Easter Sunday, 1934, fell up the first of April, which also happened to be a feast day known as April Fish. Mimi’s mail was filled with the usual Easter themed greeting cards depicting crosses, chickens, rabbits, eggs, and lilies, as well as humorous images of fish: children playing with them, pretty girls kissing them, them wearing human clothes. The cards were neatly arranged in a row on her mantlepiece.
The altars of St. Sulpice were decorated with lilies and glowing white tapers, giving the church an ethereal beauty, when Mimi arrived there on Easter Morning to attend eight o’clock mass. She went to one of the altars to light three votives, one for her mother, one for her father, and one for her sister, Madeleine, and knelt in prayer while the organist was practicing the hymn, Victricem Manum Tuam.
A tall, slender, blond woman dressed in a white chiffon frock and wide brimmed hat approached Mimi somewhat hesitantly with a “good morning, Madame d’Aubrey.” Mimi recognized her as her brother-in-law’s young second wife.
“Good morning Madame Prideaux,” Mimi greeted her.
“Who were you lighting candles for?” the younger woman asked her.
“For my parents and my sister, Madeleine, may they rest in peace.”
Mimi crossed herself and Adèle did likewise.
“Charles’s first wife?”
“Were you and your sisters close?”
“You know how it is with sisters. My sister Catharine was queen of the nursery and when Madeleine was born, she couldn’t bare having a rival. Not that Madeleine was ever much of a threat. Catharine mellowed out by the time I was born and we were also close. She was the queen, I was the coddled baby, and Madeleine didn’t always get the attention she deserved. Catharine was downright beastly to her sometimes.”
“I’m a middle child myself, though my sister Charlotte and I have always been the best of friends. We absolutely dote upon our younger brother, Jules.”
“Surely the three of you must have argued and fought from time to time.”
“Of course, all siblings do.”
“Did you see my niece, Marianne, when you came in? I’m supposed to meet her here for mass.”
“No I did not. I saw Marianne last month; she had dinner with Charles and I. She’s a lovely girl and I imagine she’s a lot like her mother.”
“She has her mother’s stubbornness and thin skin but also the strength, decency, and beauty that we didn’t always notice. There’s also a lot of her father in her as well; she’s a perfect mixture of the two of them.”
“You must think I’m prying but I can’t help but be curious. But I’m afraid to come out and ask my husband himself. Losing his first wife and their daughter must have been painful for him. I must know, were my husband and your sister very much in love?”
“Of course, like I’m sure he is with you. Here’s hoping that things turn out better for the two of you.”
“Star crossed lovers…how romantic.”
“So, what are your plans for Easter, Madame Prideaux?’
“I’m spending the day with my sister and her family. I’m meeting them here.”
“Later I’m going to have Easter dinner at my niece Mathilde’s house.”
Another young woman, a petite brunette, entered the church leading two identically dressed twin little girls.
“I’m over here, Charlotte,” Adèle called to the other young woman.
“Excuse me, Madame d’Aubrey,” she then said to Mimi “My sister is here and I have to go join her,”
“It was nice talking to you, Madame Prideaux.”
Adèle’s conversation with her husband’s sister-in-law had satisfied her curiosity as much as a drop of water would have quenched a powerful thirst.
Catharine received a telegram from Agnès on the Tuesday before Easter; she and Kit had arrived in Marseilles and would be at the Dantons House for dinner on Sunday. Agnès then called her mother on Saturday saying that she was staying with Edmond and Mathilde.
After mass on Easter morning, she took a cab to Auteuil and anxiously awaited the moment she would see her daughter. The cab pulled up in front of the Danton House, a graceful off white and grey Haussmann style mansion which Étienne Danton had bought off of an aristocratic family who could no longer afford it.
Catharine found her son-in-law Edmond pulling up the garage in his bright red Rolls Royce Phantom.
“Happy Easter, Madame Mathieu,” the young man called to her.
“Likewise, Edmond,” she responded.
“I just came back from checking on the catering for tonight. Everything is in order.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“Did you take a cab all the way here from St. Germain?”
“You should have called us first, my father could have sent the car to get you. It would have saved you a lot of money.”
“Thank you, Edmond but I’m perfectly able to afford a cab. Anyway, do you know where my daughters are?”
“Agnès and Kit are playing tennis in the garden. I think Mathilde is sitting by the indoor pool.”
Catharine thanked him and continued walking towards the front door.
The interior of the mansion had been completely redone when the Dantons had purchased it. Everything which had been brought in to fill and adorn its many rooms was brand new, modern, stylish, flashy, and chosen because it they were fashionable and impressive. These rooms looked like a photograph in a magazine or a display in a furniture store rather than somewhere people actually live.
Catharine thought Carole Danton’s taste in decorating was garish and nouveau riche but that suited her family perfectly.
The indoor pool was in a wing of the house which had been added on during the massive renovation. Its walls were of white marble inlaid with blue and gold tiles arranged to look like Grecian mosaics. The floor of the rectangular pool was similarly tiled. The black and white checkered marble floor surrounding pool was cluttered with black wrought iron patio furniture and potted tropical plants such as massive white roses of sharon and yellow hibiscuses, and blue birds of a paradise. Square columns painted with Greco-roman-Egyptian inspired designs held up a ceiling from which blue and white stained glass chandeliers hung like giant earrings. Two large glass french doors and a removable wall separated the rectangular indoor part of the pool and its ovular outdoor part. During the warmer months, one could swiming from one part of the pool to the other through a waterfall.
