I can hear them coming up our street. It is a strange, ominous rumble. Thuds and blows. The floor aquiver under my feet. There are shouts too. Men’s voices, loud and excited. The whinny of horses, the stamp of hooves. It sounds like a battle, like in that hot and dreadful July when our daughter was born, or that bloody time when the barricades went up all over the city. It smells like a battle. Stifling clouds of dust. Acrid smoke. Dirt and rubble. I know the Hôtel Belfort has been destroyed, Gilbert told me. I cannot bear to think about it. I will not. I am relieved Madame Paccard is not here to see it.
I am sitting in the kitchen as I write this to you. It is empty, the furniture was packed up last week and sent to Tours, with Violette. They left the table behind, it was too bulky, as well as the heavy enamel cooker. They were in a hurry and I loathed watching that being done. I hated every minute of it. The house stripped of all its belongings in one short moment. Your house. The one you thought would be safe. Oh, my love. Do not be afraid. I will never leave.
The sun peeks into the kitchen in the mornings, I’ve always appreciated that about this room. So dismal now, without Mariette bustling about, her face reddened by the heat of the stove, and Germaine grumbling, smoothing back wisps of hair into her tight chignon. If I try, I can almost pick up the enticing wafts of Mariette’s ragout weaving its slow path through the house. Our once-cheerful kitchen is sad and bare without the gleaming pots and pans, kept scrupulously clean by Germaine, without the herbs and spices in their little glass bottles, the fresh vegetables from the market, the warm bread on its cutting board.
I remember the morning the letter came, last year. It was a Friday. I was in the sitting room, reading Le Petit Journal by the window, and drinking my tea. I enjoy that quiet hour before the day begins. It wasn’t our usual postman. This one, I had never seen. A tall, bony fellow, his hair flaxen under the flat green cap. His blue cotton blouse with its red collar appeared far too large for him. From where I was sitting, I saw him jauntily touch his cap and hand the mail over to Germaine. Then he was gone, and I could hear his soft whistle as he marched up the street.
It was early still, I’d had my breakfast a while ago. I went back to my newspaper after a sip of tea. It seemed the Exposition Universelle was all they could talk about these past months. Seven thousand foreigners pouring through the boulevards every day. A whirl of prestigious guests: Alexander II from Russia, Bismarck, the Vice King of Egypt. Such a triumph for our Emperor.
I heard Germaine’s step on the stairs. The rustle of her dress. I do not get much mail. Usually a letter from my daughter, from time to time, when she feels dutiful. Or maybe from my son-in-law, for the same reason. Sometimes a card from my brother Émile. Or from the Baronne de Vresse, in Biarritz, by the sea, where she spends her summer. And the occasional bills and taxes.
That morning I noticed a long white envelope. Closed with a thick crimson seal. I turned it around. Préfecture de Paris. Hôtel de Ville.
And my name, printed large, in black lettering. I opened it. The words leaped out. At first I could not understand them. Yet my reading glasses were perched on the end of my nose. My hands were shaking so hard I had to place the sheet of paper on my lap and inhale a deep breath. After a while I took the letter into my hand again and forced myself to read it.
“What is it, Madame Rose?” whimpered Germaine. She must have seen my face.
I slipped the letter back into its envelope. I stood up and smoothed my dress down with the palms of my hands. A pretty frock, dark blue, with just enough ruffle for an old lady like me. You would have approved. I remember that dress, and the shoes I was wearing that day, mere slippers, sweet and feminine, and I remember Germaine’s cry when I told her what the letter said.
It was not until later, much later, alone in our room, that I collapsed on the bed. Although I knew this would happen one day, sooner or later, it still came as a shock. That night, when the household was asleep, I fetched a candle and I found that map of the city you used to like to look at. I rolled it out flat on the dining room table, taking care not to spill any wax. Yes, I could see it, the inexorable northern advance of the rue de Rennes sprouting straight from the Montparnasse railway station to us, and the boulevard Saint-Germain, a hungry monster, creeping westward from the river. With two trembling fingers I traced their paths until my flesh met. Right over our street. Yes, my love, our street.
It is freezing in the kitchen, I need to go down to get another shawl. Gloves as well, but only for my left hand, as my right hand must go on writing this for you. You thought the church and its proximity would save us, my love. You and Père Levasque.
“They will never touch the church, nor the houses around it,” you scoffed fifteen years ago, when the Prefect was appointed. And even after we heard what was going to happen to my brother Émile’s house, when the boulevard de Sébastopol was created, you still were not afraid: “We are close to the church, it will protect us.”
I often go to sit in the church to think of you. You have been gone for ten years now. A century to me. The church is quiet, peaceful. I gaze at the ancient pillars, the cracked paintings. I pray. Père Levasque comes to see me and we talk in the hushed gloom.
“It will take more than a Prefect or an Emperor to harm our neighborhood, Madame Rose! The church is safe, and so are we, its fortunate neighbors,” he whispers emphatically. “Childebert, the Merovingian King, the founder of our church, watches over his creation like a mother would a child.”
Père Levasque is fond of reminding me of how many times the church has been looted, plundered and burnt down to the ground by the Normans in the ninth century. I believe it is thrice. How wrong you were, my love.
The church will be safe. But not our house. The house you loved.
THE DAY THE LETTER came, a feverish panic hit our little street. Monsieur Zamaretti, the bookseller, and Alexandrine, the flower girl, came up to see me. They had received the same letter from the Préfecture. But I could tell they knew it was not so bad for them. They could start their business elsewhere, could they not? There would always be a place in the city for a bookstore and a flower shop. Yes, their eyes dared not meet mine. They felt it was worse for me. As your widow, I owned the place. I let out the two shops, one to Alexandrine, the other to Monsieur Zamaretti, as you used to. As your father did before you, and his father did as well. The income from the shops was how I survived. That was how I made ends meet. Until now.
It was a warm, humid day, I recall. The street was soon humming with all our neighbors brandishing the letter. It was quite a sight. Everyone seemed to be outside that morning, and voices rose vociferously, all the way down to the rue Sainte-Marguerite. There was Monsieur Jubert, from the printing house, with his ink-stained apron, and Madame Godfin, standing outside her herbalist’s shop, and there was Monsieur Bougrelle, the bookbinder, puffing away on his pipe. The racy Mademoiselle Vazembert from the haberdashery (whom you never met, thank the Lord) flounced up and down along the cobblestones, as if to flaunt her new crinoline. Our charming neighbor Madame Barou smiled sweetly when she saw me, but I could tell how distressed she was. The chocolate maker, Monsieur Monthier, appeared to be in tears. Monsieur Helder, owner of the restaurant you used to love, Chez Paulette, was nervously biting his lips, his bushy mustache moving up and down.
