The House I Lovedby Tatiana de Rosnay
From the New York Times bestselling author of Sarah's Key and A Secret Kept comes an absorbing new novel about one woman's resistance during an époque that shook Paris to its very core.
Paris, France: 1860's. Hundreds of houses are being razed, whole neighborhoods reduced to ashes. By order of Emperor Napoleon III, Baron/b>/i>/i>/i>… See more details below
From the New York Times bestselling author of Sarah's Key and A Secret Kept comes an absorbing new novel about one woman's resistance during an époque that shook Paris to its very core.
Paris, France: 1860's. Hundreds of houses are being razed, whole neighborhoods reduced to ashes. By order of Emperor Napoleon III, Baron Haussman has set into motion a series of large-scale renovations that will permanently alter the face of old Paris, moulding it into a "modern city." The reforms will erase generations of history--but in the midst of the tumult, one woman will take a stand.
Rose Bazelet is determined to fight against the destruction of her family home until the very end; as others flee, she stakes her claim in the basement of the old house on rue Childebert, ignoring the sounds of change that come closer and closer each day. Attempting to overcome the loneliness of her daily life, she begins to write letters to Armand, her beloved late husband. And as she delves into the ritual of remembering, Rose is forced to come to terms with a secret that has been buried deep in her heart for thirty years. Tatiana de Rosnay's The House I Loved is both a poignant story of one woman's indelible strength, and an ode to Paris, where houses harbor the joys and sorrows of their inhabitants, and secrets endure in the very walls...
Whether you approve of Baron Haussmann's modernization of the French capital or not, Tatiana de Rosnay's new book, The House I Loved, is sure to enthrall those who want to learn more about this fascinating period in history.
In her quietly elegant 11th novel, the bestselling author of Sarah's Key again explores the idea of home as both sanctuary and embodiment of history… [Rose's] letters, poetic and honest, reveal a world soon to be destroyed by progress. A mesmerizing look at how the homes and neighborhoods we occupy hold not only our memories but our secrets as well.
Those who enjoyed Sarah's Key will recognize de Rosnay's love for her native France and appreciate the poignancy and tenacity of her characters.
The core of Paris by a phenomenal novelist.
- St. Martin's Press
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- 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)
Read an Excerpt
THE HOUSE I LOVED (MY BELOVED)
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, 1828
Dearest 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.
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 tantrums in front of Maman Odette. I wonder what magic her grandmother wrought. Perhaps it was simply authority that I lacked. Maybe I was too gentle a mother. Too lax. Yet I felt no natural inclination toward Violette. It was the little boy who later stole my heart. I put up with my daughter’s temper, inherited from her paternal grandfather.
You were away that day, meeting the family notary near the rue de Rivoli. You would not be back till later that evening, for supper. Violette was sulking, as usual, her face screwed up in an unbecoming scowl. Nothing could possibly amuse her that morning, not her new doll or an enticing piece of chocolate. There was Maman Odette in her green-fringed chair, doing her best to glean a smile from her only grandchild. How patient and firm she was. As I bent over my sewing, I thought I should model my maternal initiatives on her calm, unyielding, yet tender manner. How did she do it? Experience, I presumed. Years of dealing with a mercurial husband.
I recall the clicking of the silver thimble against my needle, and Maman Odette’s quiet hum as she caressed my daughter’s hair. The hiss of the flames in the chimney. Outside, the rare clatter of a carriage, the patter of footsteps. A frosty winter morning. The streets would be slippery for Violette’s walk, after her nap. I would have to hold her hand tight, and she hated that. I was twenty-seven years old and I led a comfortable, placid life. You were a kind, tender husband, a little absentminded sometimes, and you seemed strangely to age faster than I did. At thirty-five, you looked older than your age. Your distractedness did not bother me, I even found it charming, you sometimes forgot where your keys were, or what day it was, but your mother always pointed out you had already pronounced that very sentence, or that you had already asked that question.
I darned a tired sock, riveted to my task. Maman Odette had stopped humming. It was the sudden silence that made me raise my eyes to my daughter’s face. She was gazing at her grandmother and she seemed fascinated, tilting her head as if to have a better look. I could only see Maman Odette’s back as she leaned toward the child, her rounded shoulders in the gray velvet dress, her ample waist. Violette’s eyes were dark with curiosity. What could her grandmother be telling her, what could her expression be, was she making a comical grimace? I laughed lightly and put the sock aside.
Suddenly Maman Odette let out a chortle, a horrible whistling sound, as if a morsel of food were stuck deep in her throat. I noticed with fright that her body was slowly sliding toward Violette, who had not budged, a tiny, petrified statue. I dashed forward as fast as I could to grab Maman Odette’s arm and as her face swiveled around to me, I nearly fainted with horror. It was unrecognizable, colorless, her eyes two quivering white orbs. Her mouth gaped open, a glistening thread of drool dangling from her lower lip, and she choked again, just once, her plump hands fluttering to her bosom, helpless. Then she fell at my feet in a tumbled lump. I stood there, stunned, unable to move. I put my fingers to my chest, felt my heart pound.
She was dead. I could tell by merely looking at her, her immobile body, her chalky face, those hideous eyes. Violette rushed up and came to hide in my skirts, grasping at my thighs through the thick material. I longed to push her pinching fingers aside, to call for help, but I found I could not move. I simply stood there, thunderstruck. It took me a full minute or so to regain my strength. I ran to the kitchen, startling the maid. Violette had begun to wail in anguish. Long thin howls that hurt my ears. I prayed for her to be quiet.
Maman Odette was dead. And you were not at home. The maid shrieked when she discovered the body on the carpet. Somehow I mustered enough strength to order her to pull herself together and to fetch help. She fled, sobbing. I remained with the screaming child, unable to look at the body any longer. Maman Odette had seemed perfectly well at breakfast that morning. She had eaten her bread roll with appetite. Why had this happened? How could this be possible? She could not be dead. The doctor would come, he would resuscitate her. Tears began to trickle down my cheeks.
At last the old doctor came lumbering up the stairs carrying his black bag. He wheezed as he crouched down on his knees to press two fingers to Maman Odette’s neck. Then he wheezed even more as he laid his ancient ear on her bosom. I waited and prayed. But he shook his grizzled head. And then he closed Maman Odette’s eyes. It was over. She was gone.
When my father died, I was only a child and did not remember. Maman Odette was the first of my beloved to go. Her death loomed over me. How would I cope without her smile, the sound of her voice, her whims, her mellow laugh? Objects around our home reminded me constantly of her, as if to taunt me. Her fans. Her bonnets. Her collection of tiny ivory animals. Her gloves that bore her initials. Her Bible, which never left her reticule. The small pouches of lavender that she tucked away here and there, their enchanting fragrance.
The sitting room slowly darkened with people. The priest who married us arrived and endeavored to comfort me, in vain. The neighbors began to gather in front of the house. Madame Collévillé was in tears. Everyone was fond of Maman Odette.
“It was her heart, no doubt,” the old doctor informed me as Maman Odette’s body was carried to her room. “Where is your husband?”
They all asked where you were, again and again. Someone offered to have a message sent to you at once. I believe it was Madame Paccard, of the Hôtel Belfort. I rummaged around your bureau to find the notary’s address. And then, as I stroked my daughter’s head, I could not help thinking of that messenger of ill bearings making its way over to you, steadily, edging closer and closer. You did not know. You sat with Maitre Regnier, going over bequeathals and investments, and you had no idea. Wincing, I imagined the look in your eyes when you were handed the slip of paper, the way your face would blanch when the words made sense, the stagger to get to your feet, your greatcoat thrown over your shoulders, your top hat askew, your cane left behind in your haste. Then the way home over the river, in a hackney that seemed to crawl at a snail’s pace, the traffic dense, the roads icy, and the horrid thud of your heart.
Your face as you came in. I shall never forget it.
“Where is she?” you said, looking at me, stooping to embrace our stricken daughter.
“Upstairs,” I murmured, feeling faint.
