After weeks of journeying, she found, when she’d finally reached Paris, that she could not proceed directly to Marie’s. Her very eagerness for reunion with her daughter checked her. Shame fouled her, tangled like rope around her ankles, hobbling and tripping her up. A four months’ tour of the provinces! That was all it was to be, a chance to save a little money and come right back. Yet she’d allowed that to turn into almost two years, to convince herself that it was for Adele’s sake that she followed Semyon further and further across Europe, all the way to St Petersburg. How many instances did she require, to learn once for all the worthlessness of men, the hollowness of their promises and inducements?
She nearly walked by the Marie’s now, not recognizing it. The house front had been re-painted in her absence. But there was the laundry, and there was the butcher—it was where the strong smells of borax and blood met and did battle, that one turned in at Marie’s doorway.
The city constantly shifted and moved, but there were some pockets, some streets and neighborhoods, that were so out of the way and ancient, so unthought-of by the powerful, that one might imagine them eternal—eternally crumbling, smelly, begrimed. Such was this little enclave not so far from the Opéra, where so many of those who toiled backstage lived their off-hours. The concierge gave her a half-stare, and a half-bob of her head. Céline returned her a smile, and said she was just going to run up to Madame Marie’s rooms, in the eaves, at the back.
The concierge said something, but she did not pause to listen. In a moment little Adele would be in her arms—right now the child was still ignorant that today was a golden one, but in a moment she’d hear maman’s call, her steps on the stairs, and know it. She fairly bounded up, holding her skirts in one hand, and in the other, the nosegay and the peppermints she’d bought along the way. The first landing smelled of fish soup, the second of tripe, the third of cabbage, and on the fourth she almost expected to see the door already flung open and her daughter rushing out with arms outstretched.
She gave the door a merry knock.
“Marie, Adele, I’m here! Céline is here!”
The door was opened, by a woman in a dark velveteen dress. The sight of a stranger didn’t startle her—Marie always had copains who came and went, carrying sewing up and down, and bread, and gossip. “Hello Madame. Is Marie at home? I’m here to see my Adele. Adele! Look who has come for you!”
The lady shook her head. “Madame, there’s no Marie here.”
“She lives here. With my child, she looks after her. Adele.” Céline started forward, and though she had not invited her, the lady fell back and let her enter. Inside, she saw none of Marie’s things—not the table with its oilcloth top, not the three mismatched chairs, or the sideboard so broad and heavy that it must have been made in the room. Everything was different, rugs and hangings and pictures, all settled as if they’d been in place for some time.
“I don’t know whom you seek,” the lady said, following her. “I’ve had these rooms since the turn of the year, Madame.”
Turning in a circle, taking in the quadrants of the room, the open doorways of the bedroom and scullery, she scrabbled for some explanation that would make sense of this displacement. When some interval had passed, the lady gripped her arms in her hands to stop her rotation. “Please, Madame, it’s the truth.”
Suddenly she noticed someone else there, a gentleman whose chair was set in a long oblong of sunlight, framed by the window, with a teacup and saucer in his lap.
Céline stared at him. Nothing was where it belonged. Had she knocked on the wrong door? Failed to climb the last flight? After all mistaken the house?
“Madame, they must have moved on, for when I took these rooms, they were already vacant. Suddenly she was offering a little notebook, and a pencil. “If you will just mention the street where you lodge, I will jot it down, so as to find you if there is any news.”
She must think her some sort of dolt—or a madwoman. She scanned again, searching for something from the last time she’d been here, when she’d brought little Adele and all her things in a box, and given Marie so many injunctions and instructions and encouragements and promises—oh, so many promises! Promises to both of them, to Adele especially, that she would write every few days and be back in almost no time at all, before the leaves began to turn. She’d been filled with heady optimism then, with stupid hope. At last, after the stupid second try with M Eduoard, and the other missteps, she’d taken her fate, Adele’s fate, into her own hands, and would not be tripped up.
“But … my daughter. She should be here. I left her, with Marie, to wait for me.” Even as she murmured this plea, she knew her mistake was not going to be made good.
This was not the golden day.
The next afternoon, she answered a knock on the door of her lodgings to find a man in the act of doffing his hat to bow to her. When he rose from his inflection, he regarded her with eyebrows raised, his chin, which bore a rusty, dryish pointy straw-colored beard, thrust inquiringly towards her.
