January into February 1934 had given the people who came into La Première Etoile plenty to talk about. There had been Stavinsky’s supposed suicide (or assassination as many were calling it). They were all repeating Le Canard Enchaîné’s quip about Stavinsky having a “long arm” if he could have shot himself from the distance that the bullet which killed him came from.
The government had fallen on January 23rd and Camille Chautemps had been replaced by Édouard Daladier much to the satisfaction of hardly anyone. Those on the right end of the political spectrum were still harping on the Stavinsky scandal as proof of liberal corruption while those on the left end believed that Daladier’s party was too cozy with the conservatives and fascists.
On February 6th, people were warned to be careful when they went out that night because there was talk of rioting. That evening found Marianne working the closing shift. She yawned through her last few hours of work and tried to stay awake. Though she was feeling better than she had back in December, her former vitality had not fully returned yet. She was afraid that she was becoming sluggish and lazy and was putting on weight. She was dreadfully afraid of gaining extra weight which might be less noticeable on taller women.
Since getting out of the hospital, her will to live had returned somewhat. Maybe she finally understood what her aunts had been telling her the whole time, to be strong and hold on till the end. Something Mother Superior had always told the girls at school came back to her, “a life spent avoiding heartache is a life unlived.”
It was probably somewhere between nine and nine thirty. She had an hour left of work, a half hour if she was being optimistic. The last few customers were coming in and out. A party of four came in, three men and a girl. Then three men were all well dressed in dark suits, overcoats, and homburgs. The girl was perhaps the most beautiful she had ever seen off of a movie screen. She had a striking combination of almost black hair and almost white skin, deep red lips, brilliant blue eyes, a dazzling smile, and a way of carrying herself as if she was perfectly aware of her beauty but was not conceited about it. Her clothing seemed to have its cue from its wearer’s coloring; she wore a black dress and hat, red shoes, a white coat, and a blue necklace. The whole look was worthy of a Vogue fashion plate. This little group were the only people left in the café. They chatted secretively amongst themselves.
The minutes ticked by like an eternity. Marianne was exhausted, she simply wished that these people would leave so she could go home. She went over to bring them a basket of bread and stifled a yawn.
“Past your bedtime, honey?” one of the men asked.
Marianne haughtily ignored his comment and continued with pouring them glasses of water.
“What time does this joint close?” another asked.
“You’re a sweet kid, do know that? How about you join us for a drink?”
‘No thanks, I’m still on that job,” Marianne yawned again.
The dark beauty and the man seated closest to her appeared to be playfully arguing.
“You are not so cute,” he said.
“That Augustin Lerou is,” she said.
Marianne blanched at the sound of that name.
“Can’t you see the young lady is exhausted?” He said to Madame Océane, “Why don’t you let her off? We’re good friends of her’s and we’ll see she gets home alright.”
“Marianne, I’ll let you off early,” Madame Océane answered “They’re the only ones left. If you want to join them, you can. Just get home before it gets late.”
“Would Mademoiselle care to join us?”
Marianne did not want to join them and saw no reason why she should except maybe curiosity.
But a desire to know why they wanted her company overcame her better judgement.
The man who had asked her over was tall, well built, and good looking. His tannish skin and light hair were a nice contrast to his beautiful lady friend’s snow white skin and ebony hair. He smiled as if he knew how good looking men with mercilessly charming smiles affected her. There was something about him which made one want to trust him. His large brown doe eyes gave the appearance of complete innocence. But he looked at her as if he knew all about her and exactly where she was vulnerable. Marianne had to admit, she found him both fascinating and frightening.
“Have you had your supper yet?” He asked.
“No,” she responded.
“Then how’bout I treat you to dinner.”
“I’d rather pay for it myself, Monsieur.”
Marianne took a seat between her host and his lady friend. The lady friend turned and said “I’m Hélène.”
Oh yes, Hélène, the famous singer. Which meant that her host was Bruno Faucherie.
“How are you this evening?” Faucherie asked Marianne.
“Alright,” she answered.
“What are you going to have for dinner?”
