Retribution: Chapter Twenty

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Augustin retreated into his cell at the end of the day with a newspaper he had managed to get ahold of.  Nights were simultaneously the best and worst time of the day. They were somewhat more quiet and he could be alone with her thoughts but the quietness and solitude came with a feeling of uneasiness, which is why he kept a sort of dagger he had fashioned under his pillow.

Time there felt like being in a room where the walls were slowly closing in on him bit by bit so that at first you think you’re just seeing things and you don’t realize that you’re going to be crushed until it’s too late.

Most of the problems he had could be summed up in one word: Camille.

Augustin recalled all the things his superstitious grandmother had told him about the evil eye. It was as if Camille had cursed him with his menacing look to be constantly watched by the evil eye. He knew he was right to be afraid of Camille since he had seen what he was capable of, things he did not want to think about.

In the paper, he read that Faucherie had been sentenced to immediate transportation. They were bringing him down to Marseille at the end of the week and he would go to Cayenne on the next convict ship.

Faucherie’s trial sounded like it had been such a show that Augustin imagined that there had been an orchestra and chorus girls.

He was glad that he himself was not going to be transported to Cayenne. He could not imagine anything worse than being sent to the other side of the world and never seeing Tante Maude, Léon, and Marianne again. Camille and his evil eye did not seem so bad in comparison.

But the worst thing was thinking about how much he had hurt those he loved. One of the most awful parts of being in prison was that he had plenty of time and opportunity to think of what he had done to them. Most of the time, he was one push away from banging on the bars of his cell and screaming like a madman.

Charles drove to St. Germaine with Adèle and Sarah that same afternoon . He told them that they were going to have tea with an old friend of his, a Madame Mathieu. Adèle mumbled something about him having a lot of lady friends she did not know about.

He knocked on the door and came face to face with Catharine Mathieu, who had changed little since he had last seen her. Time had not spoiled her beauty but rather like the ice used to keep produce fresh during shipping, preserved it and made it even more glacial.

“Right on time,” she said to him in her surprisingly girlish voice.

“Hello Catharine,” he said to her.

“Nice to see you as well.” Her reserved gave it away that she did not quite mean this.

“This is my wife, Adèle, and my friend, Madame Brady.”

“Mesdames.”

Catharine’s sister Mimi joined her in the doorway.

“You remember my sister, Mimi.”

“Yes, it’s good to see you again.”

“Come in, come in,” Mimi added.

The two sisters lead their guests into the parlor where three young girls were seated on a sofa. The tallest one was a glamour-puss with a made up face and pin curled hair. The one who appeared to be the youngest had a demure and awkward appearance and Charles guessed that she was not long out of convent school. He could not really see the third girl.

“This is my elder daughter, Madame Danton,” Catharine introduced one of the girls, “And my younger daughter, Mademoiselle Thomas.”

“Madame, Mademoiselle,” Charles said to Catharine’s two daughters.

Then Catharine gestured to the girl sitting on the far end of the sofa.

“And this my niece, Mademoiselle d’Aubrey.”

Mademoiselle d’Aubrey was as rosy and golden as her aunts and cousins were dark and pale. She wore a black dress and her blond hair was arranged like a halo; she outshone Catharine’s daughters like the bright sun out shines the pallid moon.

“Mademoiselle.”

“Monsieur,” the girl responded.

The seating in Catharine’s parlor was arranged in a semicircle made up of two sofas with an armchair at either end.

Poor Adèle, who was seated in one of the armchairs, did not quite fit in with either of the two groups which formed on the two sofas. She was closer in age to the young girls who were seated on one but closer in position to the older women who were seated on the other. Sarah had settled herself with Catharine and Mimi and chatted with them about things which the shared state of matronhood gave them in common.

A smartly uniformed maid came in from the kitchen bringing in several trays of refreshments such as pastel colored macaroons, Madeleines drizzled with lemon glaze and sprinkled with powdered sugar, open faced cucumber and watercress sandwiches, and a caprese salad. Catharine brought in a clear glass teapot with a large flower bud inside and a kettle of steaming water. Putting the teapot where all of the guests could see, she poured the hot water inside, making the flower bud blossom open.

Charles, who was seated in the armchair closest to the door, took a sandwich and a little salad. Though he had never been one to be ashamed of being the only man in a room full women, the overwhelming femininity of his surroundings made him a little uncomfortable.

Adèle was chatting with Mademoiselle d’Aubrey who was seated closest to her. Charles observed the girl who was holding a madeleine in her hand in a rather nonchalant way and took an occasional nibble. She was a rather curious young woman who appeared to be more of a lady than her cousins and yet carried it off with a tomboyish unfussiness. Like all truly fascinating women, she refused to conform to a type.

“Is that her?” Charles whispered to Mimi, who was seated next to her.

“Yes,” Mimi answered.

“My little girl.”

“Pretty isn’t she?”

“She’s beautiful.”

“She’s very unhappy right now.”