You flung your coat at me, loosened your cravat. Your gestures were awkward, almost brutal.
“What happened, Rose?”
I saw your eyes were brimming with tears. I clasped your hand in mine, feeling your trembling pain. I told you, simply, how your mother had died. The tears ran down your cheeks in silence. Then you squared your shoulders, and you went up the stairs to see your mother’s body, alone. I stood at the bottom of the stairs with your coat in my arms and I wept.
She meant the world to you, as she did to me. She was our pillar of strength, our source of wisdom. We were her children. She cared for us so tenderly. Who would care for us now?
The hideous day dragged on, burdened with the aftermath of death and its demands. Condolences pouring in, flowers, cards, whispers, murmurs, mourning clothes and their disheartening darkness. Our front door draped with black, passersby crossing themselves.
I felt the house sheltering me, holding me strong within its stone walls like a sturdy ship during a tempest. The house nursed me, soothed me. You were taken up by paperwork and the preparation of her burial at the Cimetière du Sud, where your father and grandparents lay. The mass was to be held at Saint-Germain. I watched your intent agitation. Violette was unusually silent, clasping her doll to her chest. People moved around us in a never-ending ballet of purposefulness. From time to time an affectionate hand would pat my arm or offer me a beverage.
Again Maman Odette’s white face floated back to me. The choking, whistling sound. Had she suffered? Could I have prevented this? The memories resurfaced. Our daily walks to the market, then across to the rue Beurrière, over to the Cour du Dragon where she enjoyed looking at the workshops and talking to the blacksmith. Her unhurried trot, her arm tucked under mine, the bob of her bonnet at my shoulder. When we reached the rue Taranne she liked to pause for a while, her cheeks pink, her breath short. She would lift her brown eyes to me, so like yours, beaming up at me. “What a pretty girl you are, my Rose.” My mother never once told me I was pretty.
Rue Childebert, September 28th, 1834
My very dear Rose,
How empty the house is without you, Armand and the little girl! My, my, it seems so big all of a sudden, the very walls echo my loneliness. Two long weeks until you all come back from your trip to Burgundy. How on earth am I going to manage? I cannot bear sitting in the living room alone. My knitting, my newspaper, my Bible, everything falls from my hand. I realize now, in these grim moments, how much you mean to me, my sweet Rose. Yes, you are the daughter I never had. And I sense that I am closer to you than your mother is, bless her heart. How lucky we are to have found each other through my son, your husband. You are the light of our lives, Rose. Before you came to live here, a certain gloominess lurked within these walls. It was you who brought the laughter, the cheerfulness within.
I believe that you have no idea of all this. You are such an unselfish, pure person, Rose. Yet beneath that sweetness there is a very great strength. I sometimes wonder what you will be like when you are my age. I cannot for the life of me envisage you as an old lady, as you are youth embodied. The graceful swing of your step, the gold richness of your hair, your smile and those eyes. Oh, yes, my Rose, those eyes. They will never fade. When you are old and gray as I am now, your eyes will blaze on, so blue.
Why have you turned up so late in my existence? I know I will not live very many more years, the doctor has warned me about my heart, and nothing much can be done about my state. I go for my little walks without you, and they are much less pleasurable. (Madame Collévillé accompanies me and she walks terribly slowly and smells of something sour that is displeasing…)
Yesterday we witnessed a fight on the rue de l’Echaudé. It was marvelously dramatic. Some fellow had had too much, no doubt, of the Green Fairy and was bothering a finely dressed lady. Another man told him to stop it, shoved him away from the lady and then the drunkard lunged forward, there was a dreadful crack, a shriek, blood, and the poor man who had tried to save the lady got his nose broken. At that point yet another man joined into the battle, and soon, before you could draw breath, the entire street was full of wrestling, sweating men. The lady stood there, clutching her parasol and looking perfectly lovely and silly. (Oh, you would have adored the way she was dressed, I recall it especially just for you: one of those hourglass-shaped dresses, a blue-spotted delight, and a rather dashing bonnet with an ostrich feather that trembled as much as she did.)
Come home soon, dearest Rose, and bring my loved ones home safely as well.
Your doting mother-in-law,
I DID NOT SLEEP well last night. The nightmare tormented me once more. The intruder, making his way up the stairs slowly, taking his time, fully aware that I am upstairs, asleep. The creak of the stairs, how well I hear it and how it fills me with dread. I know that bringing back the past is never a peaceful process. It awakens turmoil and regret. Nevertheless, the past is all I have left. I am alone now, my love. Violette and my pompous son-in-law believe I am on my way to them. My grandchildren are expecting their grandmère. Germaine is wondering where Madame is. My furniture arrived last week, my valises and trunks were delivered a few days ago. Germaine has probably unpacked all my clothes, my room in their large home overlooking the Loire is no doubt ready. Flowers by the bed. Fresh sheets. When they will become worried, they will surely write. I do not feel much concern.
Nearly fifteen years ago, when the Prefect started his massive destructions, we learned that my brother Émile’s lodgings were to be torn down for the opening of the new boulevard de Sébastopol. Émile had not seemed concerned, he was to be paid a good sum in compensation, and with his wife Edith and their children, they had decided to move to the west of the city, where her family dwelled. Émile was not like you, not attached to houses. For you, houses are like people, are they not, they have a soul, a heart, they live and breathe. Houses remember. Émile is now an elderly gentleman with gout and no hair, and I believe you would not recognize him. I find he resembles my mother, thankfully he does not possess her vanity and her emptiness. Merely the longish nose and dimpled chin that I did not inherit.
After our mother passed away, just after the coup d’état, and after Émile’s house had been razed, we did not see much of him, did we? We had not even been to visit their new place in Vaucresson. But you were fond of my brother, of “Mimile,” as we used to call him affectionately. He became the little brother you never had.
One inauspicious afternoon you and I had decided to walk over to the renovations to look at the progress. Émile had already moved into his new abode with his family. You ambled slowly then, Armand, your illness was taking its toll, you only had two more years to live, which of course we knew nothing about. You could still stroll quietly at my side, holding on to my arm.
We were unprepared for what awaited us. Our peaceful faubourg Saint-Germain had nothing to do with what we saw. This was no longer Paris. This was war.
We simply did not know where we were anymore. We had walked up the rue Saint-André-des-Arts, expecting to end up on the rue Poupée, as usual, but the latter had vanished.
In its place gaped a gigantic pit hemmed in by buildings in ruins. We looked around us in a daze. Where on earth was Émile’s old house? Émile’s neighborhood? The restaurant on the rue des Deux Portes where we celebrated his wedding? The renowned bakery on the rue Percée? And that pleasant boutique where I had purchased those fashionable embroidered gloves for Maman Odette? There was nothing left. We inched along, stupefied.
We discovered that the rue de la Harpe had been savagely truncated. The rue Serpente as well. All around us, crumbling edifices seemed to quiver perilously, bearing shreds of wallpaper, charred and blackened passages of fireplaces, doors absurdly still hanging on hinges, intact flights of stairs spiraling into nothingness. It was a hallucinatory sight and bringing it back now still makes me nauseous.
We gingerly picked our way to a more sheltered spot, looking down with anguish to the heart of the pit. Hordes of workers carrying pickaxes, shovels, hammers, swarmed like a gigantic army through mounds of rubble and billowing clouds that stung our eyes. Thick streams of horses pulled planks on carts. Here and there bonfires burned furiously with unimaginable rage, as men loaded more timber and more debris into the voracious flames.
The noise was abominable. You know, I can still hear the harsh crackle of the blaze, the shouts and the yells from the workers, the unbearable hammering of pickaxes digging into the stone, the deafening thuds that made the earth under our feet shudder. Our clothes were soon mottled by a thick layer of soot, our shoes coated with lime, and the hem of my dress was sodden. Our faces were gray with grit, our mouths and tongues parched. We both coughed and puffed, tears streaming down our faces. I could feel your arm shaking next to mine. I noticed that we were not the only spectators. Other people had gathered to watch the destructions. Their grimy faces were awed, their eyes red and watery, smarting from the ashes and the dust.
