chapter13

The month of June marks the start of the low-season for florists and Décoiffer’s was almost deserted; only Charlotte was working there and Mr Décoiffer gave her about twenty centimes a day. Armandine and Martha had gone to work in feathers: they were crafting birds. Armandine had shown Charlotte, but Henri did not want her to leave Décoiffer's, since she was on her own and had some peace and quiet, it was better for her to stay there until Sonia's arrival. Besides, Charlotte would not earn enough working in feathers to take two cabs in a day. A little rest would not come amiss. Anyway, she needed to go to Rue d'Assas, where Séraphine had found some occupation for her, or else she could also practise her piano. 


And so, Charlotte spent almost all her afternoons at Henri Lethoré's. She came for lunch on the days when Henri’s course at the Sorbonne finished at eleven o'clock so he could see her for a bit, he said he would work better in the evening when facing Mr. Hama. The rest of the time when he was not in his classes, he remained in the study room asking not to be disturbed. Charlotte stayed with Séraphine in the dining room where they sewed clothes for the small children whom Sonia was looking after. Sometimes, Henri gave them papers or books and they had to insert the pages in the lining, otherwise, Sonia would not have received those. 


Séraphine was extremely kind to the young girl, and kissed her when she arrived. The windows were wide open for Charlotte, as Henri had decided that she needed air, the sun also shone inside; laughter could be heard outside as well the chirping of birds. Charlotte understood that Henri told his housekeeper that she was very poor, and she may not pass her A-levels this year because she had so much work to do at the workshop this year, and she did not have a literature teacher. Very conscientiously, the old lady asked Charlotte to write short essays in French; this task delighted her, as it reminded her of her dear little Sophie. The essays were sent to Sonia. About four o'clock, Henri came out of his study to read them while, leaning on the back of his friend's chair, almost resting his cheek against hers  Charlotte became all rosy. Great discussions arose between him and Séraphine, he never wanted her to correct anything. 

"But the curriculum, my child, there is a curriculum to follow." 

"Humbug ..."


Then they had afternoon tea, afterwards Henri played music for them. 

 

Séraphine was also working on a small grey-brown linen dress for Charlotte which she could wear on Sundays when travelling to Clary with Sonia. In exchange, the girl had to provide countless little tasks that Miss de Boves prized far above their value: matching the woolen threads for the square roller-frame embroidery, Eulalie had no taste, and Henri always got it wrong; she also had to close the windows in the other rooms because Henri always left them open. None of these rooms, except Seraphine's and Eulalie's, had curtains nor carpet, Charlotte naively thought that this was an attribute of wealth. The rooms were barely furnished. In Henri's room, there was a single brass bed and a sofa, covered with bearskins, similar to the one in the adjacent study. There were books on the mantelpiece, on the floor, and almost everywhere else. The en-suite bathroom also opened on the hallway.  Everywhere the young man went, a terrible noise of doors and hinged windows could be heard. One door was always closed: Miss Sonia’s apartment said Eulalie. 


Séraphine and Eulalie were very talkative; Séraphine constantly spoke about her daughters, the two Sonias, the dead and the one that was still alive, but living outside life. She also spoke about young Ric. He would have been lovely without his flaws which were the same as his father's, but Sonia had encouraged those. He had a mania to fiddle with the clocks, open all the windows in any kind of weather, he could not suffer the crowds, nor clutter, nor contrariety, and he lived as if he was alone. His poor dear father was the same during the happy days when he was courting his poor dear mommy.


After stirring her memories in a slow voice, Miss de Boves fell asleep. Then Eulalie, having finished cleaning the dishes, also came down to the dining room to sew. She was kind to Charlotte who helped her with the housework, and who went outside to pick up forgotten errands. Eulalie suffered from memory lapses; this was due to the fact that she had been very unhappy because her late husband used to beat her, and take all her money, and that is why she became a domestic servant although she was not used to the job. Charlotte listened to her, without saying anything substantial; Henri had warned her: since the death of her husband, Eulalie had been cherishing his memory, none could say anything bad about the man without offending her. He suggested that this a great way to get rid of her when she was becoming too boring. By her own admission, Eulalie enjoyed working with the Lethoré's, although life there was not always rosy. With the young gentleman's fads, one never knew the time and was likely to catch a cold.  Mr Ric and Miss Sonia also had strange friends, admittedly very few, and the latter only came rarely because they were always travelling; however, they would arrive without giving any warning and Eulalie was not able to understand what they did. There was this man aged sixty, he had grey hair, he always wore a patch over one eye, and he dressed very shabbily: he claimed to be a doctor of cabala and hermetics.