Confused, Céline could think only that he’d followed her in from the street, which had happened a time or two in the past—though she had come in an hour ago from her errands, and she’d never known a fellow to hesitate so long to approach.
“M’sieur, perhaps you have the wrong landing.” She was shutting the door when he belatedly spoke.
“You did not notice me, at Madame Lozon’s, in your distress—you were so very distressed—”
Her belly lurched, sweat broke out on her neck, the mere word ‘distress’ having the power to throw her into turmoil.
“I am the gentleman who was visiting Mme Lozon yesterday, when you came in. You are the lady who has so unfortunately misplaced her little girl.”
She recalled him, his effacing figure filling itself in to the background of the scene in Marie’s old room. He’d sat near the window, with the brightness at his back, and after saying something that had no meaning, had stood by while she’d screamed and thrown that piece of crockery against the wall.
Now he was here.
She squinted around her sudden headache. “You know something about my Adele?”
“Madame Lozon knows nothing about the people who were there before.”
Her heart, which had been beating so rapidly, palpably slowed, as if, with nothing to rush for, it resolved to pause. She repressed the urge to cough. “What do you want then?”
“I … well. The fact is, Madame, I …” The gentleman glanced about, at the small landing and stairs behind him, and then at her face. “I only wondered if you were well. As you did leave your address with my friend, I thought I would call and just inquire … if you are quite well.”
He stared back, and after a moment or two, as if he’d been poked, he bowed again. “Pardon me, Madame Varens. I know your name but you don’t know mine. I am Leon Carmichael. I could not help thinking of your distress—to mislay a child, a daughter, it’s very serious. So I thought, I will call on that sad lady, and ask her … ask her to come out and have an ice.”
“The day is lovely. But you cannot see it, I think, from this room.” He leaned forward a bit, to glance past her, taking in the small dimension of the chamber, where the wallpaper was peeling and the window faced a dull wall. Céline got a whiff of him—he smelled of tobacco, and a not unpleasant must, as if his clothes, which were indeed not of the latest cut, had been lain away for a long time before he’d put them on. He was very thin, the dry hairs of his beard clinging to deflated cheeks. A man, she could see, who though well enough at the moment perhaps, was frequently ill. A man who looked at her with an expression replete with sympathy, as if he was nearly as flummoxed as she at finding himself at her door.
“I did not part with my daughter for a caprice. I had to leave her in order that she should be safe, and settled, while I—”
“We could just stroll around to the boulevard, and have an ice, and we needn’t talk about the little girl. Or you could tell me all about her, and I will listen, just as you choose.” He made a vague gesture with his hand. “You should just put on your hat, Madame. The charming one you were wearing yesterday, will do perfectly.” As if he didn’t know full well that it was the only hat she possessed! Odd courtesy. His French was fine, though his accent was foreign. He did not sound like M Eduoard, she did not think he was an Englishman. But she wasn’t sure.
“What harm would it do?” he said, casting up his eyes towards the ceiling in an expression that, to her surprise, reminded her of Lisette, her maid’s habit of thus consulting La Vierge, with her rolling eyes, on every little point of conduct. Lisette’s Heavenly Mother tending always to be of a most sympathetic nature, returning approval to most queries. This gentleman could not have been more unlike poor Lisette, whom she was ashamed to seek out since the break-up with M Eduoard had made her homeless, and yet he seemed to imitate her, with a perfection! Céline giggled.
He laughed too, though clearly without an idea why. He was not handsome—his nose was beaky, his forehead high and over-pale, and his eyes, which bulged slightly from heavy lids, were a washed-out watery blue with broken vessels pinking the whites—but she was impressed by his air of deliberate, eccentric courtesy, even as she still did not believe in it.
“Why there, you see, you are already on the way to enjoying yourself a bit. You might as well, you know.”
Why should I? And why with you? she thought, but then, why not? She, who had become accustomed to finding herself so frequently at a loose end, had now more ends loose than tethered, indeed, was tethered to nearly nothing. So why not let this M Carmichael grab hold of her if he fancied it? She was in mid-plunge, and all he’d likely get from his outreach was a fistful of torn silk as she whooshed by, but if he fancied that—? Giving gentlemen what they fancied was generally easier than refusing it, at least in the short run.
