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Author’s Notes: This chapter has got some details regarding the education system in France, which is quite different in certain respects to the systems in other countries. Internet references are listed at the end of the story (in case ff.net cannot process these links, please contact me and I shall send them along to you). I hope I got things right. If not, please do not hesitate to e-mail me and I shall correct any inaccurate information I may have put down.
Disclaimer: Characters still not mine.
I could remember the look on her parents’ faces on the night that Francoise had asked me to have the oil painting transferred to the mansion and they saw the portrait for the first time.
“Amazing,” Monsieur said, shaking his head as he continued to stare at the painting before him as if transfixed. “It’s incredible.”
He turned to me as I continued to stand beside him in silence. “She got this from Normandy?” he asked disbelievingly. It was already half past ten in the evening when the movers finally settled the painting into the vast gallery corridor of the mansion, and Francoise’s parents and Granny had wasted no time in examining the portrait.
“Could it be…?” Madame started wonderingly.
“The chateau had been sacked and looted following the Revolution,” Monsieur mused, referring to the family home in Arras, “this mansion had seen considerable damage. There was no clear inventory of what things were left behind.”
“Clearly this is a family portrait,” declared Granny in her stubborn tone.
“How would we know for sure though?” I asked with a shrug, and I felt Granny’s hard palm as it came down on my arm.
“Of course it is! How can there be any doubt?” she asked as I stepped out of her reach, nursing my stinging arm.
“Is there any way to check?” Monsieur asked me.
“I will try, sir,” I promised. The prospect of researching into the origins of this painting seemed interesting.
“Good,” he said. “Come along to my study then, André. There are some matters I wish to discuss with you.”
We left Madame and Granny to muse over the painting and I followed Monsieur down the corridor. I knew what was coming. Monsieur was going to ask for an update on Francoise and her activities. For more than ten years I had been obliged to report to her father periodically regarding the goings-on around her person.
It wasn’t that he did not trust his daughter, but Francoise was remarkably difficult to talk to when she chose not to be communicative. Naturally, as managing director, there were things in the company that she did not reveal to anyone including her father, and it had been very difficult to strike a balance between making my reports convincing to Monsieur and at the same time protecting Francoise. Perhaps as luck would have it, she did not reveal everything to me as well, so I had felt no compunction in admitting to her father that I did not know all her plans.
Still, she had been in a towering rage some years back when she found out that her father had spying on her. She would have confronted him then and there had she not been on holiday in Arras and her parents had stayed in Paris.
Angry as she had been, she believed me immediately when I told her where my loyalty lay. I had also urged her to think twice before she let her father know that she was now aware of his tactics.
“If he cannot use me, then he will turn to somebody else,” I had told her. “At least this way you can tell me ahead of time what I should or should not tell him.”
And there the matter had stood.
Now, seated in Monsieur’s study, I rattled off the list of activities she had been through the past week. I was surprised when Monsieur cut me off to inquire if Francoise had any plans in attending the cocktail party planned by Madame du Deffand for the coming weekend.
“Surely she has been sent an invitation,” Monsieur said.
“I saw the invitation at her office table,” I said, “although I have not asked her whether she is attending.”
“Convince her to go,” urged Monsieur. “Her sisters will be there. Girodelle too, as well as many others from the head office will be in attendance. It will not do to totally ignore these small functions. A short break from work will do her some good.”
I thought I already knew her decision even before I broached the topic with her. When I finally did mention the conversation to her a few days later, she proved me right by saying, “if Papa wants me to go, then it’s all the more reason for me not to attend.”
“Why do you insist on vexing him so?” I asked. “It’s just a cocktail party. Surely it won’t do you any harm to attend a party every now and then.”
She turned to me and smiled unpleasantly. “André, don’t tell me that after all these years you still don’t know how Papa’s mind works. He’s never cared if I didn’t attend these socials before. Surely there must be a reason why he wants me to go now!”
As she turned away from me, I heard her mutter, “besides, that’s the second time somebody’s asked me if I’m attending that party.”
When I thought back on it, that statement-- addressed more to herself than anyone else--seemed so trivial then. I should have asked her what she had meant by it.
You might wonder how I could possibly double cross Monsieur—bite the hand that fed me, so to speak—by not being perfectly truthful to him regarding the reporting of Francoise’s activities. From the very start, I had no illusion to whom I was really indebted.
I had admired Francoise for a long time, ever since we were children. She had this strength and gravity of character far beyond her years that had made me look and feel very much like the child that I had been. But when did admiration tip into love?
