All Jacques could do was wait for the inevitable. He merely nodded, saying in a shaking voice, "Yes, she was very beautiful."
He buried his face in his hands and wept silently. Why oh why hadn't he had the sense to return to the house earlier? Then he would've been able to prevent such a tragedy. Perhaps the fire wouldn't have started, and Ameline would not have to suffer the horrendous pain of horribly disfiguring burns.
Jacques could not help recalling the scene that greeted him upon his return from Tante Lutisse's. The fire – one of many that day – had consumed the house, leaving nothing behind but charred walls and scorched rubble. He cried out her name the moment he arrived but was met by Humbert LeClerc who informed him what had happened.
"It was Minister Frollo who set that fire," explained Humbert, "because I saw him and his brutal guards enter the house earlier. Once I saw the house totally engulfed, Rabel and I ran over there at once knowing your sister was trapped inside."
Unquestionably, and he was certain Humbert told the truth, Jacques had hoped that Frollo NOT set the fire. But with so much of Paris now in flames and too many displaced citizens crying sorrowly over lost homes and possessions, Jacques' previous respect and admiration for Judge Claude Frollo began to wan.
How can His Grace do this, all this utter, needless destruction? And for what? To capture a single Gypsy dancer? What La Esmeralda did yesterday at the festival vastly pales in comparison with what crimes my sister has committed. Ameline, my flesh and blood, plotted to murder Frollo during the festival; then she poisoned Mathena, causing Tante Lutisse much distress. By far Ameline is the one fugitive Frollo should've been looking for, but he was so hellbent of finding Esmeralda...Why did he come look where Ameline was lodging? Did Frollo know Ameline was living there? Or was this one of those random searches where His Grace unintentionally met face to face with Ameline.
Jacques partially got his answers when Humbert's wife finally emerged from the bedchamber. Madame LeClerc, gently and motherly, placed her hand upon Jacques' shoulder. She could tell he loved his sister very much, so it sadden her that the once-lovely lady, if by some miracle survived, would spend the rest of her days hidden from public view. Seeing her hideously mutilated face so many times a day may drive the lady to suicide, so it may indeed a blessing from God for her to die now. But Madame LeClerc wanted to say somehting else to Jacques, seeing that her husband had neglected one important detail about the now destroyed house.
"Monsieur Bellot," she said, "your sister is resting comfortably, but she is so much pain. She wants to see you after the priest leaves."
Jacques nodded, saying with gratitude, "I just want to thank your husband and son for being there to rescue Ameline, but there is still something I don't understand. Everyone says Frollo was there, that he set the fire..."
"But he did, Monsieur Bellot," assured Madame LeClerc, "What you don't know is that the house belonged to a rich merchant named Dreu Cardin. M. Cardin cannot show his face in Paris ever since Minister Frollo put out a warrant for the man's arrest."
"Arrest? What did Cardin do?"
Humbert replied, "He often sends his surplus fabric to the Gypsies from which comes their colorul clothes. Frollo, in his search for the dancer, thought there may have been Gypsies there in Cardin's house. Frollo was inside quite a while before he came out, then he and his guards set the house ablaze."
So, thought Jacques, Frollo had a feeling Esmeralda had been at the house, but he might not have known that Ameline was there. So they, after twelve long years, once again, met face to face. What exactly happened between those two? Only Ameline can answer that as right now I truly no longer trust Claude Frollo. The man has, definitely, gone over the edge...
The priest at last emerged from the bedchamber looking somewhat forlorn and concerned all the same. Whatever Ameline managed to confess, even in her critical state, it certainly must have spooked the good Reverend Father. He touched Jacques lightly upon the shoulder, saying, "My child, your sister is fading fast. She wants to say something to you before she leaves this life for the next."
Jacques thanked the priest and the LeClercs for all their assistance. Now he dreaded facing Ameline. Has this tragedy taught his sister a hard lesson? Or is Ameline further embittered now that she has lost her beauty and, perhaps within the next few moments, her very life?
Perhaps Ameline had not repented one bit, but there has to be some glimmer of goodness within, especially after suffering severe injury at the hands of the Minister of Justice. Jacques still harbored some love for his sister, despite the many heinous crimes she'd committed. He had hoped that her last confessions finally cleansed her of all hate and evil, thus assuring her a place in Heaven. But what if she didn't? Jacques hated to admit it but there was that chance that his sister was doomed to suffer the flames of Hell, a fate far worse than her earthly trial by fire.
Jacques took a deep breath and stealed himself as Madame LeClerc led him into the bedchamber. At once the stench of burnt human flesh mixed with the aroma of healing herbs stung his nostrils. In that dimly lit room (and he was somewhat glad it was dark so he wouldn't have to endure seeing what was left of his sister), Madame LeClerc led Jacques to the bed where Ameline lay.