The wing which contained the indoor pool was kept warm during the colder months for all year swimming and for the comfort of the expensive tropical plants. Entering into this wing, one felt as though they were outside on a balmy summer day.
Catharine found Mathilde floating in the pool on a black rubber inflatable inner tube. She was dressed in a revealing pink bathing suit and a scarf tied around her head to hold curlers and wave clamps in place. Mathilde looked up from the fashion magazine she was reading when she heard someone come in.
“Happy Easter Maman,” she said.
“Happy Easter Dearest,” Catharine responded.
A maid had demurely crept in after Catharine and asked if she could get them anything.
“I could go for a drink,” Mathilde told the maid, “I’ll have a whiskey sour. Maman, would you like anything to drink?”
“ I will have a glass of wine, whatever the butler has open.”
“Yes Madame,” the maid answered with a curtsy.
Catharine settled herself in a chair near a rose of sharon bush, perching herself in it like a queen upon her throne.
“What time is everyone coming over tonight?” she asked her daughter.
“Around six,” Mathilde replied, “dinner will be served around seven.”
“So how long have Agnès and Kit been staying with you?”
“Since Thursday. Edmond insisted that they stay with us for a while. He and Kit have become the best of friends.”
“Edmond told me that they were playing tennis in the garden.”
“It’s so unusually hot today, I don’t know why they would want to get all sweaty.”
The calm was broken by the noise of people running down the hallway and laughing.
“I think I hear Agnès’s elephant stomps and Kit’s donkey braying.”
The newlyweds rushed in through the door with Edmond following behind them. Catharine stood up to greet them. She kissed her daughter and son-in-law on both cheeks.
“Welcome back, my love,” she said to Agnès, “Kit, I hope she was not too much trouble.”
“She was no trouble at all ma’am” Kit answered.
Mathilde paddled her hands in the water to get her innertube to edge of the pool. Edmond bent down to kiss her.
“Edmond, did you sort out that ridiculous misunderstanding with the caterer?” she asked her husband.
“It’s all taken care of, poupée,” he answered.
“Can you believe it, Maman. They tried to to send us Norwegian salmon instead of Alaskan, and Siberian Sturgeon caviar instead of Beluga. Edmond had to go down there and straighten them out.”
“Yes, what a catastrophe. I’m glad everything worked out.”
The sun rose on Easter Sunday to the ringing of church bells, which had been silent since the preceding Thursday. A story told to children was that the bells flew away to Rome to be blessed by the Pope and brought back the chocolates and eggs which their parents hid throughout the houses and gardens for them to find. Sweet shop windows had been filled with eggs, chickens, lambs, rabbits, and crosses, as wells as poissons d’Avril, made from chocolate and spun sugar for just such a purpose.
On Holy Saturday, Augustin had gone to one of these shops in Montmartre and purchased a chocolate rabbit with a white chocolate bowtie and pink buttercream for his nose and the pink of his ears. He had promised to visit Maude and Léon on Easter Sunday and bought a bouquet of white lilies from a young girl who sold flowers in the metro station he got off at to go the Pont Neuf. Léon was waiting for him outside.
“Happy Easter,” his cousin greeted him.
Augustin shook his hand and clapped him on the back in response. The waiflike frame of Eulalie creeped out from behind Léon. It had been months since Augustin had seen Eulalie. The black and blue bruises on her scrawny limbs were almost gone. Curly wisps of burgundy hair sticking out from under her hat were all that was left of the braids he remembered.
“Happy Easter, kid. What are you doing here?”
“Léon told me that you asked him to keep an eye on me,” Eulalie explained, “So I decided to tag along.”
“I thought you might, so I got you this.”
He handed her the chocolate rabbit he had purchased the day before.
“Thanks,” she broke off the rabbit’s ears and put them in her mouth, then finished decapitating the poor creature. She extended an offering hand full of chocolate pieces towards Léon, “would you like some?”
“Maman asked me to pick some dandelion leaves for a salad. I know a place where they’ve grown up like a carpet.”
“And where’s that?”
“I can show you two.”
Eulalie brought them to to a building a few blocks away. It was an elegant, pretty building made of cream colored stone and roofed with bluish grey slate tiles which appeared to have been standing for centuries but with nothing much that made it stand out among all of the other old buildings in the Île de la Cité. A stone wall topped with a wrought iron grate stood in front of them. Eulalie fiddled with the rusted lock on the wooden doors until it came loose.
There,” she said, “Now we can get in.”
Augustin opened the heavy door and ushered them in.
“Isn’t this trespassing?” Léon asked.
Beyond the wall was a cobblestone courtyard buried under the carpet of dandelion leaves that Eulalie had mentioned. Around the courtyard was a garden of unkempt bushes and shrubs and vines of ivy which crept up the walls.
Eulalie knelt down and began pulling up dandelions, ripped off the leaves and put them in her basket.
“Whose house is this?” Augustin asked her.
“I don’t know, but it’s been abandoned for years.”
“That explains why it looks like a jungle out here.”
Seeing Eulalie picking leaves for a salad gave Léon an idea.
“Let’s bring some salad greens home for Maman,” he suggested.
