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The looking glass, p.10

The Looking Glass, page 10


The Looking Glass

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  She was sitting at the kitchen table opposite Monsieur Gérard, talking eagerly to him. She was turned sideways in her chair, leaning her back against the wall; she was slumped and relaxed, one elbow on the table, her hand raised and gesturing; she had her feet tucked up on the bottom rung of her chair; her eyes were gleaming. The words were pouring out of her. He was bent towards her, attentive, concentrating, his whole body shaped into an attitude of listening, as though he had curved himself into a great ear, a great shell, like one of those fountains surrounded by statues he showed me in the park in Paris, with nymphs and dolphins playing together under arcs of spray, and she was a leaping fish spouting jets of water and tipping herself into him and he a sea-god holding up the twisted cornet iridescent with mother-of-pearl to catch the long white plumes of what she said.

  They were so intent on giving and capturing this rushing stream of talk that it took them a few seconds to notice me. She just glanced at me as though she were simply waiting for me to go away again; she was not going to be hauled up out of her swimmy trance of telling him whatever it was. Monsieur Gérard was not in the least embarrassed by my arrival. He was not in the slightest bit disconcerted to be found in the kitchen chatting to the servant, as though they were equals. He jerked his head at me, a sort of hello, got up, reached down my candle from the mantelpiece above the fireplace, lit it, and handed it to me with a little bow. He held the door open for me and shut it again behind me. I heard Geneviève’s voice starting up and flowing on once more as I went towards the stairs.

  Now I’m sitting up in bed scribbling this. I had a queer, violent feeling when I realised with what interest Monsieur Gérard was listening to Geneviève. I felt myself blush; I stammered something stupid about needing my candle. My French deserted me; I could hardly get the words out.


  For three days I have been ill in bed with a feverish cold. Madame Colbert said I probably caught it walking around with wet stockings, after our paddling expedition, and not coming home quickly enough to change them before I took a chill. She despatched me to bed, observing that I was better off staying away from everyone in case I had something that was infectious. I feel very stupid, being ill, and that I am neglecting Marie-Louise. Her uncle is giving her her lessons instead of me. I have nothing to do but drink tisanes and broth, and sleep. How I wish I had something to read. Madame Colbert has lent me some copies of La Mode Illustrée which has a serialised story in it, but there are several issues missing in the sequence, so that I cannot follow the serial properly. There are gaps. All I can do is try to amuse myself by filling them in, in my head, while I lie here. I try and work out probable endings.

  I wrote to Arthur on the day I caught my cold, telling him I was certain I was the wrong wife for him and that we should not marry. I gave Geneviève the letter to post.

  The doctor visited me. He has knobbly hands. His fingers comb his tufted brown beard while he bends over you and talks. Dots of saliva sprayed my face. He says I can get up tomorrow and that I have a very strong constitution; in fact he said the constitution of a horse. He declared that there was not much wrong with me any more. Tonight I agree with him. I want to spring out of bed and get on with my life.


  The weather continues good. It is warm enough to sit out of doors until about four o’clock, when the sun starts to dip behind the oaks. Monsieur Gérard works with his doors wedged open onto the garden so that the light and air can enter his study through the frame of roses that climb up the back of the house. The doors are long windows, what we call French windows in England, reaching right down to the ground. Outside them he has a tiny balcony with a wrought-iron balustrade, over which clambers and cascades the white rose, and from here three steps lead you down into the garden: an oblong of grass divided by flowerbeds and paths. In the afternoons he goes on taking Marie-Louise for lessons; he does an hour of French with her and another hour of geography or history. I join in these lessons. I am learning quite as much as Marie-Louise.

  It came about partly because I was ill, and he discovered in my absence that he enjoyed teaching his niece, and partly because he came into the dining-room on the day I first got up, while his mother was putting Marie-Louise to bed upstairs for her afternoon nap, and glanced at what I was doing. He was looking for spills to light his pipe; he was rummaging on the mantelpiece; and then he wandered over and stood behind my chair, looking over my shoulder. I could smell his eau-de-Cologne. I was drawing pictures for our geography lessons; I was outlining camels and pyramids and sphinxes, because we have been studying the African colonies and now we have got on to Egypt. His hand was on the back of my chair. It shook as he laughed. A sound like a snort.

