Marianne shook her hair free of its braid and unbuttoned her corduroy shirt. She shed her boy’s clothing and let her sweat-damp skin cool off. In stories she had read, when a girl adopted a masculine disguise, she would rave about how liberating it was to be free of cumbersome corsets and petticoats and the constraints of lady-like behavior. The clothes she had borrowed from Léon, the corduroy shirt and a pair of denim overalls, were too big and baggy for her and felt unbearably hot and scratchy on a day like this; what she would not give to be able to wear one of her light cotton summer dresses.
What a relief it was to be free of her of them; to sit in the gritty, beige colored sand and feel the breezing coming off of the water against her bare skin and through her gossamer-like rayon underthings.
The sky over the Channel was a clear azure blue without a single cloud, the way it would be in a watercolor postcard. Off in the distance were the chalky, greyish white cliffs which Normandy was famous for. Their pale color stood out against the rolling green hills which capped them. Marianne and Augustin and had found this beach outside of Le Havre as they were exploring the town. Throughout her life, Marianne would always remember this place as one where she had been perfectly happy. There she had died and gone to heaven.
Augustin lay by her side in the sand. She could not tell if he was asleep. Smiling at him, she stood up and walked towards the water. It was cold but felt refreshing on such a hot day. She walked into the Channel until she was waist deep and then dove into breaking wave. Her head felt clear again after hours of being in a dream-like haze from heat and fatigue. When her head popped up above the water, she saw that Augustin was sitting up with, looking absently at the sky and petting Johnny, who was next to him. Marianne swam to the shore and returned to his side.
“What were you thinking about?” she asked him.
“A place I was many years ago,” he replied, “When I was little. The memories I have of it are so hazy that I’m not even sure its a real place. A crescent-shaped beach like this one, except the water was turquoise blue instead of grey-blue.”
“Maybe we’ll go there someday and see if its real.”
After the sun had dried Marianne off from her swim, they returned to an abandoned chateau on the outskirts of Le Havre which had been taken over as a hobo jungle. It had the white stone walls and bluish grey slate roofs typically of French architecture. The walls were overgrown with moss, ivy, and mold and the windows were mostly smashed. Inside, the front hall had a black and white marble floor and a grand staircase with a delicate wrought iron banister. Its former grandeur was hidden under years of dust and grime.
The other hobos were in the back courtyard, sitting in the shade of the three massive oaks that grew there. In the center was a fire pit dug in the ground and marked off by a circle of stones. It was filled with the ash and charcoal from previous fires. Pots and pans for cooking were scattered around it.
The chateau was an ideal place for a hobo jungle. Close to the railroad tracks and the city proper but far away enough to be out of reach of the authorities. There was the house itself which provided shelter from the weather and the nearby Seine for washing and fishing. The woods surrounding the chateau were filled with rabbits, pigeons, and edible mushrooms and people in the area would give you food and other necessities in exchange for work. A symbol was carved in the wood of the front gate: a square with its roof missing. Gui had told them that this meant that the location was a good place to camp.
A girl named Alice lit a fire under a pot of stew. She had a bag filled with tomatoes, onions, and wild mushrooms and began to cut them up with a pocket knife and through into the stewpot.
“Where did you get those?” Marianne asked her
“There’s an old woman who lives nearby,” Alice replied, stroking Johnny’s velvety black ears “In exchange for help in the garden, she’ll give you a share of the produce. You can come with me tomorrow if you like?”
“Certainly, which house does she live in?”
“The one what has the cat carved into the fence.”
A cat carved onto a fence meant that kind people lived the house behind it.
“I have a present for you,” Augustin whispered to Marianne as he sat down beside her.
“Oh,” Marianne responded, “What is it?”
He produced a small switchblade knife from his pack. It was a silvery color with a bone handle and Marianne could almost describe it as beautiful.
“It’s little and pretty, just like you, but it can be dangerous,” Augustin stood up and gestured for Marianne to do the same, “But first you have to know how to use it. Keep it somewhere on you where can easily get at it. The time you waste reaching for it can be the difference between life and death.”
He flicked open the knife and stood in front of Marianne as if he were about to fight her with it.
“Keep your knife arm close to your body. It will keep your attacker at bay and make it easier for you get at them and make sure the knife is pointed directly at your target.. Now try to take the knife away from me.”
Marianne reached to take it away from him but he jerked his knife hand away from her before she could get at it. She tried again but he did the same thing again. His hand moved rapidly in every direction, forming a protective shield.
“Keep moving. If your hand stays still, they can easily rip from the knife from your hand. It also makes it harder for them to get close to you.”
He held his other arm in front of his face.