He and Augustin knelt down and began filling their pockets with dandelion leaves. After their pockets were filled to capacity, Eulalie announced that she wanted to peek inside the house.
When they opened up the door after she picked the lock, a cloud of dust and mold hit them in the face. It appeared that no one had been inside in at least twenty or thirty years. The expensive looking linens, and rich curtains, and upholstery were faded and moldy and the fine wallpaper was peeling off of the walls. Vast cobwebs like large lace tablecloths and a thick layer of dust covered everything. Framed photographs and paintings which had hung on the wall and been taken down were placed up against the walls and furniture. The floors were blocked up by old bric-à-brac and debris.
Spread out before them was an interior which was decorated in the style of the early days of the century, light, airy, delicate, elegant, and pretty and with furniture painted in pale, creamy shades and upholstery embroidered in pastel colors, pale, greyish blue wallpaper, and brassy colored curtains and moldings.
The most striking thing in the room was a large painting which was propped up against the mantelpiece; a portrait of a pale, graceful and willowy woman with an impossibly swanlike neck. The lady was lounging luxuriously on a sofa and appeared to be sleeping. Her dark hair was piled on top of her head and arranged in a elaborate pompadour and she wore a diaphanous tea gown which was sliding off of her exquisite sloping shoulders and looked as though it was about to fall open. The story that Augustin formed in his head was that she was the one who had owned the house- a beautiful and wealthy princess who had enchanted the Parisian society of decades past-and the painting was a gift from one of her many lovers. He wondered who she had been and what had become of her.
“Looks like we found sleeping beauty,” Eulalie said, “Waiting for true love’s kiss to break the spell on her and her palace.”
Eulalie plopped onto a nearby sofa, releasing clouds of dust and plaster in the process, and spread herself out in imitation of the pose in the painting.
“Wouldn’t you like to kiss her awake?” she asked Augustin and Léon.
The two young men did not respond.
“Kiss me awake,” Eulalie continued, trying and failing amusingly to sound seductive.
Léon extended a hand to help her up off of the sofa.
“It’s almost dinner time,” he said, “We better get you back home, your mother will be looking for you.”
When he had his back turned, she slapped him on the back with a paper fish and shouted “Poisson d’Avril.”
After walking Eulalie home and returning her to her mother, Augustin and Léon went to the flat on the Rue St. Denis, where Maude was cooking dinner. The dandelion leaves they had brought back were soaked, rinsed, drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil, sprinkled with salt, and tossed, then served alongside fried sausages, potatoes, and mushrooms in a garlic cream sauce, peppers and eggs, and Maude’s famous sugar cookies, all washed down with milk and coffee.
During the week before Easter, baskets were placed in the front hall of the church of St. Sulpice to collect food for the soup kitchen across the street. Mimi had volunteered to bring one of these baskets over after mass and Marianne offered to help her. Inside the basket was a sack of potatoes, several cartons filled with beans, two bags of apples, about a dozen cans of peaches and oranges, three jars of preserves, and six loaves of bread. Not to be outdone, Catharine had donated an entire leg of lamb.
A line, about four people wide, snaked its way around the block leading up to the soup kitchen. The people were hunched together, shoulder to shoulder, their hats pulled down low over their faces in shame. Mimi and Marianne went down an alley which lead to the back of the building. Marianne knocked on the backdoor to be let in. Inside the kitchen, large pots of soup boiled on the stoves and billowed with giant clouds of steam. People rushed about with huge, steamy pots of bean and potato soup, kettles of hot coffee. and trays of lamb sandwiches and slices of tarte tatin. Steam and the smells of soup and coffee filled the building.
A stout older woman with beefy arms went through the basket and removed the sack of potatoes, the cartons of beans, the bags of apples, and the leg of lamb.
“Bring the rest out front,” she instructed them.
The front dining room was crowded with people sitting at round tables, eating and drinking. Some talked quietly amongst themselves but others stayed silent, not wanting to draw attention to themselves. A line formed formed behind a long table where the food was being served. Across the room was another long table where they were told to bring the remaining contents of their basket. Other baskets of food to be distributed to the patrons of the soup kitchen were placed behind the table.
Mimi and Marianne were thanked for their help and then left through the front door.
Their plans for the evening were to have dinner with the Dantons, which Marianne was looking forward to about as much as an appointment with a firing squad. The only reason she had agreed to go in the first place was because of Gabriel and she was going for his sake more than anything else.
“We’re sending Daniel into the Lion’s Den, you know?” she said to Mimi in the taxi on the way to Auteuil, “I’m afraid that the Dantons are going to tear poor Gabriel apart.”
“And do you intend to be the guardian angel who looks after him?” Mimi responded with a knowing smile.
“I wouldn’t put it that way.”
Marianne was hardly in the mood to deal with the Dantons. She had woken up with stomach cramps, a headache, and an all around irritable disposition. A hand went to her womb, the source of all the cramps and nausea. The drive to Auteuil passed in a queasy, unpleasant blur. Upon her arrival at the Danton House, Marianne quickly paid her half hearted respects to Carole and Étienne and asked to be excused.
