A young interracial couple escapes from Maryland to France in 1894, living first among artists in the vibrant Latin Quarter of Paris, and then beginning a new life as winemakers in the rugged countryside of the Languedoc
Twenty-three years after the publication of his acclaimed novel Mason’s Retreat and six years after The Right-Hand Shore, Christopher Tilghman returns to the saga of the Mason family in Thomas and Beal.
Thomas Mason and his wife, Beal, have run away to France, escaping the disapproval of both their families. The drama in this richly textured novel proceeds in two settings: first in Paris, and then in the Languedoc, where Thomas and Beal begin a new life as winemakers. Beal, indelible, beautiful, and poised, enchants everyone she meets in this strange new land, including a gaggle of artists in the Latin Quarter when they first arrive in Paris. Later, when they’ve moved to the beautiful and rugged Languedoc, she is torn between the freedoms she experienced in Paris and the return to the farm life she thought she had left behind in America. A moving and delicate portrait of a highly unusual marriage, Thomas and Beal is a radiant work of deep insight and peerless imagination about the central dilemma of American historythe legacy of slavery and the Civil Warthat explores the many ways that the past has an enduring hold over the present.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)|
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Madame Lucy Bernault, RSCJ, sat on a small pile of freshly sawn lumber, gazing idly but expectantly down the narrow slip off Le Havre's grand basin, into which, however unlikely it seemed, a large steamer was soon to insert itself. There were more luxurious spaces for visitors to await the arrival of steam packets of grand luxe, but Madame Bernault was a simple person and she was more comfortable here among the stevedores and mariners. She had grown up in Canada and had taught girls for many years in the wilds of Louisiana and Brazil before being called to the Mother House in Paris more than a decade earlier. She liked being around men, seeing them work, listening to their badinage, finding the mother's son within them. "Excuse us, Sister," one said daintily, taking off his cap and holding it squashed in his scarred hands as they wrested an immense crate of hams past her; "Mind your hem, Sister," they said as a stream of runoff peppered with horse manure, rotting fish entrails, and spoiled vegetables flowed from the market square behind her and into the harbor.
She had arrived in Le Havre the evening before and had spent the night as a guest in the convent of another order, but the conversation there was much the same as at home in Paris, in the boarding school that the Sisters of the Sacred Heart had long operated in the once-aristocratic Hôtel Biron. When she'd gathered for dinner with a dispirited band of nuns and lay sisters, the talk turned to the government. The Third Republic was tightening the screws of persecution around them. The Catholic schools had long provided the most progressive, most scientific education for boys and girls available anywhere in the world! Yet now, nuns lacked the necessary training and qualification to instruct young minds? Imagine. Sister, I would like another small piece of bread, if you don't mind. Madame Bernault passed the basket. What was the Trente-Trois — the famous Mother House of the Sacred Heart at 33 Boulevard des Invalides — doing to protect them, to protect all the religious in France at this dark time? What was the counsel from la Mère Générale, from le Pape?
They were disappointed when they discovered that Madame Bernault was not the plenipotentiary they had assumed; they turned somewhat surly, it seemed to her, and ignored her for the rest of the meal. Which was fine, because otherwise she would have had to explain that in fact, this very morning, she had indeed been called — for only the second time in her life — to the Trente-Trois, had met with la Mère Générale herself, and had been dispatched on an unusual mission that filled her soul with the longing and ache of romance, which she had no desire to share with anyone. Even to herself she could hardly describe the emotions she felt upon discovering that she had been requested by name to perform this duty, a request that came from America, from a girl — now a woman of course, but they remained girls to Madame Bernault — whom she had taught and cared for years ago.
Thus she sat among the stores at the edge of the harbor, waiting for the tip of the bow of a paquebot to pierce her view, which was, except for the massive spire of the lighthouse off to the side, a jumble of boats and rigging and sheds and commercial activity of every possible sort. M. Victor Hugo had described this lighthouse as le chandelier de Dieu — so Madame Bernault had been told the evening before — and yes, for her it had appeared as "the candlestick of God" when she first saw it from the deck of a ship these years ago. The lighthouse had seemed a beacon guiding her home. She wondered if the young people she was there to meet were seeing it now from the deck of their steamer. Madame Bernault had made the passage on a ship of no account compared with this liner of the highest style, called ... called — she searched the pockets of her tunic for the much-consulted letter she'd been given of the particulars of her mission — La Touraine. Yes, La Touraine it was called, and ocean travel had progressed to such a degree of exactitude since her own crossing that the arrival, so claimed the letter of instruction, could be expected within a minute or two of ten o'clock, the hour specified in the schedule. After the ship arrived, it would take an hour or so for it to be nudged alongside the pier and made fast, and for the gangplanks to be readied for the debarking of the passengers. Still, she had been sitting on her pile of lumber since a little before seven.
