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Author’s Notes: Two personalities in this chapter are lifted from real persons: Fersen’s boss in Sweden, Gustav (currently still without a surname), is patterned after Gustavus III (in real life an eighteenth century Swedish monarch and contemporary of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette); while Madame du Deffand was a very well-known Parisian marquise and society hostess in eighteenth century France whose stylish and brilliantly intelligent parties were considered must-go events.
Disclaimer: The same things apply: I do not own anybody in this story.
Perhaps the solution to quell the disturbing dreams was to inebriate myself every night like I just did, for upon waking up this morning I had no recollection of having dreamed at all last night.
But the headache… oh, the excruciating, pounding headache! Surely I could not afford to have hangovers every morning! And to think today was only Tuesday! As I raised my head feebly from the pillows, pain shot through my eyes, causing me to slump back down onto the soft cushions and groan.
“This is so not worth it!” I heard myself say thickly.
It really was not, for as soon as I woke up, all the memories of that horrible dinner with Fersen had come flooding back. All the details that drink had temporarily blunted in my mind were now coming back into sharp focus.
Perhaps the most unforgettable detail of them all was the look on Fersen’s face as I asked him point blank over the Fricassée de Veau aux Girolles*, “do you love her?”
That frozen look…I could not imagine him being taken unawares by anything, but that look had spoken volumes.
Being Fersen, he had rallied almost immediately. His face softening into a sad smile, he said, “I see. I can guess where our talk is heading.”
“If you know what this is all about then it will not be too difficult for me to say it,” I said. It was a weakness of mine to bulldoze my way out of an uncomfortable situation. Andre might have admonished me for being too blunt if he were only present, but I saw very little point in beating around the bush with this issue. “Personally, I am not one to meddle into any business of yours or Antoinette’s—“
He held up a hand. “But you feel compelled to warn me that I am overstepping my limits with the fiancée of my future boss,” he finished.
There was a pause as I tried to collect myself. Evidently, Fersen was not so easy to offend as I had at first thought. Very well. It would indeed make things much simpler.
“I would not have put it that bluntly,” I finally answered, “but yes, everything just about boils down to that. I think you may want to consider going back to Sweden earlier than planned...for the sake of the companies.”
He looked down at his hands as they rested on the table and sighed heavily. “I know there isn’t any excuse for my actions with Antoinette. I have none to offer,” he said. “Only…she has been so good to me…so kind. I had no intention of falling in love, but it…just happened…”
I could not bear to look at him just then. His last words were ringing in my ear: “It…just happened…”
“She is so beautiful, so vulnerable,” he continued, and I watched as his hands slowly balled into fists on the table, “I’ve never felt so protective of anyone before. Can you understand me, Francoise?”
“Has somebody been spreading rumors?” he asked as I remained silent.
I shook my head. “There has been none—yet,” I said, and I was glad to hear that my voice had remained steady. “Which is why I think now is the best time to leave. Antoinette—I can understand that her position has always been a difficult one ever since the first day she came. We can say that she deserves to break away every now and then, but this…there’s just too much at stake. I am hoping that you will be the one to understand. ”
He was silent for a moment before he took a deep breath, such as a diver would have done before plunging into deep waters. “I do understand,” he said at last, “and I am most grateful for your frankness. You are so strong and capable, I am sure Antoinette would be in good hands with you around.”
He extended a hand. “Take care of her, Francoise,” he said.
“I will,” I said as I took his hand.
The handshake was firm and brief, and then he took his leave by saying, “You must excuse me. I must hurry home to pack if I were to catch the flight tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?!” I had meant him to leave as soon as possible, but surely there was no need to schedule an immediate departure.
Fersen smiled. “I may not go away at all if I put it off any longer. Besides, Gustav has been asking in his emails when my return to Sweden might be. Do not worry about it. You can tell everyone that the head of the Swedish office has been asking me most urgently to go back,” he said.
There was a pause as we looked at each other for a moment.
“I’m sure this is not the last time we will be seeing each other, Francoise,” he said. “Au revoir, mon ami.”
When Fersen had gone, I realized that my appetite had also disappeared to be replaced by a new, piercing ache in the chest that made breathing difficult.
