At the famous Patisserie Clermont, a chance encounter with the owner's daughter has given one young man a glimpse into a life he never knew existed: of sweet cream and melted chocolate, golden caramel and powdered sugar, of pastry light as air. But it is not just the art of confectionery that holds him captive, and soon a forbidden love affair begins.
Almost eighty years later, an academic discovers a hidden photograph of her grandfather as a young man with two people she has never seen before. Scrawled on the back of the picture are the words “Forgive me.” Unable to resist the mystery behind it, she begins to unravel the story of two star-crossed lovers and one irrevocable betrayal.
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About the Author
After a childhood spent acting professionally and training at a theatre school, LAURA MADELEINE changed her mind and went to study English Literature at Newnham College, Cambridge. The author of The Confectioner's Tale, she now writes fiction, as well as recipes, and was formerly the resident cake baker for Domestic Sluttery. She lives in Bristol, but can often be found visiting her family in Devon, eating cheese, and getting up to mischief with her sister, fantasy author Lucy Hounsom. She lives in the UK.
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The Confectioner's Tale
A Novel of Paris
By Laura Madeleine
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Laura Hounsom
All rights reserved.
Cambridge, March 1988
I burst through the gates of King's College just as the chapel bells mark the hour. I'm late, and of all the appointments I could be late for, this is the worst.
A group of anorak-wearing tourists are blocking the road. I weave through them, checking my watch. I had hoped to arrive in plenty of time, to find an inconspicuous seat at the back of the room, not to barge through the doors sweaty and dishevelled.
I take the courtyard at a run and a set of damp stone stairs two at a time. My reflection flashes past in a window: rain-soaked, ratty blond fringe dripping into my eyes. I push it back and hurry towards a pair of huge oak doors.
15th March, 11.00 a.m., reads a piece of paper tacked to the noticeboard outside: Unmasking a Legend: biographer Simon Hall on the late historian, author and critic J. G. Stevenson.
I quickly rearrange the scowl that has risen to my face into a grimace of apology at the woman minding the entrance. She sniffs disapprovingly but lets me pass. Bracing myself, I ease open the heavy door. The room is packed; students and academics alike are crammed into chairs, their breath fogging up the windows. Despite my efforts, the door creaks loudly on its hinges, and the man on the podium falters, looking my way. I keep my head lowered and edge along the back row to a spare seat.
'As I was saying,' the speaker continues, 'we all know what happens when a well-known person dies: they get an obituary in The Times, a new commemorative volume of work and retrospectives in journals left, right and centre.'
Some of the younger members of the audience titter, eager to show their appreciation for the lecturer's off-hand manner.
I eye him carefully. Simon Hall, the current darling of the history scene. Whenever comment is needed, on the radio or in newspaper articles, there he is. He's not as young as his pictures suggest, I decide. True, his curly hair and open face make him look youthful, but there are creases at the corners of his eyes and the hint of a paunch developing. I slump down a little further in my seat and try to pay attention.
'There is nothing wrong with paying homage to a great,' he says, 'and no one can deny that J. G. Stevenson was a talented historian. But how much do we truly know about him? Who was the man behind the books?'
He pauses for effect, looks around the room.
'As a biographer, it is my job to answer these questions, and that means delving into a person's past, discovering the things they might have preferred to keep to themselves. And, ladies and gentlemen, what I have discovered is that J. G. Stevenson was no saint.'
He leans forward on the lectern, intent, inviting every person there into his confidence.
'Recently, I was granted access to Stevenson's private correspondence, and there I found a letter. Written to him when he was a young man in Paris, it places him firmly at the centre of a scandal, one that he kept hidden even from his own family. I will discover the truth behind this mystery, and show you all the real J. G. Stevenson.'
When it is time for questions, I fidget and try to keep my arm wedged by my side, even though I'm simmering with anger. I listen to inane comments and sharp words, until finally, at the very end, I can't stop my hand from shooting into the air.
'I'm rather afraid we have no more time,' the academic in charge of the event tells me. 'Perhaps you could —'
'So, it's your intention to vilify a man just to be fashionable?' I challenge Hall. 'Or are you taking liberties with the dead, digging through private possessions in order to get more publicity?'
A hundred plastic chairs creak as people turn to look. I feel myself flush under their scrutiny, but keep my eyes fixed on Hall. He is smiling in a puzzled way as he peers through the crowd.
'A bold question, Miss ...?'
A volley of whispers sweeps the audience. The academic on stage is leaning forward to whisper something in Hall's ear. I see the shape of my name on his lips and fight to keep my expression neutral. Hall, meanwhile, is surveying me with newfound interest.
'I understand your indignation, Miss Stevenson, but you can't deny your grandfather had his secrets.'CHAPTER 2
Bordeaux, September 1909
Six o'clock on the Rue Vauquelin. Voices rose from the streets, echoing within the walls of cramped, peeling workrooms to greet the end of the day. Guillaume du Frère tripped onto the road, staggering under the weight of a suitcase. The smell of home lingered around him, but dropped away as he broke into a run.
