“How on earth do you countenance that opinion?” the man replies, lifting a glass of port to his nose and swirling the dark liquor as he inhales.
“It is simple – the Revolution spoke to the triumph of reason over emotion. It was a practical exercise. They threw down the Church because religion was irrational – though any man with a heart can tell of the sublime spiritual joy that does not rely on reason. Our work argues the opposite, that experience and not reason is paramount, that man is more than a logical machine –“
“Would you trample reason then? Do you deny then that God gave man critical faculties and intelligence? Are we merely sensing, sensual animals, slaves to our desires and our moods?”
“No, of course not – but I am saying –“ Philippe pauses for a moment to drink. The sherry is sweet and rich, and the room is close and crowded. He can’t remember whether he has been told the name of the man he is arguing with – his eyes dart over the man’s shoulders and pick out Eugene in the corner, talking with a friend of Philippe’s called Nicolas LeBlanc, a critic and a keen theatregoer. The red curtains are half-closed, and the room feels heavy and old. He shakes his head. “I don’t know what exactly I am saying. Except that I believe the court of the King to be beautiful, the orb and the sceptre, the memories of Medieval kings, the kings in fairy stories, Ulysses and Alexander.”
“You must remember, Monsieur, ours is not a Medieval king, nor a fairy story. His reality must be reckoned with.”
“Of course,” – a new thought occurs to him and he straightens up, arguing with renewed conviction. “But the Revolution would have torn down every last line and comma of our heritage. They would have us begin again from the first day of creation. Romanticism calls to our pastoral heritage and builds on it – we are the descendants of the Greek poets, the Medieval epics – surely that is incompatible with the Revolutionary calendar, the fire that would have swept away everything of the old regime and burned it to dust. Think of Robespierre, for heaven’s sake. Surely you’re not saying that you sympathise with these men.”
“No,” the man says, one eyebrow slightly raised, “no, we are all of us becoming more ardent royalists by the day, praise be to God. But look at it this way. In a world of royalty, each man holds his sphere. The King matters more than the duke, who matters more than the priest, who matters more than the merchant, who matters more than the fishmonger. Our good host, Alfred, Comte de Vigny, matters more than you or I. To what is this due? Surely our philosophy is that the experience of every man is sublime, the emotions and feelings of every one of God’s creatures must be counted. We do not hold to hierarchy – we worship the individual conscience and the freedom of the individual to be taken seriously.”
“But such things may be taken too far,” Philippe insists. “In England, for example – there are Romantics there who embrace free love – is this not the logical conclusion of the sovereignty of the individual? That each individual may do whatever they want, and none of them are beholden to any other. Each passing individual desire takes the place of God, of King. There is no union here, no acknowledgement of fidelity or virtue or duty to God, or of the political reality that men must be governed. Do we say that by holding emotion and individual conscience paramount, all is permissible and we must inevitably descend to anarchy?”
“Do you equate republicanism with anarchy?”
“No – but our experience does tell us that it does – look at ’93. I am afraid I am becoming quite muddled,” Philippe says, shaking his head. There is a short silence, and Philippe realizes they are now almost alone. The hum of the room has subsided, and men are slipping away in ones and twos.
“I am afraid I have been baiting you,” the man smiles. “You are easily baited. You must learn not to be so – you have a great talent and you will have need to keep your head about you when you are in the Academie.”
“Do you think I will be?” Philippe asks. His companion laughs, leaning back to light a cigar. It flares up to illuminate a narrow face, a full mouth, a small line between his eyebrows. He stands. They walk together towards the door.
“Oh, I am sure you will, Monsieur Etienne. Though do try to look less of an eager spaniel when the subject is raised; you’ll quite give yourself away. Aloof carelessness for all formal recognition of the Establishment is quite a la mode this year, apparently.”
In the brief pause before they part, there is no choice but to admit it.
“I am dreadfully sorry, Monsieur, but I cannot remember your name.”
The other man allows a servant to help him into his coat.
“Lamartine, Monsieur Etienne. Alphonse de Lamartine.”
“I have a brother called Alphonse,” Philippe blurts, stupidly, as they stand, ready to part, in the damp gaslight in the street.
“Really?” Lamartine smiles. “Well, now you have two.”
It is Lent when Sophie is buried, a late-winter thaw, with rain dripping from rosary beads in Helene’s gloved hands at the gravesite, where Philippe holds her elbow and blinks through the rain and the droning Latin.
Later, they walk slowly to the carriage where two black horses stand with their heads drooping, chewing at their bits, and Philippe lifts Helene inside. Closes the door. Goes around to the other side, pulls himself up and inside. Takes her hand. It is strange, to fall so easily into convention and courtship that has so long been denied, so long forced them to draw up their own rules and chart their own unfamiliar progress.
He has introduced Helene as his fiancée.
