so happy together, just the two of them, and for several days lived cocooned in their own little world, where reality held no sway. But Jean felt he had to tell his mother and Marie agreed. After all, she had won; Jean was married to her. She could afford to be magnanimous towards Madame D’Marigny, although she knew they would never be friends. With light-hearted glee that she couldn’t quite subdue, Marie dressed carefully in her best silk dress and went to meet her mother-in-law.

The meeting was a disaster. Monsieur D’Marigny was there, but later, Marie could produce no memory of him. His wife totally dominated the proceedings and there was no doubt that Marie came off second best.  She was decried as everything she was not and the young girl was cut to the quick. She vehemently defended herself and it wasn’t until she and Jean were back in their own home that Marie realized that he had said not one word in her defense.

Wounded, Marie turned on her husband and in the bitter row that followed, discovered that the dashing young Frenchman she had married was a weak man, accustomed to obeying his domineering mother’s dictates. Perhaps they shouldn’t have got married without Mama’s permission, he muttered, perhaps they should annul the marriage.

Fear pierced Marie’s heart. If her marriage was annulled, she would be turned out on the streets with nowhere to go. The convent would not take her back and Marie knew that there would be only one option for her should that happen and the thought terrified her. Sobbing, Marie threw herself into Jean’s arms and begged him not to do that. Her tears prevailed – for a while.

It soon became clear to Marie that Jean was almost incapable of making up his own mind. He listened best to whoever spoke to him last. Marie made a concerted effort to keep him by her side as much as possible, but Madame D’Marigny had cut off Jean’s allowance and he was facing the humiliation of seeking a job. Among the Creoles of New Orleans, it was no secret what had happened and Jean’s efforts had so far come to naught. There were few who cared to cross his mother and many people looked on the young bride with pity.

So when Marie broke to Jean what should have been happy news, he looked utterly devastated. “A baby?” he whispered and Marie’s heart broke.

“Our baby!” she insisted fiercely. “Created by our love!” Her menses were only a little late, but Marie was sure that she was pregnant.

“We can’t afford a baby,” Jean replied.

“You’ll find a job, beloved,” Marie assured him, as she did every day. “We won’t starve. Perhaps your Maman will be happy about the news?” She prayed that it would be so, but the look on Jean’s face told her otherwise.

In great trepidation, Marie accompanied Jean to the mansion that had been his home.  They were kept waiting in a drawing room for almost half an hour before being summoned into Madame’s presence. Again, Monsieur was there and he caught Marie’s eye for a moment and she recognized a kindred spirit. For all that Monsieur D’Marigny had the money and the lineage, Madame totally dominated him, ordering his life from the moment that he awoke to the moment he fell asleep. She decided what time he would rise, what he would wear, what he would eat, when he left the house and where he went while he was out. If she could have, she would have controlled his dreams, too. Monsieur pitied his vivacious daughter-in-law, but he was too cowed to offer her support.

“We… we have good news for you, Maman,” Jean stuttered. Marie took his hand and clutched it tightly as she felt Jean try to withdraw it at his mother’s frown.

“You’re getting an annulment?” Madame asked, raising one haughty eyebrow.

Jean was lost for words, his heart plummeting through his boots and down into the cellar somewhere below him. He swallowed nervously, unsure what to say. He shot a glance at his father, asking for help, but there was no support forthcoming from that direction.

Seeing that Jean was floundering, Marie felt her temper and her color rising. Lifting her chin, she boldly met Madame’s eyes. “We are delighted that we are having a child,” she stated. There were, of course, other, more discreet, ways of imparting that news, but Marie was furious and using one of the vague phrases about ‘an interesting condition’ was beyond her at that moment. She wanted to shock Madame.

Judging by the look on the older woman’s face, Marie had succeeded.  Madame’s eyes opened wide and she actually gasped aloud – probably the first genuine reaction Marie had ever seen from the older woman. For an instant, Marie felt a burst of triumph. She felt a smile tug at her lips.

“Whose is it?” Madame asked, the cruelty in her voice unmasked.

The pain and awfulness of that question ripped Marie’s heart out. Although she had known from the start that Madame disliked her, she hadn’t realized how deeply the hatred ran. Marie found herself on her feet, unaware of how she had got there.

“How dare you!” she cried, her voice quivering with anger. “This child is Jean’s, and will be your grandchild, although you don’t deserve one! May God forgive you for this insult, for I never will!” Drawing herself up to her full, diminutive height, Marie met her mother-in-law’s eyes for a moment. “Good bye, Madame.” She waited for Jean to rise with her and with a sinking heart, realized that he wasn’t going to.

