Here’s wishing everyone a brilliantly happy 2011!
To ring in the New Year, I give you a special New Year’s present: one of my favorite chapters from The Orchid Affair (coming to a bookstore near you on January 20th!).
Among other things, this chapter features a cameo appearance by everyone’s favorite ludicrous poet, Augustus Whittlesby….
p.s. If you want to start at the beginning, you can find Chapter One here. Otherwise, just keep scrolling down for your extra bonus chapter!
- Chapter Three
When Laura presented herself at the Hôtel de Bac the following morning, the only one who seemed the least bit pleased to see her was Pierre-Andre. Even his enthusiasm waned when he discovered she hadn’t come bearing sweets.
“Never had a governess before,” grumbled Jeannette, the white lappets of her cap bobbing. She remained pointedly in her chair before the fire, her elbows sticking out over her knitting. She was a tall, raw-boned woman, the lace of her cap incongruous next to the masculine contours of her face. “Poor poppets. As if they haven’t had enough to get used to.”
Jean the gatekeeper spat on the floor to signal either his agreement or his antipathy for Jeannette. It was hard to tell, since his basic scowl never changed. Without a further word, he disappeared the way he had come.
Pity. Laura had almost got used to him.
Laura set her portmanteau down on the parquet floor and smiled determinedly at the inhabitants of the nursery. No one smiled back except Pierre-Andre, but his smile was directed more to Laura’s pockets than her person. He had obviously been bribed by indulgent adults before.
The rooms appropriated for the nursery were on the second story, just above the grand reception rooms. In other days, they might have been the suite of the Marquise de Bac. The day nursery—now schoolroom, Laura corrected herself—had been paneled in pale pink, with delicate plasterwork designs of bouquets of flowers outlined in flaking green, gold, and red paint. In the sunlight, the air of dilapidation hanging over the Hôtel de Bac was even more apparent than it had been the night before. The plasterwork was dingy, the upholstery frayed, and the windows could have done with a wash. But the nursery, at least, was warm. Whatever allowance for coal the household was afforded had gone straight to the nursery grate. For the first time since coming to Paris, Laura felt the blue tinge leaving her skin.
Although that might also have been because she was still in her coat, neither Jean nor Jeannette having made any offer to take it from her.
Unlike the rest of the house, someone had made an effort to render the nursery habitable. The small chairs and table were cheap and modern but new. A large doll’s house sat on a low table and there were already toy soldiers, a hobby horse, and a series of paper cutouts scattered across the floor. A rug covered the hard boards of the floor, protecting tender feet and knees from splinters; and curtains, stiff in their newness, hung in ruffles across the windows. A little boy with a mop of brown curls was engaged in coaxing a toy on a string on a bumpy journey across the hearth rug. His sister, oblivious, pulled up her knees beneath her skirt and went on with her reading.
It would have been a charming scene, the nurse knitting by the fire, the little boy tugging at his horse, the girl reading on the rug, but for the matching scowls on the faces of the women in the room.
“Good day,” Laura said in clear, crisp tones. “My name is Mademoiselle Griscogne and I am to be your new governess.”
Abandoning his toy, the little boy launched himself at Laura’s legs. “Do you have sweets?” he asked winningly. It was clearly a ploy that had worked for him before.
Laura detached him from her lower limbs before he could go prospecting for pockets. “Good day, Monsieur Jaouen. Shall I teach you how to properly greet a lady?”
Pierre-Andre’s forehead creased. “I’m not Monsieur Jaouen,” he said apologetically. “I’m Pierre-Andre.”
There had evidently been some mistake and it fell to him to remedy it, even if it reduced the possibility of sweets.
“But someday,” said Laura, “you will be Monsieur Jaouen. I am here to help you accomplish that.”
Pierre-Andre looked uncertainly at his nurse. “I like being me.”
“You will still be you,” Laura assured him. “Just an older, wiser, grander you.”
