O Soave Fanciulla
It was a rainy afternoon and Charles saw nothing better than to take a nap.
The air in the bedroom was warm, dry, and heavy. Adèle was taking a bath in the bathroom off of the bedroom and chattering on the telephone with Charlotte. Rain was drip-dropping on the roof and wind was whistling through the trees.
Everything was peaceful.
Charles was transported to a time and place long gone. It was a chateau in Normandy where he had gone to attend a party with a friend of his. One of the many places he had ended up for some reason or another during his restless and nomadic youth.
The year was 1911 and it was a balmy evening in June. The sky was clear and full of a stars and light breeze playfully whipped at the skirts of the girls strolling in the garden. He was standing in the ballroom; it was lit up with candles and the large, glass French doors were opened out onto the terrace and lawns.
A petite girl came down the big staircase in the main part of the chateau, the gold beading on the neckline of her green dress and the clusters of blond curls on either side of her head shaking as she moved.
She could not have been more than twenty-one, two years younger than he had been at the time. She looked around the room to see who was there; she noticed him and gave him a little smile, though she did not know him.
The next time he saw her that evening, she was sitting on a stone bench on the terrace and looked like she had been crying. He sat down by her side and offered her a handkerchief from his pocket.
“Merci,” she said, taking it and drying her eyes.
“Une fille comme vous ne devrait pas avoir une raison de pleura,” he told her.
She giggled a little, his French was still a rough around the edges.
“Je m’appelle Jimmy”
“Moi, je m’appelle Mado”
“Voulez-vous danser avec moi?”
He took her by the hand and lead her back into the ballroom. The band struck up the song O Soave Fanciulla from the opera La Bohéme.
Mado had a sweet, round face with a receding chin. She did nothing but smile the entire time they danced which made her look radiantly lovely. For some reason, she took to calling him Jamie instead Jimmy, but it was better than what’s-your-name.
“I know this song,” she told him, “It’s from La Bohéme. I once heard Madame Melba sing it in London. The poet Roldalfo and the seamstress Mìmì are singing of their new found love.”
She then began to cough and become winded. He brought her back out onto the terrace and sat her down onto a bench.
“Are you alright?”
“Yes, thank you. It’s just this silly cough of mine, sometimes I get a little tickle in the back of my throat.”
A fading dark haired beauty dressed in a black gown sewn with sparkling beads came out and asked for Mado, who addressed her as “maman.”
When she was gone, he went to find his friend and ask who she was. He was told that she was a daughter of the house and it was her older sister’s engagement party. The older sister pointed out to him was a tall brunette with cold alabaster features, as unlike Mado as possible.
She came to find him in the garden later in the evening near a series of broken statues put there to look like a ruin.
“I had to go publicly congratulate my sister and her fiancé,” she told him.”My mother was upset with me because I had not yet done so. Can you believe it, especially after the things my sister said to me tonight?”
“What did she say to you?”
“That there would never be a party like this for me, and no wedding either and that I might as well take the veil. It isn’t enough for her to be happy; I must be miserable in comparison.”
“Is that why you were crying?”
“Yes, I guess I have very thin skin.”
The moment had been too perfect. It had rained earlier that day, so the perfume of rain soaked roses hung in the air. Nightingales were singing in the trees and in the distance, the band was playing a waltz. If they had been in a movie, the time could not have been more right for a kiss.
He leaned in shyly to touch his lips to hers. She blushed pink and turned away.
“What’s the matter,”he asked?
“Nothing,” she responded, “Just think, yesterday I was seriously thinking of becoming a nun.”
“It would be a shame to hide all that prettiness under a veil.”
“Kiss me again.”
He put his arms around her waist and kissed her again. She stood on the tips of her toes, threw her arms around his neck, and kissed him back.
As if on cue, her mother appeared on the terrace and called for her.
“I have to go.”
“I must,” but he was reluctant to let her go, “please, I must.”
He let her go and she began to run back up the lawn to the terrace.
“Wait,” he called to her.
She turned back to look at him.
“What does Mado stand for?”
Charles saw La Bohéme years later and finally understood the significance of O Soave Fanciulla. Like Mìmì, Mado had been a sweet and doomed innocent.
When Charles woke up, it was several hours later. It had been one of those short, heavy sleeps which somehow make you feel even more tired than you had felt before.
Adèle was seated at her dressing table, wearing a white slip and peignoir. She was curling her hair and arranging it using Eugène’s Permanent Wave and bobby pins.
“You’re awake,” she said.
“Yes, I am,” he answered in a groggy voice.
“I was going to ring Lucille to bring me some coffee, would you like some coffee?”
Adèle rung the maid and asked her to bring up two cups of coffee. Lucille departed with a “yes Madame.”
“I don’t know what came over me,” Charles continued, “I suddenly felt very tired and needed to take a nap, next thing I knew I had been asleep for hours. Guess that’s what comes from getting old.”
“Don’t be ridiculous Charles, you’re Dorian Gray and Peter Pan combined.”
“More like Rip Van Winkle.”
Adèle laughed her charmingly absurd laugh i went to protect her hair do by covering it with a hairnet.
Yes Charles was no longer young but Adèle could not imagine any boy of twenty being handsomer.
Her hand fell on her barren womb; oh how she had wanted to give him children.
“Look in the paper, Lerou,” a guard said to Augustin the next morning, “You’re famous.”
Augustin picked up the newspaper the guard had thrown through the bars of his cell. There was an article about his trial.
He wished he could deny everything in the article and say that it was all lies but the truth was that he had done everything they said he had and was everything they said he was.
Later in the day, he received a letter from Marianne which affected him more.
“Dearest Augustin,” it began “I wish I could be there and tell you all I have to say in person. When I think of you in that terrible place for the next fifteen years, it breaks my heart.
Please tell me that you weren’t with that Hélène like people are saying you were. If you have, I understand why. Because I wasn’t making you as happy as you deserve to be and because she is so much more beautiful than I am.
If everything was how it should be and I could be with you right now, I would make you as happy as any woman has ever made a man.
I feel very stupid for not figuring out that it was you who sent me that dress. I don’t think I’ll ever wear it again because I’m afraid that someone might see me in it and say ‘that’s the dress he stole’. Warmest regards, Marianne.”
After work a few days later, Marianne went to visit Manon, who was still sick, having developed bronchitis as an aftereffect of the measles, stopping on the way to buy her a bag of peppermint drops.