  —You can’t draw, he said: these are terrible. Come into the study and I’ll show you what camels and sphinxes look like.

  I suppose when I stood up my face must have shown I was feeling rather offended. He was still sniggering, turning over my sketches, as though I should not care what he thought of them. He looked quite ugly and whiskery. Like a coal porter or a carpet merchant. At school I was rather good at still life but of course it is much more difficult drawing animals and archaeological features out of your imagination with nothing to copy.

  I’ll finish writing this tomorrow, because my candle has burnt right down; it’s very late; and I do want to record that I had a letter from Arthur and one from Mother too. He is rather hurt, protesting that I’d said I needed three months away to think and I’ve only been away a few weeks. Mother says I have made the right decision; I should take my time before jumping into marriage; I should grow up a little more first. Dear Mother, she likes to think I am still her little girl.


  The study walls are painted a pale blue-grey, almost the same colour as the shutters outside. That might seem a cold colour for an interior, but the effect is one of peace and calm. Faded curtains of yellow chintz, patterned with sapphire-blue singing birds and red tulips, hang at either side of the long garden windows, and the second, inner pair of curtains, white films of muslin, are caught back and wrapped around the yellow ones like long twisting tails. Sunlight is held, dark yellow, in the folds of material, breaks free and dances on the sparkling glass. The view out is clear, whether the windows are open or not. You can see the stems of the climbing roses hanging down; they make a thorny green wreath, pierced by light, around the top of the door; and beyond them, the little arbour rears up in the centre of the grass, between the lines of espaliered apples, crowned with a thicket of more white roses.

  The garden seems completely different, looked at from this room. Being in the house is completely different when you are in this room. You can walk in and out between house and garden as often as you like and get a new experience of both.

  The front end of the study is in shadows, the thick red curtains drawn against the daylight. The desk under the window is piled high with papers and books, a massive cut-glass inkwell on a grey marble tray with a gilt pot full of pens next to it, folders of engravings, loose sheets of maps, squares of pale green blotting paper, a round, loose-lidded blue and white jar of tobacco, cigars boxed in fragrant sandalwood, and various china-bowled pipes. Everything is mixed up in seeming confusion, a jumble of colours and shapes, but it is a pleasing chaos, an intriguing untidiness, precisely because it’s personal; it’s like the inside of somebody’s brain with all their thoughts and ideas for poems flying about.

  The top of the cream marble mantelpiece is covered with a runner in yellow Chinese silk, and heaped on this is a clutter of invitation cards and spills; alongside, a group of busts, and a dark blue, gold-rimmed Limoges pot full of flowers. Monsieur Gérard makes nosegays for himself as well as for his mother. He picks tiny bouquets of white daisies, blue pansies and orange nasturtiums. Madame Colbert never comes in here, complaining about the smell of tobacco, for it’s the only room in the house in which she allows her son to smoke his beloved pipe and cigars. But it’s a good, rich smell. I like it.<
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  Above the fireplace hang a couple of pictures; engravings of sculpture. One is an Eve, from the cathedral at Autun he said it was, lying on her side as though she’s swimming, and the other shows some grotesque carvings of skulls and bones from a church called St Maclou in Rouen. In front of the fireplace is a large white bearskin rug, complete with rearing head and spread paws, and Marie-Louise likes to lie on this, clasping her hands around the bear’s snout or over its glaring glass eyes, while her uncle takes her through her lessons. His method of teaching is to show us books and pictures and tell us stories. As a young man he travelled in the East with a friend; they made a long voyage taking in Greece and Turkey, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia. From the Orient he brought back chests of mementoes, and his friend, who was a painter, kept a record in watercolours of all they saw. Leafing through those sketches of exotic places and people, pulling them out one by one to show us, he describes his journey in pithy, expressive phrases.