I had my hat on, as I never leave the house without it, but in their haste, many had forgotten theirs. Madame Paccard’s bun threatened to collapse as her head waggled furiously. Docteur Nonant, hatless too, was waving an irate forefinger. At one point the wine merchant, Monsieur Horace, managed to make himself heard over the din. He has not changed much since you left us. His curly dark hair is perhaps a trifle grayer, and his paunch has no doubt swollen a mite, but his flamboyant mannerisms and loud chuckle have not faded. His eyes twinkle, black as charcoal.
“What are you ladies and gentlemen doing out here gabbling your heads off? Much good it will do us all. I’m offering the lot of you a round of drinks, even those who never come in to my den!” By that, of course, he meant Alexandrine, my flower girl, who shies away from liquor. I believe she once told me her father died a drunk.
Monsieur Horace’s wine shop is damp and low-ceilinged, and has not been altered since your day. Rows and rows of bottles line the walls, hefty tubs of wine tower over wooden benches. We all gathered around the counter. Mademoiselle Vazembert took up a vast amount of space with her crinoline. I sometimes wonder how ladies live a normal life ensconced within those cumbersome contraptions. How on earth do they get into a hackney, how do they sit down for supper, how do they deal with private, natural matters? The Empress manages easily enough, I presume, as she is pampered by ladies-in-waiting who answer every whim and attend every need. I am glad to be an old woman of nearly sixty. I do not have to follow the fashions, to bother about the shape of my corsage, of my skirts. But I am rambling on, am I not, Armand? I must get on with the story. My fingers are increasingly cold. Soon I shall make some tea to warm myself up.
Monsieur Horace handed out eau de vie in surprisingly dainty glasses. I did not touch mine. Neither did Alexandrine. But no one noticed. There was much going on. Everyone compared their letters. They all had the same heading. Expropriation order by decree. We were all going to be offered a certain amount of money according to our property and our situation. Our little street, the rue Childebert, was to be utterly demolished in order to build the continuation of rue de Rennes and the boulevard Saint-Germain.
I felt that morning I was by your side, up there, or wherever it is that you are now, and that I was watching the agitation from a distance. And somehow this protected me. And it was thus, wrapped in a sort of numbness, that I listened to my neighbors and noted their different reactions. Monsieur Zamaretti’s forehead glistened with sweat and he kept patting it with one of his fancy silk kerchiefs. Alexandrine was stony-faced.
“I have an excellent lawyer,” gulped Monsieur Jubert, knocking back his eau de vie with grubby, blue-stained fingers, “he will get me out of this. It is preposterous to envisage abandoning my printing house. Ten people work for me. The Prefect is not going to have the last word.”
With a seductive toss of frilly petticoats, Mademoiselle Vazembert stepped forward. “But what can we do against the Prefect, against the Emperor, monsieur? They have been ripping up the city for the last fifteen years. We are but helpless.”
Madame Godfin nodded, her nose bright pink. Then Monsieur Bougrelle said, very loudly, startling us all:
“Maybe there is money to be gotten out of this. Lots of it. If we play our cards right.”
The room was hazy with smoke. It made my eyes sting.
“Come, now, my good man,” scorned Monsieur Monthier, who had at last stopped sniveling. “The power of the Prefect and that of the Emperor is unshakable. We have witnessed enough of it to know that by now.”
“Alas!” sighed Monsieur Helder, his face very red.
As I watched them all in silence, with an equally silent Alexandrine by my side, I noticed the angriest of the bunch were Madame Paccard, Monsieur Helder and Docteur Nonant. They no doubt had the most at stake. Chez Paulette has twenty tables, and Monsieur Helder employs an entire staff to run his excellent eatery. Remember how that restaurant was never empty? How clients came all the way from the right bank to sample the exquisite blanquette? The Hôtel Belfort stands proudly on the corner of the rue Bonaparte and the rue Childebert, it boasts sixteen rooms, thirty-six windows, five stories, a fine restaurant. Losing that hotel, for Madame Paccard, meant losing the fortune of a lifetime, everything her now-deceased husband and she had strived for. The beginnings had been hard, I knew. They had worked day and night to refurbish the place, to give it the cachet it now possessed. In preparation for the Exposition Universelle, the hotel was booked solidly, week after week.
As for Docteur Nonant, never had I seen him so incensed. His usually calm face was contorted with ire.
“I will lose all my patients,” he fumed, “all my clientele, everything I have built year after year. My consulting rooms are easy to get to, on the ground floor, no steep stairs, my cabinet is sunny, large, my patients approve of it. I am a step away from the hospital where I consult, on the rue Jacob. What will I do now? How can the Prefect imagine I will be satisfied with an absurd sum of money?”
What you must know, Armand, is that it was an odd feeling to be standing in that shop and listening to the others, and knowing in my heart of hearts that I did not share their wrath. I was not concerned. They were ranting about money. And they all glanced at me and expected me to speak, to voice my own fear, as a widow, about losing my two shops, and therefore losing my income. Oh, my love, how could I explain? How could I begin to tell them what this meant to me? My pain, my suffering, existed in different realms. Not money. No. It was beyond money. It was the house that I saw in my mind’s eye. Our house. And how much you loved it. And what it meant to you.
In the midst of all of this racket, Madame Chanteloup, the buxom laundress from the rue des Ciseaux, and Monsieur Presson, the coal man, made a spectacular entrance. Madame Chanteloup, purple with excitement, announced she had a client who worked at the Préfecture, and that she had seen a copy of the layout and the opening of the new boulevard. The condemned streets in our vicinity were as follows: rue Childebert, rue Erfurth, rue Sainte-Marthe, rue Sainte-Marguerite, passage Saint-Benoît.
“Which means,” she shrieked triumphantly, “that my laundry and Monsieur Presson’s coal shop are safe. The rue des Ciseaux is not being destroyed!”
Her words were met with sighs and groans. Mademoiselle Vazembert stared at her with contempt, and swept out of the boutique, head held high. Her heels tapped down the street. I remember being shocked that the rue Sainte-Marguerite, where I was born, was also doomed. But the real anxiety, the one that gnawed at me, the one that instilled the fear that has not left me since, was about the destruction of our house. Of the rue Childebert.
It was not yet noon. Some had had a trifle too much to drink. Monsieur Monthier started to cry again, childish sobs that both repelled and touched me. Monsieur Helder’s mustache once again bobbed up and down. I made my way back to our house, where Germaine and Mariette were waiting for me anxiously. They wanted to know what was going to happen to them, to us, to the house. Germaine had been to the market. Everyone was discussing the letters, the expropriation order. About what this would do to our neighborhood. The market gardener pulling his ramshackle cart had asked after me. What is Madame Rose going to do, he had demanded, where is she going to go? Both Germaine and Mariette were flustered.
