chapter04

At eight clock in the morning, Lotte travelled on her own. She, too, had been quite happy to leave. Gigi had flung her arms around her neck and was weeping; Mother had hugged her. Lotte had replied to their attention with scattered kisses. Her face was blank, her mind was absent. She did no longer care.  Just one word had kept her thoughts focusing: leaving. She no longer wanted to see nor, nor hear any more of the life she was so familiar with.


As instructed, she got off at B. in the Poitou. It was a small railway station framed by wisteria. On the platform, there was a young girl of twenty years talking to a railway official.  The girl was wearing a brown skirt and a brown caraco jacket, her jaundiced face was framed by the white hood from her gilet and on top of the hood, she wore a black bonnet with red and green ribbons. When she saw Lotte, who was standing there looking embarrassed, she ran toward her:

" My name is Henriette Pageol. "


They left together. Henriette fastened a board on the two-wheeled carriage which was parking outside in the square. They drove off.  Lotte wondered why the woman was wearing a bonnet over the hood of her gilet. Henriette Pageol lived with her father on the outskirts of the village. The old man with the stoop made a deep impression on Lotte. He raised his head and she saw his wrinkled face under his long, dirty-gray hair up and his flickering lifeless eyes. He greeted her. His mouth was trembling, his hand was dry, covered with wrinkles and cold to the touch. 


Soon Lotte felt very comfortable in her new room. She needed to walk through the granary, then three steps down to access it. The window was covered by a grille and she could see into the garden and its rows of pear-trees as if she had been buried in the forest. Over the dirt floor, as an honour to the Parisian guest, they had put down a small colourful woolen rug at the centre of the room. Lotte liked it, it felt like a naïve companion. There was also a trunk to store her clothes, and to be used as her dressing table. She also had a wooden chair with a straw seat and needed to step on it to climb onto the four-poster bed which had a green glossy curtain. The other room in the cottage was very spacious and furnished with two beds and two trunks similar to Charlotte’s. There was a small bench to sit down and a large fireplace. This room was subterranean too and the entrance was through a half-door. They left the top of the door open to let the light in. Most of the cottages in the village looked similar as the Pageot’s: the thatched roof almost reached the ground. The family explained that they were built this way as a protection against the strong winds. Lotte thought that the cottages were fearful. They ate their meals off the trunks in the larger room, the girl was not used to these ways and preferred to keep her plate on her knees. Every day, they prepared eggs and a pork chop for her brought to them by the travelling butcher. The Pageol themselves ate gruel, some bread with cheese and lardons. Often, Henriette took the plate off her father even it was half-full saying that he ate enough. Lotte felt sad and offered to share her chop with the old man but he refused. 


A few days later, as Henriette was away, the father advised Lotte not to pay any attention, his daughter was not being rude, she was just bitter. In fact, the young woman was ill: she had abscesses on her neck and needed to visit the doctor in Chateaudun. Now, she had another abscess on the groin, and despite her father’s pleading with her, she refused to see the doctor for it.  


The Pageols were poor despite owning some small fields as the father could no longer work. His son used to run the farm but then he met met a pretty, comely woman and now worked as an innkeeper in Belgium. The daughter-in-law was nice, she used to invite the old man and Henriette to come; she prepared meals and looked after the two however, Henriette did not want to stay as she disliked her sister-in-law. Therefore she now tended to the fields at home, and if she was too exhausted, she stayed at home and knitted while lamenting paying for outside helpers. On one occasion, Lotte explained that she also could eat gruel and they would save on the butcher’s. Lise would have been outraged at her daughter’s generosity and her lack of appreciation. Gratitude is not really a natural instinct, and kindness is directed towards those who give or seem to give selflessly. Henriette thanked Lotte but refused the offer.  

Lotte loved walking by the Loir. The river was wide. The water was clear and flowed slowly, and she could see the pebbles at the bottom. From time to time, Henriette entrusted her with herding two cows. Lotte did not feel confident, but she had a long staff.