His boots skidded in a pile of rubbish. He grimaced, yet grinned in almost the same instant. The airless courtyards and overcrowded alleyways of Bordeaux were not his home any longer.
At the end of the Rue Francin the pavement was filled with traders, pouring boisterously from the Cattle Market. Gui pushed through them, through the stench of beasts and offal, towards the arched windows of the locomotive workshop. They were propped open to release metallic fumes.
He hauled himself up, sent his suitcase tumbling from the windowsill to land with a thud on the gritty floor. He scrambled down behind it.
'Evening, Jacques!' he gasped to an oil-stained man who was wrestling with a length of pipe.
'Bon voyage, lad! Better fly, that train's already whistled once!'
Gui clutched his luggage to his chest and burst through an open gate onto the track. Ahead stood the tiled platform and beyond that, the grand glass roof of the Gare St Jean, trapping the light and insects like a gas lamp. Stragglers lingered to wave off the departing train. A small boy was perched on his father's shoulders, staring at the plume of steam that had already started to trail backwards.
Gui threw himself into a sprint. A whistle sounded behind him, the guardsman's indignant shout, but he surged on, legs pistoning up and down, worn boots pounding the track.
'Gui!' a voice cried. His friend Nicolas was beaming over the back railing of the train. 'More haste, more haste!'
Gui's throat burned with exertion as he drew close; almost enough to grasp Nicolas's outstretched hand.
'Come on, Gui, they'll never let us be railwaymen if we can't even catch a train!'
With a strangled laugh and a final burst of effort he pitched the suitcase at his friend, leaped for the railing and hauled himself aboard.
Oblivious to his final dash, the train rattled on, gathering speed as the track curved and the station receded into the distance. Still red from laughing, Nicolas refolded his long legs, fished a crumpled cigarette from his pocket. Collapsed against the wall, Gui pulled off his cap to wipe sweat from his brow.
His scalp prickled. Ruefully, he ran a hand over it. His hair had grown long over the summer, had turned from brown to gold during the hot days working the river dock. He would rather have kept it so, but his mother had insisted that he would catch lice in the capital, and had shorn it all off.
Nicolas said it made him look like a convict. His blond mop had escaped unclipped. Gui thumped his friend with a grin and crammed the cap back on his head.
'Hadn't we better go inside?' he called over the noise of the wheels on the track.
'No,' his friend replied, 'too crowded in there. We'll get stuck next to an old matron who'll lecture us all the way to Paris. Better stay out here.'
'What if they come around for tickets? Won't they throw us off?'
Nicolas snorted. 'Course not. We'll just show our letters and say we're colleagues. We're railwaymen now, Gui. Never have to pay a fare again so long as we live!'
The train passed through the fringes of the city. The last buildings of Bordeaux dropped away, replaced by long grasses that hissed along the banks of the river. Light flashed in planes across the water. The train's shadow was black upon the surface, intricately detailed. Gui saw the texture of the glass in the windows, grit and baked-on flies, silhouettes of passengers within. Fascinated, he raised a hand to see if a shadow figure would do the same, but the reflection snaked away, engulfed by vegetation.
It grew late. Hills rose up on both sides, casting a chill shade. It would take all night to reach Paris. Beside him, Nicolas woke from a doze and stretched for his duffel bag. Gui heard the rustle of paper and wrapped an arm around his stomach.
His mother had made him up a parcel of food, but he had left it behind when she wasn't looking. He hadn't been able to bear the thought of her going hungry. Even if he had the money, the train's dining car would never serve him, dressed as he was in shirtsleeves and a grubby necktie. His glance over at Nicolas was rewarded with a smirk.
His friend was unwrapping something from several layers of newspaper. Gui caught a scrap of warm, yeasty scent. Half a small loaf landed in his lap. It still retained a trace of the oven's heat. He tore off a piece and stuffed it into his mouth, trying to thank Nicolas between chews.
'Don't mention it,' said Nicolas airily, scraping at the soft inside with his teeth. 'I knew you'd forget to bring anything.'
Gui swallowed the last mouthful with regret. Nicolas brushed the crumbs from his chest.
'What I wouldn't give for a cup of coffee,' he said and sighed.
Smiling, Gui tucked his chin into the collar of his shirt. Even the resourceful Nicolas would struggle to produce hot coffee from a duffel bag. He closed his eyes, and felt himself slip into a doze, until his thoughts merged in time with the clacking of the wheels on the track, which did not seem so loud any more.
Nicolas's wish was granted later that evening, when lamps were lit in the train's corridors and the ticket inspector made it to the end of the last carriage. The sight of two sunburned stowaways produced an official scowl, but it only took them a minute to explain. Soon after, the man returned with a jug of coffee from the dining car, laced with brandy. Whilst they drank he removed his hat and leaned over the back railing to nurse one of Nicolas's battered cigarettes.
'Every piece of track,' he said, clearing his throat, 'every piece between here and Orléans, is a piece I helped to lay. Hard work it was, outside in all weathers, sometimes only moving an inch at a time. But it's a fine job for young men. Good solid work, make you strong for life.'
