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The looking glass, p.11

The Looking Glass, page 11


The Looking Glass

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  One of the volumes of poetry, Les Fleurs du mal, was inscribed on the flyleaf: to my beloved friend Gérard, from Isabelle. I wonder if that is that woman in the pencil sketch? The same one that Madame Colbert so dislikes, or another one? I suppose he must have had a lot of mistresses. It stands to reason that he would. I’m glad that I understand all that. Coming from such a sheltered background, I wouldn’t be expected to. But French literature is a great help, I find. Stendhal and Flaubert and so on.


  My life here is full of happiness. One warm, golden day folds into another. We had another picnic in the forest, without the doctor this time, because he and his wife are away on holiday in Brittany. We played hide-and-seek again and climbed trees. After our goûter we lay flat on our backs on the ground and stared up at the sky through the green and gold tracery of the distant treetops. It made you almost dizzy. You felt the world whirling round beneath you; you felt one with earth, trees, rocks and stones, and with the great wheel of the sun. I was dazed with joy. Oh if only I were a poet and could write poems.

  I will put it down. I must. I can’t bear not to. The most beautiful thing that has ever happened to me.

  It has happened. I am in love with Gérard.

  It suddenly dawned on me that I loved him. Before today, I didn’t know; I just went about my life unthinking; but meanwhile love crept up on me and crack! it was the coup de foudre. I am astonished, and rather nervous, but I can’t deny it. I am in love with Gérard. Oh the delight of writing those words, of writing his name, in this torment of having to keep my feelings utterly secret and not let anybody know.

  It’s happened, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I feel as though I’m staggering around, shocked, blinking. The air on my skin is different. Inside me an electric current pushes back and forth. I’m changed. I have fallen in love without having the least wish to do so or the least conception it was happening until it was too late. Now I can think of nothing but him. It’s an obsession, a fever, a malady. Almost a madness. I’m like a sleepwalker. In my thoughts I’m somewhere else, whatever I’m doing; I’m close to him; I’m with him whether I like it or not.

  We were in the forest. The three of us were lying on the ground on a bed of pine needles, gazing up through the treetops. We had our sleeves rolled up to the elbow because it was hot. His bare forearm was very close to mine. Then he moved, and his arm touched mine by accident. I am sure he was unaware of it. My skin burned; the sunlight swam in my eyes. Then I suddenly knew. And when we sat up, and got to our feet, I felt desolation, because his forearm was no longer close to mine.

  I can’t imagine why I once thought him ugly. Yet, rereading this, I see that at the beginning I did. Now I think him beautiful.

  He has been very kind to me. He is charming; he tells funny stories; he discusses with me the books I have read. He makes me feel that I matter to him, just a little bit, that he enjoys my company. This is arrogant and mad. He talks to me only because he’s got no one else in the house to talk to. He’s got a wealth of friends in Paris. He’s got that woman Isabelle to love. What could he possibly see in me? Half the time I think he is laughing at me, anyway. He calls me Meess Meelly. He calls me the leetle English meess. I am sure the kind of woman he falls in love with is sophisticated and worldly, like those women with big hats in Paris.

  Perhaps he does like me just a tiny little bit. But I must not believe it means anything more than that. I love him and that’s got to be enough. I must not ask for anything back.


  The postman arrived with our letters as usual. Normally he goes around the back and delivers the letters to Geneviève in the kitchen, but seeing the front door open he came towards it. We were all just about to go out. Monsieur Gérard was going to accompany us down to the river, so that we could take Marie-Louise across and back on the passenger ferry, as a treat. Madame Colbert had decided to come with us, because her rheumatism is better, and she said she needed more exercise. I had the feeling she was keeping an eye on me, to make sure I don’t become over-familiar with her son. We do, after all, spend quite a lot of time together, even though most of it is shared with Marie-Louise. She can’t suspect I’m in love, surely; no one can, because I am so discreet; but nonetheless these days I often find her glance on me, swiftly withdrawn as soon as I look up.