“I’m not sure. I’m not terribly hungry.”
“I hear the chicken cassoulet here is excellent,” Hélène added.
“Then I’ll have that.”
Manon brought over a dish of cassoulet with five plates. Everyone at the table helped themselves. Faucherie poured Marianne a glass of wine which she did not touch.
“May I know who I have the pleasure of dining with tonight?” She asked him, since he had not yet properly introduced himself.
“I’m Bruno Faucherie,” he answered, “And you are Marianne d’Aubrey.”
“How do you know me?”
“I make it my business to know people, especially when they are as pretty as you.”
The smell of the cassoulet was intoxicating and it made her realize that she was hungrier than she thought. She dipped some bread into the sauce and picked at the bits of chicken and sausage and carrot and celery while avoiding the beans which she did not like.
One of the men who had come in with Faucherie had gone outside. He came back in, whispered something to the other man and they both left.
“Where did they go?” Marianne asked.
“To take care of something,” Faucherie answered simply.
And that was that.
Marianne believed that she heard the sound of a struggle in alley outside but knew that it was best not to say anything.
When the two men returned, they gave their apologies to the ladies and sat back down to enjoy some more cassoulet.
Marianne found herself having a good time much to her surprise. They talked about an Egyptian themed party that Faucherie and Hélène were going to during Carnival which Marianne found interesting because she was fascinated by anything to do with Egypt. Hélène was persuaded to give an impromptu performance of I’ll be there Tonight, the song which had made her famous. She was singing about a hypothetical lover, a dashing and no good cad who she knows cannot be trusted but despite warnings from her friends, she agrees to meet with him that night.
“Monsieur Faucherie,” Marianne told her host, “I’ve had really had a wonderful time but I’m curious. Why did you ask me to dine with you tonight?”
“We have a mutual friend, don’t we Mademoiselle?” Faucherie asked, “A certain green eyed boy.”
She had to bite her lip from retorting “who the two of you got locked up in jail” and instead she answered “yes, that’s true.”
“You and Augustin Lerou were lovers , is that true?”
The depth of Marianne’s feelings for Augustin sometimes blinded her to the fact that her relationship with him had been too innocent to say that they had been lovers. But Faucherie took her blush as an affirmative. He assumed that it had been her first serious affair and she was rather shy about it.
“Then you must harbor a grudge against me for taking young Monsieur Lerou away from you.”
“Augustin made his choice freely; he knew the consequences.”
“Well, My Child, we’re going to get him out.”
“You’re joking with me, certainly.”
“No Dear,” Hélène added “That’s why we invited you over.”
They began speaking in low, hush-hush tones about a plan to spring Augustin and Anton-le-Basque out of La Santé which they referred to as “going to the doctor to get aspirin.”
“Plan to go and visit Augustin exactly a week from today,” Faucherie instructed her, “but before then, stop by The Green Goblin.”
Marianne walked home with Faucherie’s orders playing over and over again in her head.
As he was getting ready for bed, Charles was startled by Adèle who came into the bedroom looking pale and agitated.
“It’s Jules,” she told him, “Charlotte just called to tell me that they just brought him to the hospital after he showed up on their doorstep all beaten up. He said that a mob of blue shirts attacked him on his way home from meeting some friends of his.”
“I’ve heard rumors that there was going to be rioting tonight.”
Adèle seemed horrified that anyone could possibly want to hurt her baby brother. Jules himself seemed to find it inconceivable after a lifetime of hardly ever receiving so much as a harsh word from anyone.
The newspapers the next day talked about how right wing mobs had stormed through Paris the night before and converged on the Place de la Concorde, beating up known liberals which explained what had happened to Jules.
Those days of February 1934 had a sleepy yet tense feel to them, almost like the oppressive heat and humidity before a summer thunderstorm.
Maude took the day off on Tuesday the 13th of February to tidy up her flat.
Dusting the mantle, she found a little lion carved from wood. It made her smile to see it.
Years ago when Augustin had come over from Algiers as a little boy with a mop of dark curls, he had been clutching this toy the entire time.
“Does your lion have a name?” She had asked him.
