It was a ten minute walk from the Mertens shop to the the Perreau house, but the contrast between the buildings made the distance between them seem much wider. The Rue des Remparts was a street of shops and row houses. Both the Mertens shop window and the green painted door which led into the attached house fronted directly on the sidewalk, with the small garden behind the building, invisible from the street. Only a narrow passage separated the building which contained both shop and house from the next building, which contained Jobart’s pork butcher shop and Boucher’s grocery, each with living quarters above on the second and third floors.
The Perreau house on the Rue des Ragons stood well back from the road, surrounded by a high wrought iron fence, terraced lawns, and formal flower beds. Philomene had left home early, knowing that Madame Perreau was a believer in punctuality. When she reached the gate, decorated with curling iron vines ending in gilded fruits and flowers, she looked down at the watch pinned to her blouse and saw that it was seven minutes before ten o’clock. Rather than approach the house early she walked slowly along the sidewalk outside the fence, looking up at the gardens and the tall grey stone house that rose above them and trying to imagine tables spread out on both sides of the winding stone path that lead up to the house with a crowd of guests, each paying ten francs for the privilege of enjoying refreshments and conversation in support of the new religious school.
Chateau Ducloux boasted two families that could be described as wealthy, of which the Perreaus were unquestionably the older and more respectable of the two. They were not aristocracy. They would have denied the term even had it been applied to them. Georges Perreau had risen to prominence in the town during the reign of the first Napoleon, turning a small inheritance, a government contract for the manufacture of boots, and a sharp instinct for negotiation into a substantial fortune which he spent in buying up landholdings small and large.
While the family had not built the grey stone house on the Rue des Ragons, Georges’ son Marcel had renovated it during the Second Empire, adding to its staid exterior a square tower and numerous flourishes of plaster moulding and ironwork. The next generation had retained the architectural style and the gardens, but had repapered, recurtained and refurnished the rooms in all that was most current in 1880. Over this domain -- and over her son Justin -- Madame Blanche Perreau ruled with an iron parasol. She had been a widow now for seventeen years, but she remained as firmly in control of the house and family fortune as she had been during her husband’s life.
Having walked the up and down the sidewalk before the house several times, Philomene consulted her watch again and saw that it was now two minutes to ten. It was time. She drew a calming breath, then swung open the gate, advanced up the stone path, and pressed the electric doorbell. There was a long pause, and when the door opened, she was greeted by an elderly maid in an spotless black dress and lace-edged apron who left her standing in the hall while she want to ascertain whether madame was at home.
Philomene waited. She removed her gloves, found herself balling them up in her hand, and draped them over one wrist instead. On the little table in the entry, an oblong marble top supported by clawed feet of gilded metal, a large torsion clock gently whirled under a glass dome, its hands telling her that it was now exactly ten. Philomene tried to breathe slowly, but with each spin of the clock’s weights she found her own nervousness winding tighter. At last the maid returned.
“Madame will see you in the sitting room,” she said, a curtsey conspicuous absent.
The room, despite the summer morning outside, was dim. The window shutters were pulled nearly to, with only the most diffuse light making its way into the room. The colors would have radiated a splendour in full light -- the wallpaper a pattern of roses in gold and deep red, the floor covered in a persian rug, the chairs and sofas of gold brocade and dark polished wood -- but the eye which had chosen the furnishings for their spectacle had turned to preservation. The shutters were never opened fully now, keeping out the light of the sun lest it fade the colors, even if without that light the colors could not easily be seen.
Madame Perreau sat, very upright, in an armchair, her black silk dress setting off the double rope of pearls which hung down almost to her lap. She lifted a small pair of pince nez and pointed with them towards a chair for her guest, before perching them atop her nose.
Philomene sat, adjusted her skirts, fidgeted, and made herself sit still, hands folded gently in her hap. The older lady watched her, silently, throughout.
“How is your father?” Madame Perreau asked, by way of greeting.
“Doing very well. Thank you.”
“Good. I always tell the servants to visit his shop.”
This statement seemed chosen to emphasize the distance between them, and it suggested no immediate reply. Silence stretched out for what seemed to Philomene an uncomfortable period of time.
“Thank you for seeing me this morning,” she said. “I’ve been so eager to speak to you about the plans for the fete next month.”