She went to the dressing table and put on her hat.
In the mirror, she saw him nod and smile. “Very good, that’s very good. I like a pretty woman who doesn’t fuss at herself.”
She had meant to fuss a bit, as an excuse to take a few more soundings of his reflection, but really, what did it matter? Nothing mattered, except that Adele was disappeared, and so she turned and came back to M Carmichael and let him hand her down the three flights of stairs and out into the street. The afternoon was warmish; on the boulevard the ground was dappled with the gently moving reflections of the fresh April leaves, and the pavements clotted with strollers. M Carmichael offered his arm, and after hesitating, she took it. He towered over her by a foot, though in other dimensions he was under-substantial; his suit a little too large, his cravat a little too confining. He wore small round spectacles, through which he regarded her each time she chanced to glance up at him, his gaze dry and friendly, but a little abstracted, as though they were strangers paired by a hostess at a dinner party. They were strangers certainly, and had been paired by no one; her suspicion sharpened.
An idea flared up. “You know, perhaps, the father of my Adele?”
“The father? Of your—ah, Adele is the child’s name, yes, I heard you say so,” Carmichael said. “If I do know her father, I’m not aware of it. Who’s he?”
“An Englishman called Rochester.”
“One should like to know an Englishman called Rochester, but I haven’t the pleasure.”
“I’m an American,” he offered, as if that was explanatory enough. “Though I’ve lived in Europe some years, and my acquaintance here is rather wide. But mainly among those who speak French and Italian. I come from Providence.”
Providence! M Eduoard’s word for his stern God! The one she could not convince herself was the same she addressed when she went to hear the last half of a mass, to light a candle and say for her child the last half of a prayer she did not wholly believe or disbelieve. M Eduoard used to jeer at the Roman Church in the same offhand way that he jeered at so much that was not English, leaving her with an impression that his Providence was cold and aloof, regarding all his creation with a haughty curl of the lip. Habitually not providing, except to those who already had plenty. Halting, withdrawing her arm from his, she repeated it: Providence. Providence! Oh, this was a trick! “He sent you! What does he mean by this? Why did he send you?”
“Madame, du calme! I assure you, no one sent me. I came at my own prompting.” He ambled a little way off, towards an empty table at the outskirts of a crowded café. Céline stayed where she was, pulsing with confusion. Carmichael shuffled the chairs a bit, and glanced up at her with a doggish mien. “Do be seated, Madame. Look, Providence is only a town, in Rhode Island. It is where I was born. That’s all.”
“A town. Rhode Island.” She’d never heard of it.
“In New England, you know.” He was at her side again. “It’s just as tiresome as it sounds, which is why I went away when I was young and have never gone back. I much prefer Paris. To which, I understand, you yourself have only recently returned. That’s worth celebrating, I think. Here,” he added, handing her into a chair, “face this way, and the sun will not too much dazzle your eyes.” He took the chair opposite, and gestured for the waiter, ordering the promised water-ice.
“You were away from Paris for some time?”
“Pardon me, m’sieur, but I cannot imagine why my movements should be of any interest to you whatsoever.”
He leaned back in his chair, and smiled. “You are a charming lady with a story. I like a charming lady, and I relish a story, perhaps above all things.”
“So I am to amuse you, my misfortune a way for you to wile away your time?”
“I will do what I can to amuse and distract you as well. After all, what else are we put here for, but to be of some service to one another? And is it not serviceable, when we help one another to pass the time, most especially when the hours are heavier than they should be?”
The ices, strawberry, each garnished with a fresh halved berry, were placed before them. The spoons glinted in the sunlight, and when she glanced up, Céline saw in particular, as though her eyes were specially attuned, all the things that struck off glimmers: an officer’s sword, the buckle on a horse’s rein, the glass jewel in a woman’s turban, a piece of mirror displayed outside a shop across the way. Her eye darted from one to the next, as if they were signs, hints of where she could find—if not her child, then the meaning of her disappearance. She imagined holding Adele on her lap, helping her to the ices, as she’d done many times before, the child’s heavy shifting as she leaned in closer to the dish. How much had she grown in these two years? Two years! She was seven now, and seven was big, and half-way to—half-way to— She should never have left her at all. How could that have seemed sensible? She should have done anything, anything else, than go away on that wretched tour! Than trust that wretched Semyon! Than allow herself to be dragged so far beyond the promised limit and then left so penniless. She might have been penniless just as well in Paris, but with Adele beside her all the time!
