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Exit

Reine de Mémoire
1. La Maison d'Oubli

by

Élisabeth Vonarburg

 

 

(Part One, p. 1-14)

 

"There has to be a door, since there's a window." That was what Pierrino kept repeating, she remembers, but not like an incantation that would have been enough to create this door - at the age of almost eight he prided himself, like Grandfather, in not relying too much on magic - but because, for him, as for Grandfather, there had to exist a certain form of order in the universe, a logic that did not allow for missing doors and windows. When it came to magic, Senso was not sure, but she knew for certain he believed in Pierrino. She was too small to really understand: why did they think it was so important for that window to correspond to a door? But right away, the window possessed for her its own obvious existence, its own space: one of those places you do not need to enter to become a prisoner of. If that secret room was really there next to the bedroom where the three of them slept, then her bed was the closest to it, since it was in the nook across from their second window, right against the back wall. Just the thickness of a wall, and on the other side, the mystery room. It was too close.
And in any case, it was her fault if the window had appeared to them.

 

1.

It is a morning towards the end of winter 1789, the second Sunday of February. They will soon be seven years old. This is the first time that Pierrino, along with Senso, have attended Sunday Service, without, however, taking part in the Sharing - they would do that two months later, after their Small Confirmation. They will now go every week, just as they will go every day to the morning and evening offertories. Under their beaver coats, they wear their nice squirrel-grey suits, and in their free hands they hold the little ash canes Grandfather Sigismond gave them for the occasion, a silver knob for Pierrino, and a gold one for Senso. They felt very unhappy during the whole Service: Jiliane stayed home.
She cannot stand being separated from them, and they find it very hard to be separated from her. Leaving for the first of the retreats leading up to Confirmation - three days in the Saint Albina monastery, near Lamirande - they were so horribly sick in the carriage that they had to turn around and return to the house. There they found Madeline in a panic, and Jiliane half unconscious. Consequently, they attended that retreat, and will have to attend the others at Grandfather's pavilion, with an Albinite sister who would come from Le Rimboul specially for them, rejoining Jiliane for meals and in the evening in their bedroom, pale and haggard.
The souls of their parents worry too much about them and want to always keep them together, better to protect them: the golden threads of those two souls are spun into a single thread that binds them, tugging on them painfully to bring them closer again every time they get too far from each other. This happens sometimes when souls have left the world too quickly: they continue to fret about those that they have left behind, because they love them so much. They need time to accept their transmigration and to go for good to the World-Between and then beyond to join the Divinity. One must be very charitable and speak to them often during the offertories, to reassure them; the ecclesiastics also pray and intercede. One day, the thread will let go and even disappear, when their parents are finally convinced they have nothing to fear for them.
Grandfather had at first thought the children were just being temperamental, but finally he consulted the ecclesiastics. And then he explained it all to them, with Dom Patenaude and Domma Castelet. Pierrino is not sure Jiliane understood. For two years, he and Senso have been meeting their preceptors in Grandfather's pavilion, four times a week. She made dreadful scenes every time they left the house - and they too, after a few minutes, were utterly incapable of paying any attention to their lessons. They did not take much trouble convincing Grandfather to let her come with them: he is a proponent - and he says it loud and clear - of plunging children from a very young age "into the ocean of knowledge." And besides, he concluded, hearing Senso and Pierrino talking with their tutors might encourage the girl to do the same. For even though she has yet to speak a single word, it is very obvious that she is far from simple-minded. Pierrino often even has the feeling that she could speak if she wanted to. It is simply that, for a reason known only to her, she has no desire to. She understands what's happening around her because she reacts appropriately, when she wants to. Grandfather does not consider it necessary for the time being to consult the ecclesiastics on this subject. "Nothing extraordinary about it," he declared, "runs in the family." He himself talked only very late, just like his own father, and the girl takes after him, that's all.
But attending the lessons at the pavilion is one thing, going to temple is another, and that is not up to Grandfather. They both tried to explain it to Jiliane, particularly because Grandfather was there and obviously expected them to do so. She simply cannot go with them to temple, she is too little. After being instructed in the Confirmation catechism, she will be able to. She looked at them each in turn with a look of horror, then, as she watched them walk away, she started crying, in the register that indicated wailing would soon follow.