We had read about this in the newspaper—we knew, like all Parisians, that parts of our city were to be renovated—but never had we imagined this inferno. And yet, I mused, transfixed by what I was seeing, this was where people had lived and breathed, this had been their home. Over there, on that disintegrating wall, was the vestige of someone’s fireplace, with the faint trace of a painting that used to hang there. A family had gathered in front of that mantelpiece in the winter. And that cheerful wallpaper used to line another person’s bedroom, somebody had slept and dreamed here, and now what was left? A wasteland.
Living in Paris under the reign of our Emperor and our Prefect was like living in a besieged city invaded daily by dirt, rubble, ashes and mud. Our clothes, shoes and hats were always dusty. Our eyes always stung, our hair was perpetually thick with a fine gray powder. How ironic, I thought as I patted your arm, that right next to this massive field of ruins other Parisians placidly got on with their lives. This was only the beginning, and we were not aware of what lay ahead. We had been putting up with the embellishments for three or four years. Little did we know then that the Prefect would not relent, that he would inflict the inhuman pace of expropriations and demolitions on our city for fifteen more years.
We decided hastily to take our leave. You were deathly pale and your breath was short. How could we ever get back to the rue Childebert? We had lost our bearings. We were in unknown territory. Wherever we turned, panicked, we were met with pandemonium, blizzards of ashes, thunderlike explosions, avalanches of bricks. Mud and soggy waste churned under our feet as we desperately tried to find our way out. “Get away, for God’s sake!” boomed a furious voice as an entire façade collapsed only a short distance away with an earsplitting crash and the piercing smattering of broken glass.
We took hours reaching home. That evening you did not speak. When we sat down to dinner, you ate nothing and your hands trembled. I began to understand that bringing you to see the destructions was a terrible mistake.
I tried to comfort you, I repeated the very words you had uttered when the Prefect was appointed:
“They will never touch the church, the houses around it, we are safe, our house is safe.”
You would not listen to me. You left the table and went to the window, clasping and unclasping your hands. I watched you slowly scratch the side of your face over and over again, to such an extent that I longed to pry your nails from running down your cheeks.
“Come and have some warm soup, dearest,” I begged, “it will do you good after that long walk.”
Your eyes were glassy and wide, and I knew you kept seeing the façades crumbling, the swarms of workers hacking away at the buildings and the flames blazing in the pit.
I got up to try to coerce you back to the table, but you pushed me away, quite savagely. I did not know what to do. So I sat there, helpless, immobile, till the food became cold and it was cleared away in silence. Getting you to come to bed that night was also an ordeal. Again you shoved me away, wordlessly, with a new vehemence that shocked me.
It was in those moments, I believe, that the first signs of your illness became most apparent. I had not noticed these signs before, but now they were obvious. Your mind was undergoing a sort of confusion. You were agitated, distracted, you seemed lost.
It was from then on that you refused to leave the house, even for a short walk to the gardens. You remained in the sitting room, your back upright, facing the door. You would sit like that for hours, heedless of me, of Germaine, of anyone speaking to you. You were the man of the house, you muttered, yes, that was exactly what you were, the man of the house. No one was going to touch your house. No one.
After your death, the destructions went on, led by the merciless Prefect and his bloodthirsty team, but in other parts of the city. I was too intent on learning how to survive without you.
But two years ago, well before the letter arrived, an incident took place. And then I knew. Yes, I knew.
It happened as I was leaving Madame Godfin’s shop with my chamomile tisane. I noticed a gentleman standing on the street corner in front of the water fountain. He was painstakingly setting up a camera, and a deferential assistant was hovering nearby. It was early, I recall, and the street was not yet busy. The man was short and sturdy, with graying hair and a mustache. I had not seen very many cameras before, only at the photographer’s on the rue Taranne who had taken our portraits.
I slowed down as I approached him and watched him at work. It seemed a most complicated affair. At first I could not comprehend what he was photographing, as there was no one in sight apart from me. His apparatus was facing the rue des Ciseaux. As he fiddled about, I discreetly asked the young assistant what their business was.
“Monsieur Marville is the Prefect’s professional photographer,” announced the young man, his chest fairly bloating with pride.
“I see…” I answered. “And who is it that Monsieur Marville will be photographing at present?”
The young fellow looked down at me as if I had said something incredibly stupid. He had an oafish face and bad teeth for his age.
“Well, madame, he does not photograph people. He photographs streets.” Another swell of his torso. “According to the Prefect’s orders, and with my help, Monsieur Marville is photographing the streets of Paris that are to be destroyed for the renovations.”
Vaucresson, April 26th, 1857
My dear sister,
We are now installed in our new abode, in Vaucresson. I believe it would take you a mere couple of hours to get to us, should you and Armand care to drop by, which I very much hope you will. But I understand that your eventual visit will have to do with your husband’s strength. The last time I saw him, he had already much declined. I am writing this to tell you, dear sister, how unfair I find your situation. For the past years, you and Armand have struck me as being a profoundly happy couple. Such happiness is rare, I find. You recall, no doubt, our miserable childhood, the threadbare affection our mother (bless her soul) bestowed upon us. I believe I do not share with my wife anything quite as deep and meaningful as what you share with your husband. Yes, life has been cruel with you, and I still cannot bring myself to write my nephew’s name. But despite the blows that fate has dealt you, Armand and you have always seemed to rise above those blows and I admire that tremendously.
I think you would like this new house, Rose. It stands on a hill, and has a long, green garden which the children enjoy. It is large, and sunny, and most cheerful. It is far from the noise and dust of the city, far from the Prefect’s works. I sometimes think Armand would be happier in a place like this than in the dark rue Childebert. He would revel in the sweet perfume of grass, the nearby woods, the song of the birds, but then, of course, I remember how both of you love your neighborhood. Odd, isn’t it? Whilst I grew up, with you, in place Gozlin, I already cherished the fact that one day I was going to leave. Even if Edith and I lived a long while on the doomed rue Poupée, I fully knew that I would not end my days in the city. When we received the letter from the Préfecture informing us that our house was to be destroyed, I realized that this was the change I had always been waiting for.
I know you believe the rue Childbert is safe, Rose, because it is so near the church at Saint-Germain. I know how much Armand’s family home means to him. But don’t you believe that attaching such importance to a house is unwise? In his state of mind, losing his abode would be an utter disaster. Do you not think that it would be more judicious to move away from the city? I could help you find a charming place near us, here in Vaucresson. I think you would appreciate the calm and harmony of this little village. You are not yet fifty, there is still time to move on and start again, and you know that Edith and I would help. Violette is happily married, living in Tours, raising her children, she does not need her parents anymore. There is nothing to hold you back in Paris.
I beseech you, Rose, do think this over. Think of your husband’s health and of your well-being.
Your affectionate brother,
IT IS A SWEET relief being certain that no living soul will ever set eyes on what I have been scribbling away at, down here. I feel liberated, and my confessions, although a burden, appear slightly alleviated. Are you with me, Armand? Can you hear me? I like to think you are right here, by my side. I do wish I possessed a camera, like Monsieur Marville, and that I could have photographed every single room of our house in order to immortalize it.
I would have started with our bedroom. The heart of our house. The other day, when the movers came to pack up our furniture to send it to Violette’s place, I spent a long moment in our bedroom. If walls could speak, would they not have related so many tales? They have witnessed death and life. I stood where the bed was, facing the window, and I said to myself, This is where you were born, this is where you died. This is where your father passed away, and probably his father as well. This is where I brought our children into the world.
I would always remember the canary-yellow wallpaper, the bordeaux velvet drapes, the arrowheaded curtain rods. The marble fireplace. The oval mirror with its gilded frame. The graceful bonheur du jour, its drawers full of letters, stamps and pens. The small table inlaid with rosewood where you put your spectacles, your gloves, and where I stacked the books purchased from Monsieur Zamaretti’s shop. The wide mahogany bed with brass fittings, and your gray felt slippers by the left side, where you used to sleep. Yes, I will always remember how the sun shone here, even on a winter morning, running a triumphant golden finger along the walls, lighting the yellow to an incandescent gold.