"You only need to remain in front and lead them." Henriette had recommended. The child did not dare to do as she was told and stayed behind. Just as they arrived by the riverside, the naughty animals stretched their necks out as if they tried to inhale the smell from a field located on the other side which belonged to the miller. Then they all forded the river. It reached the top of their legs. Lotte needed to run home, and get Henriette. Henriette was angry, and scolded the animals as if they were naughty little girls.


Up the river, there was a small bridge. On the other side a long avenue unfolded, further away, there was a white house. Its doors and shutters were always closed. This was the castle. Lotte enjoyed sitting down and looking at it for a while. Then she ventured into the bushes. A green forest path. A dazzling smell was emanating from the pine-trees. Now and then, the sun divided the forest into long strips of light. The path between the trees becomes visible. In the distance, suddenly, she could see bright clearings. Lotte walked silently as if this was a temple. At times, the grass bent and trembled beneath her feet and a grass-snake fled rustling through the leaves. Lotte was startled and stood still. Birds were trilling brightly. A cuckoo sang its two monotonous and melancholic syllables. She replied cuckoo! The bird started calling again and Lotte laughed quietly to herself. Then came a big, round meadow. In the middle of it, a mighty oak-tree rose with its twisted branches and its mighty trunk. The little girl unbuttoned her cloak, spread it across the ground. She sat there for hours. Through the leaves she saw the sky. Every sound seemed as if it was absorbed by cotton wool, as if it feared to disturb the great peace that was covering the earth. Lotte dreamed of the always silent, always closed white house. Sleeping Beauty's castle. On her way back, she met a farmer. He greeted and passed by calmly quietly. But after that Lotte no longer dared to walk up to the mighty oak. Subsequently, she only ventured a few steps on the forest path, then hesitated while standing still with a beating heart, accusing herself of cowardice for betraying her friend and ran away. 


She felt that the village was crowded. There were old people and women were standing on their doorsteps; and children were playing. Everyone was saying hello to her as she walked by.  She greeted them with a soft voice but did not strike any conversation. She took refuge in the church. This was just a small building and its porch was protected by a wooden canopy. The belltower had a slate spire. The door was always open. Inside, moss was covering the flagstones and the bottom of the walls. At the end of the nave, the choirplace shone in splendour despite many broken stained windows. On the left and on the right of the altar there were two little chapels. In one of them, there was a beautiful grey stone statue of the Virgin Mary; the figure was smiling and her outstretched hands seemed to welcome every suffering soul. The other chapel was painted blue with golden stars; there was a decaying picture frame. It depicted a deer in bushes similar to those Lotte had seen. The beast stood on rigid feet and its mighty antlers there was a halo; it gazed proudly and severely at a hunter wearing a crimson tunic kneeling in front of him with praying hands. Lotte smiled to the Virgin Mary, then she took a chair and positioned it in front of the painting. The first artwork represented the kindness that her suffering soul needed so much. The other artwork represented the justice that she wanted to believe in . A justice that decided about the fate of the white house, and was  guiding Lucie Parent, Rachel, Gigi and consoling the poor lost creatures. A justice that inspired hunters to kneel in front of their victims. Without any doubt, Mademoiselle Collon, her teacher would have demonstrated that faith did not move every heart. Mademoiselle Collon’s faith was not true, her God was a false one. Charlotte was also reminded that some texts by Edgar Quinet and Jules Michelet, she read at school also mentioned God. Sometimes, a swallow interrupted her train of thoughts. On another occasion, she fell asleep. She could not find a proper prayer for her god. If she had known the founders of the Church, she might have said: “O Lord! Give me yourr peace, a serene peace, a peace not troubled by any regret.”


