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Two books about Colettels childhood, her family, and above all her extraordinary mother.
Copyright © 1981 Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
All rights reserved.
WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN?
The house was large, topped by a lofty garret. The steep gradient of the street compelled the coach-houses, stables, and poultry-house, the laundry and the dairy, to huddle on a lower level all round a closed courtyard.
By leaning over the garden wall, I could scratch with my finger the poultry-house roof. The Upper Garden overlooked the Lower Garden—a warm, confined enclosure reserved for the cultivation of aubergines and pimentos—where the smell of tomato leaves mingled in July with that of the apricots ripening on the walls. In the Upper Garden were two twin firs, a walnut-tree whose intolerant shade killed any flowers beneath it, some rosebushes, a neglected lawn and a dilapidated arbour. At the bottom, along the Rue des Vignes, a boundary wall reinforced with a strong iron tailing ought to have ensured the privacy of the two gardens, but I never knew those tailings other than twisted and tom from their cement foundations, and grappling in mid air with the invincible arms of a hundred-year-old wistaria.
In the Rue de l'Hospice, a two-way flight of steps led up to the front door in the gloomy façade with its large bare windows. It was the typical burgher's house in an old village, but its dignity was upset a little by the steep gradient of the street, the stone steps being lopsided, ten on one side and six on the other.
A large solemn house, rather forbidding, with its shrill bell and its carriage-entrance with a huge bolt like an ancient dungeon, a house that smiled only on its garden side. The back, invisible to passers-by, was a sun-trap, swathed in a mantle of wistaria and bignonia too heavy for the trellis of worn iron-work, which sagged in the middle like a hammock and provided shade for the little flagged terrace and the threshold of the sitting-room.
Is it worth while, I wonder, seeking for adequate words to describe the rest? I shall never be able to conjure up the splendour that adorns, in my memory, the ruddy festoons of an autumn vine borne down by its own weight and clinging despairingly to some branch of the fir-trees. And the massive lilacs, whose compact flowers—blue in the shade and purple in the sunshine—withered so soon, stifled by their own exuberance. The lilacs long since dead will not be revived at my bidding, any more than the terrifying moonlight—silver, quick-silver, leaden-grey, with facets of dazzling amethyst or scintillating points of sapphire—all depending on a certain pane in the blue glass window of the summer-house at the bottom of the garden.
Both house and garden are living still, I know; but what of that, if the magic has deserted them? If the secret is lost that opened to me a whole world—light, scents, birds and trees in perfect harmony, the murmur of human voices now silent for ever—a world of which I have ceased to be worthy?
It would happen sometimes long ago, when this house and garden harboured a family, that a book lying open on the flagstones of the terrace or on the grass, a skipping-rope twisted like a snake across the path, or perhaps a miniature garden, pebble-edged and planted with decapitated flowers, revealed both the presence of children and their varying ages. But such evidence was hardly ever accompanied by childish shouts or laughter, and my home, though warm and full, bore an odd resemblance to those houses which, once the holidays have come to an end, are suddenly emptied of joy. The silence, the muted breeze of the enclosed garden, the pages of the book stirred only by invisible fingers, all seemed to be asking, "Where are the children?"
It was then, from beneath the ancient iron trellis sagging to the left under the wistaria, that my mother would make her appearance, small and plump in those days when age had not yet wasted her. She would scan the thick green clumps and, raising her head, fling her call into the air: "Children! Where are the children?"
Where indeed? Nowhere. My mother's cry would ring through the garden, striking the great wall of the barn and returning to her as a faint exhausted echo. "Where ...? Children ...?"
Nowhere. My mother would throw back her head and gaze heavenwards, as though waiting for a flock of winged children to alight from the skies. After a moment she would repeat her call; then, grown tired of questioning the heavens, she would crack a dry poppy-head with her finger-nail, rub the greenfly from a rose shoot, fill her pockets with unripe walnuts, and return to the house shaking her head over the vanished children.
And all the while, from among the leaves of the walnut-tree above her, gleamed the pale, pointed face of a child who lay stretched like a tom-cat along a big branch, and never uttered a word. A less short-sighted mother might well have suspected that the spasmodic salutations exchanged by the twin tops of the two firs were due to some influence other than that of the sudden October squalls! And in the square dormer, above the pulley for hauling up fodder, would she not have perceived, if she had screwed up her eyes, two pale patches among the hay —the face of a young boy and the pages of his book?
