In come the soldiers, out go the sailors

In come the tigers, one, two, three!

In come the officers, out go the soldiers

In come the tigers, one, two, three!

            The little girl with black ringlets shrieks with laughter as they push her into the centre of the circle.  She looks around, quickly, trying to think clearly through the noise of the other officers’ children.  She closes her eyes, remembers Paris and its orderly stone quadrangles – and then Philippe is tying the blindfold over her eyes and spinning her around and all is darkness and the smell of hot flowers and the voices of the children –

              In come the captains, out go the officers,

              In come the tigers, one, two, three!

              – and she has stumbled haphazardly into the arms of Philippe’s brother Alphonse;  he grips her elbows as her shoe catches and she starts to fall, and she is laughing as he takes the blindfold from her and sashays into the middle of the circle.

              The girl’s name is Helene Clouet – Helene Adele Anne-Elise Clouet – and she is nine.  She is a Lieutenant’s daughter, the only child of the fourth son of a fourth son of a family that used to be noble, more familiar with the convent schools of Paris than with the governess and nanny who now accompany her.  She wears dark blue muslin, and her ribbon is seldom starched properly; she has all the affectations of a lady, but no breeding or pretension behind them.  They are simply the latest game, the way all the pretty Mamselles behave, and she copies them diligently, fascinated by their little hands in their white gloves, by the bonnets and careful curls that surround their pink-and-white faces.  Helene herself is pale and often sickly, and her mother often tells her that her eyes are the eyes of a ghost.  She reminds Philippe of a stray kitten he once found in a garden in Brussels – sleek and tiny and wild.

 

              It is night.  Philippe lies in a narrow metal bed on the second floor of the villa, watching the curtains billow out into the summer night and listening to the chirping crickets and running water somewhere nearby.  The villa’s corridors are long and wide, moving in ascending squares past carved cherubs and Mediaeval stonework around a central courtyard.  He has woken from a dream where there were wild dogs and mountains, and he kicks restlessly at the blankets that cover him, stares where his brothers Alphonse and Eugene still sleep, mouths half open, fingers curling and uncurling around the pillows.

              And then there is a soft noise, a small and almost unnoticed shifting of the floorboards outside the room.  In the daytime he would hardly notice it, but in this silent midnight with only the crickets and the soft sounds of his brothers’ breath, it is loud.  The door of the room next to his opens and shuts again, and there is the scraping sound of a match being struck.

              He knows what happens next.  Colonel Lamarie has a low voice, and his mother has a soft one, and there are a few minutes of safety where the voices fall back and forth against each other, and he almost delights in it, delights in the shiver of their arc and fall, the few words he can catch – “terror,” “tribunal,” “Bourbon,” “Brittany,” “priests,” “do you remember …?”

              He is beginning to patch together that his mother and Lamarie belong to some lost secret that excludes his father, that his father has some hidden cruelty some twenty-five years gone, that his father will “turn on Bonaparte as he turned on them all – as he turned on me.”  He says nothing of this knowledge, and there are times in the strong and rational daylight when he forgets that he knows it at all, believes it to be one more phantom of his midnight wakings, one more scrap of dream that turns to mist with the morning.  And then he looks on his father – when he is here – and sees the strong jaw, the thick neck, the squared shoulders, the rigid obedience to duty without passion or question, and he can suddenly believe it and is suddenly afraid.

              The voices become lower and the pauses grow longer.  Philippe covers his head with the pillow, but he still can’t sleep and his mouth is breathing in the stifling linen and the feathers make him cough.  Pulling his head out and taking deep, cool breaths, he hears his mother laughing – a hot, strange laugh, and Lamarie’s rough voice growling over it.  He closes his eyes tight and counts backwards from 100, grinding his back teeth.

 

              A year later, he hears his father is dead and he doesn’t cry.  He doesn’t cry until the man appears suddenly six months later at Lamarie’s apartments in Paris and Alphonse gathers Philippe onto his lap like a baby while they hear the Major’s fists go into his wife’s body again and again, hears her kick and bite in return, slam him against the walls, while she calls him a butcher and a mercenary and a bastard and a son of bastards.

              I want to see my sons, he demands, and she tells him he should have stayed dead.

              My wife, he shouts, playing the common whore with a mincing boy – you know they laugh at you, don’t they?

              She tells him to go to hell and spits in his face.

              You’re still my wife, he growls.  Still my goddamn Royalist wife.

              And you’re still a pig, she retorts.  Still a goddamn terrorist pig.

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