He turns away from the churchyard now, away from where Lamarie still kneels, helpless, a friend’s hand resting on his shoulder. Away from where the box holding his dry, decaying mother will be slung into the earth by the burly men in torn shirts standing respectfully by with their shovels, waiting for the last mourners to depart. Away from the grey rain and black clothes, the dark wood rosaries and the pine coffin. He rests his head on Helene’s shoulder, and feels the wet wool of her gloves caress his neck.
Do you make the Almighty slave to our desires then? Lamartine had asked him the night before the funeral. An omnipotent servant at the beck and call of our prayers? Did he answer Job’s?
I cannot say for Job, Philippe had replied. But I have known him answer mine. In terror, I have known him answer mine.
“The sky blue is very flattering to Mademoiselle’s skin,” the dressmaker’s girl is saying to Helene, who stands nervously on the dais in the back room of the shop, being poked and pinched and turned every which way. The sky blue is for the sash and the ribbons at the bottom of the skirt.
“Is eyelet expensive for the trim?” Madame Clouet asks, fluttering around the edges, still in her hat and cloak, being soundly ignored by the girls who flock around her daughter.
The skirt is heavy, adorned with bows and loops at the bottom; Helene, used to filmy organza, feels quite overwhelmed.
This is her third visit to the dressmaker’s since General Etienne sent Lieutenant Clouet a letter just after Easter, formally giving his consent to the marriage. “I have been charged with the happy duty …” it began, and Helene immediately insisted on an hour-long conversation with her mother about pillowcases, draperies, peignoirs, and the guest list for the wedding-breakfast.
The first visit to the dressmaker’s began with Helene and her mother seated at a spindly little table, perched on uncomfortable pink and gold chairs, and served endless cups of coffee out of a silver service while being paraded through the last two years’ worth of La Mode and La Belle.
“This new look is reminiscent of the old court fashions of the last century,” the dressmaker said, as Helene blinked against the onslaught of plate after plate. “Heavier, brocaded, with more substance to the materials. See, this skirt here is almost conical in shape – it does not flow naturally over the body as the Greek-style gowns of the last twenty years; it has its own shape and structure. And see, this one here – there are three flounces in the bottom; you could not do that in the old style, as the weight would have proven too much for the delicate fabric.”
They had settled on two flounces and a slightly lowered waist. Helene had been bundled into the back room and stripped to her corset and petticoats, measured at neck, shoulders, elbow, wrist, bust, ribs, waist, hips, leg. A serious-looking girl with spectacles stood primly by marking everything down and muttering calculations of yards and prices under her breath. The second trip brought an array of fabrics and designs paraded before their eyes – cottons and linens, muslins, silks and satins for the dress and slippers, laces for the veil, jacquards and brocades for coats and decorations, worsted and leather for gloves.
This time, they are fitting the dress – still without underskirt, sash, frills – and making the final selections for the details.
“For the neck and sleeves, the eyelet will cost a franc,” the dressmaker herself says, descending authoritatively onto the scene and taking the Bride’s Mother aside. “I assume you will want something more … substantial for the dust ruffle.”
“Of course,” Madame Clouet says, fussing with her gloves to hide her sudden embarrassment. The dressmaker smiles coldly – I assume you will be dying the dress after the wedding and that Mademoiselle will wear it again and pretend it is new.
“And of course,” the dressmaker repeats. “the girls are all wearing seed pearls in their hair this year. It is very much the fashion.”
Madame Clouet meets her daughter’s surreptitious eye, and smiles. “Yes, but only one ring – the hair will be quite simple, none of your towered piles of false curls with combs of silver and pearls sprouting everywhere. One ring of pearls, around a chignon, and one veil flowing direct from that. There is no call to be conspicuous.”
The dressmaker’s mouth sets, and Helene feels a sudden stab of pity for her mother, a sudden frightening need to protect her.
“The lace –“ Helene lifts her head to add, scornfully. “The lace – handmade, Chantilly, no Nottingham machine-work necessary.”
She lowers her black curls again, her severe and distant pale face, mutters to the girl pinning the right sleeve in place that it is too low on the shoulder. Madame Clouet wonders momentarily if Philippe knows what he is getting.
Blois, two days’ hard riding from Paris. Spread out on the banks of the Loire, with a black-capped castle pushing spiked rooftops up at a low, ominous sky, and symmetrical pre-Revolution chateaus gracing the riverfront. She rises in tiers, with sloping boulevards moving up to the top of a low hill, where a low-towered cathedral placidly presides.
“Grace and favour,” Alphonse Etienne mutters. “The revolution never came near this place.”
They are here to bring Philippe’s worldly possessions out to a house in the woods, a two-story Medieval cottage extensively rebuilt along modern lines, where General Leopold Etienne now resides with his dogs, away from politics. My dear son, the letter had said, there is a complete apartment in the upstairs, with a study and a drawing room, accessible to the main house by a large staircase which leads directly to the hall and dining room. You and your wife may live contentedly, joining me for meals but otherwise at your own leisure. There is a regular mail service between the city and the capital, and I have been assured that your work may continue to be sought after by the thriving local aristocracy. Indeed, Blois has no shortage of patrons, and your reputation is already beginning to be known here.