The directions she was given to find the water closet was to go up the stairs and take a right. A graceful wrought iron grand staircase brought her from the ground floor to the first floor where the guest bedrooms and the bedrooms of the four younger Danton children were. The staircase then branched off, leading left towards the master bedroom and right towards Edmond and Mathilde’s bedroom. Marianne took a right as she was told and found herself in Mathilde’s bathroom.
The north and south walls had light brown paneling inlaid with forest green marble, while the east and west walls were tiled in white and mint green. Three large windows with lace curtains and green velvet valances took up most of the south wall. In the center of the room was a step in bathtub tiled in mint green, flanked on either side by a sink with a round mirror above it. The shower, a metal trimmed glass box, was placed in a far corner and the room smelt of jasmine bath salts and expensive cigarettes.
Marianne searched around for the water closet and noticed that there was a toilet behind a Chinese screen. She took a sanitary napkin out of her handbag and replaced the one she was wearing attached to a belt she was wearing under her knickers. After swallowing a couple aspirins, she returned to the drawing room with great reluctance. Her trip to the water closet had been a blessed delay of the inevitable.
They were all gathered in the drawing room where a slideshow of Kit and Agnès’s honeymoon photographs was to be shone before dinner. Each of the white suede upholstered sofas and armchairs was filled up with guests, each leaning comfortably against gold silk and green velvet cushions. The lights and been turned off and the curtains had been closed but little rays of sun penetrated through and glinted on silver scallop patterned wallpaper and the gold painted crown moldings. Marianne snuck in and found a spot on the green turkish rug next to Gabriel.
Kit was setting up the screen while Agnès hovered around the projector waiting for the sign to turn it on. With a wink to his bride, Kit signal the beginning of the slide show. The first picture was of Kit standing in front of the Sphinx, grinning like a happy school boy. Next was a series of pictures of the hotel they stayed at in Cairo with its Arabic arches, walls of stucco, mosaics, and lattice work, potted palms, moorish lamps, brightly colored cushions, and Persian carpets. One showed the newlyweds kissing on the rooftop terrace which overlooked the city. Then there was an image of Agnès admiring carpets and baskets at a stall in the marketplace.
“Agnès sent me one of those baskets,” Mathilde told a friend of hers “It’s big enough for a person to hide in. I half expected to find a cobra coiled inside of it.”
The next series of pictures showed Kit and Agnès riding on donkey back through a picturesque native village, where they were swarmed by ragged children with dirty faces and wide toothy grins.
“Those children make their living my giving donkey rides around the city and by selling souvenirs,” Kit explained, “They can be quite persistent and Agnès and I never had the heart to say no to them. We blew quite a lot of money that way.”
“This was my favorite part of the whole trip,” Agnès bursted in.
They had ridden out to an excavation site outside of Cairo where they were shown around by the famous archeologist, Professor Belloq. The pictured showed them riding through the desert on Arabian horses, exploring ancient tombs by torch light, and sitting in the cockpit of an airplane, from which Kit had taken a spectacular aerial shot of the site. Kit, in his wide brimmed cowboy hat, and Agnès, in her embroidered blouse and harem pants, looked like the hero and heroine of an adventure novel or one of those serial shorts they show before a movie.
“We had to carry torches when we went into the tombs to scare away the snakes,” Kit informed them, “They like to hide in their because it’s cool and shady during the day.”
“The professor invited us to have dinner with him in his tent,” Agnès added, “I wore the dress I got in Milan. I decided to wear it again tonight.”
Agnès was wearing a pretty white backless number with a tulle and chiffon bustle which had gotten many compliments that evening.
Later on in the in the trip, the took a train from Cairo to Aswan where the caught the boat, a cheerful looking little steamer with the name “Hatshepsut” painted on its side, which took them on a seven day cruise down the Nile to the Second Cataract in Nubia. The first stop was the temple of Amun and Re at Ez-Zebua. Kit took pictures of an avenue lined with Sphinxes. Next stop was the great temple at Abu Simbel. They had arrived just as the sun was rising and got up early to get photographs of the morning sun hitting the four colossal figures of Pharaoh Rameses carved out of the face of a rock cliff. At Wadi Halfa, they were brought ashore in two little boats to view the Second Cataract. Camels took them to a spot where there was a great view of the Nile.
On their way back to Aswan, they visited Abu Simbel again; this time at night and they explored the temple by moon and candlelight.
While the guests were enjoying the slideshow, trays of hors-d’oeuvres were brought out and placed on the Italian credenza. The credenza was draped in an antique Belgian lace tablecloth. A silver Baroque candlestick with three lit tapers was placed at either end of the credenza and a green glass vase filled with pink roses was placed in the center. Between one of the candlesticks and the vase was placed a fat ruby colored salmon on a silver tray with various type of caviars, mustards, and cream cheeses. On the other side was tray with slices of cheese artfully arranged among pieces of baguette. Around the room were little bowls of sugared dates. Footmen handed out glasses of champagne and strawberries, red wine and pomegranate, whisky sour, and corpse reviver.
Gabriel had gone to get some refreshments for Marianne, who looked herself over in one of the full length mirrors while she waited for him. She was wearing the dress that Mimi had given her as a Christmas present. It had a tight, sky blue bodice made of silk with puffed sleeves of sky blue chiffon. The skirt was made of several layers of chiffon in different shades of blue which gave the effect of rippling water as she moved, the fabric clinging to her legs and then flared out in the most becoming way. It was the most beautiful dress she had ever owned and could make a girl feel as though she could take on the world.