Pierre-Andre considered. “Grand as in big?”
“Very big,” Laura promised gravely.
“Big as a house?”
Laura thought of Hamlet, banded in a nutshell, but king of infinite space. “Not in size, but certainly in spirit.”
Laura turned to the girl by the hearth, who hastily jerked her book up so that it covered the whole of her face, only her eyebrows visible above the red morocco binding.
“You must be Gabrielle,” said Laura, a little bit to the eyebrows, but mostly to the book.
The book slid down just far enough to reveal a pair of scornful blue eyes.
“Don’t you mean Mademoiselle Jaouen?” Gabrielle said, in what would have been a fine show of defiance if she hadn’t marred it by glancing for ratification at Jeannette.
Jeannette smirked her approval. Gabrielle’s hunched shoulders straightened.
“No,” said Laura pleasantly. “Because Madamoiselle Jaouen would have stood to greet a stranger in her schoolroom. A little girl who hides behind her book can only be Gabrielle.”
Jeannette bristled. “It’s the nursery, not a schoolroom.”
“No,” said Laura. She had the feeling she would be getting a lot of use out of that syllable. She addressed herself to the children. Gabrielle, book at half mast, was regarding her with open hostility. Pierre-Andre was busy trying to be a house. “From now on, this will be your schoolroom. You obviously have much to learn.”
Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed.
Good, thought Laura. Plot revenge. Think of ways to get me back. Nothing served as a better spur to learning than a strong dose of competition.
“Schoolroom, indeed,” muttered Jeannette. “That’s no way for children to live, locked up in a schoolroom, no fresh air, no playmates. Disgraceful, I call it.”
Laura spoke over the nursery maid’s grumblings. Little had her parents realized that those acting classes in her youth, the elocution and projection, would be used not to awe the audiences at the Comédie-Française but to overawe provincial nursemaids and defiant children. In her mind’s eye, stone angels wept.
“I will teach you everything you need to know to comport yourselves as an educated young lady and gentleman. Provided, that is, that you have the capacity to learn.” Addressing herself to Gabrielle, she asked, “What schoolbooks do you have?”
Jeannette jumped in. “Monsieur Beniet taught them out of his own library. And very bright they were, too, he said. He was a wise man, Monsieur Beniet.”
“But his library, I assume, is not here?”
Jeannette nodded reluctantly.
“Is there a library in the house?”
“If there was, it’s not here anymore, is it?” said Jeannette belligerently, as though Laura had accused her of personally appropriating its contents. “Not so much as a lick of furniture, scarcely a pot in the kitchen, not a pint of fresh milk to be had. But what can one expect of Paris? It’s no place for a Christian.”
“I take it that’s a no to the library, then,” said Laura. “Since I do not make a habit of traveling with all my books on my back, new ones will have to be acquired before we can begin our lessons.”
Laura clapped her hands together. Like animals, children responded well to basic noises. “Come along, children. I believe we can begin our acquaintance with an outing to the bookshop.”
The smirk disappeared from Gabrielle’s face. Jeannette drew herself up in her chair, prepping herself for outrage. “An outing? In this weather?”
Laura looked pointedly at the window. Through the grimed panes, the sun was shining and a bird chirped determinedly on one of the bare trees in the courtyard. “Better than being ‘locked up in a schoolroom,’ don’t you think?” Jeannette might be obstreperous, but she wasn’t stupid. She knew exactly when she had been had. Laura smiled beatifically at her. “If you would be so very kind as to help the children into their outdoor things, Manette?”
“It’s Jeannette.” The nurse set her knitting aside with an audible click of needles.
“Of course.” Laura’s smile didn’t waver. “Jeannette.”
For a moment, the nurse seemed prepared to defy her. The children watched, expectantly, as Jeannette remained stolidly in place, her hands firmly planted on the arms of the chair. Laura kept on smiling.