I took off my hat and gloves and calmly told Mariette to get luncheon going. Something simple and fresh. A sole, perhaps, as it was Friday? Germaine beamed, she had purchased just that from the fishmonger. Mariette and she scuttled to the kitchen. And I sat down, still calm, and picked up Le Petit Journal, like I did every day. Only I did not make out a word of what I was reading, my fingers trembled and my heart was pumping like a drum. I kept thinking about what Madame Chanteloup had said. Her street was safe. It was a few meters away, just at the bottom of the rue Erfurth, and it was to be safe. How come? How was this possible? In whose name?
That same evening, Alexandrine came up to see me. She wished to confer about what had happened that morning and how I felt about the letter. She rushed in as usual, a whirlwind of curls and a wispy black shawl despite the heat, kindly but firmly ordered Germaine to leave us, and sat next to me.
Let me describe her to you, Armand, as I met her the year after you died. I wish you had known her. She is perhaps the only sunshine in my sad little life since you left. Our daughter Violette is no sunshine in my life. But you already know that, do you not?
Alexandrine Walcker replaced the aging Madame Collévillé, as she was also in the flower trade. So young, I thought, when I saw her for the first time, nine years ago. Young and bossy. Barely twenty years old. She stamped around the shop, pouting and making scathing remarks. It is true to say that Madame Collévillé had not left the place looking particularly tidy. Nor cheerful, for that matter. Never had the shop and its premises seemed drabber and darker than that morning.
Alexandrine Walcker. Surprisingly tall, bony even, yet with an unexpected lush bosom that pushed up from beneath her long black bodice. A round, pale face, almost moonlike, that made me at first fear she was daft, but how wrong I was. As soon as she set her fiery toffee-colored eyes on me, I understood. They fairly snapped with intelligence. A small, buttonlike mouth that rarely smiled. An odd, turned-up nose. And a thick mane of glossy chestnut curls elaborately piled on top of her round skull. Pretty? No. Charming? Not quite. There was something very peculiar about Mademoiselle Walcker, I sensed that immediately. I forgot to mention her voice. Gratingly sharp. She also had the odd habit of pursing up her lips as if she were sucking on a bonbon. But I had not heard her laugh yet, you see. That took a while. Alexandrine Walcker’s laugh is the most exquisite, delicious sound you have ever heard. Like the tinkle of a fountain.
She certainly had not been laughing as she glanced into the tiny, dingy kitchen area and the adjoining bedroom, so damp that the very walls seemed to exude water. She ran a finger along the moisture, glanced at it doubtfully, and said, with that sharp voice:
“Has anyone ever tried to do anything about this?”
The meek notary who was accompanying us squirmed, not daring to meet my eye.
“Well,” I said brightly, “we were planning to, at one point. But Madame Collévillé did not seem to bother with the damp all that much.”
Alexandrine Walcker looked down at me with disdain, her eyebrows arched.
“And you are the owner, I believe. Madame…”
“Bazelet,” I stammered. Oh, my dear, she made me feel like a downright fool.
“I see. It is my belief that property owners should bother about damp. After all, you do live here as well, do you not?”
Without even waiting for my answer, she carefully made her way along the rickety steps to the cellar, where old Madame Collévillé used to keep her flower stock. She seemed unimpressed by the whole place, and later I was flabbergasted to hear from our notary that she had decided to take it on.
As soon as she moved into the flower shop, a dazzling transformation took over. Remember how Madame Collévillé’s shop always looked gloomy, even at high noon? How her flowers seemed classical, colorless and, let me admit it, trivial? Alexandrine arrived one day with a team of workers, sturdy young fellows who made such a terrific racket—crashes, bangs and hearty laughter—all morning long that I sent Germaine down to see what the fuss was about. As Germaine ended by not coming back at all, I ventured down myself. I was astounded as I stood on the threshold.
The boutique was inundated with light. The workers had gotten rid of Madame Collévillé’s dreary brown drapes and gray finishings. They had scrubbed all traces of dark and damp away and were painting each wall and corner over with a luminous white. The floor had been polished and fairly gleamed. The partitions separating the shop from the back room had come down, making the place twice as large. I was greeted cheerfully by the young men and could tell why Germaine had taken her time about coming back up, as they were indeed a handsome bunch. And most jovial. Mademoiselle Walcker was in the cellar, bossing another young man around. I could hear her strident voice from where I stood.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, young man, that spot will need another go. Don’t sigh like that, now, you know as well as I do the job is not finished. So get on with it, pray. We haven’t got all morning.”
When she saw me, she nodded curtly, and that was it. Not even, Good day, Madame Bazelet. I sensed I was de trop and took my leave, feeling as humble as a servant.
The following day, Germaine breathlessly told me I must come down at once and take a peek at the shop. She sounded so excited that I hurriedly put my embroidery away and followed her. Pink! Pink, my love, and a pink like you had never imagined. An explosion of pink. Dark pink on the outside, but nothing too audacious or frivolous, nothing that made our house look indecent in any manner. A simple, elegant sign above the door: “Flowers. Orders for all occasions.” The window arrangements were adorable, as pretty as a picture, trinkets and flowers, a profusion of good taste and feminity, the perfect way to catch a coquette’s eye or a gallant gentleman in search of a becoming boutonnière. And inside, my dear, pink wallpaper, the latest rage! It looked magnificent. And so enticing.
I knew nothing about flowers, and neither did you, and Madame Collévillé’s humdrum taste certainly had not taught us anything. The shop brimmed over with flowers, the loveliest flowers I had ever seen: divine roses of the most unbelievable hues, magenta, crimson, gold, ivory; gorgeous peonies with heavy, droopy heads, and the smell in that place, my love, the intoxicating, dreamy perfume that lingered there, velvety and pure, like a silken caress.
I stood, entranced, my hands clasped. Like a little girl. Once again she glanced at me, unsmiling, but I caught a twinkle in those astute eyes. And then it seemed to me that her lips were quivering with amusement.
“So my landlady approves of the pink?” she murmured, rearranging bouquets with quick, deft fingers.
“It is lovely, mademoiselle … Lovely pink,” I mumbled.
I did not know how to treat this haughty, prickly young lady. I felt shy in her presence, at first.
It was not until a full week later that Germaine came into the drawing room with a card for me. Pink, of course. And the most delicate scent emanated from it. Would Madame Rose care to drop in for a cup of tea? AW. And that is how our wonderful friendship started, nearly a decade ago. Over a cup of tea and roses.
I SLEEP NOT TOO badly down here. But even on the good nights, the same dream awakens me. It is a brief but hellish moment, when I am brought back to an agonizing instant I still cannot bring myself to voice and that you know nothing about.
