January into February 1934 had given the people who came into La Première Etoile plenty to talk about. There had been Stavinsky’s supposed suicide (or assassination as many were calling it). They were all repeating Le Canard Enchaîné’s quip about Stavinsky having a “long arm” if he could have shot himself from the distance that the bullet which killed him came from.
The government had fallen on January 23rd and Camille Chautemps had been replaced by Édouard Daladier much to the satisfaction of hardly anyone. Those on the right end of the political spectrum were still harping on the Stavinsky scandal as proof of liberal corruption while those on the left end believed that Daladier’s party was too cozy with the conservatives and fascists.
On February 6th, people were warned to be careful when they went out that night because there was talk of rioting. That evening found Marianne working the closing shift. She yawned through her last few hours of work and tried to stay awake. Though she was feeling better than she had back in December, her former vitality had not fully returned yet. She was afraid that she was becoming sluggish and lazy and was putting on weight. She was dreadfully afraid of gaining extra weight which might be less noticeable on taller women.
Since getting out of the hospital, her will to live had returned somewhat. Maybe she finally understood what her aunts had been telling her the whole time, to be strong and hold on till the end. Something Mother Superior had always told the girls at school came back to her, “a life spent avoiding heartache is a life unlived.”
It was probably somewhere between nine and nine thirty. She had an hour left of work, a half hour if she was being optimistic. The last few customers were coming in and out. A party of four came in, three men and a girl. Then three men were all well dressed in dark suits, overcoats, and homburgs. The girl was perhaps the most beautiful she had ever seen off of a movie screen. She had a striking combination of almost black hair and almost white skin, deep red lips, brilliant blue eyes, a dazzling smile, and a way of carrying herself as if she was perfectly aware of her beauty but was not conceited about it. Her clothing seemed to have its cue from its wearer’s coloring; she wore a black dress and hat, red shoes, a white coat, and a blue necklace. The whole look was worthy of a Vogue fashion plate. This little group were the only people left in the café. They chatted secretively amongst themselves.
The minutes ticked by like an eternity. Marianne was exhausted, she simply wished that these people would leave so she could go home. She went over to bring them a basket of bread and stifled a yawn.
“Past your bedtime, honey?” one of the men asked.
Marianne haughtily ignored his comment and continued with pouring them glasses of water.
“What time does this joint close?” another asked.
“You’re a sweet kid, do know that? How about you join us for a drink?”
‘No thanks, I’m still on that job,” Marianne yawned again.
The dark beauty and the man seated closest to her appeared to be playfully arguing.
“You are not so cute,” he said.
“That Augustin Lerou is,” she said.
Marianne blanched at the sound of that name.
“Can’t you see the young lady is exhausted?” He said to Madame Océane, “Why don’t you let her off? We’re good friends of her’s and we’ll see she gets home alright.”
“Marianne, I’ll let you off early,” Madame Océane answered “They’re the only ones left. If you want to join them, you can. Just get home before it gets late.”
“Would Mademoiselle care to join us?”
Marianne did not want to join them and saw no reason why she should except maybe curiosity.
But a desire to know why they wanted her company overcame her better judgement.
The man who had asked her over was tall, well built, and good looking. His tannish skin and light hair were a nice contrast to his beautiful lady friend’s snow white skin and ebony hair. He smiled as if he knew how good looking men with mercilessly charming smiles affected her. There was something about him which made one want to trust him. His large brown doe eyes gave the appearance of complete innocence. But he looked at her as if he knew all about her and exactly where she was vulnerable. Marianne had to admit, she found him both fascinating and frightening.
“Have you had your supper yet?” He asked.
“No,” she responded.
“Then how’bout I treat you to dinner.”
“I’d rather pay for it myself, Monsieur.”
Marianne took a seat between her host and his lady friend. The lady friend turned and said “I’m Hélène.”
Oh yes, Hélène, the famous singer. Which meant that her host was Bruno Faucherie.
“How are you this evening?” Faucherie asked Marianne.
“Alright,” she answered.
“What are you going to have for dinner?”
“I’m not sure. I’m not terribly hungry.”
“I hear the chicken cassoulet here is excellent,” Hélène added.
“Then I’ll have that.”
Manon brought over a dish of cassoulet with five plates. Everyone at the table helped themselves. Faucherie poured Marianne a glass of wine which she did not touch.
“May I know who I have the pleasure of dining with tonight?” She asked him, since he had not yet properly introduced himself.
“I’m Bruno Faucherie,” he answered, “And you are Marianne d’Aubrey.”
“How do you know me?”
“I make it my business to know people, especially when they are as pretty as you.”
The smell of the cassoulet was intoxicating and it made her realize that she was hungrier than she thought. She dipped some bread into the sauce and picked at the bits of chicken and sausage and carrot and celery while avoiding the beans which she did not like.
One of the men who had come in with Faucherie had gone outside. He came back in, whispered something to the other man and they both left.
“Where did they go?” Marianne asked.
“To take care of something,” Faucherie answered simply.
And that was that.
Marianne believed that she heard the sound of a struggle in alley outside but knew that it was best not to say anything.
When the two men returned, they gave their apologies to the ladies and sat back down to enjoy some more cassoulet.
