In 1775, the prospects for leisure were slim, but available nevertheless. 28-year old Jean Baptiste frequented a local ale house that saw its fair share of scoundrels, but also invited the town’s upper class when the need was there. It was at the Maroon Brothers’ place that Jean Baptiste first laid eyes on the woman that would change his motivation, his dream, of being a farmer worthy of his father’s respect, to the single-minded goal that would throw his life into a turmoil lasting the next couple of years.
Lady Catherine walked into the pub on the arm of her husband, Sir Simon Bergeron, that fateful day in mid-January. The chores on Jean Baptiste’s farm were done for the day, thoughts of planting for the season still a few weeks away. It was during the winter months the labouring class played hard, to make up for the gruelling work of the fields during the spring, summer and fall.
Jean Baptiste was about to fold in a game of cards when the handsome couple entered the room. His eyes immediately sized up both persons, but lingered on the porcelain skin of Mrs. Bergeron’s fair bosom, still perky despite being closer to 40 years old than 30, and having fed six children. He then focused on her exquisite and thoughtful eyes. There was a wisdom there, a mischievous wisdom that dared him not to look away. Jean Baptiste did though – he couldn’t help but return the scathing stare of Mr. Bergeron, who noticed the silent exchange between his wife and the ragged habitant.
Jean Baptiste took another look at his cards, and deciding to take a risk, threw a copper piece into the centre of the table. He could barely afford it, but that one glance from Lady Catherine instilled in him a kind of cockiness he’d never experienced before. The need to impress her overpowered his sensible reasoning. He looked across at his opponent, his old neighbour and sometimes friend, sometimes enemy, Pierre Girard, with a straight face that betrayed nothing. Jean Baptiste rarely showed a straight face, known in town as the joker, willing to do just about anything for a laugh. That should’ve been Girard’s first clue that he was bluffing, but the hint passed unnoticed. The two other card players in the game, who had already lost enough, laid their hands down and sat back to observe, huffed and chuckled with a knowing look between them. Far be it from them to disturb an entertaining game that was about to get even more exciting.
Girard studied his cards, glanced at Jean Baptiste over his spectacles, watching for a sign that would reveal his opponent’s intentions. Finding none, he took five stacked copper pieces and pushed them slowly into the centre of the table.
“Seeing your one, and raising you four,” he said to Jean Baptiste, who raised a single eyebrow ever so slightly. This could illustrate a variety of thoughts, including disbelief that Pierre took the bait, glee in his upcoming windfall, or something entirely different. What Girard didn’t know was that Jean Baptiste wasn’t thinking of the game on the table, but of the game that just walked in the door.
“Well, he must be holding a fairly decent set of cards, to make that commitment to the game,” thought Jean Baptiste. “What have I gotten myself into?” He quickly counted up the pot, compared the amount to his own small stack of coins and realized he had no choice but to continue the ruse.
His right eyebrow raised even further, he looked over Girard’s shoulder and spied the Lady Catherine intently watching the game. He smiled and gave her a nod, which she dismissed by not acknowledging. Graces, he assumed, prevented her from smiling back, but there was still a tension in the air between them. Nonchalantly, he pushed his remaining money into the centre of the table, a couple of coppers and an I.O.U. from his other neighbour, Pierre Prudhomme.
“All in,” Jean Baptiste announced loudly and sternly, ensuring the Lady Catherine heard. “I’m not letting this one get away,” meaning more than the potential winnings from the card game. He leaned back in his chair and scanned the room, giving the impression of confidence. He noticed a few pairs of eyes on the game, probably those wanting to join in the next round, seeing that the show-off J.B. Gignac was giving away coppers.
Girard’s eyes grew wide and he jutted out his chin at his neighbour. “Too rich for your own good, eh?” He arranged his cards again in his hand, shook his head a bit, sucked in his cheek and then threw them face down on the table. “Ah… merde! Take it all then, you filthy cochon!”
The surrounding crowd broke out in a cacophony that enlisted everyone’s attention in the room, and allowed the Lady Catherine to look again at the ruggedly handsome man that caught her eye upon arrival. The man bellowed out an abrupt guffaw she assumed passed for laughter, and she watched as he raked his winnings in the net of his arms, an effervescent smile on his lips and a devious glint in his eye. When he turned his cards over, he revealed nothing more than a pair of nines.
“Qu’est-ce?!?” Girard’s chair screeched as he pushed himself away from the table, nearly knocking it over with the force of his humiliation. “Nines! Why you little…” Girard reached out for Jean Baptiste’s shirt collar and grabbed a hold, shaking the younger farmer and drawing his right arm back, winding up to deliver a blow. A couple of small shrieks were stifled behind the gloved hands of those ladies present, but Catherine stood silently watching the display of bravado coming from both men, eyes wide and enraptured.
Girard’s fist successfully connected with Jean Baptiste’s jaw, and was just about to strike again when J.B. ducked and reciprocated the aggression with a roundhouse that left Girard’s left eye bloody. The table was upended and the two came together in a sort of dance, both men holding onto each other’s collars, both murmuring jibes and goading each other on. After a few seconds, though, the scowls turned into sneers, more words were exchanged, and those sneers evolved into smiles. Much to the surprise of Lady Catherine (but not to the crowd in general), the two men ended the altercation with a gruff hug, a couple forceful pats on the back, and the promise of another game next weekend with the potential of evening the score.
Lady Catherine watched, bemused at the situation. She’d heard of these types of exchanges, where grown men play games and release testosterone in a good-natured rumble, but had never seen it happen. It excited her; she felt her cheeks warm and a smile crept onto her lips without her knowing. When she noticed the young man gingerly wipe the blood from his swollen lip, she felt her stomach flip-flop. Was this due to the excitement of the action, or was it caused by the man’s presence alone?
Sir Simon Bergeron watched the entire exchange between the two men with an unimpressed air of condescension. “So uncivilized,” he said under his breath, turning away from the ruckus to focus on his wife. It was then he noticed the Lady Catherine intently watching the young farmer, the colour from her cheeks spreading down to her heaving chest, as if she’d just run from one end of town to the other.
“Nonsense,” he thought, dismissing the attraction. “I’ll put that thought out of Catherine’s mind later tonight.” He tightened his grip around her waist, so much that Jean Baptiste noticed Catherine’s discomfort as he was collecting his winnings from the floor. Crouched down, only a few feet away from her, he felt a sense of purpose that placed him high above all of the other men in the room, including, he believed, Sir Simon Bergeron. Jean Baptiste was in love with Catherine Le Beau, and would stop at nothing to win her hand.