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Milady de Winter's Ghost

by Marco den Ouden 7 months ago in Short Story · updated 7 months ago
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Ghostly apparition or crazed lunatic? You decide!

Execution of Milady de Winter by Maurice LeLoir (public domain)

There is a small cottage along the banks of the Lys near Armentières, France and it is said that it is the very cottage where d’Artagnan and the three musketeers and their associates tried Milady de Winter for her crimes.

Found guilty and sentenced to death, she was taken by the masked executioner to a small boat and ferried to the other bank of the river. On the boat she managed to loosen the bonds securing her feet and on reaching the other bank she leapt ashore and made a run for it. Her feet lost traction on the muddy bank and she fell to her knees.

Believing fate had intervened to prevent her escape, she bowed her head and did not move. D’Artagnan and his friends, watching from the other bank, saw the man in the red cloak raise his sword. As Alexandre Dumas tells it, “They heard the hissing of the scimitar and the cry of the victim, then a truncated mass sank beneath the blow.”

The man spread his red cape on the ground, threw the body and the head on top, pulled it together in a bundle and stepped back in the skiff. At mid-river he dropped the bundle into the Lys.

For several hundred years since, they say you can see Milady’s ghost walking on the water looking for her head.

*************

She had made her way through Armentières to the path meandering along the Lys by a circuitous route, looking back occasionally to make sure she wasn’t being followed. Now she headed south. The paved portion of the path ended just on the edge of the village of Erquinghem and became a dirt track carved into the grassy bank over the ages.

She walked with a quickness of step that bespoke a woman on a mission. In the distance she saw the dilapidated old cottage. She continued along the path looking towards the river. Then she saw it as she had remembered it. An old rowboat tied to a small dock.

She shuffled through the tall grass to the wharf. Merde! There was an old man asleep in the boat. Probably some vagrant who had slept there for the night. Or maybe a drunk sleeping it off. She had planned to borrow the skiff, row to the middle of the river, dump her cargo overboard and row back. Now what? Maybe she could put the old man to good use. He could do the rowing.

She called out as she approached, “Veillard! You there!”

The old man didn’t stir. She came up alongside the weathered old vessel and called again. “Hey you!”

She stepped down into the boat and gave the grizzled old geezer a kick. “I’m talking to you!”

The man stirred and opened his eyes. “Mademoiselle?”

She thought about it a second. Asking him to row her to the middle of the river and back would seem strange. She better ask him to row her across and she would surreptitiously drop her bundle overboard when he wasn’t looking. She could walk back on the opposite shore as there was a bridge at Armentières.

“Can you row me to the other side?” she asked.

“Surely mademoiselle,” the old gent replied good naturedly.

The man took the middle seat between the oarlocks and she clambered into the seat behind him. He untied the boat and pushed off from the shore and started rowing.

As they got away from the shore, the man remarked, “It’s passing strange seeing a woman alone out here, if you don’t mind me saying so, mademoiselle.”

“Strange?” she countered, “Why strange? Modern women can go where they want, when they want. You have an antiquated attitude. Not to mention an antiquated way of speaking.”

“Aye, that I do, madam. But I’m not saying a woman can’t be out alone. You miss my meaning. Ain’t ye afeard of the specter that haunts these parts?”

“Ha!” she scoffed. “You mean that old saw about Milady de Winter’s ghost? That’s a load of superstitious malarkey. I don’t believe in that crap.”

“But it be true, miss. The tale be true. She haunts these waters as sure as I’m pulling these oars.”

“Well I’ve never seen her and I’ve walked by here often enough.”

The old man grunted and kept rowing. At the halfway point he spoke up again.

“Ye can toss your package overboard here, mademoiselle.”

“What the …,” she thought. Something weird about this old coot. How did he know I was going to toss something overboard.

The man stood up and turned around and sat back down facing her. “Are ye going to toss it?”

“Toss what?”

“That object you have wrapped up in your purse,” he replied.