Marianne found herself having a good time much to her surprise. They talked about an Egyptian themed party that Faucherie and Hélène were going to during Carnival which Marianne found interesting because she was fascinated by anything to do with Egypt. Hélène was persuaded to give an impromptu performance of I’ll be there Tonight, the song which had made her famous. She was singing about a hypothetical lover, a dashing and no good cad who she knows cannot be trusted but despite warnings from her friends, she agrees to meet with him that night.
“Monsieur Faucherie,” Marianne told her host, “I’ve had really had a wonderful time but I’m curious. Why did you ask me to dine with you tonight?”
“We have a mutual friend, don’t we Mademoiselle?” Faucherie asked, “A certain green eyed boy.”
She had to bite her lip from retorting “who the two of you got locked up in jail” and instead she answered “yes, that’s true.”
“You and Augustin Lerou were lovers , is that true?”
The depth of Marianne’s feelings for Augustin sometimes blinded her to the fact that her relationship with him had been too innocent to say that they had been lovers. But Faucherie took her blush as an affirmative. He assumed that it had been her first serious affair and she was rather shy about it.
“Then you must harbor a grudge against me for taking young Monsieur Lerou away from you.”
“Augustin made his choice freely; he knew the consequences.”
“Well, My Child, we’re going to get him out.”
“You’re joking with me, certainly.”
“No Dear,” Hélène added “That’s why we invited you over.”
They began speaking in low, hush-hush tones about a plan to spring Augustin and Anton-le-Basque out of La Santé which they referred to as “going to the doctor to get aspirin.”
“Plan to go and visit Augustin exactly a week from today,” Faucherie instructed her, “but before then stop by The Green Goblin.”
Marianne walked home with Faucherie’s orders playing over and over again in her head.
As he was getting ready for bed, Charles was startled by Adèle who came into the bedroom looking pale and agitated.
“It’s Jules,” she told him, “Charlotte just called to tell me that they just brought him to the hospital after he showed up on their doorstep all beaten up. He said that a mob of blue shirts attacked him on his way home from meeting some friends of his.”
“I’ve heard rumors that there was going to be rioting tonight.”
Adèle seemed horrified that anyone could possibly want to hurt her baby brother. Jules himself seemed to find it inconceivable after a lifetime of hardly ever receiving so much as a harsh word from anyone.
The newspapers the next day talked about how right wing mobs had stormed through Paris the night before and converged on the Place de la Concorde, beating up known liberals which explained what had happened to Jules.
Those days of February 1934 had a sleepy yet tense feel to them, almost like the oppressive heat and humidity before a summer thunderstorm.
Maude took the day off on Tuesday the 13th of February to tidy up her flat.
Dusting the mantle, she found a little lion carved from wood. It made her smile to see it.
Years ago when Augustin had come over from Algiers as a little boy with a mop of dark curls, he had been clutching this toy the entire time.
“Does your lion have a name?” She had asked him.
“Asad,” he had answered.
There was a knock on the door and Léon went to open it.
“Maman,” he said, “Marianne’s here to see you.”
The girl stepped through the door.
“I’m on my way to visit Augustin,” she said “Do you have anything you want me to bring to him.”
“I have the clean clothes he asked for,” Maude answered.
She gave Marianne a basket full of clothes which she had ironed and folded that morning.
“You are welcome, My Dear. I don’t know what he’d do without you. You’re the only ray of sunshine in his life.”
“That’s not true.”
“Well, tell him we said hello.”
Maude kissed her cheek and they bid each other goodbye. She went back to dusting the knickknacks on the mantle; dusting off memories of happier days.
Perhaps if she looked back far enough she could figure out what events had sent her life in the direction it was going no matter how unremarkable it had seemed at the time.
Anticipation made it hard for Augustin to sit still that day. He was afraid that Faucherie’s escape plan would fail or worse, never happen. And if he did get out, what then? What would be outside there waiting for him? More running and hiding. But he would rather run and hide and be free than be trapped.
Augustin felt as though he must follow his star wherever it lead.
Marianne had written to him saying that she would visit him that day. He spent the morning in his cell waiting for her. Whenever the guards were not looking he would take out a fake pistol he was fashioning from wood from the carpentry shop he had stashed away. He blackened it with shoe polish from an old tin he had found in the warden’s garbage.
A guard and a matron came down the hall towards his cell, so he quickly put his project away under his mattress. The guard and matron were escorting Marianne, whose hair was worn loose and her nose and cheeks were rosy from the cold.
“Give me the basket, please,” the guard asked her.
Marianne handed the basket she was holding to the guard. He went through it’s contents and seemed to find things in order. She started to walk towards Augustin’s cell.
“Wait,” the guard said, “The matron has to search you.”
The matron went through Marianne’s pockets and patted her down.
“You have five minutes, Mademoiselle,” she said.
The guard unlocked the cell door to give Augustin the basket Marianne had brought him. On top of the neatly folded clothes in the basket was the latest issue of a popular music magazine.
“Thanks Chérie,” he said to his girl.
He reached his hand through the cell bars to put it on her waist.
“You’re welcome,” she put her hand through the bars to touch his cheek.
“It’s Mardi Gras, do you have any plans for tonight?”
“Mathilde and her husband are throwing a party at their home in Auteuil.”
“You seem to be spending a lot of time with them lately.”
“They’re my cousins, Augustin. I can’t just avoid them.”
“Well you don’t seem to be trying to avoid them.”
“What do want from me?”
“I don’t think you even want to avoid them, especially not Edmond. You like having some big shot after you, don’t you? You’re bored with waiting for the poor soul behind bars and you’ll dance for the first person who’ll name a tune.”