She was enshrouded in bandages from feet to head, leaving just enough opening at her face (if one could call it a face) for breathing. And she lay there in abject pain, moaning in agony and laboriously breathing. With lamp in hand, Madame LeClerc, followed by Jacques, hovered over the patient, gently saying, "Ameline, your brother is here. Now, dear, don't try to talk too much. You need to save your strength." Rosamund LeClerc, endeavoring with all her might to hold back tears, quietly crossed herself then took Jacques by the hand.
What a shock for Jacques Bellot to see his sister, burned over eighty percent of her body, lying there delirious from the heavy doses of opiates.
"We had to give her nearly all our medicines," explained Clarissa, Madame LeClerc's sister, a woman knowledgable of the treatment of such severe injuries. "But she was in so much pain. Burns are so insidiously stressful, causing much discomfort as well as hideous scarring. I pray, sir, that this girl is spared of much suffering. But it is, after all, up to Him to decide her fate."
Jacques nodded as he neared the bed then sat in the little chair beside. In the faint lamp light he could see the fire's ravages upon Ameline. Even with part of her face visible, Jacques could tell that the smooth, flawless ivory complexion was no more. The full pink lips ready to part with a winning smile were burned away. Her eyes were bandaged as they were severely damaged; the right one had nearly melted away in the intense heat. The finely chisled nose was gone as well, the soft tissue consumed down to the bone. Ameline's entire face, a face that Jacques admired for its flawless beauty, was a mask of blackened flesh, exposing muscles further cooked by the flames.
With tears in his eyes, he softly said, "Ameline...It's me, Jacques. Oh, my dear little sister, why did I leave you. I should have stayed but..."
Through the thick layer of bandages he could see her one good eye move. She gasped for breath as she struggled to part her lips to speak. In a roughened, choked voice, she replied, "Jacques...I...I...Frollo did this...He is...dangerous...Can't be trusted..."
For a moment Jacques wanted to reach out to her, grasp her hand, perhaps embrace the sister he truly loved despite her long slide into sin and inquity. But he resisted, because he knew the slightest touch would set her off screaming in pain.
"Ameline," he said in a tear-choked voice, "Frollo did this. They all said that His Grace burned down half of Paris looking for the Gypsy Esmeralda. I know about that house, where you stayed, owned by a merchant who helps Gypsies..."
"Yes...," came the raspy response. "He thought she was there...but he found me...we...we..."
Ameline heaved her body to ride out another wave of torturous pain. She whimpered and wailed as Jacques tried not to bawl outright.
It is not fair, he thought, but she had done so many hideous things...perhaps this is her punishment, to endure the stares and whispers of people who ever see her scarred face...It is the outward sign of her wickedness and degradation...God, in His righteous wrath, has marked her for life...
"Jacques," she said after the pain subsided a bit, "Frollo knows about...Oh...the child..."
"What child, Ameline"?
"I had...a baby...after...ask Louve...Aubert's caretaker...it's Frollo's."
"What? Ameline, is this the truth? A baby? When? Where?"
Ameline, her mind befogged by opium and pain, tried to explain again. "I...had the baby. He's twelve now...adopted by Louve's sister..."
Then, in a clearer voice, Ameline finally confessed to past and present misdeeds. "Oh Jacques, I'm so sorry about what I did. Mathena...she...I poisoned the cake...I almost killed Frollo...wish I did now, but...But the child...Galien...Frollo is never to get his hands on the boy. He is safe and loved where he is. Do not let Claude Frollo win...Do not let him...Promise me..."
Jacques, now with tears freely flowing down his face, sobbed, "I believe you, Ameline, and I promise that Frollo will not come near the boy."
To this Ameline tried to smile in satisfaction that her child, in whom she took no interest from birth onwards, would be safe from Frollo's grasp. It became quite clear, and her predictions about the Minister of Justice those many years ago rang true: Claude Frollo was a dangerous man who would, in time, show his true colors. Now, with the judge struggling with ever-consuming lust for La Esmeralda, said lust is driving the man to commit the worst crimes – just as bad as, if truth be known, the offenses of Ameline or Jehanne Bellot.
"Jacques," she said with dying breath, "I told the priest the same things...he won't tell as he is a man of God...But...Tell Father that I love him, and that I'm sorry for all the wrong I did. Just keep Frollo away from my child..."
And with that, Ameline Bellot took her last breath and exited this life for the next.
He began the long walk back to his lodgings at Le Clef Argente. After thanking the LeClercs for all their timely assistance, and making burial arrangements with the priest, Jacques decided that he should just leave. He nearly went back to his aunt's home, but knowing Lutisse had suffered enough heartbreak in one day, Jacques decided to break the news to Tante Lutisse in the morning. Right now, all he wanted to do was drown his grief in a bottle of good Burgundy and try to get much needed sleep. He would also have to write his father and explain what happened. And to think, he bitterly mused, just a few days ago, he had every intention of remanding Ameline into Frollo's custody. He wished he had returned to the house much earlier, then Ameline would be alive.