Another commensal of the house, thankfully absent, was a lady called Miss Vera. Ah ! She would not come for dinner once in a blue moon but rather stay weeks on end. She was one of Miss Sonia's childhood friend and a compatriot. Nothing was ever right to her. and she certainly, would not appreciate the company of Miss Charlotte, although she was also a student. She was always arguing with Mr Ric, gesticulating, and shouting very loudly; in fact, the only time Monsieur became angry, it was with her and they argued in Russian, Eulalie did not know the reason. She added that Miss de Boves had been very happy that Henri had found a new pupil, as he had been dinning outside without giving any explanation to anyone. he had always done whatever took his fancy, and he spent a lot of his allowance that he received every month from Russia by stamped and re-stamped letters. 


Charlotte listened, answered just enough to keep the conversation going, yet she feared questions about herself from the investigative Eulalie. She envied Vera, Happy Vera who spoke Russian. In Charlotte's mind, Vera was a beautiful persecuted young woman who might marry Henri Lethoré one day. They said  that he was arguing with her, but he also scolded Charlotte. 


One evening he asked: 

"Where did your mother live when you left? " 

Charlotte replied, and shivered; he added: 

"Sonia was asking about her. Please, don't get worried, please, my little soul. So you never hear from her? " 

"No, I don’t." 

"How strange. I'm sorry, let me write the address down."


Charlotte was lying: she had received a second letter from her mother, telling her that she was aware of her misconduct as she was seen on the streets with a fair-haired man who wore outrageous clothes. She was summoning her to come home as soon as possible, otherwise her parents would put her in a convent for repentant girls, in the rue Saint-Jacques , - its  rules were enclosed to the letter - . Charlotte was not afraid of the threat, but she was thinking about the past.


In her mind, the man who was supposed to be her father had dishonored her. She remembered having been very ill, and she connected her memories to an anecdote overheard at Décoiffer's. Ernest Décoiffer told a story that Martha had dismissed as a joke : a furniture dealer had married the daughter of an antequarian and had returned the girl the next morning saying: "Go tell your father that I only deal with brand-new items. "


Martha bragged that she could easily pass for the Virgin Mary if that was a man's fantasy. Everyone at the workshop knew about deflowered maidens who were married in white gowns and crowned with orange blossoms, but they had not found their married bliss : either their husbands threw them out or the marriage was terrible. Martha replied that if these women had been virgins, things have been the same for them. 


Charlotte thought that Henri certainly loved her. What would become of her? She now needed to confess everything; would he not forgive her undeserved misfortune, since she demanded nothing and accepted that he would leave her one day? And she knew very well she would not live after that day, because nothing was darker and more terrible than her own isolation. She was surprised that he still was not mentioning anything. But Sonia was coming soon, what decision would she take? All these thoughts made Charlotte shiver and she could not hide her apprehension when she assumed he was about to say something before leaving. No, that night, for a long time he was kissing her hands. These hands were trembling like poor frightened captive chicks and this felt like, in the beginning, when they were dating. 

"See you tomorrow, Charlotte?"

"Yes."


He gently looked her in the eyes and he felt a little sad. 


Henri had passed his exam. To the surprise of the young girl, he did not express any great joy; he merely sent a strange telegram to Sonia: 



"Passed, now do what I asked you." 


Charlotte learned about the contents during the discussion at dinner. Séraphine found Henri’s way of giving orders to his sister very disrespectful. As long as Sonia did not respond to the message, Henri would not write any more letters, and threatened to put an embargo on Séraphine’s too, even if he needed to keep watch in the antechamber. He said that there was no respect and that Sonia had no reason to make him suffer. Charlotte remained discreet, she did not ask for further information, however, she was a bit sad that her friend did not trust her enough to share his sorrows with her. During these four days, Henri was irritable and nervous. Eulalie explained that this was because Mr Henri had nothing to do; however, on Sunday at eleven o'clock, upon her arrival, Charlotte saw him at the bottom of the stairs. He had waited for her the window and had come down to meet her. She was struck by his happy mood, and Séraphine's gentle face as she kissed her several times.


After lunch, when all three were alone again, Charlotte learned from Séraphine that Sonia would arrive in two weeks , Henri would meet her in Berlin at the beginning of the following week. Sonia would stay one month in Paris then take them both, he and Charlotte, to Russia, to see Uncle Pierre for the holidays. Almost suffocated by happiness, the girl cried:


"I, Ric , me and you. "


Standing at back of her chair, he leaned towards her: 

"True , true , you’re going to be so happy." 

He stopped, then he smiled and he handed her a letter : 

"This is from Sonia , for you. " 


He pulled back a little and Charlotte read: 


dear Miss Charlotte,

When I used to come home in the evening like tonight, very tired from my visits to the villages, and , overwhelmed by my helplessness and my weakness, I thought about my brother and it comforted me, now I think about  you , because he, he is you. 


