Oleander

Fiction

Michaela Swedberg

As soon as she stepped into the garden, the Countess Camille Juliette Bouvier felt the weight of expectation gradually slip off of her erect shoulders.  It practically melted off of her like the remnants of snow in the early spring.  The tension of her home floated away as she silently crept from the open door of the cold, stately building towering above her head.  Before her, a long rectangle of dim lamplight spilled from the doorway of the grand house, stretched into the depths of the garden, and beckoned her to follow its path.  Her shadow extended into the darkness along with it and she gazed at it thoughtfully as she admired the flickering light.

Tearing her eyes from her shadow, the Countess drifted forward elegantly and her form seemed ghostlike in glimmering candlelight. She was dressed in a white cotton silk peignoir that fell delicately around her thin figure and satin slippers that peaked out from beneath the hem of her nightdress when she stepped forward. Her thin blonde hair had been pinned up for the night, but a few stray curls bounced around her forehead. Freckles dusted the bridge of her delicate nose and splayed across her full cheeks although she usually covered them with rouge and powder while in public. She was far from being decently clothed. Any sensible person would never have considered going outside in such a state of dress, but her highly irregular appearance was of little consequence to the Countess at the moment. She was intent on visiting her kingdom tonight.

The stark white color of her peignoir shone brightly in the dim light as she resolutely examined the patch of light spilling from the door of her home, claiming it as her little kingdom. The boundaries of her miniature province had become her new fascination during the past few months, and every night when the household was fast asleep she would sneak away from her rooms to come here. She admired the simplicity of her new dominion and the way it cut such a clear patch between her home and the wild darkness of the garden. Both the garden and the house had once been the centers of her intrigue and she had ruled each with the same passion that was now focused on the light in between.  This small, yellow kingdom was so simple in comparison and she thought herself quite humble to have chosen such a place. She sailed across it contentedly, only stopping when the light began dwindle at her feet. She stood still, admiring the gradient of yellow to brown to black that faded away into the path of the garden.

Camille had always been claiming kingdoms since she was a little girl. Or else, she felt as though she had claimed them. She had ruled over everything from her brightly painted nursery to the chatter and fashion of the balls of the French aristocracy. Before she had acquired the kingdoms of the garden or the house or the patch of yellow light, she had reigned over an empire of marriage with her husband, Count Jean Bouvier. He was a fine man of forty years with thick graying hair, deep brown eyes with thoughtful expressions, and a lean build that made him stand up straight when he walked. Many of the women among the aristocracy found him quite handsome even as he aged. He and Camille had been married for four years and everyone from the highest classes of French society agreed that their union was a smart match, indeed. The two looked quite impressive when they stood next to each other and Camille herself had always been pleased with the aesthetic aspects of their marriage. She had initially been quite satisfied in her situation and she remained content for over a year, but soon she began to grow tired of marriage. She began to pursue other interests and subsequently started to ignore the Count, who promptly ignored her back.  He felt that he had no time to deal with the silly endeavors of women with nothing better to do than sit and sip tea all day.

This was when she turned her attentions to the Bouvier household and she became obsessed with running the home as extravagantly as possible. She had redecorated the sitting rooms, refurbished the dining room, and replaced the glass panes in every window. She even hired an entirely new staff while her bewildered husband had to deal with repercussions of losing all of their former maids, butters, and kitchen staff members. She felt quite pleased with the changes she had made to the house but she soon grew weary of redecorating and refurbishing the house. This was when she turned to the garden, much to the chagrin of the gardening staff. First she had the entire garden dug up and cleaned, claiming she disliked the original plants because of their commonplace appearances. She then replaced everything with vibrant flowers of every kind, in every color, from all over the world. The Count scolded her once about the plants, saying that he simply would not import the expensive Pink Lotus flowers she had wanted from India and that she would not be allowed to fire any of the gardeners out of spite. She had pouted and moped for a couple of weeks, absolutely refusing to come out of her pitiful state until she had either acquired the flowers or was allowed to fire the gardening staff out of pure discontent. After a month of dealing with her extreme behavior, the Count had grudgingly imported the Pink Lotuses and Camille was finally appeased.

Of course, the garden didn’t hold her attention for very long after that.

