New York City-January, 1889
New York Foundling was situated on 68th Street in the upper East Side of Manhattan. The commanding brick building appeared to be little different from the grand mansions which filled the vicinity of Central Park. A pitiful, solitary figure approached through the dark streets, coming south-east from Park Avenue, shivering in the biting January cold, their clothes soaked from the icy rain.
Sister Mary-Irene had just finished having dinner when she heard a knock on the front door. She summoned her assistant, Sister Ann-Aloysia, from overseeing the putting of the children to bed. Sister Ann-Aloysia went to answer the door and let in a trembling and tearful girl.
She was very young, perhaps only fifteen or sixteen, small and slim, and very pretty with wavy golden hair tucked under her bonnet, large blue eyes, heavy with tears, and a delicate little upturned nose. The unfortunate child was well dressed with the long skirt of a grown woman, which she had not yet grown into. In her arms, sheltered under her cloak, was a newborn baby swaddled in blankets.
“Can I help you, my child?” Sister Mary-Irene asked her.
“I’ve come to drop off my baby,” the girl answered between sobs.
“Let me take him,” Sister Ann-Aloysia said to her in a kindly voice.
The girl handed her baby over to the nun with a fresh outburst of tears.
“His name is James Charles, I call him Jimmy. His dad’s last name is Beaumont.”
Sister Ann-Aloysia rocked Little Jimmy in her arms and Sister Mary-Irene pulled back the blankets to look at him.
“He certainly is a handsome fellow, when was he born?”
“November 17th. He’s two months old.”
Sister Ann-Aloysia brought Jimmy off to the nursery. Sister Mary-Irene gestured for the girl to come into her office, where a warm fire was burning.
“It’s dreadful outside, why don’t you have a seat and warm yourself up,” the girl sat down in one of the comfortable looking armchairs by the fireplace, “Can I get you anything? Coffee, tea?”
“No thank you, sister,”she began to weep yet again, “You must think I’m sinful for having a baby without being married. But I loved Jimmy’s father with all my heart and thought he would marry me. Because I loved his father, I wanted desperately to keep him, but my aunt and uncle threatened to throw me out if I didn’t give him up. They said that Jimmy would be better off I gave him up since he wouldn’t have a slut for a mother. Perhaps they are right?”
“You did the right thing, my dear, both for yourself and for your child.”
“Please take good care of him. Make sure he gets sent to live with a nice family, perhaps out west. Maybe he’ll grow up to be a cowboy?”
“Would you like to see Jimmy one more time before you leave?”
“No, it would be too painful,” the girl took off a red bandanna from around her neck and handed it to the nun, “Please give this to him.”
Sister Mary-Irene went upstairs to the nursery where Jimmy was sleeping in one of the cribs. She picked up his tiny wrist and tied the bandanna around it. Jimmy grasped the fabric, bunching it up in his miniscule fist.
La Belle Époque-1911 to 1914
Chateau Aubrey stands two or three miles to the south of Rouen. The graceful stone mansion was built in the sixteenth century and stands among sweeping lawns and perfectly manicured gardens. When guests travel up the seemingly endless drive way, they are confronted with massive bushes of red rhododendrons, shocking, forceful, and beautiful. Carriages and automobiles made this journey one balmy june evening in 1911 and their splendidly dressed passengers congregated inside, and admired the opulent rococo interiors. One of the show pieces was the drawing room, done up in rosy tones and gilt.
A group of girls gathered around Catharine d’Aubrey to examine the glittering ring on the delicate hand she had nonchalantly extended for them to view.
“Oh Catharine, it’s magnificent and you’re so very lucky,” they cried, “and Georges is so terribly handsome.”
Catharine d’Aubrey outshone, or rather overshadowed, them all. Her dark, cold, beauty did not allow much to flourish in it’s company. Her fiancé, Georges Thomas, was indeed very handsome and, like her, came from one of the finest families in Normandy.