I had done it. Done what I thought was best for Antoinette, for the companies. And I had done it for myself, before things got too painfully obvious. It had been frightening to feel this outrageous lack of control in myself where he was concerned. It had been the first time this had ever happened to me. With him gone, then maybe I could get back the equilibrium that I had lost since he came onto the scene.
But I had waited in vain for the relief that I was supposed to feel.
I had outdone myself with the query. Finally, I had the answers to the questions that had slowly been eating at me for the past few months. But what had I expected? Didn’t he say so himself that he saw in Antoinette somebody he needed to protect?
All my life, I had not needed anything. Least of all that.
I hated to admit it, but the interview with Fersen had left me raw and exposed. The thought of going home to my empty apartment had suddenly seemed abhorrent. Just then, I had remembered that in my haste to get Fersen out of the office where the walls had ears, I had left behind the files that were supposed to keep me occupied for the entire evening.
Upon returning to the office, I had been surprised to find the lights still on. Relief had surged through me at the sight of André as he prepared to make his departure. I had wanted to tell him everything then and there, but I had resisted giving in to the impulse at the last minute. I had figured it would be better not to drag him into the whole sordid mess.
But André had been too observant even without my saying much to him. It had taken everything in me not to pounce on him when he had innocently asked if Antoinette knew that Fersen was leaving. If André had noticed, who else could have?
At least, I could trust André to be discreet. Still, it had left me shaken, and I badly needed to forget. To forget at least for a while…
Poor André. I could not remember leaving the bar at all. How had he managed to drag me all the way from Montparnasse to my apartment? Now, with the harsh morning sun beating down from the windows, I could see that I had been tucked snugly into bed.
I could not seem to remember anything after we left the bar.
No…I did remember something.
I remembered feeling something during the night. Something warm had brushed itself across my lips and pressed itself for a time against my mouth. And it had felt so comforting…so warm. It was so good that I had felt like crying.
I brushed my fingers wonderingly across my lips as I sat up slowly on the bed, feeling my brows come together in a frown. Perhaps I had remembered a fragment of a dream after all.
The shrill ringing of my cell phone abruptly dispelled the haziness in my mind, bringing me sharply back to the present.
“Wake up call,” came the familiar voice down the line.
“I’m already awake, thank you very much,” I snapped without really intending to, and I heard him chuckle good-naturedly.
“Good. Rosalie may have already informed you that your first appointment is at 8:15 today, but after nine glasses of wine last night, I felt I’d better remind you just to be sure,” he said.
“Oh God,” I moaned. “No wonder the headache is so bad! I’d better get a move on. I’ll see you in the office, André.”
As I rushed about the apartment, a thought briefly surfaced in my mind before a hundred others supplanted it: whatever would I do without André?
“Ta-daaaa….” Sang Rosalie, flourishing a fresh copy of Vogue in front of me as soon as I entered the office. “Just in newsstands this morning.”
There were the two-page spread and the short interview that they had done on me over a month ago as they prepared an article on “successful and stylish women executives” from several top Paris firms.
I could remember the day when all that fuss had been made as they transformed the office into a mini-studio to get the lighting just right. The photographer had wanted me to lounge catlike halfway across my desktop for extra effect. Needless to say, I had declined, so they had shot me the way I had appeared on the page that Rosalie had opened: half leaning, half sitting on the desk with a hand resting on the table’s edge. Amidst files artfully cluttered on the desk (which I would never have allowed in reality), I was contemplating an elaborate arrangement of white roses in a vase beside me.
“The roses are stunning,” I remarked as I glanced absently at the glossy magazine, and Rosalie dropped her arms in disappointment.
“Is that the only thing you can say to your gorgeous article?!” she cried, seemingly affronted at the sacrilege I had committed in not paying close attention to Vogue.
“If it’s going to help make the next board meeting any easier, I might be persuaded to say a little bit more about it,” I said in a fit of bad temper, and I could see Rosalie’s mouth drop into an unhappy line. Poor dear.
“You must excuse the Boss today,” said André airily as he came up from behind Rosalie. “She’s had a rough night.”
I paused from arranging the folders Rosalie had given me for the meetings ahead and shot him a withering look. “Don’t start,” I warned.
André smiled gently as he placed a glass of water and some medicine tablets on the table. “I think these might help,” he said. “For the headache.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled as I gingerly took the pills. “Dammit, but I feel as though my eyes are being gouged out by a pair of red-hot pokers.”
