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Friday, January 9, 2015

Chapter 6-1

Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. July 28, 1914. Henri was shown into the library at the Perreau house. It was a small room, smelling comfortably of leather and pipe tobacco. The shelves were filled with handsomely bound volumes, and the wood of the shelves glistened with careful dusting and polishing. However, if someone went so far as to pull a volume from it’s place, it proved to have plentiful dust on the top edge. The only reading material that showed actual wear was a rack of magazines relating to Justin Perreau’s two interests: photography and bird watching.

“Monsieur Perreau will be in shortly,” said the maid who had shown him in. “Make yourself comfortable.”

Then she left, shutting the door behind her.

There was only one visibly comfortable chair in the room, a large, worn, leather easy chair. A standing lamp and magazine rack stood on one side of it, the smoking table on the other. It spoke to much time spent in pleasantly reclusive solitude.

Henri sat instead on one of the two wooden chairs facing the desk and set his ledger book down on the desktop before him.

It was some minutes before Justin arrived. At last he burst in, making Henri start, then stopped to shut the door quietly behind him before going to his desk and sitting down.

“I’m sorry to be late, Monsieur Fournier. Mother becomes quite angry if either of us get up before she has finished with her tea.”

Henri shrugged. “You’re my last appointment of the day. I’m at your disposal.”

“Thank you, thank you.” Justin leaned forward and spoke in a lower voice. “What have you found?”

Henri opened the ledger book and laid it open on the desk facing Justin. “As you requested, I’ve conducted a full audit. This page shows the summary of income and assets.”

In neat columns, each of the family’s farm holdings and each of its financial investments was laid out, labeled, valued, and its income and expenses during each of the last three years listed. Writing out this ledger book for his client, all in pen with no mistakes, had been the work of several days, pulling together all of the figures, laying out the table in pencil on a loose sheet of paper, and then copying it carefully into the book. Many hours of interviews were reduced to figures, many hours of calculating figures summarized on a single page, all to provide the client with a view of his assets and income which made it easy for him to understand and make decisions about an estate too complicated for him to easily keep track of himself.

“Really, the estate is in very good condition,” Henri said, once he had run through the entire list, explaining each entry. “However, as you requested, I looked especially for any problems, any failures of management. I have found a few. There are two categories. The first, if I may summarize it bluntly, is that your mother plays favorites among the tenant farmers.”

Justin was nodding eagerly. Henri turned a page in the ledger.

“Here is one of the cases: Victor Morand. Five years ago he had the tenancy of sixty acres and owed you three hundred Francs in back rent. On your mother’s authorization he was given a loan by the estate for an additional five hundred Francs to buy additional equipment, and when Eloy died she gave Morand his tenancy as well, for the same rent that Eloy had paid, even though that was a below market rate due to his age. Since then Morand has fallen behind an additional one hundred Francs in rent, and he’s missed payments on his loan twice. There are two other, similar cases.” He flipped pages in the ledger, showing the summary of each case. “All three I was first tipped off to by other tenants who claimed, with some reason, that they would have been better choices for the additional land. The playing of favorites definitely causes some resentment.”

“And the other category?”

“There have been some write-offs in the trust which were covered up in the statements you gave me. Your mother received a tip from a friend and invested five thousand Francs in United Algerian Mineral just before it went under last year. All lost. The statements you have are correct as to the total investment returns, but the return on each equity was adjusted to cover up the loss on United Algerian.”

Justin flipped backwards and forwards in the ledger book, looking at the names and figures. “This is wonderful. Just what I was hoping for. When you confront her with this, she’ll have to step back from the estate management.”

“Keep in mind,” said Henri. “You engaged me to perform an audit. That is my area of expertise, and I’m glad you’re happy with the result. But confronting Madame Perreau is not something I am able to do. I have provided the information you need--”

“But, you could explain to her how she is damaging the estate,” Justin interrupted. “You understand all this, as an expert, and you could make her understand.”

“No.” Henri shook his head firmly. “If you are going to take control of the estate, you will need to confront her. I can assure you that your mother will not take guidance from me on who should manage her estate. I think the conversation would go very badly. Perhaps the family lawyer could help.”

“Ferrand always defers to her. That’s why she’s kept him so many years.” Justin chewed nervously on his lower lip and twisted at his wedding ring. “I can’t just confront her and tell her that she isn’t fit to run the estate anymore. That’s what I need an expert for: to tell her that I’m more able to run the estate than she is.”