Her mother, Madame d’Aubrey, watched all this fuss over her daughter’s engagement with pride; this was her triumph as well as Catharine’s. Catharine was almost twenty-five and had been treading on a fine line. Madame d’Aubrey was an older version of her daughter’s dark, cold, beauty with a perpetual frown and a brusque manner which often made people wonder if they had annoyed her in some way.
“you’ll be looking for someone for Madeleine next,” one of Madame’s friends said to her.
“Poor Madeleine,” another one added.
Madame looked to where her other daughter, Madeleine or Mado, as she was sometimes called, was sitting alone on a sofa. Madeleine was a few years younger than Catharine and would be turning twenty-one. She was considered the plainest of Madame’s daughters and did not measure up well against Catharine, which was not helped by the fact that she lacked Catharine’s force of personality. Catharine was the daughter who resembled Madame the most and therefore was her favorite.
One of the guests at Mademoiselle Catharine’s engagement party was a young English lord, the Marquis of Hartshire, who was the son and heir of the Duke of Ryme Intrinseca. Lord Hartshire was traveling with a valet named Jack Walker, who had made contact with a friend of his who had been living in Paris and invited him for a visit. This friend, a former footman in the employ of the Hartshire family, was received in the servants quarters of the chateau.
“Do you think His Lordship will notice me wearing one of his tuxedos?” James Beaumont asked his friend Jack Walker as he was adjusting his collar and tie in front of a mirror in the male servants dormitory.
James Beaumont was a tall, good looking, young man of twenty-three with fair hair and hazel eyes and an aristocratic bearing, despite the fact that he had grown up dirt poor on the streets of New York City. The only thing which gave him away was the fact that he sometimes spoke with the remains of a New York accent.
“No, not if you you avoid him,” Jack answered, “The other servants think Mademoiselle Catharine is an uppity minx and they won’t tell on you for crashing her party. As long as no one recognizes you, this prank of ours should go off jolly well.”
“Do you think so?”
“Certainly, now go up there and knock them dead.”
James took a deep breath before going out the door and up to where the guests were. He had been caught up in his friend’s idea of dressing him up in one of his master’s tuxedos and passing him off as a gentleman but now he was nervous and afraid that he would get caught.
The other guests were coming down the grand staircase and into a marble foyer which lead into the ballroom. Among the crowd was a girl who moved down the stairs with little bouncing movements. The gold fringe on the neckline of her green dress and the clusters of blond curls on either side of her head bounced along with her. She looked around to see who was there and noticed the handsome James, and smiled at him, though he was unknown to her.
The ballroom was lit with candles whose light danced among the crystals on the chandeliers and cast a warm, golden light on the creamy walls. Large glass French doors opened out onto the terrace and lawns and a fresh, fragrant breeze was let in.
Catharine and Georges continued to receive the congratulations of the guests, while Madame and her husband, the Baron d’Aubrey, looked on proudly. Madame intercepted her other daughter, Madeleine as she entered the ballroom.
“ Mado dear,” she said, “you haven’t congratulated your sister yet.”
Madeleine approached her sister, who sized her up haughtily.
“Congratulations Catharine, congratulations Georges,” she mumbled.
“It’s a shame there’ll never be a party like this for her,” Catharine said to the group of flatterers who were fawning around her, “Nor a wedding either. But I do wonder what kind of party there’ll be when she takes the veil as a bride of Christ. Though I don’t think that even Christ would take her.”
Catharine’s fawning flatterers cruelly laughed. Madeleine walked away tactfully, with her eyes filled with tears.
It was a beautiful, balmy, early summer evening. The sky was clear and full of stars and a light breeze playfully whipped at the skirts of the girls who strolling in the garden. Fairy lights twinkled in the trees and bushes. James had stepped out onto the terrace to enjoy the beautiful night when he noticed Madeleine sitting on a stone bench and looking like she had been crying. He sat down next to her and offered her a handkerchief from his pocket.
“Merci,” she said, taking it and drying her eyes.
“Une fille comme vous ne devrait pas avoir une raison de pleurer,” he told her.