As Rosalie moved away to get her writing pad ready for the first appointment, André sat down on the chair facing my table. “He’s really leaving early in the afternoon,” he said quietly. “I got word from his secretary.”
“So he says,” I stated calmly as I opened the first folder from the pile on my table and started perusing the contents.
I could feel André staring at me as I continued browsing through the file, but he did not ask any questions, and I was mercifully spared from doing anything rash first thing in the morning.
I was to see no respite as the day dragged on and on. In the afternoon, I was obliged to attend a meeting with our chief accountant, M. Dagout, at the de Brun offices to report on the quarter’s budget. In the large conference room, filled with familiar faces from all the affiliate offices including those of Louis and Auguste de Brun, one face was conspicuously absent.
His sudden departure was but a brief sentence in the opening remarks of the meeting’s moderator before the assembly started to confer in earnest. Could it be that I were the only one to feel his absence?
I could not wait for everything to be over. The effects of André’s painkillers were starting to wear off, and I could feel the headache coming back with a vengeance.
Finally, the meeting came to its conclusion. As people started filing out of the doors, I got held back when I heard somebody calling my name.
“Francoise.” A deep, cool male voice.
I turned around to look for the source of the voice, and I did a double take.
“Victor,” I said. “Whatever did you do to your hair?”
Victor Clement de Girodelle was the managing director of the telecommunications business of de Brun, very capable and very ambitious. A long-time acquaintance, he was ahead of me by one year in business school. He was also quite a fashion plate, with impeccable taste in clothes and his coldly handsome and patrician features constantly undergoing changes every time I saw him.
Right now, he had decided to let down his long, wavy brown hair instead of restraining it with a tie. Admittedly it was not bad.
He merely smiled at my remark and said, “I saw your Vogue article. You look positively radiant.”
“Oh, that. All done with mirrors,” I said lightly while I wondered deep down how he could make his words sound like I were an ornamental doll. Perhaps I just got out of the wrong side of the bed this morning, or perhaps I was getting paranoid. From the way he looked though, Girodelle was far better equipped to grace the covers of those fashion magazines than I. “Congratulations on the British and German deals, by the way.”
He fell into step beside me as I made my way down to the lobby. “Coming from you that is indeed a compliment. Thank you. Will you be attending Madame du Deffand’s cocktail party next weekend?” he asked.
“I probably will not be able to,” I said as I took out my phone and started typing a message to André.
“It’s a shame--” Victor was saying when a de Brun assistant came hurrying over.
“Madame,” the assistant said as she handed me a folded, cream-colored card.
I could feel Girodelle’s pale eyes on me as I read the short message. Willing my face to remain expressionless, I finally looked up and murmured my excuses to him.
“Lead the way,” I told the assistant as I followed her down the corridor.
Francoise, wrote Antoinette. Can you spare me five minutes of your time?
The de Brun head office was known for its massive indoor gardens spanning the entire top floor of the building—one of only a few in Paris. Ordinarily bustling with activity, the gardens had very few people present when I arrived. Walking through the various sections of exotic flowers and plants, I finally came upon her as she sat on one of the small stone benches overlooking a dainty grotto.
She sat so still and straight, head tilted proudly, as she watched the small thread of water coming out of the grotto to trickle down onto the stream at her feet. Only the silvery tinkle of water could be heard.
The thin layer of grass beneath my feet had silenced my approach. “Antoinette,” I called softly.
When she turned to me slowly, I could see that she had been weeping.
“I’m sorry to have you come all the way up here, Francoise. You see why I cannot meet you downstairs,” she said as she gave me a tremulous smile.
“It’s all right,” I said automatically, “we can talk here if you like.”
I felt my heart sinking horribly at the sight of her tears. Of course I had anticipated that something like this would happen, but I was unprepared for the pain the sight of Antoinette’s tears had brought.
“Grandpapa had Auguste attend the board meeting, and I thought I may as well tag along as I have nothing better to do…” she started in a choked voice then stopped.
There was a short silence before she said simply, “He’s left France.”
I did not pretend not to understand. “I know,” I answered.
