10th September 1821
My darling Philippe.
In Avignon, the house for the officers has a garden with a stone wall. There is a row of cypress trees turning black in the sunset, and below them the land falls away into a deep valley, where the women move back and forth with wicker baskets on their backs, gathering grapes and olives.
It is just after dinner now, early September that feels like All Hallows’ – chill and sharp and filled with dark blue twilight and the hint of rain. It has been a dry summer, but soon it will grow cold and when the snow begins to fall on the mountains between here and Paris I will know that in some office in the capital it has been stamped and signed and decreed that I will see you no more until spring.
I am here in the garden because I had to escape the twittering of the Captain’s daughters – for five days now I have been called upon to admire their frocks and fripperies (I know you will laugh at that, but I like the words … I am sure you understand … though I know your attachment is more to the ideas than to the words themselves … I, however, like the sound of the thing – perhaps it is because I lack your learning and cannot admire the contents so well as the cover).
The Captain is newly arrived here, and his wife – a formidable, large-breasted woman who reminds me of a ship under full sail (and gunned like the Victory!) – has taken it upon herself to “civilise” us. So I am at last to get my drawing lessons! They come at the price of having to suffer the pianoforte on a daily basis, but what do I care if it will allow me to improve upon my present poor scratchings with charcoal and pencil. I enclose a sketch for you – I know it is a poor one, but it comes from my hand to yours, which is enough, I trust, to endear its sad self to your heart.
I do not know when we will get to Paris again – my father’s summer in the capital was chiefly an opportunity for him to make powerful friends, an expedition at which he failed, remaining still a Lieutenant, despite, as he says – “ten years’ constant service to my masters, which is more than most wives are capable of, let alone officers.” He expects honours and accolades to be handed to him for good service, without his having to court them – he is an honest man, I am afraid, and a thoroughly decent one, but it doesn’t help my dowry.
I trust your mother and Monsieur Lamarie are well, and your brothers. I have heard great things of your successes, and was pleased to find, in Paris, that you were invited to give a recitation of your work at a private dinner for the Duc de Orleans. It is strange, Philippe, that the poems you send me – and to my commentary on which you so dutifully attend – are being read to Dukes and Marquises! It is as though I find myself discussing sailing with an Admiral of the Fleet. I am afraid you must find me very uneducated and stupid.
You spoke of a desire to write to your father. I have heard from the officers here that he is at Blois, and retired to a quiet life. There is talk that he continues to be an advisor on military matters and that he is involved in something having to do with archiving the fortunes of the monasteries from 1793. That is all I have been able to discover. Philippe, I pray you, do not cause trouble where there is none. Your mother may yet be prevailed upon to give her consent to our marriage – and your father may not be so readily agreed as you believe.
Philippe, I do love you. As honestly and as truly as I can, with every moment of my waking and with all of my dreams. As I fall asleep, I trace your high forehead and your sharp nose, the face of the beloved and serious young man who adores me. I wrap my hands in your hair and I feel your kiss from far off.
I miss your understanding. You know my quietness and my impatience with the silly idle chatter of Paris society and the military peacocks trailing helplessly around after any cad with braid on his chest. The Captain’s daughters are never silent, not even in their sleep, when they snort and toss and whistle through their noses. They have high voices and tittering laughs, which they turn on loudly whenever the Lieutenant’s sons are nearby. They complain constantly about what a joy it will be to rejoin real society in Paris (though their shoes will be hopelessly old-fashioned by then! – oh dear!) and they spend all their evenings playing with their fans and gloves and the bows on their dresses and wondering in fretful tones about what they will do if Henri or Camille or Claude or Victor does not write! As though no more important things ever happened – as though my whole life’s happiness wasn’t hanging in the balance while they fussed and flirted – as though the soul of the world could not be found in one of your poems – as though God’s entire creation was one enormous millinery shop designed solely for their use!! They make me ill. And there is nowhere to go to escape them, no Philippe with his grave expression and the chestnut hair falling in his eyes who seems somehow able to transport me to quiet and peace and beauty. I am going mad.
And I am afraid I am a grave disappointment to them – it was their raison d’etre to transform me into one of them by the end of the year, and they are no further along in their progress than they were a month ago when they began. I am dreading the winter alone with them, as they grow increasingly more insistent that I join them in curling each other’s hair (mine is, as you know, wild enough on its own) and cinching each other’s waists and endlessly comparing how little they have eaten, leaving smacking kisses on each other’s cheeks before turning around and telling horrid lies about each other to whichever boy they are currently fighting over.
As for our marriage, I admit I am torn. There is one part of my mind insisting that patience overcomes all adversity, and that all we must do is wait and something will eventually change. I do not need to know or understand how that will happen, as the situation now seems so hopeless, but if I hold fast to faith in God’s goodness, He will see us through. And then there is another part of my mind that rages against my helplessness, that rebels against your mother’s place and position – it is my life, it is our life, and it is not that woman’s place to create or destroy it!