Marianne liked the smell of peppermint drops because it reminded her of her mother. Her mother had worn a perfume which smells like vanilla, almond, peppermint, and ginger. She had smelt sweet, like the inside of a candy shop.
Manon was sitting up in bed when Marianne came through the door and was working on embroidering a design of a ribbon decorated basket overflowing with flowers.
“How are you feeling today?” Marianne asked her.
“Better, ” Manon answered, her voice was hoarse, “I think I’ll be able to go back to work in a few weeks.”
The blotchy red rashes on her skin had cleared up but she still needed time for her cough to go away.
“I brought you some peppermint drops to help with your cough.”
“Thanks, you’re the best.”
Marianne went over to the cupboard and got a bottle of cough syrup and then fetched a spoon from the drawer. She poured a spoonful of syrup and Manon swallowed it down with an expression which told that it tasted awful.
“I read about Augustin in the paper. How are you taking it?”
“Alright, I guess. You know what that silly Anna told me today? She says that she doesn’t think they’ll make him do his full sentence because he didn’t kill anyone. Personally, I don’t think they give a damn either way.”
“How is he? Have you heard from him since his trial?”
“Yes, I got a letter from him this morning.”
She pulled the letter out of the bodice of her dress and unfolded it.
“Chérie, “she read aloud, “Why are you worrying about Hélène? I can tell you with a clear conscience that that’s the only part of the indictment against me that is untrue. And don’t say she is more beautiful than you. All those things I said about you deserving a prince are because you are the finest girl in Paris and in a perfect world I wouldn’t have to look at any other girl but you.
I would rather be dragged through the mud because of Hélène than see you dragged through it because of me. That’s why I think it’s smart of you not to wear that dress again.”
” ‘Finest girl in Paris’,” Manon butted in, “He certainly is in love with you.”
The sound of singing accompanying the guitar came from the courtyard outside.
“Will you go to the window to see who’s out there?”
Marianne got up and went to the window and saw a handsome young man playing the guitar. Four girls were hanging out of their windows and giggling.
The young man removed his cap to them.
“What an enchanting voice,” one of the girls said.
“You are charming,” another added.
“Come up and join us. We’ll give you a reward”
a third burst in.
” Yes, please come up,” added the second.
“He can’t. Mère Comminge doesn’t allow men inside, Suzanne,” the first girl retorted.
“You’re no fun, Seraphine.”
Manon lived in a boarding house for young, single women with strictly enforced rules such as an curfew of midnight and no men allowed past the lobby. And looking at Madame Comminges, the matron who was a battle-ax if there ever was one, one knew that the virtue of every girl in her care was safe.
The young man singing in the courtyard was singing a popular song that had been going around about a young girl who was pining for her lover who was in jail awaiting execution. When she is expected to forget him and find a new lover, she says “It’s not that easy.”
The words of the song reminded her of what her mother used to tell her when she asked why Tante Mimi never married anyone else after the death of her fiancé.
She could hear her mother’s voice in those words. If she lived a hundred years more, she could never forget her mother’s voice. It had not been high and shrill like Mathilde’s, or low, soft, and husky like her own, but somewhere in between and musical with a slight patrician drawl.
Mostly the words of the song reminded her of her own situation, pining away for a man who was not around.
She quickly closed the window and went back inside. The other girls listening to the street performer assumed that she had been offended by some of the racy lines in the song.
On Sunday October twenty- second, Catharine called upon Mimi. It was early in the morning and Mimi had just come out of the bath and was drying her hair when Catharine arrived.
“Good morning, Catharine,” Mimi greeted her, a bit taken by surprised.
“When’s the child going to drop by?” Catharine answered.
“Sometime later today.”
Catharine rolled her eyes a bit. She hated when people were unspecific about plans.
“It’s hard to believe she’s nineteen. I can remember the day she was born as if it were yesterday.”
“I can remember it too. You forget, Mimi, that I was there too.”
October twenty-second was Marianne’s birthday.
Mimi quickly dressed and Catharine joined her to go run some errands. They only needed a light coat because it was remarkably warm for this late in October.
There was to be a lunch of potato and leek soup, Marianne’s favorite dish, and a lemon cake, her favorite dessert. They even purchased a bouquet of lilies of the valley, her favorite flower, and a bag of peanut butter cups, her favorite candy.
When they arrived back at Mimi’s apartment, Catharine sat down at the table in the kitchen while Mimi started on the lunch. Catharine took the two bottles out of the bag from the wine shop.
“We’re having champagne with lunch?”
“It’s not everyday a girl turns nineteen.”
“It’s amazing how much of a child she still is. In our day, nineteen was almost an old woman.”
Catharine was trying to imitate their mother,
While the stock pot was heating up, Mimi washed the potatoes and leeks in the sink then brought them over to the table to be chopped up.
The two women were startled by the ringing of the doorbell.
“Is that her?”
They got up from the table and went to the door to let their niece in. But instead, there was a policeman, who removed his cap.
“Excuse me,” he began, “which of you ladies is Madame Miriam d’Aubrey?”
“I am,” Mimi answered.
“Is your niece Mademoiselle Marianne d’Aubrey?”
“Yes, I hope she’s not in any trouble?”
” Dear God,” Catharine burst in, “What has the stupid girl done?”
“She’s not in any trouble,” the policeman told them, “But she’s been seen with someone who is.”
“A young man named Augustin Lerou who has recently been sent to La Santé for robbery. I happened to know that she went to visit him several weeks ago.”
“How do you know this?”
“I often go to the café where she works. I was there one day and overheard her talking with another girl about how she was going to Montparnasse that evening to visit him. Then I talked with Madame Océane, her employer, who told me that she has been seeing him all summer.
For years I’ve had my eye on this boy and I know he’s not the type of person a nice young lady like your niece should be around. I came because I was concerned for her.”
Catharine’s brow creased into an angry frown and Mimi’s face went pale.
“Thank you for your concern Officer…”
He put his cap back on and tipped it to them before leaving.
“I bid you good day, ladies.”
Catharine and Mimi went back into the kitchen. Mimi put the chopped up potatoes and leeks into a stock pot of simmering vegetable stock while Catharine paced back and forth, almost frothing at the mouth and seeming like an animal whose young had been threatened.