Marianne became aware that all eyes in the room were on her, but not in a good way. In the mirror she could see people glance at her and smirk or whisper to the person next to them. She figured that the gossip which had been spreading about her back in December had not died down yet. Perhaps it had been fed by her outburst on New Year’s Eve. The common wisdom seemed to be that if you ignored gossip, it would eventually go away.
Suddenly she felt a tap on the back. She turned around to see Agnès, who embraced her warmly.
“You look lovely,” Marianne said to her cousin, “Married life suits you.”
“Oh Marianne,” Agnès replied, “I’m so happy, if only you could be as happy as I am.”
“I wouldn’t worry about me.”
“So there is someone, who is he? You must tell me everything about him.”
Gabriel cut in upon them. He was holding a plate with two pieces of baguette spread with cream cheese and layered with salmon and caviar and a glass of champagne and strawberries.
“Thank you Gabriel,” Marianne said to him, accepting the refreshments.
“Oh I see, please don’t let me interrupt,” Agnès winked and smiled and walked off to talk to some friends of hers.
There were more smirks and knowing glances in the direction of Marianne and Gabriel as they went and sat down together on one of the sofas, which had a back that looked something like a sea shell.
“Everyone’s staring at us, I can feel it,” she whispered to him.
“They’re staring at you,” he responded, “And why wouldn’t they, you’re the best looking girl in the room.”
She smiled indulgently like a mother whose child had said something endearingly pert. In the corner of her eye, she noticed Edmond looking at her, checking her out in a way that felt possessive and violating. She adjusted her skirts so that they were not clinging so tightly to her legs.
“Gabriel Renault,” Mathilde interrupted, “It’s been so long.”
She extended her hand for him to kiss; he shook it.
“Congratulations on your marriage, Madame Danton,” Gabriel answered, “Although it’s almost a year late.”
“I remember one time, about a million years ago, We went over your family’s farm to play and you teased Marianne something awful and she pushed you into the cow pond. You would have drowned if your family hadn’t gone in and rescued you. Marianne never could take a joke.”
“Only the ones that aren’t funny,” Marianne added dryly before finishing off her glass of champagne.
“The only good thing about the Dantons is their wine cellar,” she thought to herself.
Catharine and Mimi had been watching Gabriel and Marianne the entire time they had been sitting together.
“Pascal Renault’s eldest boy turned out pretty well,” Catharine commented.
“He has,” Mimi responded, “And he’s quite taken with Marianne. If you ask me, we’ll be having another wedding before long.”
“I think you’re selling the skin before you’ve killed the bear, my dear, and I thought you said you didn’t want her to rush into getting married?”
“I did, but if she has a young man like Gabriel in her reach, she’d be foolish to let him go.”
“He’s a nice boy but do you really want your niece to marry a farmer’s son?”
“Why shouldn’t she? As Pascal’s eldest son, he’ll inherit the farm, which is prosperous. He’s well able to provide for her and he comes from a respectable family. Papa thought very highly of Pascal.”
“But that didn’t mean he would want his grand-daughter to marry into his family. What would he and Maman think of her ending up with the son of one of their tenants?”
“Who cares, they’re dead.”
“And isn’t true love supposed to overcome such things as social class?”
“You always were an incorrigible romantic, it’s amazing that someone hasn’t already snatched you up.”
“If you remember, someone almost did?”
“Oh yes, that thin, pale boy you wrote to throughout the war.”
“We were supposed to marry after the war, but he died of the Spanish influenza.”
“Why did you never marry after that? It’s not as if you didn’t have any opportunities.”
“Perhaps it was a risk that I never saw any benefit in taking.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the gong which signaled that it was time to go into dinner. While making her way over to the dining room, Marianne was overtaken by Edmond. He stood, leering and smirking, much closer than she would have liked; she could smell the cologne coming off his clothes: musk, bergamot, amber, cedarwood, and orange zest. If he had dragged her into the center of the room and started ripping off her clothes in front of everyone, she could not have felt more humiliated and vulnerable. Marianne quickly dashed away from him through the peacock blue, white, and black curtains which separated the living room from the dining room, a long, narrow, rectangular room with white crown moldings.
To her relief, she was seated between Gabriel and Monsieur Renault and across from Mimi at the long, black lacquered dining table. The gold torch lights and the white pendant chandeliers were turned low. Long, white candles provided most of the illumination for the meal. The candlelight made the gold gloss on the deep brown wall paneling sparkle and brought out the vibrant colors in the modern wallpaper which was inlaid into the paneling on either end of the room.
When the first course, lobster souffle, was served, Monsieur Danton changed the subject to how expensive that night’s dinner had been.
“You should have seen how much they charged us for the lobsters,” he told his guests, “It was sheer extortion I tell you.”
“But dear Papa-in-Law,” Mathilde interrupted, “money isn’t everything.”
“Says someone who has money and has everything,” Catharine added before taking a sip of her Chardonnay.
“And why should I be ashamed of it.”
“Kit, my boy,” Monsieur Danton addressed his house guest, “I was told that you and your little bride also spent some time in Italy during your honeymoon.”
“That’s true, sir,” Kit responded, “I would have shown the pictures earlier but I haven’t had them developed yet. Agnès and I decided that the Egypt photos would be more interesting.”
