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First and Second Coaches
O, think upon the pleasure of the palace!
Securèd ease and state! The stirring meats
Ready to move out of the dishes, that e'en now
Quickenwhen they are eaten....
Banquets abroad by torchlight! music! sports!
Nine coaches waiting hurry, hurry
Ay, to the devil....
Tourneur: The Revenger's Tragedy
I was thankful that nobody was there to meet me at the airport.
We reached Paris just as the light was fading. It had been a soft, gray March day, with the smell of spring in the air. The wet tarmac glistened underfoot; over the airfield the sky looked very high, rinsed by the afternoon's rain to a pale clear blue. Little trails of soft cloud drifted in the wet wind, and a late sunbeam touched them with a fleeting underglow. Away beyond the airport buildings the telegraph wires swooped gleaming above the road where passing vehicles showed lights already.
Some of the baggage was out on the tarmac. I could see my own shabby case wedged between a brand-new Revrobe and something huge and extravagant in cream-colored hide. Mine had been a good case once, good solid leather stamped deeply with Daddy's initials, now half hidden under the new label smeared by London's rain. Miss L. Martin, Paris. Symbolic, I thought, with an amusement that twisted a bit awry somewhere inside me. Miss L. Martin, Paris, trudging along between a stout man in impeccable city clothes and a beautifulAmerican girl with a blond mink coat slung carelessly over a suit that announced discreetly that she had been to Paris before, and recently. I myself must have just that drab, seen-better-days shabbiness that Daddy's old case had, perched up there among the sleek cabin-class luggage.
But I was here, home after ten years. Ten years. More than a third of my lifetime. So long a time that now, pausing in the crush beside the Customs barrier, I felt as strange as I suppose anybody must feel on their first visit abroad. I found I even had to make a conscious effort to adjust my ears to the flood of French chatter going on around me. I even found myself, as all about me people uttered little cries of recognition, excitement and pleasure; and were claimed by waiting friends and relations, scanning the crowd of alien faces for one that I knew. Which was absurd. Who would there be to meet me? Madame de Valmy herself I smiled at the thought. It was very good of Madame de Valmy to have provided me with the money for a taxi into Paris. She was hardly likely to do much for the hired help. And that was what I was. I had better start remembering it, as from now.
The douanier, chalk in hand, was pausing over my shabby case. As I stepped forward to claim it an airport official, hurrying past, bumped against me, sending my handbag flying to the floor.
"Mille pardons, mademoiselle. Excusez-moi."
"Ce n'est rien, monsieur."
"Je vous ai fait mal?"
"Pas du tout. Ce n'est rien."
"Permettez-moi, mademoiselle. Votre sac."
"Merci, monsieur. Non, je vous assure, il n'y a pas de mal..." And to my repeated assurances that nothing was lost and that I was not irretrievably damaged, he at length took himself off.
I stared after him for a moment, thoughtfully. The trivial little incident had shown me that, after all, that ten years' gap had not been so very long. Ear and brain had readjusted themselves now with a click that could be felt.
And I must not let it happen. It was another thing I must remember. I was English. English. Madame de Valmy had made it very clear that she wanted an English girl, and I hadn't seen any harm in letting her assume that my knowledge of France and things French was on a par with that of the average English girl who'd done French at school. She had made rather a lot of it, really...though probably, I thought, I'd been so anxious to get the job that I'd exaggerated the importance of the thing out of all measure. After all, it could hardly matter to Madame de Valmy whether I was English, French or even Hottentot, as long as I did the job properly and didn't lapse into French when I was supposed to be talking English to young Philippe. And I could hardly be said to have deceived her, because in fact I was English; Daddy had been English and Maman at least a quarter so ... and even to me those early years were faded and remote. The years when Maman and I lived out at Passy with Grand'mère, and the Boche was in Paris, and Daddy was away somewhere unspecified but highly dangerous and we never allowed ourselves to speak or even think in English...even for me those years had sunk well back into the past, so far back that now they seemed hardly to belong to me at all. Infinitely more real were the last ten years in England seven of them spent at the Constance Butcher Home, an orphanage in North London, and the last three in a qualified independence a travesty of freedom as general help and dogsbody at a small prep school for boys in Kent. Those endless green linoleum corridors, the sausage on Mondays and Thursdays, the piles of dirty sheets to count, and the smell of chalk and carbolic soap in the classroom...these were a very much more present memory than the lovely old house at Passy or even the top flat in the Rue du Printemps, where we had gone after the war was over and Daddy came home....
The douanier said wearily, "Vous n'avez rien à délarer?"
I started and turned. I said firmly, in English, "Nothing to declare. No, none of those..."
Nine Coaches Waiting. Copyright © by Mary Stewart. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.