“Use your other arm to protect your face. We don’t want that sweet puss to get cut up, do we? If possible, use it to grab your attacker’s other arm.”
The knife’s blade was placed on the left side of Marianne’s neck, underneath the chin.
“This should be enough to get them to back off. One good swipe of the hand from here would finish them right off.”
He flicked the blade closed and handed the knife back to her.
“Remember, using this isn’t whats important, it’s making people know you can and you will. Your average thug is usually a coward, especially the ones who would harass a woman, and will usually back off if you show them you can take them on.”
“I hope I never have to slit anyone’s throat,” Marianne said.
“I hope you never have to do it either but it never hurts to be prepared. Now you try.”
He handed the knife over to her and instructed her to hide it either in her waistband or in her boot. The waist of her overalls was too loose, so she decided that her boot would be the better place to keep the knife.
“I’m coming at you. See if you can fight me off.”
Marianne reached into her boot and pulled the knife out. While she was bent down, Augustin grabbed her by the waist.
“You’re too slow.”
She fumbled with the knife to try to flick it open but he snatched it out of her hand before she could do so.
“Now you are disarmed. Better keep practicing, Chérie.”
The Young Martyr by Paul Delaroche was one of Catharine’s favorite works of art in the Louvre. It depicted a sweet-faced, fair-haired maiden dressed in white robe floating in a lake or river with her wrists tied while two enshadowed and distraught figures (presumably the poor child’s parents) looked on from the banks. Catharine figured that the dead girl was meant to be an early Christian who had been put to death for her beliefs. She pitied her for having been foolish enough to throw her life away but pitied her parents more because her death must have broken their hearts. God would have wanted her to marry a good man, have children, and live a long and fulfilling life. He gives us life and the last thing he wants is for us to squander it away.
“My dear Chatte,” a weak, raspy voice called to her from behind.
She turned around to see a tall, well-dressed man carrying a newspaper under his arm. His once handsome face was florid and puffy and his once trim, elegant waist had doubled. He greeted Catharine with a leering smile.
“Georges,” she replied, “I never noticed how fat you’ve gotten.”
“You’re no longer a fresh young flower yourself, my dear Chatte.”
“And I’ve seen more of you this year than I care to.”
He grinned at her like a schoolboy with a secret. His teeth had been stained yellow and reeked of tobacco.
“What the devil are you smirking about, you fat fool?”
“So you did not read today’s paper?”
He handed her the newspaper he had carried under his arm and walked away laughing. The ugly, mean-spirited leer on his face reminded Catharine of a statue depicting a satyr she had seen the Louvre’s gallery of Greco-Roman statues. Georges had the intelligence and morals of a satyr; nothing on his mind except for his appetites and satisfying them. He was a weak fool who could not keep this hands off of any pretty bit of skirt who crooked their wicked little finger at him. This is why she had divorced him in the first place.
The two times she had to put up with him this year, at the weddings of their daughters, were more than she was able to bear and running into him like this was enough to almost make her lose her temper. She tried her best to remain calm and composed but inwardly she was cursing her ex-husband to the deepest pits of hell.
Catharine looked at the newspaper Georges had given her. On the front page was a photograph of Augustin Lerou above the headline “Augustin Lerou flees Paris following backstreet confrontation” and an article describing how the “young protege of the notorious Bruno Faucherie” is implicated in a violent assault on Edmond Danton, a “high society man about town.”
Lower down on the page was a photograph of Marianne.
“The cause of the fight between Lerou and Danton is believed to be blonde beauty, Marianne d’Aubrey,” the article read, “Mademoiselle d’Aubrey (19) has been missing for several months and is likely to have joined Lerou in leaving town.”
The article gave the implication that Augustin Lerou and Edmond Danton had clashed because they were rivals for the lovely Marianne’s affections. Preferring Augustin, Marianne had run away from her friends and family to join her lover and then left Paris with him. Police were looking for the couple since he was already a wanted fugitive following an escape from La Santé prison.
“Readers are advised to be on the lookout for a tall, swarthy young man with dark hair and green eyes,” the article continued, “and a petite, blonde haired young woman with greyish eyes. Lerou was last seen wearing a grey flannel suit and a red silk shirt; d’Aubrey was last seen wearing a pale pink chiffon dress and a cloche hat decorated with white ribbons.”
Catharine imagined that Georges had a good laugh when he read this. Like most small minds, he never forgot even the most minor of slights and brooded over them, always waiting for even the smallest victory over those who he believed had wronged him. Being blackmailed by a former mistress had been humiliating enough without the high and mighty d’Aubries closing ranks against him. This had been a rare instance of solidarity between Catharine had her sister Madeleine, who had been the one to inform Catharine of the blackmail scandal. Now Madeleine’s precious little daughter was being dragged through the press as the floozie of a wanted fugitive. Revenge certainly was sweet, was it not?