I feel her insult very keenly. She thinks I would hold you back from glory, as though I am some cloying woman who desires to turn her husband into her maidservant. I would not – chain you, Philippe. I would not fight the world for possession of you. I want only to be the home you come to, be the keeper of your secret self.
When I saw you this summer, she seemed more friendly. She spoke to me of marriage and of the duty of a wife (and spoke of “when my husband abandoned me …” as though she had not done her part in the abandoning! – but let that pass). She welcomed me and my mother when we called, and seemed pleased to know that we had all three made acquaintance with the nieces of the English Ambassador. Some small part of my mind believes she will relent – after all, she must know how her own position has been compromised by her – unorthodox – arrangement with Monsieur Lamarie, and for all its humble origins, the family of Lieutenant Clouet of the Royal Cavalry Guards is unassailably respectable. We have to be.
As you know, my mother has written to her again, lending her support to your renewed suit towards me. We are waiting. I spend my life waiting. And it is the not knowing that is intolerable – the way I sway on the border of despair and ecstasy. If I could only give myself over completely to one of them. If I could only know. I am not certain I could bear a refusal, and I enjoy the uncertainty because it keeps alive hope. But knowing …! At least then you know whether to laugh or cry.
We must cling to our prayers, however far and wavering they are among the stars, and however cold.
I am afraid I have given away all my soul to you.
My beautiful girl,
In Paris, the leaves of the aspen trees are turning gold and shivering in autumn winds that blow through the narrow streets and send dogs and pigs and children running for shelter. This year, there is rain, and the sky is low and the colour of pewter – dull, heavy, bleak, with no shine to it. The raindrops make circles on the Seine, rows of circles, and the wind blows across them until the water is all a chorus of tiny waves and the fish come with open mouths to investigate.
My mother sneezes and cries through the apartment, which is a huge affair right in the middle of Saint-Honore, fashionable and overdone and all paid for with credit we do not have. She has had the seamstresses in today, and stood like a martyr on a dais in the parlour, constantly sniffing and sneezing while they fussed and flattered her – “oh, Madame” (they all call her Madame, though sometimes it is Madame Etienne and sometimes it is Madame Lamarie, sometimes even to the same person, within the same afternoon, and none of them have the decency to be shocked. They are simply amused.) – “Madame will look very well with more lace on the neck” or “Madame simply must have this new red print from Turkey, it is tres tres belle, Madame, and tres la mode!” And the silly duckling obeys – her blonde curls all a-tremble and her wide blue eyes gazing with unconcealed lust at the pretty things they have spread before her, as all the while they add interest and import duties and three percent for service after four o’clock in the afternoon and heaven knows what else.
Later, I went in to her rooms, where she sat writing letters to women who laugh at her behind her back, and brought up again the question of our marriage.
“I have received Madame Clouet’s letter,” she said. “And I do not intend to change my mind.” Helene – she didn’t raise her eyes from the paper, only lifted one delicate eyebrow slightly and dipped her pen back in the ink.
I defended your family vigorously, but she is insistent that I marry “well,” that is to say “wealthy,” regardless of reputation or affection. She is desperately securing a host of invitations for the winter, where I may meet a variety of “suitable” young women. My talent is her plaything, whereby she may secure a means of settling her creditors. It hardly needs to be mentioned, of course, that my father lives handsomely in a country estate outside Blois, dining on mutton or beef every night and with a staff of seven servants to keep the place in order. My mother owes the cook six weeks’ wages and our sole servant is threatening to give notice if she does not receive a rise in her wages and a girl to help with the kitchen and the fireplaces.
Alphonse and Eugene are fortunate – they have dutifully gone to the bar, and are spending their days in libraries and clerk’s offices, protesting that “Philippe is the only one of us who can support a wife, Maman – settle him first and then we shall be ready.” And all the while drinking and whoring (and in Eugene’s case, developing poetic pretensions that make me laugh); is the whole world mad with the wrong sort of desires, Helene, or is it the two of us who are insane?
This world – this city – this country – all turning ever more to vice and corruption; the Bourbons, the Bonapartes, all of them power-mad and drowning in greed and lust. And the streets of Paris full of charlatans and whores, grasping after every penny, every mad indulgence, all choking on smoke and ashes. It is as though all the beauty has gone from the world. All pure desires, like clear streams that feed the thirst of noble men, are clogged with the muck of revolution and terror, excess and vice, and the smoke that hangs over the city like a shroud. I never thought to speak to such a virtuous woman as yourself of such things, but my mind is bursting with them and you are my only confidante, my wife in heart and soul if not in name. You have your wish – to be the keeper of my hidden self. If only we could make that wish a real and living thing, veiled and bound with gold.