As for the setting itself, it couldn’t be more inclined to the writing of poetry. There are great trees outside, and an arbour which is well tended by my gardener. The windows are large and the house is filled with light. There are long, low bookshelves around three walls of the study, which are now empty, as well as a dormer window with views over the gardens. And do not forget, an excellent cook, two diligent and trustworthy maids (and I trust Helene will bring her girl with her), and the company of your own father. I entreat you to accept – we have already missed too many years.
And so, Blois. Philippe and Alphonse – two tall, chestnut-haired, slender boys, laden down with leather trunks, and hatboxes, and satchels. They are here for three days – they order furniture to be made, supervise the fitting together of the bed and the spreading of its new coverlet, sent down from Paris by Helene’s maid. They meet the butcher’s boy and give him his regular order, marking down the prices in a small red leather-bound book, and then the milkman and the baker. They awkwardly interview the cook, as Helene has commanded, unsure what they are supposed to ask and what the required answers are. They sit up late at night in the half-empty apartment that Philippe is trying to force to feel familiar, and they talk for hours. They talk endlessly of money, of percentages and sales and commissions, of patrons and royalties. “I have just enough,” Philippe keeps repeating, “just enough, if the current state of favour continues.”
“And you can trust Helene’s prudence, I am sure,” Alphonse adds. “You have chosen a sensible wife, praise God. And Father has offered to give you anything you may need.”
Philippe insists on shelving his books himself. And on the wall above the desk, he places a framed charcoal sketch of a boy. The boy is beautiful; the artist had noticed it almost dispassionately. A curved, mobile mouth, a smooth jaw, and tendrils of hair sweeping down over his forehead. The signature, Helene A. A. Clouet – he brushes his thumb gently over it and stands for a while at the window, watching a barn swallow dip and soar.
“Pray hold your head still,” Helene whispers, her hair falling out of its clips and scarves. She is trailing long earrings and bracelets and a shawl, charcoal and paper spread out in front of her.
It wasn’t a lover’s token, the portrait – it was the product of a bored afternoon and Helene’s fidgety nervous energy. She’d handed it to him casually – “here, is it good?” – and strolled back to the house to tidy her jewellery box. It was he who had kept it, chiding himself for the sentiment and foolishness, gazing at it with hope or despair that changed by the hour.
Now he lifts the last set of books from their crate, and sets them in place with scrolled leather bookends. Downstairs, his father shoos the dogs outside, and Alphonse settles into an armchair with the paper.
“This is where I will live with my wife,” Philippe whispers, trying out the words. “I would like to introduce you to my wife, Helene.” He smiles, running his tongue over his teeth.
They are in a carriage, a hired one, three days before the wedding. Helene folds her gloves over her hand again and again.
Philippe is quiet, staring out the window at rain-lashed Paris and the flickering candlelight that enfolds her. The carriage rattles over cobblestones as they leave Alfred de Vigny’s house and then balks and sticks in the mud as they get closer to the Clouet flat in the Rue de Cherche-Midi. He taps his cane occasionally against his knee, distracted, his mouth set in a flat line, his hat tipped forward so that half his face is in darkness, only his lips – full, flushed, but pursed, surrounded by lines – visible in the night that blinks in and out with the candles and moonlight. It is October, and the harvest moon is waning.
Madame Clouet is asleep on the other side of the carriage, her head on her chest, her curls loosening and her hat falling to the side. Her dress is green and white and makes her skin look sallow, yellowish and jaundiced.
“Are you to rights?”
A curt nod – Philippe barely glances in her direction. She doesn’t know whether to be angry at him or apologetic, unsure what she could have done to bring this gloomy petulance out of him. She had been happy at the party, staying by his side and being introduced to his friends, laughing at their jokes, wide-eyed and dazzled by the glittering company. She had complimented the women, flattered the men, danced an appropriate but not excessive amount with the host and with a few others of Philippe’s circle – particularly Lamartine and Nicolas LeBlanc, both of whom she had liked enormously. She had smiled but not laughed when they teased Philippe, and she had refrained from boring them with details of the wedding or housekeeping preparations.
After a while, when they are practically at the Clouet’s front door and Madame Clouet is asleep and snoring gently, Philippe turns to Helene and whispers, “you made a fool of me.”
“What do you –“
“I suppose you would have considered it beneath you to converse with my friends?”
For a moment, Helene cannot speak – a sharp little stabbing pain rises under her chest, and she flails at words.
“I conversed with several of your friends – with Messieurs LeBlanc and Lamartine, with – “
“Oh yes, you certainly did that. I imagine everyone knew you spoke with them.”
“What is the matter?”
