BY LÉONOR DE RÉCONDO
Translated by Sandra Smith
Anselme throws Céleste onto the mattress with the same movement every time; she falls down on her stomach, her head buried in the pillow, her mane of hair within his reach. He quickly pulls up her skirt. She does not resist, not anymore. He grabs her chignon, tightly clutching her thick hair. Then he pushes himself between her thighs, enters her, and begins. The feet of the iron bed creak. Neither Anselme nor Céleste hear the groan of the bed under the weight of such forced love. It’s laborious, always. It goes on for a long time. She wonders why these moments go by so slowly. Why doesn’t she faint so she can’t feel anything?
Once, she tried to talk to Huguette about it on the servants’ staircase. Trembling all over, she mumbled:
“It’s Monsieur de Boisvaillant…”
Her knees started shaking hard. Huguette understood right away. She told her to keep quiet, repeating several times:
“Don’t say anything, and don’t even think about talking to Madame about it!”
She looked in silence at Céleste’s shaking knees. Then she turned away, adding:
“Keep your head high, that’s all we can do, that’s all we can do! Keep your head high so everyone believes you don’t feel ashamed.”
Céleste looks up, clenches her teeth and straightens her legs to stop them from shaking so hard.
“All right, Huguette,” she manages to reply.
Her tone of voice is controlled, almost calm. She suddenly realizes that the solitude into which she was born forces her to give in. If she had had a choice – but that word does not exist, not in her situation, or in her vocabulary – she would have said: “No”. She would even have screamed.
Whenever Anselme thrusts back and forth inside her, Céleste thinks of something else. It’s become simple to do that, with time. She likes thinking of the clearing in the forest best. While he is screwing her, she is strolling through the forest where she used to play with her brothers and sisters when she was a child. She has so many siblings that she doesn’t exactly know how many there are; she’s never counted them. She’s in the forest with them. She could never forget those walks; they are her most precious memories. The freedom of running, of breathing in the scent of the soil and the sap from the pine trees, playing hide and seek, savouring the moments before returning to the gloomy farm where, suddenly, everyone is bent over, crouching very low, trying to disappear to escape their father’s shouting.
Anselme clutches her more tightly by her mane of hair, enjoying the pain he feels from her hairpins. When they dig into his palms, he nearly comes – he wants to make it last as long as possible. He pulls her toward him by her hair, to make her arch her back. At that moment, Céleste no longer exists, she is just a body and he wants that body to cry out, to join in a little, but there is nothing but silence. When he is about to come, he pulls a bit harder on the chignon, and her hair cascades over his hands. Then he confuses her mane with a horse’s mane, feeling he is master, straddling a horse on an endless ride.
He collapses heavily onto his mount. Céleste does not feel her strands of hair being pulled out one by one. She is sitting in the clearing in the forest. Her favorite place. There is nothing to do, just wait for time to pass. And that is what she does.
Her delightful stroll is brutally interrupted when his body collapses on to hers. He is so heavy! She is surprised each time. Heavy and with no strength left, heavy and empty. Then she comes back to the reality of her pillow that she is biting so hard she almost chokes, back to the creaking of the iron bed that has now stopped, back to her tiny bedroom under the eaves where she is either too hot or too cold.
She lifts her head, keeps it held high, as she must. Anselme, who has already stood up, adjusts his clothing. She doesn’t look at him, not ever. She waits for him to close the door before curling up and weeping a little.
* * *
Victoire slowly wakes up. In the morning, when her body is still filled with sleep, she stretches out under the cotton sheets and reaches under her pillow for the little silk purse that delicately holds the lavender harvested the year before. Victoire loves that each new day begins by deeply breathing in this calming scent.
Seeing the light peeking through the shutters and the heavy taffeta curtains, she thinks it must be nine o’clock. Huguette would soon be bringing her breakfast in. She closes her eyes and enjoys the moment before the busy day begins for just a bit longer. She raises the perfumed purse to her nose, breathes in several times, then quickly tucks it back under her pillow when she hears Huguette’s footsteps echoing in the hallway. A few moments later, after the usual pleasantries, the tray is placed on her bed. The tea is steaming hot, the pieces of toast tucked into a basket and covered with a cloth to keep the heat from escaping a little while longer.
