The Liddell Estate was anything but quaint. Bought and constructed by Monsieur Liddell's grandparents in 1782 and finished in 1785, it was a staple of the time. Each and every Alabaman – and even some Mississippians – knew of the marvel.
The entire plantation was a perfect square, divided into four segments. Its cotton field occupied three: the top-left sector, the top-right, and the bottom-right. Said to be the largest in the state, the land stretched across two thousand acres. A mammoth of a cotton gin occupied a vast expanse and cleaned over sixty pounds of fiber a day. Within the depths of cotton was a grange for the livestock and living spaces for the one hundred slaves.
The bottom-left sector was populated by the garden belonging to Madame Liddell. Flowers from all around the world filled the massive maze of greenery. Thousands were wedding endowments, as well as donations from the local florists and gifts from visiting nobility. It was said that a small few were allowed inside on account of Madame Liddell's protectiveness.
In the center of the plot sat a grand three-story manor. Stone pillars were seemingly guarding the enormous windows and front sitting area. It was a spectacle of architecture in both its exterior and interior. Sweeping staircases, intricate designs etched into the plaster of the walls and ceilings, velvet curtains that reached six yards long, floorboards made of Peltogyne wood, and several more extravagant adornments decorated the seventeen rooms.
The lineage of the Liddell family was almost as famous as their estate. Marietta, Oswald's wife, was the closest living kin to the late Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France – hence the significant amount of wealth and land, and an equally opulent husband. Her royal bloodline granted her a social circle that included the county's prominent selectmen and women, and a lovely assemblage of daughters.
And yet, four of the five – Marie, Annabelle, Pearl, and Tallulah – were no longer residents of the manor, for they were all wed to their suitors and lived on their own properties. Their absence left their childhood home quiet to some degree, with the exception of their youngest sibling, Birdie.
Grandmother Maria had once described Birdie best, having called her a "wet hen with too much gumption" on her thirteenth birthday when Birdie threw a fit. The seventy-year-old woman had snatched the brat by the ear and gave her a piece of her mind then. And despite bringing Birdie to ruddy tears, this hadn't stopped the her behavior.
Now, at fifteen, Birdie was seen in the eyes of society as a woman who was ready to do things like gossip over bitter tea and knit pantaloons. There was a harrowing reality of an endless string of suitors that loomed over her. The last thing she wanted was to be married off to someone she barely knew, live in a humble one-story townhouse, and possibly die for the sake of birthing an heir.
Birdie much preferred her life as it currently was. She had no worries or ambition, as she was expected to simply remain in the home and act like a proper lady of the South. Since her schooling was paused for the summer season, she enjoyed the freedom she was allowed so little of. A whole day could be spent gazing at the unlimited arrangement of plants in her mother's garden or pestering the hardworking servants. The only difference was that she grew older with each passing day, and yet none the wiser.
It was harmless tedium, but it was what Birdie knew best.
Then came the day when her mother suggested that she take piano lessons to pass the time. They lounged beside one another in the sunroom, their afternoon lemonade and sandwiches long forgotten. "Weren't you fussing about having nothing to do recently? This could be your much-needed avocation," Marietta said. "Knowing how to play such an instrument can be very fulfilling."
Birdie scoffed, "I refuse.”
"Oh, mon chéri, how come?"
“I have my reasons.”
“And they those reasons are...?”
"Because I would rather spend my days staring out the window before partaking in such a childish activity. Because piano lessons are for youngin's, not grown-ups. Because I refuse!"
Marietta visibly shrunk at the harsh words. But she pushed, "I'd hate to see the piano in the great hall go to waste. It was a gift from your père's Auntie Agatha before she passed. She would have loved to see you play."
"If you're so concerned with it withering away, then why don't you take lessons?"
"Well, how about we take them together? That way, we could learn—"
With a huff, Birdie rose from the couch. She found it foolish that her mother, at her ghastly age, would want to try to learn something so trivial alongside her youngest child. The thought itself was embarrassing enough to make her skin crawl. Next, she'd be asking to have a heart-to-heart with the lower class, for goodness sake.
She crossed the foyer to the main stairway. She heard Marietta, apparently desperate to extract more of a conversation, trailing behind her.