  Some of the paintings he took up and then pushed rapidly aside were of dark-skinned native women wearing veils and baggy trousers and very little else apart from a few necklaces. He smiled at these but whisked them out of sight. I suppose he thought we would be shocked. Or at least he wouldn’t want Marie-Louise asking awkward questions later in front of her grandmother. I suppose out in the East he made the acquaintance of innumerable concubines; that’s how men get experience and become men of the world, I know. But I wouldn’t want black hands touching me. The thought of it repels me.

  Marie-Louise asked: who are those ladies?

  —Ladies who understand the art of how to please, he told her: plenty of them out there.

  Marie-Louise said to me later: in Africa when it is hot you don’t have to wear a lot of clothes. I wish it was the same in France. Does my father know those ladies too?

  She hardly ever mentions her father. I suppose children forget things easily. I mumbled something; I don’t remember what. I helped Monsieur Gérard tidy up and put away the folders and books, after this first lesson all together, while Marie-Louise wandered off through the open French windows into the garden. He keeps all his Eastern mementoes in the three large bottom drawers of his japanned cabinet. I had never seen such a cabinet before and admired it very much. It is a tall, splendid piece in shiny black lacquer decorated with finely painted sprays of cherry blossom, curly gnarled trees and dragons with long twisting tails, all done in delicate gold brushwork. The lower half of the cabinet is broad and deep, squatting on little curly legs. The top part, which slopes gently inwards, consists of many tiny drawers, packed boxlike several to a row, each embellished with a gold knob, and the whole thing is crowned by a pagoda roof. I longed to pull open each tiny drawer and examine the contents but of course I did not.

  He saw me looking, though.

  —Bits and pieces of poems in the small drawers, he explained: letters and pictures in the big ones.

  I imagined him rummaging for words in the little drawers, as a haberdasher rummages in hers, rapidly opening and shutting them, for reels of cotton, to match a particular colour. I wondered how he remembered which bits of poems were where. There were no labels. I imagined him like a grocer, shaking out loose words, tipping them into a bag, mixing them up and so making a poem. But I suppose that would be cheating, to make up poems like that; not enough hard work; too much like playing.

  As I was handing Monsieur Gérard the piles of sketches for him to place in the open drawer, one came loose and fluttered to the floor. I bent over and picked it up, of course glancing at it as I did so. It was a pencil sketch, not a water-colour. It wasn’t of an Eastern woman but a French one, at least to me she seemed French, with silky dark hair done up with combs, and a curved, pouting mouth. She was wearing what looked like a coral necklace, and an open-necked sailor top.

  Monsieur Gérard took the sheet of paper from me quite casually. He grimaced as he studied it.

  —I’m as bad at drawing as you are, Mademoiselle Millicent. It doesn’t do her justice.

  He opened one of the other large cabinet drawers and stuffed the sketch inside. He smiled at me. I felt embarrassed, and went right out into the garden to find Marie-Louise.


  Long days of golden sweetness, which we spend as much as possible in the open air. As well as carrying a wicker table and two wicker chairs out into the arbour and studying there in the mornings, we also take nature walks in the afternoons. We have been into the forest with Monsieur Gérard and the doctor, though Madame Colbert preferred not to come but to receive the doctor’s wife back at home in the garden; she said it was too far for her to walk at her age. The doctor’s wife exclaimed what a shame it was that her daughter Yvonne was away visiting relatives and could not come with us. I could see that Madame Colbert did not mind. She considers this Yvonne, whom I haven’t yet met because she’s been away at school, rather wild and badly behaved, a possible bad influence on Marie-Louise.