“Alas, all I can do is tell you how the estate is being managed, not argue with Madame Perreau and the family lawyers about who should be in charge. If you want to be in charge, you will have to take the lead.”

Justin sighed and bowed his head. “What mother will say?”

How many times before had he got thus far, to the brink, and then trembled to go further? Here was the frustration of this work of bookkeeping and advising. He had told Justin that he could not act for him, and this was true. Yet to always be the advisor and never the one acting was so very far from the career that he had envisioned for himself back when he wore the uniform of a cadet at the Ecole Polytechnique.

At last, Justin shrugged away the worry about his mother’s reaction. “Thank you. This is all very good and I’m sure it will be useful.” He closed the ledger book and tucked it away in one of the desk’s drawers. “And how are things? Pauline and I are looking forward to going to your wife’s fete on Saturday.”

“Good. Philomene is busy with it every day. I think this afternoon she is seeing the Sisters about something or other. To be honest, I’ll be glad when it’s over and we can have some peace, but I hope very much that it’s a success. It would be a very nice thing to have a religious school for the children.”

“We’ll be there, of course, to see her make our gardens proud. But do you think that many people will come? I never quite understand these charity things. Wouldn’t she be better off finding some rich and pious widow to give the money?”

“Well, you know, rich and pious widows are not as plentiful as one could wish! I think many of the parents whose children would go to the school will find ten Francs for the fete. And some of the other churchgoers. And then there will be people who simply want to come and see the Perreau gardens.”

Justin gave an inclination of the head in acknowledgement of this.

Henri rose to go. “Well, it’s almost six. And since this was my last appointment for the day, I was thinking I might go drop in at Bertrand’s and have a drink. Would you care to join me?”

Justin got up as well and went to open the library door. “No, I’m sorry. Bertrand’s is not quite… Well, you know.”

The divisions among bars in Chateau Ducloux was not unlike that of coffee houses, though in the realm of alcohol class became a factor as well. There were several bars that catered to the farm hands and factory workers, slightly seedy places in which fights were a regular occurrence. More shockingly, some among the less respectable women were at times seen in such places.

Bertrand’s was the bar frequented by the gentlemen among the radicals and liberals of the town. Only one woman was ever known to cross its threshold and that was Eva, called Big Eva by the impious, a dark-haired woman of majestic girth who presided behind the bar with the unflappable dignity of a queen.

More than half the stools at the polished mahogany bar were still empty when Henri entered and sat down. The liquors and liqueurs stood in three ranks before the giant mirror that covered the wall behind the bar. Eva finished polishing a glass and set it in one of the cabinets.

“Blackcurrant and brandy, Monsieur Fournier?” she asked.

Henri nodded. She took out the squat, round glass, filled it a third of the way with pale amber brandy, then added the dark blackcurrant cordial, which sank to the bottom like a layer of ink and then slowly diffused into the brandy above, turning it all a dark brownish-purple.

Taking the drink with him, he settled down at a small table where the afternoon papers from Paris which had come in on the train were spread out. The news was all of waiting: A verdict was expected any day in the trial of Henrietta Caillaux for shooting the editor of Le Figaro. Britain’s parliament was debating Irish independence as the Ulstermen threatened civil war. Serbia had agreed to all but one of the demands in Austria’s ultimatum, and now it remained to be seen whether Austria would consider itself mollified.

He sipped his drink and settled down to read an editorial entitled, “Can a Woman Premeditate a Crime?”

***

Over tea, in the convent’s visitor parlor, Philomene had finished discussing the plans for the day of the fete. With these details complete, and an hour before it was necessary for her to return home to oversee the final preparations for dinner, she was able to take a quiet walk in the convent gardens with Sister Genevieve, who was both a friend and also something more. Of course, it was to Pere Lebas that Philomene went to confession every week. To him she would list each sin and the number of times she had committed it. But with Sister, a woman like herself, but older and with the different perspective which her vocation gave her, Philomene found herself both more willing to share and more open to listening.

The humid summer air was sweet with the smell of the carefully trimmed rose hedges, and as they passed the herb garden a riot of scents greeted them. Philomene paused to take off her broad brimmed summer hat and fan herself with it -- the shade was pleasant but the heat of the air trapped against her head was stifling. Then she looked over at Sister Genevieve. Tiny droplets of sweat were beginning to form on her face around the edge of her veil, but of course she could not take the heavy head covering off.

Suddenly conscious of her own freedom and comfort, Philomene put her hat back on. “It really is too hot,” she said. “Let’s find some shade.”

They took refuge on a small bench under the spreading shade of a tree.