I have been prey to this precise nightmare for the past thirty years. I must lie very still, wait for my beating heart to calm down. Sometimes I feel so weak that I need to reach for a glass of water. My mouth is parched and dry. This nightmare happened in your day, whilst I slept by your side, but I always managed to hide it from you.
Year after year, the same images come back, relentless. It is difficult to describe them without the fear sliding back to me. I see the hands prying the shutters open, the silhouette slithering in, the crack of the stairs. He is in the house. Oh, Lord, he is in the house. And the scream wells up inside of me, monstrous.
BACK TO THE DAY the letter came, last year. Alexandrine wanted to know of my intentions. She bombarded me with questions as I sat quietly in my chair, my embroidery in my lap.
“But where are you going to go?” she asked worriedly. “To your daughter’s? That is certainly the wisest move. When do you envisage your departure? Can I be of any help?”
I went on embroidering, calmly, trying not to let her guess the turmoil within me, the flutter of my heart. She put her hand on my arm, forcing me to look at her. Yes, she was that kind of person, you see, she demanded full attention.
“Madame Rose, I will surely find another position along the new boulevard, I am not afraid. It could take a while, as I am not as young as all that, getting on for thirty, am I not, and husbandless to boot!”
I had to smile at that. I knew she had enough energy within her to start all over, husband or no husband. She sighed, plucking at a loose curl of hair.
“I’m so fed up of people asking why I have no husband,” she muttered fiercely, lowering her voice so that Germaine could not hear from the next room. “Really, people should stop nagging about why I am not married. Being an old maid does not bother me in the least, I have my flowers, and I have you, Madame Rose.”
I listened to her, as I always did. I had become accustomed to her shrill voice. I rather liked it. When she stopped talking at last, I told her quietly I had no intention of moving. She gasped.
“No,” I went on, impervious to her rising agitation, “I am staying right here. In this house.”
And thus I told her, Armand, about what this house meant to you. I explained you were born here, as your father was before you. And his father, too. I told her this house was nearly a hundred and fifty years old, and had seen several generations of Bazelets. No one else but the Bazelet family had lived between these walls built in 1715, when the rue Childebert was created.
These past years, Alexandrine has often asked about you and I have shown her the two photographs I possess and that never leave me. The one of you on your deathbed, and the last one of you and me a couple of years before your passing away, taken by the photographer on the rue Taranne. In that one, you have your hand on my shoulder, you look terribly solemn, I am wearing a coatdress and sitting in front of you.
She knows you were tall and well built, with chestnut hair, and dark eyes, and powerful hands. I have told her how charming you were, how gentle yet strong, how your soft laugh filled me with delight. I have told her how you used to write little poems for me, how you would slip them beneath my pillow, or in my ribbons and brooches, and how I treasured them. I have told her about your fidelity, your honesty, and that I had never heard you utter a lie. I have told her about your illness, how it came upon us and how gradually it took its hold, like an insect eating away at a flower, ever so slowly.
That evening, I told her for the first time how the house gave you hope during those last, difficult years. Being in the house was the only way to help you feel sheltered. You could not envisage leaving it even for an instant. And now, a decade after your death, I perceive that the house holds the same allurement over me. Do you understand, I tell her, do you see now that these very walls mean so much more to me than a sum I am to be given by the Préfecture?
And, as ever, whenever I mention the Prefect’s name, I give full vent to my withering contempt. Tearing up the Ile de la Cité, heedlessly destroying six churches in the process, ripping apart the Latin Quarter, all for those straight lines, those endless, monotonous boulevards, all the same, high, butter-colored buildings, identical, a ghastly combination of vulgarity and shallow luxury. The luxury and emptiness that the Emperor wallows in and that I abhor.
Alexandrine rose to the bait, of course, as she always did. How could I not see that the great works being done to our city were necessary? The Prefect and the Emperor had imagined a clean and modern town, with proper sewers, and public lighting, and germ-free water, how could I not see that, how could I not agree with progress, with cleanliness, sanitary matters, no more cholera. (At that very word, oh, my dearest, I flinched, but said nothing, my heart fluttering…) She went on and on, the new hospitals, the new train stations, a new opera being built, the city halls, the parks, and the annexation of the districts, how could I be blind to all that? How many times did she use the word “new”?
I stopped listening to her after a moment, and she finally took her leave, as irritated as I was.
“You are too young to understand how I feel about this house,” I said on the threshold. I could tell she wanted to say something, for she bit her lip and thus prevented herself from uttering a single word. But I knew what it was. I could hear her unspoken sentence floating in the air. And you are too old.
She was right, of course. I am too old. But not too old to give up the fight. Not too old to fight back.
THE LOUD NOISES OUTSIDE have stopped for the moment. I can creep around safely. But the men will soon be back. My hands tremble as I handle the coal, the water. I feel fragile this morning, Armand. I know I do not have much time. I am afraid. Not afraid of the end, my love. Afraid of all I need to tell you in this letter. I have waited too long. I have been cowardly. I despise myself for it.
As I write this to you in our icy, empty house, my breath streams out of my nostrils like smoke. The quill on the paper makes a delicate scraping sound. The black ink gleams. I see my hand, its leathered, puckered skin. The wedding ring on my left hand that you put there and that I have never taken off. The movement of my wrist. The loops of each letter. Time seems to slip by, endless, yet I am aware that each minute, each second, is counted.
Where do I begin, Armand? How do I start? What do you remember? Toward the end, you did not recognize my face. Docteur Nonant had said not to fret, that this meant nothing, but it was a slow agony, for you, beloved, and also for me. That gentle look of surprise whenever you heard my voice—“Who is that woman?” I heard you mumble, over and over again, gesturing toward me as I sat stiff-backed near the bed, and Germaine holding your dinner tray would look away, crimson-faced.
When I think of you, I will not drag that gradual decline back to me. I want to think about the happy days. The days when this house was full of life, love and light. Those days when we were still young, in body and in spirit. When our city had not been tampered with.
I am colder than ever. What will happen if I catch a chill? If I fall ill? I am careful as I move about the room. No one must see me. Lord knows who is outside, lurking. As I sip the hot beverage, I think of the fateful day the Emperor met the Prefect, for the first time. 1849. Yes, it was that year. That same terrible year, my love. A year of horror for us two, for other reasons. No, I shall not linger on that precise year at present. But I shall return to it when I feel I have mustered enough courage.
I read a while ago, in the newspaper, that the Emperor and the Prefect met for the first time in one of the presidential palaces, and I cannot help but think what an interesting contrast they must have made. The Prefect and his towering, imposing stature, those wide shoulders, that bearded chin and those piercing blue eyes. The Emperor, pale and sickly, his slight figure, his dark hair, his mustache barring his upper lip. I read that a map of Paris took up an entire wall with blue, green and yellow lines cutting through the streets like arteries. A necessary progress, we were all informed.