When I think of our room, the acute pain of childbirth comes back to me. They say women forget with the passing of time, but no, I shall never consign to oblivion the day Violette was born. My mother had not spoken to me about the matters of life before I got married. But then, what did my mother speak to me about? Search as I might, I cannot recall an interesting conversation, a memorable moment. Your own mother had murmured a few words before my confinement for our first child. She had said to be brave. The words sent a chill down my spine. The obstetrician was a placid gentleman who never spoke much and the midwife who came to visit me was always in a hurry, as there was another lady in the neighborhood who needed her assistance. I had started the pregnancy well enough, with hardly any queasiness or other disorders. I was twenty-two years old, and healthy.
The scorching heat of July. It had not rained for weeks. My labor had already commenced and the ache in my back gradually grew more and more pronounced. I suddenly wondered if what was lying ahead for me would not be utterly dreadful. I dared not complain for the moment. I lay on the bed, Maman Odette patting my hand. The midwife arrived late. She had been caught up in a mob and turned up breathless, her bonnet tied crookedly. We had no idea of what was happening outside. She informed you and Maman Odette in a low whisper that people were starting to manifest, that it was getting ugly. She thought I could not hear, but I did.
As the hours ticked by and as I began to comprehend with rising anguish what Maman Odette had meant when she had said to “be brave,” it became clear that our child had chosen to make its entrance into the world in the midst of a seething revolution. From our small street, we could hear the growing grumble of insurrection. It started with shouts and cries, and the clatter of hooves. You were told by panic-stricken neighbors that the royal family had fled.
I heard all this from far away. A damp cloth was held to my forehead, but it neither eased the pain nor lessened the heat. Sometimes I retched, my insides churning in agony, bringing up nothing but bile. In tears, I confessed to Maman Odette that I was not going to be able to carry this ordeal through. She tried to pacify me, but I could tell she was anxious. She kept going to the window and peering outside. She went down to talk to you and to the neighbors. The riots were everyone’s priority, not this baby. Nobody cared, it seemed, about this baby and me. What would happen if you all left the house, even the midwife, if you all had to go and to leave me here, helpless, unable to move? Did all women go through this horror, or was it only me? Had my mother felt this, did Maman Odette when she had you? Unthinkable questions that I never dared voice and that I can only write now because I know no one will read this.
I recall that I began to sob uncontrollably, pain and terror ripping my stomach apart. As I lay twisting with pain in a bed drenched with sweat, I could hear yells of “Down with the Bourbons!” coming in through the open window. The deep boom of cannonballs startled us, and the midwife kept crossing herself nervously. The sharp rattle of gunshots was heard not far off and I prayed for the baby to come, I prayed for the insurrection to end. I did not care in the least for the fate of our King, of what was going to happen to our city. How selfish I was, thinking only of myself, not even of this baby, only of me and the monumental pain.
It lasted for hours, night sliding into day, and the constant agony tearing me open with prongs of fire. You had discreetly slipped away, you were no doubt downstairs in the sitting room with Maman Odette, and I did everything I could to keep my gasps silent within me, at first. But soon the excruciating waves took over again, higher and higher, and I had to let the screams out, trying to muffle them behind my moist palm or a pillow, but soon nearly delirious with pain, I gave full vent to the shrieks, heedless of the open window and of you, sitting below. Never had I screamed so loudly, so strongly, in my entire life. My throat was parched. No more tears came. I thought I was going to die. And at moments, when it became unbearable, I even wanted to die.
It was when Notre Dame’s loudest and deepest bell boomed out in warning, in a never-ending litany that penetrated my exhausted brain like a sledgehammer, that the baby was born at last, during the worst of the riots, the last of the three bloody days, whilst the Hôtel de Ville was stormed. Maman Odette was told that the tricolor flag of the people flew high over the rooftops and that the white and gold flag of the Bourbons was nowhere to be seen. You heard there had been many civilian deaths. A little girl. I was too drained to be disappointed. She was put to my breast and as I peered down at her, a shriveled, grimacing creature, I inexplicably felt no surge of love, nor pride. She pushed me away with tiny fists and a mewing of complaint. No, it was not love at first sight between me and my daughter. And thirty-eight years later, nothing has changed. I do not know why this happened. I cannot explain. It is a mystery to me. Why does one love a child, and not another? Why does a child push a mother away? Whose fault is it? Why does it happen so early, at birth? Why can nothing be done about it?
I felt her resentment grow, year after year. Do you remember, a couple of years after Maman Odette’s death, that scene in the dining room? Violette was still a child, and already so brittle. I cannot recall how the argument sparked off, where it came from. She had been complaining, as usual, and I had reprimanded her.
“Try to see the bright side, darling, you are persistently negative,” I said smoothly, with a warm smile.
Oh, how she scowled at me.
“When I grow up,” she spat, “I want to be nothing like you, Maman. You are too pretty, too good, too nice. I want others to respect me.”
I remember you rebuked her, with your customary mildness, however. She remained silent for the rest of the meal, but her words had wounded me, deeply. Too pretty, too good, too nice. Was that how my own daughter, a mere girl, considered me? A mealymouthed, spineless belle?
She has become a hard woman, all bones and angles, not an ounce of your gentleness, or my kindness. How is it that we can bear children of our flesh and blood and yet feel no link to them, so that they seem like strangers? She looks like you, I presume, your dark eyes and hair, your nose. She is not pretty, but she could have been, had she smiled more. She does not even possess my mother’s petulance, her coquettish vanity that was sometimes amusing. What does my son-in-law, the prim and proper Laurent, see in her? A perfect housewife, I imagine. She is a good cook, I believe. She runs that country doctor’s household with a hand of steel. And her children … Clémence and Léon … I know them so little … I have not laid eyes on their sweet faces for years …
That is my only regret now, dearest. As a grandmother, I would have liked to bond with my offspring. It is too late. Perhaps being a disappointed daughter turns one into an inadequate mother. Maybe the lack of love between Violette and me is my fault. Maybe I am to blame. I imagine you patting my arm with that tut, tut expression of yours. But you see, Armand, I did love the little boy so much more. You see, it is conceivably my doing. Now, in the winter of my life, I can look back and state these facts, almost without pain. But not without remorse.
Oh, my dear, how I miss you. I look down at the last photograph I have of you, the one of your deathbed. They had dressed you in your elegant black suit, the one you wore for best occasions. Your hair, hardly touched by gray, was swept back, and your mustache had been groomed. Your hands folded on your chest. How many times have I looked at that photograph since you have gone? Thousands, I believe.
I HAVE JUST HAD the most terrible fright, dearest. My hands are shaking so much I can barely write this. Whilst I was poring over each detail of your face, there came a loud rattle of the front door. Someone was trying to get in. I leaped up, my heart in my throat, knocking my cup of tea to the floor. It fell with a deafening clatter. I froze, horrorstruck. Would they hear it? Would they understand someone was still in the house? I crouched down very low, close to the wall, and made my way slowly to the entrance. There were voices out there, the shuffle of feet. The handle jounced again. I glued my ear to the panel, breathless. Men’s voices, rising loud and clear in the frosty morning.
“This one is due to go soon, the work will start next week, most probably. The owners moved out, it’s as empty as an old shell.”
A shove against the door made the wood jiggle against my face. I moved back quickly.
“The old door’s mighty sturdy still,” remarked another male voice.
“You know how fast those houses come down,” sneered the first voice. “Won’t take long to raze it, or the entire street, as it were.”
“That’s right, this little street and the one round the corner will be down in a jiffy.”