And how could it be now that she was not howling, not running through the streets, screeching and wailing, in search of her little girl? She could see herself leaping up, overturning this nice little table, tearing off her hat, tearing down her hair, crying out, rushing off—
Carmichael’s hand seized hers, the spoon clattering to the table. “Madame.”
She looked up, to find him watching her, his frown making an indentation like that of a fingernail, between his scant sandy brows. “You will faint directly if you go on breathing like that.”
She had no idea how she was breathing, but as he held her gaze, she became aware of how her heart raced, how she strained against her corset. And then of his hand surrounding hers, his skin dry and a little rough. Together they regarded their paired hands. He said, “I know you find me most impertinent. But truly, would it be better that you should sit alone, or dash about alone—for I see you would like to dash about. But what good would it do you? Your daughter is certainly not wandering the streets.”
She tensed to rise. “I don’t know that!”
“Your friend with whom you left her—she was not the sort of person who would sell a child?”
Céline gasped. “Sell her—?” She had not thought of that, though now she couldn’t imagine why. Hadn’t she herself been sold to, at least appropriated by, Uncle Barbier and La Cuny? Would Marie sell Adele? Was she capable of that? Why not, when the money stopped coming? She’d had none to send these last six months Perhaps she’d sold Adele, and quitted Paris to hide herself! “Marie worked always at the Opéra—that’s where I knew her, when I was in the corps, she alters costumes. But when I asked for her there this morning, they said her eyes were bad, and she’d had to give it up. Last winter. They had no other address for her, besides the one I had. Oh, what if she simply lost her!”
“Let’s make a more likely assumption. If your friend could not pay for those lodgings, where would she have gone? Back perhaps to her native place?”
“She left there long ago.”
“Yes, that’s what we do, isn’t it? We come to the great city, and find a little perch, in a particular quartier that suits us, our station in life. And perhaps later we lose the perch, are obliged to move … but do we generally go far?”
She stared at him. The ices slowly collapsed in the dish.
“I did.” Her lips trembled. All the way to Russia! As if she was one of the foolish besotted girls in the ballets she’d danced. She could feel herself blushing. M Carmichael still had hold of her hand; he squeezed it.
“You, Madame, are not typical. Most people who come to Paris in their youth, stay put—their little neighborhood is their pays, yes? It is quite likely that your friend had to remove to some cheaper place, and found one in the area. After all, isn’t that more likely than that she would have left Paris, or even so much as crossed the river?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know!”
“We shall find out.” He uncoupled his hand from hers, picked up his spoon, and began to eat up his melting ice with rapid action, and then, when she made no move, hers as well. His spoon clinked, and the tip of his tongue made darting appearances as he licked the pink stuff off the hairs of his mustache. Leaving a coin on the table, he rose and offered his arm once more. “Let us see what we can find.”
She brought him to the house where she’d left her child with her friend Marie. The concierge, who had treated Mme Varens with such blank-faced contempt the day before, was forthcoming when questioned by a foreign gentleman, in his elaborately correct French, with his air of masculine authority. Of course she knew Madame Marie, and while she would not swear to it, she believed she’d heard a rumor that after losing her place at the Opéra, she had removed to an attic lodging not so far away—not so far away, but, as the concierge implied with a sniff, a long step down from the accommodations she’d been forced to vacate. Perhaps this room was the one over the chandler’s place, in the rue I___. Perhaps, she could not say for sure, for such things were really none of her concern, she said, making a curt little bow as she accepted M Carmichael’s proffered coin.
“I had no choice. I had no choice. Isn’t he the child’s father!”
The woman Marie, in her mean attic in the rue I___, had gone red the moment she recognized Mme Varens, and now, as she stamped her foot with each word, as if her assertions were part of some angry dance, it went such a deep crimson that Carmichael wondered if she would fall into an apoplexy.
“You just let him take her? How could you?”