“You’re calling me dishonest, that’s rich. What have I ever done done to make you think I was unfaithful to you? What have I ever done but stand by you when anyone else would have given up.”
“Yes, play the martyr why don’t you. Act like you float high above everyone else and you’re as white as snow when really you’re as low and dirty as anyone else.”
“Time’s up,” the guard said.
The guard lead Marianne away. When she got to the end of the hallway, Augustin heard her begin to cry.
He had always known that life beat the softness out of people. Whatever softness was left in him was being beaten out at that very moment. Or maybe his innocence died along with Camille DuPont.
Augustin sat down on his bed and picked up the music magazine Marianne had brought him. Hélène was on the cover. The glamorous photograph taken of her for the cover had been autographed in the chanteuse’s lacy handwriting and given a kiss, leaving a red lipstick mark. Along with the typical “love Hélène” was “I’ll be there tonight,” a reference to the singer’s most famous song.
He took the fake gun he had been working on out from under his mattress and aimed it at the window.
Tuesday the thirteenth of February was Mardi Gras, the final night of carnival. The weather was mild for February which was good news for the festively dressed throngs of revelers which filled that Place St. Michel. The sun was going down and great bursts of pink light signaled the end of the day. Fading sunlight cast long shadows on the pavement and made the faces of the people passing by look greenish. They moved along in a sea of shadows moving in two bustling currents. These people were rushing home to throw off their workaday clothes and put on their best to go out partying, knowing that the forty days of Lent would begin tomorrow.
Marie loitered outside Le Paradis at the beginning of her workday as she was waiting for Cerise to return from a kiosk where she buying cigarettes and candy. Le Paradis was on one of the shabby looking, narrow little cobblestone streets off of St. Michel. It was lined with old and faded looking building, some worse off than others with walls plastered with old signs and peeling posters and dirty windows with sun bleached shutters. Some of them had a sign saying “Hotel” which meant that Marie and Cerise’s clients could rent a room there for a quick rendezvous.
A man of Marie’s acquaintance named Philippe came out of the bar, already somewhat tipsy.
“Why if it isn’t Marie?” he said, grabbed her by the waist, “Why not you and and me later?”
“hey, leave the lady alone,” another man shouted at him.
“Lady?” Marie asked, “what, are you talking about me? I’d worry about your wife, I just saw her go off with another man.”
Philippe paid Marie and they went off together laughing. Their encounter was a cheap, quick, and rough, trousers and knickers dropped, skirt pulled up, fuck up against a wall.
Marie used the money to buy herself a drink inside Le Paradis. Clare, the barmaid, greeted her.
“Happy Mardi Gras, Marie,” she said, “What’ll it be?”
“Anisette, please,” Marie answered.
Clare poured Marie a shot of anisette.
From her spot behind the bar, Clare saw two policemen pass by opened front door. Her profession had conditioned her to be weary of the police least they raid the place. She stifled a frightened shriek. Marie turned around to what she was so frightened by.
But to their mutual relief, the policemen just walked past Le Paradis without even noticing it.
The mild weather of that day changed as it grew dark. A frosty mist fell as the sky changed to a dark lilac color and the streetlights came on and made the streets shimmer with a rosy glow. They shown against the buildings and illuminated the glass panes of the shop windows and made their contents sparkle. Smaller, high up windows half hidden by signs were aglow with light coming from lamps hidden behind their curtains.
Augustin had been chosen for work detail that day, clearing snow and picking up garbage. When it grew dark, he and the other convicts marched away, shackled together in a line.
“Almost ready,” Anton-le-Basque whispered to Augustin, who nodded his affirmative.
Augustin had not seen much of Anton during the months of their incarceration because they had mostly been kept apart. But in this rare moment of laxity, they had been put on the same chain gang.
As they were about to get into the truck to go back to the prison, another car pulled up and two police officers stepped up. They approached the guard who was in charge of the work detail.
From where he was, Augustin saw that they were gesturing to him and Anton.
“We would like to see those two,” one of them said to the guard.
“Let me see your credentials?” the guard, who was suspicious of these supposed officers, answered.
“Here they are,” the other officer said, taking out a gun.
Before the guard could say anything, the so called officer fired bullets into his chest. Red blooms of blood blossomed on his chest.
“Damn you,” the guard mumbled as he fell to the ground.
The officer took the keys from the guard’s pocket and unlocked Anton and Augustin’s shackles. Another guard rushed over and grabbed Augustin by the arms. Augustin fought to get one arm free to reach into his shirt to get the fake gun he had fashioned. When he got ahold of it, he stuck it into the guard’s ribs.
“Don’t do it, Lerou,” the guard warned him.
He broke away from him and whipped him with the butt of his gun, before running as fast as he could.
Anton helped him into the waiting car which took off at full speed. The two guards removed their caps and smiled and laughed. Augustin recognized them as Philippe and Jean, two members of the Faucherie gang.
“Faucherie sends his regards, boys,” Philippe said to them.
When they had outrun the police, they ditched the car and their clothes and changed into suits and masks to blend in with the crowds of Mardi Gras revelers.
Anton and Augustin followed Jean and Philippe back through the streets of Montparnasse. It was the last few moments of twilight and stars began to twinkle on one by one like stage lights in a giant theater.