  Monsieur Gérard had gone upstairs to find his jacket. The postman came up to the open door and spoke to me as I was kneeling on the hallway floor buttoning up Marie-Louise’s boots. Madame Colbert was at the back of the hallway, in front of the mirror there, peering at her reflection, tying her veil on over her hat.

  The postman said: letters here for Monsieur Colbert, mademoiselle. Monsieur Polpeau is still away and so I can’t deliver them to him, as Monsieur Colbert asked, for him to collect later. They’ve been mounting up. I’m sure he’d like to have them. And there are two for you, mademoiselle, also.

  He hadn’t seen Madame Colbert at the back of the hall, because she was standing in the shadows. I peeped back at her. I wasn’t sure how much she’d heard. She had one long hatpin between her pursed lips and was raising her hand to drive the other into the swathes of black net on top of her head. I sensed her stiffen, rather than saw her.

  Clearly these were letters whose existence Gérard wished to conceal from his mother. Presumably from that woman Isabelle.

  I called out: oh, letters for me, how wonderful.

  Swivelling round to face the postman again, I was only half aware of what I was doing; oddly dreamy; everything was happening in slow motion. But quick too. I drove the tip of the buttonhook into the palm of my hand so hard that I yelped with pain as it pierced the skin. Marie-Louise, taken aback, tumbled sideways from her sitting position, fell over, and knocked her head against the metal corner of the base of the umbrella stand. She screamed in shock. Madame Colbert sailed forwards to see what all the fuss was about, but, by the time she reached the two of us, the incriminating package of letters had vanished into my pocket and I was blocking her further progress by remaining sprawled across the hall floor with my arms around the sobbing Marie-Louise, trying to comfort her. She was frightened by the knock on the head and by the blood on my hand.

  All Madame Colbert saw, as the postman apologetically retreated, were the two letters with foreign stamps which were indeed for me. Madame Colbert turned back to the mirror. She took her second long pin and drove it into her hat like a javelin.

  After we had collected ourselves up, washed bruised forehead and stanched bleeding hand and applied iodine, we set forth. Marie-Louise was delighted with the red stain on the side of her head, where the iodine had been dabbed on. She seemed to think it was a badge of courage. She rather enjoyed having a wound. I felt the same about the red mark in the centre of my palm. It throbbed and stung, just like love does.

  * * *

  As we left the house, Gérard stood holding open the door to let us pass. I came out last. Madame Colbert was busy smoothing her gloves and telling Marie-Louise to wrap her scarf more tightly around her throat in case it was chilly down by the river. I hovered next to him, for just a second. I felt his hand come up and pat my shoulder; I did not dare look at him; and then the door was shut and he was ahead of me on the path, tucking his mother’s hand into his arm.

  We took the ferry, exactly as we had planned. The wind got up, gusty and fresh, as we stepped aboard; it whipped our cheeks and we held on tightly to our hats. As we reached the centre of the river the sun suddenly came out from behind a large grey cloud and dazzled on the surface of the water. I felt as though it had broken out inside me too, rays of golden joy; the whole world was shining fiercely inside me and out; the river seemed to be pouring through me; I was flying into the light like a seagull. All I could think of was that Gérard had touched me. Now he has touched me twice. Of course I shake hands with him morning and night but that’s a mere conventional courtesy in public; it doesn’t count.

  Madame Colbert had moved away to the ot
her side of the ferry, to speak to an acquaintance she had spotted there, and Marie-Louise went with her. Gérard stayed standing next to me for a while. He leaned idly on the rail, drumming on it with the fingers of his left hand, whistling, looking straight ahead as though he were simply admiring the view of the forêt de Brotonne rising up on the opposite shore. But I was certain he stayed because he wanted to be close to me. In case I had anything to tell him. Or to give to him. Then he moved casually off across the deck and went to talk to his mother and her friend.