Who could these men be? I wondered, as they at last drew away. I spied at them from a crack behind the shutters. Two youngish fellows in formal suits. Probably from the Prefect’s team, in charge of the renovations and embellishments. Resentment surged through me. These people were heartless, no better than ghouls. They had no heart, no emotions. Did they even care that they were pulling people’s lives to pieces by destroying their homes? No, they did not.
The Prefect and the Emperor dreamed of a modern city. A very great city. And we, the people of Paris, we were mere pawns in this huge game of chess. Sorry, madame, your house is on the future boulevard Saint-Germain. You will have to move out. How had all my neighbors gone through this? I mused, as I carefully picked up the pieces of the broken cup. Had it been easier for them? Had they collapsed in tears when they had left their house, when they had turned around to look at it for the last time? That charming family just up our street, the Barous, where were they now? Madame Barou, like me, had been heartbroken at the idea of leaving the rue Childebert. She too had come here as a young bride, had given birth to her children in that house. Where were they all now? Where had they gone? Monsieur Zamaretti had come to bid me farewell, just before the order to evacuate the street. He had found another business on the rue du Four Saint-Germain, with a fellow bookstore. He kissed my hand in a most Italian-like fashion, bowing and scraping, promising to visit me in Tours, at Violette’s place. Of course, we both knew we would not see each other again. But I shall never forget Octave Zamaretti. After you departed, he saved my life, as Alexandrine did. Saved my life? I can imagine you looking perfectly astonished. I will get around to that later, Armand. I have a good deal to tell you concerning Octave Zamaretti and Alexandrine Walcker. Bear with me, dearest.
Monsieur Jubert had vanished into thin air shortly after the expropriation decree had been issued. His printing house had a forlorn and neglected air about it. I wondered where he went. I wondered what happened to the dozen workers who came there every day to earn their living. I did not care much for Mademoiselle Vazembert and her crinoline, no doubt she found herself a protector, ladies with those kind of physiques do that with ease. But I already missed Madame Godfin and her stout figure, her smile of welcome as I came in to purchase my tisanes, the spick-and-span shop that smelled of herbs, spices and vanilla.
It is difficult to imagine that my little world, made of the familiar, everyday figures of our street, Alexandrine and her irresistible window displays, Monsieur Bougrelle and his pipe, Monsieur Helder greeting his customers, Monsieur Monthier and the enticing wafts of chocolate emanating from his boutique, Monsieur Horace’s guttural laugh and constant invitations to sample his latest delivery, were all doomed to disappear. Our colorful street with its low buildings sheltering near the church was to be wiped off the face of the earth.
I knew precisely what the boulevard would look like. I had seen enough of what the Prefect and the Emperor had done to our city. Our tranquil neighborhood was to be flattened out so that the monstrous, noisy new artery could spring forth right here, just by the church. The enormous width of it. The traffic, the noise, the omnibuses, the throng.
In a hundred years’ time, when human beings will be living in a modern world that no one can even fathom, not even the most adventurous of writers or painters, not even you, dearest, when you liked to imagine the future, the small, quiet streets branching out like a cloister from the church will be buried and forgotten, forever.
No one will remember the rue Childebert, the rue Erfurth, the rue Sainte-Marthe. No one will remember the Paris that you and I loved.
THERE IS A SLIVER of glass down here, amidst the rubbish Alexandrine did not have time to throw out. I can see my face in it, if I tilt it in a certain fashion, taking care not to slice my fingertips. In age, my face has lost its ovalness, it has become longer, less graceful. You know I am not vain, yet I do take pride in my appearance, I have always been careful about my clothes, my shoes, my bonnets.
Even in these last, strange moments, I will not look like a ragpicker. I do my toilette as I can, with the water Gilbert brings me, and the perfume I keep at hand, the one the Baronne de Vresse gave me last year, when Alexandrine and I met her at her house on the rue Taranne to go shopping at the Bon Marché. I have heard the rue Taranne is safe, for the moment. But for how long? Will they dare destroy its splendor? Will the ravenous boulevard devour it as well? Swallow it up in one gulp?
I still have the same eyes, the ones you loved. Blue or green, depending on the weather. My hair is silver now, with the faintest trace of gold. I never thought of dyeing it, the way the Empress does, and that I find so vulgar.
Ten years is a long time, is it not, Armand? Writing this letter to you brings you remarkably close. I can almost feel you looking over my shoulder as I write this, your breath on my neck. I have not been to visit you at the cemetery for a long while. It is painful for me to see your grave, your name etched out on the stone, and Maman Odette’s, but even more heart-wrenching is the name of our son, Baptiste, just below yours.
There, I have written his name for the first time in this letter. Baptiste Bazelet. Oh, the pain. The dreadful pain. I cannot let that pain in, Armand. I must fight against it. I cannot surrender to it. If I do, I will drown in it. If I do, I will have no strength left.
The day you died, you gathered up a last spark of lucidity. You said to me, upstairs, in our bedroom, my hand in yours: “Watch over our house, Rose. Don’t let that Baron, that Emperor…” And then your eyes were coated over by that film of strangeness and you once again gazed at me as if you did not know me. But I had heard enough. I knew fully what you demanded of me. As you lay there, the life gone from your body, with Violette’s sobs at my back, I was aware of the task you had left me. I was to honor it. I made you that promise. Ten years later, my dearest, and now that the time is coming, I have not wavered.
The very day you left us, the fourteenth day of January, we learned that a terrible attack had been planned on the Emperor near the old Opéra, on the rue Le Peletier. Three bombs were thrown, nearly two hundred people were wounded and a dozen died. Horses were torn to pieces, and all the windowpanes of the entire street were shattered. The royal carriage was turned upside down, and the Emperor narrowly escaped death, as did the Empress. I later read that her dress had been drenched with a victim’s blood, but that she went to the Opéra all the same, in order to show her people that she was not afraid.
I did not care for that attack, as I did not care for the Italian who perpetrated it, Orsini (who was later to be guillotined), nor did I care about what his motives were. You were slipping away and absolutely nothing else mattered to me.
You died peacefully, with no pain, in our room, in the mahogany bed. You seemed relieved to be leaving this world and all the things about it that you no longer understood. Over the past years, I had watched you gradually slip into the illness that lurked in the recesses of your mind and that doctors talked about prudently. Your disease could not be seen or measured. I do not even think it had a name. No medicine could ever cure it.
Toward the end, you could not stand the light of day. You had Germaine close the shutters of the sitting room as of noon. Sometimes you would jump in your seat, startling me, and you would cock an ear, straining, and you would say, “Did you hear that, Rose?” I had not heard a thing, be it a voice, a bark, the slam of a door, but I learned to say that, yes, I had heard it too. And when you began to say, agitated, over and over again, your hands twitching, that the Empress was coming over for tea, that we must have Germaine prepare fresh fruit, I also learned to nod my head and to soothingly murmur that all that was being done, of course. You liked to read the paper thoroughly, every morning, poring over it, even the advertisements. Every time the Prefect’s name was printed, you let forth a stream of insults. Some of them were very rude.
The Armand that I miss is not the old, confused person you were at fifty-eight, when death overcame you. The Armand I long for is the strong young man in his knee breeches with the gentle smile. We were married for thirty years, dearest. I want to go back to those first days of passion, your hands on my body, the secret pleasure you gave me. No one will ever read these lines, so I can tell you how well you pleased me, and what an ardent husband you were. In that bedroom upstairs, you and I loved each other like a man and a woman should. But then, when the illness started to gnaw away at you, your loving touch relented and slowly withered away with the passing of time. I suspected I no longer sparked any desire. Was there another lady? My fears abated and a new anxiety dawned when I understood you no longer felt any desire, for another lady, or for me. You were ill, and desire had waned forever.