“You were gone! I had no choice! I had no choice!” She stamped it out with her heavy foot like a horse that had been taught a trick.
“You did not even answer my last letters!”
“You cannot prove that!”
All at once, Mme Varens’ body absented itself from the space it had occupied the way a column crumbles, straight down. For a few seconds after this collapse, Madame Marie went on stamping and crying out, as if she had to run out her spring. She only went silent when, kneeling swiftly beside Mme Varens’ inert form, he said, “Haven’t you any salts? At least fetch some water.” He fanned at Céline’s blanched cheek with his hat.
She stirred, then squeezed her eyes shut. The room was far from bright, but Carmichael felt she wasn’t yet ready to return to herself. Tears laced her eyelashes, and he could see the pulse beating at the turn of her throat. He fanned on patiently, murmuring that she must take her time. He could hear Marie blundering about in the next room—she seemed to be a singularly graceless female. Céline’s whole face contracted, she pulled her lip up under her teeth, rapid thoughts molding the contours of her face as he watched. She was trying to be deliberate, even as she struggled against the hysteria that pulled at her bosom. Observing, he discerned something about her—that she was a woman who felt deeply, but who did not permit herself too free a range of expression. While recovering from her faint, he could see her putting herself into a sort of order that required a tremendous force of will. By the time she gripped his wrist, and permitted him to sit her gently up, Carmichael knew that she would not again shout, or weep, in the presence of Madame Marie. That he had seen her shout and weep on two occasions seemed to indicate to him not that she was a woman who habitually shouted and wept, but that he happened to be present at a great crisis in her life, and was seeing her as she rarely permitted herself to be seen.
She glanced up at that woman, who had lumbered back in with a tumbler of water and stood, rather inert, just out of arm’s reach, her own face barely less scarlet than it had been during her fit of self-expatiation, hatred glittering in her eyes. Sensing that Céline was ready to rise, Carmichael lifted her; she needed little help, and came up with the same columnar neatness with which she’d gone down. He could sense the tension of her every muscle.
She drew breath to speak, but before she could, Marie, forgetting to offer the water, rushed to throw open the door. “Now she’s on her feet, you had better take her right out into the air, M’sieur.”
Cooler air flowed in from the landing, bathing his own heated face, softly inflating the veil on Céline’s bonnet.
Marie stood holding the door in one hand, looking not at them but out onto the empty landing.
Not wishing to coerce her in any way, Carmichael waited for Mme Varens to make her move. He imagined he could feel the tremor of her body, though she stood entirely free of him now. He offered his arm. After a moment, in which the stare at Marie, had she dared to meet it, might have dissolved that red-faced lady, Céline shifted her weight, and laid her gloved hand—very lightly—in his elbow. He led her slowly out, with a sense that what linked them together was of the merest gossamer, not be tugged upon.
As they began their ascent, Marie found her voice once more.
“I surely don’t know why you should expect more of me than of yourself! I suppose I wasn’t to feed us both on air, when your letters stopped! You should have stayed in Paris and fed your child on air yourself!”
“I should have, yes.” The words were barely a whisper. Leon caught them, as it were, on the exhalation; Marie probably didn’t hear them at all. She fired off another cry: “Maybe her father’s a more natural one than you!”
Mme Varens paused, without turning. Her voice was full now. “He paid, I’m sure, for Adele’s arrears. So I will consider that my debt to you’s discharged.”
The door above them slammed. Céline just perceptibly sagged at the sound, but she needed no more assistance than she was already accepting. She only paused at the bottom of the stairs to pull her veil down before they passed by the concierge’s lodge. That lady stood at her half-door, grimacing and staring as if she’d grown her eyes out on stalks. Carmichael returned her look with great deliberation as they passed her by. Beside him, Céline seemed to float, yet he could well imagine that she had no idea how she’d gotten outside, and that later on, perhaps would have no memory at all of coming down the stairs.