Just as her interests in gardening had begun to fade, the Countess met Henri Victor, the eldest son of General Victor, Duc de Duroc of the French military. Henri was a handsome young man with a promising career as an officer in the military of Napoleon, and Camille could not help but admire him for his shy countenance and sweet features. They were introduced to each other at a ball during carnival when the crowd was filled with costumed aristocrats and, though she stood with her husband, Camille could not help but take a liking to Henri.  Over the next few months the two began to meet consistently in private to avoid prying eyes and eventually they fell madly in love with each other despite the age difference of fifteen years. After that, Henri quickly became Camille’s new obsession.

The Countess stood still for a long moment as she recalled all of this and a feeling of warm pride kindled in her chest. She thought fondly of all her clever improvements on her previous kingdoms while a cool spring gale picked up the hem of her peignoir to make it dance around her ankles. The left corner of her full mouth twitched in amusement at the fabric’s ticklish sensation, and she began to feel quite giddy and childish at the prospect of this new adventure with the yellow patch of light. Her arms hung at her sides and she began to sway with the wind in anticipation although her movements were so minute that one would never have noticed. Everything was silent around her save for the chorus of insects singing out to each other and the hushed rustle of leaves shuddering in the breeze.

Finally, the calm night was interrupted by the steady rhythm of muted footfalls approaching the house. The noise was barely audible as the newcomer crept quietly towards the mansion, but the Countess had been listening intently and she bristled with excitement at the sounds. She felt her heart begin to press against her bosom eagerly as if reaching for the visitor and she lifted her face to search the inky depths of the garden. A feverish anticipation flowered steadily in her belly as the footsteps neared, and every bit of her seemed to be gravitating towards the newcomer, her nightly guest.

Finally a young man emerged from the darkness and cautiously glanced to and fro about the garden in an endearingly nervous manner. He was dressed richly in a black wool overcoat that reached his knees and black trousers that were hemmed perfectly for his legs. He had a thin face with high cheekbones that would have given him a very feminine appearance had it not been for the carefully manicured mustache adorning his upper lip. The mustache curled outwards delicately to tickle his cheeks, which were now girlishly pink from his cautious trek across the large garden.

“Ah! Mon cheri, Henri!” The Countess cried in excited hushed tones. She practically skipped across the border of her yellow kingdom and embraced the young man vigorously, placing a kiss on his thin cheek with her cold lips. Henri looked up at the house nervously and wondered for the hundredth time why Camille insisted that they meet right outside the rear door of her home.

“I have missed you, Henri!” She beamed up at him as she loosened her grip on the young man’s neck to slide her hands down his arms. The Countess could feel the empty windows of the estate staring down on her and her new lover, and she felt a rush of adrenaline at the prospect of being caught.

“And I, you, mon cher Camille!” Henri held her close and tenderly tucked a stray curl behind her ear. “You will catch your death out here in such thin clothes!”

His young eyes twinkled with mischief and adoration for the older woman in his embrace who gazed up at him with such a silly expression. He gathered her in his arms and led her away from the house to a pavilion in the middle of the garden where two woolen blankets had been set on a stone bench. He wrapped the Countess in one of the blankets and sat down beside her to keep her warm in the cool night air.

The couple began to chat together, sharing the events of their day and flirtatiously glancing into each other’s eyes now and again. Camille politely inquired about the health Henri’s father, General Victor, Duc de Duroc, who had recently fallen gravely ill. Henri explained sadly that the situation had taken a turn for the worse and that his father might pass within the next days. Camille crossed herself at this and uttered a solemn prayer while Henri looked on her gratefully.

Then they talked of Camille’s husband, Count Bouvier. Camille bristled when she spoke of him and openly described how tiresome their marriage had become in the past few years. She rambled on for a good fifteen minutes about how the relationship was loveless and how she wished there were some way to free herself from such a burdensome union. She sighed heavily at the end of her monologue as her shoulders slumped dramatically from their usual regally erect position. Henri made no response for a few moments so she turned her large blue eyes on him and waited for him to agree with her per usual. But instead of meeting her eyes the way he normally did, Henri averted his gaze to stare at the ground before him. His feet shuffled nervously the way they always did when he had something unpleasant to share. Camille straightened, somewhat miffed that he was not sympathizing with her.

Gathering her wits, Camille smiled sweetly at her lover, “You’ve got something to say, mon cheri?”