But she had given up looking for us, had despaired of trying to reach us. Our uncanny turbulence was never accompanied by any sound. I do not believe there can ever have been children so active and so mute. Looking back at what we were, I am amazed. No one had imposed upon us either our cheerful silence or our limited sociability. My nineteen-year-old brother, engrossed in constructing some hydrotherapeutic apparatus out of linen bladders, strands of wire and glass tubes, never prevented the younger, aged fourteen, from disembowelling a watch or from transposing on the piano, with never a false note, a melody or an air from a symphony heard at a concert in the county town. He did not even interfere with his junior's incomprehensible passion for decorating the garden with little tombstones cut out of cardboard, and each inscribed, beneath the sign of the cross, with the names, epitaph, and genealogy of the imaginary person deceased.
My sister with the too long hair might read for ever with never a pause; the two boys would brush past her as though they did not see the young girl sitting abstracted and entranced, and never bother her. When I was small, I was at liberty to keep up as best I could with my long-legged brothers as they ranged the woods in pursuit of swallow tails, White Admirals, Purple Emperors, or hunted for grass snakes, or gathered armfuls of the tall July foxgloves which grew in the clearings already aglow with patches of purple heather. But I followed them in silence, picking blackberries, bird-cherries, a chance wild flower, or roving the hedgerows and waterlogged meadows like an independent dog out hunting on its own.
"Where are the children?" She would suddenly appear like an over-solicitous mother-bitch breathlessly pursuing her constant quest, head lifted and scenting the breeze. Sometimes her white linen sleeves bore witness that she had come from kneading dough for cakes or making the pudding that had a velvety hot sauce of rum and jam. If she had been washing the Havanese bitch, she would be enveloped in a long blue apron, and sometimes she would be waving a banner of rustling yellow paper, the paper used round the butcher's meat, which meant that she hoped to reassemble, at the same time as her elusive children, her carnivorous family of vagabond cats.
To her traditional cry she would add, in the same anxious and appealing key, a reminder of the time of day. "Four o'clock, and they haven't come in to teal Where are the children? ..." "Half-past six! Will they come home to dinner? Where are the children? ..." That lovely voice; how I should weep for joy if I could hear it now! Our only sin, our single misdeed, was silence, and a kind of miraculous vanishing. For perfectly innocent reasons, for the sake of a liberty that no one denied us, we clambered over the railing, leaving behind our shoes, and returned by way of an unnecessary ladder or a neighbour's low wall.
Our anxious mother's keen sense of smell would discover on us traces of wild garlic from a distant ravine or of marsh mint from a treacherous bog. The dripping pocket of one of the boys would disgorge the bathing slip worn in malarial ponds, and the "little one", cut about the knees and skinned at the elbows, would be bleeding complacently under plasters of cobweb and wild pepper bound on with rushes.
"To-morrow I shall keep you locked up! All of you, do you hear, every single one of you!"
To-morrow! Next day the eldest, slipping on the slated roof where he was fitting a tank, broke his collarbone and remained at the foot of the wall waiting, politely silent and half unconscious, until someone came to pick him up. Next day an eighteen-rung ladder crashed plumb on the forehead of the younger son, who never uttered a cry, but brought home with becoming modesty a lump like a purple egg between his eyes.
"Where are the children?"
Two are at rest. The others grow older day by day. If there be a place of waiting after this life, then surely she who so often waited for us has not ceased to tremble for those two who are yet alive.
For the eldest of us all, at any rate, she has done with looking at the dark window pane every evening and saying, "I feel that child is not happy. I feel she is suffering." And for the elder of the boys she no longer listens, breathlessly, to the wheels of a doctor's trap coming over the snow at night, or to the hoof beats of the grey mate.
But I know that for the two who remain she seeks and wanders still, invisible, tormented by her inability to watch over them enough.
"Where, oh where are the children? ..."
She was eighteen years old when, in about 1853, he carried her off from her family, consisting of two brothers only, French journalists married and settled in Belgium, and from her friends—painters, musicians and poets—an entire Bohemia of young French and Belgian artists. A fair-haired girl, not particularly pretty, but attractive, with a wide mouth, a pointed chin and humorous grey eyes, and her hair gathered into a precarious knot supping from its hairpins at the nape of her neck. An emancipated girl, accustomed to the frank companionship of boys, her brothers and their friends. A dowerless young woman, without trousseau or jewels, but with a slender supple body above her voluminous skirts: a young woman with a neat waist and softly rounded shoulders, small and sturdy.