Huguette busies herself around the bedroom, opening the shutters and curtains.
“Monsieur is in his study,” she says.
The same sentence every day. Where else would he be if not in his study? Victoria thinks.
Five years she’s been married to Anselme, and every day – her mind insists on “every day” – even on Sundays, he can’t stop himself from going down to the ground floor of the house to immerse himself in the files on inheritances and marriages that swamp his desk. All those contracts which, according to Victoire, rule his life in an absurd fashion. “I’ll just glance over things quickly and I’ll be back!” Anselme always replies when she tries to revolt against the importance of this pile of papers. A wall of paper between him and other people.
She is pulled back from her daydream by Huguette, who has continued speaking:
“I wanted to remind you, if I may, that you have to go to the hospital’s charity lunch.”
“Thank you, Huguette; I’d completely forgotten.”
Victoire’s day has been ruined in an instant. At the beginning of her marriage, she had enjoyed doing charitable works, especially visits to the hospital.
Her husband, continuing the tradition of past generations, gave a generous check at the beginning of each year. And that earned them warm thanks, public esteem and the privilege of participating in gatherings of the benefactors’ wives four times a year. How proud Victoire had felt at first. She would think about what she was going to wear for days at a time. Standing in front of the mirror, she would practice the gestures she would make to the wife of the hospital’s director. Humility in her words, that went without saying, but confidence as well, for was she not Madame de Boisvaillant, the wife of the lawyer? As a new bride, how many times had she not said her new name over and over, this new identity that delighted her? She would write it again and again on a piece of paper: Victoire de Champfleuri, Madame de Boisvaillant. How beautiful it was, how lovely it sounded, but how tiresome it felt to her today.
“Which dress shall I prepare for you, Madame?”
“I don’t know, Huguette…”
Victoire gently blows on her cup of boiling hot tea and takes a few sips before replying:
“Let’s say the lilac one I wore the other day, but come back and help me later…”
“Very good, Madame.”
Huguette opens the window wide. The oppressive June heat suddenly rushes in. Victoire pushes away the tray as her chambermaid leaves the room. Huguette is more than a chambermaid. She is a cook, a maid, and more: she runs everything, like the mistress of the house.
When Victoire got married, Huguette had already been in service to Anselme for years, forever, since she had looked after him when he was a child, and because they had all lived in the family manor house. She had followed him to the city when he first got married. It had taken her some time to get used to the noises and the narrowness of the streets in Saint-Ferreux-sur-Cher, but since Anselme had offered that she and Pierre could come and live in the garden house, she had accepted. How could she have refused when she’d known him since he was born?
Victoire had come into a house that was perfectly run. At the beginning, she had trouble sleeping in the marriage bed knowing that another woman had slept in it, had even died in it, but this other woman had left no children, and Anselme had soon replaced her. Huguette had quickly realized that Victoire would allow her to continue running the household. She had therefore welcomed her with open arms, and despite the slight disdain hinted at in her words, she addressed the new Madame de Boisvaillant respectfully. They each knew their place and played their respective roles to perfection.
Victoire drinks no more tea, eats no more bread with butter and jam so carefully prepared for her. Visiting the hospital makes her feel sick. Walking between the beds and smiling, showing pity for the women patients, asking how they were, pretending to be interested. What she hates more than anything is visiting the young women who have just given birth. Not only is she supposed to go into raptures over the infants’ wrinkled skin, and put up with their deafening cries, but also, and especially, she must endlessly be forced to listen to the rich wives talking about their own offspring – all upper class, each child stronger than the next – always leading to the same question:
“Well, Madame de Boisvaillant, what are you waiting for? Don’t all these little babies make you want to have one?”
This very thought alone sends Victoire diving under her sheets to hide, knocking over the tray and everything on it.
* * *
Victoire rings the bell with all her might. A few moments later, Huguette and Céleste come into her room. Victoire is standing at the window, looking out and nervously pinching her earlobe.
Céleste picks up the cup and plate from the floor. Huguette hurries her along:
“Quickly now, and change the sheets!”
