On Thursday evening, Mimi d’Aubrey went to visit her sister Catharine Mathieu.
“Hello Miriam” Catharine said as the maid brought her into the pristine white kitchen.
Despite her being the only person to use her full name, Mimi got the impression that her formidable older sister was fond of her, or at least as fond as someone like Catharine could be.
“It must be so quiet here with the girls away” Mimi said.
“Yes it is” Catharine answered as if she just noticed they were gone.
Agnès had gone with Mathilde and Edmond on their honeymoon. Catharine had felt that Agnès needed the excitement. Agnès was a vapid, mousy girl who was always overshadowed by her older sister but she never gave Catharine any of the trouble Mathilde did. Mathilde was pert and disrespectful and was always doing things just to be annoying. During the entire time she had been in school, Catharine had paid the sisters a fortune not expel her. When she was thirteen, Mathilde had wanted to bob her hair and despite Catharine’s protests that she was too young for bobbed hair, she and a couple girlfriends had gone and got their hair cut short. Catharine had then had to take Agnès to get her hair bobbed just so no one would think there was mutiny in her household. Not long afterward, Catharine had caught Mathilde with a boy for the first time. Yes, Mathilde was always giving her trouble and it was a relief that she was now someone else’s problem.
The maid brought in cups of coffee and placed them in front of the two women on the kitchen table and then began to sweep the floor which was tiled in a fashionable geometric pattern.
“How is Marianne?” Catharine asked.
“Very well” Mimi answered.
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to talk you about…”
Catharine had used the serious tone which always made Mimi feel worried.
That evening was warm, rosy, and humid. The sky was clear over Paris but large, dark clouds hung dramatically in the horizon and an occasional chilly breeze signaled bad weather to come.
The next few days would be rainy and chilly.
Making the most of the nice weather, Adèle and Charlotte were spending a lazy afternoon sitting out on the rosy porch.
Above them, was a wedding cake like ceiling hung with crystal chandeliers. Around them, a circle of open French doors and long gauzy curtains blowing in the breeze.
Footsteps echoed as Charles came in.
“Now where have you been Charles?” Adèle asked her husband from the large divan she and Charlotte were lying on. She had a low and thrilling contralto voice with a slight drawl and the music of a privileged life.
“Out” Charles answered. He kissed the delicate white hand of the graceful white arm draped over the back of the white divan.
Adèle did not know much about her husband’s life outside of their home and, truth be told, it did not matter much to her. Charles’s image as a man of mystery had been what had attracted her to him in the first place. Despite his being old enough to be her father, Adèle was deeply in love with Charles, perhaps more than he was with her. She always got the feeling that Charles’s great love was behind him and part of the life he had led before they had met which she knew nothing about.
Charlotte yawned, stretched, and sat up. Charles went over to the bar and poured himself and the ladies each a tumbler of cognac.
“I had a busy day” he began “those Germans I’ve been doing business with have been buying up everything they can get their fat, grubby hands on”
Charles dealt in art and antiquities and had connections with museums, galleries, dealers, and auction houses all over the world.
“But they’ve been giving you so much business” Adèle added.
“Don’t they have connections with the German government?” Charlotte asked
“Those damn boches are nothing but a bunch of magpies and their government is worst of the lot”
The butler stepped in
“Excuse me, Monsieur” he said to Charles “there’s a lady to see you, a Madame Brady.”
“Send her up to my office, Benoît” Charles answered.
“I did not like they way Marianne was trying to be noticed by Edmond at the wedding,” Catharine told her sister, “ It is not a becoming way for a girl to behave”
“It made me concerned too” Mimi assured her “and I have spoken to her about it”
“Good, we owe it to poor Madeleine to make sure she doesn’t go wrong”
Catharine had never been a person who wanted to be seen to be not doing her duty. All of her life, she had played the dutiful daughter, the dutiful sister, the dutiful wife, the dutiful mother, and the dutiful aunt simply so she could use it against people when she did not get her way.
During their childhood, Mimi, always in awe of Catharine, and sometimes took Catharine’s side against Madeleine. Later in life Mimi had grown closer to Madeleine and was made Marianne’s godmother and later her guardian when Madeleine died. Mimi had taken to Marianne like she was all of the children she had wanted but never had. Her choice never to marry had condemned her to a life of barrenness and looking after the motherless Marianne had filled up an empty space inside of her.
After the obligatory conversation about Marianne, Catharine changed the subject to Mathilde’s honeymoon. She and Edmond had first gone to Nice and were now in Monte Carlo. Catharine showed Mimi two postcards and two letters sent to be by Agnès.
The door to Charles’s office opened behind the large desk and chair and one had to walk past them to go into the room. When he entered, he found a lady standing in front of the desk waiting for him. Her clothing looked somewhat frumpy compared to the couture of Adèle and Charlotte and she was no longer young and beginning to look like an old woman but looking at her face, one could almost see the pretty young woman she had been.
“Jimmy” she said when saw him. Her accent was American.
“It’s been a long time, Sarah” Charles said to her in English “you’re one of the last people I expected to see here”
“Well, I’ve been saving my money and I decided to use to see something of the world while I still can. I’m an old woman, my husband is dead and my children are all grown and have lives and families of their own, there’s nothing else for me to do”
“Well, I’m glad to see you Sarah”
“Speaking of children, I’m looking forward to meeting your daughter”
“I don’t have a daughter”
Catharine and Mimi’s conversation was interrupted by the ringing of the telephone.
“Yes” Catharine said when she picked it up
“How are you Maman?” Mathilde’s whiny soprano which always made her sound like she was about cry said on the other end of the line.