Another evening, she returned to the cottage at twilight. walking along a path bordered by bracken and meandering through the fields. Here and there tender bellflowers swayed between the grasses. Lotte she picked some for the old man. At the end of the path, she turned around, deeply moved, looked back at the plain. The sun had not set and was lingering behind the woods, it gilded the crowns of the trees, and poured a strange light over the fields. Yellow, raised clods turned into dark red, while the ground, where oats and wheat were growing, shone in a fine, tinted light. The blue of the sky became green. The church was swinging its spire against it. It was so bold and it was so touching, but because it was so small. Everybody was complaining about this valley. Some were saying: “the harvest is going to be good, but it should have been better” ..., others :  “the harvest was going to be poor” . The sun did not listen to any them, nor did it stop decorating each field. No field was similar to the others and they were all beautiful. Whether the sky was clear, whether like big clouds gathered on the horizon like black whimsical birds, by the hilltops with snowy peaks or long strips of white clouds fluff, lighter than the lightest tulle veil.  O beautiful plain of our country! How many know how to toil in you, and fail to delight in you! Few understand your beauty when the same sun, - joy of the earth - glorifies the work of humans at the end of the day. Nature's triumphant answer, one and only, to the anxious hope, as expressed inside the modest village church. Divine peace also enjoyed by non-sentient things, without knowing it, will we ever be able to pour your peace into every human heart?


At the end of the month, Lise visited her daughter. Lotte found out that the whole family was staying in Neuilly for the Summer. Mother looked cheerful, the little girl had never seen her like that. Red roses on her hat and the hair falling onto her forehead. Astonished, the child asked:

"You had your hair done ? "

 . 

Mother blushed without answering. She had brought a yellow leather belt, a gift  from Father . Lotte left it on the trunk , where the mother had put it , without any words of thanks, she did not touch it  again. Now they needed to get ready for a stroll into the village . Mother visited every house, she chatted with everyone, she was friendly. She wanted to take Charlotte home. But when she found out how unsociable , proud and reticent she still was , she believed that it was better to leave her for a while. 

 

And so the whole summer passed. Lotte had become stronger, she got some colour on her cheeks, she enjoyed talking to Father Pageol. She went back to the big oak and did no longer seem to fear the passers-by. She was able to find the courage to take off her stockings, ford the river and bring the cows home. Yes, she even played with a small goat that the Pageols had bought and the animal threw her on the ground as they were running. Now, in the evening she only wanted to eat gruel like everyone. She read aloud from the Gospel of St.Luke which Henriette had found it in one of the chests. Lotte comforted the poor sick girl, as well as she could. Once Henriette wondered why Lotte lingered for hours in church and yet did not want to go to mass. Lotte said:


"Mass - is nothing but a show."  


And she dwelved into a long explanation. Her audience was not convinced.


Then Mother sent money for the journey home. School was about to start. Charlotte was now almost grown-up, soon she would be working for a living.



That morning, Henriette prepared the carriage. Lotte's heart was heavy. She shook the Father 's hand. With her small package under her arm, she waited by the front door for Henriette. The young woman who gave her a red woolen petticoat and the gospel as parting gifts. A strong wind blew large dust clouds. The young girl and the child hugged each other on the concourse. Long after the train had left the station, Lotte was waving from the train with her handkerchief.


Lotte found Gigi taller and much changed. Now she has a lot of girlfriends and was playing with them in the yard. She greeted the sister only fleetingly, with a laughter without interrupting her game. As this was the beginning of the season, Mother had a lot of work as usual. Father only came around at mealtimes. On the first day he tried to hug Lotte. The girl became pale , and did not reciprocate . The meals were an agony for her. She was facing him and could not utter a word.  She always ate quickly so that she could return to school. In the evening she usually sat down in the corner with a book. Once Charles tried to prevent her and mocked her:

" Cat's got your tongue? " 


He achieved nothing. Enraged, he threatened to slap her. Lotte raised her head, looked at him with as much despair as contempt, and so he did not dare to hit her.  What did Charles feel in front of his daughter? Unbearable shame and he wanted to get rid of it, to ask for her forgiveness, to show remorse. He never could not find any words to express this. He realized the full implications of his fateful action and that he had alienated his child forever. Sometimes, he also tried to convince himself - just like he had told Lise -  that he had done nothing reprehensible. He was clumsy, well-meaning and rumbling. He loved his daughter, but he could not read minds. He did not realize that between them, no relationship was possible, except hatred, and perhaps, forgetting. He was guilty of having shaken a young, proud, tender soul to the core, by responding to an entirely natural emotional gesture with vileness. He had disregarded her innocence, he taught her to distrust herself. Now Lotte was watched anxiously over every move, every word and became increasingly aloof.