Apparently, he has not told you yet.. True things are so deep and beautiful for those who feel them, and expressing them in words is never enough. So you do not know ... this comes to me as a surprise: If you are like him, why do you need words to understand each other? And could I express myself any better, I who love you without knowing you? It is enough for me that he chose with  his mind and with  his heart . On my table, I have a packet of letters; from the first to the last, there are about you, only you, always you. You are very naive, very gentle, very scholarly, very weak, very courageous, white as ivory, pink like a rose, gilded like beautiful fruit in autumn. Are your eyes grey, blue, or green? The colour of the rainbow, I guess. You are still a small warbler with black feathers, and you sing like a stream. Crazy, he is so crazy, my brother; indeed it is true that you are his love; he does not talk, he digresses.


 When we were studying together, Ric and myself, I often thought about the one who, would take my place by his side one day, and I have cherished her in my heart. The heart of women, like that of men being evil and impenetrable, I started to feel a little jealous, hence I delayed writing this letter for a long time. I was worried as well. Forgive me, my brother is both my child and my friend, my expectation and my consolation. What If you did not love him? But I also have a bunch of other letters in front of me, they were written by our dear old Séraphine who told me what a delightful young girl you are. - you bring joy to the eyes, and joy to the hearts, you are enchanting and full of life, and you love our little Ric. She knows about these things.


My sister Charlotte, they also told me again that you experienced sad days,  forgive me for crying , it's not over you. I remember another night such as this on, Jacques and I had were talking about of our future plans; we were emotional , quietly we looked at each other. He kissed me. A great clarity was in our souls , and we felt stronger than all the evil in the world. I never saw him again, not even for a last farewell, but since then I have learned that nothing good and true can ever die. We hope, others take their turn and realize that they are hoping too.. Give a kiss to your fiancé, my sweet little girl . I have loved him with all the affection that I had dedicated to my defunct hopes. He will love you as Jacques loved me. " 

your S.-I. Lethoré "


Charlotte stood up she was all pale and could not utter a word. Henri kissed her, held her in his arms whispering crazy and tender words. Séraphine was crying, and kissing her. Henry felt a little uneasy at the young girl's silence, so he asked leave her alone and he wanted to take him to the other room, but Séraphine insisted on telling, for days Ric was writing to Sonia to tell her about his feelings for Charlotte. At first, Sonia insisted, that they waited for her arrival, but as always Mr Ric was rushing things through. His sister was worried that being so in love with his pupil, the pair of them did not do much work. He passed his exam, and this is what had influenced Sonia’s decision . 


" You at least you’ll be happy, my children, and I’ll die happy. " 

" Dying, Séraphine! And our children, please? Who will take care of them? " 

"Oh , Ric , don't start talking about children , you are rushing things . " 

" Leave me, leave my little soul . " 


When they were alone, she was sitting in the rocking-chair, he on his little bench, he took her hands: 

"My darling, perhaps I did something wrong, I should have consulted with you before asking Sonia to write to you, but I was sure that you loved me. I believe since that evening in Clary, when you told me ... It was almost a dream ... you said ... do you remember? " 

"I ... no." 

"You said: I can’t see life without you. It was so good to hear that and at the same time what I found it frightening. I wanted, and you were asleep! I kissed you,..! my darling, it was wrong of me to kiss your lips by surprise, but you said my name again, so softly that I thought I was an angel of the sky hiding under your eyelids. That same evening, you woke up, and seemed timid and, suspicious. Ever since, I've known you have always been with me like a poor leaf that believes that it has been set aside,  to be grazed at someone's leisure. My darling, my darling dear, I have loved you, I love you, I love you, you don't doubt it anymore? " 

"No, oh no!" 


He waited. Silent, pale and trembling, she was not looking at him. She had been full of joy, and then when she read the letter, she saw that a simple thing, fatal logic had arrived, and she did not know what to think of it. 


Henri's voice sounded hesitant when he said: 

"Maybe you don't understand Sonia. She didn't want to write, because she couldn't understand. She was raised as a free creature. She and Jacques didn't need anyone to say they loved each other, but I didn't want any misunderstanding, I didn't want you to feel anxious. you're always so emotional, my fairy, like a beautiful crystal that sings to the slightest touch. Therefore, I wanted you to find out about my love, and that you had nothing to fear from any of my loved ones. They all love you very much " 


Tears slid down to Charlotte cheeks, her lips moved, no sound came out. She dared not look up as she his pale questioning eyes, were wanting to meet her gaze to read her innermost thoughts. He let go of her hands and stepped back: 

"Charlotte, I understand that you can't answer me right now. What you told me unintentionally, is it possible that you can't repeat with your own free will? I should give you time to think about it, but I can't live in doubt any longer. If I was wrong, if this frank affection expressed unconsciously was not what I thought, but simply ... gratitude, you should tell me at once, and be brave. Neither Séraphine nor Sonia would abandon you." 