“You flirted with them and ignored the rest – Helene, I am a poet, and I bring my fiancee to the Comte de Vigny’s salon, and she utters not one word about poetry. How does that make me appear?”
“Flirted? I did not mean – I am sorry – I did not know how to discuss your work – “
“It makes me look to have chosen a simpering idiot for a wife.”
“Philippe – please do not – “
The viciousness of his whispered voice startles her, makes her chest tight and blocks her throat. His eyebrows are drawn together under his hat, and his hand clutches his cane so that his knuckles are whitened. He doesn’t look at her, but rather at the seat straight ahead of him, his gaze unwavering, unblinking.
“You must understand, your behaviour reflects on me. This is part of a wife’s obligation, to realize she is no longer beholden only to herself and her parents, but to her husband. I thought you understood this.”
“I do – I am sorry – I believed myself to –“
She breaks off suddenly, and bites her lip.
“I am sorry – it is only that I know very little about poetry. You are aware that I know very little about poetry. I cannot be expected to – “
Philippe only shrugs and is silent until they reach Helene’s front door. They sit quietly for a moment, neither moving, until he sullenly descends from the carriage, slamming the door, and leads her perfunctorily to the door. Madame Clouet takes her daughter’s hand and leads her upstairs.
The next afternoon, he calls on her around two o’clock, dressed impeccably – gloves, patterned waistcoat, high-necked coat – and offers to take her on a walk.
“I am sorry,” he says eventually, after they have awkwardly commented on the weather and asked after each other’s families.
“Do not trouble yourself,” she says. “I know I’m ignorant of – the circle you move in, and poetry – and everything. But I do love you, and I try to please you.”
And yet there are times, she thinks, when you frighten me with the fire behind your eyes. I have been raised to see the world in its facts and its ordinariness, to care for the mundane and the prosaic. Your world of angels and demons, monsters and goddesses, is foreign, and I am torn between wishing it would go away and not wanting you to change.
“I love you unreservedly,” he whispers urgently, taking her elbow and steering her into a park. “As a flood, a fire. In my dreams, I press your body to mine forever, and would gladly kill any man who comes near you. There is nowhere in the world I could love if you were not there. But I am frightened of failing you – of failing our marriage.”
He pauses, for a split second of terrible suspicion.
“Do you not feel the same of me?”
She takes his hand.
“Not in the same manner,” she replies. “I am not jealous of you, and I rest secure in the knowledge that you are mine. I am not passionate, as you are. For me, it is a wide river, not a turbulent stream.” She kisses his slightly parted lips, and whispers, “Tell me you accept it.”
“Yes,” he murmurs, and takes her chin in his gloved hand. “But you are lying when you say you are ignorant. I will not hear you insult yourself,” he breathes, his mouth an inch from hers, the edge starting to turn up as he fixes his hazel gaze on hers. “I will not hear it.”
Helene gives in to his smile, laughing as he pulls her close and she buries her face in his chest, her gloved fingers twisting in his cravat. She breathes in the scent of tobacco and cologne, and has never felt so relieved or safe in her life.
“I adore you,” he murmurs. “My clever, sparkling girl. I shall love you for ever.”
It is the night before the wedding, red-skied October with autumn clouds chasing each other through a skittish sky. In the street outside Lamartine’s flat, cats slink through the shadows, and dilapidated buildings lean at weird angles in the half-light of the full moon and the lamps.
Lamartine pours Philippe a glass of wine from a dusty decanter. The curtains are half pulled back, and six or seven young men are sprawled across various pieces of furniture. The gentleman with long blond hair in an unfashionable ponytail is Alfred, the Comte de Vigny. Beside him is Delphine Baptiste, in a striped dress and bare feet. She is drinking sherry and saying something about bishops that Philippe can only hear scraps of.
He is astonished and out of his depth. On poetry, he believes he can match and even surpass any one of these guests, but on anything else – love, religion, politics – he is overshadowed and awed, half-afraid that at any moment he will be exposed as a fraud, grateful to them for taking him in and praising him, eager to be treated as one of them.
“So we shall not see you frequently,” Lamartine says. “Off you go at the tender age of seventeen, to embrace the pastoral paradise of the poet, rambling o’er hill and dale and composing odes upon wildflowers.”
Philippe hiccupped, and blushed.
“I’m not seventeen.”
“Of course you’re not, but you’re very near.”
“And I am weary of Paris – Paris is so garish and full of vice and death and dirt – I want to be close to beauty.”
“There is death in nature, Philippe – there is murder and destruction in nature.”
Philippe says nothing. After a moment, Lamartine continues.
“I am generally against marriage, myself. In principle. I am working on a treatise on the subject. Any sort of bondage inhibits the freedom of mankind. But there – “ and here he nods towards Delphine and Alfred. “There is almost enough to change my mind. I have seen how he is liberated by her, and she by him. If you and – what is her name?”