Helene, I am yours, entirely. Everything I have and everything I am I throw willingly at your feet. Together, you and I will rebuild Eden in the midst of this fallen world. Until then, we are strangers and exiles on this earth, and we must hold steadfast to our remembrance of home – our remembrance of each other.
November 16, 1821
My only darling girl,
I have written to my father. Late one night, as Lamarie shouted over my mother’s sobs and the servants scuttled like bugs through the darkened corridors (we are each allowed one candle after dark, for money is scarce – and six of the eight fireplaces are permanently cold except for when guests are here. Eugene has caught influenza, and Alphonse sneezes constantly and holds a handkerchief delicately to his nose, affecting consumption. But Maman only tightens her stern jaw, and continues).
And I have received a reply. I have told him nothing of our situation, but if the time should come when I decide to defect to him, I have begun preparing the ground. I know you will disapprove. I can feel your cold regard even from afar. But you must have faith in me. It is what I would ask from a wife, so it is what I ask from you, who are all but wife.
“You love me, do you not?” she asks, and I hold her bright head where it rests against my shoulder.
“Of course, Maman,” I say.
“So why should you seek to hurt me?”
Her fingers cling to my waistcoat, and it seems as though she is my child, asking me to whisper her demons to darkness.
And the horror of it is I do love her – under all my misery, all my passionate hatred of her, my jealousy, I still flinch before her disregard, I still cower before her sobbing.
“Love –“ she gasps. “Yet you cannot eat it. Your father loved me – and see how he treated us.” It is as though she knows; she will not say a word against me, but she will hint and sulk and extravagantly pardon. She dug her chin into my shoulder, smelling of perfume. “You will not be as we were, dragging your wife and children behind you, hating them for holding you back. Mon Dieu, mon fils, you are too great a man – already, you are too great a man.”
And then once more we had the story from the beginning – how I was born in a carriage somewhere in the Pyrenees, weak and sickly and not expected to live. How she held me defiantly to her breast and made me suck, striking at the maid who suggested a wet nurse. How she buried her nose against the top of my head and breathed in my scent as we rattled towards Spain.
“And you returned my love a hundred times,” she whispered, “Philippe, you hated him for me – fifteen years old, you knocked down every boy who called me harlot, who tried to excuse your father’s abandonment – yes, I will call it that, I do not fear to call it that. I can never repay you for that devoted hatred, my boy, that childish loyalty. You gave me your beautiful innocent love … you were my salvation. You were always my good boy. And now you would turn away from what we have suffered together – oh, Philippe!”
And I wanted to tear out her enormous, pleading eyes, those wide glassy, glazed, melting eyes that men have sighed and sinned for. I wanted to make her hurt. Oh God, Helene, I am afraid, and you are not here to save me.
I am ashamed of her. And I hate those who laugh at her, who make me ashamed.
You have this man’s soul in your hands. I beg you, take care for it.
24 November 1821
Forgive me if I appear cold, but I think it is better this way. I think it is safer.
Your mother has refused our marriage no fewer than three times. If you break with her and seek your father, you risk everything you have accomplished. I would not take that from you. In fact, it has been the whole heart of my case to your mother that I would not take that from you.
Why do you persist in tempting me with your adoration when you know it is impossible? It only makes this poor girl weep with that most dreadful of losses – the loss of that which was never mine. Philippe, if I could be one week your wife, I would give over the rest of my life to God and needlework. I would even enter a convent and live in a cell, even if it were … even if it were beside the Captain’s daughters, if I could first have that one week of Paradise to remember into the ages. But all I have now is the silver edge of a dream. I beg you to let me forget you. It is the kindest thing you could do.
1 December 1821
And so I write in secret to my own heart. I love behind closed doors, I breathe deceit in daylight and speak truth only to the stars.
She has ruined us. I could bear it alone, I could bear anything for myself, but I cannot forgive her the grief she has caused you. I could gladly kill a man before I could willingly give you pain. This is the moment from whence each second of my life will spring – this grief is the nothingness before time, and the thousands of lives I may yet have swim before me. This is the point at the fire’s origin, the first word of creation.
Helene, I cannot – I cannot – spend my life without what might have been. You may as well ask me never again to breathe.
10 December 1821
Oh, you are cruel. Why ever did I think otherwise?
We must be good and obedient, though our hearts break. It is our duty, and our downfall.
All my heart,
p.s. It is not given to us to know what might have been.
18 December 1821
And yet you could spare me no more than a few lines? Do you not know that I live and die for seeing your writing in the silver tray on the table by the door? I thought you knew me! – my obedience, you say. My obedience. My obedience may be bought by my respect. I obey God, for he is God, and the King, for he is the King, but I take no lower authority on its own merits; mother and father, tutor and patron, all must prove their worth to their subordinates, or their authority is no true place.
