The reason why Augustin had not written was because he had not written was that he had fallen seriously ill with something that was going around the cell block.
Delirious, his thoughts had been haunted by things he had seen while in prison, the execution by guillotine and something he had seen the night he had fallen ill.
That night he had been woken up by a guard’s whistle. An inmate had killed himself by slitting his wrists. He lay dead in his cot with a pool of his blood on the floor. Two other guards were called in to carry the body out while other prisoners rushed in to help themselves to the poor bastard’s stuff.
Death was something he thought a lot about. If it was simply falling asleep and never waking up and slipping away from all the troubles of the world, he would welcome it. But if there was a God to fear and a Hell to shun, he would be terrified.
When he was feeling better, he asked the nurse in the prison infirmary for a pen and some paper. He wrote letters to his loved ones apologizing for not writing and explaining that he had been ill and was now feeling better. He also wished them a merry Christmas since he figured it was almost the twenty-fifth.
“Chérie,” he began his second letter, “I’m sorry I haven’t written these past weeks. I was sick with something that’s been going around, but I’m much better now.
It must be almost Christmas. Where were you last Christmas and who were you with? It’s hard to believe how different things were only a year ago.
Merry Christmas, Augustin.”
Edmond and Mathilde were staying with Catherine as they usually did when they had come into Paris for business. The other Dantons were coming from Auteuil on Christmas Day.
Christmas Eve morning, Catharine had her two daughters with her for breakfast. Agnès was excited because her beau, Kit Trask, would be arriving from Cherbourg that day to spend Christmas with them. She kept his last letter with her the whole time along with a photograph of his family home in Santa Fe.
“Santa Fe,” she said, “Isn’t that the loveliest name for a place you’ve ever heard.”
Agnè spoke of Kit as her fiancé which caused Catharine to say ” Agnès, you are not engaged. When you can be engaged, I will tell you.”
Judging by his letters, Kit Trask seemed like a very nice young man and very much in love with Agnès but Catharine was going to wait until she had met him in person to decide if he was good enough for her daughter.
It then occurred to Catharine how much she had just sounded like her mother.
Kit Trask would be arriving in Paris around five o’clock that evening. Everyone was curious to meet the young man who had brought about such a change in Agnès, who was usually so sulky and bad tempered but was now giddy and lovestruck.
Luckily for Marianne, she was able to leave work early. She stopped by her flat and changed out of her uniform and into the white blouse and black skirt and cardigan she had worn on Toussaint.
It was a little after five o’clock when she arrived at Catharine’s. Annette, the maid, opened the door for her.
“They’re all in the drawing room, Mademoiselle d’Aubrey,” she told her.
Her two aunts were in the drawing room and so were Agnès and Edmond and Mathilde who had come from Auteuil. There was also another young man of about nineteen or twenty, of about average height with lean and strong muscles. His suntanned skin was almost the same shade as his light brown hair.
He was a good looking young man but his somewhat large nose and ears kept him from being what would be considered handsome.
Agnès got up and greeted Marianne then introduced the young man as Monsieur Christopher Trask from Santa Fe New Mexico. Everyone spoke to Kit in English and he spoke back in passable French.
“How are you feeling, better?” Mimi asked Marianne when she sat down next to her.
“Yes,” Marianne answered, “My headaches have all but gone away and I’ve been sleeping better.”
She also had another reason to feel better, the day before she had received a letter from Augustin and she hoped she could see him soon. But it was hard for her to get visits at La Santé because she was not family nor was she his wife.
A log of sweet smelling cherry wood burned in the hearth. Marianne still felt the winter cold and warmed herself with a glass of hot, spiced wine.
Agnès came over and sat next to Marianne so she could show her a photograph of a graceful Spanish style hacienda surrounded by picturesque rocky hills and brush land.
“This is Kit’s family home in Santa Fe,” she said, “It’s where we’re going to live when we get married.”
“It’s breath taking,” Marianne answered.
“I can’t believe I’m going to live somewhere so beautiful with a man I love and be half a world away from Maman and Mathilde.”