“I’ve heard that Mussolini’s public works projects are getting things back up and running over there.”
“Agnès, don’t roll your eyes!” Catharine whispered to her daughter.
“Mussolini is nothing but a posturing buffoon,” Agnès interrupted, “and I’m starting to think that Hitler in Germany is even worse.”
“Well at least they‘re not impotent and useless like our politicians,” Mathilde responded in a low voice, “Your grand ideals are all very well but we need strong leaders to get us out of this depression. Italy and Germany were a mess before Mussolini and Hitler came to power and we could use someone like them here in France. You heard about how the government fell back in February after the Stavinsky murder. That would never happen in Italy. They have the jobs that Mussolini has created and his government is strong enough to hold everything together.”
“Last time I checked, no one is in this room was doing too badly.”
“That’s the problem with people today,” Carole Danton whispered to her daughter Solange, “They’re too sensitive.”
Marianne went back into the drawing room after dinner, her head a bit cloudy from several glasses of wine. The Dantons had treated their guests to a lavish meal of lamb drizzled with vinegar, oil, and mint served with a cucumber salad, duck confit in marmalade sauce with potatoes roasted with rosemary, mustard braised brisket with sauteed mushrooms in a garlic butter sauce, and shrimp in aspic on a bed of asparagus and goat cheese. Marianne’s usual hearty appetite had left her; she only took a few mouthful of each course, enough to keep away hunger pains.
She adjusted her dress in front of the mirror in the living room. It was a dress meant for being being romanced in, like girls were in the movies, for candlelit restaurants and dance floors while an orchestra played a slow song, for reclining languidly on a sofa beside one’s lover. What a shame it was going to waste being worn for the Dantons.
After dinner, Solange organized a game of musical chairs. Chairs from the dining room were brought into the living room and arranged in a circle. Edmond put a record on the gramophone and Annette Hanshaw’s sweet, sad voice began to sing “sweet moon song, that wasn’t meant for me.”
Marianne refused to participate in game. She found a comfortable chair in a secluded corner of the living room where she could stare absentmindedly out of the window into the shadowy garden. Gabriel came over to check on her and more speculative glances and whispering went in their direction.
“Can I get you anything?” he asked.
“I’m fine, thank you,” she answered, “I’d like to go outside for some air, would you care to join me?”
They paced around the garden for about an hour. She was talkative but distracted and could not stay on a subject. Everyone inside must have thought she seemed odd and disturbed but she did not care. The role of Ophelia suited her and she had nothing but fennel and rue for them.
Catharine appeared behind behind the glass french doors which opened out into the garden to keep an eye on them.
“I would give some violets,” Marianne quoted to herself, “but they withered all when my father died.”
As it grew late, it grew cool and they returned inside. The game of musical chairs had quickly become boring and had been abandoned and the guests were lounging in the chairs and sofas, enjoying dessert. The credenza where the appetizers had placed earlier that evening had been cleared and reset for dessert. A large, elaborate Easter egg made from spun sugar served as the centerpiece, surrounded by rabbits, crosses, lambs, and fishes made from chocolate and the traditional hot crossed buns.
“Are you feeling better?” Gabriel asked Marianne.
“Yes,” she replied, “Thanks for staying with me.”
“You’re welcome, the pleasure was all mine.”
Mathilde had changed her necklace and was wearing several strings of pearls around her slender neck. She bragged that these pearls were a name day present from Edmond and were insured for thousands of francs.
“Either forty or fifty thousand,” she specified, “I cannot remember.”
Her smug expression soured when she realized the room’s attention had turned from her to Gabriel and Marianne and speculations about where they disappeared to for the past hour.
“To think, a year ago you were throwing yourself at Edmond,” Mathilde taunted, “And when he didn’t take the bait, you took up with that little convict what’s his name last summer and since that didn’t work out, you’ve set your cap at Gabriel. How can you keep track of all of your men?”
Marianne sat down on a sofa and began to laugh.
“You always were stupid, Mathilde,” she said, “Did your precious husband tell you how he came on to me just after you got back from your honeymoon; how he assaulted me in your mother’s library and has been harassing me for months because I turned him down.”
“Don’t listen to her, ” Edmond burst in.
“You were always jealous because he loves me,” Mathilde whined.
“You think he loves you? Ha! You’re just like that shiny red car in his garage, although I think the warranty on that is better.”
“That’s enough, Marianne,” Catharine joined in.
“And what are you going to do, Tante Catharine? Try to get rid of me like you did my father?”
“She’s drunk, send her to bed!”
Mimi rushed in to save her niece from further embarrassment. With a hand on the girl’s shoulder, she dragged her out of the room. With copious eyerolls, the guests decided that the poor child had lost her wits, if she had any to begin with.
“I’ve been laughed at before,” Marianne thought as she splashed her face with cold water in one of the guest bathrooms, “And this probably won’t be the last time.”
“Have you calmed down yet?” Mimi asked her as she helped unbutton her dress.
“I guess,” Marianne responded in a surly tone.
“Were you drunk?”
“So what if I was?”
“It’s not like you.”
The two women had been assigned to one of guest bedrooms; a smallish, square room with walls painted a warm, pale yellow. It’s ceiling was trimmed in white moldings. A large window, curtained in white gauze and peach colored silk, took up most of one wall. The bed and dresser were lacquered in black with gold etchings; the bed was made in pristine white linen. Flanking it on either side were mirror covered nightstands on which alabaster lamps with peach colored shades were placed.