I apologise for the dreadful state of this paper; I am writing quickly and with a hard grip on my pen, because I must force out the ache under my heart, the fury that pricks at my skin. This is not my Helene speaking, not my Helene who is as the ocean after a storm – calm and still and hiding a million battles beneath. This is not the Helene who traced her fingers under the cuffs at my wrist and held that thin skin to her mouth until her breath warmed my blood and I died at her hands. This is not my Helene.
Your father’s term in Avignon ends in three weeks, and then you will be returning to the army flat in Paris – if the roads are passable. There is nothing then keeping you from me except the word of a bitter woman. And she cannot see all of Paris at once. For my sake, Helene, abandon obedience for truth. Let love triumph over authority. I beg you. If it is my mother’s word keeping us from marriage, I will weep, but if it is her word cowing you, terrified, into a corner and refusing to see me, I cannot – and will not attempt to – forgive her. If she has made you unhappy, I may rail at her, but if she has made you abandon me, I will hate her. I will be in the Luxembourg Gardens every day from two to three o’clock, at the fountain. The day you decide to come with me through whatever awaits us together – no matter how many months or years removed it is – find me there. I may be greying and stout, but I will still love you.
We will overcome this, for God who has blessed us with each other will not be so cruel as to keep us apart long.
Forever and only yours,
Paris in January is timbered buildings huddling like old women with snowy shawls. It is dogs curled in piles of hay. It is broad avenues where men sell nuts and ginger root and balls of silk thread from trays slung around their necks and Mademoiselles pull their shawls a little lower off their shoulders and laugh across their carriages at the young Messieurs in their top hats and tall boots. It is strong bottles of wine and strong pots of chocolate, left-wing newspapers smuggled into back rooms of taverns, and the endless repeating cathedral bells. It is Napoleon’s stonework and the wooden slums of Saint-Antoine. It is the river, carrying sewage and sickness to the poor in the east side of the city, and the gargoyles of Notre-Dame peering down from a still and frozen sky.
“This city is teeming with officers,” Madame Clouet says to Helene as their carriage sways up a road half-covered in melting ice. The wheel sticks, and the driver has to hiss and whip the horses, straining and foaming with sweat. “We’ll soon sort you out. You’ll be better off anyway. A good, solid man who won’t forget the practical things.”
“I don’t want an officer,” Helene whispers.
“I know,” her mother replies.
Helene reaches a gloved hand for her mother’s lap, and the older woman sets her lips very tightly together so her daughter will not see her cry.
“How dare she tell us we’re not good enough,” she manages at last, reaching up to settle her feathered hat more firmly on her head. “How dare that woman condescend to us.”
Across the carriage, Lieutenant Clouet snorts a little in his sleep, and his bicorner hat falls a little lower across his forehead.
At two-thirty on the twentieth day of January, Helene goes to the Luxembourg Gardens. She leaves her maid at the edge of the walkway and promises not to stray from her sight, swears her to secrecy. Philippe sits perched on the edge of the fountains in the broad mall before the palace, reading. Children chase twirling pigeons as their mothers preen and gossip under cloaks and feathered hats, young men stroll up and down the broad walkways until duty forces them back to offices or lecture halls or studios, and skeletal trees scrape their branches against each other, casting a lulling rasping sound over the still winter afternoon. He sits on the empty fountains’ edge, copper head bent over a book, one foot twitching, waiting for her.
Helene’s mouth is warm in the January afternoon. The maid looks bashfully down at the gravel and the remnants of snow. Picks at a speck on her fingernail.
It is February in the Jardin de Luxembourg, and Helene is wearing a grey coat and a veiled hat and soft red leather gloves. One hand is tucked in Philippe’s elbow, and the other is buried in a white muff. Her bonnet is red, and tied under her chin by a thick ribbon, but the tip of her nose is cold. A light dusting of snow and ice covers the skeletal trees, and in her imagination, she and Philippe are walking under an avenue of bridal veils. Snow caps the iron scrolls of the benches and fills the spaces between the cobblestones. A steel-grey sky fades to a dark, damp fog, surrounding them with clouds.
At any moment, Helene thinks, we will walk into the fog, and the world will disappear. It will all be silence, we will walk in clouds and all around us will be a dream.
“Camille! Marius! Arret-la toute de suite!” a woman ahead of them shouts to two small boys who are tossing each other gleefully into the snow. She reaches down with one hand and pulls one of them up, her other hand resting on a pram, her hair escaping in damp tendrils from her white cap. Under another tree, a pair of men in crushed hats and layers of shabby coats lies huddled in canvas sacks, opening and closing their toothless mouths in a scattered imitation of chewing. Hardened spittle lodges in the cracks around their lips, and the wrinkles under their eyes are dark and dirty. Helene is afraid of them without knowing why; she grips Philippe’s elbow tighter and feels a wild sadness somewhere in her stomach.
