Wednesday, March 22, 2017

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. 

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