“Very well Mathilde, your Aunt Miriam is having coffee with me right now”
“Oh. You should see the clothes Agnès and I bought today. Edmond had a good night gambling yesterday and we all went on a splurge this afternoon. I bought the sweetest little blue hat.”
The miserly Catharine disapproved of the waste of money that was gambling and tried to stifle a groan.
“Sounds like you’re having a good time, dearest”
“The best, Maman. I’ll call again in a few days”
“My daughter has married a gambler” Catharine said to Mimi as she sat down again at the table “that Danton boy reminds me a lot of my first husband. He’ll end up in prison, mark my words, and I doubt Mathilde will have the good sense to divorce him like I did. My second husband wasn’t any less crooked but he was smart enough not to get caught”
Charles invited Sarah to stay for dinner and brought her down to the porch to introduced her to Adele and Charlotte. When he came back out onto the porch, he found Charlotte sitting on the wicker settee reading aloud from Le Journal and Adèle still lying on the white divan the same as before.
The story Charlotte was reading was about the murder of Le beau Charlot Harcourt, who was shot outside of some cabaret. Charles knew Harcourt personally and had sold him two Ming Dynasty vases and a Rubens.
“Charles, who is this?” Charlotte asked, referring to Sarah.
“Charlotte, Adèle” Charles addressed the two sisters “this is Madame Sarah Brady, an old friend of mine. Sarah, this is my wife Adèle and my sister-in-law Charlotte”
“Pleased to meet you, Madame Brady” Adèle said with genuine cordiality.
“Likewise, Madame Prideaux” Sarah answered in well executed though somewhat rusty French.
“You’ve heard of Lawrence Brady, the artist?” Charles asked his wife.
“Of course, you must be his widow.”
“Charles helped me sell some of his paintings after he died,” Sarah explained
Charles ushered the ladies out onto the terrace where a table was set for dinner. An extra table setting was put out for Sarah.
“I’m a great admirer of your husband’s work ,” Charlotte said to her, “His Life of the Virgin is one of my favorite pieces of art. When my husband and I went to London last year, I insisted that we take a trip to visit the chapel at Alneleigh to see it in person.”
“That was always one of his favorites”
“Do you have any children?” Adèle asked
“Two sons and a daughter. Eddy is twenty-nine, Lucy is twenty-two, and Tom is twenty.”
“No, no, they can’t be that old. You do not look old enough.”
“Oh thank you. Yes, my children are all I have left now after my Laurie died about two years ago”
“I’m sorry for your loss, Madame Brady”
“He was a good man and lived a good life”
The group helped themselves to the bread, salad, and wine that had been put out on the table.
“Bread and wine” Adèle said “it’s almost like the last supper”
“Hopefully no one will be denied and betrayed tonight.” Charles added wittily “shall we all go pray in the garden of Gethsemane after we eat?”
He picked his wine glass
“To Lawrence Brady”
“To Lawrence Brady” the ladies responded.
Later in the evening, Catharine and Mimi retired to the living room to listen to that week’s installment of a romantic drama they were both fond of.
Catharine was excessively proud of her livingroom. It was an oblong room full of plush furniture upholstered in white with an oriental carpet in the center. The windows were hung with thick red curtains and the walls with large pieces of modern art.
While Catharine was turning on the wireless and adjusting the station, Mimi was looking at a photograph in a frame on the mantelpiece. It was of a Nativity pageant that had taken place several years ago in the church of the convent where her nieces were educated which was meant to recreate a celebrated medieval fresco painted on a wall in the convent’s cloister. Mathilde playing The Holy Virgin, a fact that would cause people who knew her now to chuckle, sat in the center dressed in a loose robe with a white scarf wrapped around her head sat with a baby doll in her lap next to an unfortunate girl who had to wear a fake beard as Joseph. Three girls dressed in long velvet robes and foil crowns stood in a line in front of the baby Jesus while other girls in rough looking smocks holding toy sheep and crooks looked on. Surrounding the scene was a semi-circle of girls in white nightgowns holding candles, one of which was Agnès. Standing on the highest point of the altar was Marianne, an apple cheeked, freckle faced girl of twelve dressed in a gown of snowy white lame with a foil star crowning her ringletted hair. She was looking directly at the camera and giving her best attempt at a movie star’s dramatic smolder.
“Miriam” Catherine called to her sister “it’s beginning”
Mimi went and sat down in one of the armchairs by the wireless. The opening music of the wireless program began to play.
When the closing music began to play, Mimi bid goodnight to her sister and then returned home.
By nightfall, the sky was covered in a thick layer of clouds and chilly winds caused the open doors and shutters to be closed. The dropped in temperature induced Charles, Adèle, and their guests to relocate to the living room. Sarah was mesmerized by the large white and grey Art Deco space full of glass surfaces and mirrors. She took a seat next to Charlotte on the sofa. Adele draped herself decoratively on a chaise. Charles lit a small fire in the hearth and then turned on the wireless and adjusted it to a station that was playing a program of jazz music. Adèle began to rub her temples and complain of a headache. Charles brought her over some medicine and a shot of whiskey to chase it down.
“I think I better go to bed” Adèle said “have Lucille bring me up a cup of tea.”
“I guess I better go, Alexandre will be wondering where I am” Charlotte added
With the retiring of the two sisters, Charles found himself alone with Sarah.
“It was nice seeing you, Jimmy” she said “Adèle seems like a nice girl”
“And very beautiful too”
“Yes she is. She’s a dancer in the Paris Opera ballet and is in Sleeping Beauty right now. I’ll take you to see her in it some time”
“Oh, that would be wonderful”
“It’s late, I’ll drive you back to your hotel”
“That’s very kind of you, Jimmy”
“Sarah, I must tell you: I’m not Jimmy anymore