Where they ended up was a white stucco building with doors and windows edged in gold paint. The shapes of the doors and windows reminded Augustin of Algiers.
Inside was an outlandish opium trip of a room which was some sort of nightclub. It was done up like the tent of some eastern sheik or maharajah with silk curtains and cushions in shades of gold, deep brown, and red, persian rugs, and palm plants. Dispersed throughout were gaming tables and heavily cushioned couches.
The air was thick with incense and tobacco smoke and the light came from chandeliers which looked like giant inverted wedding cakes made of crystals. A negro jazz band played and occasionally someone would shout about the outcome of a card game.
Cigarettes girls and cocktail waitresses wearing glitzy black dresses and headbands served the guests. Apparently tonight’s theme was Ancient Egypt because the ladies present that evening were wearing egyptian inspired clothing.
Cleopatra reclined on a sofa supported by silk pillows, sipping a cocktail which Augustin would later learn had been created especially for that evening and was called Nile Water. Mark Antony, wearing a gold silk shirt and a red satin tie with his deep brown suit, stood by her, stroking her hair and chatting with the people at the table next to them.
He turned to see Jean and Philippe bring them over to him and then shook hands with them.
“How does it feel to be back among the living?” He asked them.
“Wonderful Monsieur Faucherie,” Augustin answered. He was in awe of everything and could hardly believe it was real.
“Well the evening is young and it’s just going to get more wonderful from here.”
“Will you be performing tonight, Mademoiselle Hélène?” Jean asked Cleopatra
“No unfortunately,” Hélène responded, taking a sip of her deep blue cocktail, “But if you’re good, I’ll let you buy me a daiquiri later.”
“Do you play Vingt-et-Un, young man?” A gentleman at a nearby gaming table asked Augustin.
“Yes,” he answered.
Hélène got up and went to the gaming table. She slid a silver filigree ring off her finger and put it among the poker chips on the gaming table.
“To the victor, the spoils,” she said.
Augustin took one of the type of cocktail Hélène was drinking. It tasted of almond, bitter orange, pomegranate, figs, and whiskey. One of the Vingt-et-Un players at the table lit his cigarette.
He drew his two cards from the pile: a five of hearts and a five of spades.
“What’ll it be?” One of the men asked him.
“Draw,” he answered. He took another card: an ace of diamonds, “twenty-one.”
The frosty mist that had fallen around dusk had cleared around eleven and the rest of the night was fairly mild for mid February.
Cerise was sitting out on the enclosed patio of a bar called l’Irlandais. It’s doors were left open due to the mild weather. The darkened streets outside were bathed in pale moonlight and the flickering lights from the streetlamps. L’Irlandais and it’s enclosed patio were lit with Tiffany style stained glass lamps.
Four men came down a staircase slick with spit and spilt beer at the end of a dark and muddy alley. When they came into the light, Cerise saw that they were young, handsome, and well dressed. Three of them were leading one of them who was blind folded.
“Almost there,” one of them said to the blindfolded boy.
One of these young men broke away from the group and walked over to Cerise. She recognized him as Philippe.
“What are you charging for tonight?” He asked her.
“What does it matter?” she responded, “You never have any money to pay.”
Philippe took a wad of francs he had won at the gaming tables out of his pockets.
“Five francs and five francs for the room.”
He gave her the ten francs and she led him up to one of the rooms to rent above the bar.
Just as the party was getting going, Faucherie told Augustin that he had a surprise for him. Anton, Jean, and Philippe blindfolded him and lead him away. The walk took some ten minutes.
“Here we are,” Anton told him.
The blindfold was removed. Augustin found himself on a small street, in front of a building covered in dead vines with a round tower. A set of french doors leading into a small room were left open and an old man sat in a rocking chair, smoking a pipe.
“Good evening,” the old man said to the young men.
“Likewise Monsieur,” Philippe answered.
The old man took another puff on his pipe and continued rocking in his chair.
Augustin’s companions clapped him on the back and then dispersed. He went inside the building.
It was rather quiet inside. Everyone there had either gone to bed or were out. It seemed that the only person there was the old man in the rocking chair.
Augustin climbed the stairs and found the door into the tower at the end of a hallway. The door opened and he was ushered in.
Marianne took him into her arms when he passed through the door and held him close as if he might disappear as quickly as he had reappeared. Her hair had been worn loose, the way he liked it. She had undressed and had thrown on a bed jacket.
“How are you?” She asked him, stroking his cheek.
“Glad to be out,” he answered, “Glad to be here.”
This was the first time he had seen where she lived. It was a cozy little hole under the tower’s cone shaped roof. Everything was neat, practical, and pretty; a small fire was burning in the hearth. The dress he had given her all those months back was lying on the floor as if she had taken it off and forgot about it. A book, a thriller involving a murder of the type which were popular in those days, was lying spine up on the bed.
As she tidied up, Marianne told him of how she had come by the book.
“Anna lent it to me,” she said, “she’s been telling me about it for weeks and promised to lend it to me when she was finished with it. We were at a party earlier and that’s where she gave it to me. Strangely when she lent it to me, I found a St. Anna prayer card I gave her on her name day back in July among its pages. We tried to get Manon to come to this party with us but she thought it would be unseemly since she’s in mourning for her brother.”