It had taken me a while to realize these feelings for what they were. I should have known something was up whenever I got upset with Francoise hanging out with the other boys at St. Michel’s. Of course, she was free to do whatever she wished, but was it too much to ask for her to hang around more with the girls rather than the guys?
The boys all had just about the same thought when it came to the then captain of the fencing team, and it had filled me with an indignation that I had at first brushed off as brotherly concern. True, she was very much respected and well liked, but if almost the entire male population of a class as well as some girls could think they could get romantically involved with her, they had better think again.
Take for example that guy, Pierre de Rouen. You could just imagine how I had felt when I saw the guy making his moves on Francoise that night at a friend’s party. I had nearly torn him to pieces if she had not spoken up. And for her to say that she had wanted the creep to kiss her! Her casual words had hurt horribly, though I had not completely understood why then.
Things got much clearer for me though as we reached the end of our stay at the academy. Perhaps the following incident was the spark that gave way to the flame that has been burning in my heart ever since.
I could remember the dinner her parents had taken us to celebrate the end of the grueling quarterly exams early into our terminal year at St. Michel’s Academy. At the time, students finishing secondary school had already started deliberating whether they would enter university or take preparatory classes (also known as prépas) that they needed in order to enter the elite grandes écoles or great schools of the country.
“Now that you are about to finish schooling you must decide on your next move, André,” Monsieur had told me, and I had perfectly understood his meaning. I was to strike off on my own from then on.
“I will. Thank you sir,” I had said.
St Michel’s had prépas that were especially known for their remarkable success rates for entrance into the leading business schools in Paris. Doubtless, Francoise had already had her course mapped out in front of her. As for me, even if I were able to attend the preparatory classes, without the appropriate funds I would not be able to go to any of the great business schools with Francoise. I would have to rely on a part-time job to support my way in a less costly university then.
I had known that sooner or later Francoise and I would have to part ways as we pursued different paths to entirely different futures. She had been groomed from the start to head the family business. As for me, her family had already paid for an expensive secondary education on my behalf. I had been lucky, such as it were. At that time, the company had not yet had a scholarship program for indigent university students. That program was to be one of Francoise’s ideas as she stepped into power at de la Saigne Industries.
Throughout dinner, I had kept glancing at Francoise and wondering why she had been so unusually quiet. Upon returning home, I soon realized why. She had been mad.
She had disappeared as soon as we set foot back in the mansion, and walking down the corridor leading to her father’s study on my way to the servants’ quarters, it had taken me a moment to register that the loud, angry voice that filtered through the closed door had been hers.
“—What do you mean he’s finished his schooling?” was the muffled sentence that had arrested my attention, and I paused to listen.
A faint murmur as her father said something.
“That’s it then? Well, I think it’s a shame that he has come this far and you’re suddenly withholding your support! With grades like that, he can easily enter into any course he chooses in university!” she railed.
Her father’s much calmer reply could not be heard in its entirety through the closed door.
“You must be joking!” came her strong voice. “The family can support five, ten people through any university of their choice at any one time! Why should you now decide to have him go out and seek work to support his way through a second-rate college?”
Her father’s voice came back louder this time: “That’s not the point, Francoise! It will not do to have him entirely dependent on us for the rest of his life. He’s eighteen now. Virtually a man. You cannot make his decisions for him.”
“Then hear his decisions out first!” she cried. “How would we know that he does not need our help if we do not even want to listen to him?”
There was a short silence inside. I felt as if my heart had stopped as well as I stood to listen from the outside.
“Papa, ever since he stepped into this house, André has had no choice but to obey everything you told him to do. And to the best of my ability, I too had done everything I could to meet your every wish. For once, indulge me in this: have him enter university without having anything else to worry about. Give him his chance, his choices. I promise that you will not regret it. Think of Nanny.”
Monsieur’s voice had again lowered to an incomprehensible mutter.
“Then do this for me. Please,” she said.
That had been the end of their discussion, and I had hurried away with my heart pounding. I had never known Francoise to beg her father for anything; for her to do so then on my behalf had been unbearably moving.
Sure enough, a few days later Monsieur called me into his study to ask me what my plans were after graduating from St. Michel’s. I replied that I had already applied for business studies in a well-known university in the city.
For some time, I had been nervous about my choice. Apart from being extremely competitive, entering this particular university would require very serious consideration into the state of one’s finances. It was clear that no amount of part-time work could support me if a very good scholarship fund could not be acquired.