“He didn’t even say goodbye.” She then buried her head in her hands and sobbed. “What is wrong with me, Francoise? He doesn’t need to tell me, actually. He’s under no obligations. Still…still--”
I closed my eyes. “The office in Sweden needed him back,” I said.
I could say no more.
Gradually her sobbing dwindled and she looked up from her hands. I took a seat beside her and followed the direction of her gaze as she stared at the gently gurgling waters before us.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “You must think me a fool for ever confiding in you about this matter. I couldn’t help it. This is the last time I’m ever going to cry this way.”
“You don’t have to restrain yourself in front of me,” I answered gently.
“Auguste and Grandpapa must never know of this.”
I thought long and hard for a moment, knowing that what I was thinking was along the same dangerous vein that I had assiduously been trying to steer Antoinette and Fersen from. The consequences at this point were grave, but everything depended on the decisions of the future bride of the company’s heir.
Antoinette could not possibly be too naïve with the way things were run in this society. Even without my saying so, surely she must know of the hypocritical expectations of many of our acquaintances. There were those who regarded marriage as an extension of office politics—a business partnership more than anything else. Nevertheless, a façade had to be maintained even as husband and wife could and did go about their separate ways and relationships in private.
The trick, they said, lay in knowing just how far people could go without violating society’s expectations of them. Indeed, there were many in our acquaintance who could juggle these affairs with the skill and finesse of master performers.
While my opinion on such unions might digress from those of my acquaintances (why marry at all if one could think of other ways—surely there would always be alternatives-- to clinch a deal with another party without having to turn to marriage was my personal opinion), such was the state of things, and it looked like it was not going to change any time soon.
As for love and affection, once in a while perhaps one did get to see relationships based on these, but they were few and far in between. If one would rather wait for this kind of thing (sometimes less than once in a lifetime, I would suspect), then it was also dependent on the person’s choice.
Could she sacrifice a lucrative merger for love and happiness then?
Aloud I said, “If you wish it to be so, Auguste and Louis will never know. But perhaps you should evaluate what you would really like to do before the wedding takes place. Fersen is but a phone call away if you want him to come back, if that is your wish.”
For a moment, I thought she had been turned to stone. She was so still as she sat there and stared at me. Antoinette then shook her head sadly. “Only women like you have choices, Francoise, and I envy you for having them,” she said. “I have none.”
I shook my head. “That’s not true,” I pointed out. “Of course you have choices. Everyone has them. There may be difficult ones, but nobody can tell you to do things you do not want to do. But once you’ve decided on a course of action, then you must be prepared to accept the consequences.”
There was a long silence.
“It’s too late for me,” she finally said. “From the start, it has been too late.”
She refused to say anything else again. We looked at the ripples of water for a long time.
Was I too frank, too idealistic in giving advice to Antoinette? I could not really say. I had been told time and again that I possessed the cold, rational temperament needed in handling business, but I had to admit that this hardheaded practicality was at a loss when applied to matters of the heart. I had not really bothered to think much about the complexity of relationships, as they had not concerned me very much before.
True, I had had the occasional boyfriend among the numerous men friends of my acquaintance especially during my days in business school, but none had sustained my interest enough to have anything serious happen.
Call it laughable, but there the matter had stood. The concept of immediate attraction and passion for another was very much overrated, if you were to ask me.
I suspected that people would not believe me if I were to tell them that I received my first and last serious kiss when I was sixteen. It was amusing now to think about it. It had come about when this silly boy had tried to kiss me at a school friend’s party.
Pierre (his surname was long forgotten by now) had been a very good-looking guy about the same age as André whom I had met and defeated at a fencing tournament in St. Michel’s Academy (unlike all my other sisters who had been sent to an exclusive girls’ school, Father had sent me along with André to a private co-ed academy that was better equipped to turn out students for university and the more competitive grandes écoles**).
Pierre had been suave and sophisticated by secondary school standards, and I had known that he had been trying to get to me for quite some time. That night, out of curiosity, I had allowed him to steer me to the balcony.
Unfortunately, he had been either too drunk or pretty inexperienced himself. The open-mouthed kiss he had tried bestowing on me had been slovenly at best and pretty short in duration, for André had arrived at the scene almost immediately to yank him off me.
