Camilla

Madeleine L'Engle

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 
1
I KNEW AS SOON AS I GOT HOME on Wednesday that Jacques was there with my mother. I knew it when I walked into the entrance hall of the apartment and the door­man said, “Good afternoon, Miss Camilla,” and smiled at me with the eager and curious smile for which I had begun to look each time I came home. I walked across the hall, and prayed that Jacques would go now that I was home, that he would go before my father came. And I was glad that I had come straight home after school instead of going for a walk with Luisa.
I stepped into the elevator and the elevator boy said, as though he had something exotic-tasting in his mouth, “Good afternoon, Miss Camilla. You have company upstairs.”
“Oh?” I said.
“Yes.”
The elevator boy is small and fat and, though he has white hair and two of his teeth are missing and show black gaps in his mouth, he is always called the elevator boy; never the elevator man. And the way his eyes are always dancing with something malicious in them when he talks makes him seem much more like the brothers of some of the girls at school than like a grown person. His eyes had that nasty hap­piness in them now, as though he were about to put out a foot and trip me up and then roar with laughter when he saw me fall on my face.
“That Mr. Nissen is upstairs,” he said, grinning. “He asked especially if you was in and then he said he’d go up­stairs and wait for you.”
Yes, I could hear in my mind’s ear how Jacques would ask for me, smiling and speaking in that voice of his as soft as a spaniel’s ear. Yes, I am the one Jacques always asks for. I am like a game between Jacques and the doorman and the old elevator boy, a ball they throw back and forth between them, always smiling, smiling, as though they all understand the game is quite unimportant . . .
So the elevator boy looked at me with that giggly look and stopped the elevator at the fourteenth floor. It is really the thirteenth .oor, but I have noticed that in most apartment houses they just skip thirteen and call it fourteen. This is silly. You can change the number but you can’t change the floor.
I said good-bye to the elevator boy and pulled my key out of the pocket of my navy blue coat and let myself into the apartment. I could hear their voices from the living room. My mother was laughing, high and excited and happy. Don’t ever let my father hear her laugh like that, I begged, but I don’t know to whom I was begging, my mother, or Jacques, or God.
I went down the hall to my room and hung up my coat and my red beret and put my schoolbooks down on the desk. Then I did not sit down and start my homework as I usually do when I get in, but went back toward the living room so that Jacques would be sure to know I was home. I walked heavily, clumping my school shoes down on the silver-green carpet so that he would know before I got to the living room. Then I knocked.
“Come in,” my mother said. “Oh, it’s you, Camilla, dar­ling. How was school? I was saying to Jacques how well you always—your last report card was really—your father and I are most pleased with your progress.”
My mother always talks in little rushes, as though she were in such a hurry to say everything that there isn’t time ever quite to .nish a sentence. Her voice sounds like a brook leaping and tumbling downhill, and broken up and divided by all shapes and sizes of rocks.
I went over to my mother and kissed her and then I shook hands with Jacques. My mother said, “Good heavens, Camilla, your cheek is like ice. Is it raining or— Do you think it will snow tonight, Jacques, it’s really time— Of course I don’t like snow in the city after— But then it’s lovely while it’s falling.” And then she laughed. I don’t know quite what the laugh meant, but I think she just feels free to laugh because she thinks I am so young that I am still like a kitten with eyes that aren’t ready to open yet. But when you are .f­teen you have passed that stage. Fifteen is a strange number of years to be; it is so convenient for my mother and father that I am .fteen because they can always say that I am too young or too old whenever they want to say no about any­thing. Luisa is sixteen and she says it is the same way with her; you lose all the privileges of being a child and get none of the privileges of being grown-up.
“Good afternoon, Camilla,” Jacques said, in that silky way of his. And he looked at my mother. “Yes, Rose, it must have started to rain. Am I right, Camilla?”
“Yes.” I pulled my hand out of his. He did not open his .ngers but held his hand over mine so that I felt his palm all the way as I slid my .ngers out.
“Your lashes are wet,” Jacques said, “and there is rain in your hair. I brought you a present, Camilla.”
“Oh, yes, Camilla, do look at— Jacques brought you a lovely— Yes, Jacques came to—he dropped by just for you—to bring you a present.”
Jacques went to the table that stood under the Carroll portrait of my mother and picked up a package like a small cof.n. He gave it to me. “Perhaps you are too old for this, Camilla,” he said, “but your mother tells me you are learning to sew this year and—”
“Yes, Camilla is learning to sew so beautifully—it will be lovely for her to practice on—all the little dresses and per­haps even some hats—” my mother cried, her voice high and excited.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Aren’t you going to open it?” my mother asked me.