To her luck, one of the maids by the name of Dinah announced that there were two men at the door.
"Did they say who they were, Dinah?" her mother asked, having stopped in her tracks.
Dinah shook her head. “No, Madame Liddell. All they said was that they needed to speak with you an' Monsieur Liddell."
As though by cue, Oswald appeared from around the corner. His fingers were stained with ink, still wet after hours cooped up in his study. He removed his smudged, half-moon spectacles and inquired, "Who needs to speak with me?"
"Two men outside," Marietta provided.
"Well, let them in, Dinah. No use in letting them swelter out there."
"Yes, sir, Monsieur Liddell."
Birdie was curious to see who the visitors were and found herself slowing on the stairway.
She staggered at the sight of the pair; they were dressed in rags and caked in dirt. The first man was larger than his partner, both in stature and girth. His expression was blank as he fumbled with the bags in his hands. The second man was thin, but not gangly in the least, and carried himself with more prowess.
The second man lifted the brim of his top hat and bowed at the waist. "Madame Marietta Liddell, I presume?" he said. His voice was hauntingly tender, a shocking opposite to his appearance.
"Yes, I am. I am Madame Marietta Liddell. And this is my husband, Monsieur Oswald Liddell," said Marietta. Almost mechanically, she reached her hand forward for him to kiss.
He grasped her hand between his. His face split into a broad smile as he patted it. “Oh, Marietta, I'm ever so delighted to meet you at last!"
Before he could embrace her entirely, Oswald interjected, "If you’d beg my parden, gentlemen, but how do you know my wife?”
"Ah! How careless of me. I have overlooked the tale of my whereabouts – a tale that has been spread throughout the countries. I am Louis the seventeenth, son of former King Louis the sixteenth of France and Queen Marie Antoinette," the second man explained. "I am here with my loyal friend, Regulus Egerton, the Duke of Bilge– Ahem, Bridgewater, son of Francis—"
The man beside him grumbled, "How d'you do?”
"—to see my estranged great-niece, Marietta, in the flesh.”
Oswald and Marietta exchanged looks of complete surprise. It took them a moment for the words to fully sink in. Marietta spoke up first, stammering, "But Louis-Charles died years ago. From an illness, I was told. How could you possibly be—?"
"My darlin’ Marietta, have you not heard of the horrible legend that is the Lost Dauphin? Well, as you can see, it is not a legend. It is merely the truth. Why, I'd be loungin' on the throne as we speak had it not been for the upstart Corsican, who snaked me out of my own title."
Even so, Oswald‘s mouth was twisted in doubt. "You don't look like royalty. Or talk like one," he observed. "How can we be sure that you two aren't trying to swindle us?"
While Regulus began to chew on his lower lip, Louis-Charles paused and collected himself. "I understand your skepticism, Monsieur Liddell. I respect it. I would ask the same of someone who suddenly emerged in my foyer, speaking the things I speak. And I am more than happy to offer you proof of my claims.”
He dug through the insides of his torn coat and produced an emerald rivière from his pocket.
The jewels nestled within the chain glittered in the light. It was a beautiful piece of French craftsmanship. It was familiar too.
"This is the sole heirloom I possess from my mother, Marie Antoinette herself. It was a rivière she favored above all the rest," he bragged. "Now, Marietta, seeing as you are the only other living descendant of the former queen, I'm sure you recognize this?"
Sitting at the steps, Birdie was genuinely astonished by his ability to turn the tables on her unsuspecting mother.
There was a sort of cleverness in the man that could be dangerous if in the wrong situation. This was a man who could talk himself out of jail time with Sheriff Cunningham, or death with the Grim Reaper.
Marietta was an intelligent woman for her day and age, but she did not like being proven wrong. She gaped at the dangling rivière. Then she balked, "Why, of course, I recognize it! Ma mère – may God bless her soul – spoke of it often. Even showed me portraits of Queen Antoinette wearing it."
A satisfied smile crept onto Louis-Charles' lips, "Then you are convinced that I am your great-uncle?"
"Oh, how could I have doubted you? I'm so ashamed!" Marietta exclaimed. With that, she threw her arms around his shoulders and clutched him tightly.