André had been furious, and things would have escalated if I had not put in a word. Apparently, he had imagined that Pierre had attacked me. A ridiculous notion, as I would have been more than able to defend myself. “It’s okay,” I had told André. “I wanted him to kiss me.”
André had turned and gaped at me as if I had gone mad.
“You heard the lady,” Pierre had slurred at André triumphantly. He then turned back to me and said, “Now, where were we?”
And I remembered telling him before I walked away, “I said I wanted you to kiss me.”
“Are you alright?” André had asked sharply as he followed me back into the party. “I leave you for just a few minutes and look what happens!”
“Don’t be absurd, André. There was no problem, so you don’t have to lose your head worrying about it,” I had said as I calmly wiped my mouth with my handkerchief.
The kiss had been odd and disgusting. Wet and clumsy, Pierre’s lips had not exactly found their target and I had been obliged to wipe the corners of my mouth and chin. It certainly did not seem to have anything in common with those thrilling kisses one saw in the movies. And in the years that followed, the kisses I had received from various men had not induced any excitement or passion at all. In fact, the kiss that I remembered dreaming this morning was more passionate than any that I had ever received in my waking moments. Thus, I had not missed kissing, nor yearned for it as time went by.
Until Fersen came along, that was.
At the thought of him, a wave of incredible sadness and yearning coursed through me and I slumped back on the seat of the car as it made its way back to the office. Beside me, Monsieur Dagout regarded me with a sympathetic eye.
“Headache,” I said shortly.
When I got back to my apartment that evening, the painting was waiting for me in the hall.
I had not been expecting it. The sight of it came as a shock. The lady in the portrait looked as she had appeared to me the first time I saw her in Normandy: startlingly alive, as if she were about to leap out of the canvas in her horse. At the sight of her face—the same one that I saw in the mirror everyday—I felt as though I were on the brink of remembering…something.
It was unsettling. I had not realized that the portrait would exert such an effect here in my apartment. Everything else seemed dwarfed by it, including me.
I phoned André.
“Yes, I told you the painting was coming today, didn’t I?” He said. “I took the liberty of having it placed in the hall.”
“I can see that,” I said. It had slipped my mind entirely that the painting was due to arrive today. “Can you have it removed, please?”
There was a short pause.
“I’m not sure I heard right,” came André’s reply.
“You did,” I said. “Can we have it moved to my parents’ house in the meantime? I’m sure Papa would like to see it. He can have it for a while.”
There was another short pause. Thank goodness André knew me so well, for he only replied, “all right, I will try to call the movers, though heaven knows if they’re still willing to move anything at this hour.”
I could detect a sigh in his voice; doubtless he must think that I was fond of causing unnecessary trouble. Poor André. If only I could tell him what was bothering me, but I doubt if even André—a close friend since childhood-- would understand. How could he if I myself could not make heads or tails with it?
I murmured my thanks and called Father next to inform him that a surprise was on its way to the mansion.
All the while, the lady on the pale horse continued to look out of her sapphire eyes onto a world that surely must have changed beyond recognition from the one that she had known.
Who are you and what have you seen in your lifetime? Why do you haunt me so now?
Paris began to talk when the wedding invitations finally arrived a week later—the complicated, expensive cards whose sole purpose was to request the honor of one’s presence as Auguste Philippe de Brun joined hands with Antoinette Jeanne Lorraine in holy matrimony.
André let out a low whistle as he examined the thick card. “The wedding of the century in terms of business deals,” he said jokingly.
I did not smile though.
It was finally going to happen. Antoinette, whether she would agree or not to my wording, had made a choice.
* Fricassée de Veau aux Girolles (pronounced: free kah seh / duh / voh / oh / ghee ruhl) -- A veal recipe with mushrooms in a creamy white wine sauce. A hearty stew, you can visit http://frenchfood.about.com/od/beefveal/r/vealgirolles.htm for the recipe.
** Grandes écoles—known literally as “great schools”, they are particular to the French educational system. A student in secondary school may choose to enter university upon graduation, or choose to take up two more years of preparatory classes in order to enter one of these exclusive establishments. The great schools usually specialize in a particular field such as business, engineering or mathematics. The entrance examinations into these schools are considerably more difficult and selective compared to the universities. For more information, click on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grandes_%C3%A9coles
To Be Continued…
pubblicazione sul sito Little Corner del maggio 2006
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