Catharine continued walking through the museum and came to a long gallery displaying statues. She stopped to admire the Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave, the only two Michelangelo statues on display outside of Italy, as a guide announced. At the far end of the gallery was Antonio Canova’s famous Psyche Awakened by Cupid’s Kiss, another of Catharine’s favorite pieces in the museum. An exquisitely handsome, winged youth cradled his beloved in his arms after giving her true love’s kiss. Theirs was a romantic tale about an exceptionally beautiful maiden who offends the goddess Aphrodite but wins the love and desire of her son, Cupid.
“Madame Catharine,” a young man standing nearby called to her.
She turned to see Gabriel Renault also admiring Psyche Awakened by Cupid’s Kiss. Gabriel gave Catharine a polite bow of his head. Catharine smiled; Pascal Renault had raised his son well.
“What brings you to Paris today?” she asked him.
“I’ve been feeling restless at home and needed to get away,” he replied.
Catharine understood. Contaille was a pleasant enough place to live but did not offer much excitement for a young man. Young people of Gabriel’s generation seemed to suffer from a general malaise. They had come of age in the wake of the trauma caused by the Great War and saw little besides hardship and upheaval. When they looked around them, they saw thousands of people out of work and struggling to support themselves and their families and those in power too busy quibbling over petty differences in ideology to do anything about it. That fat clown, Mussolini, was still causing trouble in Italy and some buffoon with a Charlie Chaplin mustache had come to power in Germany. The world seemed to be hurtling towards yet another disaster.
“When the things seem hopeless, the best thing to do is to go to an art museum,” Catharine told Gabriel, “They remind you that mankind is capable of doing great things which will last throughout the centuries.”
Gabriel’s eyes drank in every detail of the statue: the serene, adoring smiles on the faces of Psyche and Cupid, the way her arms were thrown around his neck, and how one of his hands cradled her head while the other caressed her left breast.
“How’s Marianne?” he asked, “Have you heard anything from her?”
Catharine handed him the newspaper she had read. It was a cruel thing to do, shattering this young man’s illusions, but he deserved to know the truth. Gabriel looked over the newspaper. She expected him to be shocked, or angry, and upset, but he simply looked concerned. He made the sign of the cross and murmured something to himself, possibly a prayer or blessing. If Catharine had been in this situation, she would have cursed Marianne for her foolishness and cursed Augustin for stealing her away but Gabriel appeared to be a more forgiving soul than she was.
She put her hand on his shoulder, thinking that she could at least buy the disappointed swain lunch.
Gabriel had to refuse Catharine’s lunch invitation because he had already promised his sister Gillian that he would meet her for lunch at the nearby Café des Beaux-Arts. He made his way across the river via the Pont des Arts bridge, its railings laden with locks inscribed with the names of countless lovers.
Gillian had found a table outside of the cafe. She stood up when she saw him; he came over and kissed her on the cheek. Though she was five years his junior, Gillian always fussed over him. Today, she said that he was looking pale and thin. Gabriel responded that the opposite could be said about her. Gillian was a pretty, rosy-cheeked girl with reddish brown hair and large blue eyes who was inclined to be slightly plump. She had been putting on weight, which was unsurprising in her condition. Her little rosebud mouth was full and petulant which made her look childish instead of like a woman who was expecting her first child.
When they sat down, Gillian placed a newspaper on the table.
“Did you see this?” she asked.
“Yes,” he growled in reply, not wanting to go through this again.
“I told you that mooning about after that d’Aubrey girl wouldn’t end well. She turned up her nose like she is too good for you, now look who she takes up with. Pampered princesses like Marianne d’Aubrey never know how good they have it.”
They had this conversation many times before and Gabriel did not feel like having it yet another time.
“How was your doctor’s appointment today?” he inquired for the sake of changing the subject.
Gillian patted her stomach and stated proudly that all was going as well as could be expected and she was in good form.
“When is my nephew due?”
As they ate their lunches, Gabriel managed to avoid bringing up the subject of Marianne d’Aubrey. They talked about their father’s health, how they were going to pay the mortgage on the farm, and Yve’s letters from Morocco. Gabriel was not feeling very chatty; he picked at his meal and gave a two or three-word answer to Gillian’s questions and comments.
Gillian looked at her brother’s dejected expression with a smug, “I told you so” smile.
“Cheer up, Gabriel,” she said to him, “That girl’s not worth it.”
