Quick! She had to rinse her hands and remove the traces of jam.
Mademoiselle Bontemps hastily dried her hands and cast a longing look at the plate piled with strawberry biscuits, mocha cakes, éclairs and meringues. Resisting temptation, she shut the plate away in the bottom of the cupboard. ‘I’ll have them this evening when everyone’s gone to bed…’ She smoothed her dress over the crinoline she persisted in wearing as if she were still only twenty, and rustled back into the salon, where her visitor was putting on his gloves.
‘Excuse me for taking so long, Monsieur Mori,’ she simpered. ‘I thought I heard a tap dripping.’
‘Yes, I distinctly heard running water too,’ replied the immaculately turned out Japanese man.
He adjusted his black silk top hat, which complemented his double-breasted blazer and pinstriped trousers, and attempted to extricate his cane from an umbrella stand decorated with a profusion of frills. The entire salon was overrun with flounces and furbelows: they embellished the curtains, the seat covers, the shelves laden with knick-knacks and even the hostess’s dress. They ran all over the décor, their rippling little waves forming an unceasing tide, and indeed the elegant Asiatic seemed to be suffering from seasickness as he wrestled with the swirls of material. Finally managing to reclaim his stick, he let out a sigh.
‘And where is your goddaughter?’ asked Mademoiselle Bontemps.
‘Iris has gone off to the fête with her friends. I don’t approve of these popular outings.’
‘The young must have their entertainment.’
‘Pleasure heralds regret, just as sleep heralds death.’
‘Oh, Monsieur Mori, that’s beautiful, but very sad.’
‘Well, I don’t feel light-hearted at the moment. I don’t like separations.’
He pretended to examine the tip of his cane, which he had been nervously tapping on the carpet.
‘I do understand,’ murmured Mademoiselle Bontemps, discreetly rearranging the pleats of the umbrella stand. ‘Don’t worry, Monsieur Mori, two months will pass quickly.’
‘I’ll have her bathing suit and sunhat delivered by Thursday. Are you still leaving next Monday?’
‘God willing, Monsieur Mori. Lord Jesus what an expedition! It will be the first time I’ve taken the young ladies to the seaside. They’re beside themselves with excitement. I’ve had to reserve four compartments. What with the cook and the two chambermaids we’re a party of sixteen. The journey is costing an arm and a leg! And when you’re away for more than six weeks, you’re not entitled to the cheap excursion rate. In previous years, we’ve made do with Saint-Cyr-sur—’
‘Morin, yes, yes, I know,’ finished the Japanese man, clearly exasperated.
‘But what can you do? Times change; now all people talk about is tourism, beaches and bathing!’
‘Make sure Iris never goes into the water without supervision.’
‘Of course! The young ladies will not stray by so much as an inch from the roped-off area. I’ve engaged a swimming teacher.’
‘Keep an eye on him, especially if he’s attractive.’
‘Monsieur Mori, I watch over my girls like a cat—’
‘Over her kittens, I know, I know. Would you be able to call me a cab?’
‘At once, Monsieur Mori. Colas! Colas! Where has that rascal got to? He’s the gardener’s son, a good-for-nothing,’ she explained, casting a smug glance at herself in a mirror adorned with plump cherubs, and delicately adjusting the two looped coils of dyed black hair on either side of her moon-shaped face. A youth appeared, sullenly chewing a straw.
‘What on earth is he wearing? You’d think he’d been dragged through a hedge backwards. Go and find a cab and be quick about it – Monsieur is waiting.’
As soon as he was out on Chaussée de l’Étang, the youth stuck his tongue out at the heavy bourgeois building behind the iron gates on which a brass plate read:
C. BONTEMPS BOARDING SCHOOL
Private Establishment for Young Ladies
Then he set off, following the sound of the fête’s music to the square in front of the town hall.
A handsome, rather feline young man of about twenty pulled himself from the chestnut tree on which he’d been lounging and fell into step behind him. Colas was about to cross over to the line of cabs in front of Gare Saint-Mandé when a hand grabbed his shoulder.
‘Oh, it’s you, Monsieur Gaston! You gave me a fright.’
‘You took your time!’
‘Well, I couldn’t get away from the Boss.’
‘Here, take this to you know who,’ said the man, handing him a note.
‘How will I find her? They’re all at the fête – have you seen the crowds?’
‘That’s your problem. Go on, kid, get on with it.’
‘Look at that one with the gold braid on his uniform and all the medals – isn’t he handsome!’