“If you and Helene are similar to them, then you must prize that above all else. And so you leave us, just as you are beginning to gain your place. It is a tragedy, but what can be done? I assume you have made whatever arrangements are needed with your publisher?”
“Yes – he will send a messenger to Blois personally every four months, and conduct all our business through him.”
“You have responsibility to us as well as to your wife, my friend. Your readers and your fellows.”
“I am aware. And if I am not, my mother-in-law is, I’m sure. It is that responsibility which will feed her daughter.”
He leaves just before midnight, feeling strangely maudlin and uninspired. The wine has dampened his spirits instead of elevating them, and the heavy, dusty parlour was suffocating. A man called Emile Deschamps had fallen asleep on Philippe’s shoulder, and conversation with Lamartine had been confusing and left Philippe feeling tongue-tied and misunderstood. He arrives home too tired to think, snaps at his servant, is sarcastic towards Eugene, and falls into bed with half his clothes still on. A strange part of him wants to crawl to his mother and whisper that he needs her, but he pushes it away, tosses and turns through the night, crying through the sick stupor of alcohol until the morning comes.
Helene rises early that morning, her sheets wrapped around her ankles and shoulders so that it is a struggle to untangle herself and go down to her breakfast. She eats little and speaks less, happy just to listen to her mother prattle on about preparations.
“I’ve packed your new things into your trunk,” Madame Clouet is saying, “and the other day I sent Zephine on ahead with your dresses and ribbons and things – this morning, we can add your night things to the last trunk –“
“Good,” Helene manages to say, though her tongue seems to stick in her mouth. She pushes her plate away, murmurs “excuse me, please,” and darts up the back stairs to her room.
It isn’t that she knows this room or even loves it well. She has travelled so much during her childhood that places and rooms and streets mean little to her. She has a special fondness for a garden in Brussels that had been her kingdom and her paradise when she was five, and she dearly loves a certain street in Naples where she once watched a puppet show and fed a flock of birds. Certainly, though, this room has not been one of those places. Nothing remarkable has happened here. No worlds have risen and fallen in her imagination, no angels have visited. And yet now she sits in her nightgown and glances at the windowsill, grey with dirt, and at the poky little windows, the narrow ceiling, the forest green blanket, the little blonde wood desk, the nightstand with her perfumes and water pitcher, her china doll with yellow hair and bright eyes, and she wants to bury herself underneath it all and never come up again.
Her dress and veil hang from a hook on the outside of the closet door. Her mother came in last night, took them down, pressed them herself, and quietly hung them up again. As she left, she had pushed a stray lock of hair back over Helene’s ear, and kissed her breathing cheek, but she had not woken.
Helene unbuttons her nightgown and steps out of it, gazing down at herself. Experimentally, she moves in front of the mirror, viewing herself from the side, glancing over her shoulder. Her stomach is small and rounds pleasingly below the navel, like in old paintings – and her skin is smooth and pale. In places, she can see her veins, purple under her skin, and there is the occasional dark beauty spot. But overall, she is too frail, her breasts are barely more than buds on a little-girl chest, and her arms and legs get too skinny if she doesn’t make sure to eat all the time. She is used to her maid seeing her like this – covering her in perfume, stroking the hair off her neck – but that is different. That is normal from childhood, and it is practical. She is suddenly shy, and lifts the pitcher from its basin herself, watching the water stream into the bowl; the sunlight makes it look solid and glittering. She washes her own face and hands, then wets the cloth and rubs water and perfume over her whole body.
“Mademoiselle,” the maid says, bustling into the room, “I am so sorry I am late, but you do not need to trouble yourself –“
“Never mind, Marie,” she replies. “I wanted to prepare myself. But you may dress me now.”
“Very good, Mademoiselle,” and she lift the dress off its hook, slipping it over Helene’s head and letting the silk settle around her. She stares out the window as Marie competently and quickly sets her hair and pushes her veil into place. Then she steps into her slippers and Marie slides her gloves onto her hands, and leads her down the corridor and towards the stairs.
Halfway down, she turns and flees back to her room, where she opens the wooden trunk that is waiting to be sent to Blois, takes the golden-haired doll from its stand on top of the desk, and pushes it into the trunk, cushioning it with three pillowcases and a petticoat.
She walks up the aisle in a haze, her father’s arm on hers, and the crowds of guests just coloured blurs on each side of her. She looks only at the floor a few feet in front of her, the blue and gold carpet of the church, and the dark wooden pew doors.
As they reach the altar, she dares to raise her eyes to Philippe. So many hours she has spent with him, so many times he has wrapped her in his arms, so many words they have exchanged, so much of themselves they have already handed over willingly to the other, and yet, here, they are strangers, and she is a shy child, clinging to her father’s hand.
Her first thought is that he looks so young, so eager, old-fashioned in breeches and a high cravat. She imagines him pulling on his black boots, buttoning the breeches at his knees, readying himself to meet her here.
