A LULL IN THE STORM
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
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….”
“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....