Married, pregnant and not quite seventeen years old, Marie had just learned a hard lesson. Trying to keep what little dignity she had left, she touched Jean’s shoulder. “Come along,” she ordered, and Jean obeyed, keeping his head well down.

As they reached the door, Madame’s voice reached them. “You may return home whenever you like, Jean.”

Neither of them said a word as they hurried home through the busy streets. Marie kept her head up, blinking to keep the furious tears at bay. Her heart was shriveling in her breast. She had given herself, body, mind and soul to a man who was not worthy of her love. She was expecting his child. She was utterly trapped.

*****

The row that followed when they reached home was of monumental proportions. Jean had always known that Marie had a temper, but he had never seen it displayed to its full strength. It was more than impressive as the diminutive French girl started by screaming at him, words that he didn’t think a woman should know.

“You bastard!” she shrieked the moment the front door was closed. “How dare you not stay silent while your mother accuses of me of sleeping with another man! How dare you!”

“Marie,” Jean started, but Marie was having none of it.

“Don’t you dare tell that she didn’t mean it!” she hissed. “Don’t you dare! I’m your wife, Jean! You promised to love, honor and cherish and what did you do today? You threw me to the lions! I’m your wife, Jean! Your first allegiance is to me!” Marie threw herself face down on the bed and burst into tears.

“You said yourself that you might not be…” Jean was unsure how to finish the sentence.

“No, I suppose I’m not certain!” Marie shrieked. “But that still doesn’t excuse what you just did to me! To your own child!”

“There may not be a child,” Jean whispered.

“You are despicable!” Marie hissed. “Denying the possibility that I am carrying your child! I didn’t do this by myself! Jean, you loved me enough to marry me despite what your mother thought! Do you hate me now?”

Instantly contrite, Jean sat down beside her and patted her back ineffectually. “I do love you, Marie!” he insisted, but to Marie, the declaration was too little, too late. Gradually her sobs subsided, and she calmed down. She was terrified that her rage might have affected the baby and vowed that she mustn’t lose her temper again.

*****

Things were very strained in the little house for the next few days. Marie knew that she could leave Jean and he would be forced to support both her and the child, but her pride wouldn’t let her admit defeat. She had made her bed and now she must lie in it. Jean continued to have no luck looking for work and he turned to drink and gambling at night, usually going to the club owned by Marie’s cousin Eduard. Marie begged for him to stay at home and not waste the little money they had, but Jean was deaf to her pleas. By now, Marie knew that she was indeed pregnant and the thought of a baby filled her with joy.

And then came the fateful night that ended their marriage. Marie was in bed, waiting for Jean to come home. Earlier, she had felt the baby move for the first time and had waited impatiently for Jean to come home, optimistically hoping that this would bond them together once more.

She must have dozed off, for the next thing she knew, there were masculine hands on her shoulders, touching her gently. Marie, surprised and delighted, leant into the touch for a moment until the scent of an unfamiliar aftershave tickled her senses. At once, she opened her eyes and beheld a strange man.

The scream that escaped her lips was muffled against his hand, but that didn’t stop Marie from fighting. Alone from an early age, Marie had learned to protect herself. Now, she was afraid to fight too hard in case the baby was harmed. But she was still determined that this man was not going to violate her.

A solid, unexpected slap across his face had allowed her the chance to slip out of the bed, but he caught her by the window and grasped her shoulders, trying to force her to kiss him.

“Marie!” The cry forced the man to let go of her and he fled out of the window without a backward glance. “You bitch!” Jean was beside himself. He hadn’t truly believed Eduard’s story that Marie had a paramour, but now he had just seen for himself. His slap knocked his sobbing wife to the floor and he turned and left.

Marie never saw Jean D’Marigny again.

*****

There was no other choice, Marie admitted to herself. Jean had been gone more than a week and the meager amount of money he had given her before then had run out. Marie could no longer afford to buy herself food and she had no way of supporting herself. No one was going to employ a pregnant woman. She would have to go to the D’Marigny mansion and eat humble pie, apologizing to Jean, saying whatever was necessary to repair their marriage. It was an ordeal that she was dreading.

She dressed carefully, for her clothes were now becoming tight and she had had no opportunity to buy material to make herself maternity clothing as yet. Finally, she felt she was as ready as she could be and set out to walk. Her feeling of dread grew and grew, until her breath was coming in short gasps. Far too soon, Marie was standing in front of the main door. She saw that her hand was shaking when she rang the bell.

