Sarah Brady dropped by the Prideaux home for cocktails during the afternoon before New Year’s Eve. Adèle was out, visiting a friend of hers who had just had a baby, but had Charles wish Sarah a Happy New Year for her.
Charles fixed the cocktails at the bar in the living room, a sidecar for him and a gin fizz for Sarah.
“Here’s to prohibition finally going away,” Charles toasted.
President Roosevelt had repealed the ban on alcohol earlier that month.
Sarah raised her glass and then took a dainty sip.
“I’m having dinner with a boy named Kit Trask later,” she told him, “I’ve never met him before, but his father is a friend of Ezra’s. He’s come to woo some girl and Ezra asked me to look after him.”
Ezra was Sarah’s younger brother who had gone west to New Mexico many years before. He often talked about the Trask family, who were old friends of his, in his letters and phone calls.
“I’m guessing his parents don’t approve of the young lady in question?”
“For all they know, she’s a perfectly nice girl but he’s set on marrying her. They’re both very young and they haven’t known each other very long.”
“In my experience, young people will do as they wish.”
He remembered when he had been this Trask boy’s age and set on marrying the girl he loved.
“How did Laurie propose to you, I can’t quite remember?”
“It was Valentine’s Day 1900. The weather was unusually mild and we went for a walk in Central Park. We passed the Belvedere Castle and he got down on his knee and said “Sarah Faber, I know you’re too good for me and I’ll never be what you deserve but I can’t help myself…will you marry me?” Isn’t it amazing that after thirty-four years I still remember what he said?”
“No, it’s not. Laurie was not a man of many words but he always knew the right thing to say.”
“How did you propose to Adèle?”
“She was dancing in Coppelia and I came backstage to see her. That’s when I proposed to her. ”
“And how did you propose to Madeleine?”
“She was showing me the sights in Rouen. We saw the cathedral, Joan of Arc’s tower, The Gros Horloge, and the Place du Vieux Marché. We were looking for the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake and that’s when I asked her.”
Charles remembered how he had had to save his salary for over a year to buy a ring for her which was little better than costume jewelry, but she had not seemed to mind. Catharine had turned her nose up at it and said “what is this trinket?”
He remembered sitting her down on a park bench in the Place du Vieux Marché. The weather that day had been pleasant and mild and Rouen had a peaceful, almost pastoral feel. He took the box containing the ring he had bought and said “Mado, I don’t think my life will never be complete without you.”
She accepted him; he knew she would since they had been talking of marriage for a year.
This had been in October 1912. Their engagement was formally announced the following February and the wedding was planned for June 1913.
“Can I get you another drink?” Charles asked Sarah.
“No thank you,” she answered, “I must be going. I need to go get ready for dinner.”
Adèle arrived home as Sarah was leaving. The two women greeted each other and bid each other a happy new year.
“How’s Clémence doing?” Charles asked his wife.
“Very well,” Adèle answered, “And her baby is lovely.”
“Is it a boy or a girl?” Sarah joined in.
“A girl, they’ve named her Mélanie.”
When Sarah was gone, Adèle asked her husband what they had been talking about.
“I was telling her about our engagement.”
He put his arms around his wife’s waist and kissed her.
Marianne was hoping that she would have work as an excuse for not going to Tante Catharine’s New Year’s Eve party but New Year’s Eve fell on a Sunday, her day off. She could pass on another evening of being watched, judged, and snubbed. Perhaps she could have handled it if she felt more like herself but she had not felt like herself in such a long time that she forgot what it felt like.
Tante Mimi had a present for her when she came to visit her the afternoon before the party. Marianne was presented with a white box from the Galeries de LaFayette tied with a green silk cord. Inside was a silk and chiffon evening dress in the loveliest shade of blue imaginable.
“Go try it on,” Mimi said.
The dress fit her perfectly, clinging to her curves in the most becoming way; the skirt flowed down her legs dramatically and did not make her look short, as long dresses often did. It’s beautiful blue shade was wonderfully suited to her coloring.
“You look like a dream,” Mimi told her.
“I could be happy in this dress,” Marianne thought.
Tante Catharine had given her a pair of pearl earrings for Christmas and she had a pearl necklace her grande-mère had given for for her fifteenth birthday and an opal hair comb that had belonged to her mother. Inside the box from the Galeries de LaFayette was a white mask because Catharine’s party had a masquerade theme.