“Who does that Desmarais think he is,” she roared,”Following around Marianne like she was some Pigale whore.”
“Catharine,” Mimi said in a way which reminded Catharine of their father, who had been a steady, placid figure with a way of cooling people’s tempers with a single word.
” If that Lerou character is as dangerous as he said, why didn’t they lock him up sooner. I would like to know how he got anywhere near Marianne, unless he collected the garbage from that café she works at”
“The strange thing is, I think I’ve met this young man before.”
“Back in May, at St. Sulpice.”
“At a church, really?”
“Marianne and I were attending mass and he approached us, asking to take Marianne out. I didn’t see the harm in it, I assumed she knew him and wouldn’t get involved with anyone dangerous. Looking back, I feel so stupid.”
“Well, you should.”
“Why, because I trusted my niece’s judgement?”
The doorbell rang again and there was a knock at the door.
“That’ll be her,” Mimi said, “I’ll go talk to her.”
She went to the front door and let her niece in.
“Something smells wonderful,” the girl said when she came in.
“Marianne, someone told me you went up to Montparnasse to go to La Santé a few weeks ago.”
“They must have gotten me mixed up with Manon, her brother’s a prisoner there.”
“No, they’re sure it was you.”
“Then it must have been someone who looks like me.”
“Why are you lying to me? What is so terrible that my niece has to lie to me.”
“Who told you, I went to Montparnasse?”
“A policeman came here earlier and told me that he was at your café a few weeks ago and overheard you saying that you were going there.”
“Last time I checked, that’s not illegal.”
“He told me that you went to see some convict named Augustin Lerou. What was that about?”
“You want to know?”
“Yes, I do.”
“I’m in love, Tante Mimi.”
“So you’re in love, in love with who? Some criminal you met a few months ago. The best thing that could have happened is that they locked him up, and if you had any sense you’d know that.”
“You don’t know him.”
“Look me in the eyes, Marianne d’Aubrey, and tell me that you won’t waste another second thinking about that boy. I see no reason why you couldn’t get a good man and you deserve much better than Augustin Lerou.”
“I need to sit down.”
“What’s the matter.”
“I have a headache. I’ve been getting them a lot lately.”
“How bad are they?”
“I haven’t had them this bad since I was a little girl. Since after my mother died.”
“You go lay down till lunch is ready and I’ll make you some tea. We won’t let all of this spoil your birthday.”
Marianne went down the hall to Mimi’s bedroom and Mimi went back into the kitchen to finish making lunch.
“So what did she have to say for herself?,” Catharine asked.
“She went to go lay down, she has a headache.”
“Oh really, you’re too indulgent with her sometimes, Miriam.”
“I can’t be too hard on her, that’ll only push her farther in the wrong direction.”
“Oh, how far in the wrong direction has she gone, I’d like to know?”
Mimi put a kettle on the stove to make Marianne some tea.
“Would you bring this into her when it’s done?”
When the kettle whistled, Mimi fixed a cup of ginger tea with honey and milk. Catharine went to bring it into her niece.
Marianne was lying on Mimi’s bed with her face buried in the pastel floral print pillows. Her little dog Johnny curled up at her side. The light blue curtains were closed to keep the sun out.
Catharine could hear the girl’s muffled sobbing.
“I’ve brought you some tea,” she said to her.
“Thank you,” Marianne answered in a quivering and stifled voice.
Catharine left the cup of tea on the nightstand and left the room. A part of her wanted to sit down and comfort the girl and tell her that the sun would come up tomorrow and everything would not be as dark as it was now. She remembered what it had been like to be young, when one’s future seemed so uncertain that it seemed like nothing would ever work out for you, and every misfortune looked like the end of the world.
But comforting people had never been something Catharine had ever been good at and she was afraid of upsetting the girl further.
When her aunt was gone, Marianne sat up and picked up the cup of tea. On the light blue chair by the window was Mimi’s bible. Marianne had always liked to looked at the pictures inside. Her favorite was the one of Mary Magdalene weeping at the feet of Jesus Christ. Mary Magdalene’s beautiful blond hair and wise, wistful eyes reminded her of her mother. In fact, her mother’s full name was Marie Madeleine Elisabeth Anne, Marie Madeleine being the French version of Mary Magdalene. As she sipped her tea, she sat in the light blue chair flipping through the pages of Mimi’s bible and admiring the pictures. When she got to the picture of Mary Magdalene at the feet of Jesus, she thought about her mother and what she had been doing on that day nineteen years earlier.
From the kitchen came the smell of her favorite potato and leek soup, as well as moules à la marinière, another favorite of hers. She was getting rather hungry.
A little while later, Mimi came in to tell her that lunch was ready. Mimi still looked upset with her and all Marianne could say to her was that her headache was better.
Tante Catharine was seated at the table in the kitchen.
“Nice to see you, Tante Catharine,” Marianne said to her.
“Happy birthday, my dear,” Catharine answered, “come give your poor old aunt a kiss.”
Marianne went over and kissed her cold, alabaster cheek.
“Oh look, lilies of the valley.”
She went to admire the vase full of her favorite flowers placed on the table and tried to appear cheerful.
“Lunch is ready,” Mimi added, “Please sit down, Marianne.”
She took her place at the head of the table and her two aunts sat down on either side of her. In front of each of them were two bowls: one full of potato and leek soup with a dollop of crème fraîche on top and garnished with chopped parsley; the other full of mussels soaking in a broth. In the center of the table was a plate of toasted slices of baguette.
Mimi said grace and then opened up the bottle of champagne.
“How are you feeling, Marianne?” Catharine asked “I was told that you had a bad headache.”
“I’m better, Tante Catharine,” Marianne answered, “I’m such a silly thing and I don’t get enough fresh air and exercise.”
“Do you have any plans for this evening?” Mimi asked her.
“I’m going to go with Anna to see the new Jean Harlow and Clark Gable movie.”
This birthday lunch was a rather awkward affair. Both of her aunts were trying their hardest not to mention the elephant in the room, Marianne’s relationship with Augustin. They both had plenty of questions for her, which they avoided as to not ruin the lunch.
When the soup and mussels were finished, Mimi brought over the lemon cake which was frosted with whipped cream and stuck with light blue candles. Marianne blew out the candles and Catharine cut it and put the slices on little white plates.
Catharine then presented Marianne with her birthday present, a bottle of the honey and lily scented Coty perfume she liked and a bar of her favorite patchouli soap.