At the beginning of July, the Dantons hosted a party celebrating their daughter Solange’s engagement to Germain Muffat, heir to the Muffat mustard fortune. The match was all over the society columns, which predicted that their upcoming nuptials in November would be the wedding of the year.
Edmond had been released from the hospital the week before and the bandage over his eye had attracted considerable attention. He told anyone who would listen about how he had been wounded while heroically trying to stop his poor cousin Marianne from running off with a dangerous criminal and was shot because that floozie had urged to her lover to do so.
Young Muffat had used his connections to engage Mademoiselle Hélène to sing at the party. When she walked into the drawing room, Edmond approached her, took her hand, and kissed it.
“Mademoiselle,” he said to her, “I’ve had the pleasure of hearing you sing a number of times at Le Monstre. You were superb.”
“I thank you, Monsieur…” Hélène replied.
“Edmond Danton. May I get you some champagne?”
Edmond grabbed two glasses of champagne from a nearby tray held by an impeccably turned out footman and lead Hélène over to where Mathilde was standing, by a massive bouquet of yellow irises.
“Poupée,” he called over to her, “Come meet the guest of honor. Mademoiselle Hélène, this is my wife, Mathilde.”
“It’s a pleasure,” Mathilde responded.
“Likewise,” Hélène retorted.
Across the room, Agnès stood staring at Hélène. She had heard that Hélène was the most beautiful woman in Paris and the woman she saw in front of her did not fall short of this description. Hélène was one of those women who made the whole room gasp when she walked in.
Kit playfully elbowed her in the stomach.
“Stop gawking,” he said, “Go over and talk to her.”
“I wasn’t gawking,” Agnès snapped, “And you can’t just walk up to a famous person.”
Kit did exactly that. He grabbed Agnès by the arm and dragged her over to where Edmond, Hélène, and Mathilde were standing.
“Mademoiselle,” he said to her, “This young lady has been dying to talk to you.”
Agnès flushed red and glared at her husband.
“I’m Agnès Trask,” she told Hélène, “You’ve just met my sister and brother-in-law.”
“It’s a pleasure,” Mathilde responded.
“And this is my husband, Kit.”
So, you’re married. Why you’re just a child.”
“I’m old enough to know my own mind.”
Hélène smiled and nodded her head to acknowledge that the younger girl had spirit.
“What’s with the eyepatch your brother-in-law is wearing? Did he think this was a costume party?”
“He says he was shot by someone called Augustin, who’s my cousin’s lover.”
“Augustin… Augustin Lerou?”
“I think that’s his name.”
“Is your cousin Marianne d’Aubrey?”
“Yes, do you know them?”
“I’ve read in the papers that they left town together. Do you know where they might have gone?”
“They could be in the Land of Oz or Never Neverland for all I know and if I did know, I wouldn’t say anything. Augustin is reckless but he’s not stupid, I’m sure they’re far away and he’s keeping your cousin safe.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Agnès walked over to a footman with a tray of champagne flutes. Walking over, she passed Edmond who gave her a nod.
Marianne admired the bone handle of her knife. With the sharp end of a file, she had carved three fleurs-de-lys flowers into it. When she was a child, she one of her toys had been a wooden sword with similar carvings that she used to pretend she was Jeanne la Pucelle. She would swing her sword and battle English knights and fearsome dragons. Monsters and enemies were easily defeated in those days, quickly sent back into the closet or under the bed where they had come from. Hopefully, the triple fleur-de-lys symbol would bring her the same level of confidence.
Augustin brought her over a tumbler of Calvados from the bar at the cafe in Le Havre where they were sitting. Marianne took a sip; it felt like acid going down her throat.
“Would you like some soda in that?” Augustin asked after seeing the grimace on her face.
“No, I’m fine,” Marianne replied.
She took another sip of calvados and made another grimace.
“You don’t have to drink it if you don’t want to. I can get you something else.”
“I’m fine, let’s not waste our money.”
During the weeks they had been in Le Havre, Augustin had found on-and-off-again work unloading ships that came into the docks. Marianne herself had found work at a fried fish stand on the Quai de Southampton, where the ferries coming and going across the Channel to England left from. She spent the hot and hazy days of late June rolling greasy chunks of shellfish such as oysters, clams, and mussels in flour and cornstarch and frying them in boiling oil before drizzling them in vinegar sauce and wrapping them up in old newspaper. The fish stand had a nice view of the Channel. On a clear day, she could see the faintest outline of the English coast, possibly the city of Portsmouth. Marianne whiled away the hours staring across the water and dreaming about hopping on a ferry to England and leaving all of her problems behind in France.