“I hope you don’t want to marry Kit just to get away from your mother and Mathilde,” Mimi said.
“No, it’s more of an added bonus. Kit, why don’t you tell everyone that story you told me about your aunt.”
“Alright,” Kit answered,”If everyone wants to hear it, or no?”
“It’s a ghost story.”
“Then let’s hear it,” Edmond added, “We love ghost stories, don’t we poupée?”
“I would love to hear it,” Mathilde answered.
Kit had a very pleasant voice which had a slight drawl and a singsong intonation.
“My grandfather, Jonathan Trask went west to New Mexico after it became a territory in 1850 and was one of the first settlers of of the town of Mesa Funesto. He was one of its first citizens to strike it rich in coal mining and he built a grand mansion high above the town.
Jonathan Trask had a daughter named Alice, who was said to be the most beautiful girl in the territory and men came from miles around to see her. They would stand outside the Trask mansion late into the night in hopes of catching a glimpse of Alice’s candle lit form in the window.
The year she turned twenty-one, Alice Trask fell in love with a young miner and became engaged to him. These young lovers planned to leave New Mexico after they were married and go to San Francisco much to the disapproval of Alice’s parents. But the young miner jilted Alice on their wedding day and no one ever saw him again. The rumor was that Jonathan, who couldn’t bare the thought of anyone taking his beloved daughter so far away, had the young miner killed.
The broken hearted Alice locked herself away in her room for weeks, refusing to so much as change out of her wedding dress. She finally allowed the door to be opened when she fell seriously ill and was dying, of a broken heart they said.
After Alice’s death, Jonathan Trask and his family left Mesa Funesto and returned to Santa Fe, leaving their once great mansion to fall into ruin. But letters from old friends told them how the townsfolk of Mesa Funesto claimed that when they walked past the old Trask mansion late at night, they saw a lit candle move from window to window and the silhouette of Alice Trask appear from time to time.”
“What a wonderful story,” Marianne said.
“We don’t have to go to mass until midnight,” Edmond added, “I can’t think of a better way to waste a long winter’s evening than to tell ghost stories. Trask, since you just told one, we’ll say you already went.”
“I have one,” Agnès piped in.
Agnès told the old folk tale The Golden Rose about a queen who sends her son and daughter into the forest to find a golden rose which she had lost, promising that whichever of them finds it will inherit their father’s kingdom. The little princess finds it and her jealous older brother murders her. A shepherd finds one of the little princess’s bones years later and fashions it into a flute. The voice of the princess manifests itself through the music of the flute and denounces the prince as a murderer.
Edmond and Mathilde, as vicious people often do, had turned the telling of ghost stories into a contest. They complained that Agnès’s story was not gruesome or frightening enough.
Mathilde went next; she told a story about the Demoiselles Blanches, ethereal beings who haunt forests and lead travelers astray, embellished with enough gory details to suit Mathilde’s jaded tastes.
Edmond told a ghost story frequently told to visitors to Notre Dame about a young woman who was said to have jumped from the parapets and landed on a spiked railing below and was severed in two. It is said that her ghost can be seen flitting between the gargoyles.
This was said to be the most gruesome so far.
After the four other young people had told their ghost stories, Marianne found that it was her turn.
“There once was a lowly maiden,” she began, “though a poor orphan, she was of surpassing beauty with a complexion like the petals of a rose and hair like summer sunshine. As is often the case, she was in love. In love with a young bandit who roamed the forest surrounding the village she lived in. She would meet with him under an almond tree that grew in her garden when the other women in her family went to mass.
The maiden’s kinsfolk sent her away to another part of the kingdom when this love affair was discovered. The bandit was apprehended, tried for some supposed crime, and hung with his lady even knowing about it.
The lonely maiden sat at the window one evening and saw a traveler approach the place where she had been sent. Her heart leapt when she noticed that it was her lover. The bandit told her that he had been sent to fetch her and bring her home, so she left with him on the back of his horse with her arms around his neck and her cheek on his shoulder.