“I’ve come to see Jean,” Marie announced softly as the door opened. The butler looked blank.

“He is not here, Madame,” he replied, sounding confused. “I have not seen Monsieur Jean since last you were here.” He stepped aside. “Please come in.”

Wary and confused, Marie did as she was asked. The whole atmosphere of the mansion seemed oppressive to Marie and she wondered why she had agreed come in. If Jean wasn’t here… The panic mounted in her breast and she forced herself to take deep breaths to calm herself. If Jean was not here, then where was he? She blinked back tears.

“Why did you come here seeking Jean?” Madame demanded imperiously as she swept down the magnificent staircase.

“I have not seen Jean in a week, Madame,” Marie replied, feeling that honesty was the best policy – it was the only choice she had. Madame had to know that her son was missing. Then a thought struck Marie, one she would never have entertained before her strained relationship with Madame. Was Jean hiding in the house, avoiding her with the connivance of his mother? She wouldn’t put it past either of them.

“Jean told me he found you in the arms of another,” Madame told her.

“I was attacked!” Marie cried. “If Jean had been home instead of gambling, that would never have happened! I love Jean! This is his child I am carrying!” Marie suddenly broke down and sobbed, sinking to the marble floor, heedless of the fact her dress would be crushed beneath her. She was very young, pregnant and suddenly alone. Some intuition told her that Jean was not in that house.

Regarding the sobbing girl with contempt, Madame D’Marigny waited for her daughter-in-law to regain her composure. With Jean gone, there was no way to have the marriage annulled so that he would hear about it. They would have to wait until Jean came back and Madame was sure he would soon return home. Then they would pay Marie off and forget about her. In time, Madame would choose a suitable bride for Jean and they would live happily in the house under her eye. It was the prefect solution and Madame knew that she had the patience to wait. If Marie’s child turned out to be a girl, it could be packed off ignominiously with its mother. If it was a boy, then Jean would naturally get custody.

“Get up, girl!” she ordered impatiently at last, when Marie’s tears had subsided. “You will come and live here until the child is born or Jean returns. We cannot have it noised about that the D’Marignys abandon their own. If anyone asks, you will inform them that Jean is away on business. Do you understand?” She didn’t wait for a reply. She simply turned to the butler and ordered, “See that my daughter-in-law’s things are packed and brought here at once. Get rid of their house.”

It was on the tip of Marie’s tongue to say that she didn’t want to live with Madame D’Marigny, but she was too tired and too heartsick to care. And she had the child to consider. Keeping her head bowed, she nodded dutifully.

Madame didn’t bother to hide a triumphant smile.

*****

As the months progressed, there was no word from Jean. Marie’s body swelled with the growing life within and she loved to caress her bump, feeling the baby moving inside her. It was the only thing that gave her pleasure. She was a virtual prisoner in the mansion. She was provided with clothes fitted by the best seamstresses in New Orleans, the food was magnificent, prepared by the best French chefs. She lived in rooms upholstered in satins, silks and velvets. But gilded fetters were chains all the same.

Marie was desperately lonely. She ate her meals with Madame and Monsieur but the strain in the atmosphere was always there. Madame made a point of reminding Marie every day that she was living on their charity, solely because the baby was their grandson. Marie wondered what would happen if her baby was a girl. Had there been any way at all for Marie to support herself, she would have done so.

Then the day came and Marie went into labor. A midwife had been resident in the house for several days, but there was no empathy between the young woman and the midwife. She was one of Madame’s creatures and Marie found herself in the unenviable position of enduring a hard labor surrounded by hostile helpers.

All day and all night she endured the wracking pains until, as dawn broke, she expelled the baby from her womb, accompanied by the worst pains of the entire time. Panting, exhausted, sweating, Marie flopped back on her pillows. She heard the baby mewling, then there was the sound of a brisk smack and the infant’s voice was raised in righteous indignation.

“My baby!” Marie demanded weakly. “Give me my baby!”

The joy that flooded through her being overwhelmed Marie. She had never expected to feel anything like that. The child had some dark hair and the blue eyes common to all newborns. Marie quickly moved the shawl that swaddled the child close to count the fingers and toes and to check that this was, indeed, her son.

“I will take the child.” Madame didn’t wait for Marie to obey and hand over her son. She simply reached down and took the infant. “The midwife will attend to you.”

“No!” Marie objected, but when she tried to rise, she found that she was still too weak. Then another horrendous contraction took her and she groaned as the afterbirth was expelled. By the time that was delivered, Madame had left the room.