Louis-Charles gave a hearty laugh, relishing the attention, and returned the hug. "You have no idea how I've longed to see you, my sweet Marietta,” he hummed.
Once his wife released her great-uncle, the lord of the manor took a step forward and shook both of the men's hands. "Welcome, Louis-Charles. Welcome, Regulus. I believe an apology is in order—"
"Nonsense, nonsense! No such apologies are required. You were only doing what you thought was right, Monsieur Liddell," said Louis-Charles. He kept his hands clasped around Marietta's in an indication of endearment while he spoke. "I‘m sure I heard through the grapevine that you two have quite the family here. Isn’t it four beautiful daughters...?"
"Five. But alas, the four oldest are no longer live with us. You see, they're all married," Oswald clarified. "But our youngest, Birdie, is still here. Would you like to meet her?"
At the mention of her name, Birdie jumped and rushed up the rest of the steps. Evidently, she had more of a brain than both of her parents combined, and she had enough sense to avoid the pair of jackanapes. Being introduced to them was entirely out of the question.
"We would simply love to make her acquaintance. Wouldn't we, Regulus?"
"Uh-huh! I mean– yes, we sure would."
"Excellent." Oswald turned on his heel to face the stairway and zeroed in on his daughter, attempting to scamper out of view. "Birdie, come down here at once," he instructed.
Her fingers tightened around the railing. She hesitated for a moment and started her descent down the steps. Watching Louis-Charles and Regulus raise their eyes in her direction made her uneasy. She found herself frozen again when she stood within a few feet of the strangers. "Bonjour," Birdie grunted.
It was evident that Regulus wasn't nearly as interested in her as Louis-Charles. He resembled a coyote sizing up its prey – what with his enlarged pupils, heightened stance, drooling teeth.
Birdie didn’t scare easily, but she felt goosepimples prickling along her arms as her long-lost relative licked his lips.
"Birdie, don't be rude. Introduce yourself properly," Marietta whispered in her ear.
Sighing, the girl took either side of her dress and dipped in a stiff curtsey, lowering her head. "How do you do? I'm Mademoiselle Birdie Liddell."
"How d'you do? I'm sure you overhead – but, as a provision – I am Louis-Charles the seventeenth, and this is Regulus. Come closer, little dove," Louis-Charles said and opened his arms in invitation.
She approached for an embrace similar to the one she saw him gift her mother. What she didn't expect was for Louis-Charles to sweep her off her feet, hold her by the thighs, and shower her with kisses. "Oh, Birdie! What a pretty little thing you've become. I could just eat you up," he cooed. He punctuated his last statement with a small nip behind her ear, hidden from her parents and Dinah.
As a child, Birdie was no stranger to cuddles with her father, but she couldn't help noticing a few fair differences between his and her great-great-uncle's:
Oswald's hug would be welcomed; Louis-Charles' was utterly unwanted.
Oswald's face would always be clean-shaven; the harsh stubble of Louis-Charles' scraped against her cheeks.
Oswald's fingertips would never stray from the appropriate areas; Louis-Charles' squeezed at her hips and calves.
Finished with his exhibition, he settled Birdie onto his left hipbone – much like a slave would with their own child during picking hours. His neck was red from his exertions. He claimed, "You ought to be proud of how lovely your darling girl is. Her beauty should be talked about from here to Pikesville!"
"You say that now, but you'll see how much of a spitfire our 'darling girl' can be!" Marietta snickered, although Birdie wasn't aware of the joke.
"Mother, I want to go to my room."
"Hooey, you have got to stay down here with us. I'd like it very much if we got more acquainted, my dear," said Louis-Charles.
"He is right, Birdie. You can spare a few moments locked in that cave you call a room and spend some quality time with your family," her mother agreed. "Louis-Charles is your great-great-uncle, you know. He traveled a long way to see us. The least you can do is talk to him for a little while."
"Now, shall we move to the parlor?" Marietta was already halfway across the foyer out of excitement.
"That's very kind of you, Marietta. Thank you. We appreciate your hospitality," Louis-Charles beamed. He adjusted Birdie on his hip and followed his newfound great-niece into the next room, with Regulus and Oswald in tow.