She smiles – nervous – at him, and he returns it, wide, almost a laugh, teeth showing, eyes bright. There is everything boyish and heartbreaking in him today, and she wants – she can’t say – to shine, to be caught, to vanish in his regard, to make him laugh and bask in him.
The priest opens the black leather prayer book, and begins.
Philippe sees his father, flanked by Alphonse and Eugene, sitting in the front pew. He wears the ribbon of his regiment, and watches his son sternly. From the corner of his eye, Philippe sees a movement by the church door, and thinks he hears a whisper near his ear, but there is nothing there when he looks.
“If any of you know cause, or just impediment, why these Philippe-Leopold Etienne and Helene Adele Clouet should not be joined together in holy Matrimony, ye are to declare it.”
“This marriage is born and tainted by blood,” a voice roars inside Philippe’s head. But nobody hears, and the priest turns again to the book.
“Philippe-Leopold, wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour and keep her, in sickness and in health, and, forsaking all others, be faithful only unto her as long as ye both shall live?”
“I will,” he replies, and Helene flushes.
“Helene, wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou obey him and serve him, love, honour, and keep him, in sickness and in health, and, forsaking all others, be faithful only unto him as long as ye both shall live?”
“I will,” she says, and Philippe feels the knot inside him slowly untying. Up until this moment, he had been afraid she would shake her head, or be paralyzed and unable to speak. He knew she would not run from him, but she might have simply faded away, been unable to turn to him and say “yes,” in this final and crucial moment.
Lieutenant Clouet gives his consent to the marriage, and moves his daughter’s hand from his elbow to Philippe’s hand, and she hears Philippe repeating the words the priest read, and then she is doing the same, and the priest is blessing them.
Philippe releases her hand and tips her chin up towards him with the crook of his index finger.
“My wife …”
He kisses her lightly – she closes her eyes and breathes in the scent of his skin, but then he is gone, standing straight and proud, and the musicians are playing again, and he is leading her down the aisle.
He can feel her ring, hard, against his palm. As they step out into the street, they disturb a flock of pigeons seated on the steps, and the birds fly up around them, wheeling in the chilly air and crying out.
They arrive at the Clouet house late, because they made the carriage stop on the way so Helene could admire a garden in greater detail, and Philippe had sat in the carriage and watched her as she bent to look, and her veil slid over her shoulder. She was part of a dream, a mirage, a delicate butterfly that would disappear or crumble if he held her too close. He had stepped out of the carriage and kissed her, and they stood by the street in each other’s arms for a while. So by the time they reach the door, the guests have already arrived, and they are greeted with applause and congratulations.
As they sit to eat, a dishevelled young man with a quick smile, sandy hair, and warm blue eyes behind a small pair of spectacles approaches them, and heartily shakes Philippe’s hand.
“Very good, my friend, congratulations!” he says, “much happiness to you and your bride.”
“Thank you,” Philippe replies, bowing slightly, and turning to Helene, says, “Cheri, you remember my friend Nicolas LeBlanc. Monsieur LeBlanc, my wife, Helene Etienne.”
“Madame,” Nicolas says, smartly bowing over her hand, “my best wishes.”
“Is your wife not here?” Philippe asks.
“No, she is here,” Nicolas answers, looking around. “With your mother-in-law, I believe.”
Helene looks where he gestured and sees her mother engaged in an animated discussion with an unfamiliar woman of striking beauty – tall and regal in a simple, elegant dress of yellow silk that sets off golden skin and chestnut hair.
“Come and sit with us,” Philippe says, “it has been so long since I enjoyed your company.”
“Yes, I have been unable to attend the salons recently,” Nicolas says, as they sit together at a round table with a bouquet of late roses in the center. “Claire – that is my wife – gave me a beautiful son three months ago, and I have been kept busy earning his keep. I am, by trade, a theatrical critic, so the salons were a vital source of material.”
“That is all we are to you, Nicolas?” Philippe laughs, clasping his friend’s shoulder. “Material?”
“But of course,” Nicolas answers. “You innocent little nestlings were harbouring a viper in your midst the whole time. I might as well give up the game now.”
“What is your son’s name?” Helene asks.
“George-Marie,” Nicolas replies. “And a lovely boy he is! I am certain he is the most beautiful child that ever was born, and you will think the same of yours.”
A little after four o’clock – when Helene has done her duty by the rich and powerful among the guests and is thoroughly exhausted with talking – the couple leaves the house, and climbs once again into the coach that will take them home to Blois. They are to stay that night at the General‘s apartment in Paris, as it is a long journey.
The apartment is small and clean and furnished sparsely with old things from the General’s boyhood home in the Loire valley – tables and chairs of complex Baroque design, and an antique bedstead from. The door opens into a large hallway, off of which branch a parlour and a dining room. Behind the dining room is a large kitchen, mostly empty, with a few sad bunches of herbs still hanging forlornly from the ceiling. A sitting room and a smoking room can be entered from the other wall of the dining room. Past this set of rooms, down the hall, is the bedroom and the study.