“If she’s unhappy, I don’t want to know.”

Charles figured that love was the cause of her unhappiness because what else could so preoccupy a young girl’s mind.

It was strange to look at this child, who was his own flesh and blood, and see her as a stranger.  A lifetime of experiences he knew nothing about had gone into making the young woman he saw before him.

Twenty seasons of regret came back to him all at once.

“Marianne, would you bring me the last macaroon,” Catharine said to her niece.

Marianne got up and brought the tray over to her aunt and Catharine took the last macaroon.

“Are those your hands? The palms look so raw and red, I thought they belonged to a housemaid.”

Marianne then began to pick up as many dishes as she could carry.

“What are you doing?” Mimi asked.

“I’m going to clear the dishes. That’s what housemaids do.”

She brought her stack of dishes towards the kitchen.

“Poor kid,” Charles said.

He picked up the rest of the dishes and followed Marianne.

She was standing by the sink and the water was running. When she heard him come in, she turned and looked at him.

“Oh, it’s you Monsieur,” she said.

“I brought the rest of the dishes in.”

“Thank you.”

As she began to wash the dishes, she hummed a tune which Charles recognized.

“East Side, West Side, all around the town” Charles sang in his fine baritone, “The tots sang “ring around rosie”, “London Bridge is falling down”. Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O’Rourke. We tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York. Sidewalks of New York, I admit it’s not the first thing I would think of a French girl singing.”

“My father used to sing it to me when I was very little.”

“Are you close to your father?”

“He died in the war.”

“Did your mother tell you a lot about him?”

“She told me a lot of fairy tales about how he died fighting for France and how handsome he was. She said that he was the handsomest man she ever saw and made him sound like some sort of film star.”

“I imagine he was.”

“Don’t patronize me, Monsieur.”

“You’re a strange kid, you know that?”

“Since you asked me if I had a father, I’ll ask you if you have a daughter.”

“I do.”

“and what’s she like?”

“I think you know her pretty well.”

“Do I?”

He took her tiny hands in his large ones.

“Listen Marianne, if you were to meet your father today, if he was standing in front of you like I am now, what would you say to him?”

“I don’t know. Are you trying to tell me that…No, no, that’s impossible.”

“Darling…I don’t know how to tell you the truth without shocking you.”

“Go away…leave me alone, you’re scaring me”

“Darling!”

“Don’t call me darling!”

The girl quickly left the kitchen and returned to the parlor, distress evident on her face. Catharine, Mimi, and Sarah appeared to know exactly what had happened, Adèle looked confused, and Catharine’s daughters were indifferent.

Charles told Catharine that it was time for him, his wife, and Madame Brady, to go.

Sarah was dropped off at her lodgings and Charles and Adèle drove back to Neuilly. During the drive home, Adèle was biting her lip as if she was trying to keep something in which was bubbling at the surface. When they were safely home, she let loose with “You should be ashamed, Charles Prideaux. She’s young enough to be your daughter.”

Charles simply answered with “She is my daughter.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’m telling the truth.”

“Really?”

“Let’s sit down, it’s a long story.”

He asked Benoît to bring them some coffee and he and Adèle adjourned to the living room.

“Alright, we’re sitting down,” Adèle blew a cloud of smoke from a cigarette she had just lit, “Let’s hear it.”

“Those two women we had tea with today, Catharine Mathieu and Mimi d’Aubrey, had a sister named Madeleine, who was my first wife. She died many years ago, many years before I met you, leaving a daughter, my daughter.

She died of the consumption she had suffered from for years. I had only seen Marianne, our daughter, a handful of times because of the war, and she probably wouldn’t have recognized me if she’d seen me. You remember that I was a prisoner of the Germans during the war.”

“Yes.”

“When I was finally able to come back, Madeleine was dead and everyone believed I had been dead. Her sisters were taking care of Marianne and I figured that she would be better off with them and better off believing the fairy tales her mother told her about me. I had nothing, what could I have done for a little girl.”

“She must be what…seventeen…eighteen?”

“Nineteen years old. A young woman now and I hardly know her.”

“Why didn’t you tell me all this?”

“I didn’t think it mattered. I never thought she’d come back into my life as easily as someone would be invited over for afternoon tea.”

Catharine settled in for the evening with a cup of hot chocolate and the latest Poirot whodunit by Agatha Christie: Lord Edgware Dies.

The situation of the murder victim Lord Edgware reminded her the slightest bit of Charles. They were both wealthy men with a thing for art, a grown daughter and a beautiful young wife not much older than her. But she doubted that Adèle had the motive or the brains to kill anyone.

And the grown daughter? Catharine imagined that the day’s events had given her quite the shock.

It had been Catharine’s idea to invite Charles over so he could reveal himself to his daughter. Mimi had objected to this idea, suggesting that they should find a gentler way of telling their niece the truth about her father but Marianne was too old for such coddling. The truth was shocking sometimes and you could not always sugar coat it. Catharine had never been one to needlessly sugar coat things.

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