Retribution: Chapter 26

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January 29th 1915

My dearest Jamie,

Papa and Mimi are well and send their love. Maman and Catharine are well, Maman and Catharine. Little Marianne is unable to write, considering she is only three months old.

It seems an eternity since you left for basic training and I can hardly believe that it has hardly been been two weeks. But I’ve been trying to keep myself occupied.  

I’ve joined a group of ladies who are knitting socks and rolling bandages to send to the front and we’ve started taking up a collection for Madame Gautier, one of our tenants, whose husband was killed in Flanders and left her a widow with two children. I think of you all the time and I hope you’re thinking of me.

Yesterday, as I was walking down the stairs to go to dinner, I remember that you had first asked me to marry you right there in there in the minstrel’s gallery almost four years ago.

Soon after you left, Marianne and I went to have the photograph I’m sending along with this letter taken. “

The photograph she had sent along with the letter was of her in a beautiful evening dress, bending over a bassinet where Baby Marianne was sleeping. It looked as though she might have just come home from a dinner party, ball, or from the theater and had come to say goodnight to her beloved child.

Mardi Gras found Adèle staying home with a cold and she asked Lucille to run her a bath. While the water was running, Adèle took a bundle of letters tied with ribbons out of a basket by the toilet which held magazines.

Charles kept a box hidden in his office and today he left the key to open it on his desk. Adèle, like Pandora, could not resist taking a peek inside. She snatched a bundle of letters, intending to read them and put them back before Charles returned home. The letters were hidden in the magazine basket while the bath was prepared. Baths always helped when she had a cold. When she got into the bath, she began reading her husband’s old letters.

“The sorrow I feel at your absence is only helped by the thought that you will one day return to me the same way you left me, with the sun shining, people cheering, and a band play La Marseillaise. But this time you will be wearing a medal just like you promised.

With Love,

Mado”

At the bottom of a page was an imprint of an infant’s pudgy hand made with ink.

Adele further examined the photograph of her predecessor and thought she was very beautiful. She also got a sense of her personality: loving and dutiful. The picture she got of Madeleine was of the perfect wife; everything that she had imagined her to be.

Tucked up in bed with a hot water bottle and a cup of tea, she spent the day reading the letters of another woman’s love for her husband. But what confused her was that the letters were addressed to a “James Beaumont” who was referred to as “Jamie”, not to a Charles. There was more to this story than just a previous wife and a daughter.

Adèle knew that she should not have opened up the box. Like Pandora, she had opened up a world of sorrow. The dilemma was whether she should confront her husband about the secrets he was keeping from her and risk him being angry with her for snooping or continue living with a man who was not what he seemed.

Augustin had been given an address in Montmartre from Philippe, and was told that it was a place he could go for a while. The metro stopped several minutes away from the great hill overlooking Paris. He took the trolley up to Sacre Coeur and would work his way down from there.

It was still very early and the sky had the pearl grey color of first light. The only people out on the streets were milkmen making their deliveries and a few stragglers from the night before. Augustin navigated his way through the warren of narrow streets to find the address.

He came to a building at the end of a street which was next to a cafe which rounded off the block. It was tall and narrow and made of white stone overgrown with vines. The instructions he had been given were to ring the doorbell twice and knock three times. A window above him opened and a delicate white arm appeared and dropped a key tied with a red silk cord. Augustin picked it up and used it to open the door.

Inside, there was a hall decorated with old paisley curtains and oriental rugs in bright colors. The house was laid out on what appeared to be a long and wide staircase which lead up to the roof.  Music was playing on a phonograph off in the distance.

Augustin sat down on a worn and comfortable old sofa in a cozy little corner of the house. He still felt a bit sleepy, as if he had just woken up from a long sleep. The past six months had been a nightmare and the night before had been a dream. Now he was awake and had to face reality.

The thing he wanted more than anything was to talk to Maude. Her job as a hairdresser had given her a skill for lending a sympathetic ear to people’s problems, without the tendency some had to try to play devil’s advocate or reply with a flippant, “well what do you want me to do about.” But he knew that he should wait a little before could see her and Lèon because they would the first people they would question when they went looking for him.

“Well, good morning.”

Augustin turned his head to see Hélène standing next to him. He had not heard her approach him. Her light step and her flowing, filmy, negligee, which revealed more than it covered up, made it seem as though she had floated down the stairs. Her face was painted up with a white make up a few shades paler than her fair skin (one had to look twice to see that she was wearing makeup), with a circle of rouge on each cheek, and a bow shape on her lips. A crown of white flowers was placed among her tousled ringlets.

Hélène smiled at him as if he were about to take her picture. That was how she always behaved whenever Augustin had seen her, as if she were performing. Was she such a consummate performer that it was natural to her, or was she different when she was by herself or when she was alone with Faucherie?