She barely heard the last words he said as his voice became faint. She looked up, saw him standing there and looking very pale, so she stood up: 

" Ric " 

He opened his arms: 

" Charlotte, do you love me? You are so strange. " 

" Yes, " she said in a whisper, " it's true, I ... I can't see life without you... for a long time. only I think ... that ... that ... you needn't marry me. "


He sat with her in the rocking chair, holding her against him, thought for a brief moment and said:

" If you mean that we have no need of God nor society, I perfectly agree, but Sonia believes in doing what society asks in order to avoid complications with your parents." 


Sonia would fix everything. Out of his desk drawer, he took out some letters they were going to read together later, and as she was still pale and silent, he asked: 

"Were you unwell this morning, Charlotte? " 

"No." 

" Yes, I think so because you have been ill for so long, I know that even if you don't say so. I think Sonia will be able to help you with that. Do you remember, my darling, when I promised to teach you that you did not know? I wasn't ambitious enough, you don't know how to be happy.  I 'm scared for you now, but I will teach you if you love me.  do you love me, Charlotte?" 

" Ric ... I ... " 

"Charlotte!" 

" I love you, " she put her arms around his neck and sadly looked at him. " I love you, only you need to help me, I don't know how to speak well, I know what I am and what you are. You can't love me. Don't love me, I don't want you to love me, Ric , I have to tell you .... it's choking me .... and ... I am yours ... " 


He hugged her and whispered, gently stroking her hair : 

"You are mine? And would I take your whole life without giving you mine? Do you believe me capable of this? and you would still love me? I don't understand." 


Her head hidden on his shoulder , she murmured: 

" You have not told Sonia where you met me ? "

"It's true, I did not tell her, because I needed to put things in writing, but we will tell her as soon as she meet you, my scrupulous darling. Mind you, it's true, we did meet in a bad place, but you've told me everything and all evil is gone. Sonia will know that. I haven't forgotten anything, I wouldn’t forget a single minute that I have lived with you, because in the past and in the future, I can't have a thought that is not about you. I love you Charlotte for days and days, this thought has been stifling me, was it possible that you did not understand? Now I am happy to be finally able to talk to you. I said that I had thought not seeing you again, I could not have, my darling, all the time I was thinking about you, I was hearing you cry. I make you suffer so much by forcing you to tell you what you did with Martha, but if I had realized that I had wrong on the day we, it would have hurt me. My beautiful flower when I think that another man could have taken you, my heart is breaking; you have been lonely, forsaken, for so long, this is why you became a closed little soul, so prone to suffering. I will take you far away, where we live, would you like that? " 

"Oh yes ... very far away."

"You won't see anything, you won't hear anything, you won't know anything that is not from me, and I love you as I will make you an enchanted world and that you love me like crazy, because I want it so because I'm crazy about you. Love it's scary, I never thought it would be! My youth, Sonia, Science, freedom, it's you, Charlotte, kiss me and dare to tell me that you don't want me to love you. " 


He let her little head slide on the back of the rocking-chair and sat on the bench. He kissed her fingers, one by one, reciting: 

"Charlotte, my joy, Charlotte my life." 

"Ric." 

"My darling, you do? Earlier, I felt so bad when you did not answer me. Now I'm like a survivor from a shipwreck, I don't want to think any longer about others nor whether your parents could come and take you away from to me. " 


Sonia would visit Mr. and Mrs. Bugeot. Sonia always made things happen, and Henri was relaxed about it, she had never known how to resist him. He would prove to her that he could not continue existing without his Charlotte. 


He pulled the rocking-chair to the piano:

"Let me play something for you."

Sitting beside him, leaning on the arm of her chair with her head on her hand, Charlotte wept silently. Henri understood that she was crying over old mistakes as for her outrageous proposal she had just made asking him not to marry him. He was not looking for any other reason than the sensitivity and righteousness from a little soul he believed he knew so well. She loved him enough to sacrifice herself, to give without expecting anything, Henri was intoxicated. He forgot that he could have felt offended, and he was playing with his whole soul. He felt in harmony with her tears, he would forever banish all the sorrows from that unknown unworthy dark world, which had made her so fragile.



Charlotte was pensive. To her, matters were simple, she only saw that she had lied, that she would benefit from this marriage proposal as if she was a schemer and it was impossible to remain quiet any longer. Above all, she felt a huge, raging, scary, scary yes, as he said, need to be happy. Henry loved her, he loved her; this day at least, should she not take it? 

"Ric!"


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