They began to talk about the parties they each had been two that evening: what these parties had been like, who had been there, and what had been served. The party Marianne had been to had been at the building where a friend of Anna’s. It had taken place on a staircase which wound through the entire building. They sat there on the staircase drinking gin punch and eating gougères with onion dip and baked Brie, stuffed mushrooms and lemon curd cake while a radio had been tuned to a station which played jazz music. Benny Goodman to be exact.
He told her about how he had spent the evening with Antony and Cleopatra and they had drank water from the Nile. This made Marianne giggle.
Johnny was curled up next to Augustin on the window seat and let out an occasional little snuffle or snore. Augustin reached over and patted the little dog on the head.
Marianne came over and sat down on the window seat. She placed Augustin’s head on the gentle swell of her bosom, which rose and fell as she breathed. The beating of her heart was strange and fluttery.
He wanted to think of himself as having been born that evening; having no past, only a future. With everything to look toward to and nothing to hold him back or drag him down.
He sat up and took her into his arms. She yawned.
“Are you tired?”
“I have to get up early for work tomorrow.”
“Then go to bed.”
Augustin was holding her close and leaned in to kiss her.
“I’m not sure.”
“Because I always thought that the going to bed part would come after the marrying part.”
“Would you feel more respectable if I gave you this?”
He reached into his pocket and took out the ring he had won on that hand of cards.
“Marianne d’Aubrey, will you marry me?”
She put the ring on her finger and then kissed him.
“I promise that I’ll do whatever I can to make you happy. But things won’t be easy for us, that’s the only thing I’m certain of.”
“I never wanted things to be easy.”
He kissed her and picked her up into his arms and brought her over to the bed. She lay back against the pillows and he began undoing the tie of her bed jacket, the hooks of her brassiere, and the buttons of her knickers, kissing her face and neck. Then he guided her hands to undo the buttons of his shirt and take it off. He slid down his suspenders and she put her arms around his neck.
Augustin felt that this night had been given to them as a gift: one night where they could be perfectly happy. Despite everything, they might be happy together, but any further happiness they might have would need to be fought for.
Marianne looked afraid, but only of what would happen when the sun came up and all this was over.
“How are you feeling, Marianne? Are you alright?”
“I’m just wonderful.”
She sat up and covered herself up with a sheet. There was a faint smile on her lips and a faint blush on her cheeks.
They began waking up as the sun was beginning to peak over a layer of feathery lavender clouds.
Augustin yawned and stretched as he sat up.
“I have to go.”
“Must you go so soon?”
“Everyone’ll be up soon and I don’t want anyone to see me leave.”
“Oh, let them.”
“Even if I was to get caught, I wouldn’t want to get caught here, visiting my whore.”
“That’s what I am. I’m not ashamed of it.”
He got out of bed and began putting on his clothes. She got up as well and wrapped herself up in a sheet.
“I’ll be back to see you as soon as I can. When all this is over, we’ll be married. You’ll be Madame Augustin Lerou and they’ll tip their hats to you when you walk by.”
He finished putting on his clothes and gave her a kiss.
“Goodbye,” she said.
“See you real soon, chérie.”
January 29th 1915
My dearest Jamie,
Papa and Mimi are well and send their love. Maman and Catharine are well, Maman and Catharine. Little Marianne is unable to write, considering she is only three months old.
It seems an eternity since you left for basic training and I can hardly believe that it has hardly been been two weeks. But I’ve been trying to keep myself occupied.
I’ve joined a group of ladies who are knitting socks and rolling bandages to send to the front and we’ve started taking up a collection for Madame Gautier, one of our tenants, whose husband was killed in Flanders and left her a widow with two children. I think of you all the time and I hope you’re thinking of me.
Yesterday, as I was walking down the stairs to go to dinner, I remember that you had first asked me to marry you right there in there in the minstrel’s gallery almost four years ago.
Soon after you left, Marianne and I went to have the photograph I’m sending along with this letter taken. “
The photograph she had sent along with the letter was of her in a beautiful evening dress, bending over a bassinet where Baby Marianne was sleeping. It looked as though she might have just come home from a dinner party, ball, or from the theater and had come to say goodnight to her beloved child.
Mardi Gras found Adèle staying home with a cold and she asked Lucille to run her a bath. While the water was running, Adèle took a bundle of letters tied with ribbons out of a basket by the toilet which held magazines.
Charles kept a box hidden in his office and today he left the key to open it on his desk. Adèle, like Pandora, could not resist taking a peek inside. She snatched a bundle of letters, intending to read them and put them back before Charles returned home. The letters were hidden in the magazine basket while the bath was prepared. Baths always helped when she had a cold. When she got into the bath, she began reading her husband’s old letters.
“The sorrow I feel at your absence is only helped by the thought that you will one day return to me the same way you left me, with the sun shining, people cheering, and a band play La Marseillaise. But this time you will be wearing a medal just like you promised.
At the bottom of a page was an imprint of an infant’s pudgy hand made with ink.
Adele further examined the photograph of her predecessor and thought she was very beautiful. She also got a sense of her personality: loving and dutiful. The picture she got of Madeleine was of the perfect wife; everything that she had imagined her to be.
Tucked up in bed with a hot water bottle and a cup of tea, she spent the day reading the letters of another woman’s love for her husband. But what confused her was that the letters were addressed to a “James Beaumont” who was referred to as “Jamie”, not to a Charles. There was more to this story than just a previous wife and a daughter.