There was that abominable day, toward the end, when I was returning from the market with Mariette, and we came upon Germaine in tears in the street in front of the house. You had gone. She had found the sitting room empty, and your hat and cane had disappeared. How could this have happened? You hated leaving the house. You never did. We searched the area high and low. We went into every single shop, from Madame Paccard’s hotel to Madame Godfin’s boutique, but no one, from Monsieur Horace, who spends a lot of time loitering on his threshold, to anyone from the printing house having a pause, saw you that morning. There was no sign of you. I rushed to the commissariat near Saint-Thomas-d’Aquin and explained the situation. My husband, an elderly, confused gentleman, was missing, and had been so for the past three hours. I loathed having to describe your malady, having to tell them you had lost your head, that sometimes you were frightening, when your derangement took over. You often forgot your name, I told them, and therefore how would you ever make your way back home, if your address also escaped you? The commissaire was a kindhearted fellow. He asked for a precise description of you. He sent a dispatch out to look for you and told me not to worry. But I did.
In the afternoon a huge storm broke. Rain drummed over the roof with tremendous force and thunder boomed so hard the foundations shook. In anguish I thought of you. What were you doing now, had you found shelter somewhere, had somebody taken you in? Or had a loathsome stranger, making the most of your confusion, committed a heinous deed?
As the rain poured down, I stood by the window, with Germaine and Mariette crying behind me. I could bear it no longer. I went outside, my umbrella soon useless as the rain drenched me through and through. I managed to walk to the soggy gardens, spread out in front of me like a yellow sea of mud. I tried to envisage where you could have gone. To your mother’s grave, to your son’s? To the churches? To a café? The night was falling now, and still there was no sign of you. I staggered back home, stricken. Germaine had prepared a hot bath. The minutes ticked by, ever so slowly. You had now been gone for over twelve hours. The commissaire came by, his face grave. He had sent his men to all the nearest hospitals, to make sure you had not been taken there. In vain. He left, urging me to keep my spirits up. We sat by the table, facing the door, silent. The night wore on. We could not eat, nor drink. Mariette’s nerves gave way and I sent her up to her room, as she could barely stand.
In the dead of the night came a knock on the front door. Germaine ran to open up. We saw an elegant young man wearing hunting habits and pantalets. There you were next to him, haggard but smiling, holding on to Père Levasque’s arm.
“I had been hunting in the Fontainebleau forest with friends in the late afternoon and I came across this man who seemed lost,” explained the young stranger, who introduced himself as Hector Bouteiller. “At first this gentleman had not been able to declare his identity, and he kept mentioning the church at Saint-Germain-des-Prés, so I drove him here in my hackney.”
All the while you stood there, my dearest, a bewildered smile on your face. Germaine held her apron to her mouth, her cheeks ashen. Père Levasque added, sotto voce:
“They came to the church, Madame Rose, and I of course immediately recognized Monsieur Bazelet.”
I asked everyone to step inside. You still had that dazed, benign expression on your face. I was thunderstruck. The forest was miles away. I had been there once as a child and it had taken the entire morning. How on earth had you ended up there? Who had taken you there, and how? I longed to ask you these questions.
I thanked the young man and Père Levasque profusely, offered them coffee and a liqueur and gently led you to our room. I understood that you had no answers to give me. I went to wake Mariette and we sat you down and examined you carefully. Your clothes were filthy, caked with mud and dirt. There were tufts of grass and thorns in your shoes. I noticed dark stains on your waistcoat. More worriedly, there was a deep gash on your throat and red scratches on your hands. Mariette suggested we call for young Docteur Nonant, even at this hour. I agreed. She wrapped her cloak around her and went out into the night to fetch him, with Germaine.
When the doctor at last arrived, you were falling asleep, your hand in mine, breathing peacefully, like a child. The doctor tended to you. I cried silent, hopeless tears of relief mingled with fear, clutching your fingers, going over the incomprehensible events of the day. We would never know what happened to you, how and why you had been found hours away from the city, wandering in the forest with a bloody throat. You would never tell us.
Although I had been prepared by the doctor concerning your oncoming death, it came to me as a dreadful blow when it happened. I was approaching fifty, and I felt my life was behind me forever. I was alone. At night I would lie awake in our bed and listen to the silence. I could no longer hear your breath, the rustle of the sheets as your body moved. Without you, our bed felt like a cold and humid tomb. It seemed to me that even the house silently asked where you were. Your armchair, cruelly empty. Your maps, your papers, your books, your pen and ink, and no longer you. Your place at the dinner table, screaming out your absence. The pink shell you had bought at the antique shop on the rue des Ciseaux and that sounded like the sea when you pressed it to your ear. What do we do when our loved ones leave us forever and we are left behind with the mundane objects of their everyday life? How do we cope? Your comb and hairbrush had me in tears. Your hats. Your game of chess. Your silver pocket watch.
Our daughter had moved to Tours, had been living there for the past eight years, she had two children. My own mother had passed away seven years ago, and my brother Émile had already left the city. The only people around me were our neighbors, and their companionship and support were treasures to me. They all pampered me. Monsieur Horace dropped off small bottles of strawberry liqueur, and Monsieur Monthier offered me mouth-watering chocolates. Madame Paccard invited me to lunch every Thursday at the hotel. Monsieur Helder, for an early dinner at Chez Paulette, on Mondays. Madame Barou visited me once a week. Père Levasque and I walked to the Luxembourg Gardens every Saturday morning. But there still was a gaping, aching hole in my life when you left me. You were a quiet man, yet you took up a vast amount of silent space and that was what I missed. Your sturdiness and strength.
I hear Gilbert’s coded knock and get up to answer it. It is absolutely freezing this morning, and my skin is purple with cold. Gilbert limps in, clapping his gloved hands together and stamping on the floor. The icy blast he lets in has me shivering from head to toe. He heads straight for the enamel cooker and revives the coals with gusto.
I watch him. I tell him about the men from the Préfecture who tried to open the front door. He says gruffly:
“No need to worry, Madame Rose, there is no work this morning, too cold. We can have the heater going all day, no one will notice the smoke. The area is totally deserted. I’m pretty sure the work will be halted for a while.”
I huddle near the heat, feeling it thaw the iciness that had engirdled my entire body. He heats bits of food on a greasy saucepan. The appetizing smell tickles my nostrils, my stomach grumbles. Where does Gilbert get the coal, the food? Why is he doing this for me? When I ask him, gently, he merely smiles.
After our meal, he hands me a letter with a grin. He says the postman was hovering around, baffled, not knowing what to do with the mail, now that the street had been closed down and condemned. How he had managed to obtain my mail, I do not know. Gilbert is a mysterious fellow and he enjoys surprising me.
The letter, as I suspected, is from our daughter. It was written over a week ago.
We are most alarmed by the fact that you have not yet arrived. Germaine is convinced that something has happened to you and I pray that she is wrong.
The last time I heard from you, you said you would be here by the beginning of the month. All your personal effects are here by now and your larger furniture is in storage.
Laurent has been told of a charming little house by the river, not far from us, and not too expensive, where we do think you would be perfectly comfortable. You will be pleased to know that it is not damp at all, he says. There is ample room for Germaine, of course. A pleasant elderly lady we are friendly with lives right next door. But if you prefer to stay with us, this is of course possible.
The children are well and are looking forward to your stay with us. Clémence plays the piano beautifully and Léon is learning how to read. Please send word with more precise details concerning your arrival. We cannot understand where you are.
My husband is convinced that it is healthier for you to leave the faubourg Saint-Germain and to let yourself be looked after by us. At your age, nearly sixty after all, this is the right thing to do. You must not go on living in the past and letting grief overcome you.
We eagerly await your news.
EVEN HER HANDWRITING MAKES me wince, it is so sharp and implacable. What to do? I must have looked puzzled because Gilbert asks me what was wrong. I explain who the letter is from and what Violette wants. He shrugs.
“Write back to her, Madame Rose. Tell her you are staying with friends. That you are taking your time coming down to her. Stall her.”
“But how do I get this letter to her?” I ask.
Another careless shrug.
“I’ll go post it for you, at the post office.”
He smiles down at me paternally, flashing those ghastly teeth.
So I went to fetch a piece of paper and I sit and write the following letter to my daughter.