  The forest is not, as I had feared, the sort of place in which you get lost. It is crisscrossed by a grid of paths, so as long as you have a good sense of direction all is well. Light comes down in golden needles dancing on the ground. You press forwards into the whispering silence. A couple of times we saw the ground suddenly moving just in front of our feet, a ripple of earth: grass-snakes slithering away under the nearest clump of ferns; but I wasn’t at all afraid. Apparently they are far more nervous of us than we need to be of them. You just shake your walking-stick at them and they wriggle off. I haven’t got a walking-stick of course, but Monsieur Gérard has, so we were all right.

  We took a compass with us, to teach Marie-Louise how to use it. We played hide-and-seek. Flattened against the trunk of a great beech, imagining yourself completely alone, nothing around you for miles but bracken and closely massed trees, it is easy to feel rather strange, to visualise the god Pan coming down the great alley that slices through the very centre of the forest, a queer, goatish figure rearing up on his hind legs and playing his pipes. I’ve seen a picture of him somewhere, yes, I remember now, in one of the books of engravings in the studio.

  We had the picnic, as promised. We had our goûter of brioche and apricots, cider for us and milk for the child, out of a basket, sitting on a pile of logs, and then Marie-Louise ran about, chasing butterflies, while the two men smoked their pipes and talked, and I listened.

  I think the doctor’s wife would have liked to come with us. It cannot have been very interesting spending the whole afternoon with Madame Colbert. When we reached the house we expected to find them still in the garden but they had returned inside, because it was so hot, and Madame Polpeau remarked sharply that we had been gone a very long time. It felt oppressive coming out of the golden sunshine into the dark, stuffy dining-room full of thick, heavy material, with the windows firmly closed to keep out the heat. Marie-Louise had wanted to stay in the forest, and I secretly agreed with her. The two men went on smoking their pipes, walking up and down in the garden. When the Polpeaus had gone I took Marie-Louise’s hand and promised her that we would go to the forest again.


  Monsieur Gérard was away overnight two days ago on business. His mother complained about his absence, since she was not feeling very well. He came home late yesterday morning looking tired, a little irritable, just in time to hear his mother fretting over whether Geneviève should cook four slices of liver for déjeuner or only three.

  —Really Gérard, she reproached him: you are working far too hard. Are all these journeys really necessary?

  She was giving him a fierce look. He growled something, and brushed past her into his study. At déjeuner they hardly spoke to each other. Marie-Louise, picking up on the atmosphere, began to misbehave, whimpering and saying that her slice of liver was too pink in the middle; she didn’t want to eat it. It ended with her being sent away from table in disgrace, up to her room. I went with her, feeling in disgrace myself, that I hadn’t been able to force her to swallow the undercooked meat which I dislike as
much as she does. As I shut the dining-room door and turned to haul the weeping Marie-Louise off along the passage I heard Madame Colbert burst out. Something like: really Gérard, why must you go on seeing that wretched woman, you will bring the family name into disgrace. There was the noise of a chair scraping back, so I picked up Marie-Louise bodily in my arms and started up the stairs with her, just as the dining-room door opened and Monsieur Gérard came hastily out. He took no notice of us but went into his study and banged the door. For supper we had the uneaten pieces of liver minced up and made into rissoles. This time they were cooked through. We ate them à l’anglaise with mashed potato and fried onions. Delicious.


  Calm days. We are making a collection of wild flowers, and I am teaching Marie-Louise to press them We continue with our French, geography and history lessons in the study every afternoon, and it is still warm enough to carry on working outside. Marie-Louise is making good progress, and her grandmother has complimented me. Obviously, she can see that although I allow Marie-Louise plenty of physical freedom and exercise I am simultaneously scrupulous about ensuring she finishes her lessons before having treats and rewards. My English system works!

  Monsieur Gérard has not been away again. His mother is tranquil once more. I forgot to mention that he has been lending me books for the last couple of weeks. He encourages me to roam freely through his shelves, take down and borrow whatever I like. My evenings and nights are transformed. Before going to bed I beg stumps of candle from Geneviève, which I smuggle upstairs in my pocket, so that I can go on reading as late as I wish. Novels, poetry, plays, travel, I’m devouring them all. Then the next day we discuss what I’ve read.

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