Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Still in Guernsey...


The maid knocked on the door several times before attracting Mlle Drouet’s attention. The maid spoke no French, and Mlle Drouet spoke no English, but the older woman understood the card in the younger’s hand; it was slightly smaller than a French calling card, adorned with a simple black border; in a plain typeface was printed the name Mrs. Abner Nichols.
That woman! Mlle Drouet nearly screamed with surprise. Here? She is here, sniffing after my beloved Toto, my Victor? How dare she? How dare she? It was all she could do to keep from tearing the card into little pieces in a fit of apoplexy. But the Frenchwoman was an actress, and a good one; she composed herself and put on a brave front and drew herself up until she felt herself a duchess—no, a queen, as she had one portrayed the Scottish Mary in one of Hugo’s plays, the first he had seen her in. Or better yet, when she had portrayed Lucrecia Borgia. If only she had a poison ring in her jewel case, the rivalry would solve itself quite conveniently.
“Show her in,” she said regally, and made a beckoning motion with her hand; the maid understood and went to show the lady upstairs. Mlle Drouet turned up the corners of her mouth and slid the damning drawing under the blotter on the writing desk; that would be the coup de grâce. For now, Mlle Drouet had a campaign to plan, and execute. She had not lost Victor to his wife, nor to that cow Mme Baird; she certainly would not give up her raison d’être to this interloping Englishwoman!
Soft footfalls scuffed the floor beyond the door; a gentle rapping sounded against the jamb. “Entrez!” cried Mlle Drouet, in a tone she hoped was sufficiently commanding.
Whatever she had been anticipating, the figure that crossed her threshold resembled nothing that approached her imagination: sleight of height and build and enveloped in a plain dress of black silk, with sable gloved hands, the widow turned the veil over the top of her bonnet to expose her face. “I hope and pray you will forgive the intrusion, Madame,” she began in flawless French.
In that moment, Mlle Drouet felt she had lost the battle entirely upon that first volley, and staggered back for her chair from the blow.
The vision in black swooped toward her, but not to attack; with a strength that belied her frame the widow supported Mlle Drouet, supporting the weaker woman’s weight as she eased her down comfortably. “Please forgive me,” the visitor repeated. “I know this is a terrible social breach, my coming to you directly, but I fear for the well-being of many people in this matter, and could see no other way than this. And now I’m positive that you are affected by this circumstance as well.”
Mlle Drouet strove to regain her composure. “And which circumstance would that be?” she asked, in the tone that suggested that she already knew the answer.
“You are the…amanuensis to M. Hugo, are you not?” Madame Nichols did not look directly at her, but discretely kept her gaze focused just off center. She gestured toward the papers on the desk. “For two months M. Hugo has been interviewing two acquaintances of mine, two elderly gentlemen who on this island are known as Messieurs Leblanc and Lenoir. But in those notes they are known by quite other names: Messieurs Valjean and Javert.”
“This is so,” said Mlle Drouet.
“And they are the reason for M. Hugo’s great loss on arrival two months past, the loss of his work in progress. All the more astonishing in that they were also its subject.”
“This is also true.”
“And you may have heard that M. Valjean has suffered a terrible seizure and that neither M. Javert nor their physician, Dr. Devereaux, will permit M. Hugo to continue to interview them for the book.”
“This has been mentioned to me.” Mlle Drouet pursed her lips. “If you are looking for M. Hugo, he is not here.”
“That’s well, then; it is not he with whom I wish to speak. I speak with you, Madame.”
