A Local French Affair
Tuesday, February 26th 1924
Doctor Paul Laserre's house stands on the outskirts of the village of Gornac, in an area called Lamothe, close to the hamlet of Moulin de Gonin. It is an imposing eighteenth century edifice, built in a style quite different to that of the much older houses of Gonin itself. The façade looks out onto the road which leads south to the town of Cadillac, the former seat of the Dukes of Épernon, and in the opposite direction to the centre of the bigger village of Gornac.
A wide grassed area stretches from the road up to the house where, at ground level, two doorways flank a tall arched stagecoach-type entrance to a cellar which the doctor uses as a garage for his new car. The car which caused a sensation when he first drove it into the village during that cold February of 1924.
Above, in the centre of the first floor façade, french windows open out onto a pretty balcony girded by a wrought iron balustrade. On both sides are two tall windows, their sun- bleached shutters fastened back. High above under the eaves five small equally spaced aureoles allow some light to enter the former servants' rooms. The resulting height and symmetry of the building lend it a certain prestige. Unusually, access to the house is by a spiral metal staircase which leads up to the main door on the right side of the building.
Late that afternoon a young girl knocks timidly on that door. There is no response. She knocks again, more loudly this time. Still no response. Becoming increasingly panicky she bangs her fists on the door itself, more out of fear than hope, realising the doctor is out. Perhaps he is with a patient in the village or even in another village outside Gornac, she thinks, fear rising from the pit of her stomach. She dares not return to her choleric and hypochondriac mistress without being able to assure her she has informed the doctor that she needs him to attend to her immediately.
She goes back down the staircase looking back several times in the hope the doctor will appear as if by a miracle in the doorway. But, glancing back in vain one last time from the bottom of the steps, she starts walking down the road which leads to the village. If she is lucky he will be there. Perhaps at the Grand Hôtel on the market square. But she is not sure she will have the courage to go inside and ask for him.
Darkness is falling and without the soft rays from the winter sun to keep her warm, she begins to shiver. She cannot afford to buy herself a proper coat on her meager wages and she is only wearing her maid's uniform made from cheap thin material, over which she has pulled a well-worn cardigan, which is her one luxury.
I'll just have to walk quickly to keep myself warm, she says to herself. In the distance she can see the electric street lamps which light up the village. In the square in Gonin outside the house where she and her father live there is also a street lamp which was installed less than two years before. At the time she marveled at this miracle of lighting which even made the stars disappear it was so bright. With time, she missed the stars.
It must be like that in the big cities, she thinks. There are surely lots of street lights in Bordeaux. One day I'll go to see them.
She hurries on towards the lights in the village. The road itself is not well lit and she trips several times in the many potholes in the badly maintained surface. In the fields by the side of the road she can hear, but not see, the cows which continue to graze noisily or chew the cud they consumed earlier. She shivers with fear on hearing mice, or more probably rats, which she has a horror of, running along the ditches on both sides of the track.
She passes by the new communal wash-house which had been built only a year before and a further on by the saw-mill belonging to the Blancheton brothers. At last she arrives at the first house in the village on the right where one of the brothers, Alban, lives and carries on his business as a smith, a carter and carriage maker. In the other half of the house his sister-in-law runs a grocery and millinery shop.
A little further on she pauses for a moment in front of what remains of the Hôtel et Café du Commerce. The fire which broke out ten years or so before had been a dramatic event in her life. She was only seven when it happened and the effect on her young mind was something she would never forget. From their house in Gonin just by the windmills her family had heard the sound of the fire and heard the sharp crack of the roof beams as they exploded. They had looked out and seen smoke rising in an enormous grey column high into the sky. The light from the fire lit up the whole area. From all over the village people ran out of their houses to watch the disaster happening with their own eyes, knowing there was nothing they could do to save the hotel. Marie and her father and mother arrived just in time to see the total destruction of the upper storey as the roof gave way and crashed down in flames onto the floor below.