‘If you like all that metal. He’s so red in the face he looks as though he might burst! I prefer the chap with the trumpet; look how serious he is, with his great fat neck and that stomach like a big drum!’
A dozen young girls in light-coloured dresses were lined up at the foot of a podium, admiring the brass band of the municipal fire brigade. The girl who had admired the uniform was a gawky girl in a hat weighed down with cherries. She turned to her companion, a dumpy little person as crimped as a freshly groomed poodle, and gave her a severe look.
‘You’re so vulgar, Aglaé, just like a shop girl! And out with no hat into the bargain!’
‘Well, I can’t help it if my father’s only a shopkeeper. We can’t all be the niece of a rich marquis!’
‘Oh, go to the devil!’
Oohs and aahs greeted the strains of ‘L’Alsace et Lorraine’, and the enthusiastic crowd joined in:
You Germans can take our plains
But you’ll never put our hearts in chains
‘That’s enough, you two; stop bickering!’
Fed up with their squabbling, the pair’s friends separated them with blows of their parasols. Two of the girls, a slim brunette dressed in blue and a plump blonde in bright red, took advantage of the general scrimmage to slip off into the crowd. They stopped, out of breath, by the swing-boats.
‘They’re loathsome,’ declared the blonde. ‘Squabbling in public, like fishwives!’
‘Will you come on with me, Élisa?’ asked the dark-haired girl, fascinated by the motion of the swings.
‘Iris, you’re completely mad! We’ve just had lunch! And why they served us split peas in this heat, I can’t imagine! The old frump must have bought a job lot on the cheap.’
‘As you like, but I’m going on,’ declared Iris, moving resolutely towards one of the newly vacated swings.
Before Élisa could stop her, a boy in shirtsleeves was installing Iris on the bench of the swing and setting it vigorously in motion. Iris sat rigid as he pushed her harder; she held on to her hat with one hand, while with the other she clung to the side.
Élisa tried to watch her friend in motion, but when Iris stood up and bent her knees to increase her speed, she grew dizzy and turned away, pretending to take an interest in a strongman who was lifting a dumbbell bearing two cheerful midgets.
She jumped. Colas put his finger to his lips and slipped her a piece of paper.
‘It’s from the man who wrote to you before,’ he whispered. ‘He says you’ve got to hurry – it’s a unique opportunity, and won’t happen again. I had trouble finding you. I was late to begin with – the cabs were all taken – and the Chinaman and the Boss are going to be furious, that’s for sure.’
‘Where is he?’
She noticed his outstretched palm and gave him a coin.
‘He’s hiding,’ the youth blurted out, and took to his heels.
Élisa checked that Iris was still swinging and retreated under the awning of a stall selling marshmallows, where a man with his sleeves rolled up dangled thick glossy skeins of green and red paste. A group of children, noses pressed against the counter, were following his every move, intoxicated by the smell of melted sugar. Élisa unfolded the message. She immediately recognised the cramped handwriting and glanced up at the sweet-seller, her face radiant. She had longed for this to happen. For as far back as she could remember, she’d had a strange sense that she was destined for something special, but she had begun to lose patience of late. She was seventeen years old and the routine of Bontemps Boarding School was far from exciting. If this goes on much longer I shall die of boredom, she thought to herself each morning.
It had been just over a month since the stranger had burst into her life. Although she had never spoken to him, he was always in her thoughts, and she had even begun to dream about him. At first he had been just another ordinary fellow who appeared when Mademoiselle Bontemps and her girls took their walk along the lake. He would pass by with an indifferent air, never looking at any girl in particular – although after a while each of them believed that he had come just to see her. None of the girls confided their secret desire to be noticed by him – who would admit to an attraction towards the extravagantly dressed bohemian? Then, one evening in June, he had sent her a note. After lights out Élisa had taken the note over to the window and read it by the light of the street lamp:
You is the most beautiful. I love you.
Twenty-three equally laconic, misspelt messages had followed that declaration. She had kept them all, meticulously hidden beneath the mantelpiece. Gaston scarcely had the makings of a great romantic letter-writer; his prose was limited to the most elementary construction: subject, verb, a compliment sometimes qualified by a superlative, and above all love, always, always love. She was bowled over by his persistence, but she had never dared to reply. This time he had surpassed himself, quite a feat for a man normally so concise!