“And what purpose would that serve? I am, as you say, his secretary. What could such matters have to do with me?”
“Please, Madame, let us not play at words. I know that you exert influence over him…”
“Influence? Influence?” She rose shakily to her feet. “If I had influence I would not be stuck in this terrible little hotel room with a weak fire and a sheaf of bird scratch! If I had influence I would not be hidden away in shame, I would be by his side, on his arm! If I had influence he would not be pursuing y—” She clamped her jaw shut.
“Yes. That is also why I wished to speak with you, Madame, as one woman speaking to another, not one rival to another.”
“No,” she insisted. “If you have ever given thought that he and I have done more than speak briefly with one another, I pray you banish that thought without hesitation. I cannot speak for him, his motives or goals, but for myself I do not seek, nor have I sought, any attention from him in any capacity whatsoever.”
Mlle Drouet drew back a little. “And why not?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“What’s wrong with him? Who doesn’t want him? Women have chased him from one end of Europe to the other, the rich and the poor, marchionesses and maids, presidentes and prostitutes… he makes no distinction. All women are acceptable to him.”
Madame Nichols cleared her throat uncomfortably. “You are asking me why I would not have an affair with your paramour?”
“I am wondering why you would not want to. Is he not charming, is he not erudite, knowledgeable, pleasant to listen to and easy to look upon? Is he not in the same breath the gallant and the bravado, a man of simple pleasures yet complex thoughts? What is it about him that does not meet with your undoubtedly refined English tastes?”
Madame Nichols let the sarcasm pass by her. She thought for a moment before answering. “I am not English. My late husband was a Scotsman who settled on the North American continent, first in Nouvelle Canada and later in the United States. As for myself…” She paused again. “As for myself, I am only what I am, which is to say, a citizen of the world.”
“Aha! Just as Victor keeps saying of himself! Do you fashion yourself after him?”
“M. Hugo is a Frenchman. If he claims citizenship of the world, it is in an entirely different manner than my own claim.” She leaned in a little. “Pray look at me, Madame. Look and tell me what you see.”
Mlle Drouet did as she was bidden, reluctantly. Then she frowned. “I… I’m not sure. Your French is acceptable, but you… your skin, your eyes, your face…”
“Exactly. I can no more tell you what I am than I can tell you what I am not.” She breathed in deeply. “And now if I may answer your other question, I do not harbor any desires or inclinations toward M. Hugo for a very simple, yet profound reason.” She raised her hand to her breast, just below her chin, as if clutching an invisible brooch or pendant. She closed her lustrous eyes as if in prayer. When she opened them again, she said, “Like yourself, I too hold someone dear to me, dearer than life, whose trust and loyalty I can never betray.”
Her entreaty surprised Mlle Drouet, and she found herself doubting her intuition, her understanding. She almost reached out and clasped the widow to her as a friend, so moved had she been by the conviction in her words…but then she caught sight of the corner of the paper beneath the blotter, and all sense of camaraderie and shared suffering for love’s sake fell away like scales from her eyes; she swept aside the blotter on the desk crying, “Then if you are not his lover,  how did he come to do this?”
She held aloft the proof, the evidence, the terrible revelation she had discovered: a drawing, a crude but detailed sketched outline. The figure depicted was female, slender and small boned, bare breasted, naked but for a drape hung loosely about her waist. The features comprised an excellent and unmistakable likeness of Madame Nichols.
The picture bore a simple legend: MISERIA