Alive...alive long enough to endure Frollo's cruel tortures. Alive long enough to suffer death either by hanging or...
He stopped in mid-step, sank down to his knees then wept freely, his body shaking and heaving with every sob. How unfair this life is! And now, the man Jacques revered and trusted, who wholeheartedly supported him in an unusual, unorthodox bargain for his mother's life...
"Frollo is a murderer, just like my mother, just like my sister. He's burned nearly half of Paris, uprooted countless families, and...for what ungodly reason? To make an innocent Gypsy dancer his bedmate?!"
"That's right," said a soft roughhewn voice. "Frollo wants me for his mistress, nothing more."
When Jacques explained what had happened: Ameline's final confrontation with Frollo, the beating, the fire, and Ameline's death, Esmeralda understood completely.
"She was right," she said, "Frollo is getting desperate. All these fires, all the ransacking and displacment of innocent people, just because he wants me in his bed. This is why I'm on the run."
Within a matter of seconds, Esmeralda recounted the numerous atrocities committed by Judge Frollo. There was the usual roundup of Gypsies, the burning of the miller's home, Captain Phoebus shot and gravely wounded. It was Esmeralda who brought Phoebus to Notre Dame's bell tower to hide out until it was safe. But when will that be?
"Right now," she said, casting her jade green eyes towards the cathedral, "Frollo is up there with Quasimodo. I just hope he doesn't discover Phoebus...Did you know the captain saved the miller's family?"
"Yes, I heard such. I just wish the Captain, or someone else, could have saved my sister. At least she'd still be alive."
Esmeralda took Jacques hand into hers, voiced her condolences, then said, "Look, Jacques, I really have to get going. If I know Frollo, he's wheedling whatever information he can get out of Quasimodo. I just pray that Quasi stands firm and not give in to the judge."
Graciously accepting Esmeralda's sympathies, Jacques wished her well, and that Frollo would, in time, give up the search. "But, as it has been in the past, Minister Frollo will never give up, Esmeralda. I wish that house of Cardin's was in livable condition, and you would have somewhere to stay. But it is gone..."
Esmeralda's ruby lips parted in a winning smile. She said before dashing off into the Parisian night, "Jacques, just think of your sister as she was. Right now, I must return to the Court of Miracles before Frollo finds me..."
Finally, settling at his table at Le Clef Argente, Jacques Bellot drank nearly half a decanter of Burgundy not caring if he got drunk. So what if I become totally inebriated...I want to get drunk. I want to blot out all the bad memories of my sister, her body burned away, screaming in agony, and Frollo...
Jacques, in his half-dazed state, entertained ideas of confronting Claude Frollo. He wanted answers as to why His Grace would resort to such extreme measures. Well, what Frollo did today was extreme, totally insane, and now nearly all of Paris was up in arms. Why else would this stranger who just entered the tavern would call for the Minister of Justice's head?
Jacques almost didn't notice this man. The gentleman, obviously quite wealthy judging from the midnight blue velvet finery and costly precious stone rings adorning the hands, sat at the table across from Jacques. The man's face was the very picture of rage and sadness, all the same. Jacques, partially out of curiosity, and that he really needed someone to talk to, leaned over and introduced himself. The gentleman offered a half smile, returned the introduction, then told Jacques why he came to Paris.
"M. Bellot," he began, "I am Dreu Cardin. Now I'm sure you've heard the tales in and around Paris that Frollo has a price on my head. I came here, knowing the risks, to call on a lovely lady who arrived here some days ago."
Now Jacques was quite alarmed because here is M. Cardin, the very man wanted by Frollo for 'helping Gypsies'. And Cardin owned the house where Ameline took up residence, the very house Frollo torched.
"Sir," Jacques said tentatively, not knowing if Ameline was the lady Dreu Cardin was seeking, "could the lady by chance be Ameline Bellot. She is – was – my sister, sir."
Dreu, a handsome, dashing dark-haired, brown-eyed man in his early forties, replied, "No, M. Bellot. My lady's name is Thomassa Tailbot, and I lent her the use of my Parisian house during her sojourn here. But," His face scowled in righteous anger, his voice rising with every embittered word. "But when I arrived, I found the house burnt to cinders. Thomassa was no where to be found. The neighbors said Frollo did it – He's been doing it all day, what with burning down half of the city. Why? Tell me, if you know!"
When Jacques revealed the bitter truth behind Claude Frollo's plundering and ransacking the city, Dreu Cardin vowed revenge. And he had to press Jacques on the whereabouts of Thomassa.
"Sir," Jacques said in a emotionally choked voice, "I'm afraid that 'Thomassa' is – was – my sister, Ameline. The neighbors found her; she was severely burned...She died a few hours ago."
Copyright©2003 by prp