Finally, with a creaking of joints and a rustle of fabric, Jeannette hauled herself up. She levered herself out of the chair with obvious reluctance, making a production of the simple act of standing.
“Catch their deaths of cold,” she muttered, but the battle had already been lost. She stomped her way to the clothes press, busying herself among a pile of miniature woolens, all sturdily made and decidedly provincial in cut.
Gabrielle cast a stricken look at her nurse’s retreating back, clearly feeling this treachery deeply. Squaring her shoulders, she fought on alone. “What if we don’t want new books?”
“If you prefer to remain ignorant,” said Laura pleasantly, “that is, of course, your choice. It would be unkind, however, to stand in the way of your brother’s education.”
Gabrielle folded her arms protectively across her chest. “I like the books we have.”
“If you only read the same things over and over again, how do you expect to learn? A narrow library leads to a narrow mind.” As aphorisms went, it wasn’t one of her better ones, but it got the point across.
“Books, books, books,” sang Pierre-Andre, ignoring Jeannette’s attempts to stuff his arms into his coat. “Books, books, books. Can I wear my red mittens? The ones with the tassels on them?”
The mittens having been provided, Jeannette turned her attentions to Gabrielle, yanking the collar of her pelisse so high that only the little girl’s nose stuck out.
Pawing it down, Gabrielle looked challengingly at Laura. “What happens when we run out of room to put them all?”
Taking Pierre-Andre’s mittened hand in one of her own, Laura herded Gabrielle in front of her, through a whimsically shaped antechamber, that led, through a cunningly concealed plasterwork door, onto the second-story hall, where tapestries four times the height of a man hung in the space above the great marble staircase. “I don’t think you’re going to have that problem here, do you?”
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder at the vast bulk of the house and fell sullenly silent. Round one to the governess. It was hard to argue that one couldn’t fit the odd book or two into an immense city palace that had lost most of its furnishings somewhere between the Revolution and its occupation by its current owner. From the way Gabrielle and Pierre-Andre tiptoed past the statuary and started at the echo of their own voices against the soaring ceilings, Laura felt safe in guessing that their home back in Nantes had been more of the three-bedroom-with-room-for-two-servants variety. One could hide an army in the Hôtel de Bac and still have room for an amateur theatrical troupe, a haberdashery, and a few aspiring sopranos.
What was Jaouen doing in a house like this? The faded grandeur of the Hôtel de Bac sorted ill with the man Laura had met the night before.
There was no sign of the master of the house as Laura hustled his children down the stairs, their shoes sending up strange echoes along the time-dulled marble. Laura wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or relieved. Relieved, she decided. It was no bad thing to have time to get the lay of the land before encountering those too-keen eyes.
“Is your father at home?” she asked.
“He’s never at home,” said Gabrielle. “And he certainly wouldn’t be at home for you.”
“He’s at the Abbaye,” volunteered Pierre-Andre. He tugged at Laura’s hand. “Monks used to live there, but they don’t anymore.”
“Monks are a degenerate relic of the old regime,” said Gabrielle loftily. Not quite under her breath, she added, “Like governesses.”
“I’m not quite a degenerate relic yet,” said Laura, “but give me a few weeks.”
Gabrielle looked at her uncertainly, trying to tell whether she was joking. Catching Laura watching her, she hastily looked away again.
“Coats buttoned and mittens in place?” Laura asked as they approached the front door. No circuitous side routes for her today. Pierre-Andre proudly displayed his mittens. Gabrielle shrugged further into the neck of her pelisse like an irritable turtle.
There were no servants to open the door, so Laura did it herself, feeling rather as though she had fallen into a strange variant of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. This was the sort of establishment that should command a score of servants at the very least, but the only staff she had seen were Jean and Jeannette. The flowerbeds that lined the walk from the porte cochere to the gate were as scraggly with neglect as the interior of the house. The hedges bristled with several years’ unfettered growth, while dead vines draped like widows’ weeds from the grand stone arch that ran across the center of the courtyard. There had once been a clock in the middle of the arch, but the hour hand had dropped off, leaving only the play of sun and shadows to mark the time.