The fire trucks which screeched to a halt in front of the building made a great impression on the little girl, young as she was. She had watched them fascinated as they set up their ladders and sprayed sparkling jets of water onto the building. But it was all in vain. The firemen managed to save most of the ground floor but the upper floor and roof were completely destroyed. The building has still not been restored and that evening as she walks by the ruins she thinks she can still detect a slight smell of burnt bricks and wood.
But she does not linger in front of the building which had given her one of the most dramatic memories of her childhood. She is in a hurry. She runs past the new Post Office and at last reaches the market square in front of the mairie. There she hesitates. The Grand Hôtel, stands proudly facing the square behind its impressive iron railings and entrance gates. The square itself is lit by the three street lamps which the mayor has had installed. It's like daylight here, she thinks.
She looks in through the windows on the ground floor which are shedding a pale yellowish light onto the railings in front. She can see people moving about inside, people who are chatting, drinking and dining at tables laid with white cloths. It is a world of luxury unimaginable to the young woman. A world she dreams of entering one day, but which remains unobtainable in her present circumstances. At that moment she promises herself that one day she …
A man comes out of the hotel and looks across at her standing unable to move in the middle of the square.
“What on earth are you doing out there, Marie?” he calls across. “What are you waiting for? It's cold. You aren't wearing a coat. Come on! Come inside.”
Marie walks forward hesitantly towards the voice of the man who remains standing in the doorway of the hotel in silhouette against the light from the inside. Finally she recognises him.
“Monsieur le docteur! It's you I've come to find. My mistress ...”
“Your mistress can wait. Come inside quickly. You're shivering, young lady.”
“But Monsieur le docteur, Madame is suffering from a bad stomach, her liver. It's urgent,” Marie objects, partly for the sake of form but mostly out of fear.
“Don't worry, Marie. I'll tell her I was at Castelande and that you walked all the way there to find me. So we have a good hour before we have to go and see her. Come inside. You need to warm up by the fire.”
“Come on, that's enough! You know as well as I do, Marie Bourdet, that it's nothing serious, but if your mistress wants to keep paying me for visits and for giving her medicines, then so be it. But I'll go when it suits me.”
The blunt words of the doctor, which Marie knows to be true, help her to overcome her hesitation. She follows the doctor into the hotel and into the main room. He makes her sit by the roaring wood fire in the grate and goes to fetch a mulled wine for her and an Armagnac for him. When he returns he hands the wine to Marie and sits down in a comfortable armchair opposite the young woman.
Marie is feeling ill at ease in the surroundings of the hotel which are so alien to her and she perches stiffly on the edge of her seat.
“Relax! Madame Coustaut can't see you here. Tell me a bit about what you do at the Coustaut house, Marie. You have grown into a pretty young woman and must have dreams, ambitions for the future? Do you have a boy friend? Talk to me. I can help you.”
Marie looks at him with a mixture of embarrassment and excitement. This is the first time she has found herself talking to an adult who is treating her as an adult. 'But am I really an adult yet?' she wonders.
Normally her conversations with Madame Coustaut – if that is the right description for the verbal exchanges they have – consist mostly of orders on the part of her mistress and assent on her part. She never dares to say no, it is not her place.
But the doctor has asked her serious questions and she needs to think of answers. Even with her father such a conversation is rare.
She sits up straighter in her chair, swallows some wine too quickly, splutters and starts again more slowly.
“I've been working for Madame Coustaut for three years as I think you know. I started the year before you came to the village. My father agreed an arrangement with Madame. I have to arrive at six in the morning to prepare breakfast for Monsieur Coustaut before he goes to work for Monsieur Serizier in the windmill next to my father's.”
“Does Coustaut behave correctly towards you, Marie?” asked Lasserre, who had noticed on his visits to the house the way the former soldier looked at the young woman.
She hesitates before replying.
“At first he did, yes. But recently he has begun to look at me differently. He often touches me – on the arm, on the shoulder or on my back. That's all.”
“Really? That's all he does?” he asks gently.
“He makes me feel nervous when he's there and it's unpleasant, but I think he's too afraid of Madame to try anything else.” And quickly she adds. “But I beg you, please don't say anything about that to my father, Monsieur le docteur.”
“Calm yourself and don't worry, I won't say a word I promise you. After he has gone to work what do you do?”