It was the last time Marie would ever see her baby son.

*****

A year to the day that his son and heir was born in New Orleans, Jean D’Marigny arrived at the door of a modest cabin in Nevada. This was a very different Jean than the one who had left Marie the previous year. For the first time in his life, Jean had had to work for his living and although he had hated it initially, he was now reveling in the challenge. Soon, he would be strong enough to return to New Orleans and his wife. He was sure that they would be able to patch up their differences and be happy together. His mother would be so happy to see him that she would forgive his secret marriage and the fact he had run away. Jean was cocooned in his wonderful make-believe world.

However, the facts of the matter were that he needed a job to raise the funds to get back home. He had been told that the Ponderosa was a growing business, always looking for ranch hands. Jean had very little experience with ranch work, but he was willing to try anything.

Ben Cartwright, owner of the fastest growing ranch in Nevada, widower and father of two small sons, was looking for men to help with the haying. At that point, experience was irrelevant. Anyone could wield a pitchfork accurately enough to heave hay onto the back of a wagon. He hired Jean on the spot.

Haying was hard, brutal work and the weather was broiling. Jean’s palms were blistered, his back sunburned, but he noticed that Ben was working just as hard as the rest of the men. He felt a great deal of respect for Ben, for few bosses would do the same work as the men they hired. As they worked together, Jean and Ben struck up a friendship, for Ben was intrigued by Jean’s obvious education and breeding and wondered why he was working as a ranch hand, when it appeared that an office job or the like would be more suitable.

Disaster struck as the haying season drew to a close. Ben had just pitched up the last of the hay onto the wagon and was leaning on his pitchfork, pleased with the job they had done. The hay field was on a slight slope and Ben was standing on the downhill side of it. As the wagon driver started the team moving, the wheel hit a rock and the wagon tilted. Had the field been flat, there would have been no problem. The wheel would have bounced and then resettled. As it was, the wheel bounced and gravity prevailed, the wagon began to silently topple over.

“Ben!” The cry was torn from Jean’s lips. He dropped his pitchfork and threw himself across the short space that separated the two men, catching Ben around the waist and knocking him backwards and clear of the wagon.

Jean wasn’t so lucky. The wagon crashed down on top of him, crushing his body from his ribs down.

“Jean!” Ben knelt by his side. He knew that there was nothing he could do for Jean; the man was dying. Blood trickled out of the corner of his mouth and the breath rattled in his throat. “Jean!”

“Please…” The voice was barely more than a tortured whisper. Ben leant closer to hear the words. “Go to… New Orleans… and tell Marius… and my wife.” He coughed and a fresh wave of blood flooded over his lips. “Tell… Marie… I… love… her.” His breath expired on the last word and Ben knew he had gone.

“I promise I’ll go,” Ben murmured, knowing that Jean couldn’t hear him, but promising all the same. It seemed to be the least he could do.

*****

Sadly, Ben made his arrangements. He and Jean had talked of going to New Orleans together. Jean had seen the large pile of furs that Ben had procured through the year and suggested that he could introduce Ben to his father, who had connections in the fur trade. Ben thought that he would take the furs with him on the off-chance that the D’Marignys could help him in this respect and set off on the long journey, his heart sore at the prospect of leaving his two small sons behind. He was likely to be gone for several months.

*****

Eduard was waiting for Marie as she left the D’Marigny mansion. She looked thin and pale and for a moment, Eduard felt a pang of pity for his cousin. But just for a moment. He went forward and took her case from her hand. “Come, I have arranged for a house for you,” he told her.

“Thank you, Eduard,” Marie whispered. She was exhausted, grief and illness weighing her down. Just two days after the birth of her baby, a virulent fever had swept through New Orleans, killing many people. Marie, just out of bed and trying to find where Madame had taken her baby, was stricken with it. She was still exhausted from childbirth, but was regaining her strength steadily in the way that youth had. But she had no resistance to the fever and she lay ill for almost a week. When at last she was declared out of danger, Madame had come to see her.

“Your baby is dead,” Madame reported coldly. “He was too small to survive the fever. I have contacted your cousin Eduard Darcy. He is coming for you. I never want to see you again.”

“No!” Marie sobbed. “My baby! He can’t be dead! He can’t!” She looked at her despicable mother-in-law with wild eyes. “Please! Let me see him!” she begged. “Just one last time!”

“It is too late for that,” Madame informed her. “He died several days ago and has been buried already. It is summer, you know.”