The lovers bid goodbye upon arriving home and she ran inside, leaving her scarf on the saddle. Her kinsfolk became suspicious when she told them about what had happened, so the body of the hung bandit was exhumed. They found his body in the coffin, along with the maiden’s scarf. ”
Marianne had been very proud of her story; she had spent most of the evening thinking it up. But it was overshadowed by the more visceral stories told earlier by Edmond and Mathilde.
At ten, they all sat down to a dinner of turkey stuffed with chestnuts, roast goose, salads, candied fruits, and a bûche de noël. At quarter to twelve, they left to go to midnight mass at St. Sulpice.
Charles had started going to mass at St. Sulpice on Sunday afternoons, knowing that Marianne would there with her aunt Mimi. He decided to go to the Christmas Eve midnight mass, figuring that his daughter would be there as well.
Adèle usually spent Christmas Eve with Charlotte and her family. She was surprised when Charles suggested they go to midnight mass at St. Sulpice but Charles explained that it would be easier for Charlotte and Alexandre to meet them there. Jules would be tagging along as well and it would also be easier for him. They would all go to Charlotte and Alexandre’s after mass.
Sitting in his pew, Charles saw Marianne come in with the other women of her family and noticed the brooch he had given her pinned to her coat. She saw him and gave him a smile.
“Who is that girl?” Charlotte asked Adèle.
“My stepdaughter.” Adèle answered.
“Good evening, Mademoiselle,” she said when Marianne passed her by.
“Merry Christmas, Madame,” the girl responded.
The town house on the Rue Mouffetard where Charlotte and Alexandre lived was made up of two floors. The first floor had a main room with white doors that lead out onto a small wrought iron balcony, a kitchen and a dining room. The second floor had the bedrooms. It was hard to get through the main room without bumping into something because the tapestry upholstered furniture was too large for it. A scroll top with a gooseneck lamp and a telephone pass place up against the far wall.
Aimée and Desirée, Charlotte and Alexandre’s little daughters, were giddy with the excitement children usually have when they are allowed to stay up past their bedtime. Two sets of decorated wooden clogs were put out for Père Noël to place little presents inside and some cake and cookies was put out incase the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus should pass by. The cake and cookies were left over from earlier that day when they had celebrated Adèle’s name day which happened to be Christmas Eve.
“Christmas never seems quite right without little ones,” Charles said.
The little girls bid goodnight to everyone and Adèle and Charlotte went to put them to bed. The nursery door stood at the top of the stairs on the right side of the hallway. Aimée and Desirée were told to pick up their toys and put them back in the burgundy colored traveling trunk which served as a toy chest, then they were put into their pajamas, smothered in kisses and tucked into their little green bed. Adèle read them Bluebeard from a book of fairy tales which was kept on the nightstand.
When the children had fallen asleep, the adults adjourned to the kitchen to enjoy the rest of the cake and cookies left over from Adèle’s name day celebration. They sat around a green cast iron table and chairs which appeared more appropriate for outdoors than in.
Charlotte was immensely proud of the new electric cookstove and refrigerator in white and baby blue that Alexandre had given to her for an early Christmas present which she had used to bake the cake and cookies. But she had neglected to finish straightening up the kitchen.
“Charles,” she asked her brother-in-law, who was standing next to her at the sink as she was washing some cake pans and baking trays, “Did you notice that young woman Adèle was talking to at church?”
“Yes,” he answered.
“I asked her who she was and she said that she was her stepdaughter.”
Jules overheard the conversation and came over.
“Charlotte,” he said, “we should put out the presents.”
The usually lighthearted boy had an usually serious expression on his face. He looked at Charles as if he knew exactly what was going on and was saving him from an embarrassing scene. Charlotte was not usually flighty enough to be that easily distracted but perhaps she did not want to know the truth. She went and brought out the cocktails which had been cooling in her new refrigerator before going to put little presents in her daughters’s shoes.
Augustin was brought into the visiting room in the afternoon of Christmas Day where he was greeted by Maude and Léon.
“Merry Christmas,” he said to them, giving them a smile.
Maude embraced him . He was reminded of how small and frail she was. She seemed like an old woman. Léon then approached him and they greeted each other in the rowdy, familiar way they used to.