illustration by Victor Hugo. 



Madame Nichols regarded the illustration uncomfortably. “M. Hugo is a talented caricaturist,” the widow allowed. “But I assure you this was neither drawn from life, nor from memory. It is a fantasy, an imagining…”
“You expect me to believe this? You expect me to accept this?”
“I expect nothing, but I speak the truth. I have no incentive to lie about such a thing.”
“As if you could prove your words!”
“Prove, perhaps not.” She removed her bonnet and set it aside. “But I could perhaps show you.”
Her dark tresses were pinned up, the edges of her face framed by tiny ringlets in the American style. Her hair had a glossy sheen, blacker even than Mlle Drouet’s hair had been in her youth. Then she unbuttoned the bib of her dress and loosened it slightly to reveal the mottled scar that fell along her neck and down past her collarbone.
Mlle Drouet winced in sympathy. “I am somewhat known for my penchant for widow’s weeds,” Madame Nichols explained quietly, “though I have dressed as such for several years. While it is also correct that this attire affords me an extra measure of respectability and authority, in truth it serves a more important function. The fashions of late have tended toward a revealing yoke, a return to low decolletage and the hint of a bare shoulder. In keeping to the mourning gown, I avoid invitations to question me on this painful episode.”
Mlle Drouet shuddered. Even in Europe, as word had spread of the discovery of vast gold fields in the western edge of the North American continent, so also had news of the many terrible fires undergone by the metropolitan city of San Francisco; six massive conflagrations within the span of two years had repeatedly ravaged the city, only to see it rise and rebuild in short order each and every time. If Madame Nichols had been burnt, no doubt it had occurred during one such disaster.
Mlle Drouet laughed sardonically. Her own bare breasted representation remained in the middle of Paris for all to leer at. Madame Nichols was no model, nor appeared to have any desire to become one. It made Mlle Drouet wonder who it was that Madame Nichols loved so deeply, and if the object of that affection had ever seen her scars.
As Madame Nichols readjusted her collar, she turned half slightly; it seemed the wound carried over into the shoulder, almost like a brand; for some reason Mlle Drouet thought of the convict brand of the old gentleman, Jean Valjean, and the letters TFP: travaux forcés à perpétuité. “As I said, I cannot prove I did not sit for the drawing, but I hope you will accept that I would not do so.”
“I do,” Mlle Drouet found herself saying. “I accept your word. And…and I pray you will forgive me as well. The thought of losing his love….”
“I understand.”
“Then, if you are not here for him, why have you come to speak with me?”
Madame Nichols set her bonnet bak upon her head and tied the bow beneath her chin neatly, perfectly, without benefit of a mirror. “As I have mentioned, M. Valjean has fallen ill. Truth be told, he has been ill for some time now. The weather here is doing him no good.”
Mlle Drouet said nothing, but her very bones ached in sympathy.
“M. Javert blames M. Hugo for upsetting him, for causing the relapse, but he is perhaps unfair; the relapse would have happened naturally in its own time, and M. Hugo happened to be the catalyst. The true blame lies with me. They are only here because I am here, and I’m only here because…” She caught her voice as it cracked. “I do not know if he will return to me. But I promised I would wait for him, I promised on the step of that gloomy old house, and I… I cannot bring myself to leave it, for if he should return and I should not be here, how faithless would I be?”
“The house,” Mlle Drouet muttered. “Now I understand.”
“M. Hugo wants his story told, he insists upon it. He has been every day chez Devereaux to inquire on M. Valjean’s health, ostensibly, but in reality he is waiting, hovering, pressing. Or so M. Javert says, and I have learned from experience to trust his judgment of motive, if not character.”
“M. Hugo can be insistent,” Mlle Drouet allowed. “Forceful, even.”
“Indeed. But this situation cannot continue. M. Valjean must be allowed to rest, to heal if he can… or to be at ease, if he cannot.”
“Is his malady so great as that?”
“Oh yes. And his age does not help him. He will never get better, but he must be prevented from slipping further, if possible.”
“So what is it that you propose I do?”
Madame Nichols clasped her hands earnestly. “Convince M. Hugo to leave M. Valjean alone. Speak with him on this matter….”
“On what matter?” said a voice from the doorway. The women turned to it in surprise.
Victor Hugo stood at the opened door, no less surprised than they, and quite a bit more daunted, as prey caught between two equally fatal traps.

to be continued....