Leave your friends, make up a xcuse, and join me at the botom of the slope behind Pont de la Tourelle. I love you,
Did she dare abandon Iris and go to the rendezvous? Iris would worry, and tell Mademoiselle Bontemps. She would have to invent something – and quickly. Dizziness?…She could tell them she felt ill. It was almost true. She felt hot all of a sudden – her head was spinning; she was seeing herself anew, as Gaston saw her. He found her beautiful; he loved her!
Darkness was falling and all around the fête Chinese lanterns were being lit. The showmen were haranguing the passers-by.
‘Ten centimes! Only five for soldiers!’
The whistling trombones punctuated the sonorous tone of the barrel organs and the rhythmic drum rolls. A clown in stockings was perched on a barrel, calling out that the best attraction was Nounou the famous flea master. A few yards further on, two exhausted ballerinas in sequinned costumes jiggled about in a poor imitation of belly dancing.
‘Come and see the headless man talk!’
‘Waffles, who would like my waffles, come and taste the delights of Pantruche!’
‘Toffee apple, mademoiselle? For the apple of my eye!’
Élisa wandered among the excited throng crowding the stalls and almost bumped into Aglaé, her mouth stuffed with doughnut. The fête had freed her to behave as she liked. On the opposite pavement, plump Mademoiselle Bontemps, decked out like a ship in full sail, tottered towards a merry-go-round on which three of her girls were perched.
‘Edmée, Berthe, Aspasie! It’s late, where are the others?’ she shrieked.
Élisa melted into the stream of people heading back to Paris. Near Gare Saint-Mandé a crowd had gathered round a busker who was singing a popular song to the accompaniment of a fiddle.
Mademoiselle! Pray listen to me
I want to offer you a glass of Madeira
She went round the side of the railway station, darted out on to the platform and stopped short, almost under the wheels of a train. She recognised Monsieur Kenji Mori, Iris’s godfather, leaning out of the carriage. She fled, staying close to the station wall.
She had finally reached the embankment. She took a good look around, but saw only amorous couples and marauding dogs. Which direction would he come from? What would he say to her? Suddenly she was frightened. She remembered her mother’s advice:
‘Don’t fight it, my dear; fear is good – it helps us to avoid all manner of disagreeable things.’
When she thought of her mother, Élisa was torn between anger and pity. Now aged thirty-five, the poor woman had had a series of lovers without ever finding true passion. Her love life had begun badly, and nothing had turned out as she’d hoped. Élisa was certain that she was not like her mother. Even as a young child in a London boarding school, she had boasted to her friends: ‘One day my father will come and take me to his estate in Kent. I’ll marry a lord – he’ll be madly in love with me!’
Her father, whose name she did not even know, had never appeared.
The railway ran along a trench between two embankments – in one direction to Paris, in the other towards the eastern suburbs and the banks of the Marne, to Nogent, Joinville and Saint-Maur. Élisa leant over a hedge running along the fence and took in the view. She had always been keen on trains; they conjured up far-off places, glamorous encounters, luxury and freedom…But the dark platforms below her were reminiscent of an ant hill; she wondered with detached curiosity what would happen if she were to bombard the people with stones.
Like a mechanical toy, a train wrapped in a cloud of steam arrived from Vincennes. It had barely come to a halt when the human tide surged towards the carriages, but to the irritation of the waiting throng, most of the doors opened on to crammed carriages. The people ran about looking for spaces, but in vain, and there were altercations and shouts of protest. Disappointed, the ants resigned themselves to wait for the next train. One man with a top hat and cane who had got on to the train was now leaving it, followed by his wife rigged out in a purple dress and his antlet in short breeches. (Élisa was pretty sure that word did not exist and decided that she had just invented it). Amused by the absurdity of the turmoil below, she forgot about her rendezvous as she stood on tiptoe to drink in the scene.
Hidden behind an overgrown hedge, Gaston smoked a cigarette and watched the young girl. He had had his fair share of wenches and normally had no hesitation in undoing a bodice or ruffling up a petticoat, but this time he was wary. The girl seemed to come with a warning: ‘Careful, fragile.’ He had known such a delicate flower before, carefully reared in the best society, pale-skinned, with exquisite undergarments, and he could recognise one from afar. How should he approach her? Bow and kiss her hand; then compliment her on her pretty face and fine ankles? That would be beyond him. He knew only one way of expressing his desire and that was to fling a girl on the ground and smother her with the rather rough kisses to which wenches of his milieu seemed partial. He lit a second cigarette from the end of the first, giving himself a moment longer before he made his advance.