Laura half expected Jean to stop them, but he emerged from his lair by the gate without a murmur, shoving the gate so that it yielded with the maximum squeak. Pierre-Andre squealed delightedly at the noise. Gabrielle looked pained.
Gabrielle scuffed her shoes against the cobbles. “Is it far?” she asked in a way that made “Is it far?” translate to “If I make enough of a fuss, will you let me go home?”
“Not very far,” Laura lied. “The walk will do you good.”
That last part, at least, was true. As if repenting of the gloomy drizzle of the previous day, it was one of those crisp, clear January days where the air is cold and thin and the sunshine edged with ice, bringing everything into a relief so sharp as to be almost painful. It pinched the children’s cheeks and quickened their step and brightened their eyes as Laura herded them through the gate and down the street. The buildings of Paris, so quick to turn gray in the rain, shone in the sunlight, in the shades of taupe and beige so peculiar to Paris, so unfamiliar to Laura after her time in London.
The Hotel de Bac stretched along for a full city block, nothing but continuous stone wall. There were other houses like it as they walked, great town palaces hidden behind the anonymity of beige stone, recognizable only from the gates that offered glimpses into hidden courtyards marked by intricately carved pilasters and fanciful stonework. But there were smaller houses too, as they walked along, and little shops whose proprietors, encouraged by the good weather, had piled goods on tables beneath colorful awnings.
Laura led the children down towards the river, navigating by memory and instinct. Gabrielle expressed her feelings by trudging along as though every step pained her, puffing out her cheeks and scowling at the tips of her boots. Pierre-Andre danced along ahead, singing a song of his own devising, which consisted solely of the word “books,” repeated multiple times at varying pitch.
Laura made a note to herself to begin his musical education immediately, if only for the sake of her own ears.
It wasn’t far from the Hôtel de Bac to the Seine, but the crooked nature of the streets in the Marais made the trip longer. The temperature had dropped as the rain had lifted, freezing the mud in the streets so that the brown slicks shone like exotic minerals quarried in a faraway land. Laura handily caught Pierre just as the heel of his shoe went skidding on a patch of petrified mud.
“Gently, now,” she warned. “You don’t want to go flying.”
Pierre-Andre was favorably struck by the idea. “Don’t I?”
“Not like that,” said Gabrielle, daring Laura to contradict her. “She just meant falling. People can’t fly.”
Pierre-Andre’s lower lip stuck out. “Butterflies can fly.”
Gabrielle assumed all the superiority of her nine long years. “Butterflies have wings,” she informed her brother.
Pierre-Andre’s face set in an expression of pure stubbornness. “Then I’ll have wings too,” he announced. He tugged at Laura’s hand. “Can I have wings? Can I?”
Gabrielle started to exchange a “boys!” look with Laura. Recalling that Laura was the enemy, she abruptly pulled her chin back into her collar.
“Come close by me,” Laura said, pulling the little boy to her side as they started across the river. Below, the boatmen plied their trade, ferrying passengers along the Seine. The narrow crafts looked like water bugs as they darted along between the banks of the river. “Or you’ll need fins instead of wings.”
“I don’t want fins.”
“You will if you fall in the Seine.” When Pierre-Andre looked intrigued, she added hastily, “I wouldn’t advise it. That water is icy cold.”
“Too cold for a butterfly to survive—or a little boy.” She reached a protective hand out to Gabrielle as a wagon trundled past them, but Gabrielle jerked away. She hunched her shoulders up beneath her coat and walked faster, doing everything she could to distance herself from the new governess and her brother. To their right, the buttresses of Notre-Dame soared in a feat of medieval engineering, commanding the skyline, while beyond it, one could just make out the long façade of the Louvre palace. In the sunshine, they glowed golden, the windows sparkling like diamonds. Laura saw Gabrielle’s eyes widen at the sight, then carefully drop to her feet, determined not to show she was impressed.