“Will you be attending the masque at Monsieur LaMarque’s next week?” she asks, suddenly, for lack of anything else to say.
“I believe not.”
“Oh, then – how about the ball next Tuesday? The Englishman’s?”
“You know, the diplomat. In the Faubourg Saint-Honore. I can’t remember his name.”
“I do not believe I have been invited,” he says.
There is silence again, and Helene plays nervously with the tips of her gloves.
“Is this going to continue forever?” she asks finally. “This … secrecy. I dare not tell Maman where I have gone – I tell myself I am not actually calling on a gentleman, and so the Maman in my head is partly appeased, and I believe she is even more of an advocate for our case then she has appeared, for I catch her sometimes hardening her looks when I mention your mother, or seeming to hold back a sharp retort – but she would disapprove of your deceiving your mother, I know. And so I deceive her. And I force my maid to deceive her. And I have yet to tell my deception to my confessor – Philippe –“
“Listen,” he whispers, turning to face her and holding her cold cheeks in his gloved hands. She can feel the warmth of his palms through the leather, and the rough texture of the gloves sharpens the sting of the cold in her cheeks. She gasps with it.
“When an unjust rule exists,” he says, “it is no sin to break it. God’s laws are paramount, and God’s laws are that a man leaves his mother and father and cleaves to his wife.”
It is torturously thrilling to kiss her through the veil.
And now he is sprawled on his bed again, reading a poem he has finished, breathing the smell of fresh ink and sand. He wants to bury himself in his own imagination, die in its scents and its heady touch. He wants to bring it alive and watch it dance to the tune he calls, send it whirling and giddy through the streets, raising this dead and decadent city to pure and pulsing life.
The ode is to the sea-girl, the mermaid, and ink and water and blood are all mixed in his mind, and he wants to pour himself out and drown in it and drink it.
Of sea and fire, dancing on the air …
He had poured sand over the blots; it crept up under his fingernails.
And as she turns, she whispers, ‘we have sinned.’
Child of heaven, singing on the wind.
The paper smells too dry; it ought to bleed.
That night, the corridor smells of whisky and sweat, and Eugene and Philippe are gathered in the latter’s room, flicking through the latest issue of the Paris Gazette.
“But surely it is not a crime to enjoy the society of like-minded men, as well as one’s own mind?” Eugene asks, one chubby hand pressed to his heart.
“Yes, but not as an end in itself,” his brother replies. “The work must come foremost.”
“Of course, but from what may one gain inspiration if not from discourse – from conversation – debate?”
“Well, from history,” Philippe says quietly, “from the works of those who have come before us. From one’s own imagination and experiences.”
“We are two sides of the same coin,” Eugene smiles. “For both of us are saying we gain inspiration from others as well as from ourselves. We are just saying it in different ways.”
Eugene lowers his soft brown eyes to the page again and the smile settles into a smirk. Philippe knows his brother to be popular at the ladies’ seminaries, a fact which lowers his opinion on the females of the species considerably. Looked at from a certain angle, the man is handsome – a full, narrow mouth with dimples on either side, dark hair that falls in fashionable waves over his forehead, a well-made hat worn at a dandyish angle, and a figure just on the right side of stout. But the overall effect is one of almost feminine sensuality, with a certain self-satisfied and patronizing air. And the man’s poems are abominable.
Alphonse, however, Philippe could understand. He is the tallest of the three, and the eldest, three years Philippe’s senior. He shares Philippe’s colouring – their father’s green eyes and their grandmother’s chestnut hair, with the occasional freckle on pale, luminous skin – and he is serious, dutiful, and quiet. His passion for the law is genuine, unlike Eugene’s, who (Philippe suspects) studies the subject for the same reason he writes poetry – because it is fashionable, because it is impressive. Philippe stares at Eugene as he turns the next page with a daintily licked finger.