Philippe turns on the gaslight, setting the hallway softly aglow, bringing out the brilliant crimson and azure of the hallway rug. The apartment is utterly still – no servants squabbling or giggling in the kitchen, no children playing on the street outside, nobody rustling newspapers or clattering up the stairs or even scratching a pen across paper. Only the soft October twilight sings through the windows.
He takes Helene’s hand as she gingerly crosses the doorstep. The closing door brings a rustle from the parlour, and the housekeeper emerges, silent, black-clad. With her are two chambermaids, who take Helene’s wraps, and a footman who takes Philippe’s coat.
“What would Monsieur and Madame like for breakfast tomorrow?” the housekeeper asks.
Philippe turns to his wife.
“Ah … Philippe, what would you like?” she says, uncertain.
“Madame –“ he says.
“Toast, please, then – and jam. And coffee.”
The rest of the conversation is a blur, a decorous trading off of orders for when the morning fires will be laid and how the hired carriage is to be cleaned and returned to its owner and the thought comes over her that I will need to do all this now, and do it well, and with authority.
And then suddenly she remembers that before she must learn to manage servants, there is another duty of a wife that she must do, and her stomach rises and churns, and she speaks to Philippe thickly, almost as she has seen drunk men speak.
“These are … very fine – prints on the wall,” she comments, brightly, as one of the chambermaids bustles them up the stairs to their rooms. “My mother was very fond of these types of prints – lavender and rosemary, she had. She never could abide landscapes, especially anything with a hunting scene – she preferred more detailed studies –“
Philippe says nothing. He grits his teeth against the babbling – how can she speak of lavender and rosemary? This night, we shall be transformed – she is Venus on her monument, and I am the trembling Adonis; she is the rapturous bride and I the ardent husband – why is her mind not on the higher things, on the glory and beauty of this night?
“Look –“ he says when they reach the room, “look how the stars flit behind the clouds.”
“Yes,” she replies.
The chambermaid bustles her to the adjoining room and he hears the rise and fall of murmuring female voices; a knock at the door, and there is his man, with his nightshirt and slippers ready, and a discrete pointing out of the basin and the chamberpot and the glasses for drinking water.
“If Monsieur will raise his chin just a touch, so I may unfasten his cravat … and the other cuff, Monsieur … fine cufflinks, Monsieur, very good workmanship …”
How are all but me obsessed with these mundane trifles? I am to be a husband tonight, to join at last in the mysteries and rites of love –
The man folds his clothes and draws the curtains and inspects the fire and reminds him that breakfast will be brought up at nine o’clock and finally – finally – withdraws. He sits on the bed, idly fingering the cuffs of his nightshirt. His legs look pale and thin to him. He remembers, disgustedly, the half-overheard conversations at the less reputable salons, or in the student cafes he used to read in while he studied for his degree – I brought her to her pleasure three times before morning – she begged for me to let her be … now, the lady is fine enough to court, but her maid is what makes the journey to Neuilly worth the while … an actress – watched her matinee yesterday, watched her mouth reciting gorgeous poetry – she’s at the Palais-Royal, not the cheap comedies on the Boulevard – and you know what that sweet mouth was doing not twelve hours before … ?
He digs his fingernails into his palm to stop the heat that rises around his neck – stands and paces in front of the window – when Helene is here, it will be all right. I will look at her and remember her goodness, her virtue. And we will perform the sacrament of marriage. The union of our souls. I will hold her to my breast and my spirit will soar in her arms. Helene –
He pours himself a shaking glass of water. Takes two sips from it. Then hears the low voices on the other side of the door cease, hears the far door open and shut, then the door adjoining the bedroom opens and Helene stands before him, silent and holy.
Her hair is loose and glossy and blue-black in the candlelight.
“My love – my wife –“
She crosses the room and reaches her hand to him. Her gown is white, tied at the neck with a light blue ribbon. Under the gathers at the bodice, he can see the rise of her breasts, loosed from their corset, can imagine the shape of her body under that loose free fabric. The maid has done most of it – he needs only now to raise her skirts – and –
It has seemed an expectation among the students at his university and among the Romantics that no man comes as pure as his wife to the wedding bed. But he has, and he prides himself on it. No chambermaid or actress has sullied his body for his bride; he may present himself to her as her husband and no other woman’s. He kisses her, feels her start in response.
“Let us lie down. It is cold,” he says, and they part, and walk to opposite sides of the bed, and turn down the covers, and slip themselves below them. Helene extinguishes the candle at her bedside; there is now only the dying remains of the fire to see by.
The heat of her is palpable. She lies like an ember beside him, seeping her warmth into the sheet, the pillow, the small slice of air still between them.