Charles was also annoyed about Lise. In the past, she had ignored him, now she was unashamedly all over him. He had won a victory over her. This knowledge granted him unhealthy satisfaction.  He had tamed her, and now he despised her for his heart was insatiable.  Now that she had become gentle, he neglected her after he had tormented her for so long when she resisted him. The unfortunate woman did not understand that. Her prejudices prevented her from complaining, they were a substitute for dignity. But they also prevent her to admit to herself that she was suffering more than anyone. Charles had always been haughty. Now he was unbearably arrogant. Nothing was right, if it did not come from him. He had become stingy; what was not meant for him, was always too expensive. At the table he had his own cutlery and his own glass and ate dishes that he had chosen and only if the cooking was meeting his standards. He often argued with Lise. When the arguments started, Lotte sneaked away and read inside the workshop. Once, Lise noticed her and unloaded her wrath onto her:


"You heartless girl. You don't care about anything that I'm going through. "


Lise was blaming the books for twisting her daughter's mind. In the evening, after dinner, she wanted to teach Lotte the basics of her work. Lotte refused. Mother wanted to punish her by seizing her satchel. But she had to give it back to her - the school manuals were inside. Incidentally - when Lotte did not read, she did not work either. She sat silently, motionless, lost in thought. Neither punishment nor reproach could stir her out of that; her apathy was incomprehensible and confusing. The mother was dismayed, then like one remembers an evil spell, she remembered the doctor's threat that her daughter could end up mentally handicapped ; Lise seriously considered sending the child away to a convent .



At school they noticed that Lotte had changed a lot. Rachel was not there anymore, no one knew quite why; so they thought that Lotte's sadness was due to Rachel's absence. Lotte was diligent in class. She endured the banter from her classmates without returning them. So in the end, they left her alone. The teacher surprised her as she was reading the Gospel during the break. She asked her gently whether she was going to do her first communion.



"No," replied Lotte, "That won't be necessary.". 


For a while, the teacher tried to be friendly. She only received brief, monosyllabic answers. When tired of the struggle, the teacher left - stiffly, regally, slowly - Lotte followed her with her eyes, and muttered: Pharisee. Lotte was punished only rarely. Nevertheless, the headmistress needed to intervene during an unpleasant situation:


The teacher once found her chair stained with ink and since she could not find the culprit, she threatened to punish the whole class. Lotte stood up:


"I did it." 


But Georgette Blanc, the naughtiest and worst student stood up and admitted her guilt. Lotte confessed her lie, and was given a lecture.  In the same week she won the Cross of Honour, on the following Monday, much to her astonishment, the headteacher saw that Georgette was wearing the Cross; Lotte had given it to her as a present.



Gigi was given a letter to hand over to her parents. Lise , who was worried about her eldest daughter behaviour , and had instructed the youngest to report back to her about her sister. Gigi did not look after Lotte ; she was always surrounded by a crowd of chattering little girls which distracted from sad Lotte . On Thursday and Sunday afternoons everyone met on the Boulevard. Gigi played; Lotte was sitting on the bench and reading. Each of them received ten centimes for their afternoon snack. Lotte saved the money so from time to time, she could afford to write long letters to Henriette Pageol and preach self-denial. Four months after Lotte's had returned home, poor Henriette died. Lotte wrote to the old man, who was now living with his son. Very flattered, he replied that she was granting his family so much honor. Since then, the child saved only to buy books. In a second-hand bookshop, she was able to acquire "Thoughts" by Blaise Pascal for about fifty centimes.