Adèle knew that she should not have opened up the box. Like Pandora, she had opened up a world of sorrow. The dilemma was whether she should confront her husband about the secrets he was keeping from her and risk him being angry with her for snooping or continue living with a man who was not what he seemed.
Augustin had been given an address in Montmartre from Philippe, and was told that it was a place he could go for a while. The metro stopped several minutes away from the great hill overlooking Paris. He took the trolley up to Sacre Coeur and would work his way down from there.
It was still very early and the sky had the pearl grey color of first light. The only people out on the streets were milkmen making their deliveries and a few stragglers from the night before. Augustin navigated his way through the warren of narrow streets to find the address.
He came to a building at the end of a street which was next to a cafe which rounded off the block. It was tall and narrow and made of white stone overgrown with vines. The instructions he had been given were to ring the doorbell twice and knock three times. A window above him opened and a delicate white arm appeared and dropped a key tied with a red silk cord. Augustin picked it up and used it to open the door.
Inside, there was a hall decorated with old paisley curtains and oriental rugs in bright colors. The house was laid out on what appeared to be a long and wide staircase which lead up to the roof. Music was playing on a phonograph off in the distance.
Augustin sat down on a worn and comfortable old sofa in a cozy little corner of the house. He still felt a bit sleepy, as if he had just woken up from a long sleep. The past six months had been a nightmare and the night before had been a dream. Now he was awake and had to face reality.
The thing he wanted more than anything was to talk to Maude. Her job as a hairdresser had given her a skill for lending a sympathetic ear to people’s problems, without the tendency some had to try to play devil’s advocate or reply with a flippant, “well what do you want me to do about.” But he knew that he should wait a little before could see her and Lèon because they would the first people they would question when they went looking for him.
“Well, good morning.”
Augustin turned his head to see Hélène standing next to him. He had not heard her approach him. Her light step and her flowing, filmy, negligee, which revealed more than it covered up, made it seem as though she had floated down the stairs. Her face was painted up with a white make up a few shades paler than her fair skin (one had to look twice to see that she was wearing makeup), with a circle of rouge on each cheek, and a bow shape on her lips. A crown of white flowers was placed among her tousled ringlets.
Hélène smiled at him as if he were about to take her picture. That was how she always behaved whenever Augustin had seen her, as if she were performing. Was she such a consummate performer that it was natural to her, or was she different when she was by herself or when she was alone with Faucherie?
“Ah, hello,” Faucherie said as he came down the stairs after his mistress, wearing a dressing gown of striped silk.
“Monsieur Faucherie, good morning,” Augustin said.
“How’s your charming Marianne?”
“Very well, we’re going to be married as soon as we can.”
“Congratulations, I think this calls for cigars.”
Faucherie opened up a box of cigars which was placed on the table text to the sofa. He took out two cigars as well as a book of matches, lit one of the cigars and handed it to Augustin, then lit his own.
“There’s nothing more romantic than a wedding, is there?” Hélène added.
The doorbell rang twice, followed by three knocks on the door and Faucherie went to go let whoever was there in. Hélène followed him to greet their guest.
The stranger gallantly kissed Hélène hand; his name was something foreign which Augustin did not catch and he had a decidedly foreign accent. He was a striking middle aged man with tanned Mediterranean features, large black eyes, a large rabbit-like nose, and his thinning, silver streaked dark hair slicked back and he was dressed in a sweater and a flamboyant cravat and carried a sketchbook and camera. Augustin listened in on their conversation and learned that he was there to do some sketches of Hélène for a painting he was doing of her.
An armchair had been placed in the level above them which was draped with a large piece black satin. Hélène removed her negligee in full view of the three men, which gave each of them a frisson of pleasure and excitement. She lounged back into the chair and bits of the piece of black satin were placed over, not covering very much. The stranger began to snap photographs of her and positioned her in different ways to see how they would look. He settled on having her leaning back in the chair with her right profile facing him and her hands placed on the delta between her legs. Then a detailed sketch was done.
While the sketch was being done, Augustin and Faucherie went to the cafe next door because they were hungry. There they had breakfast, smoked, and chatted. When they returned, Helene had changed into a smart, black and white boucle suit and the stranger had packed up his things. He brought his sketch book over to show them; he had done several sketches of Hélène, some in which she looked elegant and seductive, and some in which she looked soft and girlish, almost doll-like. The one which was chosen for the final painting combined both of these evenly.
Augustin did not know much about art but he liked these sketches a lot and thought they would make a very nice painting.
“I didn’t catch your name, Monsieur.” he said to the stranger as he was leaving.
The different levels of the house wound up to a deck on the top floor and a tiny flight of stairs crept past the chimney up to a deck on the very top of the building. Augustin climbed up there because Faucherie told him that the view from there was lovely. The rooftops below him spread out for miles with the Seine winding through the middle. Far in the distance were the industrial towns of Charenton and Bercy and beyond that… The world around him was vast. He could go anywhere, see anything, and do anything.
Augustin remembered that Marianne’s cousin was on honeymoon in Egypt. He fancied seeing Egypt and Marianne would like it there too. She was under no illusions about the choice she had made but he did not want her to regret it. A girl like her deserved to be protected and looked after like a princess and he wished to do just that. But he would have to think carefully to come up with a way to get out of the mess he was in. He needed to leave the country or at the very least lay low for a while. Running away to Egypt could be a good idea.
Madame Océane was wiping down the tobacconist counter when the policeman whom she had spoken with several months before came in. She would recognize that bull-dog’s face anywhere.