“Ah, hello,” Faucherie said as he came down the stairs after his mistress, wearing a dressing gown of striped silk.

“Monsieur Faucherie, good morning,” Augustin said.

“How’s your charming Marianne?”

“Very well, we’re going to be married as soon as we can.”

“Congratulations, I think this calls for cigars.”

Faucherie opened up a box of cigars which was placed on the table text to the sofa. He took out two cigars as well as a book of matches, lit one of the cigars and handed it to Augustin, then lit his own.

“There’s nothing more romantic than a wedding, is there?” Hélène added.

The doorbell rang twice, followed by three knocks on the door and Faucherie went to go let whoever was there in. Hélène followed him to greet their guest.

The stranger gallantly kissed Hélène hand; his name was something foreign which Augustin did not catch and he had a decidedly foreign accent. He was a striking middle aged man with tanned Mediterranean features, large black eyes, a large rabbit-like nose, and his thinning, silver streaked dark hair slicked back and he was dressed in a sweater and a flamboyant cravat and carried a sketchbook and camera.  Augustin listened in on their conversation and learned that he was there to do some sketches of Hélène for a painting he was doing of her.

An armchair had been placed in the level above them which was draped with a large piece black satin. Hélène removed her negligee in full view of the three men, which gave each of them a frisson of pleasure and excitement.  She lounged back into the chair and bits of the piece of black satin were placed over, not covering very much. The stranger began to snap photographs of her and positioned her in different ways to see how they would look. He settled on having her leaning back in the chair with her right profile facing him and her hands placed on the delta between her legs.  Then a detailed sketch was done.

While the sketch was being done, Augustin and Faucherie went to the cafe next door because they were hungry. There they had breakfast, smoked, and chatted. When they returned, Hélène had changed into a smart, black and white boucle suit and the stranger had packed up his things. He brought his sketch book over to show them; he had done several sketches of Hélène, some in which she looked elegant and seductive, and some in which she looked soft and girlish, almost doll-like. The one which was chosen for the final painting combined both of these evenly.

Augustin did not know much about art but he liked these sketches a lot and thought they would make a very nice painting.

“I didn’t catch your name, Monsieur.” he said to the stranger as he was leaving.

“Picasso.”  

The different levels of the house wound up to a deck on the top floor and a tiny flight of stairs crept past the chimney up to a deck on the very top of the building.  Augustin climbed up there because Faucherie told him that the view from there was lovely.  The rooftops below him spread out for miles with the Seine winding through the middle. Far in the distance were the industrial towns of Charenton and Bercy and beyond that… The world around him was vast. He could go anywhere, see anything, and do anything.

Augustin remembered that Marianne’s cousin was on honeymoon in Egypt. He fancied seeing Egypt and Marianne would like it there too. She was under no illusions about the choice she had made but he did not want her to regret it. A girl like her deserved to be protected and looked after like a princess and he wished to do just that. But he would have to think carefully to come up with a way to get out of the mess he was in. He needed to leave the country or at the very least lay low for a while. Running away to Egypt could be a good idea.

Madame Océane was wiping down the tobacconist counter when the policeman whom she had spoken with several months before came in. She would recognize that bull-dog’s face anywhere.

“Good afternoon, Madame,” Desmarais said, saluting to her,

“Good afternoon, Officer,” she responded.

Marianne came out of the kitchen, carrying a tray.

“Mademoiselle,” he said to her, “Can I have a word with you?”

“Certainly,” she answered.

She put her tray down on the counter; the cups and plates shook and clattered unsteadily.

“Your friend Augustin Lerou escaped from La Santé last night.”

“I’ve heard all about. There are plenty of newspapers lying around here and people read them and talk about the news. A waitress hears lots of things. People were talking about it this morning.”

“May I ask where you were last night Mademoiselle?”

“I went to a party, at the Hôtel Jonquil near the Place St. Sulpice. Isn’t that right, Anna?”

Anna was pouring coffee at a nearby table.

“I invited her to come with me,” she added.

“Did you visit Augustin Lerou yesterday afternoon, before his escape.”

“Yes, Monsieur.”

“How did the visit go?”

“He asked me what my plans were for that evening, since it was Mardi Gras. I told him that I was going to a party that my cousin and her husband were throwing and he got jealous because he has this idea that my cousin’s husband is out to seduce me. You know how people like that are? No one fears being robbed more than a thief. I was so upset after this visit that I decided not to go out as planned but my friend Anna later convinced me to come with her to that party at the Hôtel Jonquil I told you about.”

“It’s true,” Anna joined in, “I thought it would do her good to get out.”