  The Polpeaus are back from Brittany. They came to déjeuner on Sunday, but without their daughter Yvonne, who was spending the day in her room as a punishment for being rude to her mother. Marie-Louise, hearing this, looked rather wide-eyed, and behaved impeccably throughout all five courses. The Polpeaus described their trip at great length. They made a little detour before coming home; they returned via the coast of upper Normandy. They visited Etretat, which they described as very pretty and picturesque, and then drove all the way up to St-Valêry-en-Caux, via Blessetot, Yport, Fécamp, and Veulettes-sur-Mer. Geneviève seemed agitated, her mind elsewhere. She dropped a plate onto the floor where it broke. Luckily the plate was empty. Gérard got up and patted her arm and told her not to worry. He helped her pick up the shards of china and insisted it was his fault, that he had jogged her elbow by accident. How kind that man is. How many other men would bother about a servant’s feelings, as he does? She’s just a clumping girl from the country but he treats her as though she’s one of us.

  With our coffee we drank tiny glasses of Bénédictine, a present brought back by the Polpeaus from Fécamp. It was sweetish; green and oily; delicious. I wanted a second glass but of course could not ask for one. In the evening Gérard did not go out. He played chess with me instead. He taught me, since I hardly know the game at all. We played under the eyes of his mother. Marie-Louise sat with us and tried to help me win. She urged me on and held the captured pieces very tightly between her hands.


  Madame Colbert has proposed that we are to have a holiday, since Marie-Louise has been working so well and so hard and deserves a treat. If we are to make a little voyage, my employer declares, then we should make it very soon, before the weather changes. Sea-bathing is good for the health and the sea air will do us all good. Monsieur Gérard will of course accompany us, to escort his mother.

  She is taking a leaf out of the Polpeaus’ book. She has decided we are to go to Etretat. This may be one way of putting paid to Madame Polpeau’s long-winded descriptions of all she and the doctor did and saw while they were there. When she comes to call in the afternoons she regales her hostess with detailed accounts of cliff walks and fish suppers to which Madame Colbert is bound to listen politely while having nothing of her own with which to fight back and stun her guest. When Madame Polpeau opens her mouth a stream of twittering banalities gushes out; her voice sandpapers your ears; after only a couple of minutes in her company I want to scream with irritation and boredom. Gérard feels exactly the same as I do. When he sees her coming he vanishes into his study, or he claps on his hat and escapes into the garden.

  Artists must be free, and unshackled by the normal petty conventions of domestic life. I know this because I have the passionate soul of an artist myself. Gérard suffers terribly from the restrictions imposed on him by the need to live with his mother and take care of her. It seems it would be unthinkable for him to set up his own separate establishment. She is his widowed mother and he is her devoted son and that is that. She is the heartiest, sturdiest widow that I ever saw. Why should she not be? She is the luckiest of women: she lives with Gérard, she depends upon him for all her amusement and interests in life; he will never leave her as long as she lives.

  At the seaside he will feel much freer. No wonder he has needed to escape to Paris from time to time. Or to that woman.

  She turned up yesterday afternoon. She pursued him into his own house. I would never do such a thing. So forward and unfeminine.

  We had finished our lessons. It was very hot again. I took Marie-Louise upstairs to look for her hat so that she could put it on before going out; Madame Colbert is very nervous of the effects of sunshine on the unprotected head and never goes out herself without quantities of veils and parasols. The hat had been left in the wrong place and we were searching for it in the wardrobes. I went into my room and found it in the cupboard there. Just as I was about to call Marie-Louise from across the landing I heard the noise of a carriage outside. It stopped; it was clearly at our gate. I ran over to the window and peeped out.

  A veiled woman descended from the open carriage, holding her pale blue skirts scooped to the side, a meringue puff bunched up in one hand. Her slender ankles showed, a gleam of gauzy grey stocking, small feet shod in pale blue. She flowed rather than simply got down, swiftly and nimbly. The elegant cut and hang of her clothes, the flimsiness of her little boots, marked her out as a city-dweller, one to whom fashion would mean far more than protection from rain and mud. Over her dress she wore a thin silky-looking coat, also in pale blue, trimmed with black lace, and she carried a furled parasol and a small handbag. She paused by the garden gate shaking out the creases from her skirts, inspecting her gloves and tugging them straight. She threw back her veil, revealing the little straw hat perched on her gleaming black hair, which was done up behind her head in a chignon.

