Gabriel checked over the time table at St. Lazare station; his train would not be boarding for another two hours. He could go and call upon his sister in the meantime, but the walk was too far. The time it would take to get there and back would not allow for much of a visit and he had imposed on Gillian's hospitality too much of late.
All Gabriel could do to pass the time was have breakfast, including a strong coffee, in the stations cafe and read the morning paper. He had woken up at first light, snuck out to the Contaille train depot before his father was awake, and hopped on the earliest train to Paris. It was not unusual for him and his father to take spontaneous trips into Paris to visit Gillian but Gabriel had taken to going by himself, with the purpose of seeing Marianne. When the train arrived in St. Lazare that morning, he purchased a newspaper and sat down in the cafe. He flipped through his paper while waiting for his coffee and toast and came to the missing persons ads. At the top of the page was a photograph of a smiling blonde.
"If anyone has information as to her whereabouts, please contact Catharine Mathieu at... or Charles Prideaux at..." he read.
He had been right to be worried about her. When they had parted on Easter Monday, he left with the feeling that he should be concerned, which was now proven right. Should he go and offer his condolences to her aunts? Ask if he could be of any use in helping to find her? No, he had no right to.
Gabriel checked his watch. It was 8:30; his train back to Contaille would board at quarter past ten.
It took a couple of hours to get from Paris to Contaille-sur-Seine. The Contaille train depot was little more than a platform with an enclosure and a loading dock. Ferme Pommier, the Renault family home, was on the other side of town. Contaille was a small village but it was a substantial walk from the depot to Ferme Pommier. Gabriel walked along the main road, hoping to bum a ride off a passing car. He knew almost everyone in the area and it was unlikely that he would have to rely on a stranger.
Monsieur Baudin, the butcher, pulled his truck over when he noticed Gabriel and gave him a ride home.
"Tell your old man I said hello," Baudin told him.
Gabriel found his father in the barn, looking over a heavily pregnant cow. Fleur ran up to him, barking loudly.
"Where have you been all morning?" his father asked.
"In Paris," Gabriel responded.
"This is the second time this month that you've taken off without a warning."
"I know, father."
"I've had to do all the morning's chores by myself today."
"I'm sorry; I know how busy we are this time of year."
"Well, how ya gonna keep'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?"
It had been just the two of them for the past few years. Gabriel's mother had died back in 1919 of the Spanish influenza. His brother, Yves, had joined the army three years ago and was stationed in Morocco. Around the same time, Gillian left to find work in Paris and ended up marrying a rich parisian. Gillian had always been too pretty and vivacious to end up stuck in Contaille with some dumb old rustic.
"And another thing, you love struck swain, don't think I haven't figured out why you've been sneaking off. It's to see Madame Catharine's niece."
"Don't tease me, Father."
"Not that I blame you, my boy. She's a pretty little thing, just like your mother was when I courted her."
"Well, she's not interested in me."
"What? Does the little minx think she's too good for you?"
His paternal pride, which told him that his son was good enough for any girl, was offended.
"No, she just loves someone else that's all. Go inside and rest, father, I'll take over from here."
Gabriel went into the pasture to check on the cows, with Fleur in tow. The day was mild and clear with a gentle breeze that smelt of fresh grass. Fat white clouds dotted the blue of the sky and fat white cows dotted the green of the fields, their milk heavy udders sagging against the ground. He sat down under a shady oak tree, the best vantage point from which to oversee the herds, took off his jacket and took his harmonica out of the breast pocket, then began to play My Melancholy Baby.
The cows always liked it when he played his harmonica. My Melancholy Baby was the particular favorite of a heifer named Campanule, who Gabriel had raised since she was a newborn calf. Campanule docilely offered her creamy flanks for him to pat. She was expecting her twelfth calf and would be taken in from the fields in a few weeks.
"And how are you, old girl?" he asked gentling stroking her swelling belly.
Campanule began to nibble at a thick patch of clover. The countryside was lush and verdant after a week or so of rain; the air was fresh and sweet smelling. It would be a shame to be inside on a day like this, but Gabriel almost wished that he was sitting in Madame Catharine's drawing room, Marianne sitting across from him. Usually, he hated being confined indoors; in the warmer months he would sometimes sleep outside in the fields. Now even the vast open countryside of Normandy felt stifling. His impulsive jaunts to Paris had been as much to do with restlessness as with amorous intentions towards Marianne; the two feelings were intertwined. His father had been right; how would you keep them down on the farm after they have seen Paree?
"There's a young man to see you, Madame," Annette told her mistress, who was sitting in her morning room.