“ Then I came home around eleven and went right to bed because I had to get up early this morning.”  

“I’m sorry to have bothered you, ladies, but we have to check everything. We’ve already checked his old lodgings and spoken with his aunt and cousin but couldn’t find anything. Thank you, good afternoon.”

He touched his cap again and turned to leave.

“And you Mademoiselle, I suggest you find a better man, raise fat babies, and keep out of trouble.”

The girl’s story seemed pretty much in order, but one could never be too careful. If she was lying to him to protect her lover, he wanted to figure it out.

It was a shame that such a sweet blossom had gotten tangled up with the pernicious weed that was Augustin Lerou. But weeds usually strangled all that was good and useful; that was why they must be uprooted as soon as possible.

Marianne arrived home that evening and found Louise standing in the front hall, keeping an eye on Jacques, who was playing on the floor with some toys. He tried to stand up on his fat little legs but fell down. Jacques had just turned a year old and would be walking soon.

“Good evening,” Marianne said to Louise in passing.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” she answered.

“Excuse me,” Marianne was puzzled by her answered.

“I saw him leave here this morning. I recognized him as one of those escaped convicts the police are looking for; their pictures were in the newspaper. Really, I’m surprised that you would even know someone like that, let alone hide him…in your bed.”

“You won’t tell anyone he was here, will you?”

“I could never do that, even to someone I hated.”

“Thank you, thank you, Louise.”

“I really hope you know what you’re doing.”

She picked up Jacques and carried him off.  The pitter patter of Johnny’s paws and scratching of his nails on the floor was heard as he came out of where he had been sitting with Papa Verte. Marianne bent down and scratched him bend the ears.

She was not ashamed of the night before. When Augustin had taken her into his arms and begged her to spend the night with him, she could not say no to him, even if she had wanted to, and at that moment she had wanted nothing more than to say yes to him. Then she had known he was safe and out of trouble. Augustin was friend, brother, son, and lover to her and she constantly worried about him every moment they were not together.

Papa Verte was sitting in his little room listening to an evening radio program, when there was a knock on the French doors leading outside. He got up to answer it.

“Excuse me, Monsieur,” a policeman said to him, “May I ask you a few questions?”

“Alright,” Papa Verte answered.

“Are you Monsieur Verte, the landlord of this building? I knocked on the front door asking for the landlord and the young woman with the baby told me to try this door instead.”

“Yes, I’m Verte.”

“Is one of your tenants a Mademoiselle Marianne d’Aubrey?”

“Yes, I watch her little dog when she’s at work and she sometimes looks after my grandson when my daughter-in-law goes out.”

“Did anyone strange visit last night, anyone suspicious.”

“Excuse me, officer, my memory isn’t what it once was…No, I don’t think I saw anyone. Most of my tenants were out all night so it was pretty quiet.”

“And Mademoiselle d’Aubrey, was she out all night.”

“I saw her come home; she came home fairly early and went right to her room. And she left for her job this morning the same as usual.”

“Did she walk home with anyone last night.”

“Yes, a girlfriend of her’s, a young lady she works with.”  

“Thank you for your cooperation, Monsieur Verte.”

Desmarais thought over Marianne’s alibi to see if there were any weak spots. Old Verte seemed a credible enough witness and Desmarais did not see any reason why he would lie. But he felt that if he kept on poking at the story long enough, he would find the weak spots he was looking for.

Marianne changed out of her uniform because Manon would be dropping by shortly. They had planned to go to an Ash Wednesday mass at St. Sulpice and then get something to eat afterwards. A milk bottle had been placed under the faucet of the sink, which leaked. Marianne collected the water to used to hydrate the potted red begonias which she kept on the windowsill above the sink as well as to fill up the kettle. She had forgotten to water the begonias that morning.  

Manon showed up at the front door wearing a winter coat and a hat with a black lace veil. Ever since her brother’s death, Manon’s almost mortal dread of having him mentioned seemed to have increased and she was paler and more introverted than usual. Still, there was the same Madonna-like smile.

There was so much Marianne wanted to tell her friend; so much that she knew she must keep secret.

“So what do you plan giving up for Lent?” Manon asked.

“Getting chocolate cake every Saturday,” Marianne answered, “I’m getting too plump, it doesn’t suit me.”

“Nonsense, you’re as dainty as a rose.”

“One that’s a bit overblown.”

They arrived at the church just as mass was about to begin and quietly look their seats in a pew. Marianne knelt down on the floor in prayer and began to think. She knew that God would forgive her for what she had done because it was done out of love and was not love the most honorable and holy thing there was. Or at least that’s what Marianne kept telling herself.