Outside, a February sunset fades in grey and blue, casting a yellow shadow across Paris from under thick clouds that threaten snow. In the kitchen, the cook dampens the fire, pulls her shawl around thick muscled shoulders, props her feet up on the maid’s little three-legged stool. It will be a long one, this winter of eighteen hundred twenty one, full of low heavy storm clouds and dark mornings. Paris will drag herself from her bed, shiver as the damp chill soaks into her bones. Her teeth will chatter against the sharp smell of oncoming snow, the sheen of ice and frost over the dead bodies of dogs and geese in her narrow streets. She will walk dazed and sleepy through days where the sun is never visible, and where the freezing rain lashes her cheeks. In February, she will begin to sense a shifting in the wind, a hidden suggestion of something new, a spice on her tongue, a disappearing colour in a crowd. She will hear the echo of a concertina and a violin, a wild sweetness in the endless black nights. She will begin to remember the West Indies, the Louisiana bayous, the flame-coloured mornings and the endless night fires. She will remember further back, the paint crushed from Silk Road spices and painted onto the wooden face of Mary Virgin, remember the girls in white who carried her on their shoulders into the beautiful new cathedral that bore her name. She will remember Carnival – masqued and kissed, filled with the smell of the last winter meat roasting on street-corner fires. She will remember straw men, stripped and burned, hanged, paraded through the winter nights. She will remember.
The Lamarie-Etienne house is quiet, and the lamps are low – there are shadows in every corner and the ceilings are dark. Philippe has tried to read, but the words kept swimming in front of him, and so now he settles for pacing in front of the window, toying with the edge of his waistcoat, staring out onto the shifting shuffling passersby outside.
“We must be observers of human nature,” he has told Eugene, to justify these strange and internal moods that overtake him sometimes. They frighten him – he so much needs to be in the center of things, of crowds, of babbling conversations, of fights, of gossip, that these moments to himself seem almost to leave him empty and invisible.
But he needs to be alone, needs to pace and watch, to try to forget the gray shadows in his mother’s face this afternoon as the doctor came scuttling downstairs with a bowl full of her blood. It was almost as though her skin was transparent, white and thin and pale, and underneath it was a decrepit, peeling shade. She had clung to his arm with fingers that felt brittle and sharp, moaning his name over and over like a child’s lullaby. He will hear it in his dreams tonight, imagine that she is drowning and he is walking by, around and around the edge of a lake, and will not rescue her.
And he needs to forget the wild, aching hope that slithered through his veins as the doctor drooped his bearded chin to his chest and pronounced the grim, politely veiled sentence. “We are all of us,” he’d said, smiling tightly, “in the hands of the Lord.”
My mother is dying, and I rejoice.
I have confessed. To you and to God, the only two for whom I care.
Outside, the Carnival has begun, still heady at being burst from prison. It will settle in the next two weeks, become part of the stone, no more noticed than the frost on the windows.
I do not know if it is cruel. I have not caused this consumption, this frothy blood dribbling from her mouth, this wracking cough, these frightened, darting eyes. I have not revealed to her my feelings – indeed, I have been the devoted son while she spits blood and curses me. It is as something from a nightmare. I have told you that they call me a Romantic – and it is a badge I wear with pride. It means to trust the goodness of the human soul, means that no scientific authority may dictate what is good, no logic discover what is beautiful. Our own experiences, our own good feelings – these are the wellsprings of knowledge and poetry. And further – our own conscience. The sovereignty of the individual. The emotion, the experience, the individual conscience – this, Helene, is the beginning of all knowledge. This, my darling, is sublime.
But when I gaze upon that sunken face, there is a revulsion at my own emotions, a desire to explain what I feel in cold and mathematical terms.
And worse, it is possible – I write it as an equation, thus: (P + H ) – M = J, where P is Philippe, H is Helene, M is Maman, and J is the elusive solution of Joy.
I look at it now, and my Romantic spirit rebels. “You would set me down in symbols,” it tells me, “when I have shown you that the world is a swirling pit of awe and horror and love and beauty, things which cannot be made into scientific experiments or mathematical equations, things which are full of wildness and danger and destruction and chaos.”
I am talking nonsense. I know. It has been a long night and I am awake early, unable to rest.
Perhaps I must learn to embrace that horror. That revulsion. Perhaps I have babbled too long on beauty.
There is a man on stilts who comes by the house every night, to the Carnival. He wears a mask, and he looks through the windows of the first floor, grinning in unmoving painted glee.
I must see you, talk with you, hold you.
The night is fragmented. It begins in darkness, half-candlelit and full of crimson shadows where Philippe’s Turkish throw is tossed across his bed. Philippe and his brothers are sprawled bonelessly over beds and chairs; Eugene is half-asleep with his head propped on a bent arm as he dozes over the Paris Gazette.
It is Alphonse and Eugene squabbling over which page to read, Alphonse baiting his brothers until they sit on him and stuff pillows in his mouth.
It is, “I shall rot away to extinction if I stay in this house one more night” from Eugene and, “Well, what are your intentions then?” from Philippe, and, “Have we enough money to properly enjoy the carnival?” from Alphonse as he smiles with one side of his wide mouth and slouches his long frame against the edge of the window.