“Asaad,” he had answered.
There was a knock on the door and Léon went to open it.
“Maman,” he said, “Marianne’s here to see you.”
The girl stepped through the door.
“I’m on my way to visit Augustin,” she said “Do you have anything you want me to bring to him.”
“I have the clean clothes he asked for,” Maude answered.
She gave Marianne a basket full of clothes which she had ironed and folded that morning.
“You are welcome, My Dear. I don’t know what he’d do without you. You’re the only ray of sunshine in his life.”
“That’s not true.”
“Well, tell him we said hello.”
Maude kissed her cheek and they bid each other goodbye. She went back to dusting the knickknacks on the mantle; dusting off memories of happier days.
Perhaps if she looked back far enough she could figure out what events had sent her life in the direction it was going no matter how unremarkable it had seemed at the time.
Anticipation made it hard for Augustin to sit still that day. He was afraid that Faucherie’s escape plan would fail or worse, never happen. And if he did get out, what then? What would be outside there waiting for him? More running and hiding. But he would rather run and hide and be free than be trapped.
Augustin felt as though he must follow his star wherever it lead.
Marianne had written to him saying that she would visit him that day. He spent the morning in his cell waiting for her. Whenever the guards were not looking he would take out a fake pistol he was fashioning from wood from the carpentry shop he had stashed away. He blackened it with shoe polish from an old tin he had found in the warden’s garbage.
A guard and a matron came down the hall towards his cell, so he quickly put his project away under his mattress. The guard and matron were escorting Marianne, whose hair was worn loose and her nose and cheeks were rosy from the cold.
“Give me the basket, please,” the guard asked her.
Marianne handed the basket she was holding to the guard. He went through it’s contents and seemed to find things in order. She started to walk towards Augustin’s cell.
“Wait,” the guard said, “The matron has to search you.”
The matron went through Marianne’s pockets and patted her down.
“You have five minutes, Mademoiselle,” she said.
The guard unlocked the cell door to give Augustin the basket Marianne had brought him. On top of the neatly folded clothes in the basket was the latest issue of a popular music magazine.
“Thanks Chérie,” he said to his girl.
He reached his hand through the cell bars to put it on her waist.
“You’re welcome,” she put her hand through the bars to touch his cheek.
“It’s Mardi Gras, do you have any plans for tonight?”
“Mathilde and her husband are throwing a party at their home in Auteuil.”
“You seem to be spending a lot of time with them lately.”
“They’re my cousins, Augustin. I can’t just avoid them.”
“Well you don’t seem to be trying to avoid them.”
“What do want from me?”
“I don’t think you even want to avoid them, especially not Edmond. You like having some big shot after you, don’t you? You’re bored with waiting for the poor soul behind bars and you’ll dance for the first person who’ll name a tune.”
“You’re calling me dishonest, that’s rich. What have I ever done done to make you think I was unfaithful to you? What have I ever done but stand by you when anyone else would have given up.”
“Yes, play the martyr why don’t you. Act like you float high above everyone else and you’re as white as snow when really you’re as low and dirty as anyone else.”
“Time’s up,” the guard said.
The guard lead Marianne away. When she got to the end of the hallway, Augustin heard her begin to cry.
He had always known that life beat the softness out of people. Whatever softness was left in him was being beaten out at that very moment. Or maybe his innocence died along with Camille DuPont.
Augustin sat down on his bed and picked up the music magazine Marianne had brought him. Hidden underneath the the magazine’s cover was another note from Faucherie, saying that he would come to get him later that night.
“P.S. destroy this after reading,” the note finished up.
Augustin tore up the piece of paper and swallowed it quickly.
Tuesday the thirteenth of February was Mardi Gras, the final night of carnival. The weather was mild for February which was good news for the festively dressed throngs of revelers which filled that Place St. Michel. The sun was going down and great bursts of pink light signaled the end of the day. Fading sunlight cast long shadows on the pavement and made the faces of the people passing by look greenish. They moved along in a sea of shadows moving in two bustling currents. These people were rushing home to throw off their workaday clothes and put on their best to go out partying, knowing that the forty days of Lent would begin tomorrow.