During the mass, a sign of the cross was drawn on their foreheads in palm ash. When they got up to get in line to receive the sign of the cross, Marianne noticed a familiar young man get out of his pew and into the line. He was accompanied by an old man. The two had similar sunburnt faces and fair hair, though the old man’s hair was greying, as well as muscular limbs. The young man turned and looked at them.

“I wonder who he is?”Manon whispered to Marianne.

When Marianne returned to her pew, she continued her train of thought. Her conscience was heavy and she felt that she must unburden it. She would go to confession after mass and tell the priest everything, or at least the part about her sinning with a young man, that part she was the least ashamed of and the part which the priest would not suggest that she also confess to the police.

The modern way to talk about the business of love seemed to be as often and as vulgarly as possible and it was enough to put a girl off the idea of it all together, that was until she had met Augustin. Now she felt like spring after a long winter: warm and alive and new.

Surely God had not created something so wonderful for it to be wrong.

When mass was over, the young man they had seen earlier approached them.

“Mademoiselle d’Aubrey,” he said, “You remember me, Gabriel Renault?”

“Oh yes, how wonderful to see you, Gabriel,” Marianne answered.

“My father and I have come into town to visit my sister Gillian and her husband for the week.”

“And how are you, Monsieur Renault?”

“Just fine, Mademoiselle,” the old man responded.

“Manon,” Marianne said to her friend, “This is Monsieur Renault and his son Gabriel. Monsieur Renault and his family were tenants of my grandparents back when they still owned the chateau. Gabriel, Monsieur Renault, this is my friend, Manon Dupont.”

“Pleased, Mademoiselle Dupont.”  

“Mademoiselle Dupont and I on our way to confession.”

But a celestial brightness- a more ethereal beauty- shone on her face and encircled her form, when after confession, homeward serenely she walked with God’s benediction upon her.” Gabriel murmured.

“Longfellow, Evangeline.”

“Good evening young ladies,” Monsieur Renault added.

The two Renaults walked towards the door and Gabriel turned around to get another look at them.

“He is very handsome,” Manon whispered to Marianne.

Faucherie had spent most of the day on the telephone. Augustin overheard him discussing a fresh crop of girls from the country for a brothel, last night’s takings at a gambling den (La Maharani, which he learned was the name of the place he had been brought to the night before), and who did not pay their monthly protection fee. He had learned that the robbery which had sent him to prison had been staged in order to punish the jewelry store owner, who had refused to pay what Faucherie had asked.

Hélène spent the afternoon running scales on the piano to practice for her next show.

“You sound beautiful,” Augustin told her.

“Thanks,” She answered, her voice had taken on a playful, mocking tone, “When you and Marianne set a date for your wedding, make sure you invite Faucherie and I. We would never miss an opportunity to see dear old Officer Demarais.”

“Why are you teasing me?”

“Because it’s fun.”

“Play nice you two,” Faucherie cut in.

He had been listening for several seconds while pretending to still be on the telephone.

“Do you really think that girl is going to marry you? If she was smart she would find someone better, someone who’s not a wanted criminal.”

Augustin had had enough of her teasing and left the room and went into the next one, where Faucherie was.

“Don’t mind her,” Faucherie said, “how bout a game of cards.”

He took a pack of cards and a box of tobacco and rolling paper from a drawer and shuffled the cards while Augustin rolled two cigarettes.

“You’re not any worse than any other man. You just haven’t been very lucky.  The only difference between a rich and a poor man is that a poor man has to pay for his sins in this world, while a rich man gets off free. And I don’t see why the next world would be any different.”

Augustin lit both cigarettes and handed one to Faucherie.

“I thought you were trying to make me feel better,” he answered.

“Things could be a lot worse for you, my boy. You’re out of that hell-hole, you’re going to marry a wonderful girl, and she’ll go anywhere with you.”

“You’re right.”

Augustin took a dag on his cigarette and then put it out in an ashtray. Outside, night was closing in. A somewhat faded and worn looking moon appeared from behind a ragged curtain of ink black clouds.

A bed was made for Augustin in a spare room and he retired early. As he fell asleep, he thought about Maude, Léon, and Marianne and how he must keep as far away from them, because he wanted to keep them out of anymore trouble. Maude and Léon could say with all honesty that they knew knowing about his escape and the police would find nothing to implicate them, and Marianne… she was a smart girl, a lot smarter than he was, and could find away to keep them off his track.

It was when things are looking bad that people tend to find someone else to blame their troubles on. The worse thing was that everything bad that had ever happened to Augustin had been entirely his own fault.

The sooner he was many miles away, the better.

He again wished that he had just been born that very day with no past to run from and only a future to look forward to. If he  had ever had the opportunity to be anything other than what he was, he had missed it at some point in his twenty-one years of existence.

Now all he could do was the only thing he knew how to, which was running away.

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