The ant with the top hat was searching the carriages for a free seat. Élisa looked to the right, her attention caught by a serpentine movement. She could foresee the disaster about to unfold. Unable to pull out because of the comings and goings of the top-hatted man, the train from Vincennes was about to be rammed by another train, which had been hooked up to a locomotive and was being pulled backwards into the station.
The noise was terrifying. The blind train, its back to its victim, slammed into the stationary train, crumpling it with an appalling crunching sound and crushing it under its weight. It seemed to devour the last three coaches. Mounted on a heap of iron, its funnel brushing the vault of the Pont de la Tourelle, the engine, mangled into an inextricable tangle of pipe and axle, breathed its last. It had all happened in a few minutes. The noise reverberated interminably and when it ceased, screams could be heard.1
Staring in horrified fascination at the dislocated bodies of the driver and engine stoker, her ears ringing with heart-rending cries, Élisa was dimly aware of the swarms of people scrabbling up the sides of the embankment, away from the darkened railway line. She stumbled, feeling as if she were soaring over the clouds on a swing that had cut loose from its moorings. She drifted in tumultuous currents, and then…total darkness. Some of the people fleeing had already reached the top of the embankment and were in danger of stepping on her. Arms lifted her, pulling her out of the way.
‘Clarissa! Clarissa, where are you?’
Élisa opened her eyes. There were shouts and groans; figures moved around in the night, lit by lamps and torches. She was lying on the ground and someone was shaking her. Her vision gradually cleared, her befuddled mind took in snippets of information. How she would have loved to go to sleep, to relax. But she must not – she tried to stand but was unable to muster the strength. A man was holding her by the wrists.
‘What happened?’ she murmured.
Her voice seemed to come from a long way away.
‘Don’t worry, I’m here,’ said the stranger kneeling by her side. ‘It’s me, Gaston.’
The accident, she thought. That’s why I’m lying on the grass…
‘Gaston?…Was it a long time ago?’
She freed herself from him and stood. Her legs gave way but he caught her, leaning her against a parapet of the bridge. The laments of the survivors mingled with the wails of the injured as the fire brigade and volunteers busied themselves around the locomotive. The wooden carriages burned and crackled, spilling sparks on to the platforms, which were strewn with bloody debris and puddles. People were still desperately trying to escape, clinging to the shrubs on the slope, trying to keep their balance, but more often than not sliding back and falling to the bottom of the embankment.
‘Come, Mademoiselle,’ insisted Gaston, ‘I’m going to help you; we must leave the rescuers to do their work.’
They stepped over men and women collapsed on the pavement, forced their way through the incessant coming and going of ambulances and reached Chaussée de l’Étang where lights shone in the windows. Suddenly Gaston dragged her into the trees on the edge of the Bois de Vincennes. She tried to resist, overcome with panic. Without a word, he pushed her against the trunk of a chestnut tree, crushing her mouth with his, forcing her lips painfully apart. There was no tenderness in his kiss or in his grasp; it was not like her dreams. He was holding her so tightly she could not move. Filled with anguish and anger, she wanted to push him away, but the catastrophe she had witnessed had weakened her defences. Gradually her disgust changed to a growing wonder, then a sense of euphoria. He drew back, and fear and guilt rushed over her.
‘Gaston, I beg you, please don’t; it’s wicked.’
He raised her chin, forcing her to look at him. He whispered: ‘No, it’s not wicked, because I love you.’
Those words swept away her last defences. She flung herself against him, ready this time and responsive to his kisses. The clamour from the station ebbed with the slow rhythm of the man’s hands as he caressed her body, releasing in her waves of pleasure.
‘Can we see each other soon?’ he breathed into her ear.
‘Yes, I…Oh! I forgot – we’re going away.’
‘Mademoiselle Bontemps, the other boarders…to Trouville, we’ll be back in the middle of September.’
‘What’s the address?’
‘I’ll come, and we’ll find a way of seeing each other. You’ll have to go back now or your friends will worry. It’s our secret, isn’t it? You do love me a little?’
He kissed her forehead. She teetered across the street, unable to stop herself from turning back several times. He did not take his eyes off her, his lips frozen in a smile.
As soon as Élisa had closed the gate, Gaston’s smile vanished. He lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply.
That was a stroke of luck, he thought as he headed towards the lake. The accident made it easy for me to bamboozle the romantic little ninny.
He did not yet know exactly how he would manage, but one thing was for certain, a trip to Trouville was on the cards. The Boss would be pleased: in November he would complete his assignment and hand over the wench. He picked up some stones and amused himself by skimming them across the black lake.