It was nearly twenty years ago that the embellishments of our city were imagined, thought out, planned out. The Emperor and his dream of a new city, modeled, you had pointed out over your newspaper, on London and its large avenues. You and I had never been to London. We did not know what the Emperor meant. You and I loved our city as it was. We were Parisians, both of us. Born and bred. You drew your first breath on the rue Childebert, and I, eight years later, on the nearby rue Sainte-Marguerite. We rarely traveled, rarely left the city, rarely left our area. The Luxembourg Gardens were our kingdom.
Seven years ago, Alexandrine and I, and most of our neighbors, walked all the way, over the river, to the place de la Madeleine, for the opening of the new boulevard Malesherbes. You had been gone for three years. You cannot imagine the pomp and ceremony of that event. I believe it would have made you very angry. It was a broiling summer day, full of dust, and the crowd was immense. People were sweating under their finery. For hours we were pushed and crushed against the Imperial Guard lining the premises. I longed to go home, but Alexandrine whispered to me that this was an important scene to witness, as a Parisian.
The Emperor arrived at last in his carriage. Such a puny man, I noted, and even from afar his skin had a yellowish, unhealthy hue. This was not the first time I laid eyes on our Emperor, as you will recall. Remember those flower-strewn streets after his coup d’état? Meanwhile, the Prefect awaited patiently in an enormous tent under the merciless sun. This was not the first time I had seen him either. He too, like the Emperor, was fond of parading, of having his portrait printed in every single newspaper. After eight solid years of demolitions, we all knew, as Parisians, exactly what our Prefect looked like. Or the Baron, as you preferred to call him. Despite the grueling heat, endless self-congratulatory speeches were given. The two men bowed to each other over and over again, and other men were called to the tent and made to feel most important. The oversized curtain masking the opening of the new boulevard swung open majestically. The audience cheered and clapped. But not I.
I already knew, then and there, that that tall bearded man with the redoubtable chin was to become my bitterest enemy.
I BECAME SO CARRIED away writing all this to you that I did not hear Gilbert’s knock. His is a coded one, two fast blows and one long scratch with the end of his hook. I do not believe you ever laid eyes on this particular fellow, although I recall you did enjoy conversing with a couple of ragpickers by the marketplace in the days when our daughter was small. I get up to unlock the door for him, ever so carefully, lest we should be seen. It is past noon now and the men will soon be back with the thunderous noises of their murderous enterprise. The door creaks, as it always does, as it has since the first day I set foot in this house, with you, all those years ago.
He is frightening to behold, at first. Tall, emaciated, blackened with grime and soot, his hair a tangled mess, his face a flurry of gnarled lines like the bark of a withered tree. The yellow of rare teeth, the green gleam of his eyes. He slips in, and brings his stench in with him, but I am accustomed to it now, an odd comforting mixture of eau de vie, tobacco and sweat. His long black overcoat is in tatters and sweeps the floor. His back is straight, despite the heavy wicker basket strapped to it. I know he stores all his treasures in there, all the bits and pieces he carefully scavenges in the streets at dawn, lantern in one hand, hook in the other: string, old ribbons, coins, metal, copper, cigar stumps, the rinds of fruits and vegetables, pins, strands of papers, dried-out flowers. And food, of course. As well as water.
I have learned not to turn up my nose at what he brings me. We share a hasty meal we eat with our fingers. No, not very daintily. Only one meal a day. As the winter deepens, it is less easy to find the coal to heat our frugal feast. I wonder where he gets the food, how he brings it back to me in our area that must now resemble a war terrain. When I ask him, he never answers. Sometimes I give him a few coins, from the little velvet purse I keep on me at all times, preciously, and which holds everything I own.
Gilbert’s hands are dirty but exceptionally elegant, like a pianist’s, with long tapered fingers. He never talks about himself, his past, how he has ended up on the streets. I have no idea how old he is. Lord knows where he sleeps, or for how long he has been leading this life. I met him five or six years ago. I believe he lives near the Montparnasse barrier, where ragpickers camp in a no-man’s-land of shanty huts, and they make their way daily down to the Saint-Sulpice market through the Luxembourg Gardens.
I first noticed him because of his height and his strange top hat, obviously discarded by a gentleman, a battered and pockmarked affair, balancing on the summit of his head like a wounded bat. He had stretched out his vast palm for a sou, throwing me a toothless grin and a flash of those green eyes. There was something friendly and respectful about him, which was a surprise, as those lads can be surly and rude, as you know. His polite benevolence appealed to me. So I gave him a few coins, and walked home.
The next day, lo and behold, there he was in my very street, at the water fountain. He must have followed me. He was holding a red carnation, one that had probably tumbled out of a buttonhole.
“For you, madame,” he said solemnly. And as he walked toward me, I noticed his peculiar gait, his stiff right leg dragging behind him, giving him the clumsy stance of an outlandish dancer. “With the humble and devoted compliments of Gilbert, your servant.”
With that, he swept off his hat, revealing his curly tangle of hair, and bowed down to the ground, just as if I had been the Empress herself.
HE IS THE ONLY person I talk to these days. It is a time of isolation and strife, and I thought I would find it more rigorous. My pampered life as your wife and widow, as a gentlewoman of the faubourg Saint-Germain, with a maid and a cook living under my roof, did not make this new existence all the more arduous. Perhaps I had been expecting it. I am not afraid of the discomfort, the cold, the dirt.
The only thing I am afraid of is not having enough time to tell you what I need to reveal. Not having enough time to explain. Let me try. Listen. The truth is that I love you, and that whilst you were slipping away, I could not tell you. I could not voice either my love or my untold secrets. Your illness prevented this. Little by little, over the years, you changed into a sick old man. It did not happen overnight, it was a slow process. But toward the end, you had no patience. You did not want to hear. You were in another world. Sometimes your mind was startlingly clear, especially in the mornings, and you once again became the real Armand, the one I missed and longed for. But it never lasted. The confusion in your brain took over again, relentlessly, and I would lose touch with you yet again.
This has no importance, Armand. I know you are listening to me now. You are all ears.
Gilbert, who has been resting by the heat of the enamel cooker, interrupts my writing to tell me about the destructions in the neighborhood. The magnificent Hôtel Belfort on our street is down. There is nothing left, he says. He watched it all. It did not take very long. A swarm of men, armed with their pickaxes. I listen, horror-struck. Madame Paccard has gone to live in Sens with her sister. She will never come back to Paris again. She left last fall, when we understood there was nothing to be done. Gilbert continues. The rue Childebert is empty at present, he tells me. Everyone has gone. It is a chilly ghost land. I cannot imagine our animated little street in that way. I tell Gilbert that the first time I set foot in this house was to buy flowers from Madame Collévillé. This was nigh on forty years. I was nineteen years old. This seems to amuse him. He wishes to hear more.