“How have you been, Léon?” Augustin asked his cousin, “You’re looking good.”
“Well you look like hell,” Léon responded.
They hugged each other.
“Merry Christmas, Augustin,” another voice joined in.
Marianne stepped forward and put her arms around his neck.
“Nice to see you, Chérie.”
He kissed her on the cheek.
His mood felt cheerier than it had been for the past few days. Maude’s gentle voice, Léon’s naive smile, and the scent of the perfume which lingered on Marianne’s neck awakened all the desires within him and reminded him of what he had to live for. As long as these three people were waiting for him and missing him, he had a reason to keep on fighting.
“It was Maman’s idea to come today,” Léon said.
“Thank you, Tante Maude.”
Augustin was thankful that the shiner Camille had given him as a welcome back from the infirmary had healed enough as to not be noticeable in the dim lighting. The last thing he wanted was to ruin this visit by making them even more worried about him.
Marianne was touched by the way he fussed over Maude by complimenting her and joking with her and making her laugh. He knew that this was the him they all loved.
“You really love her, don’t you?” she said to him, referring to Maude.
“I can’t imagine any son loving his mother more than I love her,” he told her, “She’s been my mother for most of my life.”
“What was she like, your real mother…your birth mother? Do you remember anything about her?”
“I’m surprised at how much I do remember considering I was barely five when she died. She was very beautiful. Her face reminded me of the moon. She had skin perhaps a shade darker than mine and her hair curled the way mine does. I remember sitting on her lap when I was little and pulling her curls and they would spring back. My father was very much in love with her and they would have married if they could ”
“What was he like?”
“He was very tall, wore a blue and red soldier’s uniform, and he had a very loud laugh which always seemed to make other people laugh when he did. I remember wanting to be just like him and sometimes he would let me wear his shako when he came to visit us on leave. He lived in the army barracks while we lived in the casbah.”
“What was your home like?”
“The casbah rises out of the Mediterranean and has white square buildings stacked up on top of each other. The streets are like staircases and smelt of spices and hookah smoke and were usually noisy and full of people. Different people kinds of people from all over the world, Europeans, Orientals, and Negroes. The men usually spent their time in the streets while the women were usually in the courtyards of the buildings or on the roofs. My Grande-Mère kept a garden on her roof, it smelt of herbs in the day and jasmine flowers at night. What I remember about her was that she smelt like herbs and wet earth and her hair was always pulled back by a turban. She looked like my mother but older. Whenever I smell spices, herbs, jasmine, and wet earth or see a lady wearing a turban, I think of her.”
Augustin had not thought about these things in a long time and was glad she had asked him about them, lest he forget about those important parts of his childhood.
When the visit was coming to an end, he asked Marianne what she was doing that evening.
“My Tante Maude is having the Danton’s for Christmas dinner,” she told him, “and god knows why I have to go to another dinner with the same rats I already know.”
“Is he going to be there?”
She looked confused.
“You know who I’m talking about?”
“He is but you don’t have to worry about him. I can handle myself.”
“I’m just jealous that he’ll get to look at you tonight and I won’t.”
Marianne had just enough time when she returned home from La Santé to change for dinner without having to rush before she had to go to her aunt’s.
The lobby of her building was busy with people because the Vertes were having an open house. Most of the neighborhood would be dropping by that evening. Some of them had brought food to add to the spread Louise had put out. The entire building had given what they had to spare and there was enough for a feast.
Louise was bustling around seeing to the needs of her guests; Dominic was talking with some of his work buddies; Papa Verte sat in his usual rocking chair, bouncing Baby Jacques on his knee.
Marianne said hello to them and the other people there who she knew but had to refuse their invitation to join the party.
The entire house smelt of turkey and gravy and fresh baked bread. Marianne could even smell it up in her room.
She pulled out the white dress with the red print that Augustin had given her, overturning her earlier decision never to wear it again. It was the only thing she had which was decent enough to wear to dinner that evening that they had not already seen her in. She would be damned if she gave them any reason to look down on her.