I am indeed sorry for causing you and your husband to worry about me. I am staying for a while with my friend the Baronne de Vresse. I believe I have told you about her. She is a charming socialite that I met through Mademoiselle Walcker, my flower lady. Yes, she is very young, she could be my granddaughter, but she has taken a fancy to me. We enjoy each other’s company.
She has most generously offered to put me up before I come down to you. She has a lovely house on the rue Taranne. As a result, I am not in the least involved in the destructions of our neighborhood which I am no witness of. We go shopping at the nearby Bon Marché and she takes me to Worth, the grand couturier where she has her dresses made. I am enjoying an enchanting stay, going to the theater, the opera and balls. An old lady of nearly sixty can still do these things, I assure you.
I will let you know when I arrive, but do not count on me for quite a while yet, as I plan to stay with the Baronne de Vresse as long as possible.
Do give my warmest regards to your husband and children, and to my dutiful Germaine. Tell her that Mariette has found a good position with a well-to-do family near the Parc Monceau.
Your affectionate mother
I CANNOT HELP smirking at the irony lurking in a couple of those sentences. Balls, theaters, Worth, indeed! No doubt my daughter, the typical humdrum provincial wife, would feel a twinge of envy reading about my dazzling fictitious social life.
I clear my throat and read the letter out loud to Gilbert. He grunts.
“Why don’t you tell her the truth?” he asks abruptly.
“About what?” I say.
“About why you are not leaving this house.”
I pause for a little while before I answer him.
“Because my daughter would not understand.”
IN MY DREAMS, MY good dreams, he comes back to haunt me, my little one. I see him tearing down the stairs, then his shoes clattering along the cobblestones outside. I hear his voice, his peals of laughter. The color blue suited him, and I had all his chemises made from different blues, and his jackets and his cardigans as well, even his cap was blue. My blue and gold prince. When he was a baby, he used to sit in my lap very quietly and observe the world around him. I suppose the first objects he ever detailed were the engravings in the sitting room, and the portraits above the mantel-piece. His round, curious eyes would go from corner to corner, taking it all in, his thumb in his mouth. He breathed peacefully against me. His little body felt warm against mine.
I felt such contentment in those moments. I felt I was truly a mother, a sensation I had never experienced with Violette, my firstborn. Yes, this tiny being was mine, and mine to protect and cherish. They say mothers prefer their sons, is this not the secret truth? Are we not born to bring sons into the world? Yet I know you loved your daughter. She bonded with you in a way I never did.
When I dream of Baptiste, I see him napping, as a child, upstairs in the children’s room. I marvel at the mother-of-pearl lids covering his eyes, lashes fluttering. The round smoothness of his cheeks. His parted lips, his slow, calm breath. I gazed at that child for hours, while Violette played with her friends downstairs, watched over by the nanny.
I did not like the nanny touching him when he was a baby. I knew it was not proper for me to spend so much time with him, but I could not help it. He was mine to feed, mine to cuddle. He was the center of my life, and you looked on benignly. You felt no jealousy, I think. Maman Odette had been that way with you. You were not surprised. I took him everywhere I could. If I had a hat to choose or a shawl to buy, he would be with me. All the shopkeepers knew our son. All the market vendors knew his name. He was never vain about his popularity. He never took advantage of it, either.
When I dream of him, as I have for the past twenty years, I awake with tears in my eyes. My heart aches. It was easier when you were there, as I could reach out into the dark and feel your comforting shoulder.
There is no one for me now. Just the cold and deathly quiet. I cry alone. I know how to do that, very well.
Bussy-le-Repos, July 6th, 1847
I am having a spendid time with Adèle and her family at Bussy. I miss you, Violette and Papa very much. But I am still having wonderful time. So dont worry. I miss home. Very nice here. And very hot. Yesterday we bathed in the pond. Not very deep and Adèle’s big brother took me on his shoulders and was covered in mud. Adèle’s mother makes escalopes. I eat so much sometimes my tummy hurts. I miss you in evenings when it is bedtime. Adèle’s mother kisses me but shes not pretty like you she does not have soft skin Maman smell. Please write another letter why do letters take so long to arrive. Adèle’s father not as funny as Papa. But hes still nice. He smokes a pipe puffs smoke into your face. Theres a big white dog I got scared of at first because he jumps at you but thats his way of saying hello. His name Prince. Can we have one too. And there is also a cat called Mélusine but she hisses at me so I don’t stroke her. I am trying to write this best I can. Adèle’s brother is correcting my mistakes he’s a fine chap I want to be like him when I grow up hes ten years older than me. Adèle had a fit last night there was a spider in her bed awfully big one Maman please go look in my bed make sure there is no spider I miss you and love you and give my love to Papa and to my sister.
I FELT AN ICY hand on my bosom and I screamed through the silence. Of course, there was no one there, no icy hand, how could anyone ever find me down here, hidden in the cellar? I need a moment to quiet my heart, to breathe in a normal fashion. I can still hear the creak of the stairs, still see the large, freckled hand gliding up the banister, still sense the pause just outside my door before he enters. Will I ever be free? Will the terror ever leave me? The house no longer protects me, in that nightmare. The house has been invaded. It is no longer safe.
Wrapped up in several layers of thick woolen shawls, I take a candle up to the top floor, to the children’s room. I have not been up there for a while, even when the house was still lived in. It is a long, low-ceilinged room with beams, and as I stand on the threshold, I can still see it filled with toys and games. I can still see our son, his golden curls, his sweet little face. I used to spend hours in this room with Baptiste, playing with him, singing songs to him, all those things I never did with my daughter, simply because she never let me.
As I let my eyes roam over the now-empty room, I remember the happy times with the little boy. You had decided get the house repaired, to mend all its various problems: leaks in the roof, various cracks, general wear and tear. Every nook and cranny was inspected. A team of workers came steadfastly, and the house was repainted, woodwork repaired, floors repolished. They were a cheerful, good-natured lot, and we grew to know them well. There was Monsieur Alphonse, the foreman, with his black beard and loud voice, and there was Ernest, his ginger-haired attendant. Groups of different workers came every week, hired for their specific skills. Every Monday you would note the progress and discuss various elements of it with the foreman. It took up a great deal of your time, and you were most earnest about the entire matter. You wanted the house to look its best. Your father and your grandfather had not done much to it, and you took it upon yourself to refurbish it.
Even while there was work being done in the house, we had friends to stay, friends to dinner. I recall that it took up much of my time, those menus to work out, the seating of guests, and which room needed freshening for a new arrival. I took those tasks most seriously. Each menu was carefully written out in a special book so that I would never serve the same meal twice to my guests. How proud I was of our house, how cozy and pretty it looked on those winter evenings, with the fire blazing in the chimney, and the soft light of the lamps. Happy times.
Over that blessed decade, Violette turned into a silent, self-centered young girl. She was a good learner, and she was serious, but we shared so little. We had nothing in common, like my mother and I. She talked more with you, I believe, but she was not close to you either. As for Baptiste, she had little interest in him. There was a nine-year difference between her brother and her. She was like the moon, silvery, cold and distant, and he was a triumphant golden sun, all blaze, all fire.
Baptiste was a child touched by grace. His birth had been short and painless, which astounded me, as I had geared myself up for the ordeal I had endured with Violette. There he was, this splendid child, healthy, pink and energetic, his eyes already wide open to the world. How I wished Maman Odette could have seen her grandson, but she had already left us four years earlier. Yes, that decade was a golden one, as gold as our son’s hair. He was a simple, happy child. He never complained, or if he did, he did it with such charm that he’d melt anyone’s heart. He liked to build little houses with colored bricks made of wood that you gave him for his birthday. For hours he would carefully construct a house, room by room.
“That is your bedroom, Maman,” he would proudly state. “And the sun shines in, just the way you like it. And Père will have a study right here, with a big desk so he can set all his papers down and do his important work.”
This is so difficult to write, Armand. I fear the power of words, how they may wound you, like the stab of a knife. The candlelight flickers over the bare walls. I am afraid. Afraid of what I must say. Many times, during confession with Père Levasque, I tried to unburden myself. But it was impossible. I never did.