Madeline told her, "But you'll be able to come with me to meet them, when the Service is over, in the square."
Impossible not to admire the wily ingenuity of her method. In spite of his own apprehension, Pierrino waited for Jiliane's reaction with a certain interest. Would she take the bait, and would she agree to go to the square? Without them, she never ventures into the grounds between the house and Grandfather's pavilion; she goes to the market with Madeline and Jacqueline only because he and Senso both go with them. She never wants to venture beyond the Arcade and hides her face by pressing against them if they try to entice her away. When they all go to Lamirande for the summer, as well as when they return in early autumn, she sits between them far from the windows of the carriage and pretends to sleep.
If Grandfather Sigismond is not too concerned about Jiliane's silence, he is bewildered and worried by her terror of open spaces. He instructs everyone to try to get her to go out as often as possible, by any means, starting by at least getting her accustomed to the temple square, so far without much success.
"I'll dress you in your midnight blue velvet dress, my pet," Madeline coaxed. "The one with the lace at the neck and wrists. Don't you want Sen" She corrected herself, since Grandfather Sigismond was witnessing the scene: " Alexander and Pierre-Henri to see you in your beautiful velvet dress? And then they'll be so happy, if you go to meet them."
Pierrino, and Senso too, underscored those words with vigorous nods. Jiliane looked at them with a sniffle, her aquamarine eyes reddened by tears. Her unruly hair had already escaped its crown of braids, she held her hands clenched over her chest and, in the slanting sunbeams that shone through the casement doors of the kitchen - as this whole drama was unfolding to the aroma of hot bread and soup with lardons - she looked like a little stained-glass saint, or rather a little pagan creature, with that halo of shiny tresses. Finally, she nodded, her mouth in a sullen pout. She must have been vaguely aware of being manipulated.
And now, to the peal of the bells, they cross the square on the right and left of Grandfather, who holds them each by a hand, imitating with the other the regular swing of his cane in order to distract themselves from their painful impatience. The rest of the household follows them in the usual order: first the Beaupretz's, the governess and her husband, Grandfather's majordomo, then Monsieur Faubrisson, the cook, with Jacqueline, the young servant girl who helps Madeline, and then, the four servants from the pavilion - Larché, Grandfather's personal valet, Dominique, the kitchen boy, Monsieur Lefrançois, the gardener, and Simon the hostler. It is one of those lovely, cool, blue February mornings in Aurepas. It was colder, back then: there are little fringes of snow, or hoarfrost, on the cobblestones of the square and the tiles of the roofs, at least there is white in this memory of Pierrino's. As he walks, he tries to imagine how Jiliane can possibly see the square from the temple enough to be terrified by it. It is big, the square, but not huge. In addition, it is surrounded by the Arcades on three sides, with their wooden pillars and two or three pink, yellow and cream floors of the attached houses leaning over them, with the round tiles of their roofs, their small-paned windows and their corsets of dark beams, vertical posts and truss joists, and others still in staggered rows. Perhaps it's the sculpted joists of the Little Arcade that frightened Jiliane? Actually, in some cases, it's not that clear whether they are dogs or fish, with their ferocious look and their big muzzles bristling with pointed teeth.
Outside the shelter of the Arcade, the view of the landscape is not so overwhelming either: it comes up against the big round fountain with its bronze dolphins, then the massive Saint-Jude Temple and its shining dome, flanked by its two squat towers. And besides, especially on Sunday morning, it is not as if this square is deserted - so it's not empty spaces that frighten Jiliane. Horses pass by, carriages, dogs, with, in the organized cacophony - the clicking of shoes, the stamping of horse's hooves, barking, the rumble of carriages - the moving blots of the faithful returning on foot from Services, the well-ordered ballet of colours, dove grey, powder blue, puce, bottle green They reached the centre of the square and slowed their pace: the others appeared suddenly as they came around the fountain - were they waiting for them? - they greeted Grandfather, they obviously want to talk to him. They are leading citizens, Madame Marquès, the notary, accompanied by her husband, and they are worthy of Grandfather stopping. Outside the house, and his pavilion, Grandfather Sigismond is "Monsieur Garance," the proprietor of a modest, but prosperous store specializing in Fabrics, Tapestries, Draperies, Mirrors & Other Decorative Furnishings (as the golden letters on the big sign hanging under the Arcade say). In the pavilion, or more often at his country property in Lamirande, he even sometimes receives "very fine folks," as Madeline says. Until now, Senso and Pierrino were too young, but now that they are going to be confirmed, they have to at least come and greet Grandfather's guests; at the same time, Grandfather announced to them that they would now take lessons in deportment and dance; Pierrino was not overly excited at the prospect, and Senso not so much either.