Agnès approached her cousin when they were alone in the front hall of her mother’s house.
“Marianne,” she whispered, “Can I tell you something?”
“Certainly,” Marianne answered.
“I must tell someone and you’re the only person I know whom I can trust. Promise me you won’t tell anyone.”
“How can I if I don’t know what I’m not supposed to tell.”
“Well, Kit and I are getting married tonight. He’s made arrangements with the justice of the peace and we’re going to sneak away from the party at midnight. By the time anyone notices we’re gone, it’ll be too late to stop us.”
“Congratulations Agnès, I hope you and Kit will be happy.”
“Promise me that you won’t tell anyone.”
“Thank you, thank you. Do you know what this makes us now?”
“Friends, I hope.”
Marianne felt uncomfortable with keeping things from her aunts. It was hard to approach Catharine and greet her like she normally did, knowing that she was complacent in her daughter’s elopement.
After eating a brief meal, they all retired to change for the party. Agnès was blissful and excited; Mathilde could not figure out why. She mocked her sister by asking “what are you so happy about?” Agnès was in too good a mood to mind Mathilde’s sarcasm.
Marianne was happy for her cousin. She had come to like Kit and believe that he would make Agnès happy. But she could not look at her cousin’s happiness without thinking about her own unhappiness.
When she entered the living room, she had a feeling that something was wrong. Boys were looking at her, and not because her dress suited her uncommonly well and she had arranged her hair to perfection. These were the same boys who did not usually take much notice of her because she did not have the flashy good looks they responded to. They smirked at her and then seemed to turn away to say something to one another. She could tell that they were mocking her behind her back but did not know why.
She tried to ignore it and sat and acted like she was bored to death, which was the only way to get through the evening. Making a scene or showing any emotion whatsoever would only bring her more ridicule.
It was usually not difficult to be pretend to be bored. No one ever talked about anything particularly interesting, but Kit Trask made a change from the usual petty gossip and crude humor. Everyone found Kit interesting because he was foreign and new. He was telling everyone about the droughts and dust storms which were hitting the Midwestern part of North America and about caravans of people traveling west from the eastern part New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma to California.
“Why do Americans hate negroes so much?” someone asked Kit.
Kit looked confused and flushed with embarrassment, as if he himself had been accused of hating negroes.
“What makes you think that?” he answered.
The Scottsboro Boys trials were brought up.
“We’re not like that at all over here.”
“But what about the Algerians?”
“Algerians are born thieves.”
Whether this had been the person’s intention or not, Marianne felt this remark as a dig at herself. She was in a frame of mind to believe that everyone was laughing at her behind her back.
Mimi came in, helping Annette bring in some hors-d’oeuvres. She carried a platter of miniature crêpes and little bowls of caviar and cream cheese while Annette carried a platter of oysters on ice.
Mathilde, who sang very well and had a lovely soprano singing voice, was invited to sing for everyone. Agnès came to accompany her on the piano. Her charm bracelet jingled as she played.
“Minuit, chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle,” Mathilde sang, “Où l’Homme-Dieu descendit jusqu’à nous, pour effacer la tache originelle, et de son Père arrêter le courroux. Le monde entier tressaille d’espérance, à cette nuit qui lui donne un Sauveur. Peuple, à genoux, attends ta délivrance Noël! Noël! Voici le Rédempteur! Noël! Noël! Voici le Rédempteur!”
Agnès hated the fact that Mathilde hardly ever practiced and yet was known as the singer of the family.
“Marianne, why don’t you come up and sing?” Edmond asked when the applause for Mathilde died down.
“Oh yes,” Mimi joined in, “I haven’t heard you sing in so long.”
“No thank you,” Marianne answered, “I haven’t sung since the convent choir.”
“But I remember you sang very well,” said Agnès.
They all assumed that she sang like angel but was just being modest.
After some encouragement, Marianne reluctantly stood up to sing, blushing with embarrassment.
“Les anges dans nos campagnes ont entonné l’hymne des cieux,” she sang “Et l’écho de nos montagnes redit ce chant mélodieux. Gloria in excelsis Déo! Gloria in excelsis Déo.”
Standing at the front of the room, she was on display for everyone. Edmond’s eyes were focused on her in a way which could only be called possessive. It was a look which Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Genghis Khan must have had; the look of a conqueror eyeing his conquest.
“That’s the one Edmond’s been talking about,” his sister Solange whispered to a friend of hers. Solange was either bad at whispering or wanted to be heard.