I opened the package. It was a doll. A large doll with real hair and long black eyelashes and horrible staring blue eyes that rolled in its head as well as opening and closing. And as I lifted it up its tiny rosy mouth opened and there were two rows of cruel little white teeth. I have never liked dolls. Somehow they have always frightened me a little because they are like cartoons of all that is cold and unloving and un­caring in people.
“You see? She has lashes like yours, Camilla. And she’s— she’s really not just a doll for a child, you know.” He seemed suddenly nervous and he pushed his .ngers quickly over his hair, which is thick and wavy and almost as fair as my mother’s.
The doll’s head lolled against my arm and the round, pink mouth closed in a sneer.
“How about your schoolwork—don’t you have home­work to do, Camilla? All that Latin—and is it geometry you were asking your father to— I never could understand geom­etry,” my mother said.
“Yes,” I said to my mother. “Thank you very much for the doll,” I said to Jacques.
I left the room and walked down the hall again. I put the doll down on a chair and it fell over so that it lay with its head on the arm of the chair like a midget who was drunk. Then I remembered I had left the box and the wrappings on the table under my mother’s portrait, so I went back to the living room and this time I did not knock. I don’t know whether I did this on purpose or not, but when I walked into the room, there were Jacques and my mother kissing, as I had known they would be.
“I forgot the box the doll came in,” I said in a loud voice and went over to the table.
Jacques opened his mouth to say something and closed it and then he opened it again and I think that this time he re­ally would have said something, only then we were all frozen into silence by the sound of my father’s key in the lock.
We heard my father come in and the soft thud as he tossed his hat on the hall table and his coat on the chair for Carter, the maid, to pick up. Then my mother went over to the sofa and sat down in front of the coffee table and lit a cigarette.
Her .ngers were as pale and thin as the cigarette and they were trembling. Jacques lit a cigarette, too, and his .ngers were not trembling at all.
My father came into the room and he had a tight smile on his face that did not change when he saw Jacques but simply became a little more tight, the way the braces on my teeth feel when I have just been to the dentist.
“Good evening, Rafferty, my love,” my mother said, and squashed out her unsmoked cigarette in an ashtray. The ciga­rette crumpled and then broke and little bits of tobacco stuck out from the tear. “Camilla says it’s raining. Did you get— Hadn’t you better change your shoes if— Or has it stopped?”
“It’s still raining,” my father said, and he leaned across the coffee table and kissed my mother. Then he nodded to Jacques. “Evening.”
“What time is—or are you early?” my mother asked him.
“I’m early,” my father said. “You’re looking very lovely this evening, Rose.” Then he smiled that tight smile at me, as though it hurt him to move his mouth. “What have you got there, Camilla?”
“A box,” I said.
“And what is the purpose of the box?” My father leaned over the coffee table again, took a cigarette from the silver box, and handed it to my mother. Then he pulled out his lighter and lit it for her. All the while he said nothing and looked at her and she looked back at him with the blue eyes of the doll. And my father seemed to grow until he .lled up the whole room, standing by the coffee table in his dark suit, his cigarette lighter still .aring in his outstretched hand.
“It’s a box a doll came in,” I said.
“A doll?”
Now I knew that Jacques and my mother were glad I had come back into the room when I did. My mother said, “Jacques brought Camilla a doll. Jacques is Camilla’s most ardent admirer.”
“And where is the doll?” my father asked. “Really, Rose, why on earth would anyone give a doll to Camilla? She’s not a child anymore.”
This was the .rst time I had ever heard my father be rude to anyone, and it startled me. I said, “It’s in my room. I came back to get the box.” I looked at Jacques and then at my mother and then at my father. My father is a very large man. He is tall and broad and his body is as solid as a stone. His hair is as strong and de.nite as black marble and the streaks of white that touch his temples are like the markings in mar­ble. His shoulders are as broad as the shoulders on the statue of Atlas on Fifth Avenue near Rockefeller Center, the one who is holding up the world and looks as though he is slip­ping off his pedestal from the weight of it. But my father’s foot would not slip.
“Fix you a drink, Nissen?” my father asked.
“Thanks—no,” Jacques murmured. “I must be going. I have an appointment downtown.”