“We’ve spoken so often of the fete in the last few weeks,” said Sister Genevieve. “How have you been in other respects?”

Philomene sighed. “I’ve hardly thought of anything else. I’m eager for it to be over, and yet it’s a welcome sacrifice. I know that it’s a good work, and at the same time it is something which I know that I can accomplish. Afterwards…”

Henri would leave for summer maneuvers with his regiment a week after the fete and be gone for four weeks. It was clear that her desire to avoid any intimacy which might result in another pregnancy hurt him, no matter how well he understood and agreed with her concerns. Did this mean that she was failing in her duty? Was she not trusting God as fully as she should by insisting on this control over herself? And yet, that last time… She was really too old. God did not ask the impossible. God asked her to be responsible. And was this self denial itself not a sacrifice?

What she truly wanted was reassurance from Sister Genevieve that she was right, that prudence demanded she avoid any possibility of a pregnancy that surely would not be good for her or her family. And yet, to discuss such a thing with a sister… She turned, for a moment, to meet Sister’s steady gaze, and thought of laying all of these concerns out before her. But as soon as she tried to think of how to explain her feelings to the wise but surely innocent older woman in her heavy wool habit, Philomene’s imagination provided by way of contrast an image of herself enfolded in Henri’s arms. She blushed and looked away, something which told the sister far more than Philomene realized.

“I wondered, if, perhaps, you could recommend some spiritual reading. I found that book by Therese of the Child Jesus which you gave me so helpful in my own life. I thought that, when Henri gets back from his reserve service in a month, I could arrange for us to do some spiritual reading together. I don’t know if Sister Therese’s book would quite appeal to him, as a man, but if we could read something together that would help him think about sacrifice and following God’s will, I’m sure it would be a help to both of us.”

Sister Genevieve gave her a searching look. “But does Henri want a course of spiritual reading?”

“I’m sure he’d be happy to read something if I asked him to. And if we did it together… We enjoy doing things together. Left to himself, he just reads the news and politics. Much of it is even anti-clerical. But he’s a good man, and I know that it’s my duty to bring him to heaven.”

“Philomene, you speak of me as a counselor so I will tell you what I think. I hope that you won’t find my words harsh. I mean them well.” The older woman paused a moment. Philomene bit her lip, but waited silently. “Your duty is to serve God yourself. You cannot change your husband’s heart or make him holy. You can pray for him. You can show him by your actions and your words what it means to love God, but you cannot bring him to heaven yourself. That is God’s job, and you must trust Him to do it. I can’t give you a course of reading and actions for you to put your husband through, but if you want to consider what prayer and reading and actions you should take, I would be happy to do that.”

Philomene looked down at her folded hands a moment, trying to honestly examine her heart. “Sister, I hope that you don’t think I am some sort of interfering wife, trying to force Henri to go where he doesn’t wish. He truly does enjoy doing things with me, even if prayer and spiritual reading -- other than going to mass with the family -- are not things he normally does. And I thought, if we read something inspiring together, it might help him to think about discerning God’s will and making sacrifices, which would make him happier.”

And then, perhaps, he would see the necessity of avoiding intimacy as a sacrifice to embraced, rather than as a rejection, no matter how necessary, of his love.

Sister Genevieve seemed almost to hear the way in which Philomene’s thoughts completed what her words had left unsaid, for she replied, “I think Henri already understands the necessity of sacrifices, and loves you enough to make them willingly. If he seems unhappy, it is simply because he is not you, and so your feelings cannot be his feelings. No amount of reading will change that.”

The convent garden was a quiet and private place, which even the sisters seldom walked in except with a guest, so there were no eyes to be surprised or abashed at the sight of Philomene, silently sobbing, while the older sister placed a gentle hand upon her shoulder.

***




The other gentlemen’s drinking establishment in town was Leroy’s bar. With wood paneled walls decorated with hunting trophies, it looked its part as the haunt of the town’s conservatives. No sister goddess to Big Eva was to be found here. Indeed, it was uncertain that any woman had ever entered the sacred precincts of Leroy’s. Monsieur Leroy himself kept the bar, his black coat threadbare in places but brushed meticulously free of dust and lint, his bald head shining in the light of the electric chandelier which was one of the establishment’s few concessions to modernity.

Louis Martens entered to get his pre-dinner drink. Leroy took down one of the earthenware mugs, spooned in sugar, and squeezed a half lemon into it. With a small pestle he ground the sugar and lemon juice together in the rounded bottom of the mug. When these seemed to form a smooth syrup he poured in rum, then topped it with hot water. He handed the mug of grog to Louis, who inhaled the lemon and rum scented steam.