The Savage saw her on a summer's day while she was spending a few weeks with her peasant foster-mother on a visit from Belgium to France, and when he was visiting his neighbouring estates on horseback. Accustomed to his servant-girls, easy conquests as easily forsaken, his mind dwelt upon this unselfconscious young woman who had returned his glance, unsmiling and unabashed. The passing vision of this man on his strawberry roan, with his youthful black beard and romantic pallor, was not unpleasing to the young woman, but by the time he had learned her name she had already forgotten him, He was told that they called her "Sido", short for Sidonie. A stickler for formalities, as are so many "savages", he resorted to lawyers and relations, and her family in Belgium were informed that this scion of gentlemen glass-blowers possessed farms and forest land, a country house with a garden, and ready money enough. Sido listened, scared and silent, rolling her fair curls round her fingers. But when a young girl is without fortune or profession, and is, moreover, entirely dependent on her brothers, what can she do but hold her tongue, accept what is offered and thank God for it?
So she quitted the warm Belgian house and the vaulted kitchen that smelled of gas, new bread and coffee; she left behind the piano, the violin, the big Salvator Rosa inherited from her father, the tobacco-jar and the long, slender clay pipes, the coke braziers, the open books and crumpled newspapers, and, as a young bride, she entered the country house isolated during the hard winters in that forest land.
There she discovered an unexpected drawing-room, all white and gold, on the ground floor, but an upper storey barely rough-cast and as deserted as a loft. In the stables a pair of good horses and a couple of cows ate their fill of hay and corn; butter was churned and cheeses manufactured in the outbuildings; but the bedrooms were icy and suggested neither love nor sweet sleep.
Family silver engraved with a goat rampant, cut glass, and wine were there in abundance. In the evenings, by candlelight, shadowy old women sat spinning in the kitchen, stripping and winding flax grown on the estate to make heavy cold linen, impossible to wear out, for beds and household use. The shrill cackle of truculent kitchenmaids rose and fell, depending on their master's approach or departure; bearded old witches cast malign glances upon the young bride, and a handsome laundry-maid, discarded by the squire, leaned against the well, filling the air with noisy lamentations whenever the Savage was out hunting.
The Savage—a well-intentioned fellow in the main—began by being kind to his civilised little bride. But Sido, who longed for friends, for innocent and cheerful company, encountered in her own home no one but servants, cautious farmers, and gamekeepers reeking of wine and the blood of hares, who left a smell of wolves behind them. To these the Savage spoke seldom and always with arrogance. Descendant of a once noble family, he had inherited their disdain, their courtesy, their brutality, and their taste for the society of inferiors. His nickname referred exclusively to his unsociable habit of riding alone, of hunting without dog or companion, and to his taciturnity. Sido was a lover of conversation, of persiflage, of variety, of despotic and loving kindness and of all gentleness. She filled the great house with flowers, whitewashed the dark kitchen, personally superintended the cooking of Flemish dishes, baked rich plum cakes and longed for the birth of her first child. The Savage would put in a brief appearance between two excursions, smile at her and be gone once more. He would be off to his vineyards, to his swampy forests, loitering long at the wayside inns where, except for one tall candle, all is dark: the rafters, the smoke-blackened walls, the rye bread and the metal tankards filled with wine.
Having come to the end of her epicurean recipes, her furniture polish and her patience, Sido, wasted by loneliness, wept; and the Savage perceived the traces of tears that she denied. He realised confusedly that she was bored, that she was feeling the lack of some kind of comfort and luxury alien to his melancholy. What could it be?
One morning he set off on horseback, trotted forty miles to the county town, swooped down upon its shops and returned the following night carrying, with a fine air of awkward ostentation, two surprising objects destined for the delight and delectation of his young wife: a little mortar of rarest marble, for pounding almonds and sweetmeats, and a cashmere shawl.
I can if I like still make almond paste with sugar and lemon peel in the now cracked and dingy mortar, but I reproach myself for having cut up the cherry-coloured shawl to make cushion covers and vanity bags. For my mother, who had been in her youth the unloving and uncomplaining Sido of her first and saturnine husband, cherished both shawl and mortar with sentimental care.
"You see," she would say to me, "the Savage, who had never known how to give, did bring them to me. He took a lot of trouble to bring them to me, tied to the saddle of his mare, Mustapha. He stood before me holding them in his areas, as proud and clumsy as a big dog with a small slipper in his mouth. And I realised there and then that in his eyes his presents were not just a mortar and a shawl. They were "Presents", rare and costly things that he had gone a long way to find; it was his first unselfish effort—and his last, poor soul—to amuse and comfort a lonely, young exile who was weeping."
Excerpted from MY MOTHER'S HOUSE and SIDO by Colette. Copyright © 1981 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.