When first summer days arrived, the family travelled to the countryside every Saturday. Charles wanted it that way, and Lise no longer resisted. Lotte's melancholy became stronger. She felt a violent aversion towards Neuilly, and especially towards the Marne, she was frightened when it became time to travel. Charles often visited the tavern, he rowed the boat, came home intoxicated with his drunken cronies and expected those to be served , and be put up for the night. At the table they were making indecent speeches, telling coarse jokes and telling vulgar stories. One evening, Charles laughed heartily, made allusions about prissy girls; and how they acted saintly, but were gagging for it. Gigi laughed and hugged her father. Lotte became very pale, looked at her mother looked and was outraged by her silence . Lise was startled and found the courage to tell the father :

  

"Watch out!"


The father continued his games. This was the needle that broke the camel's back: Charles befriended one of the neighbours, an old florist. He was sixty years old and married to a young woman age twenty-five. She was tall and slender. She had reddish-blond hair, painted lips, a powdered face, and a casual demeanor - according to Lise,  Mrs Stidel was the personification of a tart. That woman became the pretext and the cause of terrible arguments, which degenerated into fights between Charles and Lise. This usually occurred at night. The girls were sleeping in the next room, they woke up, pulled their beds to the door, listened up; they heard beatings and insults. Suddenly, everything became quiet. Mother wept, sighed, moaned. Gigi sobbed:


"He is killing her."


Lotte shook her head, trembling with shame and anger; she remembered and pitied the mother. Whenever she met Mrs. Stidel, Lotte faced the other way, pretending that as she hadn't seen her. She stepped inside the house without a reply, when the woman called her from over the hedge separating the two gardens: 

" Good morning, little girl! "


She was disgusted by this woman who allowed herself to be loved by Father, without being forced. Lotte found her impure. Lotte's behaviour gave Charles the excuse to shout about all and nothing at every opportunity. No mother raised their children as badly as Lise did . " But you're too naughty " , Gigi said to Lotte . One Sunday morning, after another terrible altercation, Lise had labour pains and gave birth to a daughter one month premature. Mrs Stidel arrived first to help her, she recommended her doctor who lived not far away. Lise requested a midwife. Charles scolded her telling her she was stupid, but nevertheless he decided to run to the neighboring village and get one. Then they had to fetch old aunt Anna, the flower-maker, and write a letter to Aunt Sophie.


Lotte instantly disliked the small creature, that misshapen mass of red flesh. She found that too somehow dirty, and confusing, and her mind was struggling once again. Indeed her mother did not voluntarily give birth to this child. Her mother was a victim and Lotte began to love her.


By then, Lise's mood had hit low point. For several months she had been happy as she never thought she could ever be, and now it was all over already. Her pregnancy had been difficult, especially because in order to conceal it, she had worn a corset out of vanity.  She was suffering terribly that her husband was wooing Mrs Stidel. After the birth of the child, Lise felt more confident and she became softer. She was moved that her daughter looked after her and wept. She had never had the courage to learn the whole extent of her child's misfortune. At the same time she thought of her daughter as a ' woman ' because she ' knew ' . This lack of curiosity and her mother's whole attitude confirmed to Lotte that her soul was lost. The mother made some confessions in a painful voice that could break hearts and concealed some others. Lotte felt about Mother's grief as if it was her own, as long as this was related to the father. Yet Mother was not mad at Mrs. Stidel:

" She can keep him. "


Lise did not understand the need to inform Mr. Stidel about the matter. What should she? Lotte was surprised that her mother was still welcoming this woman yet she claimed that Mrs Stidel used to be a maid in a tavern, where unclean things happened. She was surprised that Mother responded to her smile and her kindness. In order to expose Mrs Stidel's tenderness towards the father, Lotte found words that hit Lise like slaps. Lise kept her suffering to herself. She hid it like a shameful disease. She confided into her sister Sophie, the farmer's wife whom she despised because of her red cheeks, and her thick, red arms; is it natural to be jealous? The sister was a formidable woman: she could easily set a house on fire. She only stayed for two days. Lise noticed that Charles seemed to get along well with Sophie. He told her more than one unsavoury story and she laughed on top of her lungs. Lise wondered whether the sister was now laughing at her. She was glad to see her go, soon after was Lise was able to get up from her sick bed, and she was also glad to see the back of Aunt Anna, whose religious lectures had bored her.