“No!” Marie knew all too well that funerals were held as soon as possible in the summer in New Orleans. The humidity was such that keeping a body more than a few hours was a health hazard. The smell and the flies could be bad enough. “No! My baby!” She broke down into wild sobbing.

Madame was unmoved. “Monsieur Darcy will be here for you in the morning.” She turned to leave.

“May you rot in hell!” Marie yelled at her back. “You unfeeling bitch!” She started sobbing again. Madame didn’t hesitate or look round.

*****

“What am I going to do?” Marie asked. She didn’t really expect an answer. She was almost past caring. If it wasn’t for the fact her death would be a mortal sin and would also give Madame great satisfaction, Marie might well have taken her own life. After all, what did she have to live for?

“I’ll look after you,” Eduard assured her as he drove her to the modest, one storey house he had rented for her. “Don’t worry.”

“I can’t take charity,” Marie told him a few days later when she was feeling a little better. Pride was the only thing she had left. She didn’t even have friends, for she had told Marius, Jean’s friend and her fencing master that she didn’t want to see him again. Marius had challenged Eduard to a duel. Marius had been badly injured. Eduard had magnanimously forgiven Marius for challenging him, but Marie never had.

“Then you could help me by coming to the club for a few nights,” Eduard suggested tentatively. “I know it’s not considered proper,” he went on before she could refuse, “but all you would have to do is talk to the men who come, maybe play cards with them. That’s all.”

Still, Marie hesitated. She knew what people would think of her if she did this, yet if she refused, she could find herself out on the street. She shrugged mentally. What difference would it make anyway? She was sure Madame D’Marigny had already labeled her a prostitute in the eyes of the Creole community.

“All right,” she agreed. “Just till I find something else.”

“Of course,” Eduard smiled, knowing that she would be under his thumb in no time at all.

*****

With icy cold, shaking fingers, Marie fastened the back of the low-cut gown that Eduard had sent over. She had regained her figure quickly after the birth, which was fortunate, as the gown was tight fitting. Marie was dreading the evening ahead. Like all gently-bred girls, she had never been in a gentleman’s gambling club and had no idea what to expect.

“This is nice,” she commented to Eduard as he showed her around prior to the opening.

“What did you expect?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Marie replied. “But I have a vivid imagination.” She flashed a smile that was still tinged with sadness.

Smiling, Eduard showed Marie where the drinks could be found and introduced her to his staff. The knowing looks brought a blush to her face, but there was nothing she could say to them. They obviously had their own opinion and nothing she could say would change that.

The first evening passed more quickly than Marie expected and she found that some of her natural vivacity started to creep back as the men she entertained made it quite plain that she was a very beautiful woman. When the club closed in the early hours of the morning, Marie was exhausted but feeling more alive than she had done for a very long time.

And so it continued, night after night. Marie soon felt she was in charge of the situation and whenever a man got too persistent, she always made a point of telling them she was married.

About six months later, Eduard took her aside one evening. “Marie, there is a man coming tonight who is very important to me. I want you to do everything he wants.” He caught her eye. “I mean everything.”

For all the worldly air that Marie could project, she was still a convent-reared young lady and she did not understand the extra gleam in her cousin’s eye. “All right, Eduard,” she agreed.

At the first sight of the customer, Monsieur Robert Dumas, Marie felt her skin creep with a presentiment of unease that she didn’t entirely understand. He was tall and dark, with even features that some might have proclaimed handsome. But there was a cruel set to his mouth and his dark eyes were hard. As Marie was introduced to him, his eyes raked her up and down, undressing her visually. Marie flushed.

“Marie will do anything you want,” Eduard told Dumas. “Anything.”

“Good,” the man grunted and for the rest of the night, Marie found herself standing close by his side, making sure his drink was always fresh and that he had a cigar within reach. The club was open much longer than usual that night and Marie was exhausted when Dumas’ party began to trickle out.

An iron hand encircled her wrist and she forced a smile onto her face. “Is there something else I can do for you, Monsieur?” She fervently hoped the answer would be ‘no’, for she had felt Dumas’ hand on her body far too often for it to be coincidence.

“Come with me,” he ordered, his face hard.

“No,” Marie replied, more puzzled than afraid. She glanced around seeking Eduard, and when her eyes found her cousin, she saw that he was smiling. “Eduard?” she called.

“You said you would everything he wants, Marie,” Eduard told her. He gave her a glance that was scornful. “If you don’t do this, I might lose the club. And then where would you be?” He struggled to look regretful. “Marie, I am sorry. I didn’t want to tell you what trouble I was in.”