Philippe turns to his desk. For a long time, he looks silently at the wall in front of him – there is a small crucifix against the white wall; behind that, palms. The fragrant wood is cut deep with the words Maiestas Domini. I remember when you carved this, in a carriage somewhere halfway across the Pyrenees. I remember your hands, shucked of gloves, pink-knuckled, with white crescents along the edge of your nails. I remember how you pushed your tongue between your teeth as we rattled along and you carefully pressed the knife against your thumb and into the flesh of the wood. I remember the smell of the fresh shavings. I remember the smell of your blood, this morning, half-dried on your sheets when I came in to see you after breakfast. I remember the way you whispered my name, like it was a caress, but there was this harsh grating at the back of your voice that terrified me, in a strange, unnameable way.
He remembers standing in the corridor by the servants’ stairs and watching the maid carry the linens down, remembers going to the washer room and seeing her scrubbing salt into the bloodstains. Her face grimly set as though it were just another chore.
And then there is the night outside the window; flamboyant, heady, sultry in the sweaty press of wine-slicked people, cold and feverish outside their small illuminated circles, in the darkness where there are foxes. There are women stumbling homewards with rouge smeared down their cheeks and onto their necks, men with wrinkled cravats pulled half-open, sweaty unbuttoned collars and wine bottles swinging from exquisitely gloved hands, mouths raised to drink under feathered masks, tongues darting to catch drops sliding down their chins. There are children in the shadows, looking strangely alien with their half-darkened dreamlike dancing. There are others in nuzzling piles, asleep or nearly, with petulant adolescents watching them, or bleary-eyed mothers who have danced until their feet ache and are basking in the excuse to sit down until the wine stops spinning in their heads.
After dinner, the Etienne boys slip out to join them, masked and cloaked against the night, against the crime of shucking off death. Eugene throws one arm over Philippe’s shoulder, and Alphonse grips the back of Eugene’s neck – they are a three-headed shifting shape on the outskirts of the party, a chimaeric outline against the flickering flames.
Small roving bands – fiddle, concertina, drums with leather stretched tight – twist in and out of the darkness, and always the little girl or bare-chested boy hunched in front of them, cap out – “spare a sous for the musicians, Monsieur – Madame, a sous for the players?” an endless patter of practiced wheedling.
Philippe breathes deeply, cold winter air, full of smoke and sweat and paint, away from the claustrophobic silence, the tomblike empty rooms. He finds himself moved by the crowd, pressed along towards the magnificent Champs-Elysees – the broad avenue begins in the Tuileries gardens, and continues to Napoleon’s uncompleted arch, which stands like a ruined shadow over the festival. The street is lined its entire span with flowering trees, now lit with a thousand small fires that dance off the undersides of dry winter leaves and illuminate the skeletons of branches. Above them, the backs of the houses in St-Honore flash with light from within, and Philippe catches the occasional shape scampering up a back staircase, the occasional voice calling out over the hum and croon and shout of the street.
In the shadows, gypsy girls from the country have their own bands, their own fires, their own children holding out caps. Philippe stands to watch one dark-haired girl with bangles halfway up her arms, her tattered blouse hanging off one shoulder, her strange dark skin melting into the shadows.
A voice whispers, suddenly close, “two francs and I’ll make you smile,” but there is nobody there when he turns. There is a rising and falling voice near him, singing in a strange northern argot he cannot understand, a droning fiddle, sad and lonely in the darkness near the crowds.
And then Eugene is pulling him into the crowds, and there is nothing but white numbness in his mind, nothing but transfixing light, nothing but the obliteration of sense and time and he is drinking hungrily from a bottle someone has pressed into his hand, wiping his mouth on his open sleeve, passing the bottle to Alphonse and turning back to the empty liberating crowd.
He doesn’t remember exactly how it happens – why Alphonse went back near midnight, doesn’t have any memories of his oldest brother tossing his cloak over his shoulder and moving through dark and empty streets back to the choked-up house. Doesn’t remember watching or waiting for his return. Doesn’t remember seeing him coming back, half-running, looking over the heads of the crowd, pushing in to find his brothers, pulling them into the gardens, one arm around each neck, shouting, “it’s Maman – it’s Maman – she’s dead –“
He remembers his head aching, remembers laughing grotesquely and stumbling away into the Tuileries. Remembers crossing the darkened gardens towards the river, remembers the haze of wine lifting as an hour goes by in the chilling night and he walks, sweating himself into sobriety, to the Rue de Cherche-Midi. He remembers pretending he hadn’t heard his brothers shouting his name, running after him, Eugene half-crying and half-screaming.
The rain increases, making pockmarks in the remnants of last week’s snow. The trees drip with it, and the occasional flash of firelight or fireworks flings gaudy shadows across the streets. Philippe can’t breathe; his eyes are streaming with rain and the world is blurring into water and darkness – he loses his footing and tumbles forward, scraping his hands on the stone pillar outside an empty house as he falls.