“A slow day,” he observed. “I’ve had no one in the last hour since the shopgirl went home.”

Leroy nodded sympathetically. “Close up early?”

“No, I left Pascal in charge. He’s a clever boy. Makes change as well as Marie even though he’s only eleven. He can look after things well enough for half an hour, and then I’ll go back to close up before dinner.”

Leroy nodded. “What do you think of this trial down in Paris? Will they find her guilty?”

“How could they not? No one disputes she walked right into the newspaper offices and shot the editor.”

Leroy nodded. “What can you expect from a woman with no morals? They say the reason she killed him is that he was going to print letters proving she was having an affair with Caillaux while his first wife was still alive.”

***

Pascal sat on the tall wooden stool behind the shop counter and watched the door, which remained stubbornly closed. For ten minutes he had been in charge of the store, just like a grown up, and yet although he was confident in his ability to help any customer who came, as yet none had entered.

He looked around at the items which were displayed on the counter to job the memories of those who might otherwise forget to buy them: shoe polish, shaving soap, starched collars.

Taking a scrap of paper, so as not to waste pages of the receipt pad, he practiced writing up a quick bill: black polish, brown polish, two cakes of shaving soap, a half dozen starched collars. He wrote down the price of each, multiplied, added. “You only have a ten Franc note? No difficulty, monsieur. I can make change.”

He was on the point of unlocking the cash box in order to practice counting out change for the imaginary transaction when the bell of the shop door jangled cheerfully. Pascal looked up. Andre Guyot, in his blue postmaster uniform came in.

“Good evening, Monsieur Guyot,” Pascal greeted him. “What can I get for you?”

Andre looked around the shop. “Nothing just at the moment. Is your father in his office?”

“He hasn’t come back yet. He had to call on Monsieur Perreau, and he might have stopped at Bertrand’s on the way home. You could look for him there.”

“Ah. Yes, perhaps I will do that.”

Andre turned to go, and Pascal realized that his chance to show his skill at running the shop was slipping through his fingers. “We have some very nice shaving soap scented with lavender,” he offered, holding up a box. “Would you like one of those?”

The postmaster smiled. “Not today, Pascal. Here, though: Take a note for your father in case I don’t find him. Your grandfather will want to know as well. Two news items just came in on the telegraph. Madame Caillaux was acquitted, and Austria-Hungary has declared war on Serbia. They’ll want to take a look at the city papers tomorrow.”

Pascal wrote these two down carefully on the receipt pad, then tore the sheet off and set it next to the cash box where it would not be forgotten.

“I can see the store is in good hands while your grandfather is away,” Andre added, causing Pascal to sit up a little straighter on his stool. “I’m going to go see if I can find your father at Bertrand’s. Good night!”

“Good night, Monsieur Guyot!”

***

Andre did indeed find Henri still at Bertrand’s, and there the news of Madame Caillaux’s acquittal made quite a sensation, providing ample fodder for conversation long after Henri went home to dinner. Henri himself absorbed both news items quietly. Next morning, however, he went out first thing to Carbonnaux’s to read all the city papers.

That night, as Philomene was running through the ever-growing list of special intentions which she recited before the family rosary, the usually silent Henri interjected, “And that we are spared from the evils of war.”



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4 comments:

  1. I like the small details. They really add to the world building

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    Replies
    1. Yes. I love the way you trace the story of Madame Caillaux. First the editorial that we glimpse over Henri's shoulder. That title definitely grabbed me and I really wanted to know the story. Then the exchange between Leroy and Louis, a little more nibble to it. And then the acquittal. It's great story telling in a sort of twitter headline style, which, frankly, is how I get most of my news these days.

      Nice development of the Perrau family drama. Will Justin have the courage to face down his mother? Especially seeing how she tried to manage Philomene, we know she's formidable.

      I really liked the exchange between Philomene and the sister. And Paschal's independence in the shop, which reminds me of several children's stories I've read, most recently one of the Milly Molly Mandy stories.

      I suspect this is going to be my favorite storyline. This and Natalie's.

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  2. “I think Henri already understands the necessity of sacrifices, and loves you enough to make them willingly. If he seems unhappy, it is simply because he is not you, and so your feelings cannot be his feelings. No amount of reading will change that.”

    This is a great line and really just the way it is sometimes.

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  3. I very much like Sister Genevieve here; I hope we'll get a few more glimpses of her.

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