The threat was more than clear and so was the implication that if she refused and the club went under, it would be all her fault. And after all her cousin had done to help her, feeding, her, clothing her… It would be base ingratitude. For an instant, Marie was tempted to resist, cry out that she was no man’s whore, but she still had little money, for Eduard supplied her needs without giving her much in the way of cash. She was trapped. It was only much later that she realized that Eduard had duped her.

“She’ll come with me, one way or the other,” Dumas growled and Marie knew that he meant every word.

“Very well,” she replied and tilted her chin. She would rather go with him than be beaten and raped. This way, it would be no less rape – to her mind anyway – but she might save herself a beating. She willed herself not to cry as she was dragged from the club.

*****

The memory of that night robbed Marie of her sparkle for quite some time. Eduard was apologetic the next day, seeing the bruises on Marie’s wrist, but it was only when she insisted, tears in her eyes and fury oozing from every pore that he agreed that she would never have to sin again.

So life went on, with her baby’s birthday passing in a haze of pain-filled memories. Marie did not go to work that night. She simply lay on her bed and sobbed. What had she done that God was punishing her so much?

The next day, she wearily got to her feet and went back to work.

*****

Marie D’Marigny looked at her reflection in the mirror and sighed heavily. Her blonde hair was spread over her shoulders, brushed and gleaming and waiting for her to coil it into the sophisticated chignon she wore every evening when she went out to work. She dressed quickly and by the time she reached the club, her social face was on.

It was with a distinct sense of shock that she saw Marius coming in with a handsome young man. She spoke briefly to her old friend, the ties of affection still there, despite how she tried to deny them. And when the young man said he had come to talk to her about her husband, she had cut him off, terrified that he would tell her Jean was waiting for her at home. How could she ever face him again?

But that hadn’t stopped Ben Cartwright. The next day, he sought her out at her home and told her that Jean was dead. She had been cold and dry-eyed while Ben was there, but the instant he was gone, she threw herself down on the chaise and sobbed bitterly. Now it was all over. Her marriage had been an abject failure, through no fault of her own and now it was over.

For his part, Ben was intrigued by the young widow. He couldn’t remember the last time he had met someone so beautiful and he sought her out at every opportunity, even coming across her fortuitously in the convent gardens while out walking one time.

In the meantime, he had met and taken a great dislike to Madame D’Marigny. Monsieur had died of the fever, something that Marie had not learned until much later and something that Madame had not forgiven Monsieur for. She had not given him permission to die! For the only time in his life, Monsieur had done something without Madame’s permission and she could not forgive him that. Madame was a hard, bitter old woman and Ben sensed that she was hiding something. She hesitated briefly to ask for her help in selling his furs, but she had obliged him and he got a good price – good enough to more than pay for the expense of the trip.

From Marius, he learned about the scandal surrounding Marie, but he, like Marius, believed that Marie was innocent. He said as much to her when they met and for an instant, her eyes had warmed.

And then came the debacle in the club, with Ben and Marius facing a challenge from Eduard Darcy.  As he and Marie rushed to the appointed dueling place, Ben was convinced that Darcy was the man behind Marie’s disgrace. With Marius fatally wounded, Ben took on Darcy and forced a confession out of him.

As the dawn broke, Marius died. For Marie, it was devastating. Eduard had proven to be behind all her troubles and she had foolishly trusted him. But now what was she to do?

“Marie, I want you to marry me,” Ben said. “I want you to be my wife. I love you so.”

“I love you, too,” Marie breathed, suddenly realizing why she had been feeling so much better in the last few days. She had tried to fight it, but now… She raised her mouth and they kissed. For Marie, the good times were just beginning.

*****

They were married as soon as they could be, although Marie was disappointed that she was unable to marry in the Catholic Church because Ben was a Protestant. But in the end, it was of minor matter. The civil ceremony was simple and moving and the two did not feel the lack of a church blessing.

They wasted no time in setting off for the Ponderosa. Marie packed her clothes and left the house Eduard had given her without a backward glance. Her life now was with Ben in Nevada as a rancher’s wife and mother to two small boys. Marie pumped Ben for all the information she could about the boys and she could already feel her heart going out to those two motherless mites.

The journey home was long and tedious and by the time they were nearing the ranch, Marie was wondering if she was pregnant. She hugged the secret to herself, wavering between joy and fear.

But by the time they reached the ranch and she saw the humble cabin that was to be her home, Marie knew that it had been a false alarm. She put aside her disappointment and concentrated on getting to know her two stepsons. Hoss was a darling, desperate for a mother’s love and responding to her at once with touching trust.