“You are doing very well,” he murmured. “Just a little bit farther and we’ll be ‘round the corner.” He allowed himself to wonder what she’d do when they were out of sight of the concierge, and Marie’s windows. Some gasp, some remark, would certainly be excusable. Céline remained silent, her hand no more heavy on his guiding arm. They crossed the street, and kept on going, each few paces passed in silence contributing to a sense that grew in him, that they were, now, just together, walking. His glances at her veiled face told him little; she kept her nose pointed forward, her chin up. Looking down he saw the slightly scuffed toe of each boot kick out beneath her swaying skirts with each step. She had a crisp way of keeping up with his longer strides, and he began to feel they were in rhythm, and might glide along together, going nowhere in particular, indefinitely.
He was startled therefore when, without a gesture, he all at once found his arm denuded, and that she was no longer at his side. She seemed to have disappeared; he turned to look for her, until a low noise drew his attention to the gap between two nearby buildings. She had darted into this narrow alley, and was crouched there. He spotted the pool of vomit, and his own stomach lurched, before his eye riveted instead to her small gloved hand pressed to the dirty bricks beside her. Then she’d straightened up, and was turning back to him as her fingers probed to replace her veil, which would not go back into place, because it was torn. She fumbled with it, then let her hands drop.
“It is all my own fault. My plan was stupid. I should never have parted from her.”
“England’s not so far. Not so far as many other places. We will find out her address, and you will go to her.”
Her reply came out so softly, he had to stoop to hear her. “I could sooner succeed in plucking her back out of a workhouse, or a convent for orphans, than from him, now he’s got her.”
“You, who are so amiable, can know nothing of the sort of man Adele’s father is. He did not take my child for her own sake—if he’d ever cared about her as his daughter, from her birth, nothing would have been what it was.” She began to walk away; he had to hurry to fall in beside her. This time she ignored the offer of his arm.
“Why then, did he reclaim her?”
“To punish me. To punish me. To punish me.” The words rolled from her like a clock tolling. She stopped and faced him. “I don’t know what I am, that he should so exert himself on my behalf! Look at me, M’sieur!” She raised her hands, as if it to point up their smallness, then, with an abrupt gesture, ripped the torn veil from her bonnet, to expose her blotchy face. “You see me! What am I, a little danseuse like so many others, too old now for any first-rate stage—am I anything so worthy of a man’s ongoing hatred?”
She’d raised her voice at last, and attracted, with these last words, the notice of a trio of urchins, who now capered behind her, gesturing with their filthy hands before their faces as they squeaked “I’m a little dansuese, I’m a little dansuese!” Carmichael saw them, but she was oblivious, to the mockery and to the stares of other passersby, who had slowed to take in the scene.
At that moment a cab pulled up opposite, and two people alit. Carmichael grabbed at the open door. “Madame, you are certainly a worthy subject of a gentleman’s ongoing interest. Will you climb up so we may depart this place?”
She blinked, taking in at last her situation, and the stares of the onlookers.
“M’sieur, you are kind,” she murmured, and reached for his outstretched hand.
In the cab, she could barely listen, could barely sit still, as he again spoke of her going to England. Her mind was besieged with memories of Adele, each of which now felt suspect, so that she could be sure of nothing—not the blue of her eyes, not the tone of her curved cheek, or her prattling voice. Every detail of her little girl that she’d so carefully husbanded during their separation had gone flat and false.
“You would perhaps like some refreshment, while we talk over your plans?” M Carmichael said.
She shook her head.
His kindness, if not genuine, was most peculiar. Perhaps it arose from an eccentric nature, combined with an apparent freedom from routine and obligations. He seemed to be a flâneur, a man of the world. Which was all very well, Céline thought, but no matter how eccentric, he would not have taken an interest in her if she was not an attractive woman. Undoubtedly he would expect her to repay his time and effort with her favors. There was no question of fooling herself about that. As they bowled along in the cab, she considered the thing. He certainly was owed something by now, but that something could, if she handled it gracefully, be accomplished right here in the carriage during a turn through the park, after which she might alight in the street quite satisfied that she’d given him recompense for his trouble, and be done with him.
But when it came to speaking of this, or making any move to set a suggestive hand upon him, she couldn’t make these familiar moves. The strange notion came to her that he might find straightforwardness more vulgar than exciting.