“Is that really what you want?” Monsieur merely asked, and I replied without hesitation in the affirmative. After all, it would have been too audacious for me to say that my wish then was to follow Francoise into her choice of ecoles de commerce.
Monsieur then proposed a loan: the family would support my studies and I would pay in installments after I had graduated and gotten a job. A more than satisfactory arrangement. Afterwards, when everything had been agreed upon, Monsieur leaned back onto his seat and sighed.
“It’s good that you will be continuing your education, although it is time that you go your separate ways from Francoise,” he said. “Still, I hope you can continue keeping an eye on her—see to it that she stays out of trouble. You may be more effective, as she trusts you completely. Be sure to tell me anything that may come along. Needless to say, she does not have to know about this conversation.”
With these conditions as collateral, you could imagine that I had almost backed out of the offer. But the most important thing was to have the chance to go to university, to obtain a degree. As for Monsieur, although I could understand that he was intensely protective of this daughter who would bear a lot of his hopes and aspirations into the future, I figured it would not hurt him if I chose not to tell him a thing or two about her activities.
Devious as I might seem in tricking my benefactor, there was no doubt as to where my loyalty lay from the very start.
Francoise had cheered when the results of my university entrance examinations finally came out. ”You see?” she said to me triumphantly. “I told you you’re going to make it to the university of your choice!”
We were walking through the grass lawns of St. Michel’s to get to a class then, and I stopped upon hearing her words. There came upon me this feeling of immense gratitude for her and immeasurable sadness at the fact that I would not be able to accompany her into what was surely a difficult and challenging time ahead of us.
“Francoise,” I said.
“Yes?” She asked as she turned back to me. We had just emerged from the shadows of the ivy-covered walls of the main school building and the afternoon sun had shone down on her, turning her hair into burnished gold. She looked so beautiful.
“Good luck with the preparatory classes,” I managed to say.
She raised an eyebrow at my serious tone. “Are you off to the North Pole? You sound like we’re never going to see each other again,” she said lightly.
I had to smile at her words. “And thank you,” I said, my voice trembling as emotion welled up within me. “I know…I know for a fact that I would not have the chance to enter university without you.”
For a moment, we stood there as my words sank in on her. She did not pretend not to understand what I meant. Instead, she smiled wickedly after a while and said, “I can only help to a certain extent. I didn’t make those grades, André; you did. And as for the other matter, don’t thank me. I did it for Nanny, you know, not you!”
And she raced off laughing as I gave chase, yelling after her.
Then and there I had pledged to repay Francoise for everything she had done for me some day soon.
That was probably how I had started to fall in love with her, although it would take me some more time to admit it to myself. The four long years of university had been one continual ache as our paths crossed more infrequently, though we did keep in touch. By the time she turned eighteen, Francoise had taken up an apartment of her own to concentrate on her studies. Weekends were my lifeline, as I got to see her in her parents’ house.
How could I describe the torment of thinking incessantly how she was doing at a particular time when we were apart? Who was she with at a certain moment? Was there somebody new in her life that I ought to be aware of?
In more lucid moments, it did occur to me that I had absolutely no hold on her, but it did nothing to assuage the longing deep inside me.
Things reached a state when I would find myself hanging around quite regularly outside her institute after my own classes were over, hoping to catch a glimpse of her as she came out from her day’s classes. There would be times when she would be very busy and had time only for a brief hello before driving off somewhere, and other times when she would be free to go have a drink with me. Occasionally she would be with friends, and the invariable presence of a man in her circle had been enough to drive me crazy with furious speculation.
Perhaps that was when I realized I had fallen hopelessly in love. There had not been any way to make her realize how I felt. At the time, she might probably have laughed if she had found out.
The years dragged slowly by, and before I realized it, I had finished university and had gotten a job at the marketing section of de la Saigne as a way to start repaying her father’s support. Then she came onto the scene herself and the very first people she had needed were a personal assistant and a secretary. Given her fastidious nature, these two positions had been difficult to fill. Having had enough of missing her during the last four years, I had myself transferred to serve as her personal assistant while the post of secretary was to see a rapid succession of people in the office pool before Rosalie came along.
Although her family had owned the company for several generations before it was merged into the de Brun group, it did not mean everything went easily for Francoise at the beginning. The board of elders at de Brun had initially viewed de la Saigne’s youngest daughter with more than a mixture of doubt and indecision.