Marie loitered outside Le Paradis at the beginning of her workday as she was waiting for Cerise to return from a kiosk where she was buying cigarettes and candy. Le Paradis was on one of the shabby looking, narrow little cobblestone streets off of St. Michel. It was lined with old and faded looking building, some worse off than others with walls plastered with old signs and peeling posters and dirty windows with sun bleached shutters. Some of them had a sign saying “Hotel” which meant that Marie and Cerise’s clients could rent a room there for a quick rendezvous.
A man of Marie’s acquaintance named Philippe came out of the bar, already somewhat tipsy.
“Why if it isn’t Marie?” he said, grabbed her by the waist, “Why not you and and me later?”
“hey, leave the lady alone,” another man shouted at him.
“Lady?” Marie asked, “what, are you talking about me? I’d worry about your wife, I just saw her go off with another man.”
Philippe paid Marie and they went off together laughing. Their encounter was a cheap, quick, and rough, trousers and knickers dropped, skirt pulled up, fuck up against a wall.
Marie used the money to buy herself a drink inside Le Paradis. Clare, the barmaid, greeted her.
“Happy Mardi Gras, Marie,” she said, “What’ll it be?”
“Anisette, please,” Marie answered.
Clare poured Marie a shot of anisette.
From her spot behind the bar, Clare saw two policemen pass by opened front door. Her profession had conditioned her to be weary of the police least they raid the place. She stifled a frightened shriek. Marie turned around to what she was so frightened by.
But to their mutual relief, the policemen just walked past Le Paradis without even noticing it.
The mild weather of that day changed as it grew dark. A frosty mist fell as the sky changed to a dark lilac color and the streetlights came on and made the streets shimmer with a rosy glow. They shown against the buildings and illuminated the glass panes of the shop windows and made their contents sparkle. Smaller, high up windows half hidden by signs were aglow with light coming from lamps hidden behind their curtains.
Augustin had been chosen for work detail that day, clearing snow and picking up garbage. When it grew dark, he and the other convicts marched away, shackled together in a line.
“Almost ready,” Anton-le-Basque whispered to Augustin, who nodded his affirmative.
Augustin had not seen much of Anton during the months of their incarceration because they had mostly been kept apart. But in this rare moment of laxity, they had been put on the same chain gang.
As they were about to get into the truck to go back to the prison, another car pulled up and two police officers stepped up. They approached the guard who was in charge of the work detail.
From where he was, Augustin saw that they were gesturing to him and Anton.
“We would like to see those two,” one of them said to the guard.
“Let me see your credentials?” the guard, who was suspicious of these supposed officers, answered.
“Here they are,” the other officer said, taking out a gun.
Before the guard could say anything, the so called officer fired bullets into his chest. Red blooms of blood blossomed on his chest.
“Damn you,” the guard mumbled as he fell to the ground.
The officer took the keys from the guard’s pocket and unlocked Anton and Augustin’s shackles. Another guard rushed over and grabbed Augustin by the arms. Augustin fought to get one arm free to reach into his shirt to get the fake gun he had fashioned. When he got ahold of it, he stuck it into the guard’s ribs.
“Don’t do it, Lerou,” the guard warned him.
He broke away from him and whipped him with the butt of his gun, before running as fast as he could.
Anton helped him into the waiting car which took off at full speed. The two guards removed their caps and smiled and laughed. Augustin recognized them as Philippe and Jean, two members of the Faucherie gang.
“Faucherie sends his regards, boys,” Philippe said to them.
When they had outrun the police, they ditched the car and their clothes and changed into suits and masks to blend in with the crowds of Mardi Gras revelers.
Anton and Augustin followed Jean and Philippe back through the streets of Montparnasse. It was the last few moments of twilight and stars began to twinkle on one by one like stage lights in a giant theater.
Where they ended up was a white stucco building with doors and windows edged in gold paint. The shapes of the doors and windows reminded Augustin of Algiers.