Madame Perreau nodded. “Yes. You are seeking to raise money, of course.”
This statement tread near uncertain ground, and Philomene paused to formulate her reply. Had she been willing to, Madame Perreau could easily have funded the entire school project, but although they were not anti-clerical the Perreaus had to date only given money to the church in order to pay for the large marble statue of St. Michael which bore their name on a “Dedicated by the Generosity of” plaque.
“The purpose of the fete is to raise money to open a Catholic school. Any contribution you could make would be deeply appreciated. But my purpose in visiting is to ask if you would be willing to allow us to hold the fete in your gardens. They are the most beautiful gardens in the town, and there is plenty of room for guests. I believe more people would come just to see your roses and walking paths.”
Madame Perreau smiled ever so slightly at this, though whether out of appreciation for the compliment or cynical amusement at the attempt Philomene could not herself tell.
“You say that you don’t seek money,” the older woman said, “but of course you will need the garden prepared, and tables and food set up, and servants, and all of the repairs that will be necessary afterwards: trampled beds, torn-up turf. You might as well turn cattle loose in my gardens for all the damage a crowd could do.”
“It’s to be a genteel fete,” Philomene insisted. “I don’t believe you need to fear damage to your lawns and beds. We shall bring the tables and the food, and the lay sisters will act as servers. All we ask is the use of the garden.”
Madame Perreau regarded Philomene for a moment with half closed eyes. “Who is paying for the food?”
Philomene couldn’t think of the reason for this question, but to her relief could answer truthfully, “I plan to find someone to donate the money to provide refreshment, but I don’t yet know who.”
“Surely you must have a plan.”
“I simply don’t yet know who will agree to pay for it.”
“Well then… If you will promise me that you will not ask Madame Serre to take any part in the fete, I will give permission to hold it in my gardens. I will even provide tables and serving staff.”
“Madame, I--” This last had caught Philomene off guard. She knew she must refuse the request, but was not immediately sure how to do so without causing offense and thus losing the offer of the garden. Madame Perreau watched her discomfiture, knowing what thoughts must be competing in the younger woman’s mind and satisfied with the impact of her offer.
The Serres were the second pillar of Chateau Ducloux, and they were believed to be the wealthier of the two, but while the Perreaus had held their place in the town’s society for a respectable hundred years and made their present income by renting land to tenant farmers, the Serres bore the taint not only of being newcomers, but of ‘dirty’ money. Hugo Serre had moved north from the Marne Departement some fifteen years before, bringing with him his wife Eva and their children. He had purchased a farm which had never been known for its fertility and had then outraged the sensibilities of many in the town when he turned it into a lime pit and began kilning and selling quicklime. However little the smoke and smell of the lime kilns was appreciated by his neighbors, the business was highly profitable, and he soon bought more plots of the surrounding land, expanding the lime pit and building a cement factory. This factory, located two miles north of the town, brought in a steady stream of dusty laborers, who at the end of each week would descend on the shops and bars to spend their wages. It also brought the Serre family substantial wealth, though Hugo spent it with the caution of the first generation.
Madame Serre, though her husband prevented her from ever making large donations, was a devoted church-goer, and Philomene had indeed contemplated applying to her when seeking someone to provide money for the refreshments, though she had not spoken to her yet.
After a moment’s thought, Philomene said, “I cannot promise not to accept donations from Madame Serre, either for the fete or for the school itself, but if you would like to sponsor the refreshments, I would not need to apply to any other person.”
Madame Perreau’s smile hardened into a small, straight line. She considered becoming angry, but the tradesman’s daughter had outmaneuvered her fairly. At last she nodded. “Very well. You may use my gardens, and I will sponsor the food and any other materials that you need. You needn’t ask Madame Serre for anything.”
Her host rose, and Philomene did likewise. As she left the house, her step was light. Indeed, she almost felt that she could have floated down the stone path. In part she was glad that the fete now had such a distinguished location. She was confident this would double the amount of money they could raise. But for than any practical consideration she was simply relieved to have the discussion with Madame Perreau behind her and glad that however uncomfortable it had been, no real conflict had occurred. She consulted her watch as she gained the pavement outside. Only fifteen minutes had passed. How little time for what had seemed so momentous a negotiation. There remained plenty of time before lunch. She set off for the convent to share her good news with the sisters.
Read the next installment