She sensed someone approaching from the side and turned to see that it was a gendarme getting ready to speak to her. "Sister," he said, "we'll have to ask you to draw back while we load prisoners." He cocked his head toward the small rusted and rotten schooner directly in front of her. She had not noticed this sad little ship, but now that she looked at it, she could see that the hatches were open but were latticed with iron bars, that much of the fetid odor she had been smelling emanated from it, and that a small and motley detachment of soldiers was lounging on the main deck.
She moved to one side, where a small crowd of onlookers — men who might have once been or might soon be among the prisoners — had gathered. She heard the clank of leg irons from the alley behind her and then saw the bayonets and the kepis of the soldiers bobbing above the crates of cargo, and when the first ragged prisoner came into view, hollowed eyes glowing from his coal-black face, Madame Bernault's breath left her and she stepped back into the side of one of the men behind her. "Don't fear, Sister. Those chains could hold a gorilla," came the voice from the arms that were propping her up, but that wasn't the problem. The prisoners kept coming, a string of ten or so men attached neck to neck by chains and collars, and though only the first one was African, the sight had drawn her back to Louisiana and the many times she had seen lines of black men and women and children chained in this way. In all her years in America, the horror of American slavery had never left her, even as she taught the daughters of families who had become rich on slave labor. The Civil War had ended all that, she thought, but now, if she understood correctly — if her mission on this very day could be seen as a piece of evidence — the Americans were at it again, driving the Negro back into servitude with a whole new set of laws and restrictions. Would they never desist in this? Madame Bernault had never imagined herself as part of any community other than her family and her church, but still, Americans had seemed a reasonable, even admirable people to her on every account but this one.
The line of prisoners was now tripping its way along the edge of the pier, toward the gangplank to nowhere. Most of them simply stared ahead, but one or two seemed to be darting their glances everywhere, as if saying goodbye to civilization. The last person in the line was, to Madame Bernault's dismay, a woman — a girl — and then, following along after this procession, a young man, his eyes fixed on the girl. She was not beautiful, and really, he was not especially handsome, but these two people were young and wounded, which stirred Madame Bernault's heart.
Once the prisoners were aboard the vessel they were immediately led belowdecks, and the last view Madame Bernault had of them, like the first, was a pair of hopeless eyes in a ravaged face. The young man was now standing directly in front of Madame Bernault, and she wanted to say something to him, but she couldn't think exactly what. She supposed the girl had done something awful, but love was at the foundation of everything the Society of the Sacred Heart believed in: it was the pathway of God's will. This morning it seemed that love was hard to do, hard to have. The young couple she was here to meet — in order to proclaim and live their love, they had to escape to France.
"Oh, you'll forget her soon enough," one of the men in the crowd said to the young man. The others laughed. "Before midnight," said another. The man turned to face them; the birdshot of his gaze fell on Madame Bernault, and it was clear that the last thing on earth he wanted was some consoling phrase from an old nun. The Word, finally, has its own place and occasion. The man said nothing, defended neither himself nor the girl being loaded on the schooner. She had done wrong, or had been wronged, it didn't really matter which. Finally he thumbed his nose at the men, a gesture of silent, selfless, and innocent loyalty, and not an invitation to fight about it, as if whatever could be said about either of them had long ago been accepted or contested. At that, Madame Bernault concluded that he was not the girl's lover, but her brother, the last member of their family who still cared enough to see her off to Devil's Island.
The loyalty of a brother for a sister, or a sister for a brother. Another of the themes of this morning's mission. Madame Bernault had known the sister, a student at the Hôtel Biron in perhaps the winter of 1881 or 1882, an American girl named Mary Bayly, an extraordinarily accomplished but driven child, an austere person. She was the issue of an old Maryland Catholic family, the Masons, who owned a vast farm on the Chesapeake Bay called Mason's Retreat. Mary Bayly had kept in contact with the Society, and they had followed her progress through continued academic achievement in Baltimore, followed by a failed engagement and thence — duty, loyalty — back as the oldest child to pick up the burden of her family's farm, which by then, so her letters had informed them, was suffering a spectacular collapse owing to blight in their peach orchards. And then, months ago, came the first letter from her saying that her younger brother, who under normal circumstances would be taking over the farm on their mother's death, might one day soon need their protection and their help.
Madame Bernault carried no watch of any sort, and from where she stood she could see no clock tower, but she figured it must be close to ten o'clock, if not a minute or two past. It was going to be a hot day, unusually hot and humid, as if the Americans she was meeting had brought a little of their mid-Atlantic climate with them. And then, just when she began to doubt that a steamer could travel across the sea and arrive on the dot of the hour, she was shocked by the sudden but stately appearance of the bow of a ship, as sharp as a scalpel, in exactly the way she had imagined it, almost as in a dream. "Oh," she said, surprised by this huge manifestation of her own thoughts; she trembled a bit in the knees, but this time there was no rough hand to keep her upright, and she backed into her pile of lumber. No harm done, she thought as she reclaimed her cloak and her wits, settling again in her familiar seat, but this light-headedness was becoming a problem, something she had not mentioned in her last visit with the Society's physician. She was no longer the mistress of a dormitory, as she had been when Mary Bayly was at the school, but her room was a snug garret, and she did not want to be moved to the wing off the kitchen on the first floor, as happened to ladies and sisters who could no longer manage the stairs.