Inside was an outlandish opium trip of a room which was some sort of nightclub. It was done up like the tent of some eastern sheik or maharajah with silk curtains and cushions in shades of gold, deep brown, and red, persian rugs, and palm plants. Dispersed throughout were gaming tables and heavily cushioned couches.
The air was thick with incense and tobacco smoke and the light came from chandeliers which looked like giant inverted wedding cakes made of crystals. A negro jazz band played and occasionally someone would shout about the outcome of a card game.
Cigarettes girls and cocktail waitresses wearing glitzy black dresses and headbands served the guests. Apparently tonight’s theme was Ancient Egypt because the ladies present that evening were wearing egyptian inspired clothing.
Cleopatra reclined on a sofa supported by silk pillows, sipping a cocktail which Augustin would later learn had been created especially for that evening and was called Nile Water. Mark Antony, wearing a gold silk shirt and a red satin tie with his deep brown suit, stood by her, stroking her hair and chatting with the people at the table next to them.
“How does it feel to be back among the living?” He asked them as they approached.
“Wonderful Monsieur Faucherie,” Augustin answered. He was in awe of everything and could hardly believe it was real.
“Well the evening is young and it’s just going to get more wonderful from here.”
“Will you be performing tonight, Mademoiselle Hélène?” Jean asked Cleopatra
“No unfortunately,” Hélène responded, taking a sip of her deep blue cocktail, “But if you’re good, I’ll let you buy me a drink later.”
“Do you play Vingt-et-Un, young man?” A gentleman at a nearby gaming table asked Augustin.
“Yes,” he answered.
Hélène got up and went to the gaming table. She slid a silver filigree ring off her finger and put it among the poker chips on the gaming table.
“To the victor, the spoils,” she said.
Augustin took one of the type of cocktail Hélène was drinking. It tasted of almond, bitter orange, pomegranate, figs, and whiskey. One of the Vingt-et-Un players at the table lit his cigarette.
He drew his two cards from the pile: a five of hearts and a five of spades.
“What’ll it be?” One of the men asked him.
“Draw,” he answered. He took another card: an ace of diamonds, “twenty-one.”
The frosty mist that had fallen around dusk had cleared around eleven and the rest of the night was fairly mild for mid February.
Cerise was sitting out on the enclosed patio of a bar called l’Irlandais. It’s doors were left open due to the mild weather. The darkened streets outside were bathed in pale moonlight and the flickering lights from the streetlamps. L’Irlandais and it’s enclosed patio were lit with Tiffany style stained glass lamps.
Four men came down a staircase slick with spit and spilt beer at the end of a dark and muddy alley. When they came into the light, Cerise saw that they were young, handsome, and well dressed. Three of them were leading one of them who was blind folded.
“Almost there,” one of them said to the blindfolded boy.
One of these young men broke away from the group and walked over to Cerise. She recognized him as Philippe.
“What are you charging for tonight?” He asked her.
“What does it matter?” she responded, “You never have any money to pay.”
Philippe took a wad of francs he had won at the gaming tables out of his pockets.
“Five francs and five francs for the room.”
He gave her the ten francs and she led him up to one of the rooms to rent above the bar.
Just as the party was getting going, Faucherie told Augustin that he had a surprise for him. Anton, Jean, and Philippe blindfolded him and lead him away. The walk took some ten minutes.
“Here we are,” Anton told him.
The blindfold was removed. Augustin found himself on a small street, in front of a building covered in dead vines with a round tower. A set of french doors leading into a small room were left open and an old man sat in a rocking chair, smoking a pipe.
“Good evening,” the old man said to the young men.
“Likewise Monsieur,” Philippe answered.
The old man took another puff on his pipe and continued rocking in his chair.
Augustin’s companions clapped him on the back and then dispersed. He went inside the building.
It was rather quiet inside. Everyone there had either gone to bed or were out. It seemed that the only person there was the old man in the rocking chair.
Augustin climbed the stairs and found the door into the tower at the end of a hallway. The door opened and he was ushered in.
Marianne took him into her arms when he passed through the door and held him close as if he might disappear as quickly as he had reappeared. Her hair had been worn loose, the way he liked it. She had undressed and thrown on a bed jacket.