He reaches out a hand and strokes her side. The fabric bunches in his hand, his feet reach out to where her ankles and calves are exposed, brush against her soft skin. She catches her breath and bucks at his touch when his thumb catches the edge of her nipple, grown hard like a raspberry under her gown.
She is rigid. Her eyes are squeezed shut. She wraps her arms hard around his neck, starts when he moves against her and she feels the hardness between his legs. The press of it.
She has had dreams where she is walking in the Luxembourg Gardens and finds herself suddenly naked – she wakes from them in a sweat and wraps her robe around herself and paces before her window until she is calm again. This is as her dream; Philippe’s eyes are open, his hands are prying, clammy and damp, into ever more secret places – she is pulling away, arching and mewing, but this makes him only more urgent – he has shifted up his nightshirt now, and she stares, horribly fascinated, at the swollen organ. He takes her hand to it, nodding, making animal grunts, and she pets at it, with the tips of her fingers, stiffly.
“No –“ he groans, “this –“ and with his hand wrapped around hers, he closes her fingers around it, and she shudders, certain that this is not what she is supposed to do; it isn’t supposed to be her hand doing anything, and is this one of those deviant acts that is whispered about whenever there is scandal? Will she be whispered about if she does this? He is pushing into her hand with fiercer movements now, rutting against her. He slips his hand between her legs, slipping a finger against the damp crevice, and there is a momentary spasm of pleasure and fear and pain, and his hand moves up to her breast, squeezes it, hard, like women squeeze the pears at market to test their ripeness. She cries out.
He is atop her now; the fire is almost gone, but she can feel him, see him like a shadow against another shadow. His scent overwhelms her, sticky and sweaty and with an edge of wool and tobacco, pungent and hot.
“My wife –“ he groans, and his fingers part her legs, to make way for his organ to enter her – and there is pain, oh God, is sharp, shooting pain that makes her yelp and squirm, and then there is more, and it is as though she is breaking in pieces and she pulls her mouth back and squeezes her eyes shut and waits – waits – and then it is slightly easier, the rasping of his body against hers, but she can feel herself shrivel and twist and wonders if she is supposed to want it to end.
It ends soon enough, with a minute of frantic rutting and a cry from Philippe, and a warm rush of liquid that trickles over her thighs.
He sinks against her, his hair plastered to his forehead, his nightshirt wrinkled. She strokes his cheek, idly, wishes he would remove himself from where he still occupies her, limp and hot and soft.
They have reserved a place on the mail carriage and it is old, and not in good condition, and as it rattles its way towards Blois, Helene tries to distract herself from feeling ill. You must be tired, she tells herself, sinking in and out of a nauseous sticky fog. Philippe has brought a book of poems for her, and she has tried to read, but the words seemed to swim together on the page, and turned the dull ache in her temples into a hammering pain.
They stop for lunch around three o’clock in a little village, but Helene can only pick at her potatoes and the thought of wine repulses her. And then it is back in the carriage for three more hours of bouncing and shaking through narrow rocky roads where the only thing she can think of is how she can possibly be polite to her father-in-law for the whole evening before she will be allowed to go to bed.
Philippe, meanwhile, is living in a fantasy world. Shamefully, he has to admit that he suddenly understands what it is that leads men into a particular type of sin he’d always pridefully felt himself above. Those endless conversations on the charms of this particular whore and that particular actress – those dull drunken sobbings on the delights of mistresses past – he understands now what had led his friends and brothers into them.
He endlessly plays over the events of the previous night – the slight tug of Helene’s fingers in his hair, the pale rise of her breasts (now just barely visible, tantalizingly, under the grey wool of her travelling suit), her legs locked around him, the sweep of her body as she lay stretched out before him, the unidentifiable scent of her bare skin, her hair released from its pins and feathers and falling wildly down her back – he shifts uncomfortably in his seat and kisses the top of her head.
And he closes his eyes. Closes his eyes against the reckless enjoyment of it all, against the way his mind keeps wandering back to the exposed flesh of his wife, as though she were some sort of common woman. He half-hates her for searing herself into his memory in this manner, for making him blush and stutter and rise at the mere thought of taking her to himself again. He pulls away from her and leans his head against the opposite window – look at her, sitting there with her book half-closed on her lap, her eyes half-shut, her mouth slightly parted – he pauses to let his mind stumble over her mouth – oh God – any natural man would be able to control himself in his wife’s presence, but not he – any natural man would treat his wife as a good woman and not as a whore – I have made her a whore – this good, sweet, dear woman – I have defiled her –
She doesn’t seem to notice his regard, sits there instead with her book and her grey wool suit. I should beg her forgiveness, he thinks, but I have not the strength.
Instead, he reaches for her, stroking her wrist through the soft leather of her glove. He sits sideways on the seat, one hand slipping down her leg to the hem of her skirt. He slides his fingers beneath it, caressing her ankle bone, the curve of her leg, begging silent absolution as she bites her lip and says nothing.