She sat there stunned. Should she toss it and ask him to row her back? Should she feign ignorance and continue her journey across the river? If she tossed it, the man would be a witness. She couldn’t have that. She better bluff her way across and find somewhere else to throw the object.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “Just row me across the river.”

The old-timer grinned and replied, “Ye don’t know much about ghosts now, do ye? Do ye want to know why ye ain’t seen Milady’s ghost?”

“Cut the crap with this ghost talk. I haven’t seen her because there is no such thing as ghosts. It’s superstitious bullshit. So let’s hear no more about it. Just row me across the damned river.”

“Oh mademoiselle, how little ye know. People who see ghosts see two kinds — ghosts of things they love ‘n’ ghosts o’ things they fear. Now good people fear evil things. Milady de Winter was an evil woman. A woman who committed three murders, one attempted murder, two solicitations to commit murder, one of them successful and she drove a man to suicide. The devil incarnate I tell you.”

“Who gives a damn about that? Milady de Winter isn’t even real. She’s a character in a book, a figment of Alexandre Dumas’ imagination.”

“Aye, miss. That is what ye believe. But Dumas, himself, claimed the tale was true.”

The grizzled old man paused. The girl stared at him a moment. Then he spoke again.

“I ask you again, do ye know why ye have not seen the specter of Milady de Winter?”

“Why?” she shouted derisively. “Why, you old fool? Why haven’t I seen this non-existent ghost?”

“Because people only see the apparitions they love or fear. Their dearly departed and demons from hell. Evil does not fear evil. And so evil does not see evil. Do you know what evil people fear?”

She was feeling a bit apprehensive now, but not about any supposed ghost. She feared the crazy old man. “What do they fear?” she replied caustically, a not so subtle hint of sarcasm in her voice.

“Justice!” the old man bellowed. “They fear justice!”

She sat staring at him stunned. A raving loony she thought.

“Ye forget the story, mademoiselle,” the ancient old man continued. “Milady did not cross the river alone. There are two in the tale. Do you know who the other was?”

“The executioner of Lille!” she screamed. “The executioner of Lille!”

Then it hit her. This raving lunatic believed himself to be the ghost of the executioner of Lille. He meant to kill her. Fearing for her life, she took the bundle from her purse and pulled the knife from the cloth it was wrapped in. There were still traces of blood on the blade. She pointed the blade at the man and said, “Row! Ramez, vieux bâtard. Row!”

“Yes milady,” he replied and pulled at the oars. He pulled on one at first until he was facing the opposite shore.

“Not there!” she shouted. “Back! Back to where we came from.”

The old man kept rowing.

“Turn back!” she screamed, her mind fevered and in a frenzy now.

The old man kept rowing.

She stood up and waved the knife at him. “Turn back, I tell you. Turn back! I’ve used this knife before and I’ll use it again. Turn back!”

The old man kept rowing.

It was then she noticed what she had overlooked before. On the floor behind the crazy man was a cloak lying in a heap. It was black. But she trembled a bit when she noticed one fold of it turned over showing red. Beside the cloak lay a long object wrapped in an animal hide.

The old man kept rowing.

They reached the opposite shore and she quickly jumped off. As she fled up the bank she glanced back and saw the relic put on the cape. Then she saw him pull a nasty looking sword from the folds of the hide. He jumped to the shore in pursuit.

She continued to scramble up the bank when she hit a muddy patch. Her legs gave out from under her and she slid back down the bank. She got to her knees and looked back. She saw the man had a mask on now and was almost upon her.

She was not superstitious like Milady de Winter. She did not believe as Milady did, “that heaven denied its aid.” But like Milady, she gave up the fight. She bent her head and waited for the blow she knew would come.

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Short Story

About the author

Marco den Ouden

Marco is the published author of two books on investing in the stock market. Since retiring in 2014 after forty years in broadcast journalism, Marco has become an avid blogger on philosophy, travel, and music He also writes short stories.

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