  The curve of her cheekbones, the pout of her small mouth, her large dark eyes: all seemed familiar, yet I could not imagine where we could have met. I watched her square her shoulders, draw a deep breath, and smooth the material of her dress down over her stomach in what seemed an oddly nervous gesture for one so beautiful. Then she put up her parasol like a little flag, turned and faced the house, opened the gate, and marched into the garden and up the path. She walked with that slightly bow-legged gait of women who wear high heels, with clenched knees. Your feet on tiptoe can’t take the weight of your body, so your thighs arch and grip and you lurch a bit. Slightly crab-like.

  She had not noticed me studying her out of my window. I drew my head back inside as I heard the bell peal downstairs, once, twice, then once again. I hesitated for a few seconds, wondering what to do. Geneviève, hanging out the washing at the far end of the back garden, might not have heard the summons, and Madame Colbert, woken abruptly from her nap, and not expecting a visitor, as far as I knew, might feel flustered and in disarray. Gérard was in his study, not to be interrupted. I decided to run down and open the door myself. If the woman in blue had come to the wrong house by mistake it would take only a minute to set her right, and then Madame Colbert need not be disturbed at all.

  As I slithered down the stairs I realised that of course I knew who the woman was. So did my employer. She had got to the door just as I started up the hallway, and was holding it open. Her neck poked forward, as though she were listening momentarily to something squawking below her, a chick fallen out of a nest, perhaps, floppy and broken-boned. Then she straightened herself. Her back was magnificent. It was the back of a general with his besieged city behind him and his troops drawn up in readiness to repel the invader, addressing the raggle-taggle regiment of the insolent army who dares to believe there is a skirmish to be fought. Over my dead body, said that fierce and indomitable back: will you ever enter my house. And the wrinkled hand gripping the doorknob added its translation and apostrophe: you impudent baggage no better than you should be; you little cheapskate strumper; how dare you turn up uninvited and expect me to welcome you in; I’d like to slap your falsely smiling face.

  Beyond that small, iron-moulded back, that bulwark against the fretting sea, there was an agitation of pale blue, a flutter of white, as though the visitor had drawn herself back and up, all her courage gathered into one gesture, a small wave trying to become a massive tidal one, willing herself to be powerful, determined to break on our shore. You felt her trying to surge forwards through the doorway with a force born of desperation.

  Madame Colbert did not flinch. She held her post. She said in a soft, calm voice as though she were addressing a wilful child: there has been some mistake. I am afraid you cannot see my son, madame. He is unable to receive visitors because he is not here. He is away, and I have no idea whatsoever when he will return.

  I skipped backwards, onto the bottom rung of the stairs. I leaned over the banisters to hear what happened next.

  —Goodbye, madame, said the stern old woman, and shut the door.

  I tiptoed back upstairs and fetched Marie-Louise’s hat. From my window I watched the carriage drive away again.

  When the others came in Madame Colbert was seated in her little armchair, yawning, as though she had dozed off and had only just woken up. She put up her hands and patted her hair, making sure it was tidy. She pulled Marie-Louise to her and gave her a kiss. Over supper she suggested that we all have a little holiday and set off for Etretat.


  We have taken rooms in a hotel on the front. All of our windows face the sea. Gérard is on the second floor and the rest of us on the first. Geneviève has come too. Madame Colbert says she is feeling her age, and dreads the return of her rheumatism. So Geneviève is to look after her, while I look after Marie-Louise. Geneviève and Marie-Louise are sharing a room in between Madame Colbert’s and mine.

  My bedroom is square, with a high ceiling. Last night, as I got into bed, it felt sculpted and mysterious, a new place to discover, like an underwater cave. This morning, full of sunshine, it suggests magic and enchantment even more strongly, the haunts of those talking seals in Marie-Louise’s collection of fairy tales. The walls are washed greeny-blue; a kind of turquoise; almost exactly the colour of the sea this morning with the sun gleaming on it from the unclouded sky; and the gilt-framed mirrors on either side of the open window bring in the bright light, which sparkles on the brass bed-rail, on the polished wooden backs of chairs, on the creamy marble top of the washstand which is streaked and flecked, white on grey, like one of the pebbles on the beach just outside.

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