They soon lose interest, too, in the conversation by the fountain - the adults are talking about the Court in Orléans, the latest decisions of the Monarchy and Chambers. The word "Embargo" makes a brief appearance, already familiar enough for Pierrino to notice it, with the strange intonations that always accompany it among Grandfather's interlocutors, embarrassment or defiance. Adult business -- they don't really understand the words, only the music: Grandfather's polite, smiling reserve, Madame Marquès's veiled curiosity and, with his husband, the strange reticence that often colours the relationships others have with Grandfather Sigismond.
Pierrino amuses himself for a while listening through the din of the square to the noise of the jets of water spurting from the mouths of the dolphins in the fountain. He dances from one foot to the other, but discreetly, he sways back and forth, knows without having to look that Senso is gripped by the same tiresome nervous energy: a pink cape and a diminutive brown cloak break away under the Little Arcade and come towards them.
Jiliane has seen them too: she tugs on the hand that holds her like a puppy on its leash. But Madeline does not relent: children who are well brought up do not run in the square. They approach at a walking pace, brown cape in front, pink cape trailing after, disappear behind a carriage, reappear, become two blots of colour among the horses' legs, move around knots of people Finally they stop near the fountain and, when Grandfather turns his head towards them, Madeline does a little bow - as much as her girth permits - and Jiliane does a quick belated curtsy, stumbling a little on the cobblestones. The clumsy movement causes the oversized hood of her cloak to fall over her face; an impatient little hand throws it back. Her cheeks are all pink, and one of her braids has come unrolled and hangs down her neck, but she must not have noticed: she is quivering with impatience as her shining eyes take them in one after the other - and Pierrino knows that she can always tell them apart. Even Madeline, who was their nurse before being Jiliane's, often gets them mixed up; but their sister never makes a mistake, even though they are absolutely identical twins and sometimes deliberately fool people; Grandfather is the only one, besides her, who is never taken in.
Finally he takes pity on them, or else he forgets them in his discussion: he releases their hands, which Madeline interprets as a signal to do the same with Jiliane. Liberated, they race towards each other - or rather they fall towards each other, in an irresistible movement, like metal towards a magnet, but who is the metal, and who the magnet? Pierrino grabs Jiliane around the waist and lifts her off the ground with a burst of silent laughter, then they each take one of her hands and start walking very quickly towards the Little Arcade and the house - without running - making her jump every three steps, "You're flying, flying!" and then set her down on the cobblestones, out of breath and overjoyed.
And it is at this moment the brief flash must have blinded Jiliane: she stands stock still, her head tilted back, her mouth slightly open, her eyes staring at the façade of the house. And Pierrino in turn sees the ray of light. Which goes out, then flashes once again. He squints, searching. On the second floor of the house. The sun on a pane is his first thought. But no, the sun is on the other side: it is still rising behind the roofs, in front of them. And in any case the light is too concentrated, too white, too intermittent. No, it's in the panes of that window, to one side of their bedroom, and when the light vanishes, they can make out a vague silhouette - someone playing with a mirror?
A silhouette dressed in blue.
He exchanges a quick glance with Senso, who nods, since he sees the same thing. The only person who sometimes wears blue in the house, that shade of blue, very distinctive, a deep blue with violet highlights, is Grandmother.
The flash of light jumps from one face to another, prances on their chests, and ricochets to the cobblestones at their feet.
As if someone were winking at them. As if someone were playing.
But Grandmother Well, Grandmother doesn't play. With them or anyone else. Ever.
But what if it was Grandmother? Has she come out of her apartments? That would be new. Surprising. Exciting.
The little group of adults, continuing their discussion, have come, with their train of servants, to where the children are standing.
"Grandfather" Pierrino begins.
"can we take Julie-Anne back to the house?" Senso finishes.
"Without running, Pierre-Henri, Alexander," Grandfather consents sternly. "After you have paid your respects to Madame Marquès and her husband. That's fine, Madeline, thank you." And, to the other servants: "You may go in now."