She giggled a little, his French was still a rough around the edges.
“Je m’appelle Jimmy”
“Moi, je m’appelle Mado”
“Voulez-vous danser avec moi?”
He took her by the hand and lead her back into the ballroom. The band struck up the song O Soave Fanciulla from the opera La Bohéme. Mado had a sweet, round face with a receding chin. She did nothing but smile the entire time they danced which made her look radiantly lovely. For some reason, she took to calling him Jamie instead of Jimmy, as he was usually called, but it was better than what’s-your-name.
“I know this song,” she told him, “It’s from La Bohéme. I once heard Madame Melba sing it in London. The poet Rodolfo and the seamstress Mìmì are singing of their new found love.”
She then began to cough and become winded. She swooned into his arms and he brought her back out onto the terrace and sat her down onto a bench.
“Are you alright?”
“Yes, thank you. It’s just this silly cough of mine, sometimes I get a little tickle in the back of my throat.”
Madame, who had seen her faint, came out onto the terrace to check on her. When she was satisfied that Mado was well, she went back inside, telling her daughter to return to the party.
“Meet me in the rose garden,” Mado whispered to him as she left.
Back in the ballroom, he asked who she was and was told that she was a daughter of the house and it was her older sister’s engagement party. The older sister pointed out to him was a tall brunette with cold alabaster features, as unlike Mado as possible. There was also another sister, a younger girl of about fifteen who was dark-haired and delicately beautiful and giddy with excitement at being allowed to go to a grown up party.
Mado came to find James in the garden later in the evening near a series of broken statues put there to look like a ruin. Bushes of pink roses grew up among the bits of broken statue and around a wrought iron arbor loveseat.
“I had to go publicly congratulate my sister and her fiancé,” she told him.”My mother was upset with me because I had not yet done so. Can you believe it, especially after the things my sister said to me tonight?”
“What did she say to you?”
“That there would never be a party like this for me, and no wedding either and that I might as well take the veil. It isn’t enough for her to be happy; I must be miserable in comparison.”
“Is that why you were crying?”
“Yes, I guess I have very thin skin.”
The moment had been too perfect. It had rained earlier that day, so the perfume of rain soaked roses hung in the air. Nightingales were singing in the trees and in the distance, the band was playing a waltz. If they had been in a movie, the time could not have been more right for a kiss.
He leaned in shyly to touch his lips to hers. She blushed pink and turned away.
“What’s the matter? “he asked.
“Nothing,” she responded, “Just think, yesterday I was seriously thinking of becoming a nun.”
“It would be a shame to hide all that prettiness under a veil.”
“Kiss me again.”
He put his arms around her waist and kissed her again. She stood on the tips of her toes, threw her arms around his neck, and kissed him back.
As if on cue, her mother appeared on the terrace and called for her.
“I have to go.”
“I must,” but he was reluctant to let her go, “please, I must.”
He let her go and she began to run back up the lawn to the terrace.
“Wait,” he called to her.
She turned back to look at him.
“What does Mado stand for?”
Chateau Aubrey-July, 1909
“Madeleine! Madeleine!” her name rung through the halls of the chateau, “Where is Mademoiselle Madeleine?”
The Leclercs would be arriving any minute and she was nowhere to be found. Other than that, preparations were going as planned. Tables and chairs were put out on the terrace under the chestnut tree; the table set with some of their best china, silverware, and linen. Madame Baudin, the cook, was preparing an impressive spread.
Maman had insisted that everything be perfect. She was hoping that Catharine would get a proposal from Gaston Leclerc.
Mado was not around to hear her name being called. She had run off to the one place where she felt safe from her mother’s nagging.
On the grounds of Chateau Aubrey were the ruins of a norman castle which had been built centuries earlier. The place had fascinated Mado all of her life and she made it the stage for her childhood play and daydreams. Even now that she was nearly nineteen, she still found refuge there.