I did not wait to hear him say good-bye but slipped out of the living room and went back to my room. I turned off the light. At .rst I could not see anything; for a moment it was like being blind, but then the light came in through my win­dow from the lighted windows of the apartments across the court. I pushed the curtains aside and looked out. When I was much younger I used to think that living on the court was like living partway down the rabbit’s hole in Alice’s Adven­tures in Wonderland. Sometimes Luisa and I will stand by the window and watch it grow dark and tell each other things about the people who live in the other apartments. Or I will try on clear winter nights to show Luisa the stars. You have to lean far out and look up through the rabbit’s hole of build­ings to see them, but when it is very cold and clear I can point out Aldebaran and Betelgeuse, Bellatrix and Sirius, the Pleiades and Perseus.
Three sides of the court that form the rabbit’s hole are made up of the big apartment house in which I live. The fourth side is a smaller, lower apartment house, and I can see the roof where there is a big tank with a ladder going up to it, but which I have never seen anybody climb. It is across this roof that I can .nd the most stars. Sometimes on warm days young women will come up onto the roof in bathing suits and spread blankets out and lie in the sun, and in the evening they will come up with young men and watch the moon rise above the broken edges of the city and kiss the way I saw my mother and Jacques kiss. The rooms in this smaller building are different from the ones in our house. They are more clut­tered and the people don’t bother to pull down their shades or close their venetian blinds as often and there are fewer maids turning on lamps and lighting candles on mahogany ta­bles and bustling around kitchens in the evenings. There is something very comforting about kitchens. It always cheers me up to stand by my bedroom window and watch dinner being cooked and imagine things about happy families with lots of children.
I stood there at my window after I had left my mother and father and Jacques saying good-bye, and looked through the veil of falling rain into a big kitchen in the smaller house where a whole family, mother and father and four children and a grandmother, too, were sitting around a big blue kitchen table eating scrambled eggs and bacon for supper. Then my door opened and I heard my father’s voice.
“Camilla.”
I turned around and he was standing, almost .lling up the doorway, outlined in warm yellow light from the hall.
“Here I am, Father,” I said.
“What are you doing all alone in the dark?”
“Just looking at the rain.”
“That’s a melancholy business,” my father said. “Turn on your light and put on one of your pretty dresses and come out to dinner with me.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Your mother has a headache,” my father said, “so she’s going to bed to have tea and toast, and I thought it might be fun for us to go out cavorting together. How about it?”
“Fine.” I moved away from the window and turned on the light by my desk, blinking against its sharpness.
“I’ll give you half an hour to primp in, and then we’ll go.” My father gave me a clumsy pat on the shoulder and left me.
I went into the bathroom and took a shower and brushed my teeth. Brushing my teeth is a nuisance because of my braces, though it’s easier now that the outside ones are off and I just have them on the inside. While I was brushing my teeth my mother came to the bathroom door in a rose velvet negligee and said, “Camilla darling, when you’re dressed, come to my room and—heavens, darling, you’ve got tooth­paste all over your face—and I’ll .x your hair for you and you can use some of my makeup.” Her face was puckered with anxiety and her eyelashes were just a little damp and stuck-together-looking, as though she had started to cry and then decided against it. Her pale hair was tumbled about her shoulders and it looked softer and more luxuriant than the velvet of her gown. “All right, Camilla darling?”
“All right, Mother,” I said, and started to put the top back on the toothpaste. It slipped out of my .ngers and rolled like a little round black beetle down the slippery sides of the washbasin and into the drain, where I had to .sh and .sh for it with my .ngers; and all the while my mother stood there in the doorway, looking as though she was about to burst into tears, and watched me.
“You can use my tweezers, darling, to get that nasty top if you— Really, they’re lots easier than your .ngers.” But just then I got the top out and rinsed it off and put it back on the toothpaste.
My mother turned to go, saying as she left, “Do hurry now, darling, and don’t keep your father— Rafferty hates to be kept waiting.”
I washed my face again to make sure I got all the tooth­paste off and went back to my room and dressed. I put on the sheer smoky stockings my mother had given me for my birth­day and which I had never worn before and a dress she had bought me that is neither silver nor green, and that changes color as you move in it. It is a very beautiful dress and the one dress-up thing that I have that I really like and don’t feel strange and uncomfortable in. Luisa gets annoyed at me be­cause I care about clothes, but I love pretty things when they seem right for me.
When I went into my mother’s room she was lying on her chaise longue with a soft blanket over her knees, but she got
 

Excerpted from Camilla by Madeleine l’Engle.
Copyright © 2009 by Madeleine l’Engle.
Published in January 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction
is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or
medium must be secured from the Publisher.