The radio in the cafe was tuned into the Muffat Mustard Hour and tonight they were having music live from the ballroom at the Ritz. The band played loud and infectious jazz music. Marianne had finished her calvados in several large gulps and it had gone right to her head, making her giddy. She got up and danced, swaying and shuffling to the music and swinging her arms around.
Two young men at a nearby table noticed her. They were local toughs of the type that Augustin often came across around the docks: coarse, mean, and not terribly bright. One was thin and lanky while the other was stout and beefy. Augustin figured they had roughly the intelligence that God would give a pile of gull shit but they were not blind. They knew what a girl looked like, despite the way she might be dressed.
But Marianne only had eyes for Augustin. He shot her two admirers a smirk and a look which said “you’re broke, ugly, and stupid. what girl in her right mind would look at you?” which they took offense to.
The two dock workers came over where Augustin was sitting and pounded their meaty fists on the table to get his attention.
“Hey,” the skinny one said to the beefy one, “Last time I checked, this place didn’t serve gypsies.”
With Augustin’s swarthy complexion and dark, wildly curly hair (which he had had not cut in several weeks), they thought he might have come to town with one of the caravans that traveled around the coast.
“They don’t seem to have a problem letting ass-holes in,” Augustin sneered.
The beefy dock worker lunged at Augustin’s neck but was stopped in his tracks when Augustin pulled out his pistol and firing a bullet into the wall behind them which sent the two scurrying like rats. After leaving the money for the drinks on the bar counter, he grabbed a giggling Marianne by arm and ran out into the street, followed by a yipping Johnny.
“I hope they brought a change of pants,” she laughed.
The best places to hide were the warehouse by the docks. They ducked into an alley behind one of the warehouses after checking to see if anyone was following them. Marianne scooped Johnny into her arms to soothe him. When he saw that the coast was clear, Augustin picked Marianne up and placed her on top a stack of wooden crates.
“I shouldn’t have brought you with me,” he said in between playful kisses on her lips and neck, “You stick out too much.”
Marianne kissed him back and threw her arms around his neck. He began to unbutton her shirt until he was interrupted by Johnny’s barking.
“Ahh merde,” he groaned.
“What’s the matter?” she replied.
“Laurel and Hardy are back.”
The two dock workers came down the alley looking like a pair of rabid dogs. Augustin got up to face them.
“ Returned for more, haven’t you?” he taunted.
They circled around Augustin, vulture-like, while he dared them to come at him. The beefy one knocked him down with a blow to the stomach. Augustin quickly got back up and took out skinny one with a punch in the face. Beefy avenged his friend by shoving Augustin back to the ground. As he got back on this his feet, Augustin managed to trip Beefy, who, along with skinny, lunged at him.
Marianne pulled her knife out of her boot and flicked it open. She jumped in front of Beefy and Skinny before they could get to Augustin, her knife drawn on them.
“Very funny sweetheart,” Skinny sneered.
Beefy tried to take the knife from Marianne but she kept moving her hands in rapid motions the way Augustin had instructed her. She kept her arms close to her body and used one of them to protect her face and block Beefy’s blows. The swift movement tired him out until she had a clear shot at his neck. With a quick thrust, she cut a gash down his throat. He yelled in pain, clutching his wound, and ran off with Skinny in toe.
Augustin smiled at her when they were alone again.
“I’ve taught you well,” he chuckled.
In one of the towers of the abandoned chateau sat what was left of a great lady’s boudoir. The furniture was covered in dust cloths and the french windows were boarded up. Every flat surface in the room was covered in dust and the air smelled moldy. To let in a fresh breeze, Augustin found a crowbar and removed the boards over the windows so he could open them.
One of the pieces of furniture that had been left behind was a sofa wide enough for two people to lay together.
Marianne began to wake a first light. The dry dusty air had given her a stuffed up nose and scratchy throat. One of Augustin’s arms was wrapped around her waist. She gave a nudge and he responded with a sleepy groan.
“Augustin,” she whispered.
“Yes,” he yawned.
“Can you let me go please?”
“Please, I have to go into the woods.”
Augustin wrapped his other arm around her.
“No you don’t”
Marianne sighed and rested her head on his shoulder.
“We did well back there, did we not?”
“Yeah, we did.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t lose your temper at those two goons right there at the cafe, after how they spoke to you.”
“I’m used to it Chère, loudmouth bullies don’t scare me anymore,” he stroked her cheek, “I guess I was stupid for putting you in danger, but, now I see, you can take care of yourself.”
“Yes, I can.”
Marianne yawned and snuggled up closer to him.