I feared the Lord would take my son, that my time with him was counted. Every moment with him was a delight. A delight tainted with fear. Another revolution had stormed our city in February. This time I was not bedridden, and I saw it all. I was forty years old, still sturdy, still strong, despite my years. The riots broke out in the poorer quarters of the city, and barricades went up, barring the streets with iron grillwork, overturned carriages, furniture, tree trunks. You explained that the King had failed to end political corruption, that the economic crisis that raged was without precedent. This had not concerned me, as my daily life as a mother and wife had not altered. It is true that the prices at the market had soared, but our meals were still abundant. Our life was still the same. For the moment.
1849. BAPTISTE WAS TEN years old. The year the Prefect and the Emperor met for the first time. The year after the barricades and the February Revolution. Nearly twenty years ago, and my heart still bleeds as I write this. He moved like a little pixie always on the go, spry, fast as lightning. His laugh echoed through the house. Sometimes, you know, I still hear it.
There were early murmurs of the disease. I was first aware of them at the market. The last epidemic breakout was just after Violette was born, ten years before. Thousands of people had died. One had to be very careful with the water. Baptiste enjoyed playing at the fountain on the rue Erfurth. I could see him from the window, the governess watching over him. I had warned him, you did too, but he had a mind of his own.
It happened very fast. The papers were already full of the oncoming deaths, the toll was rising day after day. The dreadful word sent terror into our homes. Cholera. A lady on the rue de l’Echaudé had succumbed. Every morning a new death was announced. Fear gripped our street.
And then, one morning, in the kitchen, Baptiste collapsed. He fell to the floor with a shriek of pain, crying out that he had a cramp in his leg. I rushed to him.
“What is it, my darling, my sweet?” I murmured as he fretted, twisting and turning in my arms. Germaine suggested we pull up his breeches to see what was wrong with his leg. My fingers clumsily worked the buttons.
“Maman,” muttered my son, “it hurts…” How I remember his thin, weak voice, a voice that tugged at my heart.
There appeared to be nothing wrong with his shin or thigh. I soothed him as best as I could. His forehead felt hot and clammy. He began to sob, wincing with pain. A horrid gurgle was heard, coming from his abdomen. I said to myself that this could not be happening. No, not to my son, not to my adored son. Not this. I remember screaming out for you, screaming your name up the stairs.
You heard my shriek and you rushed down, your face white as a sheet. Yes, I can still hear your footsteps pounding down the steps. You had a book in one hand, your spectacles clutched in the other. Violette followed in your wake, her eyes wide.
“Rose, what on earth…?”
Then you saw our son and the objects clasped in your fingers clattered to the floor. Violette screamed. Remember how we carried him up to his room, you and I, and Germaine rushed to summon the doctor? But it was too late. I could tell by your face that you knew, but you were not telling me. In a mere couple of hours, hours that spelt doom and death with every click of the minutes gliding past, all liquids left his burning, twisting body. They poured out of him, oozed from him and we could only watch with horror.
“Do something!” I pleaded to the doctor. “You must save my son!”
All day long, young Docteur Nonant wrapped my son’s loins in strips of clean sheets, slid clear water down his throat, but to no avail. Baptiste’s hands and feet seemed to have been dipped in black paint. His pink little face, dry and waxen, had gone a monstrous bluish color. The round cheeks had caved in to leave in their wake the disturbing pointed mask of a wizened creature I no longer recognized. His sunken eyes cried no more tears. The sheets thickened with all he was bringing up, soiled rivulets that gushed from his body in a never-ending, stinking flux.
“We must all pray at present,” murmured Père Levasque, whom you had sent for in the last, dreadful moments when we finally understood that there was no more hope. Candles were lit, and the fervent mutter of prayers filled the room.
When I look at the room now, that is what I remember: the stench, the candles and the prayers, over and over again, Germaine’s gentle sobbing, Violette’s cough. You sat very straight and silent by my side, and sometimes you took my hand and squeezed it gently. I was so beside myself with grief that I could not understand your calm. I remember thinking: Faced with the death of a child, are men stronger than women because they do not give birth, because they do not know what it means to carry life within one and to bring a baby into the world? Are mothers not linked to their offspring by a secret, intimate and physical link that fathers cannot experience?
That night, in that house, I saw my beloved son die and I felt my life become a meaningless void.
The year after, Violette married Laurent Pesquet, her fiancé, and left home to live in Tours. Nothing touched me anymore since the little boy’s death.
I watched the events of my life unfold from very far away. I went about my existence in a sort of dazed numbness. I remember you talking about me with Docteur Nonant. He had come to visit me. At forty-one, I was too old to have another child. And no other child could ever replace Baptiste.
But I knew why the Lord had reclaimed my child. I shake as I write this, and it is no longer the cold.
Rue Childebert, August 20th, 1850
Rose of my heart,
I cannot bear your pain, your sorrow. He was the loveliest child, the most delightful boy, but alas God decided to call him back to Him and we must respect His choice, there is nothing else we can do, my love. I write this by the fireplace, as the candle flickers through the quiet night. You are upstairs, in our room, trying to find rest. I do not know how to help you and I feel useless. It is a loathsome feeling. I wish Maman Odette were here to console you. But she has been gone so long now, and she never knew the little boy. Yet she would have surrounded you with her love and her tenderness in these agonizing moments. Why are we men so hopeless at this sort of thing? Why do we not know how to soothe, how to bestow our care? I am furious with myself as I sit here and write this to you. I am but a worthless husband, as I cannot bring you solace.
Since he left us, last year, you are the ghost of your former self. You have become gaunt and white, you no longer smile. Even at our daughter’s recent wedding, on that gorgeous day by the river, you did not smile once. Everyone noticed and of course everyone spoke to me about it, your brother, very worried, and even your mother, who never notices what state you are in, and your new son-in-law, a young doctor, had a quiet word with me about you. Some of them suggested a trip down south, by the sea, to seek the sun and warmth. Others said to rest, to eat nourishing food, to exercise.
Your eyes are empty and sad, it breaks my heart. Oh, what am I to do? Today I walked about our neighborhood and I tried to find you a trinket that would cheer you up. I came back empty-handed. I sat down at the café on the place Gozlin, near where you grew up, and read the newspapers, all full of Balzac’s death. As you know, he is one of my favorite writers, and somehow, because of what you are enduring, your acute pain, I simply cannot feel sadness at Monsieur de Balzac’s passing away. The poor fellow was more or less my age. And he too had a wife he loved passionately, as I love you with a passion that inflames my entire life.
Rose, my love, I am a wistful gardener who no longer knows how to make his lovely plant come into full, promising bloom. Rose, you are now frozen, as if you no longer dared to burst into flower, no longer dared to offer yourself to me, to let your enticing perfume bewitch me as those delicious petals open up one by one. Is the gardener to blame? Our beloved son is gone, and with him, a part of our life. But our love is still powerful, is it not, and it is our greatest strength, it is what we need to cherish in order to be able to survive. Remember how our love preceded our child, how our love gave birth to him. We must treasure it, nurture it and revel in it. I share your sorrow, I respect and mourn our son as a father, as a parent, but can we not mourn him as lovers? For after all, was he not born of two splendid lovers? I long for the sweet scent of your skin, my hands yearn to caress the curves of your beloved body, my lips burn to bestow thousands of kisses on the secret places that only I know of and adore. I want to feel you undulate against me under the softness of my caresses, under the sweet violence of my embrace; I hunger for your love, I want to taste the sweetness of your flesh, your womanly intimacy, I want to go back to the feverish ecstasy we shared as lovers, as a husband and a wife deeply, truly in love, up there in the quiet kingdom of our bedroom.
You are my priority, Rose, and I shall fight with all my might to restore your faith in our love, in our life.
Armand, your husband
THE HOUSE I LOVED. Copyright 2012 by ditions Hloise dOrmesson, Paris.
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