“Thank you, Tante Catharine.”
“You’re welcome, my dear.”
The lunch finished up and Mimi walked with Marianne to the door.
“I thought of something I’d like to do,” she told her aunt.
“What is it?”
“In a couple weeks, it’ll be Toussaint. I’d like to go to Rouen and visit my mother’s grave.”
“Certainly,” Mimi kissed her niece’s forehead,”God protect you, Marianne.”
This was her aunt’s usual blessing but instead of “God protect you from doing wrong,” it meant “God protect you from what you’ve done wrong.”
After Catharine and Mimi finished up clearing the table and washing the dishes, they took tea in the living room. Mimi was muttering under her breath in frustration.
“Oh, don’t beat yourself up, Miriam,” Catharine said, “What’s happened has happened and now we must move on.”
“You think so?” Mimi responded.
“The boy’s in prison. Marianne will eventually realize that she needs someone on the right side of a jail cell.”
“You don’t think she’s…?”
“You can say it. Do I think she’s had sex with him?”
“I don’t think we need to worry there. I was looking at her and she’s still pure as the driven snow.”
Marianne came home to find a new letter from Augustin.
“You see, Johnny,” she said to her little dog, “This is the best birthday present I could have hoped for.”
“Chèrie,” the letter read, “Today they brought us all into the prison yard to watch an execution. There’s a guillotine at the far corner of the prison yard where the Rue de la santé meets the boulevard Arago.
They executed a boy today, who was convicted for killing his stepfather. I never met him but I’ve heard that the stepfather used to beat the boy’s mother and sisters, and for all I know, the bastard had it coming. The mother and sisters were there and wept through the whole thing.
I’ve seen people die before but it was nothing like this. The times I’ve seen people die, they were in their beds and it wasn’t as much of a shock because the life drained from them gradually. But this time, they dropped the blade and suddenly there was a gushing red stump where a head should be.
The boy was the same age as me. It’s so strange to think of someone your own age dying.
Best Wishes, Augustin.”
Marianne pulled the box out from under her bed and took out a pencil and a piece of creamy white note paper with a little blue bird stamped in the corner and an envelope. She put Augustin’s new letter with his earlier ones which were tied in a bundle with a pink ribbon.
“Dearest Augustin,” she began writing, “Today is my birthday, I’m now nineteen years old. Your Tante Maude visited me yesterday and brought me some cheese tart she had just made because I once told her that I was fond of cheese tart. You are lucky to have such a considerate family.
I went to have lunch with my aunts today and when I arrived there, I got quite a shock. My Tante Mimi told me that a policeman came to see her earlier to tell her that I went to visit you. Now she knows everything. She was upset with me when she found out I’ve been seeing you but I’m relieved that she now knows. I hated hiding things from her.
She said that you being locked up in jail was the best thing that could have happened. She loves me and wants what’s best for me but I don’t think she quite understands how unhappy I am. If she did, I don’t think she would say such things.
You once told me that I deserved a prince but I’ve seen princes before and I’d rather have a thief who loves me any day. Best wishes, Marianne”
There were still several hours to go until she was supposed to meet Anna. She went to her floor’s bathroom to see if there were any empty showers. They were all empty, so she went back to her room to get her toiletries. On the way back, she found one of the mousetraps that Madame Poisson had put out because it was the time of year when mice start to come inside. Three little mice were trapped inside and their pitiful squeaking touched Marianne’s heart.
“Don’t worry,” she said to them, “I’ll let you go. It’s my birthday and I’ve got the right to grant clemency today.”
She picked up the mousetrap to bring it downstairs. Lounging on the floor in the lobby, was Allumette, Madame Poisson’s cat, who was belching up the fur of some unfortunate friends of Marianne’s mice.
“Don’t worry, I’ll let you out in the alley where Allumette can’t get you.”
She slipped out the front door to went into the alley between her building and the one next to it. Bending down, she put the mousetrap on the ground and open it up so the mice could scurry out.
“Don’t come back, or Allumette will gobble you up.”
Now that the mice were free, she could go back upstairs and take her shower.
Marianne and Anna were approached at the movies by a waif like young girl wearing a pale yellow dress and a white jacket. Short, wavy locks of burgundy colored hair stuck out from her white cloche hat.
“Hello,” she said to them.
“Hello,” Marianne answered.
“You don’t know me but I know you. My name is Eulalie.”
“Pleased to finally meet you.”
“Likewise. How do you know me?”
“I’m Augustin’s little sister.”
“Funny, he never told me he had a sister.”
“Well, I’m not exactly his sister. He lived in the same building as me and has always been like a brother to me.”
After chatting for a few minutes, Marianne found out that Eulalie was going to see the same movie that she and Anna were going to see and so she invited her to sit with them. From the way the younger girl talked about Augustin, Marianne judged that Eulalie had a bit of a crush on him but she was so much younger than him and it was mostly a brother-sister like relationship. If she wanted to be anything to him, it was his little sister.
Eulalie took off her hat when they sat down in the theater.
“What do think of my haircut?” she asked.
Short waves of hair framed her pretty, fox-like face in a way which rather suited her.
“Very nice,” Anna answered.
“My old man used to make me wear it in an ugly plait all the time, or he would whop me. But they locked him up last summer and so I cut all my hair off.”
Toussaint fell on Thursday November second. That morning, Mimi received a call from Catharine, asking her to put flowers on the grave of their parents since she was going up to Rouen.
“Marianne told me that she wished to go visit her mother’s grave,” Mimi told her, “I told her I would take her. It wasn’t an unreasonable request and I felt that it would be nice for her after the hard time she’s been having.”
“You mean since that boy went to prison.”
“I feel like the whole thing is my fault. I am responsible for her and I let this happen.”
“Why is it you do that?”
“Act like she’s more your niece than she is mine.”
“So you’re saying that you are just as responsible?”
“No, of course not. I wasn’t the one that let her go out with him.”
Marianne had been up since dawn and had had a hard time falling asleep the night before because of the headaches she had been getting. She felt a strong throbbing in the crown and back of her head and popping in her ears and had to sleep sitting up with a hot compress on her face. It was still fairly dark when she got out of bed and put a kettle of water on the stove for tea and a steam bath. She sat with her head bent over a bowl of steaming water and covered by a towel to keep in the steam.