Mrs Stidel continued gracing the house with her presence. In the morning, she paraded her lace; in the evening, the sound of her silk underskirts was rustling. She was cheerful, lending books to the convalescent Lise, the latter devoured them and kept them hidden. Mrs Stidel's opinion on life was:


" As far as I'm concerned- my motto is: keep it short and sweet . "


Mrs Stidel was behaving very arrogantly towards Charles, so Lise started to believe that nothing was going between the two, the woman was merely keeping him hanging on. Once, after Mrs Stidel had left, Lise said sarcastically:


" She's been making fun of you, you poor boy. "


She enjoyed hitting him with that remark. This was how she took her revenge for his disdain . Charles got dressed, without saying a word, he went out. He only returned home at night, and told the next morning , that the Stidel girl was really shameless : she had welcomed him in her bedroom , two steps away from her snoring husband . Lise screamed desperately:


" You're lying!" 

 .

The arrival of the neighbor interrupted that argument. She was all white in the face and her hair looking like a blaze. Her eyes sneered and she smiled enigmatically. Lise was very pleased to see that in her presence, Charles immediately behaved like a shy, little boy.

 


Although Lotte had missed school for a few days, she was awarded a nice book, which was worth several prizes. Father who had accompanied his daughters was very proud, but his admiration fell on deaf ears. He held a speech in praise of work, study and diligence – in vain: throughout the journey back to Neuilly, Lotte remained silent. When they arrived there, Charles caused a scene, breaking the windows of an old cabinet in the dining room and he, demanded that his daughter went on her knees to ask for his forgiveness. The mother cried and begged :

" Do it for my sake." 



The child did not yield. Father left the house making terrible threats. In the evening, he announced that he had drowned Minou in the Marne, because the cat was digging up the plants. Then he ate, and left again. They did not see him for a fortnight. The Stidels were also on a trip. Lotte said to her mother:

" If only he did never return. Neither him, nor her "



Lise was crying.  Without being able to admit to it, the mother felt hatred towards her daughter.  She expressed her anger by hateful words about Charles, who was the subject and the cause of it. She talked about divorce, she explained to the child that this was easily possible. He deserved it, for all that he did. Then the father came back. Appeased, satisfied. Then the Stidels returned home. Apparently, they had met by chance in Le Havre. The same life started again. During these two holiday months, Lotte had moved from disappointment to rebellion. She had read Pascal and could not decide whether to confront evil. Should she do it? Was there no other remedy? Who could believe that and continue living? If there was a God, was not his duty to encourage those who were fighting for justice? A new hope started growing inside her: she would liberate her mother.


Mother was petty, had peculiar ideas, conformed to appearances, and worried about people’s opinions. She still had not learned anything. Lotte would teach her. This flattered her young pride. After they cried together for a while, she gently explained to her mother that they had to keep faith, hope and watch over Gigi. Then, next year, she, Lotte, would get her school leaving certificate and start working and Mother was going to divorce. They would to live together, forget about this man, find peace and happiness. Hastily, Lise agreed with everything that Lotte said:


"You see - we could save ourselves, but he would kill me. "


Then she added:


" I probably could find the courage to kill him one day. "


Lotte calmed her down:


"He's not worth the effort, he'll leave."


And in the evening - when everyone was asleep, except Charles who was still out - Lotte got up, she left the house in her bare feet. In her gown, she walked through the garden and on the street. Perhaps Minou did not drown. Perhaps he was lost and hungry. The Stidels used to have a cat and it did come back, a long time after it had ran away.



The fields stretched in front of her; then the Wetlands and  in the distance between the trees - a dim glow : the Marne . Everything was quiet, very quiet. Charlotte called out quietly: Minou! Minou! Afraid of her Father, she watched out for shadows. All of a sudden, she felt her strength fading, frozen in the indifference of the night.





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