Céleste obeys her orders as fast as she can. While she works, Huguette lays out the lilac outfit.
Victoire says nothing and continues to pull at her ear. She is such a fool to have knocked everything over! Is there nothing I can control?
Huguette begins to lace up her corset.
How magnificent the garden is with all the flowers in bloom; how she would have so liked to run through it and feel intoxicated by the wind as it caresses her face, her mouth. Victoire interrupts her thoughts to speak: “Make it tighter. I haven’t eaten a thing this morning and besides, I need something to hold me up.”
She says this in a dreamy tone of voice, barely audible, but can’t hold back a little moan when Huguette’s strong hands suddenly and firmly tug on the laces that constrict her.
“You’ll be hot in the hospital, Madame.”
Victoire shrugs her shoulders.
Huguette tells herself that there is at least one advantage to being a maid: she doesn’t have to wear these ridiculous corsets. And Madame is also lucky to be so slim, she thinks. For a sturdy woman like me, you’d have to pull and pull and pull to get any convincing result.
Céleste isn’t thinking about anything. She only rarely finds herself in this bedroom when Victoire is there. She feels uncomfortable, because normally, she only goes in to do the housework. Out of the corner of her eye, she watches how Huguette laces up the corset. She’s never seen one before. She notices how Victoire’s body looks slimmer, curvaceous. She finds it both strange and beautiful.
“Stop daydreaming, Céleste! Hurry up!”
Huguette calls her back to her duties; she picks up the sheets and quickly leaves the room. Victoire hasn’t even noticed she was there.
A few hours later, Pierre brings the carriage around to the steps of the house. Victoire is ready; she comes down the stairs. Her shadow dances over the paving stones. To protect herself from the sun, she has put on a large straw hat decorated with cloth flowers that match her dress and parasol. Pierre greets her with a nod.
The man became deaf and dumb after a shell exploded quite close to him at the very end of the war, in January 1871. No one ever knew what really happened, but ever since that day, more than thirty-seven years ago, he’s never made a single sound. He had gotten engaged to Huguette before being called into combat. When she saw he’d come back with no voice, Huguette hesitated. And when she realized he would never again hear the sound of her voice, she had terrible doubts. Pierre had stared at Huguette who was taking in how badly injured he was, now that he had come home. But if the war had robbed him of his hearing and speech, it had also taught him to be observant. He had seen the young woman’s heart racing in her chest, no longer sure at what pace it should beat, then calm down. After a moment of panic, Huguette thought that she could always speak for the two of them, and that a silent house would be far more pleasant to live in than one that was too noisy. She couldn’t just drop him, after all!
So she had opened her arms to him and they had married. Thirty-seven years of untroubled happiness, without a sound, years when she had gradually learned to understand his mutterings, which took the place of words. And whenever Pierre woke up with a start, his body covered in sweat, clutching on to her, Huguette would whisper: “You are my husband and my child, and I love you.” She knew that in spite of the darkness that filled him, these words would find their way to him; then they would go back to sleep.
They both worked for the Boisvaillant family. Pierre was both gardener and coachman. During the war, he’d been sent to serve in the same regiment as Anselme’s father. If one of them had come back deaf and dumb, the other hadn’t come back at all. Anselme, then only a few months old, never had the chance to get to know his father, and had become attached to the gardener: he was the one who had known the man who had died, had spoken to him. And even though Pierre could not tell him anything about it, the fact that they had been close was enough for Anselme.
Pierre opens the carriage door. After swiftly climbing onto the running board, Victoire sits down inside the carriage. She likes this small space with the smell of leather and horses. She likes being swayed back and forth by the cadence of the animals and the winding road. Her bad mood lifts during the journey. This visit to the hospital is the last one before the summer and their departure for the countryside. She will have a change of scene; it will do her good. Given the August weather, Anselme might even forget about his files. Who knows?
It is getting hotter and hotter in the carriage. She had not thought the sun would beat down so intensely on the black carriage. She suddenly feels as if she is suffocating in her corset, she can barely breathe. Thankfully, they have arrived. Pierre helps her down. But just as her foot touches the pavement, Victoire collapses, faints, falling into the coachman’s arms.