Laura let Gabrielle have her little act of defiance. It was dreadful to be nine. It wasn’t an age one would want to live over: too old to be cooed over, to young to be treated as an equal, stuck betwixt and between, and happy with no one.
Laura and Pierre-Andre followed behind Gabrielle, responding to the little boy’s chatter by rote as he kept up a running commentary on the boats, the sky, the other inhabitants of the bridge, and what it might be like to be a butterfly with fins.
“There are butterfly fish,” said Laura absently. “But I believe they live in the tropics, not here. We can find you a book with pictures of them when we get to the bookseller.”
Gabrielle twisted around. “There are booksellers,” she said, pointing at the stalls by the side of the river. “Why can’t we buy books there?”
“Those aren’t the right kind of books,” replied Laura imperturbably. “We’re going to a proper shop.”
The Rue de la Serpente, they had told her. What could be more innocent than a trip to the bookshop? Governesses taught. Teaching required books. Even a nasty, suspicious, French Ministry of Police–trained mind couldn’t find any fault with that.
Laura summoned Gabrielle closer as they crossed over into the Left Bank, home of students and stews. There was a sour reek of spilled wine about the streets as they set off down a winding alley towards the Rue de la Serpente, but the bookshop itself looked respectable enough, with narrow, dark windows piled high with books. Despite herself, Gabrielle’s eyes brightened at the display.
Ha! thought Laura. Got you.
A little bell tinkled as Laura pushed open the door. The shop gave the impression of being even smaller and more cluttered than it actually was, with books piled on tables and racks and stacked in uneven towers propped against the walls. A small coal brazier burned in one corner of the shop, puffing out smoke and warmth. In summer, the windows would be open to the street, with books spilling out onto tables outside, but now the windows were shuttered tight against the January chill, making the room feel like a bibliophilic Ali Baba’s cave, dark and crowded with treasure.
The smell of leather, binding glue, paper, and coal dust brought back powerful memories of other bookshops. Laura paused just inside the threshold, giving her eyes time to adjust to the dim interior. There had been one place her parents had patronized, a little shop on the Left Bank, with a leathery, smoky smell just such as this, where the proprietor kept coffee in the back for his favorite guests. There would be impromptu recitations and loud political arguments and above it all the smell of leather and book glue and her mother’s musk perfume.
“Owwww!” protested Gabrielle. “You poked me!”
“Did not!” Pierre-Andre was the picture of outraged innocence. Until he poked her again.
Laura came hurtling back from 1784. She wasn’t twelve years old anymore, trailing along in the lee of her parents from bookshop to atelier. She was a thirty-two-year-old governess and the proprietor was giving her the sort of look reserved for people who bring dangerous livestock onto the premises.
“Gentlemen,” she said severely, relocating Pierre-Andre to her other side, “do not poke their sisters.”
Pierre-Andre pouted. “But—”
“People who poke are little better than savages, and savages Do Not Get Books. Am I understood? Come on,” Laura said, taking Pierre-Andre by the hand. “Let’s see what we can find for you. Maybe the proprietor will have something to recommend.”
“Look! Look!” Pierre-Andre tugged, yanking her towards a book propped open on a stand. A black-and-white illustration portrayed an enraged Hercules whopping away at the heads of the hydra. The hydra looked justifiably alarmed.
Behind them, cold air gusted into the shop as the door opened, admitting another customer.
“If you behave, you can have it,” Laura bribed him shamelessly, propelling him towards the counter and the clerk, determined to get there first, before the new customer could beat her out.
Pierre-Andre seized his advantage. “Can I have sweets, too?”
The newcomer wafted his way down the narrow aisle, his head tilted at an angle that implied that he was in the process of listening to divine voices that sang only to him. He came down to earth long enough to wave a languid hand at Pierre-Andre. “This shop purveys celestial sweets, dear boy. The sweets of . . . learning!”