At first Catharine expected it to be either of her sons-in-law but if it had been, Annette would have said "Monsieur Edmond" or "Monsieur Christophe".
"He says his name is Monsieur Lerou," Annette continued.
"Then show him in" Catharine instructed her maid.
A wiry, swarthy faced boy stepped through the door, politely holding his hat in his hand.
"Madame, my name is..." he began.
"Young man, I know quite well who you are." she silenced him.
Catharine had been curious about her niece's lover; mostly she wanted to know what someone who could cause so much trouble was like. What she saw in front of her was only a boy, a handsome, in a rough sort of way, boy with sparkling emerald eyes, and a dashing, crooked grin. Behind all the sparkle and dash was something sad and pitiful, whether real or perceived. Just the sort of thing that could seduce a naive and well-meaning girl like Marianne; she would not be the first to mistake a devil for a fallen angel. Even Catharine herself was tempted to feel sorry for him. She could imagine him as someone's son. Some woman had gone through the pains of Hell to bring him into this world, held him in her arms, nursed him at her breast, and hoped for the best for him. Even now, after everything he had done, she probably loved him nonetheless.
"Marianne is with me," he told her, "She is safe."
"I would hardly call being in the company of known criminals, safe."
"So, where are you keeping her?"
"I can't tell you, unless you want your niece sent back to you in pieces."
Catharine wanted to slap him but this snot nosed little punk was not going to make her lose her temper. What was he to her? Nothing more than some naughty hall-boy who had been caught in a broom closet with a scullery maid, only this particular scullery maid happened to be a daughter of the house, She longed for the days when she could have had him flogged to death for less than what he had done.
"I could call the police on you right now."
"She would never forgive you for that."
It took all of her willpower to restrain from wringing his neck.
"I didn't come here to argue with you; I'm sorry for what I've done but I love Marianne and I'll try my best to do right by her. She can come to visit you whenever she likes."
"You listen to me, boy. Try as you may, you will never be good enough for Marianne."
"I knew that the moment a met her."
"You take good care of her, boy. Promise me this."
"Get down on your knees and swear it!"
The boy knelt down in front of her.
"I, Augustin Lerou, do solemnly swear to serve and protect My Lady's niece."
He took her hand and kissed the gold ring set with two rubies which she had inherited from her mother. She could not tell if this gesture was in earnest or to mock her hauteur.
"Thank you for coming to see me, to say that she is safe."
He looked up at her and smiled. Catharine felt a brief flash of tenderness towards him; that grin made her want to stroke his head and tell him to go run and play. But this feeling quickly vanished and she called for Annette to show him out.
Augustin took the metro back to Montmartre and ran a few errands before returning home. He found Marianne in the kitchen, teasing Johnny with a piece of leftover chicken. The little dog eagerly leaped, trying to get at the treat but she would raise her arm a little higher whenever he got close. Then, like a benevolent goddess of plenty, she dropped the piece of chicken and Johnny snatched it up.
Augustin knelt down and scratched Johnny behind the ears.
"What are those?" Marianne asked, referring to the packages he had left on the table.
"Open them up and see," he responded.
The first package was a hat box with a picture on its cover of an amorous eighteenth century couple in a garden. Inside was a straw hat with a wide, floppy brim.
"You told me once that you sunburn easily," he explained, "We wouldn't want that lovely skin fried up like bacon, now do we?"
Marianne had seen a similar hat in a fashion magazine, worn by Carole Lombard while lounging on the beach. She put it on and struck a pose and giggled.
The next package was a box from a bakery; inside was a cake frosted with royal icing and sprinkled with grated citrus zest.
"It's lemon cake, you said it was your favorite. I thought I'd pick up something special for dessert tonight."
"Oh, it's far too pretty to eat."
"Fine, then we'll just sit and stare at it."
"Don't be ridiculous," she picked up a small package of her own, "I picked this up today as well."
Wrapped up inside brown paper was a book with a picture of a man tied to the mast of a ship on its cover.
"The Odyssey. What is this?"
"Remember when I mentioned Wily Odysseus, Circe, and Calypso, and you didn't understand it?"
"Well, they're from this book."
Augustin took hand to kiss to its palm, but noticed the scars on her wrists, red lines crisscrossing her apple blossom skin. He ended up kissing the back of her hand so he did not have to look at those ugly reminders of even uglier things.
"Can you read it to me?" he said as he hung up his hat and jacket and walked into the living room.
His shoes were kicked off and he plopped down on the sofa. Marianne joined him and put his head in her lap.