“Good afternoon, Madame,” Desmarais said, saluting to her,
“Good afternoon, Officer,” she responded.
Marianne came out of the kitchen, carrying a tray.
“Mademoiselle,” he said to her, “Can I have a word with you?”
“Certainly,” she answered.
She put her tray down on the counter; the cups and plates shook and clattered unsteadily.
“Your friend Augustin Lerou escaped from La Santé last night.”
“I’ve heard all about. There are plenty of newspapers lying around here and people read them and talk about the news. A waitress hears lots of things. People were talking about it this morning.”
“May I ask where you were last night Mademoiselle?”
“I went to a party, at the Hôtel Jonquil near the Place St. Sulpice. Isn’t that right, Anna?”
Anna was pouring coffee at a nearby table.
“I invited her to come with me,” she added.
“Did you visit Augustin Lerou yesterday afternoon, before his escape.”
“How did the visit go?”
“He asked me what plans were for that evening, since it was Mardi Gras. I told him that I was going to a party that my cousin and her husband were throwing and he got jealous because he has this idea that my cousin’s husband is out to seduce me. You know how people like that are? No one fears being robbed more than a thief. I was so upset after this visit that I decided not to go out as planned but my friend Anna later convinced me to come with her to that party at the Hôtel Jonquil I told you about.”
“It’s true,” Anna joined in, “I thought it would do her good to get out.”
“ Then I came home around eleven and went right to bed because I had to get up early this morning.”
“I’m sorry to have bothered you, ladies, but we have to check everything. We’ve already checked his old lodgings and spoken with his aunt and cousin but couldn’t find anything. Thank you, good afternoon.”
He touched his cap again and turned to leave.
“And you Mademoiselle, I suggest you find a better man, raise fat babies, and keep out of trouble.”
The girl’s story seemed pretty much in order, but one could never be too careful. If she was lying to him to protect her lover, he wanted to figure it out.
It was a shame that such a sweet blossom had gotten tangled up with the pernicious weed that was Augustin Lerou. But weeds usually strangled all that was good and useful; that was why they must be uprooted as soon as possible.
Marianne arrived home that evening and found Louise standing in the front hall, keeping an eye on Jacques, who was playing on the floor with some toys. He tried to stand up on his fat little legs but fell down. Jacques had just turned a year old and would be walking soon.
“Good evening,” Marianne said to Louise in passing.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” she answered.
“Excuse me,” Marianne was puzzled by her answered.
“I saw him leave here this morning. I recognized him as one of those escaped convicts the police are looking for; their pictures were in the newspaper. Really, I’m surprised that you would even know someone like that, let alone hide him…in your bed.”
“You won’t tell anyone he was here, will you?”
“I could never do that, even to someone I hated.”
“Thank you, thank you, Louise.”
“I really hope you know what you’re doing.”
She picked up Jacques and carried him off. The pitter patter of Johnny’s paws and scratching of his nails on the floor was heard as he came out of where he had been sitting with Papa Verte. Marianne bent down and scratched him bend the ears.
She was not ashamed of the night before. When Augustin had taken her into his arms and begged her to spend the night with him, she could not say no to him, even if she had wanted to, and at that moment she had wanted nothing more than to say yes to him. Then she had known he was safe and out of trouble. Augustin was friend, brother, son, and lover to her and she constantly worried about him every moment they were not together.
Papa Verte was sitting in his little room listening to an evening radio program, when there was a knock on the French doors leading outside. He got up to answer it.
“Excuse me, Monsieur,” a policeman said to him, “May I ask you a few questions?”
“Alright,” Papa Verte answered.
“Are you Monsieur Verte, the landlord of this building? I knocked on the front door asking for the landlord and the young woman with the baby told me to try this door instead.”
“Yes, I’m Verte.”
“Is one of your tenants a Mademoiselle Marianne d’Aubrey?”
“Yes, I watch her little dog when she’s at work and she sometimes looks after my grandson when my daughter-in-law goes out.”
“Did anyone strange visit last night, anyone suspicious.”
“Excuse me, officer, my memory isn’t what it once was…No, I don’t think I saw anyone. Most of my tenants were out all night so it was pretty quiet.”
“And Mademoiselle d’Aubrey, was she out all night.”
“I saw her come home; she came home fairly early and went right to her room. And she left for her job this morning the same as usual.”
“Did she walk home with anyone last night.”
“Yes, a girlfriend of her’s, a young lady she works with.”
“Thank you for your cooperation, Monsieur Verte.”
Desmarais thought over Marianne’s alibi to see if there were any weak spots. Old Verte seemed a credible enough witness and Desmarais did not see any reason why he would lie. But he felt that if he kept on poking at the story long enough, he would find the weak spots he was looking for.
Marianne changed out of her uniform because Manon would be dropping by shortly. They had planned to go to an Ash Wednesday mass at St. Sulpice and then get something to eat afterwards. A milk bottle had been placed under the faucet of the sink, which leaked. Marianne collected the water to used to hydrate the potted red begonias which she kept on the windowsill above the sink as well as to fill up the kettle. She had forgotten to water the begonias that morning.
Manon showed up at the front door wearing a winter coat and a hat with a black lace veil. Ever since her brother’s death, Manon’s almost mortal dread of having him mentioned seemed to have increased and she was paler and more introverted than usual. Still, there was the same Madonna-like smile.