She could suggest they dine somewhere that evening in a private room, which would take more of her time and effort, but still leave her free that same night to return to her solitary chamber. She wanted to shut herself up there, alone, so she could think freely about Adele. All during her travels, away from her, then back, she’d imagined her child in one particular way—in the company of Marie, in that familiar quartier … and now she had to ravel up something else, to picture her daughter in the unknown house in England, which she knew must be cold, upright and vast, like its master. And who was there with her, taking care of her? And what would she be thinking, about being taken away from Paris? About her absent Maman?
She could not begin this mental work, which pressed upon her, both agony and obligation, until she’d disposed fairly of M Carmichael. He sat opposite her, his hands clasped on his knee. She noticed again their boniness, as if any extra flesh he’d once possessed had been used up, and this reminded her again of her initial impression, that he was a man who had experienced illness, who lived, in fact, in the interstices of illness. It occurred to her to wonder if his sudden enthusiasm for her and her plight might have to do with that oddity of mind that so many consumptives were supposed to have—the disease could make a person take on strange desires and fervors, it was said, and it was quite likely that Carmichael was a sufferer.
Given how he’d extended to her his time and protection, perhaps he was a man who would expect a whole night, who would become livelier and more energetic as the hours melted to the single digits and who would then want a long cuddled sleep in her company, and to be greeted on awakening by her smile. She respected that sort of fellow, even though he could be tiresome when one was preoccupied. For M Carmichael’s own sake, she hoped his nature carried thus into boudoir dealings, but for herself, for that evening at least, she knew she could not force the compliance she’d practiced so often in the past. Her mask was as tattered as her veil, and she could not perform that long-form play.
He spoke. “I do not like to leave you in your current flurried state. Perhaps you’d take tea in my rooms and satisfy me that you have settled yourself at least for the present, before I escort you home?”
This was the moment she’d anticipated. He was entirely polite, but his plainer meaning was, she thought, transparent enough. She wanted to answer smoothly, to begin, even as she offered some alternative to his own rooms, which she did not want to enter, to distance herself with an equal politeness.
But before she could reply, he’d consulted his pocket watch. “I’m engaged to dine at nine o’clock. Perhaps you are as well, and will want to dress. But we could safely take an half hour for tea table summings-up. Truly it would set my mind at ease to know you were tranquil before we part.”
“I am tranquil as I can be, now.” She felt measurably more so, having received this reprieve.
“It’s through force of will, which is not the same thing. But I suppose it’s the best that we can expect, after such a shock.”
“I have no expectations now.”
“Now that, I think, is a fib. Or call it a self-deception, because I do not think you intend to lie. Madame, at any event I’m certain that’s not true.”
“No, no, it is true, for I have—” She closed her eyes, squeezing them shut, because all at once it was again unbearable to see, unbearable to speak. She experienced a sonorous hammer strike, an interior blow that immediately repeated, and repeated, and repeated.
M Carmichael seized her hands. He pressed them with a helpless importuning, but didn’t speak. She pulled her breath in from the far distance of its retreat, and once more her heart beat steadily in her chest, and the sensation of impending death receded. She found she regretted it. The passing crisis stranded her again in the sense that she had lost everything, forever. That she lacked even the ground beneath her feet. How long could this go on? She could see no end, because there was nothing for her to look forward to.
She’d suffered during her eastern journey, which kept lengthening like a nightmare, paroxysms of dread, for Adele, and for her own decisions, that mounted up in a great roiling tumulus, for the time she’d allowed herself to tarry beyond her promise. But that was nothing to what she experienced now. Her shame transformed to a whole other dimension by the knowledge that M Eduoard was now the master of it. For she could not convince herself that he’d plucked Adele away for any other reason than to shame her and her child both.
Gradually M Carmichael let go of her hands and sat back. The cab stopped.
“These are my lodgings. But I will tell the man to take us straight on to yours.”
“I prefer to go alone. You’d better not spend any more of your time on me, Monsieur.”
His lean face furrowed. “I don’t like the sound of that. That sounds like lingering along the Seine too late at night and being fished out in the morning like a lump of rags.”
She didn’t answer.
He said, “I’ll call on you again tomorrow and expect to find you ready to step out with me.”
She would have, then, to change her lodgings at once, which was hugely bothersome when all she longed for was to sit in indefinite silence.
“Please do not. I couldn’t receive you.”