Guernsey, 10 years later

Guernsey, 20 January 1856


A raindrop meandered down the frosted windowpane in a race with the tear on the woman’s cheek. The sun had failed to show itself for nearly a week, between the rain and the fog; it was the depths of winter in the Channel Islands, and even had she not been melancholy, the woman would still have been miserable—she was French, and preferred the warmer climes near the Mediterranean. Guernsey, though half French, was in too close proximity to England both in distance and nature, a hopeless rock in an unremarkable body of water. The woman feared the island would serve as her prison or her tomb, or both.
She rolled a pen between thumb and forefinger, its sepia ink spattering the otherwise pristine page. To the side sat a sheaf of notes, illegible to all but herself and their creator, which it was her privilege and duty—and curse—to transcribe for the typesetters for publication. Idly the woman considered the back of her hand, the loosening flesh, the tiny creases, the pulsing blue veins, the darkening spots; she was aging, she was ancient, she was practically mummified; she was forty nine years old, half a century, her remaining life a mere shell of existence, tenuously held to the mortal plane by love, by hate, by choice, and by fate.
Once she had been deemed beautiful, by the pitiless and exacting standards of men and of society. She had been an actress, a model, and a courtesan; the lover of the artist James Pradier, she was immortalized in sculpture as part of the massive fountain at what was then called the Place de la Révolution. Her simulacrum no longer gazed upon the public guillotine, for now it was called the Place de la Concorde, and for generations hence visitors and residents would be able to gawk and gape at the half naked, ephemeral figure captured thereon as the anthropomorphic representation of the city of Strasbourg. She was twenty-five when Pradier had sculpted her, fixing that raven haired, porcelain complexioned beauty in time, ageless.
What had once been called beautiful now appeared in the modern parlance merely handsome. Black hair had dulled, turned gray; her lithe figure had rounded while her rounded face sallowed. She dueled with gout upon occasion. Her eyesight had gone bad early and quickly, from the many years spent deciphering endless pages of notes and letters, and her hands were cramped from their transcription. She had sacrificed all, and now it seemed all for naught, for the one she had done all this for, the man to whom she had dedicated her life, her body, her talents, her soul, had fallen into obsession with another woman, one who was youthful, comely, exotic, and—because this woman had spurned his advances—irresistible.
The proof, irrefutable, lay on the desk beside the notes, a single sheet of paper, the damning evidence, the final blow.
She turned from the window to the insufficient fire in the hearth of her room. The hotel where she stayed—or rather where she had been installed, like an unwieldy yet still serviceable armoire—was so English, so sparse, so narrow and cramped, and the bitter winds of La Manche—howled through every unseen crack and corner. She drew her shawl up, shivering from more than cold.
The fire, she considered, might be hardly enough to keep her warm, but it was easily enough to accommodate the stack of papers on her writing desk. Oh, that would serve him right! Let him recall his own words for once! He thought himself so important that he had no time to see to his own work. Let lesser mortals drudge through his slapdash meanderings and put them into coherent structure, for only then would he deign to glance over it and rewrite, polish, and perhaps even improve upon it.
All it would take was a quick sweep of her arm across the desk. Oh, she said to herself, in anticipation of his reaction, it was such a terrible thing, the storm blew open the window, and the papers went straight into the flames…
She sighed. He might believe her, but he would never forgive her.  And if he suspected the act had been deliberate, there would be no turning back, for such a thing would be in his eyes worse than unforgivable, it would be a sin.
He had already suffered such an accidental tragedy once, two months previously, during the move to Guernsey; a careless sailor had flipped the trunk of his unfinished manuscripts into the harbor. In fact, the notes on her desk belonged to his attempt to reconstruct that lost work, the bulk of which had been the drafts of what he with utter certainty considered his magnum opus—which he had decided he would call Les Misérables. Were he to lose the book twice, the shock would perhaps kill him. Or he might in his anger kill her instead. No matter in either event, she mused; if he died, she would die of grief after him, despite herself.
She glanced again at the paper it pained her most to look upon, the proof of his faithlessness. She harbored no illusions about him, knowing him to be a passionate man whose libido knew no quenching, but they had agreed, long ago, that while he might enjoy other dalliances, he would take no other mistress—that his other infidelities would never be anything but brief, of the moment, and without permanence. He had broken that vow once before, when he took for himself a second mistress, for which transgression she had kept him at bay for several months until at last his own wife had convinced her to take him back, and together they convinced him to abandon the second mistress altogether.  With both wife and mistress against him what could he do? But that was months ago. And now there was this woman, this American widow of an English merchant, who not only embodied everything he found enticing in the world, in the form of a challenge, but she also held title to the grand house on the hill overlooking the port that he had determined to have for his own.
The woman shuddered again. To live on Guernsey permanently would be her death, she foresaw, for such inclemency was deadly for one of her constitution. But he had determined never to be chased out of another home: in exile from France, unable to safely remain in Belgium with his wife, unwilling to remove himself to England so long as their queen supported Napoléon III, and finally forced from Jersey, this last tiny outcrop of rock appeared to be the only tenable option remaining. And if Victor Hugo remained on Guernsey, then by necessity, so must Juliette Drouet.

Copyright 2017 Arlene C. Harris, all rights reserved, but you knew that.