When it was time for her to go to Tante Mimi’s, she made sure to put her aspirin bottle in her handbag.
She met her aunt outside of her building and they walked to the Sévres Babylone metro station.
All of Paris was in black that day in honor of Toussaint. The flower girls at the Gare St. Lazare were peddling bouquets of chrysanthemums for people to put on the graves of their loved ones. St. Lazare was packed with other mourners traveling to visit relatives both dead and alive.
The train ride to Rouen was quiet and awkward. Marianne and Mimi sat across from each other, and neither of them said a word to each other for most of the trip.
“I know you’re still upset with me,” Marianne finally said.
“I haven’t slept with him, I want you to know,” she then added. This was the only thing she could think of which might calm down her aunt.
“I’m not upset with you, Marianne,” Mimi answered, “I just didn’t expect that you would ever get involved with someone like that.”
“Me neither. Six months ago, I couldn’t have imagined any of this.”
“Mostly I’m worried about you being unhappy. He’s going to be locked up for a long time and it must be hard on you. If I’m upset with anyone, it’s him. ”
“I don’t want to excuse what he did, I know it was wrong. But there is good in him.”
Mimi took the girl’s hand.
“Oh Marianne, please promise me you’ll always see the good in people.”
They took a taxi from the Gare de Rouen to St. Ouen, where they attended a Toussaint prayer service for the souls of the dead. Before the service began, Mimi lit three votive candles; one for her mother, one for her father, and one for her sister.
The narrow, austere, gothic nave of the cathedral was filled with a cloud of incense and Latin prayers. Marianne took the opal rosary beads which had belonged to her mother out of her handbag and handled them as if they were the relics of a saint.
She remembered her mother as something of a saint because of the hard and unhappy life she had lead and the grace and dignity with which she bore it all. Her mother had always embodied the virtues she admired and wished to emulate: kindness, gentleness, wisdom, and strength of character.
When the prayer service ended, they went out into the cemetery. Mimi purchased three bouquets of rosy pink and white chrysanthemums from a flower girl and they made their way to the d’Aubrey plot.
The first grave they visited belonged to Marianne’s grandparents. It consisted of a granite base carved with “d’Aubrey” and two white marble crosses. One was carved “Claude Victor, 1855-1920,” the other was carved “Emmaline Antoinette, 1860-1930.”
Marianne did not remember much about her grandfather. She had been only six when he had died. Her grandmother had been too reserved and distant for Marianne to have ever been close to her. She had felt that her grandmother had not liked her very much but after she died, Mimi kept saying how fond her grandmother had been of her.
Her mother’s grave was under a large willow tree. The gravestone had a weeping angel draped over it and had “Madeleine Elisabeth, 1890-1926” carved into it. Marianne knelt on the ground and placed a bouquet at the feet of the weeping angel.
“I miss you, Maman,” she said.
A gentle breeze rustled the branches of the willow tree and a comforting feeling came over Marianne.
Mimi had brought some charcoal and paper and the two of them went and did rubbings of the ancient tombstones of long dead d’Aubries with grand sounding names. Some of them were so old that Marianne imagined that there was nothing much left of them in the ground. She found it rather poignant that bodies slowly return to the earth after the souls have returned to heaven.
An old man entered the cemetery, along with a young man who had a handsome border collie with a thick and glossy black and white coat at his side. The old man and the young man had similar sunburnt faces, and Marianne guessed that they were father and son. Their sun burnt faces and muscular limbs gave them the appearance of people who had spent a lifetime working outdoors.
Mimi appeared to know them and went over to speak with them. She returned with them in toe.
“Marianne,” she called to her niece, “This is Monsieur Renault. Monsieur Renault, you remember my niece Marianne.”
“Yes,” the old man answered, “But she was a very little girl last time I saw her.”
“Monsieur Renault has a farm near Chateau Aubrey,” Mimi explained, “Your mother helped out there for a while during the war.”
“I don’t think you would remember my son, Gabriel,” Monsieur Renault referred to the young man who had come with him.
“Your mother would bring you with her sometimes,” Gabriel said, “And you would play crusades with my brother Yves, my sister Gillian, and me.”
“Oh yes,” Marianne responded, “I remember that you were horrid and would always knock me over.”
“But you never cried or told on me.”
“No, that wouldn’t have been very sporting of me.”
While Mimi and Monsieur Renault caught up, Gabriel and Marianne were left alone with each other, so they walked among the tombstones and made small talk. She asked him about his family’s farm, a subject which was very important to him and which he enjoyed talking about. He was unsure if she was really interested in their apple orchards or how many head of dairy cattle they had and was dreadfully afraid of boring her. She was politely listening to him without showing either interest or boredom. He saw her as a sophisticated Parisienne, something which was rather intimidating to a simple farm boy like him.
Marianne found this somewhat laughable; she was not sophisticated. Certainly if he were to come face to face with Mathilde or Agnès, he would be absolutely terrified.
She bent down to pat Gabriel’s dog.
“She’s beautiful,” she said, “what’s her name?”
“Her name is Julie, Mademoiselle,” Gabriel answered.
“Good Julie,” she scratched the dog behind her ears.
“You should see her round up our sheep,”
“From what you’ve been telling me, your family’s farm sounds wonderful. I’d like to see it sometime.”
“I would like that very much.”
Gabriel did not know if she really meant that it was just being kind. He assumed she was more complicated than she was and that she spoke a language of innuendo and hidden meanings where you never said what you actually thought for the sake of politeness but other people were expected to understand what you really meant.
Marianne felt that she would like Gabriel if he was less in awe of her. It was her name that was the problem.
The d’Aubreys had been a great family in this part of France and the Renaults had been retainers on the Chateau Aubrey estate for generations. To Gabriel, she was Mademoiselle d’Aubrey, the granddaughter of the master and chatelaine of Chateau Aubrey rather than simply Marianne, the waitress.
Tante Mimi called to her and told her that they were leaving. Marianne told Gabriel that it was nice meeting him and then went to join Mimi,
There was still a little while before their train back to Paris, so they found a café near the Gare de Rouen that was open despite the holiday.
Over tea and gingerbread, they discussed the day they had had.
“What did you think of Gabriel Renault?” Mimi asked her niece, “Did you think he was handsome?”
“I guess, in the Norman way. A strapping, blond farm boy.”
“In what way is Augustin Lerou handsome?”