"Sing to me of the man, Muse," she began to read, "the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy."
Hélène had asked the men not to smoke in the house because the smell made her sick in her condition, so Augustin and Faucherie took their cigarettes on the rooftop deck.
"In my experience, the best way to deal with women is to let them have their own way," Faucherie explained after they had made the hike up to the very summit of the house.
Both of them lit cigarettes and began to talk about what they had done that day. Faucherie had taken a drive to Charenton and Bercy to collect the protection fees from some dance halls.
"I went to visit Marianne's aunt today," Augustin told him, "To let her know that Marianne is alright. And she treated me like I was a rat and I wanted to tell her 'I guess that's better than being a useless old cow' but of course I didn't"
As Marianne set the table, Hélène went to tell the men that dinner was ready. Over the meal, the conversation was about Augustin and Marianne's plans for the future. Augustin told them that he hoped to emigrate to Egypt or Algeria once he had enough money.
"I'm sure we'll be able to find work there," Marianne began, "I'm not afraid to work; I'm not one of those girls who needs closets full of furs and chests full of diamonds to be happy: not like my cousin Mathilde. You should've seen her at Easter, showing off the ropes of pearls her husband gave her."
"I'm sure you would like to have those ropes of pearls around your pretty neck," Faucherie rebutted.
"Of course, but I don't need them to be happy."
"Most girls would disagree with you."
"And I'm sure not all the pearls in the world would be enough for them."
"From the mouths of babes," Faucherie laughed.
Marianne then brought over the cake on a pretty, white china plate, along with several smaller matching plates, and began cutting slices for everyone at the table.
"There's a good girl," Faucherie said when she handed him a slice of cake.
The phrase There's a good girl sounded like something she would say to Johnny when she got him to sit and stay. Faucherie petted and played with her just like she did Johnny.
Flush faced and cheerful after a few glasses of wine, Augustin went to bed and enjoyed a few hours of pleasant sleep. The night was unusually dark and quiet: the sun could stay in the sky until well into the night this time of year and the day's bustle was much the same.
Between two and four in the morning, Augustin woke up. Usually, he would toss and turn and try to fall asleep again but the fog of sleep had cleared from his head. He sat up in bed and stared into the shadows of the room. He felt something stir in the bed next to him and a hand touch his shoulder; perversely gentle and loving, a sick parody of a lover's caress. With his other hand, Augustin grabbed the strange arm with a rough, tight grip. Instead of lean and stealy, the bone structure was delicate and fragile, like the wing of the bird, and the flesh was soft, almost plump. The arm's owner whimpered like an injured dog.
"Please, let go," Marianne moaned.
He released her arm. She looked naked and vulnerable in her thin, rayon night dress. Such a sight would usually make him want to lay her back down on the pillows and enjoy her again but this time, he felt monstrous for hurting her.
"I'm sorry," he responded.
One of Sarah Brady's favorite areas of Paris to visit was Montmartre. She enjoyed poking around in the art galleries and antique shops to see what treasures she could find. The highlight of an excursion she took towards the end of April was finding a pair of Sèvre porcelain figurines depicting Cinderella trying on the glass slipper. She was not the only person who was admiring them at the time. While Sarah had been haggling with the dealer over how much the figurines cost, a girl wearing a large straw hat stopped to look at them and picked up the tag attached to the Prince's hand holding the glass slipper to read it.
"Sèvres/Vincennes, circa 1750-60, after Boucher..." she read aloud, "My grande-mère had a pair of figurines like these in her mourning room. She always used to say that my fourth great grandmother received them as a wedding present from Madame de Pompadour."
" de Pompadour was a great patron of Sèvre," Sarah responded, "and also of Boucher, whose work the piece was inspired by."
"I think Boucher also did a portrait of my fourth great grandmother. Her name was Selene d'Aubrey, Baronne du Contaille and she was said to be a great beauty. The painting was sold off many years ago but I remember that she was dressed in yellow with a posy of spring flowers in her hair and a songbird perched on her finger."
"I think I remember that painting. It came through an auction at Sotheby's last year."
"My final price is 12,000 francs, Madame," the dealer but in.
"Oh my, that's more than I planned to spend," Sarah responded.
She bid the dealer and the girl in the large straw hat good afternoon and left the shop, still coveting the figurines.
YOU ARE READING
Born the son of a French soldier and an Algerian native, Augustin Lerou has known little but a hard life on the streets of 1930s Paris. When he meets Marianne d'Aubrey, a spirited waitress with a mysterious past, he is set to sweep her off her feet...