He was garbed with that deliberate air of dishabille that proclaims the artist the world over. Despite the cold, he wore no jacket, only a waistcoat over his flowing white shirt, and a rough cravat knotted at the neck.
Pierre-Andre was looking perturbed again. “Are those like candied almonds?”
The poet—he could only be a poet—pressed two fine-boned hands to his chest. “Better than almonds, my lively lad. In these Elysian fields one can sup on the sugared nuggets of choicest poesy.”
All but concealed behind a display of books, Gabrielle rolled her eyes. Laura heartily concurred.
Pierre-Andre ignored Elysian fields and went straight to the important bit. “I want nuggets of posy,” he demanded. “Sugary ones.”
Laura wanted a cup of tea. Brewed black, milk, no sugar.
“In a minute,” she said, but it was already too late. The poet had ranged himself in front of the counter. He had, she realized indignantly, cut her out. She tried tapping her foot, but the poet was oblivious.
He was more likely smoking the sugary fields of Elysium than supping on them, thought Laura bitterly. The Left Bank hadn’t changed much since her parents’ day.
“What have you today for me”—the man paused dramatically, swishing his sleeves for emphasis—“in terms of poetree?”
Laura contemplated a swift kick to the knee. Preferably times three.
The shopkeeper reached beneath the counter and drew out a slim book bound in cheap paper covers. “You might want to try this, Monsieur Whittlesby. It’s the latest from Porcelier.”
“That rubbish!” An exuberant gesture sent a full yard of white linen sleeve swooping over Pierre-Andre’s head. Pierre-Andre ducked and giggled. “The man has no feeling for the rhythm of the language, for the tripping trot of enjambed feet as they prance down that pulchritudinous path of poesy over which only the muse may rule as mistress.” The speech was made all the more impressive by the fact that the poet managed to utter it without once pausing for breath.
The shopkeeper eyed him dispassionately. “Shall I put it on your account as always, Monsieur Whittlesby?”
The poet tucked the book up beneath one flowing sleeve, where it disappeared among the folds. “Yes, do.”
Laura waited impatiently for the poet to step away from the counter, as the shopkeeper embarked upon the seemingly endless process of recording the transaction in a dog-eared ledger. Muttering to himself in rhyme, the poet wandered to the side, his nose buried in the despised poems of Porcelier. Laura could hear the occasional “Ha!” emerge from between the red morocco covers.
Laura tugged Pierre-Andre out from under one of the poet’s sleeves, with which he was amusing himself by playing a private game of hide and seek among the excess fabric.
“May I have my posy now?” he demanded.
Laura put a hand on his head to quiet him. “Do you have any books appropriate for a child of five?” she asked the shopkeeper.
With Pierre-Andre beside her, the question sounded entirely natural, not at all like a set piece she had been instructed to recite.
Clicking his tongue against his teeth, the clerk rummaged about in an untidy pile of books. It was, thought Laura, an excellent performance. If it was a performance, that was. What if this wasn’t the right clerk?
Well, then, Laura told herself, keeping a grip on a squirming Pierre-Andre, the worst that would happen would be that they would have bought a book appropriate for a five-year-old.
The shopkeeper held up a book, squinted at it, clicked his tongue a few times more, and returned it to the pile, repeating this process before emerging triumphant with a large, ornately bound volume.
“You might want to try this,” he suggested.
No, no, no. Laura wanted to stamp in impatience. That wasn’t the right phrase. If he were her contact, he was supposed to say, “I usually recommend this for a child of seven,” or eight or nine, with the number representing the page on which she would find the key word that would then be used to decode the message.
“Oh?” said Laura. “What is it?”
Whatever it was, she hoped Pierre-Andre liked it, because it obviously wasn’t going to serve any other purpose.
Placing the book flat on the counter, the shopkeeper spread it open to reveal a delicately tinted engraving of a flower.
It was an orchid.