The room smelt sweet from the white peonies in a vase on top of the dresser.
“Mademoiselle d’Aubrey,” a cute little housemaid poked her ruffle capped head in, “Madame Mathieu told me to bring this.”
On her were tray were a steaming cup of tea, some sourdough biscuits, and a couple aspirins.
“Tell her thank you,” Marianne told the girl.
The maid curtsied and left them room. Marianne got under the covers of the bed and began sipping her tea.
“I’m going back downstairs,” Mimi told her, “Will you be alright up here?”
“Yes, just fine.”
“I want those lights out soon. You should sleep off some of that wine.”
The ocean of sleep carried Marianne away on its gentle waves. When her eyes flickered open, bright rays of sun streamed through the opened curtains. A breakfast tray had been placed on the nightstand. Marianne sat up in bed, stretched and yawned and brought the tray in front of her. The lid was removed to reveal a cup of coffee, an asparagus omelette, and a banana souffle. Her head felt foggy but the coffee helped; she picked at the omelette and souffle, eating enough to keep from feeling faint.
Quickly, she washed up, dressed, arranged her hair, and began to go downstairs. There was a commotion on the landing where the two smaller staircases merged into the larger grand one. Mathilde, still in her nightdress, was hysterical because she could not find her pearls.
“Did you go through your jewelry box?” a dressing gown clad and exasperated Catharine asked her.
“No, I placed it on my dressing table when I was getting undressed last night,” Mathilde insisted.
“Maybe your maid took it?” Carole, resplendent in a diaphanous negligee, suggested to her daughter-in-law, “Did you have her room searched?”
“Yes, but she wasn’t the one who helped me undress, it was Edmond .”
“Maybe Edmond took it and hid it?” Marianne added wryly but no one listened to her.
As if summoned, Edmond appeared out of his bedroom, dressed for golfing. He noticed that his wife was in throes of a fit of frenzy and rushed to her side.
“What’s the matter, poupée?” he asked her, the very picture of attentiveness.
“Someone has snatched my pearls!”
“Are you sure you didn’t just misplace them?” a groggy Agnès joined in. Kit stood at her side, wearing his knits and knickerbockers to go golfing with Edmond that afternoon.
“What do you know!”
Marianne turned around and noticed Gabriel coming out of the single men’s corridor and towards her.
“Whats all the fuss about?” he asked her.
“Mathilde believes that her pearls have been stolen.”
Edmond, at the instigation of his wife, called the local commissariat. Two officers arrived a few minutes later and began a thorough search, going through each bedroom from top to bottom. The entire house seemed to hold its breath until the case of the missing pearls had been solved. One of the officers came out of a guest bedroom, holding a beaded handbag in one hand and the necklace in the other.
“Who does this belong to?” he asked, referring to the handbag.
“It’s mine,” Marianne admitted, stepping forward demurely, “And I’d like to know how it got in my handbag.”
“Because you took it and put it there,” Mathilde accused.
“I did not!”
“There must be some mistake,” Gabriel joined in, “You were drinking a lot last night, Mathilde, and maybe you took it off and put it in Marianne’s bag by mistake and forgot about it.”
“Are you saying I drink too much.”
“Still Mademoiselle, we have to take you in for questioning,” one of the officers said to Marianne, “Since the necklace was found among your possessions.”
“Alright monsieur, I’ll go.”
Mathilde gloated, she had suspected that her cousin was a young woman of loose morals and light fingers and now she had proof of it. Catharine and Mimi were pale and worried. Gabriel looked on with disbelief.
“That girl looks sweet,” Edmond told him, “but she’s no better than she ought to be.”
She left without protest, confident that her innocence would prove itself. The local commissariat was a few minutes away from the Danton house. To Marianne’s surprise, they did not lock her up in a cell or drag her into some grim interrogation room; they just left her in holding room until it was her turn to be questioned. She was not even handcuffed; apparently they did not think that she would try make a run for it or be uncooperative.
The door of the holding room opened after what seemed like an eternity.
“Mademoiselle d’Aubrey,” an officer addressed her, “You’re free to go.”
Edmond stood smirking behind the door in the waiting area.
“I explained everything,” he said, “I told him that it was all a prank, that I took Mathilde’s pearls and put them in your bag as a joke.”
“Poisson d’Avril, Cinderella.”
“So framing me for theft and having me dragged off to the police station is your sick idea of a prank?”
“Mathilde was right, you don’t have a sense of humor…You’re lucky I didn’t leave you leave here to rot.”
“At least let me drive you back.”
“Of course not, I’ll walk there.”
The girl that Edmond saw walk out the door appeared to be a furious amazon with vengeance and bloodshed on her mind. She would have fit in among a group of crazed harpies crackling at the foot of guillotine or as La Corday brandishing her knife to murder Marat in his bathtub. He had never wanted her more than he did at that moment.
It was a very brief drive from the commissariat to the Danton house, but it took a while longer to walk the same distance. To pass the time, Marianne fantasized about smashing the windows of Edmond’s car, scratching every obscenity she knew into the shiny red paint, then setting fire to the Danton house and watching it and everyone inside burn.