“How are you?” She asked him, stroking his cheek.
“Glad to be out,” he answered, “Glad to be here.”
This was the first time he had seen where she lived. It was a cozy little hole under the tower’s cone shaped roof. Everything was neat, practical, and pretty; a small fire was burning in the hearth. The dress he had given her all those months back was lying on the floor as if she had taken it off and forgot about it. A book, a thriller involving a murder of the type which were popular in those days, was lying spine up on the bed.
As she tidied up, Marianne told him of how she had come by the book.
“Anna lent it to me,” she said, “she’s been telling me about it for weeks and promised to lend it to me when she was finished with it. We were at a party earlier and that’s where she gave it to me. Strangely when she lent it to me, I found a St. Anna prayer card I gave her on her name day back in July among its pages. We tried to get Manon to come to this party with us but she thought it would be unseemly since she’s in mourning for her brother.”
They began to talk about the parties they each had been two that evening: what these parties had been like, who had been there, and what had been served. The party Marianne had been to had been at the building where a friend of Anna’s. It had taken place on a staircase which wound through the entire building. They sat there on the staircase drinking gin punch and eating gougères with onion dip and baked Brie, stuffed mushrooms and lemon curd cake while a radio had been tuned to a station which played jazz music. Benny Goodman to be exact.
He told her about how he had spent the evening with Antony and Cleopatra and they had drank water from the Nile. This made Marianne giggle.
Johnny was curled up next to Augustin on the window seat and let out an occasional little snuffle or snore. Augustin reached over and patted the little dog on the head.
Marianne came over and sat down on the window seat. She placed Augustin’s head on the gentle swell of her bosom, which rose and fell as she breathed. The beating of her heart was strange and fluttery.
He wanted to think of himself as having been born that evening; having no past, only a future. With everything to look toward to and nothing to hold him back or drag him down.
He sat up and took her into his arms. She yawned.
“Are you tired?”
“I have to get up early for work tomorrow.”
“Then come to bed.”
Augustin was holding her close and leaned in to kiss her.
“I’m not sure.”
“Because I always thought that the going to bed part would come after the marrying part.”
“Would you feel more respectable if I gave you this?”
He reached into his pocket and took out the ring he had won on that hand of cards.
“Marianne d’Aubrey, will you marry me?”
She put the ring on her finger and then kissed him.
“I promise that I’ll do whatever I can to make you happy. But things won’t be easy for us, that’s the only thing I’m certain of.”
“I never wanted things to be easy.”
He kissed her and picked her up into his arms and brought her over to the bed. She lay back against the pillows and he began undoing the tie of her bed jacket, the hooks of her brassiere, and the buttons of her knickers, kissing her face and neck. Then he guided her hands to undo the buttons of his shirt and take it off. He slid down his suspenders and she put her arms around his neck.
Augustin felt that this night had been given to them as a gift: one night where they could be perfectly happy. Despite everything, they might be happy together, but any further happiness they might have would need to be fought for.
Marianne looked afraid, but only of what would happen when the sun came up and all this was over.
“How are you feeling, Marianne? Are you alright?”
“I’m just wonderful.”
She sat up and covered herself up with a sheet. There was a faint smile on her lips and a faint blush on her cheeks.
They began waking up as the sun was beginning to peak over a layer of feathery lavender clouds.
Augustin yawned and stretched as he sat up.
“I have to go.”
“Must you go so soon?”
“Everyone’ll be up soon and I don’t want anyone to see me leave.”
“Oh, let them.”
“Even if I was to get caught, I wouldn’t want to get caught here, visiting my whore.”
“That’s what I am. I’m not ashamed of it.”
He got out of bed and began putting on his clothes. She got up as well and wrapped herself up in a sheet.
“I’ll be back to see you as soon as I can. When all this is over, we’ll be married. You’ll be Madame Augustin Lerou and they’ll tip their hats to you when you walk by.”
He finished putting on his clothes and gave her a kiss.
“Goodbye,” she said.
“See you real soon, chérie.”