His big, rough-skinned face hovered in shadow as the track – his track – flashed by beneath.
'If you're lucky,' he flicked cigarette ash into the darkness and replaced his hat, 'you can go on to work the locomotives. Then you'll end up like me. Decent pay, a uniform, nice watch. If you work hard and make yourselves known to those what matter, you'll do well indeed.'
The inspector wished them luck and took his leave. Gui wrapped his hands around the cooling tin mug as night pressed closer to the train and thought about the ticket man's words. He could not imagine his own skinny frame made large by work, couldn't see himself in a stiff uniform, carrying a watch in his pocket. But in Paris, he told himself, anything was possible.
He must have slept then, for when he woke the space they were passing through was black – country or town, he couldn't tell. Hulking shapes that might have been trees or rocks or huge stationary beings loomed in the night. He was cold. An arm's length away Nicolas was snoring, wrapped in a hairy green blanket.
Gui smiled, fumbling in his suitcase to drag out his own. Above him were stars, wheeling to the corners of his vision. He let his head fall back against the metal railing, and slept.CHAPTER 3
My anger has subsided into a hollow nausea as I trudge across town towards my supervision. Hall's words about my grandfather repeat themselves over and again, yet all I can see is an old man, pausing in his dictation to smile at me across the room, at my fingers, busily punching the letters of a typewriter.
It has been almost two years since he died, but too often I catch a glimpse of his photograph in a book, or hear a recording of his quick voice crackling back at me on the radio. Sometimes it seems that his ghost is everywhere.
I have very little left of him. His house was finally sold a few months back, and there was nothing I could do but watch. Ever since I can remember, before my parents' divorce even, that rambling, run-down place had been a haven; a home. My father didn't care about any of that. He sold it without even bothering to tell me.
I found out just in time. I shut myself in grandfather's study while the house-clearance men tramped through the rest of the building, stripping it of my memories and throwing them into a pile on the lawn. The study had remained untouched, right down to the final article we had been working on, a half-written sheet in the typewriter, covered with dust.
I took what I could, gathered up a lifetime of papers, diaries and notebooks, fifty years' worth of correspondence. I sealed them into coffin-like boxes, and took them home where I thought they would be safe.
Lost in thought, I walk through the college gates and into one of the buildings. I wish I could talk to Grandpa now, tell him about Hall, ask him what it all means.
On autopilot, I climb the stairs. My first knock on the door goes unanswered, so I try the handle, but it is locked. I stare at the name painted above it, scrabble for my Filofax.
Prof. Whyke, 15th March, 12 p.m.
I check my watch. Ten past. I'm not that late. He can't have given up and gone away. Is he running late, like me? Halfway down the stairs is a deep, stone windowsill. I wedge myself into it to go through some notes while I wait. My plimsolls are sodden with rain and grit. I brush at them half-heartedly, feeling like a mess.
My notes are similarly untidy. Vague timelines, blocks of third-hand quotation, isolated paragraphs. Grandpa would have laughed, made me pull it apart and explain each section to him, piece by piece, until it made sense. I'm gripped by the old, familiar fear: that I'm letting him down.
I never intended to go into academia. I was halfway through a Masters when Grandpa died; we'd had plans to start writing a book together after my degree, a social history of the belle époque, but then he was gone, and everything was so uncertain. Applying for a Ph.D. at his old university in order to carry on the research seemed like the obvious choice.
The first year passed in a frenzy of work, of endless research and long hours in the library, distracting myself from his absence. Now, no matter how hard I try to convince myself otherwise, I know that I'm only here because of him.
Church bells jolt me from my thoughts, marking the half-hour. I rip a page from my jotter to leave a note.
'Can I help?' Professor Whyke is standing at the bottom of the stairs, a muffin in his hand. There are chocolate crumbs down the front of his shirt. After a few seconds, his expression brightens with recognition.
'Ah, Petra. Miss Belle Époque. Yes, we had an appointment. Come in.'
I crumple the half-written note and follow him up. He bustles about the door, balancing the muffin in one hand and fumbling for the key with the other.
'Did I get the time wrong?' I ask, settling into one of the scratchy chairs by his coffee table. 'I thought we said twelve, on the fifteenth.'
'Honestly, I was expecting you last week. Fifteen hundred hours on the twelfth. No matter, I'm clear for lunch so we can fit it in now. Tea?' I nod, consider requesting no sugar, decide against it. The tea will arrive with two lumps no matter what I say.
'So,' he begins, flipping through a ledger. 'How far did you get during the holiday? You were looking at Paris, and at pre-war correspondence. Did you read Fuller's letters?'
I fumble through my notes, explain a few possible leads. Whyke listens and suggests some further reading, but I can tell he's not engaged. When the hour is almost over, I force myself to mention what is really on my mind.
'I found something else that could be interesting. I'm afraid it's a bit off target, though.'
'Let's hear it.'
Excerpted from The Confectioner's Tale by Laura Madeleine. Copyright © 2015 Laura Hounsom. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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