“Augustin’s hair is dark and it curls. And he’s as slender as a snake. Look at you Tante Mimi, what would Grande-mère d’Aubrey say if she knew you were hoping I would hit it off with the son of one of her old retainers.”
“I don’t know, child.”
“I don’t think she would have cared much. She never really about my mother or me.”
“How could you say that?”
“Wasn’t that how it was? Tante Catharine was her favorite and you were Grand-Père d’Aubrey’s favorite. Everyone loved you and everyone was afraid of Catharine and my poor mother was lucky if anyone said a direct word to her.”
“Did she really tell you that?”
If Madeleine had had any faults, nailing herself to the cross was one of them.
“Your mother’s life wasn’t as bad as all that. She wasn’t alone and unloved and neither, I might say, are you. I know how you are, Marianne d’Aubrey, when things don’t go the way you wanted them to, it’s all woe-is-me and my life is hopeless. That’s just the way your mother was.”
“Why does everyone think I’m my mother?”
“Oh my dear, you can’t be anything but what you are. What you are comes from her; she is as much a part of you as anything. You are loved, child, always remember that.”
An old gypsy woman wearing a woven shawl of many colors like Joseph’s coat in the bible story came up to the tables in front of the café offering to read tea leaves.
“My name’s Madame Drina,” she said to Mimi, “Would you like to have your tea leaves read?”
“No thank you,” Mimi answered
“I would, ” Marianne piped in, “oh don’t look at me like that,Tante Mimi. What could be the harm in it.”
Madame Drina went over to Marianne’s side of the table, the earrings and bracelets jingling as she moved.
“The beautiful young lady certain must wish to know if there’s a husband in her future,” she said.
“I’d like to know anything,” Marianne answered, “As long as it’s good.”
“Then give me your cup, my child.”
She handed her cup to the old gypsy.
“There are bits of tea leaf stuck to the rim of the cup, and a large clump of tea leaves right in the center with two drops of tea near it. The bits of tea leaf on the rim make the shape of a house, a flame, an exclamation point, and a forked line. Soon you will have to make a choice between the life you know and following your desires. The choices you make and the choices others make which involve you will cause you both great happiness and great sorrow. So my advice to you, Mademoiselle, is to beware impulsive decisions, both your own and those of the people around you.”
“Thank you, Madame.”
Marianne took some coins out of her handbag and gave them to the gypsy.
The gypsy woman made the sign of the cross over them.
Augustin retreated into his cell at the end of the day with a newspaper he had managed to get ahold of. Nights were simultaneously the best and worst time of the day. They were somewhat more quiet and he could be alone with her thoughts but the quietness and solitude came with a feeling of uneasiness, which is why he kept a sort of dagger he fashioned under his pillow.
Time there felt like being in a room where the walls were slowly closing in on him bit by bit so that at first you think you’re just seeing things and you don’t realize that you’re going to be crushed until it’s too late.
Most of the problems he had could be summed up in one word: Camille.
Augustin recalled all the things his superstitious grandmother had told him about the evil eye. It was as if Camille had cursed him with his menacing look to be constantly watched by the evil eye. He knew he was right to be afraid of Camille since he had seen what he was capable of, things he did not want to think about.
In the paper, he read that Faucherie had been sentenced to immediate transportation. They were bringing him down to Marseille at the end of the week and he would go to Cayenne on the next convict ship.
Faucherie’s trial sounded like it had been such a show that Augustin imagined that there had been an orchestra and chorus girls.
He was glad that he himself was not going to be transported to Cayenne. He could not imagine anything worse than being sent to the other side of the world and never seeing Tante Maude, Léon, and Marianne again. Camille and his evil eye did not seem so bad in comparison.
But the worst thing was thinking about how much he had hurt those he loved. One of the most awful parts of being in prison was that he had plenty of time and opportunity to think of what he had done to them. Most of the time, he was one push away from banging on the bars of his cell and screaming like a mad man.
A Carnival in Rouen
Charles remembered seeing Mado again some weeks after her sister’s engagement party at a carnival in Rouen. There was a strong man who was taking arm wrestling challenges and girls selling bouquets of flowers and men selling bags of popcorn and balloons on strings.
He found her riding the carousel in the center of the carnival.
The carousel had a sign on it which read “l’Arc de Noé” and two of every kind of animal you could think of went up and down and around. Mado was seated upon a white tiger like some kind of Indian princess.
“Bonsoir Mademoiselle,” he said to her as he hopped up onto the platform of the carousel.
Mado blushed and seemed embarrassed and ashamed that she had let him kiss her the first time they had met.
“Bonsoir,” she answered, “Charmée de vous voir.”
Though she was embarrassed by her previous breach of propriety, she was glad to see him. They chatted about unimportant little things that had happened to them recently for the rest of the fifteen minutes of her ride. He leaned against the tiger and put his arm around her waist. She blushed but did not seem to mind.
The icy, alabaster faced brunette he remembered seeing at the engagement party approached the carousel looking at them with pinch faced disapproval.
“There you are,” she said to Mado.
“Catharine,” Mado said, ” This is Jamie. He was at your engagement party.”
“Bonsoir,” He had answered. He extended his hand but she turned up her nose at it.
“So, you were letting a man you just met fool with you on the carousel. They should have thrown you off.”
“What is your problem?” He had said this in English because anger had caused him to revert back to his native language.
She ignored him and turned to Mado.
“If you think I’m not going to tell Maman about this…”
“Yes, go run to Maman like you always do,” Mado responded.
“I guess being fast is the only way a girl like you is ever going to get a man.”
“Who do think you are,” He had but in, “Speaking to someone like that, especially your own sister.”
“I will speak to my own sister however I feel like speaking, Monsieur.”
“Oh, get over yourself, you frigid bitch.”
He had never understood the attraction a constipated cow like Catharine had for some men. He for one would of rather gone to bed with an iceberg; the effect would have been just the same and it would have been a lot less foolish.
When she was gone, he told Mado that he was going to get a couple Coca Colas from a near by vendor and she was to meet him at bench he pointed out in a distant corner of the town square.
With two cokes in hand, he found Mado waiting for him exactly where he had told her to.
“It was nice meeting your sister,” he told her.
“That’s how Catharine is,” she answered, “Whenever anyone’s happy, she has to go and spoil it. No ones allowed to enjoy themselves but her. How silly of me, I agreed to meet you like this and I never asked you what your full name was.”