“I clear the table of the remains of their evening meal. I do the washing up and put everything away. Then I start to clean the house.
“Madame Coustaut comes down at about eight o'clock and I prepare her breakfast. She automatically criticizes everything I have done since I arrived that morning and usually I have to do it all again. I admit there are times when I don't do much before she comes down because I know I'll have to redo it!”
“Well done! But she's a difficult woman, so be careful, Marie.”
“Then she gives me a list of the things she wants me to buy in the village or at the Caïffa store in Gonin. Normally I have to do the shopping and get lunch ready for midday. She gives me the exact money for the shopping and demands a receipt for everything.”
“Does Monsieur Coustaut come back at midday?”
“Do you eat with them?”
“Oh no! I eat afterwards if they leave me anything. If not, I go home quickly to get something to eat if I can, but often Madame doesn't allow me to go.”
“So you won't have eaten anything since you left your house at six in the morning?”
She shrugs her shoulders.
“I'm used to it.”
Paul Lasserre falls silent, lost in thought.
'How can this sort of situation still exist in 1924?' he wonders. 'After all that women did during the Grande Guerre while the men were away by taking on their work, how is it they are still treated as second class citizens? And so often by women themselves!
'As for Arnaud Coustaut, he's a veteran of the war. He suffered terrible conditions in the trenches and was badly wounded. He still has shell fragments in his body and I can hear the effects of the gas on his breathing when I examine him. That's not an excuse for his behaviour, just a fact.'
He turns back to Marie who is drinking her mulled wine more cautiously this time, taking small sips. She is waiting anxiously for him to speak. Talking as she has for such a long time is exceptional for her and she is worried she has said too much.
“Tell me about the rest of your day at the Coustauts'. Do you have time off? When can you leave? What do you do on Sundays?”
Marie shrugs her shoulders and looks at him without understanding.
“I do what Madame tells me to do. I wash up, I go to the wash-house to wash the clothes. Monsieur Coustaut's work clothes always need washing as they're usually covered in flour from the mill. I go shopping and mostly I prepare their evening meal.”
“You work until what time?”
“Until Monsieur and Madame go to bed. Around eight o'clock in the winter, later in the summer.”
“And then you go home?”
“Of course! Where else would I go at that hour? Oh! I'm sorry, Monsieur le docteur, I didn't mean to be rude!” she stammers, suddenly afraid.
“Don't worry, Marie. It's no problem. It was a silly question. I need you to be completely honest with me if you want me to help you. What is happening to you is unacceptable and probably illegal.”
He pauses and holds her gaze thoughtfully for a few moments, which embarrasses her and she lowers her eyes.
“Can you tell me what you earn?”
“No. My father receives my wages direct. It's what he arranged with Madame Coustaut, as I said. Father gives me some pocket money when he can, but we are poor, Monsieur le docteur. It's a real effort for father to work and mill work is hard. He suffered terribly during the war. He still has nightmares and I often hear him cry out. He's no longer the father I loved when I was little. He's exhausted. That cursed war!
“We live alone since my poor mother died four years ago when I was fifteen. She died of the Spanish 'flu like so many others.”
She bursts into tears and sinks back into her chair.
Lasserre does not react. He knows that what she describes is not unusual in the village. The War Memorial was not erected until three years after the end of the war when they were sure everyone who could return had returned. Thirteen names were engraved on the memorial, thirteen men of Gornac. Thirteen broken families.
But war memorials do not show the names of the men who do come back, with their wounded bodies and wounded minds. For them it is often difficult to find work. Nobody wants to take on these former soldiers who return with their injuries and their nightmarish memories.
However for young men after a war there is plenty of work. The big vineyards are always short of workers particularly at harvest time, but also at other times of the year. For the grape harvest strong young men arrive from all over Europe and the owners of the vineyards set up camps to house and feed them.
But for young girls their only choice is to work as a maid or to get married – which may amount to much the same thing, he reflects.
Marie has recovered from her fit of crying and Lasserre takes her hand.
“Right. It's time to go and see your mistress. Don't worry. Everything you have told me will stay between us. Let's get in the car.”