However, Adam was a different matter and there was many a night Marie could have wept for the cold looks and icy politeness with which the dark youth treated her. Ben, having caught Adam in some piece of flagrant rudeness, had been rightfully furious with the boy, but it hadn’t endeared Marie to him; quite the opposite in fact.

But each morning, Marie rose and persuaded herself that today would be the day when Adam came around and accepted her. She treated him no differently than she did Hoss, whom she already loved devotedly and when Ben announced that he had started building a new, bigger house, she was ecstatic. For a time, it drew them all closer together, but the inevitable strains of the building process could soon be felt in the short responses that Ben gave to innocent questions and his exhaustion, which caused him to fall asleep over many a meal.

There were strains in the town, too. Marie found it difficult to get to know the women. They were a long way from town and Ben wouldn’t allow her to drive in alone; the land was still too dangerous and he couldn’t always spare a man to accompany her on a pleasure trip. Marie understood, but she was still lonely.

But at last the house was done and they moved in, exclaiming over the space they had. Ben and Marie had ordered furniture in San Francisco for the house and both the boys were delighted to find that they had rooms of their own.

That night, they lay in bed together, Marie’s head on Ben’s shoulder. They had just made love and Marie’s skin was still glistening, her hand resting on his chest, feeling the strong beat of his heart. “Ben…”

“Yes, darling?” Ben pulled her closer.

“I love the house,” Marie told him. “It’s wonderful. But I was wondering about that room next door to this one.”

“What about it?” Ben asked. He was feeling sleepy, but he was interested to see what his young wife would try and wheedle out of him.

“Is it going to be a guest bedroom?” Marie asked.

“Probably,” Ben replied. “We haven’t bought any furniture for it yet. Why?”

“I thought it might make a good nursery,” Marie replied innocently.

“What?” Ben was sitting bolt upright, Marie sprawled on the bed laughing at him. “What are you saying?”

Smiling coyly, Marie reached out to twine a bit of his chest hair in her fingers. Ben loved it when she did that, but he almost wished she hadn’t at that precise moment, as he tended to stop thinking…

“I’m expecting our baby, darling,” she told her, her voice a warm caress in the rosy darkness of the room.

“Are you sure?” Ben whispered and when she nodded, he caught her into his arms. “Oh, Marie, my love! You’ve made me so happy!” He pulled away and looked at her. “I’m going to be awfully old though…”

“Don’t start!” Marie scolded him. “You’re not old and I don’t want to hear you say that!”

“How far along are you?” Ben asked, hesitantly. He knew this was something that women often didn’t want to discuss, but Marie was remarkably forthright.

“About four months,” Marie replied. “I didn’t realize that so much time had passed, but I have been a bit sick in the mornings and my dresses are tighter.”

“Oh, my darling, we are so blessed,” Ben whispered and his hand gently caressed the tiny bump of her stomach.

*****

The pregnancy was not difficult at all. Marie blossomed and although she had her dark days of worry, they were few and far between, so secure was she in the strength of Ben’s love.

But the birth was a different matter entirely. Marie went into labor in a straight forward manner and the midwife was summoned. Several hours later, the midwife, pale and trembling, asked Ben to send for the doctor. In fear and trepidation, Ben sent a man into town.

As with her first child, Marie labored all day and all night and then into the next day. The baby was breech but by the time he was safely delivered and Dr Paul Martin was sure both mother and baby were going to be fine, he also knew that there was no way Marie could carry another child. She had been badly damaged by the birth. The baby – a boy – was small, but the most beautiful child.

Ben was ushered in to see his wife lying like a broken lily on the pillows, her face pale, but still radiant as she held the baby to her breast. “A boy, Ben,” she cried. “A boy.”

“Joseph Francis,” Ben replied, for they had long ago decided on names. He gazed in awe at his small son, by far the smallest sized baby he had ever seen. Ben had deeply loved both Elizabeth, Adam’s mother and Inger, Hoss’ mother, but he had never felt for either of them what he felt for Marie. Marie was his soul mate. Both courageous people, their dreams soared together.

When the baby was finished nursing, Adam and Hoss were permitted to come in. Marie was exhausted by then and desperate to sleep, but she knew how important it was to prove that she still loved them, even though she now had her own child.

Hoss was entranced, although that would quickly wear off. Adam was the most moved though and as he held his tiny brother, he looked at Marie. “I’m sorry I’ve been so horrid to you,” he apologized awkwardly.