About half of the ship had now come into view, and the tugboats were turning it in place in order to come straight into the harbor and alongside the pier. Madame Bernault had no knowledge of boats and no interest in shipping, but this stylish vessel did seem to be rather, well, racy — osé was the word she used. Not so much a steamer as a very large yacht, with two raked funnels and masts and a gay, flowery gathering of passengers along the rails of the upper decks. Thomas Bayly — she didn't need to refer to her letter to recall his name — was in there somewhere. The letter contained no instructions on how she was to identify him; in context, it seemed obvious to everyone how she was to do that. She scanned her eye along the ship, but of the people she could make out only smudges and blots of brilliant blue, purple, red, and an occasional stripe of white.
It was time to move over to the arrival lounge, to the customs desks and luggage terminal. There had been some discussion about the luggage, as it was assumed there would be a good deal of it. This was, after all, not a vacation tour, but a relocation, and if Thomas Bayly and his young bride had not made any arrangements for it to be shipped to Paris, Madame Bernault would have to do that herself. This was the only part of the mission that caused her real anxiety. What did she — a nun who had in her life traveled on three continents never carrying anything more than a small carpetbag — know about shipping luggage?
The tugs had now brought the ship alongside with a deep but grateful thump on the thick wooden pilings, and the men on the ship were pulling the stout hawsers aboard. The whole thing seemed slightly miraculous to Madame Bernault, this great ship that had departed New York only days ago and was arriving now in France as if it had traveled in a cocoon of its own time and space, but she supposed no one else gave it much of a thought, the crews and the stevedores did this all the time, the passengers were probably mostly veterans of this event, used to traveling aboard these floating hotels. All but one, that is. All but the young Mrs. Bayly. She was described in the letter of particulars in a single sentence, but that sentence had led Madame Bernault to understand that this was a girl who had lived a life probably simpler even than her own youth in Quebec — a farm girl like herself, an innocent, a savage, one might say. How was she to manage this new life, so far removed from her home? Madame Bernault herself had traveled very far, but from the instant of her first vows she had stepped into the care of the Society, and of its founder, Madeleine Sophie Barat, and into the care of the Virgin herself. And all that had been hard enough for little Lucy Bernault. This child, not much older than the students at the school, had been ripped away from everything she had ever known and understood. Madame Bernault could not imagine her feelings right now, only that she must be terrified, that the reassurances from Thomas Bayly, her husband, could do almost nothing to quell the rank dread in that taut young stomach, or to still the trembling of her hands, the tingling in her blameless fingertips. Madame Bernault took a moment to say a small prayer of protection for this girl. She remembered her odd, quite American-sounding name, but she had yet to use it in her thoughts. She was just the girl, the child, the bride, the reason for all this, but whether cause or beneficiary, Madame Bernault could not pretend to discern.
With the securing of the ship, the gangplanks went up and the derricks swung over the deck to begin to unload the mounds of luggage — the luggage! This was all happening rather quickly. Madame Bernault had been told that Thomas Bayly and his bride were traveling in the first-class cabins and would therefore be among the very first to disembark. Her heart was pounding. She had found a place behind a customs barrier not ten feet from where the gangplank met the pier. A professed sister like herself was supposed to be humble and take up a place at the end of every line, but Madame Bernault had never minded so much that crowds tended to part for her. This way, Sister, you'll have a much better view. Passengers were coming down the gangplank, gentlemen in stylish suits and top hats, and the ladies! Such carriage, such fabrics, such millinery! Madame Bernault didn't need to know anything about fashion to perceive the perfection of the ensembles, down to the most trivial of features: the men's collars, their watch chains, their boots; the women's veils, their red and green capes, moleskin and feathers, satin and velvet, and those waists.
She was enjoying this pass in review but the line at the top had thinned out, and she began to worry. La Touraine. Ten o'clock. All quite correct. And then there they were, Thomas and Beal — yes, that was her name, Beal Terrell — and she was giving her hand to her husband to help her onto the gangplank, which clearly, from the uncertainness of her first steps, she did not trust. Oh, so young, such babies in this strange land! The girl walked stiffly, a sort of exotic doll in a traveling suit, the brown porcelain of her face sparkling in the sun. Madame Bernault identified her, as they all assumed she would, by her dark skin, but in years to come, Madame Bernault would reject this, or at least argue that even if she had not had this convenient racial identifier, she would have recognized Beal anyway, so precious, so beloved, so innocent and unformed. She would have known that this was the girl that Thomas Bayly, lately of Mason's Retreat in the State of Maryland, had given up everything to love.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Thomas and Beal in the Midi"
Copyright © 2019 Christopher Tilghman.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
Part I: Paris,
Part II: Languedoc,
Also by Christopher Tilghman,
A Note About the Author,