He strides out of the hotel followed by Marie. His car is parked on the market square near to the village pump. Lasserre is proud of his car and the villagers are full of awe at the sight of it. It is a 1922 5 CV Citröen. He had treated himself by buying it to celebrate the end of his medical studies in Bordeaux.
Standing by the car, Marie hesitates, taken aback by seeing it up so close. Under the lights of the square the black shell of the vehicle gleams like the skin of a mysterious and powerful animal. She jumps back with fright as the roar of the engine suddenly breaks into the silence and echoes off the walls of the surrounding buildings. The animal bellows like a bull before settling back to purr like a cat a few seconds later.
“What are you waiting for? Come and sit beside me. She doesn't bite.”
The young woman walks round the vehicle to the other side. It is a effort to haul climb onto the shiny green leather bench-seat which seems so high up.
“Is this your first time in a car?” he asks with a smile. ”You'll see. It will appear to be going very fast, but here in the village I take care because there's a speed limit of twelve kilometres an hour. The mayor set the limit, but I'm sure that when he has his own car he'll increase it!”
The short journey between the village and hamlet of Gonin lasts a only few minutes but for Marie it is like a ride straight out of A Thousand and One Nights. She feels dizzy not just because of the mulled wine but because she has the impression she is on a magic carpet flying at tremendous speed over the village promising her everything she ever dreams of at night as she lies alone in her bed.
The car arrives at Gonin and drives past the three windmills with their enormous sails reaching out like supplicant arms silhouetted darkly and menacingly against the low light from the half moon. Immediately afterwards the car stops outside Marie's house.
“Get down and go home, Marie,”
“Mais Monsieur le docteur ...”
“Don't upset yourself, Marie. I'll tell her you were brave to come and find me on foot so far in the dark and without you I wouldn't have come this evening. And that I dropped you off at your house on the way because you were exhausted.”
He jumps down from the Citroen and helps her down. He watches her go into the house and gets back in the car to do the hundred metres to the Coustaut house. Grabbing his medical bag off the back seat he goes up to the front door, knocks and waits.
Arnaud Coustaut opens the door to him.
“Monsieur le docteur! Thank you for coming. My wife is very ill. Come in, come in, please.”
The veteran of the Grande Guerre invites Lasserre to follow him. He walks slowly and drags his left foot, a souvenir of the battle of the Somme. Lasserre stops him for a moment and tries to ask him how he is, but he doesn't want to talk and opens the door of the living room.
Élise Coustaut is sitting in an armchair near the fire. it's hot in the room and Lasserre immediately takes off his coat.
“Good evening, doctor. I'm so pleased to see you. I'm not well, as you can see,” she said, simpering.
Suddenly standing up and without waiting for his reply, she bursts out angrily:
“But where is that lazy good for nothing girl? Isn't she with you, doctor?”
“Good evening, Madame Coustaut,” he replies calmly. ”I dropped Marie off at home on my way here to see you ...”
“... but ...”
“... because she's exhausted after having walked all the way in the dark to Castelande to find me. And, she hasn't eaten all day, so I thought she had the right to go home at this late hour.”
“But of course, doctor. You did the right thing. The poor girl, she must have been hungry. She's a real treasure, you know. I tell her that every day. I don't know what I'd do without her, what with my husband who's not in the best of health.”
She sits down forgetting to invite the doctor to do the same.
“It's a scandal, doctor. Arnaud is a hero of the Somme and what does the country do for him? Nothing! It's shameful. He has had to look for work at the windmill. My husband a mill worker! Monsieur Serizier is a kind man, but I repeat, it's shameful.”
“Calm yourself Madame Coustaut. You are right, but often life is not fair. The war is over and we have to adapt. You are lucky to live in this beautiful house and at least you still have your husband. May I remind you that in the village there are many widows.”
“You are so right, doctor. I still have my dear Arnaud.” Turning towards him, she barks:
“Arnaud! Don't just stand there dreaming, go and fetch a glass of wine for the doctor.”
“That's not necessary.”
He indicates to Coustaut to stay put.
“So, Madame Coustaut, what exactly is wrong?”