“Oh and what has your degenerate brother been saying about me?” Marianne asked, stepping forward to confront Solange.
Edmond got up and put his arms around her waist to hold her back.
“Let go of me!” she shouted.
“Don’t mind her,” Mathilde said to Solange, “She’s obviously lost her mind.”
“He’s been saying that you’re a filthy slut who’s been fooling around in the gutter with some Algerian rat.”
“Don’t act you’re any better, Solange,” Agnès but in.
“Who asked you?”
Marianne backhanded Solange across the cheek.
“That’s what I think of you and your sick minded brother.”
Mathilde returned the backhand given to her friend; the pointed diamond in her wedding ring scraping against Marianne’s cheek and drawing blood.
Mimi took the weeping Marianne into a bathroom. She soaked a towel in hot water and ethanol and cleaned the cut on her niece’s cheek.
“There, it’s stopped bleeding,” she said, “Put a little makeup on it and no one will notice.”
“Are you sure?”
Marianne put a little makeup and powder on the cut and it was no longer visible.
“Now put a little rouge in your cheeks.”
She forced a smile and put little dabs on the apples of her cheeks.
“You look beautiful.”
“I don’t feel beautiful. I don’t feel anything but dead.”
“Marianne, I know this all must seem terrible to you. But you’re so very young and tomorrow everything will look better.”
“I hope so. It can’t look much worse.”
Agnès was waiting outside the bathroom door with a cocktail, a fizzy red concoction garnished with an orange peel. Marianne took a sip, it tasted of gin and vermouth.
“Kit and I are leaving,” Agnès went over to the coat closet,”I hope Maman doesn’t mind me borrowing her best fur coat.”
She pulled out a mound of sleek sable fur from the closet and put it on. Her mother was taller than her and had broader shoulders, so Agnès was swimming in fur.
“The taxi’s here,” Kit told her as he was putting on his overcoat.
They kissed and they went out the door.
Luckily, Catharine was too busy scolding Mathilde and Solange to notice them leave.
“But Maman,” Mathilde whined, “she hit Solange first.”
“It doesn’t matter,” shouted Catharine at her most intimidating, “You two were bullying her and that kind of behavior was unacceptable.”
“I’m almost twenty and a married woman, you can’t treat me a child anymore.”
“I will when you stop acting like one.”
“It was the behavior of your tarty little niece that started it all in the first place,” Solange’s mother Carole retorted.
“Even with all the expensive clothes your husband buys you, you still look like whatever Belleville slum he pulled you out of. Maybe someone there cares about your opinion.”
Everyone gathered in the drawing room where an elaborate rococo grandfather clock stood. The seconds ticked away until the new year, 1934, began.
At the stroke of midnight, glasses of champagne were poured, masks were removed, and boys took the opportunity to kiss girls they fancied. The amusement provided by Marianne’s outburst had faded and it was if it had never happened. That was how careless they all were; they cared so little about people that they could humiliate them and easily forget about it. But Marianne could not hate them, she could only pity them. She could only pity their carelessness.
Catharine noticed that Agnès and Kit had disappeared and began to ask where they were. No one had seen them for at least ten minutes.
“Have you seen them?” Edmond asked Marianne.
“No,” she lied.
She was furious with him for spreading filthy rumors about her but that only seemed to amuse him more. Getting her upset was exactly what he had wanted. It pleased him to torment her because he could.
All of the torment he had given her had nothing to do with love, or even lust, but was something different all together. She was merely a plaything to him.
“Please keep him away from me!” Augustin whimpered like a wounded animal.
He was curled up in a corner of his cell while two guards stood over him. His face was badly bruised and there was a cut on his right cheek. One of his eyes was near swollen shut.
“Camille Dupont?” one of the guards asked, “He seems friendly enough.”
The other guard chuckled.
“You know what he’s been doing to me.”
“He likes you, you should be flattered.”
They walked away laughing. The sound of their laughter echoed menacingly through the corridor.
Augustin tried to sit up, which was difficult because he was in so much pain. He tried to stand up but could not so to his full height.
All he could think about was the pain and the sound of the guard’s laugher.
The guards shouted something back at him about how they were coming back to get him later because Camille wanted to see him again.
Augustin staggered over to his bed and took the dagger he had fashioned out from under his pillow and dared the world to give him a reason not to use it on himself. The blade was sharp; it would be a quick way to go. His chest rose and fell as he breathed. He held the dagger to his own throat.