“James Beaumont at your service, Mademoiselle.”
“Beaumont, are you perhaps related to the Earl of St. Oswald?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“May I ask how you came to be at my sister’s party?”
“You know the Marquis of Hartshire, the Duke of Ryme Intraseca’s eldest son?”
“He was at Catharine’s party. Are you a friend of Lord Hartshire?”
“Bless your heart no. But I am friends with his valet. You see I used to work for His Lordship’s father, the Duke, as a footman in his London house. Then I left London for Paris. Lord Hartshire’s valet wrote to me saying that he would be accompanying his master to Rouen and that I should come up and visit him. We both thought it would be a real laugh if I dressed up in one of his master’s tuxedos and went to your sister’s party.”
“So that’s why you were there, as part of a practical joke.”
“It was a lot more fun than I thought it would be. Now about you, tell me about yourself.”
“There’s not much to say. I have two parents who are like everyone else’s parents, I guess. You met my older sister and I have a younger one as well.”
“Hopefully you get along better with her.”
“Oh no, I absolutely despise her. Mimi’s a nice enough person, but she’s terribly spoiled by everyone and has everything in life too easy.”
“There’s a café near here, how would you like to get some supper and then go dancing?”
“My parents are sending the car to get us around midnight.”
“I can have you back by then.”
He took her to the café he described and was torn between wanting to impress her and hoping her tastes were not too extravagant. Then he brought her to a place where there was a ragtime band and he showed her how to do newfangled dances such as the turkey trot and the bunny hug. Mado appeared to be having a greater time than she had ever had.
At quarter to twelve midnight, he brought her back to the carnival.
“Thank you, I had a wonderful time,” Mado told him.
“Ride the Ferris wheel with me before you go,” he asked.
“Oh no, I’m terribly afraid of heights.”
“Close your eyes and I’ll hold your hand.”
There were still a few minutes left until midnight, just enough time to ride the Ferris wheel. She kept her eyes closed the entire time and he never let go of her hand.
He picked her up into his arms after they got off the ride and kissed her.
“Madeleine,” a voice called to the girl
They were confronted with the calm, dignified form of Claude d’Aubrey, Mado’s father.
“We’ve been looking all over for you,” a delicately beautiful dark haired girl added.
“Goodnight,” Mado said to him as she followed her father and sisters to the car.
“Goodnight,” he answered.
The dark haired girl took Mado’s arm and asked between giggles “Did you like it when he picked you up and kissed you?”
“What do you think?”
“Then tell me all about it.”
He imagined that the poor girl got hell from her parents and older sister when she got home.
Tea at Eleven
Charles recalled this memory as he was driving to St. Germaine with Adèle and Sarah . He told them that they were going to have tea with an old friend of his, a Madame Mathieu. Adèle mumbled something about him having a lot of lady friends she did not know about.
He knocked on the door and came face to face with Catharine Mathieu, who had changed little since he had last seen her. Time had not spoiled her beauty but rather like the ice used to keep produce fresh during shipping, preserved it and made it even more glacial.
“Right on time,” she said to him.
“Hello Catharine,” he said to her.
“Nice to see you as well.” Her reserved gave it away that she did not quite mean this.
“This is my wife, Adèle, and my friend, Madame Brady.”
Catharine’s sister Mimi joined her in the doorway.
“You remember my sister, Miriam.”
“Yes, it’s good to see you again.”
“Come in, come in,” Mimi added.
The two sisters lead their guests into the parlor where three young girls were seated on a sofa. The tallest one was a glamour-puss with a made up face and pin curled hair. The one who appeared to be the youngest had a demure and awkward appearance and Charles guessed that she was not long out of convent school. He could not really see the third girl.
“This is my elder daughter, Madame Danton,” Catharine introduced one of the girls, “And my younger daughter, Mademoiselle Thomas.”
“Madame, Mademoiselle,” Charles said to Catharine’s two daughters.
Then Catharine gestured to the girl sitting on the far end of the sofa.
“And this my niece, Mademoiselle d’Aubrey.”
Mademoiselle d’Aubrey was as rosy and golden as her aunts and cousins were dark and pale. She wore a black dress and her blond hair was arranged like a halo; she out shone Catharine’s daughters like the bright sun out shines the pallid moon.
“Monsieur,” the girl responded.
The seating in Catharine’s parlor was arranged in a semicircle made up of two sofas with an armchair at either end.
Poor Adèle, who was seated in one of the armchairs, did not quite fit in with either of the two groups which formed on the two sofas. She was closer in age to the young girls who were seated on one but closer in position to the older women who were seated on the other. Sarah had settled herself with Catharine and Mimi and chatted with them about things which the shared state of matronhood gave them in common.
A smartly uniformed maid came in from the kitchen bringing in several trays of refreshments such as pastel colored macaroons, Madeleines drizzled with lemon glaze and sprinkled with powdered sugar, open faced cucumber and watercress sandwiches, and a caprese salad. Catharine brought in a clear glass teapot with a large flower bud inside and a kettle of steaming water. Putting the teapot where all of the guests could see, she poured the hot water inside, making the flower bud blossom open.
Charles, who was seated in the armchair closest to the door, took a sandwich and a little salad. Though he had never been one to be ashamed of being the only man in a room full women, the overwhelming femininity of his surroundings made him a little uncomfortable.
Adèle was chatting with Mademoiselle d’Aubrey who was seated closest to her. Charles observed the girl who was holding a Madeleine in her hand in a rather nonchalant way and took an occasional nibble. She was a rather curious young woman who appeared to be more of a lady than her cousins and yet carried it off with a tomboyish unfussiness. Like all truly fascinating women, she refused to conform to a type.
“Is that her?” Charles whispered to Mimi, who was seated next to her.
“Yes,” Mimi answered.
“My little girl.”
“Pretty isn’t she?”
“She’s very unhappy right now.”
“If she’s unhappy, I don’t want to know.”
Charles figured that love was the cause of her unhappiness because what else could so preoccupy a young girl’s mind.
It was strange to look at this child, who was his own flesh and blood, and see her as a stranger. A lifetime of experiences he knew nothing about went into making the young woman he saw before him.
Twenty seasons of regret came back to him all at once.
“Marianne, would you bring me the last macaroon,” Catharine said to her niece.