I remember it was a spring day. In May. One of those fresh, golden mornings, full of promise. Mother wanted lily of the valley on a whim. She sent me to the rue Childebert flower shop, as she did not like the look of the white buds wilting in the market baskets.
Since I was a child, I had always reveled in the small, shady streets surrounding the church. They were peaceful and quiet compared to the loud bustle of the place Gozlin, where I lived. My brother and I had often taken strolls in this neighborhood, not far from our abode. There was less traffic here, hardly any carriages. People would line up at the Erfurth water fountain, nodding to each other politely. Children would play happily, watched over by their governesses. Shop owners had endless conversations on their doorsteps. Sometimes a priest in his long black robe, a Bible tucked under his arm, would be seen hurrying to the nearby church. On summer days, when the doors of the church were left open, hymns and prayers could be heard all the way down the street.
When I walked into the flower shop, I saw I was not alone. A gentleman stood there, a tall, strong man with a fine face and dark hair. He was wearing a blue tailcoat, and knee breeches. He was buying lily of the valley as well. I awaited my turn. And he suddenly offered me a budding stem. There was a shy expression in his dark eyes.
I found my cheeks to be burning. Yes, I was a coy creature. When I had turned fourteen, or fifteen, I noticed men looking at me in the streets, their gazes lingering upon me longer than necessary. At first it embarrassed me. I felt like crossing my arms over my chest and shielding my face under my bonnet. But it dawned upon me that this was what happened to girls as they became women. A young man that I had often met at the market with my mother had become enamored of me. He was a heavyset, red-faced boy who did not appeal to me. My mother found it amusing, and she teased me about him. She was a flamboyant chatterbox and I often hid behind her noisiness.
Gilbert smirks at all this. I think he is enjoying my tale. I tell him how the tall, dark man kept looking at me again and again. That day I was wearing an ivory dress with an embroidered collar, leg-of-mutton sleeves, a frilly bonnet and a shawl. Simple, but pretty. And yes, I suppose I was pleasant to look at, I tell Gilbert. A trim-waisted figure (which I have kept, despite the years), thick honey-colored hair, pink cheeks.
I wondered why the gentleman was not leaving the shop and why he was holding back. He waited till I had placed my order, and then as I stepped outside he prevented the door from closing as I passed. He followed me out to the street.
“Forgive me, mademoiselle,” he murmured. “I do hope you will visit the shop again.”
He had a low deep voice that I immediately found beautiful. I did not know what to say. I merely stared at the lily of the valley.
“I live just here,” he went on, pointing to the row of windows above us. “This house belongs to my family.”
He said this with a simple pride. I glanced up at the pale stone façade. It was an old, tall, square building with a slate tile roof, standing on the corner of the rue Childebert and the rue Erfurth, just by the fountain. There was a certain majesty about it. I counted three floors and each had four windows with gray shutters and iron-wrought railings, except for the two dormer windows up on the roof. The door behind the gentleman was painted dark green. Above the door knocker in the shape of a woman’s hand holding a small globe, I read the name “Bazelet.” (I did not know it then, no, I had no idea at all, but that name, and that house, would one day be mine.)
My family, he had said. Did he have a wife, did he have any children? I could feel my face redden. Why was I asking myself such intimate questions about this man? Those intent, dark irises made my heart beat faster. His eyes never left my face. So this was where this charming man lived, with his “family.” Behind those smooth stone walls, behind that green door. Then I noticed a woman standing at the open window on the first floor, looking down at us as we stood in the street clutching our flowers. She was old, dressed in brown, her face weary and lined, but there was a pleasant smile floating on her lips.
“That’s Maman Odette,” said the gentleman, with the same gentle contentment. I looked at him closely for the first time. He was about five or six years older than me, perhaps more, and there was youth still in his face and stance. So he lived here with his mother. And he had not mentioned a wife, nor children. I saw no wedding band on his finger.
“My name is Armand Bazelet,” he murmured, bowing elegantly. “I believe you live in the neighborhood, I have seen you before.”
Again I remained tongue-tied. I nodded, cheeks pinker than ever.
“Near the place Gozlin, I believe,” he went on.
I managed to nod and to say:
“Yes, I live there with my parents and my brother.”
“Please do tell me your name, mademoiselle.” He gazed at me beseechingly. I nearly smiled at his expression.
“My name is Rose.”
His face lit up and he promptly disappeared back into the shop. A couple of minutes later, there he was, flourishing a white rose.
“A beautiful rose for a beautiful young lady.”
I pause. Gilbert eggs me on. I tell him that when I got home, my mother wanted to know who had given me that flower.
“The transfixed suitor from the market, perhaps?” she asked with a sneer.
I replied, very calmly, that it was Monsieur Armand Bazelet of the rue Childebert and she pursed her lips.
“The Bazelet family? The property owners?”
But I had not answered her and I went to my room overlooking the noisy place Gozlin, cradling the rose against my cheeks and lips, reveling in its velvety texture and delicious perfume.
And that is how you came into my life, my love, my Armand.
I HAVE A TREASURE down here with me. An absolute treasure that I would never part with. What is it? you may well ask. My favorite frock? The lavender and gray silk one that you admired so? No, not any of my beloved dresses. I do admit, however, that it was agonizing parting with my clothes. I had recently discovered the most enchanting dressmaker on the rue de l’Abbaye, Madame Jaquemelle, a delightful lady with such an eye. Ordering from her was a treat. As I watched Germaine carefully fold away my clothes, I was struck by the fragility of our existences. Our everyday belongings are but mere nothings, carried away on a whirlwind of indifference. There they lay, packed away by Germaine, my dresses, skirts, shawls, cardigans, jackets, bonnets, hats, undergarments, stockings, gloves, off to Violette’s house, to await me there. All the clothes that I would never lay eyes on again and that had been chosen with such infinite devotion (oh, the exquisite hesitation between two colors, two cuts, two materials). Those clothes had meant the world to me. And now they did not matter. How speedily we change. How quickly we evolve, as fast as a weather vane as soon as the wind turns. Yes, your Rose gave up her cherished garments. I can almost hear your gasp of disbelief.
So what is it, pray, that I hoard down here with me in a battered shoe box? You are longing to know, are you not? Well, letters! Precious, precious letters. A dozen of them or so, letters that mean more to me than outfits. Your first love letters to me. Yes, I have kept them preciously, for all those years. From Maman Odette. From Violette. From … I will not say his name. I cannot … From my brother, from the Baronne de Vresse, from Madame Paccard, from Alexandrine.