The apology was so sincere that Marie could not stand against it. “It’s all forgotten,” she assured him and was thrilled beyond measure when he hugged her for the first time.

*****

Life could have been very difficult for them then had not Ben had the good luck to have come in contact with a young Chinese man, Hop Sing. Hop Sing had come to the ranch as a cook for one week, when Marie wasn’t feeling well and had stayed ever since. He gave the impression of being forever impatient, but he adored the children and doted on Marie. He and Ben became fast friends.

Now, he kept the household running as Marie dealt with the weariness of a new baby – and a very active baby at that. From the start, Joe was more alert than most newborns, sleeping for a comparatively short time during the day and robbing Marie of time when she could have rested.

And in many ways, little changed as Joe grew into a toddler. He was forever on the go, with more energy than the rest of his family put together. He was the most beautiful child, with golden ringlets and huge green eyes. He had innate charm and soon had the household in an uproar. Marie was a doting mother, but she never let Joe get away with murder. He had to do what he was told, although he was incredibly inventive at getting around the strictures place upon him.

It was a disappointment to both Marie and Ben that they would be having no more children together. Marie would sometimes watch Joe playing on the rug and imagine her lost son there, too, but she refused to become despondent. She was incredibly fortunate – and what’s more, she knew it.

*****

By the time Joe was breeched, Marie had a bit more free time on her hands. She was an excellent horsewoman and one of her greatest pleasures was to ride across the Ponderosa, either alone or with Ben or the boys. Joe was also showing signs of loving horses and had to have a ride on someone’s horse at the end of the day as the horse was put into the barn. Marie had already asked Ben to find him a pony if at all possible.

“I wanna come, Mama!” Joe sulked one afternoon when Marie came down dressed for riding.

“Not this time, mon petit,” Marie smiled. She kissed her rebellious son on the top of his head and Joe forgave her enough to throw his arms around her knees.

“I love you, Mama,” he told her, looking earnestly up into her face.

“And I love you, too,” she responded. She disentangled herself from Joe and went out to the barn where her new mare was waiting for her.

Dapple grey and beautifully made, Wind was spirited but a lady’s ride, meaning that she would stop when asked, a great virtue when riding side saddle. Marie was looking forward to her afternoon alone and she ranged much further than she usually would. When at last she turned back towards home, she was running a little late.

As she approached the yard, Marie could see Ben was out on the porch, Joe in his arms. She waved and saw her husband and son wave back. Joe squirmed down and ran back inside, presumably to tell his brothers that Mama was back.

Entering the yard, Wind put her foot into a depression on the ground. It wasn’t quite a hole, but it was deep enough to cause the mare to stumble. The mare went down and Marie heard the leg break.

It was the last thought Marie ever had, as the mare collapsed to the ground, on top of Marie, who died instantly of massive internal injuries.

*****

Perhaps twenty years had passed when Joe fell from Cochise, his pinto gelding, in the yard. Quite what made the animal stumble was never decided. But Joe was spilled from the saddle. Ben’s heart was in his mouth as he raced towards Joe, terrified that somehow, history was repeating itself.

That Joe had had a nasty knock on the head was obvious. Ben found himself waiting by Joe’s bed, bathing the bruise rising on his temple, and reliving the moment that Marie, his beloved Marie, had fallen and died. Joe listened quietly as Ben relived the meeting with his mother and later submitted to the doctor’s examination.

“He’ll be fine, Ben,” Paul assured the anxious father. “Good thing he’s got a hard head.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe said, as the doctor left. “I didn’t mean to worry you.”

“I know,” Ben soothed.

“Am I really so like my mother?” Joe asked and Ben nodded, blinking away the tears.

“Oh yes, son,” he replied. “So like her. One day, I promise I will tell you everything I know about her. But not today. You need to rest now.”

As Joe settled into sleep, Ben watched over him. He would tell Joe about his mother, but there were things that it was best that he didn’t know. He didn’t need to know what Marie had been forced to do by Darcy. That was something Marie had told Ben and sworn him to secrecy. She had taken the chance, telling him, knowing that he might turn against her as Jean had – but Ben had not let her down.

“Ah, Marie, my love, how I miss you still,” he whispered. For a moment, he felt overwhelmed with loneliness.

Then a voice spoke – a voice laden with sleep. “I miss her too, Pa,” Joe muttered and Ben knew that he could never truly be alone when he had the precious gifts that his wives had given him.

Reaching out, Ben ran his hand over Joe’s hair and for a moment, it seemed to him that Marie was in the room with them.

***End***

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