Catharine and Mimi were the ones waiting for her when she came through the door. They clucked their concerns like a pair of hypocritical hens.
“Where’s Gabriel?” was all she could say to them.
Dear, kind, chivalrous Gabriel had been the only one to speak on her behalf. She would be eternally grateful to him for that.
“He’s in the garden,” Catharine answered.
Marianne ran back outside and found Gabriel sitting on stone bench in garden, playing a melancholy blues tune on his harmonica.
“You play very beautifully,” she said to him.
He turned around to look at her and then turned away. She came over and sat down by his side.
“Edmond told me things about you, things I didn’t want to believe. That there’s an algerian called Augustin Lerou who was sent to jail for robbery and escaped and is involved with notorious criminals…and that you were his mistress. I told him that he must be mistaken.”
“The only stone Edmond has to throw is that I became Augustin’s mistress instead of his.”
“So it’s all true?”
She put an affectionate hand on his shoulder.
“Poor Gabriel,” she said in a gentle, sympathetic voice, “You must have thought I was some sainted virgin in white who’s been waiting patiently her entire life for you to marry her. I could have let you court me and put Augustin behind me. Perhaps I should have, but it would be dishonest and unfair to the both of you.”
“I’m worried about you. It sounds like you’re involved with dangerous people.”
“I can look after myself and Augustin would never do anything to hurt me. From this moment I swear I’ll never be anyone’s victim ever again.”
“What did you and Gabriel talk about in the garden?” Mimi asked her niece in the taxi back to St. Germain.
“Edmond repeated the same filthy minded nonsense that was going around in December,” Marianne explained, “Gabriel wanted to know if it was true.”
“It wasn’t true back in December…but now it is”
“And how long has this been going on?”
“I’ve seen Augustin twice since his escape.”
“Anything else I need to know?”
Marianne extended her hand to show off the silver ring that Augustin had given her.
“It’s pretty, I wonder where he stole it from. So he promised to do the right thing, no doubt he meant it at the time. But mark my words, Marianne d’Aubrey, once it’s no longer convenient for him stay, he’ll leave you behind, He’ll probably think that he did you favor by not dragging you down with him but you’ll be hurt and ruined just the same. Heaven help you if you get pregnant, if you aren’t already?”
“I’m having my period right now. Ask the maid who changed the sheets in the guest bedrooms.”
The rest of the taxi ride passed in silence. Neither knew what more to say to each other. Despite everything, Marianne felt a bit relieved. The truth was all out there in the open now.
The first few days of April were unusually balmy for the time of year; the night of Easter Monday being particularly warm. On the topmost floor of Faucherie’s house in Montmartre, the windows were left open to let in the cooler night air. Augustin sat on the floor, polishing a pistol while Hélène lounged in an armchair, her back leaning against one of its arms with her legs draped over the other the other leg. She bent down to pick up a basket off the floor.
“What’s in there?” Augustin asked her while putting down his pistol to light a cigarette.
“My crocheting,” she answered.
“Does it surprise you?”
“I didn’t think you would be the type of girl who would how how to do something like that.”
“And why is that?”
“It’s too domestic. It’s hard to imagine you sitting at home with a needle and yarn like a prim little bourgeois housewife.”
“I learned when I was a little girl, because I had to make my own shawls, and stockings, and hats, and mittens. I thought I’d take it up again, one needs something to keep the hands busy.”
She took the tiny pair of socks she was working on and set the basket back onto the floor.
“Who are those for?”
“Who do you think?”
Augustin took a dag on his cigarette and considered for a moment.
You’re not pregnant, are you?”
Deep blue yarn was wrapped around Hélène’s brass plated crochet needle and was pulled into little stitches.
“I can’t say I planned on having a kid, but I don’t see why it has to be the end of the world. Women have them all the time and they’re quite sweet at their good moments.”
“Does Faucherie know?”
“Not yet, I’ve been trying to find a way to tell him.”
“How do you think he’ll take it?”
“I imagine he’ll be pleased. He’d probably like the idea of having a son. You know, Faucherie’s the only man I’ve ever really been in love with. I’ve been with a good deal of men, some of who were quite superb in bed and our time together was quite worth remembering, but I never loved any of them, except for maybe one, my first lover. I loved him or at least thought I did. It was the summer I was fifteen and my family was traveling through Provence. He was a boy from a small Provençal village we stayed at, about seventeen and perfect looking, like a statue of an angel come to life and most importantly, hung like a prized stallion. We passed each other a few times in the village and made eyes at each other. After a few weeks, he came to my camp one night and knocked at the door of my caravan. Luckily, no one saw him or heard him because my father, uncles, or brothers probably would have killed him if they’d had. He had brought a blanket and a bottle of wine and a blanket and we snuck away to a nearby pond. We swam naked in the pond, took swigs of wine, and made love on the blanket underneath the stars, it was glorious. We then ran away to Paris a few days later, but he got bored with me after a month and took off.”
“Imagine getting bored with you.”
If a man could so quickly loose interest in a girl like Hélène, then there was little hope for the rest of womankind.
As if responding to his doubts, she continued with “and Faucherie loves me too. He might roam around right and left but he always comes back. Some people can be faithful to one person, others can’t. All those other women mean nothing to him, why should I let them bother me?”
Augustin wondered if she really believed this or just told herself that to feel better.