You see, they are all here, within arm’s reach. Sometimes I merely place my hand on the box and it is a comforting gesture that soothes me. At other times I pull one out and read it, ever so slowly, as if it were for the first time. How intimate a letter is! The slant of a familiar handwriting has the same power as that of a voice. The scent which rises from the paper makes my heart beat faster. So you see, Armand, I am not really alone, as down here I have all of you right by my side.
GILBERT HAS LEFT NOW, he will not be back till tomorrow morning, I presume. Sometimes he returns at nightfall to make sure all is well. The alarming noises have taken up again and I am writing this in the shelter he has built for me, in the cellar of Alexandrine’s shop, through the little back door that opens up from our pantry into her boutique. This is where she used to stock her flowers, as Madame Collévillé did before her. It is surprisingly warm down here. And much cozier than you would think. At first I was afraid the lack of windows would stifle me, but I soon became accustomed to it. Gilbert has made me a makeshift bed, comfortable enough, with the feather mattress that used to be in Violette’s room, and a mound of very warm woolen blankets.
Down here the crashes and bangs are muffled and less worrying. It seems they grow closer and closer each day. I heard from Gilbert they started with the rue Saint-Marthe and the passage Saint-Benoît where I used to stroll with my brother, where you played as a boy. The pickaxes began their grisly business right there. I have not seen it, but I can all too well imagine the damage. Your childhood neighborhood has been destroyed, oh, my sweet love. Gone is the quaint coffee shop you used to go to in the mornings. Gone is the crooked passageway that leads to the rue Saint-Benoît, that dark, musty little alley with uneven cobblestones, where a friendly tabby cat used to frolic. Gone, the pink geraniums in the windows, gone, the cheerful children running along the street, all gone.
I feel safe down here in the hidden recesses of our house, with the flickering flame of the candle throwing tall shadows on the dusty walls around me. The occasional mouse scurries by. When I am nestling here, I lose track of time, of the day passing. The house holds me in its protective clasp. I usually wait till the crashes have abated. Then I creep up again to stretch my cramped limbs once all is silent.
How could I ever leave this house, beloved? This tall, square house is my life. Every room tells a story. My story. Yours. I need to get those stories down on these leaves of paper, it is a terrible and unquenchable urge. I want to write all the stories out so that the words stand strong with a life of their own, so that they truly exist. So that the story of this house and its inhabitants will remain forever. So that we will not be forgotten. Yes, we the Bazelets of the rue Childebert. We lived here, and despite the snares that destiny threw our way, we were happy here. And no one, mark my words, no one can ever take that away from us.
REMEMBER THE FIRST BELLOW of the water carriers just after dawn, coming to us as we lay upstairs in bed still, slowly emerging from sleep? The sturdy fellows would traipse down our street and across to the rue des Ciseaux, a tired donkey laden with barrels in their wake. Remember the regular swish of the street sweepers’ brooms and the early morning peal of the church, so near it seemed the bell rang in our very room, and how nearby Saint-Sulpice would chime back like an echo, in harmony? The beginning of a new day, on our little street. The morning walk to the market with Germaine, when the cobblestones were still fresh, when cesspools had been emptied overnight, the little trot down the rue Sainte-Marguerite, shops opening one by one with the clang of metal shutters, down the rue Montfaucon and into the huge square of the market building, full of enticing smells and feasts for the eyes. I used to take Violette with me when she was a girl, as my mother had taken me with her, in her day. I took the little one too, twice a week. (I cannot face writing about the little one at present. Forgive me. Lord! What a coward I am.) You and I were born and raised between the black spire of Saint-Germain and the towers of Saint-Sulpice. We know this vicinity like the back of our hand. We know how the acrid tang of the river can linger through the rue des Saints-Pères when the heat of the summer is strong. We know how the Luxembourg Gardens flaunt a glittering coat of frost in the winter season. We know how the traffic becomes dense along the rue Saint-Dominique and the rue Taranne, when elegant ladies set out in hackneys sporting their coats of arms, when cabby drivers tussle with overburdened market carts and impatient, crowded omnibuses. Only riders on their horses manage to pick their way through the throng. Remember the rhythm of our young days, a pace that did not alter as I became a wife, a mother, and then your widow? Despite the upheavals that several times overtook our city due to political crisis and uproar, the business of living our life, the everyday preoccupation of cooking, cleaning, looking after the house, never wavered. When Maman Odette was still with us, remember how particular she was about the flavor of her bouillabaisse or the quality of her snails, even if angry mobs were parading down the streets? And the fuss with her laundry, how perfectly starched it had to be. Remember the end of the day? Dinner at six. The streetlights were illuminated one by one by the whistling lamplighter. On winter nights, we settled by the chimney. Germaine handed me a chamomile tisane and you sometimes savored a drop of liqueur. How tranquil, how calm those evenings were. The gleam from the lamp trembled ever so slightly, diffusing an appeasing rosy glow. You were most concentrated on your game of dominoes and then your reading. I, with my embroidery. The only noise to be heard was the crackling of the flames and your labored breath. I miss those undisturbed nightfalls, Armand. As dark deepened, and as the fire slowly petered out, we would retire. Germaine would have slipped the customary hot water bottle into our bed. And each evening heedlessly mingled into morning.
How well I see our sitting room in my mind’s eye. It is but an empty shell now, stripped and bare like a monk’s cell, but I still see it like it was. This was the first room I set foot in when I came to meet your mother. Spacious and high-ceilinged, with emerald-green leaf-pattern wallpaper, a pale stone fireplace. Thick bronze-tinted damask curtains. Four large windows with colored panes, gold, crimson and violet, facing out to the rue Childebert. From there was a view down to the Erfurth fountain, where all our neighbors came for their daily supply of water. Fine woodwork, a delicate chandelier, crystal doorknobs, refined engravings of hunting scenes and countryside, lush carpets. An exotic cactus plant filled an alcove. On the large mantelpiece, a Roman marble bust of a young man, an ormolu clock with an enamel dial and a pair of gleaming silver candlesticks under glass shades.
That first day with your mother, when I came to visit her in the afternoon, I imagined you growing up here, as your father had before you. Your father died when you were fifteen, mine did when I was two, in a riding accident. I do not recall mine, and you did not often mention yours.
“My husband was impetuous and short-tempered,” whispered Maman Odette over the coffee tray. “But Armand is such a patient son. His is a gentler, sweeter nature.”
I know your mother accepted me from the start, from the very day you introduced me to her. She was wearing a russet velvet dress with a high, heart-shaped bodice and flared sleeves, sitting in her favorite armchair, the large green one with the fringes, her knitting in her lap. She smiled at me with such kindness that it warmed my heart.