Marianne got up and brought the tray over to her aunt and Catharine took the last macaroon.
“Are those your hands? The palms look so raw and red, I thought they belonged to a housemaid.”
Marianne then began to pick up as many dishes as she could carry.
“What are you doing?” Mimi asked.
“I’m going to clear the dishes. That’s what housemaids do.”
She brought her stack of dishes towards the kitchen.
“Poor kid,” Charles said.
He picked up the rest of the dishes and followed Marianne.
She was standing by the sink and the water was running. When she heard him come in, she turned and looked at him.
“Oh, it’s you Monsieur,” she said.
“I brought the rest of the dishes in.”
As she began to wash the dishes, she hummed a tune which Charles recognized.
“East Side, West Side, all around the town” Charles sang in his fine baritone, “The tots sang “ring around rosie”, “London Bridge is falling down”. Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O’Rourke. We tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York. Sidewalks of New York, I admit it’s not the first thing I would think of a French girl singing.”
“My father used to sing it to me when I was very little.”
“Are you close to your father?”
“He died in the war.”
“Did your mother tell you a lot about him?”
“She told me a lot of fairy tales about how he died fighting for France and how handsome he was. She said that he was the handsomest man she ever saw and made him sound like some sort of film star.”
“I imagine he was.”
“Don’t patronize me, Monsieur.”
“You’re a strange kid, you know that?”
“Since you asked me if I had a father, I’ll ask you if you have a daughter.”
“and what’s she like?”
“I think you know her pretty well.”
He took her tiny hands in his large ones.
“Listen Marianne, if you were to meet your father today, if he was standing in front of you like I am now, what would you say to him?”
“I don’t know. Are you trying to tell me that…No, no, that’s impossible.”
“Darling…I don’t know how to tell you the truth without shocking you.”
“Go away…leave me alone, you’re scaring me”
“Don’t call me darling!”
The girl quickly left the kitchen and returned to the parlor, distress evident on her face. Catharine, Mimi, and Sarah appeared to know exactly what had happened, Adèle looked confused, and Catharine’s daughters were indifferent.
Charles told Catharine that it was time for him, his wife, and Madame Brady, to go.
Sarah was dropped off at her lodgings and Charles and Adèle drove back to Neuilly. During the drive home, Adèle was biting her lip as if she was trying to keep something in which was bubbling at the surface. When they were safely home, she let loose with “You should be ashamed, Charles Prideaux. She’s young enough to be your daughter.”
Charles simply answered with “She is my daughter.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’m telling the truth.”
“Let’s sit down, it’s a long story.”
He asked Benoît to bring them some coffee and he and Adèle adjourned to the living room.
“Alright, we’re sitting down,” Adèle blew a cloud of smoke from a cigarette she had just lit, “Let’s hear it.”
“Those two women we had tea with today, Catharine Mathieu and Miriam d’Aubrey, had a sister named Madeleine, who was my first wife. She died many years ago, many years before I met you, leaving a daughter, my daughter.
She died of the consumption she had suffered from for years. I had only seen Marianne, our daughter, a handful of times because of the war, and she probably wouldn’t have recognized me if she’d seen me. You remember that I was a prisoner of the Germans during the war.”
“When I was finally able to come back, Madeleine was dead and everyone believed I had been dead. Her sisters were taking care of Marianne and I figured that she would be better off with them and better off believing the fairy tales her mother told her about me. I had nothing, what could I have done for a little girl.”
“She must be what…seventeen…eighteen?”
“Nineteen years old. A young woman now and I hardly know her.”
“Why didn’t you tell me all this?”
“I didn’t think it mattered. I never thought she’d come back into my life as easily as someone would be invited over for afternoon tea.”
Catharine settled in for the evening with a cup of hot chocolate and the latest Poirot whodunit by Agatha Christie: Lord Edgware Dies.
The situation of the murder’s victim Lord Edgware reminded her the slightest bit of Charles. They were both wealthy men with a thing for art, a grown daughter and a beautiful young wife not much older than her. But she doubted that Adèle had the motive or the brains to kill anyone.
And the grown daughter? Catharine imagined that the day’s events had given her quite the shock.
It had been Catharine’s idea to invite Charles over so he could reveal himself to his daughter. Mimi had objected to this idea, suggesting that they should find a gentler way of telling their niece the truth about her father but Marianne was too old for such coddling. The truth was shocking sometimes and you could not always sugar coat it. Catharine had never been one to needlessly sugar coat things.
Seeing Charles again made her remember the first evening she had met him at the carnival in Rouen.
The three bedrooms which she and her sisters had lived in at Chateau Aubrey were connected by a series of doors. Catharine’s room had a door which opened into Madeleine’s room. Madeleine’s room had a door which opened up into Mimi’s room. Being the room in the middle and able to be accessed the two other rooms, Madeleine’s room served as a meeting place for the three sisters. After returning home from the carnival and getting ready for bed, Catharine had noticed that her sisters were in Madeleine’s room.
Mimi was sitting on Madeleine’s bed while Madeleine herself was standing in front of the large French window which was open and a soft breeze was blowing the diaphanous lace curtains.
“So what was his name?” Mimi asked Madeleine.
“James Beaumont,” Madeleine answered, “He’s a distant relative of the Earl of St. Oswald and is traveling in the suite of The Marquis of Hartford.”
“He’s so very handsome.”
How sweet Mimi was. She wanted so much to share in other people’s happiness. Sometimes she resemble nothing so much as a lovely black spaniel who yipped and jumped up on people and wanted nothing more than to give and receive affection. Madeleine usually pushed Mimi away whenever she tried to be close with her but that night they were giggling together in a way which they usually did not.
“Shouldn’t you two be in bed?” Catharine had cut in.
“Mado was just telling me about her new beau.” Mimi told her.
“Well I think you two better call it night. I’m sure the maids in the attic can hear you.”
“His name is James Beaumont and he’s a relative of the Earl of St. Oswald and he’s traveling with the Marquis of Hartford.”
“Sure he is. If was a gentleman, he wouldn’t have behaved the way he did. And if Mado was a lady, she wouldn’t have behaved the way she did.”
“You’re such a hypocrite, Catherine.” Madeleine said
“At least I don’t have to try so hard to get a man.”
The three sisters then bid each other goodnight and went to their respective beds.
Even then, Catharine had known that James Beaumont was not what Madeleine wanted him to be.