He is almost at Helene’s house when something pushes through his spinning head, forces him to turn around and face the crowds again, to rake his eyes over the rockets, the gypsies with their scarves, the skirts and cloaks, the dandies and whores, the bottles and coins, the hats and fiddles, the whirling, whining, sobbing cacophony of not-quite-Lent. The Englishman’s ball … she is dancing now …
He turns back and cuts around to the next bridge east, through St-Antoine and back across the river, another half hour in the freezing rain, his mouth dry and starchy – he opens his mouth to the sky, head flung back, tasting the stale yeasty memory of wine.
His mouth still open, he stares down at the road, panting, watching the rain drip off his hair. A passing gypsy girl sees him from where she crosses silently between houses – sees him tall, pale, dripping, slender, his nose straight, his fingers thin and bony, his cloak high on his neck.
He pushes the hair back from his face. Wiping raindrops off his forehead and nose with the back of his sleeve, he darts through backstreets and abandoned avenues, with houses that yawn great empty windows down onto him, with high porches where cats slink unseen, bringing food to their mewing hidden litters.
And then he is there.
The house stands sentry atop a small hill, set back from the road, the Union flag hanging sodden on its flat roof. It is strangely light in this dark and deserted wasteland, a pinnacle, a sanctuary. But a foreign one, barred, gated and still remote.
He pulls himself up the cast-iron scrolled fence, tosses one leg over and then the other, drops silently down into the wet garden. He can hear the echoes of laughter, the pale reflection of a waltz floating through lemon-yellow windows onto the shadowed colourless lawn. The thought of another man encircled in waltzing with Helene makes his stomach clutch, his face flush – he can scarcely stand her gloved hand to be held in a cotillion or quadrille, especially this night when the triumph of possession is so near, when the scarlets and peacocks, the press of flesh, the sweet hotness of wine, have already drawn up his sweat. There is still, in his passionately conservative mind, something improper about a waltz, an open embrace by strangers or lovers alike, it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t want his Helene so defiled, so publicly paraded, so closely touched. He watches, transfixed, through the window – the raised arms, the women balancing on their toes, the stiff backs of the men holding them. Sees with relief that his black-haired girl is not among them, that she sits instead perched like a nightingale on a Louis XVI chair just in front of the window, her white organza dress falling in neat folds around her ankles, fan in her lap, reticule around her wrist, jeweled slipper toes just visible under the almost liquid fabric. Feels a rush of pride at her purity, her insistence to keep herself free of scandal or impropriety. Lets his gaze linger on her elbow, where her glove slips down. On the rise of her breast above the high waist and eyelet ruffle. On the wisps of hair curling over her neck, the ropes of pearls on her throat.
My love sees me. She knows my presence in silence, we are bound together, and she knows to raise her eyes to the window to find this ardent trespasser watching her, helpless, enchanted, obsessive. She raises one hand to her hair, stands, departs, and then she is here, real now with no light or window dividing us, she frowns, a small line between her brows – and I know she is mine, I know this and she does not, she will, I will tell her, and then … he stomps furiously on his rushing imagination, holding back the tide of longing that erupts given its freedom, given the heady fantasy of the night –
“You’re pale,” she says. “Are you all right? You’re sweating – you’ll catch cold.”
This fantastical angel, this ethereal white creature descended to earth, going on about catching cold – he laughs, half-choking.
“No – I am all to rights. My mother – Helene – here begins what might have been.”
“I don’t understand.”
“My mother – is dead.” He laughs again.
Helene’s face is the opposite of the sky – pale white, with two round moons, black and deep. “Oh, my darling –“ she breathes, half-turning. “I was dancing.”
He allows himself to touch her cheek with his palm, allows his index finger to trace a half-circle up her jaw to her ear. The skin is fragile and soft, still warm against the night. He can feel it prickle at his touch, responsive and alive. He wants to kiss the pearls on her throat.
“Go back in and dance, my love,” he tells her. “For this night is a merry requiem.”
There is a storm just before dawn, and it pulls him from his dreams, tearing lightning and thunder through his small room in the corner. In his firelit fantasy, he is stumbling back across the city, back to the river that swirls in grey-green drifts beneath his feet, to the island whereon stands the crumbling cathedral mass with its gargoyles peering down with open mouths. In his dreams, split with thunder, he sees the rolling heavens streaming by, the wind whipping up the weeds where Bishop and Citizen alike have held their ground. In his mind, he sees the windswept girl picking her way to the river, sees her hair like ropes around her neck, her eyes wide as the sky. Sees her grinning as she stumbles forward, helpless, blood pouring endlessly from her mouth. She reaches out her arms like a drunk scrabbling for balance, and he is choking as they fall together down, down, endlessly down, into a river that rises and consumes the city.