“Well…” Henri began timidly, “It is just that I am growing tired of having to sneak around to be with you, mon cher…I do not know how long this will last with your husband still in the picture. But there is nothing we can do to get rid of him. I have been pondering our predicament for quite some time, and our love may not be able to survive the cruelties of this world if we are forced to continue this way.”

Camille looked down at her hands folded in her lap, “Well…there is one thing we could do…”

Henri looked up at her and waited for her to continue. Camille’s heart lifted a little as she gained his full attention and consciously squared her shoulders under his eyes.

“While I was recreating this beautiful garden, I imported many different exotic plants from all over the world. It is filled with pink lotuses from India, amaryllises from the Caribbean, and white gardenias from the southern regions of Asia. I have an immense variety of flowers here and each bloom is as beautiful as its neighboring bud.”

Camille paused here and slid her eyes over to Henri to make sure she had his undivided attention. She observed him momentarily and determined that he was indeed listening intently so she looked down at her folded hands once more.

“But my flowers are not just pretty, mon cheri. Oh no…a few of them are also incredibly deadly.”

Henri shifted uncomfortably as he began to wonder where his sweet Camille was going with this little speech. This was a very strange side of her that he had never experienced. She seemed like a completely different woman at the moment. His brow furrowed and for the first time: he realized just how much power a woman like Camille held over herself and others even if she was just a woman. He’d always been a little intimidated by the Countess for her beauty and charm were unmatched among noble women her age, but this fear he felt rising in his belly now was much different.

“There is a sweet little flower called oleander at the edge of the garden near the rear door of the estate. Its blossoms are pale pink and the petals are soft to the touch. It has a very delicate and elegant appearance, and I quite enjoy sitting by them in the afternoons.” Camille shifted. “However, a single leaf of the oleander plant is enough to kill a full grown man.”

His fears confirmed, Henri straightened abruptly and began to wave his hands in protest, “No, mon cher, how could we do such a thing? How could you even suggest such a terrible act? I cannot approve of it, mon cher, I simply will not let you do it.”

Camille had jumped a little when Henri had disagreed so suddenly and now she looked on him with a frightened expression of a woman who was unsure of what to do with herself in the face of such exasperation. Her bottom lip quivered slightly as she listened to his answer and Henri stopped speaking immediately at the first tremble of that beautifully full lip.

Camille’s eyes began to fill with tears upon hearing all of this from her lover and she sniffled as the fat droplets blurred her vision. Henri looked up when the Countess sniffed and his face immediately reddened, now embarrassed and ashamed that he had reacted so violently. He reached for Camille and held her in his arms tightly as her sniffs turned to whimpers turned to sobs. She began to apologize profusely for suggesting such a terrible thing and that the cool night air must be mixing her thoughts up. Henri sent up a silent prayer of thanks for the woolen blankets as Camille was now beginning to wail directly into the folded blanket.

“Oh, mon cher, I was only trying to be realistic. Come now, stop your crying and kiss me for a moment…that’s better, now let me dry your pretty cheeks. Ah, what lovely blue eyes you have, Camille, even when they’re filled with tears.”

The Countess sniffed dejectedly as her misery began to wane. Henri dabbed at her face with a handkerchief from his pocket and whispered to her in hushed tones to comfort her. She cuddled into him and it was soon agreed between the two that it was time for them to part for the night. Henri helped the Countess up from the bench carefully and slowly escorted her back to their initial meeting place at the rear door. The candles inside had dimmed significantly and the bright yellow rectangle of flickering light had become a much fainter version of itself.

Henri took the blankets from Camille and kissed her at the doorway, whispering his affections for her in a calming manner. Camille sniffed and blushed as she assured the young man that she reciprocated his love in every way possible. Henri smiled and turned to begin his trek through the garden away from the house while the Countess watched him disappear into the darkness of the moonless night. She remained in the door to listen to his footsteps gradually fade into the chorus of insects who were still calling to each other in the hidden places of her magnificent garden.

When Henri had finally gone, the Countess Camille shifted her gaze to her right and searched the array of exotic plants for the small pink blooms of the oleander plant. Finding the innocent looking plant, she cocked her head at it and thought about Henri and his reaction to her suggestion of murder. Was it dangerous for him to know about her considerations concerning the oleander?  She could not decide.

After several moments of pondering this, the Countess managed to tear her eyes from the sweet little plant and turn away to enter the rear door of her grand home. As she closed the door behind her, she extinguished the patch of light and she began to think of how boring Henri had become recently.