Fortunately, she was simply brilliant in the way she handled things. A combination of fiery boldness and cool calculation marked her moves as she ascended the corporate ladder. This, along with a keen foresight into situations and an unerring intuition in making important decisions and taking risks, had distinguished her very early in her career. The elders at de Brun had no choice but to rest any doubts they had in letting so young a woman handle the company.
It was an exhilarating ride, full of unexpected twists and turns, and I intended to stay by her side until I could repay my massive debt to her. And some day perhaps, I would be able to make her see how I felt about her.
Following the arrival of the remarkable invitations, the de Brun-Lorraine nuptials took place soon afterwards. The society pages had been screaming about the details and guest lists of the Wedding of the Year for several months already, so by the time the important date came, the whole event had taken an anticlimactic tone.
Francoise had gone to the church service with her father as part of the limited number allowed in because of the space restrictions inside the cathedral, but she said she would join us afterward for the wedding dinner celebrations in the de Brun estates just outside Paris. The dinner party was open to a greater number of people. By us, I meant Rosalie and I, and we were there solely because the Boss had passed two extra invitations that were accorded to the de la Saignes onto us.
For a while, Rosalie simply stared wide-eyed at all the illustrious personages as I pointed them out one by one for her. Equally impressive were the utilities of the sprawling country manor of the de Brun family. The grand ballroom and the gardens had been utilized to accommodate all the guests for the dinner. What with so many tables, I was sure Francoise would take a while before finding us, and I took my time amusing Rosalie with anecdotes and descriptions of the people who drifted into our line of sight.
We caught just a brief glimpse of the newly wedded couple as they made their way into the crowded ballroom, where the more prominent guests were. Mademoiselle Antoinette had looked radiant in acres of white tulle and silk. Auguste had appeared ill at ease in a formal black suit—the way he always looked uneasy in anything that was not a plain polo shirt and loose pants.
After the traditional toasts, the dinner began in earnest. Course after course came and went, and there was still no sign of Francoise.
“I think we’ll probably just see her in the office this coming Monday,” I was telling Rosalie when she suddenly appeared, champagne flute in hand.
“There you are!” she said as she took a place beside us. “Enjoying the dinner?”
“Very,” Rosalie said, smiling. “Thank you so much for bringing us along.”
Francoise waved Rosalie’s thanks aside with a leisurely gesture. “Seen anyone interesting?” she asked, and we were soon laughing and exchanging our observations on the various faces we had encountered.
“You ought to meet Gustav Haga, the director of the Swedish companies,” said Francoise. “He is absolutely outrageous. Brilliant, of course, but quite outrageous. He’s been bubbling with all sorts of ideas and projects ever since I met him this morning. It’s a shame he will be flying back to Sweden tomorrow.”
“What about Monsieur Fersen?” asked Rosalie, for whom any mention of Sweden was equivalent to the one person she knew to come from there. “Is he here too?”
“No,” said Francoise as she looked away casually toward the direction of the crowded ballroom. “Gustav has left him to manage operations in Stockholm while he’s here for the wedding.”
She made as if she were staring at the dancing couples inside the ballroom some yards away, but I understood every minute gesture she made as only somebody desperately in love could, and it pained me so much to think that she was actually pining deep inside for somebody else.
Here, in the subdued atmosphere of the gardens where the tables were lit only by candles and bright moonlight, where the exuberant music coming from the ballroom was muted, I watched Francoise as she had her gaze somewhere else. I wondered how she could possibly stand to let somebody like Fersen hurt her like this.
After a moment, I looked down, aware that a lump was forming in my throat. It was unfair of me to chide her like I just did. After all, what reason did I have to explain how I could possibly allow Francoise to hurt me so? The answer was simple: because Francoise was simply being Francoise and I loved her. The answer must be simple for her as well; Fersen was simply being Fersen, which was the reason why she loved him.
It was not something I could expect my heart to accept though. I could not allow these emotions to progress inside me, so I said, “well! Anyone care to dance?”
At the sound of my voice, Francoise seemed to come out of her reverie and she turned to smile at me. “Excellent suggestion, André,” she said. “Why don’t you take Rosalie in with you?”
The pain inside me slowly subsided as the days that followed the wedding went along the usual hectic pattern of meeting deadlines and executing endless plans.
And just when I thought things would settle down, Francoise finally scheduled the quarterly meeting with the local operations managers of the company for the coming month. This meant that Alain de Soisson was attending. And this meant that sparks were going to fly. Again.
Secondary education in France: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secondary_education_in_France
* 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 comnpared 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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