There was so much Marianne wanted to tell her friend; so much that she knew she must keep secret.
“So what do you plan giving up for Lent?” Manon asked.
“Getting chocolate cake every Saturday,” Marianne answered, “I’m getting too plump, it doesn’t suit me.”
“Nonsense, you’re as dainty as a rose.”
“One that’s a bit overblown.”
They arrived at the church just as mass was about to begin and quietly look their seats in a pew. Marianne knelt down on the floor in prayer and began to think. She knew that God would forgive her for what she had done because it was done out of love and was not love the most honorable and holy thing there was. Or at least that’s what Marianne kept telling herself.
During the mass, a sign of the cross was drawn on their foreheads in palm ash. When they got up to get in line to receive the sign of the cross, Marianne noticed a familiar young man get out of his pew and into the line. He was accompanied by an old man. The two had similar sunburnt faces and fair hair, though the old man’s hair was greying, as well as muscular limbs. The young man turned and looked at them.
“I wonder who he is?”Manon whispered to Marianne.
When Marianne returned to her pew, she continued her train of thought. Her conscience was heavy and she felt that she must unburden it. She would go to confession after mass and tell the priest everything, or at least the part about her sinning with a young man, that part she was the least ashamed of and the part which the priest would not suggest that she also confess to the police.
The modern way to talk about the business of love seemed to be as often and as vulgarly as possible and it was enough to put a girl off the idea of it all together, that was until she had met Augustin. Now she felt like spring after a long winter: warm and alive and new.
Surely God had not created something so wonderful for it to be wrong.
When mass was over, the young man they had seen earlier approached them.
“Mademoiselle d’Aubrey,” he said, “You remember me, Gabriel Renault?”
“Oh yes, how wonderful to see you, Gabriel,” Marianne answered.
“My father and I have come into town to visit my sister Gillian and her husband for the week.”
“And how are you, Monsieur Renault?”
“Just fine, Mademoiselle,” the old man responded.
“Manon,” Marianne said to her friend, “This is Monsieur Renault and his son Gabriel. Monsieur Renault and his family were tenants of my grandparents back when they still owned the chateau. Gabriel, Monsieur Renault, this is my friend, Manon Dupont.”
“Pleased, Mademoiselle Dupont.”
“Mademoiselle Dupont and I on our way to confession.”
“But a celestial brightness- a more ethereal beauty- shone on her face and encircled her form, when after confession, homeward serenely she walked with God’s benediction upon her.” Gabriel murmured.
“Good evening young ladies,” Monsieur Renault added.
The two Renaults walked towards the door and Gabriel turned around to get another look at them.
“He is very handsome,” Manon whispered to Marianne.
Faucherie had spent most of the day on the telephone. Augustin overheard him discussing a fresh crop of girls from the country for a brothel, last night’s takings at a gambling den (La Maharani, which he learned was the name of the place he had been brought to the night before), and who did not pay their monthly protection fee. He had learned that the robbery which had sent him to prison had been staged in order to punish the jewelry store owner, who had refused to pay what Faucherie had asked.
Hélène spent the afternoon running scales on the piano to practice for her next show.
“You sound beautiful,” Augustin told her.
“Thanks,” She answered, her voice had taken on a playful, mocking tone, “When you and Marianne set a date for your wedding, make sure you invite Faucherie and I. We would never miss an opportunity to see dear old Officer Demarais.”
“Why are you teasing me?”
“Because it’s fun.”
“Play nice you two,” Faucherie cut in.
He had been listening for several seconds while pretending to still be on the telephone.
“Do you really think that girl is going to marry you? If she was smart she would find someone better, someone who’s not a wanted criminal.”
Augustin had had enough of her teasing and left the room and went into the next one, where Faucherie was.
“Don’t mind her,” Faucherie said, “how bout a game of cards.”
He took a pack of cards and a box of tobacco and rolling paper from a drawer and shuffled the cards while Augustin rolled two cigarettes.
“You’re not any worse than any other man. You just haven’t been very lucky. The only difference between a rich and a poor man is that a poor man has to pay for his sins in this world, while a rich man gets off free. And I don’t see why the next world would be any different.”
Augustin lit both cigarettes and handed one to Faucherie.
“I thought you were trying to make me feel better,” he answered.
“Things could be a lot worse for you, my boy. You’re out of that hell-hole, you’re going to marry a wonderful girl, and she’ll go anywhere with you.”
Augustin took a dag on his cigarette and then put it out in an ashtray. Outside, night was closing in. A somewhat faded and worn looking moon appeared from behind a ragged curtain of ink black clouds.
A bed was made for Augustin in a spare room and he retired early. As he fell asleep, he thought about Maude, Léon, and Marianne and how he must keep as far away from them, because he wanted to keep them out of anymore trouble. Maude and Léon could say with all honesty that they knew knowing about his escape and the police would find nothing to implicate them, and Marianne… she was a smart girl, a lot smarter than he was, and could find away to keep them off his track.
It was when things are looking bad that people tend to find someone else to blame their troubles on. The worse thing was that everything bad that had ever happened to Augustin had been entirely his own fault.
The sooner he was many miles away, the better.
He again wished that he had just been born that very day with no past to run from and only a future to look forward to. If he had ever had the opportunity to be anything other than what he was, he had missed it at some point in his twenty-one years of existence.
Now all he could do was the only thing he knew how to, which was running away.