A thick green carpet of moss covered the floor of the castle ruins. Mado was spread out on the moss carpet, reading a book she had taken from her father’s library: Nana by Emile Zola. Maman had forbidden her and her sisters to read Zola, saying that all his books were about drunkards, prostitutes, adulterers, and mad men and were not appropriate for young ladies.
Mostly Nana was depressing. A stupid and careless woman ruins the lives of a series of men and sinks deeper into debt and iniquity. No romances to lose herself in and forget the lack of love in her own life.
She knew very few men, only the ones that her parents permitted her to be introduced to. None of them had taken taken her fancy and they seemed even less interested in her. All men admired Catharine. The latest hopeful was Gaston Leclerc, though Catharine had never given him much attention.
Mado knew that her presence at tea that afternoon was required but not essentially necessary. Walking up to the house from the garden, she saw the Leclerc’s automobile in the driveway. She snuck inside and up to her room, changed her frock and hat, and took her sweet time in joining her family and their guests on the terrace.
A table set up with a variety of pastries and sandwiches and pots of steaming tea was placed near the main table where her parents, sisters, Gaston, and his parents were seated. Mado poured herself a cup of spiced tea, took a slice of pound cake drizzled with madeira, two brown sugar honey balls, a cucumber sandwich, and some pickled feta, and made her way over to join them.
“Mado,” Catharine said to her before she can sit down, “Would you be a dear and get me another crumpet and refill my cup with black tea? No sugar please.”
Mado rolled her eyes at her sister’s arrogance, put her own cup and plate down, picked up Catharine’s plate and cup, and walked back over to the buffet. She poured black tea into the cup, dropped in three sugar cubes, and put a slice of gingerbread on the plate.
“This is not what I asked for,” Catharine responded when she looked at her plate. She then took a sip of her tea, “And there’s sugar in this.”
“That’s what you get for treating me like a servant. God forbid, Queen Catharine ever do anything for herself.”
“God forbid, you make yourself useful for once.”
“Where were you all day, Madeleine?” their mother asked.
“I went for a walk and then sat down to read a book; I lost track of time.”
“What book were you reading?”
“My Madeleine is very pious,” Maman explained to Madame Leclerc, “Her religious devotions made her late this afternoon.”
Madame Leclerc, who looked like an overstuffed floral sofa, was more interested in a plate loaded with treacle cookies and hot potato scones.
Thirteen year old Mimi had been permitted to attend the tea and was pleased to find herself the object of young Alfred Leclerc’s gallantry. He went back and forth from the buffet table with cups of raspberry tea and plates of English toffee and potted shrimp for Mimi. Mado huffed; when she was thirteen, boys would not even look at her.
What sickened her even more was Georges mooning over Catharine, who only rolled her eyes and turned up her nose at him; Mado’s heart felt a pang of sympathy for poor Georges.
“Can I get you anything more?” the young man asked his lady love with flirtatious eyes.
“No thank you,” replied Catharine, whose appetite was satisfied at the moment.
Georges and his young brother, Alfred, were the only young men there that afternoon and Mado was the only one left without a beau.
“Well two thirds of our daughters were a success today,” she overheard her mother say to her father.
“There’s plenty of fish for all three of them to catch,” Papa rebutted, “Perhaps our little Mado just needs a bigger pond or a wider net.”
When the Leclercs finally left, Mado changed back into the dress she had worn earlier that day. Madame Baudin filled up a small basket with a carafe of wine, some fruit slices of fruit cake, cream scones, slices of toast with deviled ham, and salmon and leek sandwiches; all left over from the tea.
She returned to the ruins of the castle, this time with a copy of La Dame aux Camélias, which she read until it began to grown dark. Then she tried to catch fireflies in the empty carafe and dreamt of finding a love like that of Armand and Marguerite.
Summer nights were long; it did not grow dark until ten o’clock at the earliest in July. They were better suited to romance and passion than for sitting alone and living in one’s head. Frigid and rainy nights in November were for that.
With a sigh, Mado admitted that her nights belonged more to November than July.