“Go ahead,” he told himself, “What do you have to live for?”
At first, he had told himself that he deserved to be here. That he was not any better than the likes of Camille. But now he was wondering what he had done to deserve all of this pain and humiliation.
Then he lowered the dagger. He was not the one who deserved to die.
Even with the dangerous life he had lead, he had never considered killing anyone. But he had never had a reason to.
The guards did come back for him and they were still laughing. Nothing amused them more than having prisoners fight each other. Augustin had prepared by stashing the dagger under his shirt. Camille bared his large teeth at him when he was brought into the shower block and turned on the shower, which made a loud noise that could muffle any other sound. He came over to Augustin, held him against the wall, and whispered something into his ear. Augustin squirmed to try to get free and tried to push Camille away from him.
He struggled with Camille but was able to knock him to the ground. His left foot went on Camille’s face, covering his mouth, and his other foot went on his left arm. With his free hand, he took the danger out from under his shirt. Bending down, he slit his victim’s wrists open, making bright red gashes on his arms. Camille writhed under his feet but as the blood poured out of him, he lost the energy to resist.
Augustin dropped the dagger under one of Camille’s hand. He was left handed, so it landed under Camille’s right hand.
He got out of the shower and and went over to a sink to wash his hands and face. The guards came to bring him back to his cell. They appeared to know what had happened but did not say anything and just lead him out of the shower block.
One of the guards repeated an old saying to the other, “It’s a dangerous animal that fights back.”
The first weeks of January 1934 were taken up by a political scandal which was in all newspapers. A certain Alexandre Stavinski had been found dead from a gunshot wound in a chalet in Chamonix. Stavinski’s death had been declared a suicide but some were saying that he had been murdered. It was believed that he had connections in high places and this apparent murder was taken as another example of corruption in the Radical Government.
Manon had gone into mourning for her brother who was also believed to have committed suicide. Marianne brought her some of the croquembouche from Agnès and Kit’s wedding reception on the way home and told her about how angry Tante Catharine was with them when they were caught but how nice the church blessing and reception had been.
Agnès had asked her to be one of her bridesmaids which she had not really wanted to do. She had not wanted to go to the wedding because she wanted to do little besides hide in her room but she had gone to support Agnès. Tante Mimi had told that if she did not go, Agnès would never forgive her.
When she got home, she stood in front of her mirror and looked at herself in her cream satin bridesmaid dress. “Doesn’t my niece look lovely?” Tante Catharine had said to a friend of her’s. “If she’s so lovely,” the friend had said. “Why hasn’t she found anyone.”
She changed out of the bridesmaid dress and into her pajamas and curled up in her bed and cried. Cried in a way she had not cried in years.
All her life she had been told the same thing, that when things did not go her way, she acted like everything was hopeless and her life was over. But for the first time, things actually were hopeless.
Augustin was in prison and would most likely rot there. She would never love anyone like she loved him. But maybe what was worse was the way people had looked at her on New Year’s Eve, like she was a joke at best and tainted and dirty at worst.
“You’re dirty and nobody decent’ll ever want you,” she remember Edmond saying.
When her tears were spent, she sat up and patted Johnny who was curled up on the foot of her bed.
“Good boy,” she whispered.
She then got out of bed, running her fingers through her hair to loosen the tight, artificial waves. Her hair was sticky and crunchy with dried permanent wave product.
A kettle for tea was put on the stove and she fixed herself a glass of camomile tea with honey and lemon and one of her sleeping pills to dissolve in it. While the water was heating up, she took a knife from a box and sharpened it with a pumice stone.
With her cup of tea and the sharpened knife, she returned to bed. She let the tea and the sleeping pill make her a little drowsy before she made the first slit on her wrist. Johnny noticed her grimaces of pain and began whimpering. A dog whimpering has to be one of the most heartbreaking sounds in the world.
“It’s alright boy,” she told him.
She made several more slits on each of her wrists and then fell back onto her pillows. Blood dripped from her delicate wrists and stained the white sheets.
Johnny continued to whimper at the sight of his mistress in distress.
Marianne grew light headed and felt as though the room was spinning. Her vision was blurry and she hardly had the strength to move. She turned and looked at the crucifix on her nightstand and mumbled through a prayer.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
She lifted her face towards heaven and lay still and waited for everything to go dark.