Pierrino and Senso doff their little tricornes, and hold them over their chests as they bend in perfect synchronicity towards the stately notary, while Jiliane again drops into her curtsy, her red braid nearly touching the cobblestones. Then, followed by Madame Beaupretz, with Madeline and Jacqueline in her wake and while Grandfather's servants head in the opposite direction towards the Cours Chabaud to return to the Cours Pontande and the entrance to the pavilion, Senso and Pierrino turn to go back with Jiliane to the Little Arcade and the house, at the same time looking up from time to time towards the window. But the light has disappeared, along with the patch of blue.
Barely having taken off their capes and hats in the dark, cold, tiny cubbyhole that serves as an anteroom, and while Madame Beaupretz disappears down the corridor with Madeline and Jacqueline, they dash up the stairs without even making their usual stop at the privies: that can still wait. Jiliane can't keep up with them, even though the red-tiled steps trimmed with dark oak are much wider than they are high. They each take a hand again, skipping her over the little landing then the second flight of stairs perpendicular to the first one, arrive upstairs, turn right without slowing down, and finally stop in front of the door of the room that adjoins their bedroom. Pierrino exchanges a quick glance with Senso: should he knock? No. In any case, they have taken enough time coming back; Grandmother, if it was her, could have returned to her apartments on the ground floor. Pierrino puts a finger to his lips, looking at Jiliane, and Senso pushes down on the copper latch.
The door opens silently, revealing in the dim light the same jumble as that far-off time when they once explored this room.
In the dim light.
Pierrino frowns: the shutters are closed. When did anyone have time to close them? He waits for his eyes to get used to the meagre light, which little by little reveals the piled-up furniture, the chests of assorted sizes, the hat boxes, the bundles of papers tied with faded ribbons, the old account books with their scratched leather covers, the tables stacked in front of the window And everywhere a thin layer of dust.
Dust that nothing has disturbed on any of those surfaces, even on the floorboards between the chests and the boxes and the furniture - so if you want to go into the room, you have to make your way through all the bric-à-brac and most certainly brush against it, Pierrino observes, always with a logical eye; even they, as small as they are. So Grandmother And in particular, there is no access to the window. It is still blocked by the big trunk with flat lid on which are lined up pairs of old shoes that are all cracked and the dressmaker's dummy - balancing precariously, as they know all too well.
No one could have made light signals from this window. No one has entered this room!
Pierrino sneezes - because they have disturbed the dust. Jiliane has stayed in the doorway; she looks worried - maybe she doesn't understand what's happening. They don't go far into the room, but once back in the corridor, they have to brush each other off: Pierrino pulls a small cobweb from Senso's dishevelled hair. He feels an odd sensation, as if something is making his skull itch, but in a place he can't scratch - under the bone. It's not the shutters, the dust, the inaccessible window. He has already felt that sensation earlier. Outside. An imbalance, a disorder.
"The façade of the house" he whispers.
"Yes," says Senso in a hushed voice.
They look at each other, grab Jiliane by the arms again and dash down the stairway on tiptoes. A glance towards the corridor and its candelabras, the distant light of the kitchen from which comes, with an enticing aroma of roasting meat, female voices and the regular banging of a cleaver on a wooden board. No one in sight. Pierrino cautiously opens the door to the square and they are about to slip out of the house when someone grabs them by the shirttails. Jiliane, who wants to come with them, of course.
No one notices them under the arcade: the people are hurrying home for the noon meal. It is exciting to be outside this way without a chaperon for the first time, but that ethereal itching, under his skull, makes Pierrino walk nimbly to the place where they were when they noticed the flash of light. Jiliane lets herself be pulled along, giving little tugs to the hands holding hers, no doubt to get herself lifted. Pierrino complies, but Jiliane makes herself heavier - no, she doesn't want to jump? He stops at the same time as Senso; they turn around.
"The windows," Senso whispers.
Pierrino squats down beside Jiliane, shows her the façade of the house above the shadow of the arcade. "How many windows, Jiliane? In our house, on the second floor?" He knows she knows her numbers.
She looks at him, wide-eyed. Then she shakes her head. What, no? "But yes, Jiliane, help us," Senso coaxes, a little surprised too. "Look at the house, and tell us how many windows there are." She hesitates a moment longer, then turns her head towards the façade. Pierrino can see her eyes move from window to window. Then she looks at him, she looks at Senso and, as if reluctantly, she raises one hand, thumb tucked, the fingers extended. Four. She sees four windows too.
Their room has two windows. In the junk room they just examined, there is only one - they can see the closed shutters. Between their windows and that one, there is the window with open shutters from which they were signalled.
But there are no other doors in the corridor, no other rooms on this side of that floor...

© 2005 Éditions Alire & Élisabeth Vonarburg


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