He gave her a long look—she felt it, though she could not bring herself to meet his eyes. Then he opened the carriage door. “I will pay the driver to return you to your door, since you prefer no escort. But look here, Madame, you had better not disappoint me on the morrow. You had better have your things on, and be ready to eat your ice. I will brook no tomfoolery or tantrums.”
She began to think he was more than delicate in his health—he might actually be a little mad. But it didn’t matter anymore, because he was climbing down, slamming the door, speaking to the coachman, and then she was moving again. Céline pressed her gloved hands hard against her eyes. Her temples throbbed.
After a bad night, divided into no sleep and sleep that was worse than wakefulness, Céline rose and found herself getting ready for him. She took extra care with washing and put on the last of her clean underthings. There would have been something dreadful in these preparations if she didn’t find herself thinking about what he’d said, how they were put in this life to look after one another. That was so different from the usual species of nonsense she heard from men—or maybe just the way he said it, the way he talked to her, looked at her, had its effect. He seemed to imply that even what she did for her bread when she could not earn it upon the stage—even that—had honor to it, as long as it was honest. He’d treated her as someone honest—he hadn’t doubted that her daughter was real, or really gone. Some other man might have suspected a ruse. Of course, she hadn’t sought him out with her story. No, he’d come to her, and asked for it.
Maybe it was he who was performing a ruse.
He wanted, for the price of some ices, some cabs, an affectation of sympathy, to take something from her. To take something that he would ordinarily have had to buy.
Céline hooked up her boots. Who was this American, to pretend to take an interest in her? If he was interested in possessing her, he ought to make it plain, he ought to ask openly for her price, he ought to remember that she had her privacy, which was all the more precious for not being physical.
A tremor of anger came over her—wasn’t it enough that she must find another gentleman to attach herself to before the last of her money ran out, without having her time wasted by this crazy one who behaved as though he had no idea of how to walk through the measures of this dance?
Yet as the hour chimed from the church in the place, she grew anxious that he’d been taken ill. That he had already forgotten her.
When, ten minutes from the time he’d named having passed like rain beading off an eave, she heard a tread on the stairs, Céline rushed to the door and laid her cheek against the wood, listening as he dragged himself up to her landing. There was a troublesome little whoop to his breathing.
Not a well man, perhaps not quite sane, and shouldn’t she have had her fill by now of foreigners? What was worse than a Frenchman, hadn’t she learned that it was an Englishman, a Russian? Hadn’t she promised herself that when she was reunited with Adele, there would be no more men? She would find some other way to live, even if it meant scrubbing floors. She would grow her daughter like a geranium in a solid clay pot, contained. She would give cuttings of her to no-one.
But that was all off now.
Céline opened the door just as M Carmichael was about to knock. He stepped back. His hat was already in his hand; he made a little bow. “Bonjour, Madame.”
His formality was irritating, especially in light of his pretense. It was as if they were two mummers, not working from the same script. She almost shut the door on him. When she was silent, he made another little bow. “I am glad to see you are still here. As you said that you could not receive me today—“
“And yet you came.”
“I promised.” He held up a finger, as if to retract that. “Myself, Madame. I promised myself, that I would come and see the interesting Madame Varens, and I could not very well be expected to disappoint myself, could I?”
“Is disappointment not a daily occurrence?”
“Is it? Then I congratulate you, on your own ever-rebounding hope.”
He had such a way of taking a thing she said, and standing it on its head. She opened the door wider. “You may just wait here and talk to me while I finishing putting on my things.”
She went to the mirror to put on her bonnet. Yesterday she’d pinned up the torn veil, doing her best to make it inconspicuous.
“I thought today I might take you to meet another friend of mine, who is a milliner.”
A fantasy came to her suddenly—she could imagine this odd man, sitting up all night in his bed, unable to sleep because he could not set aside the fact that, in her rush to puke in an alley, she’d torn her veil.
It could not be true, but the idea made her laugh.
M Carmichael, though not following, laughed too.
At any event, she thought, you have not disappointed me. Not yet.
“You have a friend who is a milliner?”
“Friends are the one item I possess in abundance.”
Was this milliner then his mistress? Perhaps he had an idea of having them both, or watching them as they put on a show for him in nothing but their stockings. She’d done that a few times, it was a bore. If that was all this was leading to, she would be disappointed.