“So you have a brother, dear? What is his name?”
“Émile,” I answered, as you handed me a slice of brioche on a pretty plate. Your eyes never left my face. And your mother looked on, glowing with happiness, her plump fingers working at her knitting.
She became a second mother to me in a mere couple of months, even before we married at Saint-Germain. My own mother, Berthe, had remarried when I was seven, a brash, loutish man, Edouard Vaudin. My brother Émile and I detested him. What a forlorn childhood we led on the place Gozlin. Berthe and Edouard lived only for themselves. We held no interest for them. Maman Odette gave me that most inestimable of gifts: she made me feel loved. Your mother treated me like her own daughter. For hours we would sit in the sitting room each time I came to visit, and I would listen with rapture to her tales, her talk of you and your youth, and how appreciative she was of you, her only son. She described the toddler you once were, the bright scholar, the loyal son, putting up with Jules Bazelet and his tantrums.
The first time you kissed me was in the stairway, near the creaking step, on our way up or down, I cannot recall, but I do remember that first kiss and the mad leap of my heart. For a man of your age, eight full years older than me, you were bashful. But I rather liked that. It soothed me.
When I came to visit your mother and you, in the very beginning, it was as if the rue Childebert welcomed me as soon as I walked up the rue des Ciseaux to the rue Erfurth and glimpsed the church’s flank ahead of me. It was distressing to have to return to place Gozlin. Your mother’s affection and your strengthening love drew a protective bubble around me. My mother shared nothing with me. She was too preoccupied with the vacuity of her life, the dinner parties she attended, the shape of her new hat, the twist of a new chignon. Émile and I had learned to fend for ourselves. We became friendly with the shopkeepers and café owners of the rue du Four while we waited for our mother to come home. The “petits Cadoux,” we were known as, and we were offered hot pastry straight from the bakery oven, caramels and tidbits. The Cadoux children, well behaved and meek, in awe of their loud-spoken stepfather.
I did not know what “family” meant until I met you and Maman Odette. Until the tall square house with the green door on the corner of the rue Childebert became my home. My haven.
Rue Childebert, June 12th, 1828Dearest love, Rose of my heart,This morning I walked down to the river and I sat on the banks for a while and enjoyed the morning sun. I watched the barges puff by, and the clouds surge through the sky, and I felt such a lucky man. A lucky man to be loved by you. I do not believe my parents loved each other at all, I think my mother put up with my father as best as she could, in a courageous, unselfish fashion that no one ever noticed because she barely complained.When I think of next week, of when you will be mine, of that holy moment, I am overcome with joy. I cannot quite believe that you, the beautiful Rose Cadoux, will become my lawfully wedded wife. I have been to the church at Saint-Germain very many times, I was baptized there, I have attended mass, weddings, christenings, funeral services, I know the church inside out, I know it by heart, but now, in a mere couple of days, I will be walking you out of that church as if for the first time, with you, my wife, on my arm on that glorious day, on the blessed day that I will become your devoted husband. I will take you to the house on the rue Childebert where I was born, I will sweep you through that green door, up those stairs, up to our bedroom, and I will show you how much I adore you.I have waited for you all my life, Rose. There is not only your regal beauty, your distinction, there is also and above all your altruism, your kindness. And your humor. I am entranced by your personality, your laugh, your adoration of pretty clothes, the way you walk, the gold of your hair, the fragrance of your skin. Yes, I am deeply in love. I have never loved like this. I was ready for a dutiful wife, a wife who would look after me and my household. You are so much more than an ordinary wife, because you are anything but ordinary.This house on the rue Childebert will be our family home, sweet Rose. I am to be the father of your children. Our children will grow up in this neighborhood like I did, as you did. I want to see them come into their own, with you. I want the years to slip by peacefully, me at your side, within these walls. I am writing this to you in the living room which will soon become yours. This house will be yours too. Everything in it will be yours. This house will be a household of love.You are loved, Rose, so deeply. You are young still, but such maturity emanates from you. You know how to listen. You know how to care. Oh, your eyes and their quiet beauty, their quiet strength.I never want to be deprived of those eyes, that smile, that hair. Soon you will be mine, in name and in body. I am counting the days, and my ardent love for you burns through me like a bright flame.Yours forever,Armand
WHEN I THINK OF the sitting room, I cannot erase certain images from my head. There are happy ones, of course. Coming up the stairs as your bride, the lace soft on my face and neck, your hand warm at the small of my back. The murmur of the guests, but I only had eyes for you, my husband. In the cool obscurity of Saint-Germain I had murmured my vows, too timid to even glance up at your face, embarrassed by the crowd behind us, my mother and her fancy friends, her gaudy dress, her rakish hat.
I see myself as that young girl in white, still clasping the small bouquet of pale roses, standing in front of the fireplace, a new gold band tight on her finger. A married woman. Madame Armand Bazelet. The room could hold at least fifty people. Champagne and delicacies. But it seemed that you and I were alone. From time to time, your eyes would meet mine and I felt safe, safer than I had ever been in all my life, safe in your love, safe in your house. For I adored the house from the start, like I adored your mother. The house embraced me as your mother did. It took me in. I reveled in its particular smell, a mixture of beeswax and fresh linen, and good, simple cooking.
But there are not only fond, serene memories in this house. Alas. Some of those souvenirs are too difficult to bring back just now. Yes, I am fainthearted, Armand. My courage is coming to me in dribs and drabs. Please be patient. Let us start with this.
Remember the day we came back from a trip to Versailles with Maman Odette before Violette was born, and we found the front door had been forced? We ran up the stairs and discovered all our objects, our books, our clothes, our goods, piled up in a heap. The furniture had been overturned. The kitchen was a downright mess. Muddy footprints maculated the corridors and carpets. Maman Odette’s gold bracelet had gone. So had my emerald ring and your platinum cuff links. And your secret cache of money near the chimney had been emptied. The police arrived, and I believe a couple of men searched the neighborhood, but we never got our things back. I remember how upset you were. You had another lock put on the door, a sturdier one.
Another very bleak remembrance. The sitting room brings back your mother. The day I met her, but also the day she died. Eight years span those two moments, the happy one and the dreadful one. Yet now, you see, as I write this more than thirty years later, they seem very close in time.
Violette was five years old, a little monster. Maman Odette was the only person who could tame her. Violette never had ta
TATIANA DE ROSNAY is the author of ten novels, including the New York Times bestselling novel Sarah’s Key, an international sensation with over 5 million copies sold in 38 countries worldwide that has now been made into a major film to be released in Summer 2011. Together with Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson, she was named one of the top three fiction writers in Europe in 2010. Tatiana lives with her husband and two children in Paris.